Friday, September 18, 2009

What do I mean by 'confessional'?

I can't seem to find a satisfying word to describe religiously-invested scholars whose contributions are apologetic in orientation. When I used 'apologetic' people objected. When I used 'conservative-progressive' people objected. When I used 'theological' people objected. Maybe people just want to object? If someone has a better descriptor, I'd be happy to entertain it.

My point in using confessional (or any of the other descriptors I have tried out on this blog) is that scholars who are so invested theologically in a religious tradition and its maintenance are willing to suspend what we know to be factual about our world in order to read their scriptures as fact. These scholars confuse their confessional tradition with history and justify it as history, when in fact what they are justifying is actually theology.

Can a Christian be a historian of Christianity? Of course. But I would qualify this: only if that Christian is not invested in maintaining Christian theology as history in their academic contributions. That Christian must first and foremost be operating critical of the religion, and must be unwilling to cave in to the pressure of making theological claims historical knowledge. So training in historical-critical method is essential, as is vigilance in maintaining this orientation.

18 comments:

smijer said...

John Hobbins uses "canonical". Maybe you could fly that one under the radar.

I'd like to see more posts elaborating on the philosophical or academic reasons that Christians cannot give in to the pressure to read theology into history in their academic work. I'd especially like to see addressed reasoning along the lines of, "but what if it really is historical? If we assume it isn't at the outset, aren't we willingly blinding ourselves to such possibilities?"

JohnO said...

I think it comes down to this statement:

"...willing to suspend what we know to be factual about our world in order to read their scriptures as fact."

I would think that is where we ought to start. Are they actually suspending? or disagreeing based on different presuppositions, thus arriving at a different conclusion? Often I find these arguments that end to labeling rest on varied presuppositions that need airing out.

Richard Godijn said...

There are many more subtle ways in which being a Christian (or not) biases research. Even a Christian scholar who rejects the 'supernatural' has some sort of bias towards Jesus.

It is no coincidence that the mythical Jesus hypothesis (which is not as rediculous as most who have not seriously considered this hypothesis assume) is completely ignored in a field so dominated by Christian scholars. There is a clear Christian bias towards holding on to a historical Jesus.

I am not saying I support this hypothesis (I tend slightly towards a historical Jesus, though I have serious doubts - lets say 55-45), but it's absence in the field is troubling.

Christopher said...

April,

The major problem I have with your approach to this discussion is that you seem to be implying in all of this that the historical-critical approach is unbiased or "objective." The method has its own set of presuppositions, biases, and assumptions. I believe deeply in the historial critical method but I am not so naive as to think it a foolproof or bias free approach. Apologetic scholarship should not be given any credibility. Would you be willing to admit, though, that EVERY approach has its own biases?

Eric said...

My sense is that April is not arguing that historical criticism is objective, but that is plays by particular rules of the road about the nature of historical reality. To be sure, there are biases in the historical critical approach, and they ought to be detailed specifically both from within and without. However, I think April's argument is that when "confessional" scholars take an apologetic stance in a historical critical mold, they are not playing by the rules of history and allowing banned biases to color their work.

rameumptom said...

I think there is an importance in separating out facts from impressions or theories.
Jerusalem is a city that has existed for more than 3000 years is a fact. Jerusalem is where Jesus resurrected, is a theory.

And if all scholars and apologists were to learn to separate fact from personal belief, and establish such in their statements, the discussion could go much further.

I personally lean towards a historical Jesus, though how much of the Bible is correct in describing him is questionable, as we get varied views from the gospels and Paul.

So, bring your biases to the table, but make sure they are labeled properly.

Geoff Hudson said...

I think some scholars hang-on like grim death, knowing full well they support a pack of lies, their jobs, and their reputation.

rameumptom said...

Geoff,

Are you referring to historical scholars or to theological scholars? I know some in both groups.

But I also know many that are sincere in both groups, as well.

Pastor Bob said...

I would say that presuppositions do affect, if not the conclusions we reach at the least the way we look at the material. April's presuppositions come from a scientific method or one called historicism. The presupposition says that events that fall outside the category of what I am going to call "nonrepeatable" events cannot happen.

This is an acceptable presupposition as long as it is recognized as such.

Others presuppose that nonrepeatable events can happen but that they cannot be proven by any historical method. That's my position.

Others presuppose that nonrepeatable events can happen and that they can be proven by a historical method. I find this problematic.

At the very least I think we can all agree that there were those who believed that nonrepeatable events happened and that we need to examine, not so much the nonrepeatable event iteself but the history of those individuals and groups who believe such events, and in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, happened.

Thus a variety of early Christian groups believed that Jesus was resurrected. How did that belief affect their readings of the Old Testament? How did that belief affect their actions (to the extent we can discover their actions) and their writings? That surely fall within the realm of history that we all study.

JohnO said...

"Others presuppose that nonrepeatable events can happen and that they can be proven by a historical method. I find this problematic."

I am sure some go so far as to say "prove". However, I would say that certain non-repeatable events can be shown to be reasonable, dare I say expected by a reconstructed historical context. Thoughts??

The Rev. Mr. David Gillespie said...

good words...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

There are all sorts of historiographies: the narrative, the postmodern, the social scientific, the Annales (geography plus), the empirical... So there can be a history that stops at the texts, for example.

But I know what you mean. People like N. T. Wright is a prime target for criticising for his apologetic material.

John Ottens said...

I do think that 'apologetic' is probably a more specific and helpful choice than 'confessional'.

Judy Redman said...

"Confessional" is a term that is certainly used by the kinds of scholars April is referring to. I have several times had it observed that my doctoral research is phenomenological rather than confessional in nature, by those who think I should be doing confessional work. :-)

Geoff Hudson said...

I think phenomenology is the science of phenomena. A phenomenon is a fact or occurrence that appears or is perceived, especially one of which the cause is in question.

Geoff Hudson said...

"My point in using confessional (or any of the other descriptors I have tried out on this blog) is that scholars who are so invested theologically in a religious tradition and its maintenance are willing to suspend what we know to be factual about our world in order to read their scriptures as fact."

And they like to read the writings attributed to Josephus as fact too, little realising that they are bordering on a similar genre. So dear scholars, don't try to back-up your arguments about scripture without very careful consideration of the obfuscation there is in the writings attributed to Josephus. Are there any "non-confessional" interpreters of these writings? I don't think so.

David said...

I just loved synchronicity. My mother just used my Amazon wish list and sent me a copy of Whose Bible Is It Anyway by Philip R. Davies. (Thanks, Mom). Granted Davies' focus is Hebrew Bible rather than NT, but allow me to quote the relevant passages:

"one can distinguish in principle between two contexts for a general critical reading strategy of biblical literature. One of these operates 'inside the canon'...and evaluates its subject matter in a way that is predetermined to be ultimately positive...by the practice of adopting the internal values of the scriptures as criteria or presuppositions of the 'criticism'...

There is another strategy for the study of biblical literature, which operates 'outside' the canon. This strategy regards the collection and transmission of the contents as part of the reception history of a literature which was created, and given various kinds of authority through time, by the actions of humans, and that these acts of writing and reception are to be evaluated on the same terms as other human actions of writing and reception...

...the question to be asked is whether the reader can tell a difference between what the text says (or might say) and what the Jewish or Christian interpretative traditions have decided that it says (or should say). If the text...becomes a prisoner of its own reception, by what strategies can the text be continually liberated." pp. 11-13

Davies refers to these 2 approaches as: confessional and non-confessional.

Matthew Alexander White said...
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