Wednesday, 23 June 2010

My 2 cents on Hendel's BAR piece

Hendel's recent criticism of SBL has been doing the rounds on the blogosphere. For comments, check out Ancient Hebrew Poetry, Biblia Hebraica, Exploring Our Matrix, Suzanne's Bookshelf, Euangelion, Jim West etc. etc. (James McGrath has collected posts to date). SBL has responded in part here.

Here are my two cents:

I appreciate Hendel's commitment to allowing objective reality - both of the text and of the external world - to function as a constraint on the kind of interpretive construals presenters at a Biblical studies forum are allowed to make. I also appreciate his commitment to reason as a tool for interpreting that reality. However, not only does his conception of what in fact constitutes a "fact" seem rather naive, he seems to contradict his own premise, namely that faith has nothing to do with responsible study of the Bible. He says:
facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.
Isn't this a deist position? Even if it isn't, isn't it still the case that Hendel has taken a "theological" stance which will then inevitably constrain the way he approaches the subject matter of the Bible? He can be deist (or atheist, or whatever) if he wants, but he can't then claim that by being so he has left his cosmological presuppositions at the door of his academic office. The irony here is that the God of the Bible is simply not one that would fit into Hendel's implied creed - he is יהוה עשה השמים וארץ, the creator of ... facts, historical or natural. So even at the level of exegetical method one wonders whether his theological presuppositions are best suited to enabling him grasp the subject matter SBL has commited itself to studying.

I know this is a highly complex area, that commitments to various ontological, soteriological, anthropological and even eschatological systems has distorted our ability to grasp what is actually going on in the Bible. As a confessing Christian, I want to affirm with Hendel the existence of a the empirical realm which stands over against our prior faith commitments (see my posts on the dialectical nature of Biblical history). And yet, at the same time, all humans are subject to the kinds of presuppositions outlined above, we wouldn't be able to function without them. It seems to me that the best way forward is not (try and) suppress or ignore our theology but to try and improve it and then bring it into dialectical relation to "the facts." I'm sure Hendel himself would not appreciate being called a "deist," and I think a bit more theological reflection on what kind of a God he does believe in could not only do him some good, but also the broader community of Biblical students he's paid to serve (and the same goes for Waltke).*

*[One example from my own experience where a more refined theology has honed my "critical" skills is the area of the Immanent and Economic Trinity. Appreciating this ancient Nicene Dogma is helping me become more "liberal" in my take on Biblical historicity and the concept of the literary/theological unity of the text].


mhelfield said...

Hi Philip,

I am not sure whether you understand what Prof. Hendel is saying. He is not saying that you cannot have faith or be a person of faith while studying the Bible. I immediately think of a scholars like Lawrence Schiffman who is most definitely a man of faith, (I am not certain of his Jewish denomination). And yet he produces top notch scholarly work. And to be scholarly, these works must be critical. They must not make use of any faith presumptions or theological positions. They must rely on reason and critical evaluation of the source material, whatever it might be.

In short, Hendel is saying that confessional institutions must not be confused for scholarly societies.

I think most scholars will fully support Hendel's position when it comes to faith and reason as two separate domains of human experience. Equal but separate. And one should not masquerade as the other.

Jim West, for example, as intelligent as he is, has fallen for this trap. He is not keen on Hendel's position because he (Jim) has a stake in the idea that scholarship can be done in the name of faith or with a basis in faith.

Theology is just as valid as any other subject of study: ideas about God or the Godhead. But to make a claim that x or y is a fact based on confession or faith is erroneous pure and simple.

Hendel being a "Deist" (which I think is a very respectable thing to be) is really neither here nor there. He could be a Satan worshiper, but if he deals with evidence and facts in a critical manner, that he has done scholarship.


Michael Helfield

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear Michael,

thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Dialogues like these certainly clarify things for me, even if it involves clarifying my thoughts for others.

I think there are three issues that need clarifying here: 1) my problem with Hendel's statements; 2) the nature of the Bible; and 3) the nature of confessional scholarship. They are of course all intertwined for me.

1) My claim about Hendel is that by saying that faith and fact have nothing to do with each other is already to have made a theological statement. You can only say that kind of thing if you already have a theological presupposition about the nature of God (amongst other things). Does that make sense? In other words, the very argument he uses in order to ban theological faith claims from the academy is itself a theological faith claim. He contradicts himself.

