Saturday, August 12, 2006

Justification by Doubt

Scholars are a funny lot. I ought to know--- I’m one of them. Some are eccentric, some are eclectic, some are extraordinary. But when you participate in the rarified air of Biblical scholarship, a particular sort of historical scholarship, it seems that this discipline especially brings the peculiar out of the woodwork. Biblical scholarship becomes a ripe field where the odd try to get even. I guess this is to be expected since the Bible is Western culture’s number one all time bestseller, its number one artifact and icon.

But there is a particular trait of some Biblical scholars, indeed many of them, which I would like to comment on, on this blog, because it drives too much of what passes for critical Biblical scholarship. It is the tendency I call justification by doubt. A scholar tries to demonstrate his or her scholarly acumen by showing not merely great learning, but how much he can explain away, dismiss, discredit, or otherwise pour cold water on. This activity in itself is sometimes mistakenly called ‘critical scholarship’ apparently in contradistinction to uncritical or pre-critical scholarship. And having once trotted out this label it is then assumed that any real scholar worth her or his salt will want to be a skeptic so they can then be revered as a ‘critical scholar’. Otherwise they are not really being scholarly.

Here is where I call the bluff of those who think this way. I was recently reading a very fine manuscript by a friend and fellow NT scholar, Craig Evans. He says in this manuscript that sometimes skepticism is mistaken for critical thinking. Some scholars think the more skeptical they are the more scholarly they are being. He adds that adopting an unwarranted and unreasonably skeptical posture is no more justified when it comes to the Bible than adopting a gullible one that accepts anything and everything that comes down the pike masquerading as real scholarship. He is so right about this. Let it be said that the Bible has survived the critical scrutiny of many of the greatest minds that ever existed over the last several millennia. We shouldn’t think that it is now in danger of being explained away or set aside or shown to be irrelevant. As Jerome once put it “Defend the Bible? It needs about as much defense as a lion!”

My main point is this. Skepticism is itself a faith posture, a presupposition that affects and infects how one reads Biblical texts, just as ardent faith is also a faith posture. It is of course necessary for any historical scholar to recognize and take into account what his or her faith posture or inclinations or predispositions are as one approaches the Biblical text.

But here’s the rub. Some scholars, mistaking skepticism for critical thinking, assume that they are being ‘objective’, approaching the text in a value free way with no axes to grind, while person’s of ‘faith’ are approaching the text in a ‘subjective’ manner that is tendentious and necessarily predetermines the outcome of the interpretation of the Biblical text. This is not necessarily true at all on either side of the equation.

There is of course no purely objective value free scholarship out there. It is just that some do a better job of admitting this, and owning up to their presuppositions and inclinations than others do, and some do a better job of being objective than others. And I would say that it is those who are aware of their own commitments and take them into account and even correct for them that are the persons who really ought to be called critical scholars whether they are persons of no apparent faith, agnostic, or persons of one or another sort of ardent faith. A critical scholar is one who is capable of being self-critical and self-corrective, as well as being able to cast a discerning eye on this or that Biblical text.

It also needs to be said that it is not good scholarship to have as a beginning point a posture of distrust towards the subject of one’s historical study. One ought to begin with a posture of trust when approaching a certain historical subject, not with a hermeneutic of suspicion for the very good reason that proving, or even just showing a reasonably strong case for a positive after you have assumed a strong negative is virtually impossible to do. It is like trying to prove you didn’t do something. We all know how hard that is to do. Ancient texts deserve the same respect and benefit of the doubt and willingness to trust and listen at least initially that Biblical scholars want their colleagues to exhibit when evaluating their own modern works.

So in the end, justification by doubt is not a good starting point for critical scholarship. You haven’t necessarily explained something just because you think you have explained it away, any more than you have proved something just because you have demonstrated that the Bible claims this or that. Historical enquiry requires data to be analyzed, not lightly dismissed or simply received. Skepticism is no more scholarly than gullibility. But they both have one thing in common—they are both faith postures, not critical stances.


