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The Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism

July 14, 2016 | By: Jon Levenson

Does Bible Criticism leave room for faith? Noted Bible scholar Jon Levenson points out in this 1993 First Things article that the purely secular, critical approach to the Bible of many academics suffers from the same faults as does the fundamentalist religious approach: both ultimately rely on their own uncriticized values and assumptions. Pluralism and intellectual honesty require that scholars, rather, approach their subject matter with more modesty. “Like the liberal state at its best, biblical studies in non-confessional settings must facilitate rather than impede dialogue and debate among the primary communities, religious and secular, within its compass.”

Levenson also reminds his readers that both piety and critical skepticism can coexist in a mind—as they have historically—without there being a need to choose one approach exclusively.

The secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation. Scholars with religious motivations are thus not out of order in challenging their secular colleagues to make public their own motivations in pursuing biblical studies and to explain how the method fulfills that motivation. In an era of multiculturalism and budgetary constraint, this inevitably entails explaining how the relocation of commitment from a traditional religious sphere can maintain a place of relative privilege for the study of the Bible. Should the answer substitute a cultural for a religious motivation and center on the importance of the Bible in Western civilization, then, in the current climate, a defense of the importance of the West, at least for American students, is imperative.

This is, of course, ironic in light of the tendency of historical criticism to think of itself as transcending particularism and debunking claims of privilege. It is doubly ironic because historical critics have usually neglected the modes of biblical interpretation that preceded them, labeling them “precritical” and thus irrelevant to their own task. . . .

The Bible poses a major challenge to people with historical-critical commitments. When those fundamentalist students with whom I began become liberals, they solve some of their problems, but they also open new ones. And with these problems, the contemporary university, child of the Enlightenment and bastion of liberalism, is not well-equipped to help.

Read the whole essay in First Things.


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