Critical Consensus and Believing Scholarship

Believing Christian scholars are accused of being closed minded as they fail to take seriously critical scholars, which is a euphemism for scholars who don’t believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible. For these critical scholars, believing scholarship is an oxymoron. But, why should believers subject themselves to the judgment of unbelievers? Apparently, the authority of these critical scholars stems from their learned and objective scholarship. That these critical scholars are learned is duly acknowledged, but the objectivity of their scholarship is the issue in dispute.

First, there are learned scholars across the theological spectrum ranging from liberal to conservative. The rigorous research of these scholars have become authoritative paradigms or research frameworks for other scholars. In reality, there are only a few scholars whose works are seminal and historically significant. Most scholars in the biblical-theological guild are followers who take cues from their academic mentors as they try to keep up with the latest academic fashion.

Second, the trajectory of scholarship in the last 50 years displays a wide range of critical methods: source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism, structural and post-structural criticism, rhetorical, narrative and reader-response criticism, sociological criticism, feminist criticism and lately, post-colonial criticism. Likewise, Pauline scholarship moves from New Perspective to Post-New Perspective, and then, Apocalyptic Perspective of Paul. Who knows what comes next?

What are we to make of these passing trends in biblical-theological scholarship? It is only natural for researchers to explore new methods of analyzing the text, but the proliferation of methods and theory formation makes one doubt the objectivity of critical scholarship. One wonders if the discipline is sliding into anarchy. Believing scholars may call the bluff of critical scholars when they are accused of not accepting consensus of critical scholarship as there is really no critical consensus in biblical-theological scholarship.

Third, believing scholars should participate in the ongoing research programs in the academia, regardless of the ebb and flow of ‘consensus’. One may regard positively any current (and provisional) consensus, but this should not become an occasion to breed intellectual complacency when scholars  dutifully regurgitate fashionable thoughts in their writings. This happens when scholars are discouraged from questioning the latest theological ‘consensus’ which we know from history will give way to a new ‘consensus’. Contrary to the claims of objectivity, group-think within the biblical-theological guild is an ever present possibility. Indeed, it takes more courage and intellectual independence to write as a believing scholar who is critical of critical consensus in the academic world today.

Finally, the above observations should not be taken as an excuse for believing scholars to remain intellectually sloppy. Believing scholars will be ignored, and justifiably disparaged by critical scholars as long as they fail to produce works that are academically rigorous and spiritually integrated. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “Let your speech [scholarship] always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6)

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