There are examples of salient differences which sort out liberal from conservative biblical scholars. But liberals and conservatives do not necessarily differ over the recognition of a diversity of voices in scripture, or over the need, from a confessional point of view, of interpreting individual passages in light of all others (a long-standing principle of the Reformed tradition, one reason it tends to be theocentric rather than merely christocentric). We also do not differ over the importance of identifying correctly the literary genres in which texts are written.
To take a specific topic discussed a bit on this thread [see below for my contribution to the thread],* we do not necessarily differ that much on the historical Jesus either. Take a look at Michael Bird’s recent volume if you don’t believe me. Sure, if I’m reading the gospel of Luke, since I am conservative, chances are, I am going to draw the line between content to associate with the historical Jesus and content to associate with the early church along the lines of an I. Howard Marshall or Richard Bauckham rather than a Jesus Seminar scholar. I’m not so sure that is of earth-shaking importance, except in the sense that it dooms me to thinking of the historical Jesus of someone like Crossan or Horsley – not to mention Bultmann - as unacceptably truncated.
The salient difference has more to do with different approaches to the risen Jesus and to the resurrection. We conservatives believe in the reality of the risen Jesus, whom we encounter in worship to this day, just as much as we believe in the reality of the historical Jesus. One and the same person, which gives us a nice set of problems to stew over. But we are all grown up now. We can deal with it.
We believe that faith healing that Jesus practiced was genuine, though of course we can’t prove it. We think of nature miracles and the virgin birth as perfectly conceivable, and choose to believe they happened, though of course whether they did or not is not subject to historical investigation. I could go on like this, but I think I’ve made my point.
Perhaps you’ve heard the old SBL story, from the days of the great Samuel Sandmel, the first Jew to serve as its president. After listening to a long discussion among liberal Protestants who were postulating meanings of the resurrection that do not depend on the resurrection ever having actually happened, Sandmel got up and asked to speak. “I think,” he said, “that when the early Christians said that God raised Jesus from the dead, they said that because they thought that’s exactly what happened.” Stunned silence.
But of course Sandmel was right. Conservative Christians today, though of course we want to be as intellectually responsible as possible in how we affirm it, stand with the early Christians. Liberal Christians do not (and the neo-orthodox in the mold of Karl Barth do not either; I’m not sure about Schweitzer; a lot of paleo-liberals were orthodox in a number of ways).
Now, if you tell me that you stand with the early Christians on that one, James, then you already have one foot in my camp. In that case, you would fit right in at IBR, if not necessarily (yet) ETS.
*On the thread, I stated the following:
It's not that hard to describe the historical Jesus.
(1) He was an itinerant missionary who saw himself as one called on to seek and save the lost of Israel. To his own surprise he ends up becoming a means of salvation for a few Gentiles as well.
(2) He was a public preacher and moralist, an innovative interpreter of the Torah, one whose first-hand knowledge of and loyalty to the scriptures of his people are everywhere evident. He does not imagine God to be non-violent, though he counsels non-resistance to the violence of the Roman occupiers. He expected his followers to someday judge the twelve tribes of Israel.
(3) He was a controversialist who took on the Pharisees even if he did not question their essential role (see Matthew 23). He is close to that movement in a number of ways, that stream of Judaism which, besides the movement Jesus gave rise to, had within itself the strength to survive the destruction of the Temple. This is not coincidental but speaks to fundamental commonalities over against other streams of Judaism of that period.
(4) He was an enormously gifted composer of parables, a healer, and an exorcist. If the parables of the sower and the like which Mark suggests are programmatic to Jesus' message were indeed that, a reasonable hypothesis, then Jesus was not fundamentally about outrage. He believed on God's own wondrous power. He believed in defeating sin, sickness, and the devil through faith, prayer, and fasting. He expected God to overthrow the system as it were, in terms of a restored Israel according to the promises of God, but when that didn't happen, his followers understood him - now risen – to be presiding over a massive detour (see texts like Romans 9-11). The detour was *not* revolutionary in nature except in the sense that yes, the ecclesiai then and now are revolutionary in some sense.
(5) He saw himself as an eschatological prophet and in some sense as the Son of Man of the book of Daniel, though it is difficult to pin down the details (see the balanced presentation by Michael Bird in his recent volume).
(6) He seems to have understood his imminent death and suffering in light of Scripture which speaks of vicarious suffering. But it's hard to know for sure because this understanding of his death became so important for early Christians that it's hard to figure out what part of the gospel sayings of this kind goes back to Jesus.
(7) Given that his disciples see him as if (I speak as an historian must) God had raised him from the dead, everything Jesus said and did and in particular, his death on a cross, are re-interpreted in light of the resurrection and the continued felt presence of the risen Christ in worship.
From there the movement's understanding of the risen Jesus widens out on the basis of what they see the Holy Spirit (as they take it) doing among the Gentiles. This causes further retrospective interpretation of the historical Jesus, but along somewhat varying lines in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not to mention other components of the NT.
[The] Jesus [of a Horsley or a Crossan] is too uni-dimensional. [Such a] revolutionary Jesus is far less likely to correspond to who he was than what we find in the gospels.