Or is there empirical evidence that the real God, the one that actually exists, relates to his world in such a way that his activity has no impingement on history and nature whatsoever? How is this not a faith claim or a theological statement? And how is it not a faith claim that presents a particular view about the nature of the deity and his works? If we were to take this advice seriously, then the only people allowed to study the Bible in a responsible manner (which is what Biblical scholarship is) are those who subscribe to a creed that is able to make room for this kind of dogmatic presupposition. And given that a large proportion of students of the Bible have some kind of faith commitment to the content of that book - whether Jew, Christian, or whatever - Hendel's dogmatic presupposition would exclude the majority of members. This is because the God of the Bible is not the God that Hendel would believe in were he to believe (I don't know what he believes; an atheist as well as a deist and probably a few other "-ists" could make the kind of claim he makes).

Do you see what I'm getting at? He contradicts himself (an issue for someone who values "reason") and effectively, if not intentionally, wants to make a particular creed a criterion for study.

I will admit that there are confessional Christians and Jews who would assent to his statements (some of them have responded on their blogs). I would just claim that they are not being logically consistent.

As for whether most scholars would agree with him, I'm not sure. I feel that his presuppositions belong to an era known as "positivism" that is actually losing credibility in the humanities at large (note his attack on feminists and postmodernists too), though I can't give statistics. I studied cultural anthropology at a secular institution and these statements would simply be dismissed as naive (and rightly so, in my opinion).

You said that faith and reason are two dimensions of human experience. Is this a general statement of what is the case or is it a statement about what should be the case? If it is the former, I'm afraid the proportion of humanity that thinks and indeed wants to separate the two is incredibly small. This is just factually a wrong statement. The entire Western intellectual tradition up until the Enlightenment was predicated on the idea of "faith seeking understanding," and current philosophy would claim that that is the only way we can operate, whether we like it or not.

Phil Sumpter said...

2) I note that your are a historian. What I have stated above applies to history, as I understand it. All historical research involves a "dialogue with tradition" wich mediates the past to us and within which we exists (Gadamer). Faith cannot be bracketed out of that process. But the Bible is a special case. It is not just a history book but claims (at least) to be a response to a divine reality. It has the genre of witness or response. It thus seems to be highly inappropriate to say that theology, the study of the divine reality, can have no role in the study of the Bible, a self-confessed response to the divine reality. What's the logic? Of course, one could argue that the Bible's claims about itself are false and that it's ultimately not a response to God but has more to do with psychological needs or political agenda (see, e.g. the Copenhagen school). But even here one is assuming a particular vision of reality - one similar to the one Hendel seems to be proposing - that would have to be proved then simply assumed.

In short: the Bible makes certain theological claims that have ontological implications. These implications need to be evaluated and not simply ignored.

3) Hendel's portrayal of confessional scholarship is largely a straw man. Confessional scholars are also commited to external parameters shared by non-confessional scholars: the results of archaeology or the plain sense of the text, for example. Whether one finds their arguments strained or not, the fact that they often to strain themselves is testimony to their commitment to external parameters. I'm not aware of anyone, regardless of how conservative, who just says: "it's like this because my church tells me so." This is just a rhetorical chariacatre designed to easily dismiss an opponent. Regardless of Walkte's theological assumptions, for example, he provides arguments for his historical stance and deserves to have those arguments responded to. Hendel's comments in this regard were just cheap (and weak at that; who uses language to date Biblical texts these days? A shrinking number of scholars).

Does that help? I'd appreciate your thougts if you think I'm missing something.

mhelfield said...

Hi Philip,

Well said. I like reading your posts because they are always lucidly written.

I see where you are coming from. I think I disagree that arguing that faith and reason are two separate dimensions of human experience or have nothing to do with each is itself a theological claim. There is no theology, in my opinion, in this claim at all. It has nothing to do with God/gods per se or divinity, but merely with the way things are. Hendel is not making any kind of creed. I humbly think such a way of representing that is to presuppose an intended theological discourse. He is simply stating what makes for appropriate methodologically sound scholarship.

To be sure, you are certainly correct to point out that confessional scholars make use of external evidence (like archaeology and the like). And in my view, confessional scholars can do sound scholarship, but not if they start mixing in faith and resting arguments on faith claims or theological claims.

As Michael Shermer so gently puts it, science and religion are not the same thing, and don't cover the same areas. Whether pre and post Enlightenment thinkers did jumble them together is another matter. They absolutely did. But they were in serious error, and we all are the better for it.

