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Can a Christian be a Good Scholar?

December 1, 2017

A few weeks back I was asked to be interviewed for a series of videos to be released on the web site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.  The first of these has now appeared here.

In this first one, I was asked to consider whether it was difficult for a Christian to do good scholarly work on Christian Origins, by which is meant scholarly work that addresses foremost historical questions.  I think that for anyone, whatever the personal disposition toward Christian faith, there are demands.  But the discipline of historical study of Christian Origins involves trying to avoid one’s personal feelings and stance to determine how one reads the evidence.

One further thing I should have mentioned:  It makes a difference to try to do work that can be engaged critically by other scholars in the field, of various personal stances.  To make that your aim is another factor that can help avoid one’s own stance coloring the results too much.  For those of other stances can readily spot special pleading and subtle confessional ties affecting judgments.

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  1. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    I confidently submit that the answer to the question “Can a Christian be a Good Scholar?” is: “Yes”; and there is a simple one-statement irrefutable proof: “Ab esse ad posse valet illatio” – ‘From the fact that something exists it follows that it is possible’ (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy).
    A person who denies that a Christian could be a Good Scholar would logically be required to prove that every defence or exposition of the Christian faith, from the first century to the present moment, is mistaken or deliberately falsified.
    However, the bibliography of any major present-day pro-Christian writing lists endless writings by authors in support of the Christian position, from Origen and Irenaeus and Augustine through the medieval giants such as Albert the Great, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, to sixteenth-century Renaissance scholars such as the editors of the first printed Greek New Testament, to Erasmus, Thomas More, the composers of the decrees of the Council of Trent, and, closer to our modern time, Chesterton, Belloc, Garrigou-Lagrange, C S Lewis, Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, A N Wright, Larry Hurtado, John Cornwell, Edgar Andrews, Edward Feser, the McGraths, David Berlinski, Alvin Plantinga, Timothy Lim and George Brooke, and so on, ad infinitum. Works by nearly all of these, and many more, I have on my shelves.
    It is certainly germane to this discussion to point out, finally, that popular anti- (or at least non-)Christian writers, like Carrier who is currently being discussed, and including all the ‘New Atheists’ – Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Hawking – have been as thoroughly debunked for their attacks on Christianity as has Carrier, with chapter and verse from these wrong authors being quoted by the debunkers. Furthermore, some of the debunkers also provide, as part of their task, substantive scholarly arguments in defence of the Christian positions which are incorrectly attacked by the non-Christians.
    Please give me credit for recognizing that all the pro-Christian authors do not agree with each other in every single detail.

  2. GPG permalink

    I know that many have considered “Vridar” a strictly amateur mythicist blog. But Geoff, over at Vridar, has been reading in this field for some time. And he’s currently offering a pretty professional point-by-point critique of your current post.

    This may be of interest to you and your readers, if only as a foil to your own discussion.

    • Well, “Vridar” is a “strictly amateur” mythicist blogsite. Geoff is a diligent amateur, to be sure, but not really competent/trained in the field, and with no record of his own contributions to any matter in the field. So, readers will have to choose what to do about that. Geoff’s response is a combination of red-herrings and and special pleading. Hardly “professional”.

  3. Professor Hurtado,

    You wrote in another place, “There are various assumptions that we may make that just don’t serve to understand ancient texts such as early Christian ones.”

    I don’t mean to presume on your time, but could you please elaborate on that point? To your knowledge, what are the various assumptions made by scholars in the field, which may have been influenced by their personal stances, and which hinder the proper understanding of the evidence?

    • I don’t recall the context for the remark that you ascribe to me. Perhaps you could point me to it?

      • It was one of your replies to me in the “History for Atheists” discussion (here). The context is assumptions or inferences about early Christianity and texts. I moved it here because I wanted to separate it from the Carrier discussion, apparently without success.

      • Nemo: In the comment that you cite, I give an example.

      • Yes, but you said “various assumptions”. So I’m curious what others you had in mind.

