Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why average Christians take the theologians with a grain of salt

This is not the kind of post that is easy write. I think that people who study theology academically should be encouraged in that pursuit. What better thing is there to do, what more fulfilling quest is there than to know God? But sometimes it may be helpful for those who "do theology" to see why exactly the average person in the congregation takes them with a grain of salt.

This post was sparked by a recent post by Ken Schenck, who sounded as though he wanted very much for the average Christian to take to heart some things from academic Biblical studies, in order to correct "ten common mistakes", as he said. I should say from the outset: this post is not a rebuttal, but more of a "laity perspective". I write with the hope that the theologians might see how things look from a different viewpoint, particularly the viewpoint of the various life-long Bible students in the pews.

Mr Schenck's post rounded up ten points about modern Bible scholarship that "have not fully trickled down to the popular level". (Oh dear, I thought, when I read that.) So I thought it might be good for the professional scholars to get something of a running commentary from the other side of that trickle, to appreciate the other point of view.

It's tempting to get distracted by the haughtiness -- literally -- in the "trickle down to the popular level" kind of thinking. In fact, I think it's part of the issue of why academics don't have a wider audience -- or the perspective that comes with interacting with more viewpoints. But it's not the best place to start when asking the academic to rethink a thing or two. With that in mind, let's imagine for a moment that everything assumed in "trickle down to the popular level" is completely legitimate, and focus instead on this one assumption in particular: the assumption that the current round of academic scholarship -- especially when it reaches near-consensus -- ought to be accepted fully. Here's a question for the scholars, strictly as academics: Has there ever been an age whose scholarship was fully accepted without any modification by the ages after it? Is there any age, or scholar, that you agree with completely? If not, why should the current scholarship be fully accepted now? If we're interested in insights in scholarship, then the next insights in scholarship are likely to come from listening to people who have spotted the various weak places in the current scholarship. Thinking there are no weak spots in the current scholarship is wishful thinking at best.

Two quick notes about trends in modern scholarship, since they are part of the picture here. First is that modern scholarship leans towards "throwing out the baby with the bathwater". That is, whenever a previous generation needs to be corrected, the current generation tends to over-correct and err in the opposite direction. Second is the trend of political correctness, or interpreting things with a goal of being accommodating or inoffensive. Obviously, no person of good conscience would make a goal of being offensive. But if we're working with material that wasn't meant to offend, then we can have a goal of accuracy without having a legitimate charge made against us. Anything that leaves aside accuracy is a distortion, no matter how well-intended. With that in mind, I'll take a brief tour of Mr Schenck's list. There are some items that I'd wholeheartedly agree with and others not so much; that isn't the main point. My point here is to show a theologian about that "grain of salt" and why the "popular" level doesn't always accept the current round of scholarship. My notes are written with that in mind. The numbered points (bold and italics) are Mr Schenck's; the comments below each are mine.

1. The Jews were not trying to earn their salvation by good works.

Mr Schenck does a better job than most of being accurate with his words here; some go so far as to make a blanket statement that Judaism is not legalistic and does not involve works-righteousness. Note Mr Schenck's careful wording of "not trying to earn their salvation by good works". When Jews of Jesus' day or Paul's day thought about their good works, based on what records we have, they weren't thinking in terms of "earning salvation" in the way that we might mean.

But does that amount to denying the existence of a legalistic side, or sidestepping the issue of whether it played a part? Legalism -- and works-righteousness -- were definitely portrayed in the New Testament as a force to be reckoned with in the Jewish community of the day, and that is a thing that modern scholars tend to sweep under the rug in embarrassment. In fact legalism and works-righteousness are fairly constant themes or debates in religion, almost anywhere, almost anytime. Christianity is hardly exempt from the same. Imagine there being a really clear set of guidelines for exactly what you had to do to be right with God. How many people would leap at the chance? We would hardly care if there were 10 things we had to do or 613 of them, just for the clear and finite expectations that legalism promises.

Was legalism a live issue in that day? Who can forget Jesus' famous send-up of the people who tithed the spices from their herb gardens but forgot justice and compassion and faith, and his comment that they strained at gnats and swallowed camels? Between the comments of Paul about how he and his fellow Jews did seek righteousness by works, and the number of run-ins Jesus had with people who had something to say about why the disciples didn't keep this or that rabbinic law, or those who questioned how Jesus could dare to perform a miracle when it was the Sabbath, we know that legalism and works-righteousness were live issues. So why would some scholars bend over backwards to say differently, or others carefully word a thing so as not to address that particular question?