I am not sure I understand what you mean by positivism in Hendel's case. Is it because he makes maybe a simplistic black and white distinction btwn two things? I would have to say that faith and reason are in fact two separate things. They can be intertwined, but they are separate. I can know without feeling or having faith and I can have faith without knowing (e.g. God's intentions).

The Bible is merely a human text, an assortment of texts, that is, compiled and written by human beings that discuss a myriad of issues. The existence of God or of a God is beyond the realm of science and scholarship. What we can study is what people said or argued about God or how they presented their thoughts about God, etc.

The SBL, in my opinion, should not give credence or authority to uncritical work. Definitions are usually a tricky thing. There are many scholars who have written critical and semi-critical work, so it is no so much the person but the actual work itself (in a given situation) that needs to be vetted.

Thank you so much for your response, Philip!



Kyle Essary said...

Michael and Phil,
Thanks for this discussion. Phil, your comments here are exceedingly helpful and I would agree with them.

Alongside Shermer, I agree that the scientific method and theological inquiry are different spheres of knowledge and methods of inquiry. The same is true of ethics, economics and lots of other things. The spheres may overlap at times and rely on each other, but are clearly distinct for the most part.

Alongside basically every Christian theologian, I would affirm that faith and reason are not the same thing. This isn't controversial.

This does not seem to be the claim Hendel is making though. When he suggests "facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts," he is making a claim about the nature of faith (and indirectly God's relationship to the world). Thus, it's a theological statement. He's not making a claim about the relationship of science/faith or reason/faith per se, but of faith/fact.

To say that they are distinct goes against Christian theology which asserts that the supernatural/natural divide is a creation of the 17th century Deists, and God is immanent in His Creation. For Christian theology, God upholds Creation by his providence and the "natural" workings of the world are "supernatural" in that in Him we live and move and have our being.

I hope that helps clarify our perspective on things.

mhelfield said...

Hi Kyle,

That does help me understand your position even more. I still don't really agree. Hendel is simply stating that faith and theology have nothing to do with facts, which is in itself a fact. The Deists did not create the supernatural/natural divide. All you can maybe say is that they discovered it. But it is a fact that any claims about the nature of God cannot be proven or demonstrated. This is true regardless of when human beings came to realize it! It is the way the universe is. So while, you can talk about "facts" of theology (what theologians factually assert in their writings), or that faith, as understood by so and so is such and such, any claims about God being immanent or transcendent can never be proven or demonstrated: hence they do not belong to the world of critical scholarship save in the study of the people or groups that make such claims.

When you say "in Him we move": that is a statement of belief and not of fact. That is all Hendel is saying. I don't know whether we can still access his blog, but Alan Lenzi had many wonderful posts expressing this same idea.

One example is the idea that there could have been eye witnesses to miracles. We know that such 'miracles' could not have happened as such. Certain natural phenomena could have been interpreted as such for whatever reasons (psychological, spiritual), but out and out miracles as described in the NT, for example, cannot be proven on an evidentiary basis.



Phil Sumpter said...

This response will come in instalments again because it's long:

G. Kyle Essary,

thanks for your input, that is helpful.


you could clarify what you mean by the word "fact"? To be more specific, is it an epistemological or an ontological category for you? For me, an ontological statement is a statement about "the way things really are," and importantly: the way things are irrespective of our ability to see whether that is the case or not. An epistemological statement has to do with our ability to see or understand what is there.

To use your own example, as you obviously unerstand the difference: in your opinion, it is ontologically the case that "faith has nothing to do with fact" (i.e. religious belief by definition is purely subjective, not grounded in anything external in reality). The ontological status of this truth claim is independent of our capacity to verify it. Thus, you talk of Deists "discovering" this fact (discovering being an epistemological category, fact being here an ontological category). Because this truth claim is, in your opinion, ontologically true, it pertained even at a time before it was discovered by deists. It's ontological status is unaffected by humanity's capacity to grasp it epistemologically.

To give a more obvious example: we'd all agree that "the world is round" is an ontological statement. As such, it is true regardless of whether we or others actually believe, perceive, or undestand this fact. It is not affected in any way whatsover by issues related to epistemology. Ontology is independent of epistemology.

