Is Evangelical Scholarship Academically Rigorous?

If you have clicked through to read a blog post raising a question about the academic rigor of evangelical scholarship, chances are good you already have your own answer to the question. But I recognize that such a polarizing question requires many nuances, qualifiers, and subtleties. For example, are we talking about American evangelicalism or its British variety? Are we talking about the “Big-tent” model of Fuller Seminary or the more exclusionary version championed by certain high-profile so-called “evangelical intellectuals?”

I want to focus specifically on two dissertations turned “academic” monographs recently published by Wipf and Stock, a publisher with a growing reputation for publishing books of uneven quality. Of course, this unevenness might be expected when a publishing house that employs 25 people publishes 60 books in one month (July) with the entire production being done in-house. With these numbers, I’d expect the quality of their published books to reflect the variable quality of their authors, not their overworked editors.

The first book is Tracy J. McKenzie’s Idolatry in the Pentateuch: An Innertextual Strategy. Sven Petry of Georg-August-Universität Göttingen recently reviewed the book in RBL, and his extensive critique at the conclusion of his review speaks volumes. He begins saying, “I must admit that I am not sure how to evaluate this volume.” This is never a good sign. He summarizes the book’s contents again, this time with a focus on things that academically are either unjustified, uninteresting, or already well established. He also mentions the lack of sufficient editing. (Wipf and Stock take note!)

He then lays down the gauntlet:

Further, I suppose I have difficulties understanding and valuing McKenzie’s arguments because I come from a different world and speak a different language—and here I do not think in terms of geography. What I read shows me how large the gap between my notion of academic critical scholarship and McKenzie’s evangelical ideas are. Although I consider myself “critical,” I (as many other critical scholars) do believe that the final shape of the biblical text does matter. In this regard I fully consent to the opening sentence of chapter 1: “A central concern for Old Testament theology is an understanding of the final shape of the canon” (27). But while I regard a concept of the stages of textual growth as beneficial to this understanding, McKenzie’s concept of authorship that equalizes “author” and “composer” (49–50) sweeps away the value of any likely textual development prior to the final shape.

Petry raises an important point that often goes unrecognized by evangelical scholars who eschew historical criticism. Nonevangelical critical scholars can be just as enthusiastic about the final shape of the biblical text as an evangelical scholar. The difference between these and evangelical scholars is that critical scholars take seriously the claim that this is the final shape of the biblical text. Critical scholars acknowledge and examine both earlier and later forms of the text. Many evangelicals believe the “final shape of the biblical text” is the only shape—the only shape that matters or the only shape that has ever existed.

But Petry is not finished. He then raises the question of the function of “innertextuality” in this study. Now I should mention that I am writing a dissertation on “intertextuality,” and I argue most biblical scholars who use this term, evangelical or otherwise, are guilty of engaging in a practice that is un-academic. What I found to be interesting are the religiously motivated ends to which McKenzie so casually wielded this unwieldy nominalization.

Third, I simply do not get the point of “innertextuality.” If innertextuality actually does not say much more than that two texts are intentionally connected, that is, somehow related, the term does not contribute anything new and therefore is dispensable.  Following McKenzie’s notion and terminology, the presence of “innertexts” should raise questions of tradition and dependence. But in fact innertextuality is presented as if it was the answer. I can hardly avoid the impression that the term’s purpose is to provide a category for observations that in the critical realm would raise questions McKenzie refuses to answer. As he presupposes the Pentateuch as a “unified textual work, the direction of dependence is not necessary to know” (50). Therefore, while McKenzie’s book may have its value within the evangelical realm, from the perspective of critical, that is, academic, biblical scholarship, it is not necessary to read.

Again, I want to stress that “intertextuality” as it occurs most frequently in biblical studies is a problematic term. It often serves as a one-size-fits-all academic signifier for a theoretically and/or methodologically under-developed idea. But I think Petry is on to something when he observes that McKenzie’s use of it allows him to sidestep tradition- and source-critical questions.

The second book I want to consider was written by Deuk-il Shin, The Ark of Yahweh in Redemptive History: A Revelatory Instrument of Divine Attributes. (I do not know why the advertised subtitle departs from the subtitle on the picture of the book’s cover.) David G. Firth of St. John’s College (Nottingham, UK) reviewed this book recently in RBL. Like Petry, he has concerns about the “theological position” of the book.