Matt, Christine, Elijah, Joseph, Sarah, & Oliver said...

I'm not sure if Prof. Evans coined this phrase, but in his lectures he often rightly points out that "fundamentalism from the left" is as uncritical as "fundamentalism from the right." Thanks for the post.

Matt Walsh

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the great post!

I have been teaching a Sunday School class this summer on the DaVinci Code, and I have been making precisely the same point, although you have said it more eloquently than I.

I have become truly irritated with the latent assumption that a hermeneutic of trust is tantamount to fideism and a hermeneutic of skepticism is sound critical scholarship.

Thanks again!

thegreatswalmi said...

Thanks, prof. witherington, for a great post. As one who studied under craig (with matt up there from the first post!), i certainly affirm what he's said about skepticism and scholarship. thanks for helping us remember that "objectivity" is impossible for us, but that honesty about that impossibility is the beginning of good scholarship.


David Ker said...


You've made a good point. I have been thinking a lot about the epistemological basis of our faith. Seems like we have four options: reason, evidence, skepticism and ... what is that fourth one? At this point I'm leaning toward "revelation." Christians can be guilty of a sort of skepticism about their own faith in the form of "Pascal's Wager": What I believe might be false but it's best to believe it just in case.

Michael F. Bird said...

Good stuff. I think "justification by doubt" is followed by "sanctification through skepticism" and it is endemic in the thing we call the "Academy". Critical scholars fail to be critical enough in their own self examination. BTW, I am positive that the Bible-Lion thing actually comes Charles Spurgeon. said...

Obviously your title is punning on one of the Solas (Justification by Faith). Could you be punning on Richard Hays' article Salvation by Trust as well?

He's not engaging exactly the same point you are I think; the scholar who mindlessly tries to pick nits in the Scripture is probably the inheritor of the hermeneutic of suspicion that sees oppression behind every traditional reading of Scripture. Hays (along with some exegesis about the faith/unfaith of Israel and the Faith of Jesus) does a good job of pointing out that engaging the scripture looking for flaws rather than in trust is certainly less Christian, but perhaps is also impeding scholarship.

From the article: My concern that distrust may impede our reading of the Bible leads me to my final point. The real work of interpretation is to hear the text. We must consider how to read and teach scripture in a way that opens up its message and both models and fosters trust in God. So much of the ideological critique that currently dominates the academy fails to foster these qualities. Scripture is critiqued but never interpreted. The critic exposes but never exposits. Thus the word itself recedes into the background, and we are left talking only about the politics of interpretation, having lost the capacity to perform interpretations.

Layman said...


Thank you for an insider's view of this phenomenon. I have heard friends of mine who are NT students talking about how there is a kind of expectation that students must argue for the inauthenticity of many passages before they will be seen as serious students. The more you doubt the more serious a student you are assumed to be.


opinionated said...

Preach it, brother!

slaveofone said...

Well critically said.

David said...

To me this is a fundamental question of worldviews. Holding one's scholarly position above the veracity of the Scriptures is warned about in the Bible, and if someone is critical of the Bible, they have already demonstrated an approach which will only result in further diminishment of the Bible in their own eyes.

Isn't that what more Berean approach to the Scriptures is all about anyway?

Great post, thanks.

Even So... said...

Thanks; been talking sola scriptura over at my blog, and this helps...I linked it, thanks again...

Ben Witherington said...

Hi David:

This is an interesting reaction. But here is the important point. The Bible should be seen as the inspired word of God because it is true-- historically, theologicaly, ethically and otherwise. We should not start with a position that says since the Bible is the inspired word of God, therefore it is true. though of course that is so as well. It's a matter of starting point to be sure. For a historical religion, a religion based on certain key historical events, then truth claims have to be assessed on the basis of evidence--- historical evidence. Christians have never claimed that the Bible was immune to historical scrutiny, nor should it be, since ours is not a philosophy of life, nor do we claim that the Bible dropped from the sky as was claimed for the Koran or the Book of Mormon. The Bible is the Word of God in the words of very historical human beings. It should be treated with respect to both dimensions of its character.