Here's the thing: as Mr Schenck mentions in his introduction, "[t]he reappraisal of Judaism was inspired by the Holocaust ...". Translated, that means that if we say "Judaism had a legalistic streak" (or had legalistic groups, or that works-righteousness was accepted in some circles) then we get accused of anti-Semitism and get compared to murderous genocidal maniacs, so we do anything at all in order to avoid that horrible smear. Here's an instance where, to the pew-sitter, it looks like the trend to political correctness has caused some of the academics to sacrifice accuracy, to set aside faithfulness to the texts as we have them. There's nothing particularly anti-Semitic about noticing the legalistic and works-righteous streams in Paul's and Jesus' contemporaries. The early church was hardly exempt from the same, and you can find that in Paul's writings too. Mr Schenck's tasteful maneuvering around the topic is a step up from the more common denial that there was any actual works-righteousness or legalism at work. It looks like there is a scholarly trend to re-interpret certain texts out of a well-intentioned wish to be sensitive and responsible. But there's no legitimate need to revise or self-censor. There is nothing in Jesus' comments about the hypocrisy of legalism that is actually dangerous. There's nothing unusual to human nature in being drawn to legalism and works-righteousness, and no need for us to disown the early arguments on the topic that are recorded in the New Testament.

The current scholars have pointed out that, in previous ages, scholars may have been so caught up in the events and arguments and sensitivities of their own day that they retroactively read things into Paul other than what he was saying. I'd have to mention: that's still a risk.

2. Paul did not struggle with a guilty conscience, either before or after he believed in Jesus as Christ.

Then why did Paul sound so much as if he struggled with a guilty conscience? He called himself the "worst of sinners". He famously lamented, "the evil that I do not intend, that is what I do ... oh wretched man that I am." Paul's struggles with his guilty conscience have been a consolation to people through the ages when we have the same struggles. The more the average person sees scholars making claims that don't square with the Bible on the nightstand, the less the average person is likely to accept scholars' comments about the Bible on the nightstand.

3. Paul saw works as an element in final salvation. What he did not believe were required for justification were "works of Law," especially those aspects of the Law that separated Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision).

Again, "Oh dear." There have been literally centuries of conversations about this one. (Though calling them "conversations" may be a polite euphemism in some cases.) I think I'll save most of the comments about this and address them under item #5, which is closely related, so as not to repeat too much. I'll just say here: it would be ironic if Mr Schenck's point #3 here, "works as an element in final salvation", sent Christians back to square #1,"trying to earn their salvation by good works". I don't know Mr Schenck well enough to have any idea whether that is what he intended, but the general flow of some of his points could easily be seen that way. 

4. Romans is not primarily about how to get saved but about how the Gentiles can be included alongside the Jews in the people of God.

On this one, I think the scholars are on solid ground: trying to bring the focus back to what Paul was actually saying, which risks being lost in the debates (&/or street-brawls) over the question "How do we get saved?" The point here is made as a decree, though; Mr Schenck doesn't give enough information for a person to evaluate that claim. (For the record, I think the question of including Gentiles was a large part of Paul's point in Romans. It's not that I disagree, but that the "decree" approach isn't persuasive. Though in fairness, the original isn't intended as a piece of persuasive writing.) I think Romans also shows noticeable signs of Paul having something like a Jewish identity crisis, as he works through how to view Judaism and the Torah in an age where Gentiles are included in God's people without being Torah-observant.

5. The Law in Romans is the Jewish Law, not some abstract moral law.

This is oversimplified. It will strike a false note with the many people who are familiar with these verses: "When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness ..." (Romans 2:14-15). So there are people who know a counter-example to the assertion made above, who know of a time in Romans where "Law" alternates in meaning between Jewish law and other law within the same train of thought.

The larger comment I'd make comes when we put #3 back into this conversation -- remember I said I'd get back to it here under #5 -- about the "element of works in salvation", and that side-bar on #3 that opens room to suggest that works of the Law may possibly be required for salvation if they're not Jewish distinctives like circumcision. When we discuss the law, we could picture first Jesus and then Paul as having a new perspective on the Law, and on what it means to fulfill the law of God. Paul goes on at some length in Romans and in other writings about the death of the law, freedom from the law, living by the Spirit against which there is no law, and love as the fulfillment of the law. Some of Paul's more memorable passages are when he builds on Jesus' teachings about love.

"Love fulfilling the law" ... that's deeply unsatisfying to the inner legalist in us all, who would rather beg for 10 clear rules. Is love really that challenging for us? Yes it is. It's still the real fulfillment of the law. The temptation to legalism can apply regardless of whether we have in mind the Torah, or a subset of the Torah, or an abstract moral law, or any other type of moral performance standard. Without love, any of the above becomes an exercise in straining gnats and swallowing camels, all in an attempt to justify ourselves.Without love, what exactly remains besides legalism and work-righteousness?

