Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

13 April 2011

Hearing the Word, seeking justice

Notre Dame’s Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga published an insightful essay more than a dozen years ago: Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship, which found its way into his book, Warranted Christian Belief. Here Plantinga distinguishes between two ways of approaching the Bible: (1) Traditional Christian Biblical Commentary (TCBC) and (2) Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC). The former has the following three characteristics:

First, Scripture itself is taken to be a wholly authoritative and trustworthy guide to faith and morals; it is authoritative and trustworthy, because it is a revelation from God, a matter of God speaking to us. . . . Secondly, an assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible — the entire Bible — is God himself. . . . Thirdly . . . the fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one cannot always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind.

HBC differs from TCBC in that the former “is fundamentally an enlightenment project; it is an effort to try to determine from the standpoint of reason alone what the Scriptural teachings are and whether they are true. Thus HBC eschews the authority and guidance of tradition, magisterium, creed, or any kind of ecclesial or ‘external’ epistemic authority.” HBC requires, among other things, that “faith commitments should play no role” and that a hermeneutic of suspicion should govern our reading of the text. We cannot simply affirm that the biblical text is true but must apply empirical scientific methods to discover, if possible, whether, e.g., the picture of Jesus painted in the gospels is historically accurate. This approach is obviously at variance with TCBC, which comes to Scripture believing it is indeed the Word of God and thus a reliable witness to Jesus Christ.

Plantinga is not wholly dismissive of HBC, which he admits has broadened our knowledge of the Bible and especially of the historical contexts in which it was written. However, HBC tends to view the Bible, not as a canonical whole, but as a collection of disparate texts with different human authors and thus conflicting emphases and teachings. Harmonizing these teachings is not the business of the biblical scholar, according to HBC, but to the theologian who is more evidently tethered to the church’s confession. What this means is that the practitioner of HBC “tends to deal especially with questions of composition and authorship, these being the questions most easily addressed by the methods employed.” Furthermore, he at least tacitly excludes the very question of most interest to believing Christians coming to the text, viz., what God is trying to tell us in his Word. There is thus some tension within the academy between the practitioners of biblical scholarship and theology, with the former often believing the latter to be naïvely precritical and thus unscientific.

I myself am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian. Nevertheless, as a political scientist reading and pondering Plantinga’s essay, I cannot help but observe a similar cleavage within the discipline of political science, viz., that between the empirical political scientist and the political theorist or philosopher. Having taught political science at the undergraduate level for a quarter of a century, I can testify that students take an interest in it when they are either captivated by a vision of justice or scandalized by the reality of injustice. This was my own experience as a student, when I changed my major from music to political science after the Watergate scandal and the Turkish invasion of my father’s native island of Cyprus. Because virtually all my paternal relatives became refugees overnight, I sought desperately to understand why injustice seems to be such a persistent feature of human life. This is what animated my passion for politics.

However, the empirical political scientist would tell us that such concerns as the nature of justice should play no role in political science. Political philosophy, with its ongoing, millennia-old quest to discover the meanings of justice, statesmanship, good citizenship and civic friendship, is a subdiscipline of philosophy, or perhaps even of religion, and not of political science, which must necessarily limit itself to exploring those questions amenable to empirical methods. Political science can treat only political behaviour and must refrain from making normative statements about the good political order or the virtues conducive to it. Processing and analyzing voting statistics is political science. Exploring the relationship between electoral and party systems is political science. Debating the justice of proposed public policies or of a particular approach to the state is definitely not political science.

I have no intrinsic quarrel with either HBC or empirical political science, properly understood. There is much indeed to be said both for studying the Synoptic Problem and for analyzing how, e.g., different sociological groups voted in the 2008 presidential election. Nevertheless I strongly disagree with those who believe that these types of empirical academic pursuits by themselves constitute the disciplines of biblical scholarship and political science respectively. There is little to be said for the assumption that reason functions apart from basic worldview convictions. The belief that Scripture is not much more than a collection of literary texts with no overall meaning or message is itself borne of a conviction that it — or rather, they — are not essentially different from any other texts. The notion that we should bracket our faith commitments in studying the Bible is rooted in a (nonfalsifiable) belief that it is possible for human beings to reason apart from these commitments and to obtain some form of religiously neutral objectivity.

Something similar could be said of empirical political science as well. The claim of those following the behavioural methods is that they are simply observing the facts of political behaviour. Nevertheless they fail to recognize that this very term presupposes general agreement on what is political and what is not. This general agreement implicitly presupposes a normative order in which the distinction between political and nonpolitical makes sense. What is it that makes setting a country’s foreign policy political while a mother reading to her child before bed is nonpolitical? I would suggest that it has something to do with the jural aspect of the former. By its very nature, the state is called to balance legitimate interests within its jurisdictional sphere. It is, of course, all too common for states in the real world to get this balance wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, as in the Soviet Union and Germany between 1933 and 1945. Yet this entails, not an absence of justice as such, but its distortion or miscarriage. Justice, in short, is central to the very definition of politics, which behavioural political scientists cannot adequately grasp with their methods, however useful they might otherwise be.

In the same way, the canonical status of Scripture and its authority are precisely what give this ancient collection of writings scriptural status. The existence of a Society of Biblical Literature already in some fashion presupposes recognition of at least their historical unity, even if not all its members acknowledge the authority of the whole.

If the very things that draw students to biblical scholarship and to the study of politics are excluded from the two disciplines, then something is seriously amiss in the way both are conceptualized by their mainstream practitioners. If so, then our christian universities may be in the best position to bridge the cleavages between biblical studies and theology, on the one hand, and empirical political science and normative political theory, on the other.

Nevertheless, this will come about only if faculty in the relevant departments take the time to become aware of the historical forces – along with their spiritual roots – that have artificially driven apart the two sides of these disciplines. This requires recognition that the academic enterprise, normatively understood, is not only about specializing in a particular field or subfield, but also about seeing clearly – and with great delight – the interconnections among the disciplines and their respective modest places within the coherent whole that is God’s multifaceted creation.

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3 Comments:

  • Well this has been helpful. I'm a political scientist stuck in between both. I came out of grad school doggedly empirical or behavioral. I've since changed my philosophy about political science. It does and must include questions of value and justice and ethics and epistemology, even if empirical testing remains a powerful tool in the study of political phenomena.

    By OpenID thereformedmind, at 3:01 PM  

  • On the Biblical side, you should read Pope Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger's two-volume JESUS. He thinks HBC has been useful but that most of its fruits have been found. Now what is needed is to read the Bible more holistically, keeping HBC in place.

    By Blogger Dave Deavel, at 4:21 PM  

  • Great discussion. "If the very things that draw students to biblical scholarship and to the study of politics are excluded from the two disciplines, then something is seriously amiss"--and cynicism, and lack of seriousness about truth, is bound to be one result. Not to mention self-righteousness on the part of those who have chose a field and profession and then come to believe that the field itself is uninteresting or lacking in meaning, so that the only thing left fot them to believe in is their own emotional experience of being drawn.

    The same problem afflicts other fields as well. Value-neutrality is the child of objective-reason. Speculative (philosophical) ignorance and incompetence is the grandchild.

    By Blogger Tim, at 12:09 PM  

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