It is clear from the above summary that Shin is operating from a very conservative theological position, and this impacts the whole work. The book’s strength is that it shows that a consistent reading of the ark across the Old Testament is possible and that traditio-historical interpretations are not necessarily required. That is, a synchronic reading of the text can present a coherent interpretation of the ark. But in a sense, that is also its weakness. It is because Shin starts with this as a presupposition that we do not really get to see substantial arguments that show that his approach is a better interpretation of the data. This concern particularly emerges in his reading of the historical texts that discuss the ark where, beyond the importance of reading the Bible from the perspective of Reformed theology, we do not really encounter a clear method for showing how these texts reveal the aspects of Yahweh’s character that he suggests. In the end, Shin’s conclusions present his presuppositions in more detail than noted at the outset, but his conclusions are still his presuppositions. So, while his conclusions might be correct, and there is an attractive degree of coherence to his reading, the book lacks the methodological rigor that would establish them as probable.

Firth’s assessment intrigues me for a couple of reasons. Having published numerous books with InterVarsity Press, an evangelical publishing house, Firth operates within evangelicalism. This criticism does not come from outside evangelicalism. (Perhaps I have framed the question in my title in too binary a mode.) Furthermore, Firth does not seem altogether opposed to Shin’s conclusions; rather, he questions the foundation upon which these conclusions are established.

Notice how Firth distinguishes between presuppositions and “substantial arguments.” When critical scholars talk to many evangelicals today, the conversation will often arrive at the question of presuppositions. The idea that the critical scholar begins with problematic assumptions becomes a kind of trump card, a way of prematurely ending the conversation or academic debate. Firth argues, to the contrary, that presuppositions must be established by methodological (i.e., academic) rigor. Otherwise, all one has to go on are one’s presuppositions. Presuppositions alone are simply not the basis of a rigorous academic approach to the Bible.

The answer to the question of this post depends on one’s perspective. I would suggest that evangelical scholars need to take seriously the critique of these two recent monographs if they intend for their work to participate in the theoretical and methodological rigor of academe.

28 thoughts on “Is Evangelical Scholarship Academically Rigorous?

  1. I agree, Joseph. For what it’s worth, it’s become somewhat commonplace among evangelical biblical scholars to speak as if they have “arrived” and their views are now being taken seriously in the academy, i.e., SBL. My sense, however, is that the more their works are seriously read by critical scholars, the more these methodological problems will be exposed. I have had two recent experiences, unsolicited comments from highly respected non-evangelical scholars engaging the same alleged high-level academic work by evangelicals (a defense of inerrantist historicity), who raised the very sorts of concerns you bring out here.

    1. I think there needs to be a distinction between what “evangelical” means by definition and what it is in practice.

      Certainly there are evangelical “scholars” who push seemingly silly ideas such as Mosaic authorship and the unity of Isaiah (I bumped heads with John Oswalt during my time in seminary many times over the Isaiah issue – he is a prime example of presumptions overwhelming the evidence). The reason these ideas are seemingly silly is because they have chosen them as their starting points.

      There are, however, many evangelical scholars who start with critical questions. No one will ever put all their presumptions to the side; we’re all biased. All we can do is hope to let the evidence and the biblical text speak for itself. I consider myself an evangelical, and I believe that God is fully capable and willing to speak to me through the biblical text. I also believe that he doesn’t want me to be a complete dolt and ignore the fact that the text, through which he speaks, was written by imperfect human beings in specific historical settings. Form, Historical, Source, Rhetorical, and many other criticisms are therefore necessary to me as an evangelical.

  2. Most publishers, even ones in Germany that used to be the gold standard of excellence in NT scholarship, have really slipped in past decades. I believe it is a result of market forces. At one time earlier I would have said, the SBL publications and down have clearly slipped, but now I say the SBL publications and up. The desire for immediate results, publish and/or perish, editors working outside their areas, etc have made this inevitable. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, and this time there is no magic to get us back :-(

  3. I think your recognition that Frith criticizes from evangelicalism’s inside, as it were, ought to be given more consideration. Is the binary evangelical/non-evangelical too stark? You mention this possibility, but then leave it. I find that odd. Strikes me as worth pondering further. I wonder also if geography plays a part–the more I read blogs like these, the more I think Canadian evangelicalism–my “camp”–doesn’t have these sorts of battles, or at least, not to the same degree. Nor, again as the example of Frith amply demonstrates, does evangelicalism in the UK. Why do these sorts of things appear to be more prominent (not exclusively so, to be sure) in the US? What do you think?