6. Paul did not change religions when he believed on Christ.  He probably changed Jewish sects. All the early Christians saw themselves as Jews. The Gentile converts saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism. It would be more accurate to speak of Christian Jews than of Jewish Christians in the earliest church.

This one is well done. It is reasonably solid end-to-end, with only the hint of over-generalization. It restores your faith that there are some solid insights in scholarship.

7. The Pharisees were all strict but they were not all legalists in the sense of only caring about rules for their own sake. Jesus puts them in the "healthy" and "righteous" category, at least initially, in several parables. Some of them became believers without leaving Pharisaism.

Here, there is so much promise: examples and citations are hinted at, which would be welcome in a situation like this. But they aren't given. The point could have been made more strongly by mentioning enough detail for the Bible students in your average congregation to identify the references, or by giving the references themselves. That may go against the decided format for the original post; more on that in the conclusion.

8. New Testament theology is theo-centric (God the Father centered) rather than Christocentric.

This one is not just overstated, it is misleading.

Here is the overstated part: If you look at word usage frequency in the New Testament, in the NIV text that I found (hope it's accurate/complete), we have the word "God" appearing 1341 times, "Jesus" 1261 times, "Christ" 523 times ... or for the AV (KJV) it's 1370, 983, and 571 respectively. Of course "Jesus Christ" appears together sometimes but not always, making it trickier to tell who gets more mention. So from a viewpoint of who gets more focus-time, if the Father has more it's only by the slightest amount so that "theocentric rather than Christocentric" would be an overstatement. Once you add together the different ways Jesus is referenced (Jesus, Christ, Lord, savior, lamb, etc) it's likely that Jesus gets at least as much focus as the Father (though again, if it is more it would be by a narrow margin). Aside from a statistical measure of focus, there is also the matter of the authors' stated focus points: "Fix your eyes on Jesus" ... "I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified", "these words are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ" ... are only a few of the times where the author's point for the reader is about the importance of Jesus.

I say this next not to "balance it out" but to complete the picture: when Jesus is recorded as saying "I am the way, I am the truth, I am the light" -- are those Christocentric or theocentric? The answer is not as obvious as it may look. Consider: "I am the way" to what? = to the Father; "I am the truth" about what? = about the Father; "I am the light" to see what? = to see the Father. And we can figure that's where he's going by his next phrase, "no one comes to the Father but by me." When I ask if those statements are Christocentric or theocentric, my point is that the question -- assuming that either/or point of view -- forces something onto the text that distorts it. When we separate things out that way -- when we split "theocentric" apart from "Christocentric" as two different things and make it an either/or -- then we are not thinking about Jesus and the Father in the way that Jesus himself asks us to think about him and the Father. Which leads directly to ...

Here is the misleading part: the New Testament as a whole does not discuss Christ and the Father in such a way that permits us to make some sort claims about the focus being on "God rather than Christ" (or vice versa, "Christ rather than God"). Making that distinction threatens to miss the whole point of the incarnation, the whole point about which so much of the New Testament was written.

9. The best approach to understanding the historical Jesus locates him within first century Judaisms on a trajectory to the early church (double similarity).

Again, here is a solid thing that restores your faith in scholarship ... except for the part where this is presented as correcting a mistake. Keep in mind that something that seems so obvious -- Jesus' Jewish context -- was overlooked or denied at times before. The phrasing about "first century Judaisms" is a current trend in scholarship about how to recognize that there were different Jewish groups. The parenthetical remark about "double similarity" shows that Mr Schenck's comments are addressing other scholarly discussions about how to evaluate whether something is historical. So a couple of times there, it seems Mr Schenck's audience for this one is scholars -- a point that matters fairly directly when we consider the next question.

Keep in mind that it was obvious to a great many Christians that Jesus' life is understood in Jewish context. So who exactly thought otherwise? Mr Schenck is addressing scholars and scholarly trends here, with his nod to "first century Judaisms" and "double similarity". "First century Judaisms" in popular knowledge mainly works out to Pharisees and Sadducees, both active groups in the New Testament. Even though that popular knowledge is simplified down to what is needed for ordinary purposes, it is at least on the right track: the average person didn't seriously question whether Jesus should be understood in a Jewish context. Being "simplified but on the right track" puts it one step ahead of some of the scholarship that was insisting Jesus' sayings were more authentically from Jesus if they bore no similarity whatsoever to his Jewish context. That scholarly trend amounted to denying that Jesus should be understood in Jewish context, and it worked out badly. The mistakes here being corrected are not popular ones: they're scholarly and academic ones which the popular level largely rejected. It is not always wrong for the popular level to reject scholarly proclamations. They can be faddish,  biased, or simply not thoroughly considered.