Does that make sense? It's important to me as I think it is precisely the way that you have used the word "fact" in your last two responses that shows where we differ. In other words, it seems that for you a "fact" is both an ontological and an epistemological category. Not do you use it with two different senses (it would seem without realizing it), but your implied syllogism are constructed in such as way that your epistemological assumptions form the basis for your ontological assumptions. Logically this is a non sequitor . In other words, your logic runs like this: 1) some people claim A is (ontologically) true [e.g. miracles happened]; B) we can measure this using modern equipment [i.e. epistemologically]; C) therefore A is wrong.

Here are the places where you mix ontology and epistemology and thus draw logically indefensible conclusions:

A) "it is a fact that any claims about the nature of God cannot be proven or demonstrated (epistemology)"
B) "faith and theology have nothing to do with facts, which is in itself a fact." (ontology)
C) ? How does B follow from A?


A) "out and out miracles as described in the NT, for example, cannot be proven on an evidentiary basis" (epistemology)
B) "We know that such 'miracles' could not have happened as such" (ontology)
C) ? How does B follow from A?

A slightly less obvious example:

A) The existence of God or of a God is beyond the realm of science and scholarship (epistemology)
B) The Bible is merely a human text (ontology)
C) ? What does A have to do with B?

You seem to be mixing what really does not belong to gether. For example, in your response to G.K.E you write: When you say "in Him we move": that is a statement of belief and not of fact. Why can't it be both? As you yourself assume when you talk about Deists's "disocvering" the fact that God has nothing do with empirical reality (something I can conceive of being simply "discovered" by the way), the fact that this statement cannot be proved doesn't mean its not ontologically true. Otherwise you'd have to say that God really was involved in empirical reality until the Deists (somehow) "discovered" that he wasn't, which is absurd.

Phil Sumpter said...

A final point:

What you state as "facts" are simply unprovable. How do you prove that God isn't involved in empirical reality in any way whatsover? How can you prove that miracles don't happen? How can you prove that the Bible, contrary to its own and the vast majority of its readers opinion, is nothing more than merely human?

You are doing precisely what Hendel did: making ontological statements about the actual nature of reality (and by implication God) that have no basis in anything empirical whatsover. You are make nothing more than faith assertions, labelling your assertions as "facts" (with no evidence) and then requiring that any body who wishes the read the Bible responsibly has by defintion to simply believe (because none of this can be proved) your version of reality. You have a confessional stance, you have articulated a creed and have set it up as a norm by which to measure the validity of other peoples statements (which is fine, but dont claim that you're being objective in the process).

I for one don't agree with you. I think that every statement you have placed in section B above is ontologically wrong. But what is a fact, one that is both ontologically true and epistemologically true (in the sense that you can verify the following truth claim), is that your (and Hendel's) creed is statistically a minority position - a massive minority, both diachronically (through time) and synchronically (across time). This doesn't make you wrong, of course, because there are some things (like your assertion that God has practically nothing to do with his own creation) that are difficult to be verified empirically.

Am I making sense?

mhelfield said...

Hi Philip,

You are making sense. I thank you for taking the time by the way to write your responses.

I say right now that I do not have the training in philosophy/theology that you likely do, so that if my own vocabulary or logic appears to be off, then it likely is!

I see your points, but I am not sure I agree that I am being illogical.

You say:

The existence of God or of a God is beyond the realm of science and scholarship (epistemology)
B) The Bible is merely a human text (ontology)
C) ? What does A have to do with B?

I would modify this to look like this:

The existence of God or of a God is beyond the realm of science and scholarship (ontology)
B) The Bible is merely a human text (ontology)


C) The Bible can only be studied with the aim of securing knowledge on the basis of critical scholarship. There can be no presumptions of faith or of a God because ontologically a God does not exist.

Now, how you prove a negative? Well, while you can't sensu stricto prove a negative, one cannot a fortiori assume existence without evidence arrived at scientifically. So I can say that the Klignons exist but we just have no way of proving it and there is no evidence whatsoever (evidence measured in a critical manner) of their existence. Where does that leave us? It is neither here not there.

Of course, there is nothing "wrong" with believing in God or Gods or aliens or whathaveyou. And I will say that I am spiritual and I do believe that unnatural forces do exist. But, that is another realm of human experience. It cannot be verified, so instead of saying it does not exist or that it is wrong, it is put to one side and left out of the conversation.

Now practically speaking, SBL is more than welcome to have whomever it wants to join in the discussion. But in terms of scholarship, there is absolutely no room for arguments based on faith claims.

