Trade secrets

The Biologos thread on the Ham-Nye debate has prompted good conversations there and in a few posts here – very few actually about creationism versus atheism, which is understandable enough as neither site is either creationist or atheist. One titbit was a very gentle dig at New Testament scholars by Ted Davis speaking as a historian, about the criteria they use to date the gospels:

In the absence of hard evidence, I regard the date of the composition of the various gospels as highly conjectural, and if I were a biblical scholar (obviously I’m not), I would hesitate to be too dogmatic about such a theory-laden conclusion.

Deference across academic specialities is an interesting demarcation issue, rather like the careful defence of professional boundaries by mediaeval trade guilds – indeed Old and New Testament scholars refer to themselves as (different) “guilds.” In the science-faith academic community (the likes of Peacocke, Russell, and so on) there is a clear tendency for the theologians and philosophers to defer completely to the conclusions of the biologists about the scientific issues, and to work from there. See a similar sentiment on another BioLogos thread. This in understandable on several levels – it’s logical that biologists would know about biology and it’s presumptuous for another academic to challenge that, especially in such a synthetic discipline.

Yet expert bodies are a mixed blessing. Although outsiders cannot possibly know the field so well, they are on the other hand protected from the real danger of groupthink. I was in my own guild, the medical profession, for a whole career. The “guild” metaphor was very real in some ways. My induction at the Royal College of Surgeons, for example, was more like a Masonic ritual than any other event in my life, apart from being invested in the Wolf Cubs. I was always aware of, and resistant to, the tendency to thinking en masse. Being a Christian in an increasingly secular profession helped in that. Even so, resentment against encroachment on ones turf – usually from patients – was quite instinctive. Indeed, I’ve noticed five years into retirement how I’m gradually softening to “patient power” as the sense of being “in the profession” fades.

To a large extent our professional defensiveness (perhaps too strong a term) was justified. In most cases, the patient who had been to the library, and thought I ought to investigate him for Crugg’s Disease because she had all the symptoms, was simply ignorant. In later years, though, the Internet made it at least occasionally true that a generally savvy patient might turn up a useful research paper I didn’t know about that was relevant. It’s increasingly the case that, for any academic field, it’s becoming easy to access exactly the same research material that the specialist reads. This is behind the situation sociologist Steve Fuller refers to as “Protscience”. One could, with application, educate oneself to professional standards.

Except for one thing – what I used to call nous, that is, internalised experience. Medical education – and even ongoing medical reading – was quite secondary to ability in core skills like diagnosis. Decades of daily contacts with patients, going into the hundreds of thousands, gives one an apparently instinctive “nose” for what is going on. Crugg’s Disease was really never on the cards if that particular alarm hadn’t gone off in my mind, even though caution might lead one to exclude it formally, no experience being infallible.

I’m sure the same is true in other fields. Taxonomy, for example, must be that kind of art. I imagine that to an experienced taxonomist each class or order has a particular feel, long before the measurements and comparisons are formally made. I suspect that must make it very galling when the geneticists overturn your judgements on molecular grounds – yet no doubt there’s a comparable kind of nous in the latter field too. Yet neither specialty has the skill in the other’s field to gainsay their conclusions. That particular pair of sciences, in which there seems to be increasing divergence involving some rather bizarre contortions to the tree of life, is for another day. Biblical studies are what I want to critique.

At least in the hard sciences the disputes can potentially be settled by empirical observations, notwithstanding that sometimes that may involve an entire guild withering and being replaced, rather than forswearing its commitments: analytical psychologists haven’t by and large, switched to cognitive behavioural therapy, and phrenologists experienced no Kuhnian paradigm shift – they just went extinct.

In biblical studies, however, for all the sophistication of the “scientific” historico-critical methodologies like source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and the like (and a whole bunch of postmodern techniques of the same ilk); and despite the stories they reconstruct about the writing of the Pentateuch, the development of the gospels or which sayings or stories about Jesus are or are not authentic, the truth is that they remain “theory-laden conclusions.” I’ve no doubt that Wellhausen’s disciples acquired a nose for spotting a word or two of “P” in a passage alternating between “J” and “E”. But since none of those sources have any independent historical evidence for their existence, the outsider who considers the whole basis of argumentation inadequate, who reads the papers and concludes that the guild’s presuppositions or the writer’s conclusions outstrip the evidence, has every chance of being right. That is because he is free of an entirely circular process of groupthink that never benefits from external corroboration.