Ben W.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for this posting. But I thought it was CH Spurgeon, not Jerome, who said "Defend the bible? I would sooner defend a lion", or something like that. Versions on the Internet differ; the following, written in 1893/4, sounds more likely:

"How are we to defend the Bible?" Spurgeon was once asked. The great Nonconformist preacher, with a true spiritual insight and a shrewd common sense sometimes lacking in profounder theologians and more versatile scholars, answered, "How would you defend a lion? Open his cage and leave him to defend himself!"

Ulysses said...

Can you say, Bart Ehrman? I knew you could.

David said...

Hello Ben,

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that the Bible's historical context is an important part of how it is approached hermaneutically and that because it is God's inspired Word, given to men, writing about specific themes, that its history bears close investigation. Without doing that, the fulness of its meaning contextually in many cases will likely not become clear to the reader.

I have a limited understanding, for example, of the Hebraic customs of the writers of most of the books of the Bible, which would bring clarifaction to me about many of the things which they wrote about. That causes me often to search historical documents, comparing them with other sources to find answers.

What I mean about a approaching Scripture itself from the outset with a worldview that is skewed against the Bible's position in history as a book which passes the 'bibliographic test' and the 'archaeological test' too, will tend (not always) to bring one to a conclusion that is geared in a presuppositional way to be ultimately shoehorned into a desired fit.

Sometimes though, even the most skeptical scholar in the neighborhood will arrive at a truthful interpretation, no matter how hard they try to avoid it by not dropping their predisposition to regard the Bible as less than completely reliable.

I'm not a scholar, so as a layman who depends on the Bible as his source of truth, I am one whose approach is predisposed to believe the Word is entirely reliable. My personal tack is to follow the example of the Bereans, who were praised by Paul for their consistent desire to compare what they were told to the Scriptures themselves.

The Bible is true, "historically, theologically, ethically and otherwise," but is your point that it can't approached using the circular reasoning that, "The Bible is the inpired Word of God, therefore it's true," for the benefit of those who don't believe that? I don't have any problem with that. The Bible can defend itself on any philosophical or religious level.

I hope my response isn't to muddled. I sometimes have a vague or roundabout way of articulating what I mean. :) God bless

Ben Witherington said...

Ullyses I don't really understand your reference to Bart Ehrman--- would you elucidate that for me?

Ben Witherington said...

If you want a list of scholars that fit this critique, you could go all the way back to Bultmann, Dibelius, Conzelmann and the like--- the original form and redaction critics. You could move forward to folks like Robert Funk, Bart Ehrman, William Dever, Robert Price and many others today.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Great post. This should be required reading for budding scholars as well as those who are bit more seasoned.

Mark McFadden said...

Dr. Witherington,
Great post. In my view, scripture makes that point that since we like sheep have gone astray, each to their own way, we by nature are indeed biased. Specifically, against scripture.


Ben Witherington said...

I am saying that Bultmann (et al.) believed that the Gospel tradition, for example, developed like folklore and myth. He was not prepared to accept that the Gospel traditions were passed along like other sacred early Jewish traditions. He was even prepared to say at one juncture that "we can now know almost nothing about the historical Jesus". If that is not skepticism pure and simple, and asserted in the face of a lot of evidence, I don't know what it is. I also think Bultmann was reacting to the German piety of his day.

Steven Carr said...

'He was not prepared to accept that the Gospel traditions were passed along like other sacred early Jewish traditions.'

In that case, pointing out the evidence for that proposition would have been a good counter.

What is it, by the way?

Ben Witherington said...