Another example is that of ghosts. There is very few things we can be in any way 100% certain of. But there can be such high degrees of probability that render issues almost fairly certain. Ghosts are the perfect example. Science does not rule out anything a priori. But it cannot assent to anything not argued for in a critical manner based on evidence. If certain procedures are not followed, it is not science, which is ok, but it is not valid qua science.

In order for progress to be made in the academy, arguments have to be made using reason and critical methodology (whether or not that methodology can be proven problematic, a fact which, if it happens, is itself part of the scientific method).

Again, I would refer you to Alan Lenzi or even Michael Shermer, who can place these arguments of mine in much more refined language and perhaps more philosophically informed language.

So, in short, I am talking about the fact (ont/epis) that as scholars, the only way to further knowledge is to be agnostic on the issue of the existence of God or deity. And what is difficult is that feelings may get hurt over this, but I mean no harm or fowl by anything I say, only to state what Hendel has very lucidly explained, which is the value in and of critical scholarship for the furthering of human knowledge.

mhelfield said...

And another thing:

Hendel and myself do not have a "creed". This again, is theological discourse and a logical non sequitur. What we say is a position based on fact, ontological and epistemological. It has nothing to do with what we believe (Credo), but with what we know (Scio).

Most people in the past did not think this way, no qualms there. And maybe most people today do not side with our position, but most academics surely do, and it is academics who devote their time to such questions. They are the ones at the forefront of this debate.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Michael. Don't worry about hurting people, at least not me on this blog.

Again, I'm struggling to follow you. The following two propositions of yours are mutually contradictory:

A) ontologically a God does not exist.

B) the only way to further knowledge is to be agnostic on the issue of the existence of God

In addition to this I cannot see how they can both be related to this statement:

C) What we say is a position based on fact

How can you affirm A and B at the same time?

How are A and/or B based on C?

Points A and B, by the way, simply affirm my own proposition: you are making a faith position a basis for study (because they cannot be proved, but are based on an act of faith. This applies to agnosticism, in my book. You can't just choose to opt out of making a decision; doing so is a decision).

I've never met anyone, atheist or not, who's claimed their position on the God question is a self-evident, scientifically provable fact.

mhelfield said...

Hi Philip,

Let me adjust a little.

A) Ontologically we cannot prove or disprove that divinity exists.

B) The only way to further knowledge (in general) is, among other things, is not to presume the existence of divinity, whether God or any other type of divinity. One must be agnostic, which is to say, not take a position, and leave such presumptions to one side, that is, not include them in one's critical work (and there are many other non-religious presumptions and assumptions that would also need to be put to one aside or acknowledged, since total objectivity does not exist).

These two premises are ontologically true.

I would consider myself agnostic (just to put it out there). I do not subscribe, just to mention, to the New Atheism (Dawkins, etc).

The God question, might not be self evident, but the answer is not that hard to arrive at. Christian theology is but one small human invention among many that posit the existence of divinity or divinities, with no evidence or proof to support this claim of existence.

Philosophically, we can get into all kinds of technicalities, but it does not seem far fetched to see that faith is something that is by definition, uncritical in the scientific or academic sense of the term.

So, Hendel seems to be hitting the nail on the head. I don't know whether I would leave the SBL or whether the SBL should not include confessional based work, but I do agree that critical scholarship cannot have anything to do with faith.

Again, I am not making a faith claim. It seems as if you are presuming that I am because you are a parti pris: you are already ensconced in a confessional frame of reference, which labels any contrary position as a faith claim. In reality, to claim anything on the basis of faith is actually was is going out on a limb, leaving the baseline, as it were.

Hendel, in my mind, is not concerned with the nature of faith, simply to remind people that critical scholarship does, by definition, ontologically, not include any faith claims, since they cannot be proven or even attempt to be proven.

And when I say "be agnostic", I only refer to what concerns the essay or the work concerned. You can be a man or woman of faith and much more, but when 'doing' scholarship and publishing work, the work itself must be agnostic.

I would now only say that it is a fact, in every sense of the term, that faith presumptions have nothing to do with critical scholarship. They simply do not mix. If you mix, the whole process leaves the realm of reason and enters the realm of the unknowable.

It is a method issue.

Kyle Essary said...

Michael and Phil,
Thanks for the discussion so far, it's really interesting to follow. Since I believe we're in three different continents the responses may seem a little late on my part, so I apologize.

