Tom Pittman's WebLog

2012 June 26 -- Biblical Criticism

I have mentioned Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) in the past, and the editor's preference for anti-Christian scholars. The current issue has another one of these. It's worth mentioning because the position he advocates just won't go away. In his essay (you can read it online here) Ronald Hendel claims to be surprised that conservative scholars like Alvin Plantinga have such a low opinion of what he calls "critical Biblical scholarship." He shouldn't be. The debate is older than both of them put together. The only thing new is that the conservatives are beginning to do their homework, so we can no longer be dismissed out of hand as backwoods hicks. But they keep trying.

It seems to me that Ronald Hendel is guilty of the same sin he accuses in Alvin Plantinga, except that he has presupposed the opposite conclusion. He has a nice scholarly-sounding name for his presupposition, "methodological doubt" which he explains as refusing to "accept the conclusions of authorities or tradition but rather submits them to doubt."

When I apply this method rigorously to the data that lead Plantinga and Hendel to different conclusions, it takes me much closer to Plantinga's result than to Hendel's. I get a result resembling that of the critical scholars only by exempting one important authority from the method: the presupposition of an atheistic universe, in which God cannot or does not act in history.

Perhaps Hendel has a better explanation for this discrepancy, but I have personally observed in numerous philosophical discussions, when one party uses a term that has multiple and different definitions, one of them claimed by that person as definitive, the dialog tends to silently slip back and forth between the various senses of that word, where a syllogistic proof using one of the senses is taken as proof of the others. "Doubt" in this context is such a word, because it also means (particularly among the atheists) an unconditional rejection of deity. Thus the atheistic position appears to have already qualified as "methodological doubt" by (the other) definition, so its alternative is never given proper consideration within the method -- except by those who consequently end up as conservatives.

So yes, critical Biblical scholarship properly applied is useful -- at least once every five or ten years -- to remind us that the traditional method (which is faster than, in Plantinga's words as quoted, using nail scissors to cut your lawn) still gives correct results. But scholars who come up with the same answer year after year don't get published and don't get considered for prestigious professorships like Hendel's. I do not know if Plantinga did his homework or not, but his conclusions as reported by Hendel are consistent with having used the method correctly.

BAR is an excellent resource when it sticks to covering its namesake, Biblical archeology. But stay away from the nonsense offered on unrelated topics by people who hate the source of Biblical archeology.


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