There has been tendency for the assured methodologies of critical studies to fall apart, whilst the guilds nonetheless somehow retain many of the conclusions built on them. Our Eddie comments on the BioLogos thread that he was taught in an environment where such methodologies had been sidelined – yet decades later even an enfant terrible OT scholar like Peter Enns prefers to attribute the congruence of the Genesis flood story with the 2nd millennium Babylonian sources to ingenious editing of multiple later sources rather than admit they never existed.

In the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch, for example, the hypothetical source “E”, whose different name for God compared to “J” set off the whole theory, is increasingly being merged into “J” anyway. The later “P” source is now often thought to be the earliest of all. Consensus shifts like summer fashions, and nobody has effectively excluded the possibility that the different “sources” that remain might just as well be the same author writing different types of material: not Moses, of course, but someone of equal genius and influence who has remained inexplicably anonymous. “The plays were not written by Shakespeare, but by someobody else of the same name.”

The same attrition of consensus is true of the “Synoptic problem”, with scholarly agreement having now effectively disintegrated after two centuries of careful study. Yet the conclusions on order, dating and so on continue to walk around independently like the resurrected saints in Matthew’s gospel.

Now someone like Richard Bauckham – bucking the conventions of his guild – can get a serious, though grudging, hearing for his well-argued case for the gospels being, in essence, typical of single-author biographies of their purported time, and subject to the same literary conventions as they. Those standards include the necessity of eye-witness testimony (at no more than one remove, at most). This less speculative scholarly approach is at least as consistent with the material. It also engages seriously with the early traditions about the gospels’ origins that Victorian scholars dismissed out of hand in favour of “scientific” methodologies, that have proved their worthlessness simply by their failure to reach consistent conclusions, quite apart from any external corroboration.

And so Ted Davis’s “outsider” suggestion, that maybe Jesus foresaw, naturally or prophetically, the fall of Jerusalem, is every bit as likely as the critical scholars’ now time-worn naturalistic assumption that the gospels must postdate that event (even though no New Testament books so much as hint at its having actually happened). The archaeologists and ancient historians who point to the close match of NT documents to their purported times and places of origin are at least as likely to be right as the scholars who make the reporting of miracles, or the existence of a high christology, to be evidence for later dating, with absolutely no hard evidence whatsoever.

Does all this mean, then, that no conclusions can be drawn about the texts at all, and that one man’s guess is as good as another? Is hard science the only worthwhile guild to join? Well, no. It just means that historical texts cannot be subjected to the same criteria as physics or chemistry (I hesitate to include biology, because in some ways comparable issues of circularity apply in reconstructing the biological past – who can finally adjudicate between taxonomy or palaeontology and genetics if they disagree on phylogenies?). And as I’ve said in recent discussion, even the “hard” sciences are alarmingly subject to sociological zeitgeist.

As Bauckham writes in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses there are testable tools for judging the intent and reliability of ancient texts, not only from internal considerations, but external historical and archaeological evidence, examination of traditions, textual history and so on. Even the historico-critical tools may have value, so long as they are not held to be self-validating or exhaustive.

But apart from what can be concluded from genuinely historical standards of evidence, there is also a legitimate parallel to the nous I mentioned with reference to medicine or taxonomy, and it’s not the “nose” that critical scholars within exclusive guilds might gain for quasi-scientific methodologies, for those have never, unlike the outcomes of medicine or taxonomy, been subjected to external verification. No, the nous in question is that of the body of Christ, his Church of Spirit-indwelt disciples, who from the earliest times have gained a nose for the truth of the biblical accounts. Historical, literary, archaeological, traditional – even scientific – evidence are all relevant to establishing the truth of the Gospel. But in the end the “rule of faith” is irreducible to anything other than the lives of several billion people across all peoples, nations and times.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Trade secrets

  1. I had to look up Crugg’s Disease. It appears to be an unusual obsession with wearing hybrid shoes (crocs and uggs).

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