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Jacob and Esau, or, On ‘Secular’ and ‘Confessional’ Biblical Studies

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided… (Gen 25:23b)

By Jason M Silverman
Trinity College Dublin
April 2012

Recently there has been much discussion on the appropriateness of confessional approaches to the Bible within the academy and of how the discipline fits within the broader context of the liberal arts. A rather vocal group of scholars argue that faith-based perspectives have no place in the secular academy, and thus all biblical scholarship (and associated organizations) ought to be closed to such perspectives.1 There is a similar hard-line position on the other side, though proponents tend not to be overly concerned with academia in general.2 There are several interrelated fallacies that crop up in the heat of exchange, and these are worth mentioning. It is my opinion that the discipline of Biblical Studies is best served by the tension and dialogue created by retaining both approaches side-by-side.

Finite Epistemology (Or, the Fallacy of a Perspectiveless Perspective)

It is a postmodern truism to say there is no purely objective perspective. However, confessional approaches are sometimes treated as if they are more of a perspective than a ‘secular’ perspective. They are merely paradigms that operate with different assumptions. This does not mean that a paradigm cannot be critiqued nor that one cannot argue for or against a given paradigm. It does mean the argument from objectivity is at least a double-edged sword. To say that one approach is predicated on faith implies that the critique’s is predicated on something else—fair enough, but this says little on its own. One must have grounds to reject a perspective beyond it being a perspective per se.

The ‘secular’ or ‘scientific’ paradigm is based on empiricism and materialism, and it pretends to a form of objectivity. The results of this approach cannot be gainsaid. Notwithstanding its ultimate impossibility, there is certainly value in the attempt at objectivity. The world could certainly use more reason. But it must be remembered that the ideal is itself predicated on presuppositions that are outside of ‘objectivity’ itself.3 The real value of this approach, in my opinion, is threefold: insistence on the necessity of reason, the insistence on rigour, and the rejection of pre-formed conclusions.

Affirming the necessity of reason is useful, but one must also recognize that reason is neither self-sufficient—to operate, it needs a paradigm within which to function—nor limited to a single paradigm.4 The point, I argue, is to remember the human epistemological plight: we are finite, and so is our understanding.5

Faith is not Static (or, the Fallacy of Faith being Incapable of Self-Criticism)

In line with the situated-ness of all human knowledge comes the corollary that one must start somewhere. The starting point certainly shapes and selects the way information is perceived and organized. This, however, does not mean that either new information or, indeed, even the starting point, are immune to critical questioning. While central tenets of any individual’s worldview, be it religious or not, will be less prone to emendation, less prone is not the same as immune.

Threats to religious beliefs cause distress, anger, and havoc among people, certainly. But ‘secular’ academics can be no less hostile to threats to their own pet theories (or to empiricism). A faith-based starting point is not to be blamed for prejudice any more than any other cultural starting point.

There is a phenomenon whereby people hear what they want to hear, and will ignore all evidence to the contrary (a classic study of which is When Prophecy Fails).6 This is not limited merely to religious worldviews. ‘Faith’ itself is not to be blamed for a reluctance towards self-criticism or avoidance of uncomfortable information. I think that is a rather human trait.

Celebrity Mud-wrestling: Richard Dawkins versus Jerry Falwell (or, the Fallacy of the Mutual Hostility of Faith and Reason)

There is a wide-spread opinion today that faith and reason (or, religion and science) are mutually incompatible. A number of high-profile academics have attempted to throw each other into the mudpit of unreason.7 This particular ‘fallacy’ is messy as it combines several issues: 1) it treats religion and science as monolithic; 2) it equates materialism with reason; 3) it ignores the many individuals who do in fact subscribe to both camps; 4) it confuses methodology with results. There are hard-line apostles on both sides arguing for their exclusive dogmas, but I am unconvinced their congregations are very large. This opinion essay is too short to deal each, so I will focus merely on the third point: some people attempt to subscribe to both.

Quite simply, religious individuals of every age have attempted to understand their world in the terms of knowledge available to them. The way this is done has varied considerably, synchronically and diachronically. The Islamic philosophers and medieval theologians integrated Aristotle, 19th century thinkers Darwinism, and modern theologians everything from Marxism to String Theory. Although polemic often treats all religion as if it were Fundamentalism—and anti-religious rhetoric often takes Fundamentalist approaches to issues religious holders do not8 —this does not mean faith equals Fundamentalism. In fact, often people of faith find little to disagree with secularists on many material issues.