10. The earliest Christians did not see ethnic Israel as replaced but in a temporary state of unbelief.

This one is not untrue as far as it goes, though it's definitely only part of the picture. Another part is that the New Testament writers also talked about how ethnic Israel was no longer the exclusive people of God, that the Gentiles were now heirs of the promise too, and also belonged to the chosen people. Again, because "[t]he reappraisal of Judaism was inspired by the Holocaust ..." we find scholars treading very lightly. In the big scheme of things, "God has a covenant with all people, not exclusively the Jews" shouldn't be seen as anti-Semitic. But if a scholar is labeled as an "anti-Semite", no matter how unjustly, it can have devastating consequences for the academic's career. Many scholars understandably bend over backwards to avoid that attack. We in the pews have some sympathy for the hostile environment in which the Christian academic writes; there is some sense that the scholar can't necessarily discuss some topics or defend certain points for fear of reprisals, or that some subjects are such a minefield that they're being left alone. But the plain fact is that, every time an academic self-censors to the point of avoiding a legitimate topic, that very act of avoiding a legitimate topic adds to the general view that academics are best taken with a grain of salt, considering their circumstances.

I'm hoping that the above may help the academics see why the people in the pews take academia with a grain of salt. Was there regret, in the scholar, that only a trickle of information comes down to the popular level to correct their mistakes? In the case of Christians, the "popular level" generally means congregations. In every congregation I have ever attended, you find a significant number of lifelong Bible students, people who are very familiar with the Bible. The format of the original post is simply a list of things where the scholar believes the common perception is a mistake, and what the scholar believes is right. I think there might be better reception of the ideas if they were delivered with examples and supporting details from the Bible. The reason for this goes beyond engaging the reader -- though that is a part too. There is also the matter of respecting the audience enough to think that they can evaluate things for themselves, if given the chance. Of course a post like that would take far more time to develop, and it raises the question whether the academic considers that a good use of time. Again, in fairness, everyone's time is limited.

The situation reminds me of my Sunday school class. In order to get the students to participate, I ask lots of questions. Every once in awhile, their answers surprise me. Sure, at times they surprise me in a way that doesn't impress me. I doubt I'll ever forget the class that said God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnivorous. I think I've mentioned before: the students who said "omnipotent" and "omniscient" didn't impress me too much more than the one who said "omnivorous"; they were all parroting instead of thinking, only some were parroting with more skill than others. It's the risk of asking people to take our word for what to think; it's better if they understand why people think it. While the occasional silly answer does happen, more often they are seeing things from an angle that I don't, and so have the potential to see something I've missed. Most teachers have had the experience of learning something from their students, growing from that exchange. Despite the differences in education and experience, the students can and do have insights. If I talked down to them, not only would they tune out what I said, but I'd miss out on what they thought, too.

Updated 3/17/2013: spelling


Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. You are indeed right that some of these would be more contested than others. If I might give a hint of my "trickle down" comment, when I was saying "popular," I was thinking pastors. Most pastors, I believe, continue to speak in categories contrary to the ones where you say I am on solid ground again.

My tone was not meant to be haughty. It was a reflection of chastisement that we live in a context where being an expert is considered an automatic negative. Don't trust him, he's an "expert." In that sense, your thoughtful engagement, whether you like it or not, means you were not someone I was directing that comment at.

It's one thing to know the issue and disagree. It's another not to have any clue what the experts, who actually do know more by definition, have been talking about for the last 50 years. That doesn't make experts better people, but it does mean they're far more likely to be right in the same way that you want someone who's been trained trying to diffuse a nuclear bomb.

Aron Wall said...

I strongly agree with this post.

Ken, the problem with your analogy is that most people wouldn't have the first idea how to diffuse the bomb. But ordinary devout Christians have read the Bible, and we notice when what the experts say blatantly contradicts it.

Sadly, there's a lot of fields where academic expertise actually makes people less reliable. For example, academics have a well-known bias towards ideas which are new, which correlates with being wrong.

Don't get me wrong, there's situations where the academics are right and everyone else is wrong. I just don't think that happens to biblical critics very often.

Martin LaBar said...

That was a thoughtful post!


By the way, it's Schenck, with 2 C's, not Schenk.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Ken

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Btw one of your regular readers has tipped me off that I spelled your name wrong throughout. Sorry about that, & I'll get that fixed after I'm done replying to comments.