First, I do want to set one matter straight. In response to the deistic/agnostic views of Hendel and whether or not you and he had a creed, you said that most academics agree with your position. Among U.S. professors agnostics and atheists combined still only make up 23% according to the 2006 Harvard survey of professors. More than 80% consider themselves religious. Even among the secular, "elite" schools (thus excluding the elite religious schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown, etc.), the percentage of atheist and agnostic professors still only comes to 37%. From other recent surveys, it becomes clear that some fields are more theistic than fifty years ago (analytic philosophy), some are less (sociology) and some are basically the same (the hard sciences, psychology, medicine and engineering).

Percentages don't matter though. What matters is that religious belief still factors greatly into academic lives, and basically does so on par with 50 or 100 years ago.

Personally though, I could care less if it were 80/20 percent the other way, because even then it is clear that religious beliefs affect the very core understanding of reality for many academics and thus, a robust pluralism makes much more sense than any one enforced position (whether Christendom or secularism...both of which in your perspective are unprovable). Hendel (and Lenzi), both of whom I greatly respect, appear to insist on an enforced secularism, and that is why we disagree.

You also say, "B) The only way to further knowledge (in general) is, among other things, is not to presume the existence of divinity, whether God or any other type of divinity. One must be agnostic, which is to say, not take a position, and leave such presumptions to one side, that is, not include them in one's critical work."

This is empirically false, is it not? Has there ever been an age when a methodological agnosticism has been the norm? Even if you consider the post-Enlightenment West to be such a place, do you deny that knowledge (in general) was "furthered" before such enforcement came into place? Would you deny that...say...Aquinas furthered knowledge despite being explicitly theological in his work?

The best you could argue in this regard is that in some fields, a methodological agnosticism has provided an utilitarian benefit to the progression of knowledge. But to claim that knowledge cannot be furthered without such a method, even "in general," simply cannot be maintained.

Even in scientific fields, theology has done quite a lot for science. If you get a chance, you might enjoy this essay by Denis Alexander:

Kyle Essary said...

Finally, you assert, "Again, I am not making a faith claim. It seems as if you are presuming that I am because you are a parti pris: you are already ensconced in a confessional frame of reference, which labels any contrary position as a faith claim. In reality, to claim anything on the basis of faith is actually was is going out on a limb, leaving the baseline, as it were."

The only way you can make this statement comes through what you claim to know or not know about the divine. If God is the center of reality, then no, faith does not go out on a limb. Only if we assume atheism or some more concrete form of agnosticism does this statement work. I would argue that the reality is exactly opposite of what you are saying. To deny the core reality of existence [the Triune God] thus goes out on the limb. You are making a theological statement (which from your view is unprovable) about the core of reality and then trying to insist that everyone else play by those rules. We are claiming that other people with a different (and from your perspective equally unprovable) core should be allowed to talk at the dinner table.

Kyle Essary said...

As I was re-reading through my comments I noticed a mistake. Over 80% of US professors consider themselves "spiritual." I mistakenly said, "religious."

mhelfield said...

Hi Kyle,

I have been having trouble (technical difficulties) with my response.

We will see if this post goes through. I did read your pdf by Prof. Alexander. It is terrific, and does nothing (as it happens) to undermine my position.

But theology is a human activity. It does nothing to show or prove the existence of a deity let alone the Judeo Christian God, which is merely one projection by humans out of many.

Kyle Essary said...

You say, "It does nothing to show or prove the existence of a deity let alone the Judeo Christian God"

I never suggested it did, and that isn't what we are talking about here. The question is whether or not theology assists or hinders critical inquiry. Hendel claims it does, but Alexander shows that in regards to science (unquestionably the field where it is claimed that methodological atheism has provided the most utilitarian value) a confessional stance has actually furthered scientific knowledge and provided an epistemological grounding for such pursuits.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm not sure there's much I can add here. I'm with Kyle on this issue (thanks for the article). Just three more comments:

1) to add to Kyle's statistics: German critical scholarship was birthed in theological faculties that, according to German law, must be confessional. A good example of this is the recent removement of Gerd Lüdemann from his position. He rejects the church's confession (i.e. he would subscribe to Hendel's creed) and so he is no longer able to teach NT at a secular university. He now teaches "early church history", at the same university. I posted a link to a German language article on this today. So Hendel's claims, which are utterly inimical to the confessional stance of any denomination of the church, effectively negates the historical context within which critical scholarship not only developed but is still carried out today. The parallel to the Alexandar article is interesting.