        More specifically, I’d like to know assumptions made by Christians scholars in the past, which may have been based on personal stances, and which have hindered the understanding of the text.

        I’m asking because these are pitfalls I would like to avoid. If you don’t have time to elaborate, please ignore the question.

      • Here’s another one, Nemo. Christian and non-Christian scholars have often assumed, for example, that there was a single “messiah” notion in 2nd temple Judaism. This then typically produced the view that the early Christian sources reflect a messianic idea uniquely different, or that it reflected an anti-messiah idea. But more recent studies show that there was a multiplicity of messianic ideas in the time, of which Messiah-Jesus was one, with its own distinguishing features.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Can the question be inverted too: can a good scholar be a Christian?

    Apart from simply enjoying turning questions on their head, what about the passages in Paul that say wisdom and learning are foolishness, and that God has chooses the uneducated.

    • The “wisdom/foolishness” topos in 1 Cor is Paul playing off against the use of philosophy to discredit his gospel. You gotta read the context carefully, Donald.

  5. Professor Hurtado,
    There seems to be a common assumption that scholars’ conclusions must be lagely influenced by their personal beliefs. Even well-regarded academics seem to accept the assumption e.g. the late Maurice Casey as indicated by the title of one of his works: ‘Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching’ (which I read and enjoyed though I did not assume that the author was more independent/objective than any other writer)).
    Though sometimes it is politically-incorrect to openly express that assumption (that a writer’s beliefs must influence his or her conclusions) . I seem to remember a huge fuss a couple of years back when a right-wing TV news outlet asked a non-Christian how he was qualified to write a (very poor) book about Jesus. Presumably there will not be a huge fuss about you being asked whether it was difficult for a Christian to do good scholarly work on Christian Origins?
    It is the quality of argument and presentation of evidence that matters, but many find it difficult to judge conclusions on that basis (particularly if the conclusions do not match their own preferences/opinions/prejudices)?
    Having said that, even the most well-regarded academics must be influenced in their assessment of the evidence by their instincts and personal outlook?

  6. Nick Tavani permalink

    Might this not lead one to overcompensate to “prove” one’s professional objectivity to colleagues?

  7. eliadefollower permalink

    One might as well ask if a physicist can be a good scholar of physics. After all, by the time one is considered a physicist that individual has committed to one of a number of competing theories about the nature of physics. Can they set aside their personal commitment sufficiently to do good work? I must say that I truly hope they are so able., just as I truly hope that a Christian scholar can set aside personal beliefs sufficiently to do good sound scholarship that may or may not challenge their beliefs.

    • eliadefollower wrote, “I truly hope that a Christian scholar can set aside personal beliefs sufficiently to do good sound scholarship that may or may not challenge their beliefs.

      (For the sake of discussion, I would classify myself as a Christian, although if I were charged with being a Christian in a court of law, as happened to the early Christians, I would be easily acquitted for lack of evidence.)

      Whether we need to set aside our “personal beliefs” in order to do good scholarship depends on what those beliefs are. I’ll give two examples of my personal beliefs which I think are necessary for good scholarship:

      On the one hand, I believe there is such a thing as objective truth, and it can be known. I wouldn’t be working in the field of scientific research if I didn’t. On the other hand, I believe I’m fallen and fallible, and therefore have very many blind spots which prevent me from seeing the truth, let alone having monopoly of it. For this reason, among others, we submit our works for critical review by other members of the community, as Professor Hurdato writes. I think this “mutual-correcting” (as opposed to “self-correcting”) mechanism is operational, at least to some extent, in both the Christian and the scientific community.

      I also tend to think that each one of us necessarily examines the data within an interpretative framework, whether we are aware of it or not. In other words, a datum doesn’t interpret itself, we the people interpret the data. People draw different, even opposite, conclusions from the exact same set of data, time and again. This suggests to me that our interpretive framework is influenced by our personal beliefs to some extent.

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