The work of secular scholarship is not very different; rather than working from the context of a religious community, it works from the context of secular society generally and the academy in particular. Some orthodoxies remain, while others are challenged and abandoned. Nevertheless, this approach is itself based on the authority of material and empirical approaches. In turn, religious rhetoric sometimes unfairly characterizes this approach as a deliberately iconoclastic enterprise. Neither of these characterizations of confessional nor secular approaches is wholly true.

Emic and Etic Once More (Or, Pros and Cons of Both)

Discussing approaches to the Bible recalls the old controversy in Religious Studies between internal and external approaches to a religion and the rather similar anthropological controversy between internal and external discussions of a culture.9 Quite simply, a faith-based approach relates to the interior phenomenology of religion, while a secular approach relates to its exterior phenomenology. A holistic approach requires both, as each has benefits and limitations.

An individual’s self-understanding is inaccessible from outside, and the same holds true of a community’s. A person within a community is equipped to understand that community as it understands itself, and that is valuable. Furthermore, the experience of belonging to a faith tradition can be a primer for understanding what one might call the interior phenomenology of religion, e.g., using theology, stories, and rituals in meaningful ways offers ready analogies even when studying another tradition. However, the very closeness to a tradition that enables understanding can also be a hindrance. Habits of thought and action can go ignored and unexamined, ideas become reified, and critique subsumed to continuity. For these reasons, the perspective of an outsider can be very helpful to a community.

Empiricism is an exterior position by definition, one that ideally observes disinterestedly. Such a stance is valuable for finding big pictures, asking new questions, and for broader, comparative phenomenologies. It can foster creative thinking by being free of inherited traditions, and it requires logical reasoning to operate. Such benefits can, however, tend towards reductionism and cynicism: always seeing only the social and material aspects of a religion. Thus, the benefit of a disinterested view can also make it unable to understand the participants, using categories not necessarily fitting.

When it comes to the study of the Bible, there is peculiar tension, not always relevant in all religious studies: as a text, it was written in long-dead cultures, but within two faiths which still exist and still read it. It is a historical document and a living document, a historic example of religion and one of lived religion. This is true whether a scholar approaches it from a Jewish or Christian perspective: neither faith today is identical to the communities that formed the testaments. All confessional scholars approach it both as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Sometimes this can be forgotten, and ‘secular’ scholars are helpful in pointing out scholarship that owes more to the present than the past.

Twins, Albeit Hostile

Perhaps I want to have my stew and eat it too, but it seems to me that Biblical Scholarship needs scholars of both ilk, to discuss, argue, and refine each. It is in the best interests of both faith communities and secular humanist scholarship to remain together in tension.10 The academic commonplaces of peer review and conferences highlight the beneficial aspects of dialogue and mutual critique, and this principle holds here too. Secular scholarship asks difficult questions and seeks rigorous answers, aiding faith-based scholars in eschewing fuzziness and intellectual laziness. It also has the ability to be ‘prophetic’ in the sense of pointing out hypocrisies and self-serving failures. On the other hand, faith-based scholarship can demonstrate the phenomenology of thoughtful religion in action. It can be sensitive to non-materialistic motivations and concerns and be more inclined to take theological elements in ancient communities and texts more seriously. Lastly, faith-based scholars are more likely to make the results of biblical scholarship available to the widest public which reads the text today: faith communities. Surely this plays an important role in public discourse generally, and the better informed, the better overall.

The competition between these kinds of approaches, I submit, is valuable to the human search for truth. ‘Truth’ is not a popular word in critical circles these days, but the idea of an honest search for truth can help clarify what is really at stake in both scholarship and in religion. By granting that even people with whom we disagree are seeking after truth, then we can still have dialogue over the obstacles to reaching it: human finitude, ulterior motivations, differing worldviews and paradigms, and level of rigour. While the two camps may never agree on the ultimate paradigm, they can profitability interact and improve each other’s methods, rigour, and point out where the other’s ideas are derived mostly from their own paradigm. Perhaps squabbling over the birthright is inevitable, but surely each can share in the academic blessing.


1 For example,
-the-sbl-should-do-without/, brain
shtml, and perhaps the most famous, http://berkeley.
Faith_and_Reason_ in_Biblical_Studies. Of course, this is not a new debate. See, for example, Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: a History (2nd ed. London: Duckworth, 2003 [orig. 1983]), 311–13.

2 For two few rather different examples, http://shesileizeisim., or “Where Would We Be Without Modern Biblical Scholarship?” on

3 Remember that even David Hume had to admit something so standard in the empirical method as causality was an assumption.