2) Belief is God is not a "presumption," that is your claim, not mine (as a believer) nor any one I know. Belief is not an intellectual wager based on probabilities. It's based on a various factors, one of them being experience, and even there "belief" itself is a varied phenomenon (i.e. it can grow). But this is epistemology (how we know) and not ontology (what is indeed the case). [I've no training in theology or philosophy, so I'm happy to be corrected if I'm misusing categories].

3) Your last statement mixed ontology and epistemology again:

A) "theology ... does nothing to show or prove the existence of a deity" (I agree, but this is epistemology)
B) "theology ... is merely one projection by humans out of many" (really? Prove it. Theology itself claims - on the basis of things not provable by demsontration but true nevertheless - to be more that pure human projection and instead a faithful response to revlation. This is an issue of ontology - as far as I can see anyway).

You seem to be saying that because you can't prove it it isn't there. Or am I missing the point?

mhelfield said...

In terms of theology being a projection, is just is: if you look at texts like the Bible or Koran, you see human made texts 'projecting' or assuming the existence of a deity. This is proof.

It is a shame what happened to Prof. Luedemann. German law on this count is seriously flawed. I don't deny that critical scholarship has historically emerged from theology, but now that we know better that to make presumptions, and to think that God exists is to make an unfounded claim, than we ought not to penalize people for not subscribing to confessions that have no basis in nature (i.e. which can be demonstrated in nature rather than supernatural speculation).

The fact that people believe is ontologically true. Yes people believe. And belief is epistemologically one way people know things. It is not, however, based on critical evaluation of evidence.

Revelation is something that can not be shown to have happened. It is a belief not an argument. It cannot be verified. There is no way that you can ontologically say that revelation happened.

Hendel has no creed, and he is not making a faith claim. He is not delving into that universe of discourse

Theology or confessional work prove, for they are not able to prove, since they presume: this is just how it is (ont) and has to do with how people know things (epis).

I am saying that the burden of proof falls squarely, as a matter of fact, on those who want to presume the existence of something supernatural -- but you can't, so actually, such presumptions fall outside the bailiwick of science and of critical does not oppose it, but does not enter into the equation.

We would not be where we are now without the past and without theologians and scholars who made presumptions. We can now see how they were in error in certain things, and that is fortunate. Human progress is a wonderful thing. But those who now have confessional stances of any sort ought not place these stances in their scholarly work (if they choose to do scholarly work).

Kyle Essary said...

This will be my last comment because it seems to be going around in a circle, and I don't have the time to continue.

"I[n] terms of theology being a projection, i[t] just is"

Consistent assertions of a claim without justification, which by your own words are unprovable, do not make it anymore true than the contrary position.

"I don't deny that critical scholarship has historically emerged from theology, but now that we know better tha[n] to make presumptions...

We can't simply remove the metaphysical underpinnings of a system without serious repercussions and logical absurdities (or a consistent return to the previous underpinnings under different names...see for instance Etienne Gilson's excellent "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again" for a plethora of examples).

Even you have admitted that something more than the natural seems necessary. If you have no metaphysical underpinning to stand on outside of mere utility, then you are doomed to fail, because utility sacrifices all sorts of more important aspects of reality (like virtue, purpose, etc.).

Hendel has no creed, and he is not making a faith claim. He is not delving into that universe of discourse.

When you make claims about faith, which Hendel does, you are making a faith claim. I think that's pretty obvious despite your continued contrary assertion. I think this has been clearly shown to you over and over in this thread. You cannot make a claim about ultimate reality without it being inherently theological (or atheological if you prefer...but atheological is still a theological claim).

Furthermore, we all have a creed (or system of beliefs about ultimate reality). It's open to change of course, but to pretend that we don't have a system of beliefs is foolish and directly contradicts current neuropsychology on the structures of belief systems. There is no such thing as neutrality in discussions of ultimate reality because we all bring a set of beliefs to bear on the discussion.

Theology or confessional work prove, for they are not able to prove, since they presume: this is just how it is (ont) and has to do with how people know things (epis)

Instead of listening to what has been discussed so far, you continue to make similar assertions, yet admit that this position is equally unprovable and thus that you also bring presumptions to the table for discussion.