The evidence that Gospel traditions were passed along like other early Jewish sacred traditions has been demonstrated at length by Martin Hengel, and the Upsala school a long time ago (See the work of B. Gerhardsson). Basically, the argument shows the fundamentally conservative way such traditions were handled both before, during and after the NT period by early Jews. There was rote memorization of sayings, and repetition of traditions until many knew them. The Mishnah for example says that disciples of early Jewish sages "can be likened to cisterns, never losing a single drop of their master's honeyed words." This of course is a bit hyperbolic, but it speaks to the process of transmission involved.


Scott said...

Ben, I've been thinking about the same topic lately. Is skepticism the best method for arriving at trutth? I don't think so. I think love and trust have to function in our method - whether through dialogue with the author/text or as other viewpoints are considered that are subjective or reflective of one's experience.

john doyle said...

Empirical science works through systematic skepticisim. The scientist doesn't assume his theory is true and reject it only if the evidence is compelling. Instead, the scientist assumes his hypothesis is not true, then sees whether the evidence is strong enough to keep from rejecting the hypothesis. This methodology keeps science from adopting a whole bunch of poorly-supported and competing theories.

The opposite stance holds in criminal law, at least in the modern Western world. If you assume the defendant is innocent, then the prosecutor has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

These aren't just faith stances of individual practitioners. A prosecutor can't decide he's going to be a "guilty until proven innocent" kind of guy. He works within a system that has faith in defendants. Likewise, a scientist can't decide he's going to be a faith-based scientist who insists that his theories be rejected only if the evidence against it is overwhelming.

So, which systematic faith stance is more likely to get you to truth?

Tenax said...

Professor Worthington,

this is a great post.

Schweitzer showed the same thing decades ago (NT criticism often says more about the critic than the text). Frankly, it's impossible to approach any document neutrally, but the gospels, with their supernatural component and the force of the Voice of Christ calling to the world on page after page, making the statements about himself he does...they are a special case.

Thank you for the names of scholars who have addressed the passing of Hebrew sacred tradition. I am interested.

And to the post above is supposed to work on an empirical skeptical model, but certainly science is done by humans and humans vary in their degree, from person to person and from moment to moment in the same person, to be truly neutral. I'm not sure all scientists or science is this pure. It should be, but is it? And with prosecutors...I admit I don't work in the judicial field, but I think plenty of prosecutors, police and judges do not truly assume innocence until verdict, they prosecute to prove guilt because they feel the fact the person has gotten this far in the system means they're probably guilty. But these are side issues, and I'm not answering your question.

Spiritual truth, theology, is different from science or for that matter legal prosecution. Religous speculation involves the entire person, heart, intuition, mind, or it should. Perhaps this makes it different from empirical study altogether, but certainly not outside reasonable discussion. I'm sorting this out with the rest.

john doyle said...

There's a blog that includes a "Faith-Based Scholarship Series": interviews with Bible scholars who discuss the role of faith in their work. The interview with Craig Evans, cited in Dr. Witherington's post, is at cafe apocalypsis

These scholars offer a pretty broad range of opinions about faith vs. skepticism when approaching a Biblical text for scholarly rather than devotional purposes.

Matthew Miller said...

I can't help but beleive that the Revolutionary War was a sinful act. The seeds of judgement, (ie. the Civil War) were sown in the Revolution. Just look at the southern states justification for war.

Ulysses said...

Ben: re my Bart Ehrman comment, I intended to say that your post describes him to a tee.



Greg said...

Thanks Ben for another great post!

I have to agree with Mark above in his notation that "we like sheep have gone astray, each to their own way, we by nature are indeed biased. Specifically, against scripture."

That is why I believe most "scholarly criticism of Scripture is based more likely on a defense of self instead of an attack on Scripture. As I look at the Bible, the majority of it is written to the Hebrew people and early Christians pointing out the error of their ways and reminding them of God's call. None of us like to be criticized or notified of our shortcomings. The natural response is to attack the attacker. Sadly, this surfaces in Bible study, sermons, etc. Critiquing Scripture (i.e. splitting hairs) to find a Justification for Intelligence (Godly Wisdom) or worse , declare Justification for behavior contrary to Scripture.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.