      1. I’m not a cultural commentator, so I won’t try to explain the evangelical varieties. My goal was to point out that some evangelical “scholarship” is being called out by the guild, and to draw attention to why that is.

  4. Wipf and Stock don’t edit most of the books they publish, especially dissertations. Unless the book is expected to do well, authors are required to find their own editors.

    1. This would be a good reason for non-established scholars to avoid them. I can see value in their digital short-run never-out-of-print philosophy, but if it means that your work is associated with the lower standards of the guild, the drawbacks outweigh the advantages.

  5. Nice post. I agree with you that there are some serious problem within evangelical scholarship itself. Just wondering, have you ever encountered a good evangelical scholarship?

  6. Tom, as someone who has worked with Wipf and Stock, I can verify that this statement is not correct, at least from my end. Wipf and Stock provided for the editing services on my work. They do however ask that the manuscript conform to specific preparation standards, but that is typical of many publishers.

    1. Frank,

      “At least from my end.” Yes. They provide different levels of involvement depending on the author or projected success of the book.

  7. Have you read through James Barr’s work on biblical theology? I do not recommend Barr as theologian, but his analysis of Evangelical “scholarship” is very insightful (if a bit curmudgeonly).

    1. Yes, I have read thoroughly in Barr. Biblical Faith and Natural Theology is actually a significant work in biblical theology. That said, his work in biblical theology was more geared toward assessing the field than contributing original material to it.

  8. Related to this is the willingness of the Evangelical to engage in critical self-reflection. Even in professional lay ministry outside of the academy, in my experience when I have shared alternative perspectives and sources for consideration in regards to new religions or “the cults,” the response is typically “I’m too busy saving souls,” or “Thanks but no thanks,” and a doubling down on present understands and methods with no interest in new ideas. It’s a pity. In my view Noll’s thesis regarding the “scandal of the Evangelical mind” is still a nagging problem.

  9. Yes it is a pity that evangelicalism does not seem to be open to new ideas. Peter Enns himself, as a former lecturer at an evangelical institution, writes a lot of critique of the intellectual climate of evangelicalism. His blog is worth reading for every evangelical who began to rethink their theological assumptions. Here are a link related to Noll’s book and is view of evangelical intellectual culture. Many of his articles are worth reading, though.

    Oh yeah, I forgot to introduce myself. I am a student of theology in an evangelical seminary at Indonesia.

  10. What do you think of the work of Peter T. Vogt who has written at least two books on the unity of the Pentateuch (one focusing specifically on Deuteronomy) and John Sailhamer (Tracy McKenzie’s teacher), who both interact with historical criticism of the texts? Vogt’s works seem more detailed and “rigorous” than Sailhamer’s from what I’ve read. They are both Evangelical as I understand it.

    1. I have not read Vogt’s work, but I would approach any claim to Pentateuchal unity with the following attitude. If by “unity” one intends to challenge the well established theory that the Pentateuch is a composite literary product involving documentary sources and/or complexes of tradition composed, compiled, and redacted over an extended period of time, then I think the work is irrelevant. I would compare such a work to a book that defends the now antiquated notion that the sun revolves around the earth. Such a book would need to provide a better explanation for phases of the moon, eclipses, the paths of the stars, an entirely different mathematical understanding of physics, and why predictions based on the reigning model proved so reliable if flawed—no small task. If such a challenge could be met, it certainly could not be done in a single volume.

      Evangelicals who want to argue we can go back to a time when it was reasonable to believe that a single author was primarily responsible for the bulk of the Pentateuchal text are blind to the realities of the reigning model. It is too successful, too well established to think that one can, in a single volume (or two), demonstrate we have been completely misguided for two hundred years. There is plenty of room for differences of opinion within the reigning model (documentary, fragmentary, or supplementary hypothesis—or some other hypothesis?), but the idea of a composite literary product composed, compiled, and redacted over an extended period of time is too certain to spend our time second guessing solid scholarship.

      If by unity one means to ask, rather, How could a patchwork literary product like the Pentateuch have come to be meaningful in its anthological form? There is certainly value in better understanding the Pentateuch’s unity in this respect. Right now, I would point to a soon-to-be published article by Seth Sanders as the most promising avenue of investigation.

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