4 For a useful critique of confusing reason with standard scientific logic, see Walter R. Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. (Studies in Rhetoric/Communication; Columbia, SC: Univ of SC Press, 1987).

5 The real intellectual value of recognizing human epistemological finitude ought to be humility rather than epistemological nihilism, however.

6 Leon Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis, MN: Univ of Minnesota Press, 1956). This study was applied to the question of Hebrew prophecy in a thought-provoking study, Robert P. Carroll, When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament (New York: Seabury, 1979). Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance is susceptible to several critiques (notably the difficulty of disproving it), but it is still suggestive of the phenomenon itself.

7 A quick Google search will quickly find many, nasty examples on both sides. Perhaps the most famous pair are Richard Dawkins and Keith Ward. An unusually civial dialogue between Dawkins and Rowan Williams can be seen here, .

8 This is not to say that holding a secular opinion is akin to Fundamentalism, as it is not. But what it means is that they often use Fundamentalist-style, literalist readings in their rhetoric against religious perspectives.

9 For example, Headland, Thomas N., L. Kenneth Pike, and Marvin Harris, eds. Emics and Etics: the Insider/Outsider Debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990.

10 In the interests of full disclosure, I am an Anglican and a member of professional biblical bodies for Anglican scholars. I also, however, attempt to use ‘secular’ approaches to the Bible in contexts outside Christian ones.

Comments (4)

I fully agree with the main points of this thoughtful and irenic argument. I disagree, however, with his broad-brush binary opposition of "secular" versus "faith-based" perspectives as the root of the problem. Silverman is, by his admission, a liberal Christian who appreciates the values of critical scholarship (viz. "insistence on the necessity of reason, the insistence on rigour, and the rejection of pre-formed conclusions"). His own position therefore complicates the simple binary opposition, which is all to the good. The problem in our field, in my view, involves those who insist on particular kinds of confessional conclusions that explicitly or implicitly reject the legitimacy of critical scholarship (see under: biblical inerrancy). The problem is therefore not faith perspectives as such but (to use James Barr's diction) fundamentalism. At least this is how I see it. I am delighted to have colleagues of any perspective who are willing and able to engage in sophisticated critical scholarly discourse, as exemplified by this column.
#1 - Ron Hendel - 04/26/2012 - 14:28

I agree with bopth Jason and Ron on this, and I believe (riightly or wrongly) that this is the position I took in 'Whose Bible Is It Anyway?' One thing I would add - whiichwas the central argument in that book - namely, the necessity of any discourse being amenable to public criteria of evidence and argument. I do not like 'secularists' who wish to bar religious believers from participation in their discourse; neither can I accept religious discourses that do not include those who have no religious belief. This does, admittedly, tip the scales a little in favour of secularists, since the existence of gods is not publicly demonstrable or arguable (pace Tom Wright). Equally, however, their existence (or the existence of many of them) cannot be disproved. They must simply lie beyond the limit of the discourse, except insofar as they comprise a fact of personal and social belief, whihc must be itself be taken seriously.
#2 - Philip davies - 04/27/2012 - 07:27

I too appreciate this thoughtful and clearly written essay. Although, as someone deeply influenced by postmodern thought, I do not agree that all secular approaches necessarily “[pretend] to a form of objectivity.” “Secular” in popular parlance simply indicates that the supernatural or the sacred are to be excluded – or, put differently, that one is not to proceed on the assumption that a transcendent realm actually exists and impinges on the mundane in some way. “Secularity” does not at all imply objectivity. While I take a secular approach, I am also aware that – to borrow language from Fernando Segovia – my reader position is always situated, interested, and perspectival.
#3 - Jim Metzger - 04/27/2012 - 17:44

I appreciate the column, and agree that neither side can be said to enjoy the trump of a clean "objectivity." At the same time, I think that a focus on *perspectives* or faith stances is often less direct than a focus on *activity and method*.

If the argument of a work presupposes, as a matter of method, private revelation or sectarian doctrine, then I would call that an "in-house" work of confessional theology (though it may be perfectly sound in its internal logic, and may also presuppose the results of public critical secular scholarship and even participate in it, and contribute to it).

If a work strives to restrict itself to publicly available evidence and explicit lines of reasoning, making all of its argument vulnerable to critique as potentially undemonstrable in its premises or unsound in its argument, then I would call that public critical (sometimes "secular") biblical scholarship.

Such a focus on activities and methods lets us set aside investigations into someone's "perspective" or faith stance, and focus on characteristics of the work and its discourse.
#4 - Brooke Lester - 05/02/2012 - 06:59

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