So basically there are two unprovable presumptions from your view, but you insist on everybody going by your presumption. No thanks.

I am saying that the burden of proof falls squarely, as a matter of fact, on those who want to presume the existence of something supernatural

You continue to attempt to change the topic to a discussion of proving or disproving the divine. We are not doing this here, but instead discussing the value of theology to critical inquiry.

From your perspective, such a proof would be impossible anyways. Furthermore, you insist that attempts to prove such divinity should be ruled out from the start because they make claims that you have a priori stated are unprovable...petitio principii.

We can now see how they were in error on certain things

Right. We can see we were in error on the Enlightenment project, which has substituted virtue for utility and theism for the presumption of atheism...(as you can see making bald assertions doesn't move discussions forward much and our bald assertions hold just as much value as yours in your perspective, no?).

Human progress is a wonderful thing

I completely agree! Which is why I believe every view should be allowed to bring their entire perspective into the discussion and make their complete case without having to submit an arbitrary and (by your perspective) equally unprovable secularism.

Shalom! I hope you all continue the discussion here and at Hobbins blog. It's been fun.

Phil Sumpter said...

I echo Kyle's analysis of this discussion.

Here's my last comment on the issue:

I believe that there is a God and that he breaks into this dimension of reality, doing things empirically impossible, like raising people from the dead (which he did in fact do with Jesus, his Son, the eternal Logos).

I believe this and I have my reasons.

Michael, you are telling me that I am literally not capable of reading the Bible in a responsible manner and ought to be banned from SBL.

Phil Sumpter said...


you may be interested in this post responding to this dialogue:

mhelfield said...

Thanks Philip, for the link.

You most definitely can read the Bible in a responsible manner. Please don;t think I want you kicked out of any institution. I find you are a first rate mind, let there be no doubt.

I actually remember one of your first posts calling for dialogue or was is a dialectical relationship between secularism and theological (for lack of better terms here) frameworks or what have you.

My concern is that we know that we are different, and that one does not masquerade as another. I also said that anyone in the theological camp can produce scholarship using secular methodology and a secular person can also write scholarship on the basis of theological conviction (if they convert or make a faith commitment as it were).

I don't deny that I expend a lot on this topic. I feel very strongly about it as many of us do.

Anyways, let us end it here, and this will my last post. But I have learned much from you and Kyle about your views. Thank you.


Phil Sumpter said...


thanks for the kind words. For me, everything seems to be dialectic.

I can wholeheartedly agree with two statements here:

1) My concern is that we know that we are different, and that one does not masquerade as another.

This is precisely my own concern. Dialoge accross party-lines is always tough. There is simply a tension that needs to be somehow constantly negotiated. The plain and historical sense of the text (two distinct categories, in my book) are good criteria by which to measure different truth claims. Faith claims about the (non)existence of God are not. Whenever the latter influences the former, which is inevitable and can be both helpful and a hinderance, one needs to simply be open about one's commitments and hope that the dialogue can continue anyway.

2) I feel very strongly about it as many of us do.

I think it's right to have strong feelings about this. At the end of the day, these kinds of issues go beyond the question of the meaning of individual ancient texts and touch upon questions of the kind of universe we all inhabit and the way things cohere within that universe. I can appreciate, for example, Lüdemann's strong desire to discredit the church. This isn't personal vindictiveness, it's the logical consequence of a commitment to the belief that the Bible is not in fact of God but rather of humans. If he's right, he'd be doing the world a favour. If, on the other hand, one believes that the Bible is the inspired Word of God - as I do - then in a similar manner the question of the kind of reality in which the Bible participates (ultimately divine and not human/psychological - though for Christians the Incarnation requires both) is incredibly important.

One would hope that whatever our theological/cosmological presuppositions, the result is that they cast us back on the text of the Bible with a renewed keeness for grasping what is actually there on the page.

mhelfield said...

Well said, Philip.

I just finished reading Alexander's web article (on the Darwin Festival), which I found very illuminating. I don't quite think I agree with everything he says, but I do agree with much of it, and we will see where I am next year at this time!



Kyle Essary said...

Thanks again for both of your interaction here and at Hobbins site. I love getting the opportunity to learn from those who know more than me and have a different perspective.

I thought I might mention a very short book that deals with some of these topics concerning knowledge/bias/ignorance called "Life is a Miracle: Modern Superstitions" by Wendel Berry. It was excellent and brought to mind our conversation at certain points.

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