From your pov it has to be frustrating not to get much recognition and respect -- or even awareness of your work -- from some of the pastors, if they were the lower level meant as your target audience. From the pastors' pov, I expect they might consider themselves experts in their own right, though more experts on pastoral issues than on theology. It's more than I would tackle in the comments box to give all my thoughts on the disconnect between what theologians study and what pastors need for their work, but I expect that disconnect is part of the reason theologians aren't always at the top of the pastors' reading lists. (That and the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, that kind of thing.) And I expect that like anyone else, pastors also hunger for recognition and respect.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

Thanks for the encouragement there.

You make a really good point about the academic bias towards newness. That's something I should have considered as well.

It seems that people in that field don't keep track of how often the whole field gets wildly off course and has to go through its own major corrections -- and how those "wildly off track" situations are created precisely by those who are considered experts. Honestly, academics can spend decades trying to untangle misperceptions that were created by other academics (kind of like the situation in Biblical studies right now), and in the meantime there are large numbers of us wondering, if they're so expert, exactly how they got so far off-track to begin with. Things like that are probably more likely to happen in "soft" fields where so much is perception-management, rather than hard fields like nuclear physics where you run up against reality-checks sooner rather than later.

The rational response from the rest of us is to take it with a grain of salt.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thanks you very much for alerting me to that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the engagement! I want to make it clear that I have gained insights from observant readers of the Bible in a Sunday School class I'm supposed to be teaching.

Still, if a supposed Bible expert can't bring some quantity of unexpected insight on the Bible to those who don't have their degrees, they don't deserve to be called experts.

Several of the insights above were obvious to me just by someone pointing them out (e.g., that Gentile converts saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism or that Christian Jews did not see themselves as changing religions or that Jews kept the Law to stay in rather than to get in). In those instances, my Reformation biases were obvious almost as immediately as they were unseen.

James F. McGrath said...

I appreciated the thoughtful engagement with Ken's points too, and the main thing that puzzled me was why, when you agreed with most of his points, it sounded as though you were setting out to disagree with him more than you did!

On Romans 7, I would point out that, since it is hard to imagine Paul ever having viewed himself as alive apart from the Law, since his upbringing was never "apart from Torah," many interpreters see Romans 7 as reflecting the "I" of Adam and the people of Israel, rather than his own individual person. Philippians 3:6 seems to give us more of Paul's individual experience, and that text seems to confirm Ken's point.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi again, long time no see. Thanks for stopping by.

My purpose wasn't to convey that "all of Ken's points are wrong"; they're not -- though some are better than others. (That could probably be truthfully said of any "top 10" list ever published, possible caveat for the 10 commandments.)

My point, paraphrased, was: "Come on now, you must be aware that there are legitimate disputes here. A) Oversimplifying and overstating the case directly undermine the authority of the claim to special expertise. B) The word choice and general approach come across as aloof, and that may not be the best way to gain a wider reception. C) Some of the points being corrected now were introduced by the previous generation of academics, so maybe you can understand why people don't take things unquestioningly from experts; a little modesty never goes wrong."

So the "10 points" weren't actually my point, though I needed to discuss them a little in order to develop the point. I thought that my usual plain-spoken approach would get nowhere with that message, so I was taking a more scenic route to my point.

Glad you enjoyed the scenery. I'll try Romans 7 with that in mind & see how it fits.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi again

I don't know if you're keeping an eye on comments here, but I did re-read Romans 7 a few times & wanted to mention my thoughts, since you'd mentioned yours.

It looks to me as if (2 points here) 1) Paul seems to be talking about himself as an 'everyman'; it's one reason we've always felt so free to join in there. 2) If he speaks of 'everyman' in the first person, not only would he expect that 'everyman' can fully identify with those thoughts, but that he himself also can fully identify with them. He seems to be speaking from the heart. That generally comes from experience.

That is: if he speaks of universal sin and guilt in the first person, the most likely reason is because he knows whereof he speaks.

In the same vein, the most helpful (from my pov) pastor I've had so far, when he needed an example of a sinner for a sermon, always used himself. And it's not that he meant it to be *only* him -- it's a sermon, he needs it to be relatable -- but it certainly was him and his own personal experience. Otherwise it would have rung a false note, and been a little less than honest.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

James F. McGrath said...

Thank you for your replies! I guess my question in response would be how Paul could describe himself as having been blameless with respect to the righteousness that comes through Law, and yet also have been wracked with a sense of inability to do what he is supposed to of the sort that Romans 7 depicts.

It may be that understanding the "I" to be Adam and/or Israel is not the solution, but I suspect we can both agree that there is something of a puzzle here! :-)