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Thanks for hanging in there with this important topic. I appreciate your mature perspectives and irenic approach.

And, while I'm at it, thanks for the consistently substantial posts on Biblical Poetry and related matters.

Any thoughts on the relationship between notions of inerrancy and the way one reads the Psalms?

Alan Lenzi

John, As Deane points out, you're concerned about history of interpretation and I'm talking about biblical scholars, card carrying members of the SBL, who apply the idea of inerrancy to our field's data, the Bible. So we seem to be talking about apples and oranges.

The whole reason this discussion gets muddled is precisely because many people in our field try to live in two words, that of the theologian-biblicist, participating in the insider's world of interpretation, and that of the historian-biblicist, working as a scholar who makes historical contributions. You know about this all too well, since you are one of these people (and I was one for a while). The SBL fosters the blurring of this distinction by having weak rules about membership (pay them money and you're in) and by reviewing and encouraging church-related and confessionally-oriented
materials. I think the SBL should be more restrictive.

I realize that some scholars walk the line between theologian and historian rather well and have developed an acute self-awareness that serves their scholarship positively. (I think you're pretty good at doing this . . . some of the time.) But those who hold to traditional formulations of inerrancy generally don't do so well in this regard.

I'm willing to think as a historian of religion about how productive inerrancy has been in the history of scriptural interpretation, but it really has no place in a contemporary scholars's thinking about the Bible. That's my point.

As for the analogy with the Constitution, you said:
The vast majority of American political scientists treat the Constitution, for all practical purposes, as inerrant. There is little or no talk of downgrading either its iconic or practical importance in American political life. Of course there are different schools of interpretation in the field of constitutional law. But they all agree that the Constitution is and shall remain the foundation of law in the land.

You've confused insider interpretation and critical scholarship again (as evidenced by this: The Bible and the Constitution – any constitution in a constitutional democracy – play roles of unmatched importance within the polities that confess them.) What I'm saying is this: any American political scientist who treated the U.S. Constitution as the divine or ontologically superlative and thus exclusive paradigm for human government is not a critical scholar but an ideologue (as I say after the quote that you cited above: Both documents [Constitution and Bible] may be special in a personal way to a scholar, but to treat them as ontologically unique or epistemologically central in one's scholarship is to reduce one's standing from a self-critical scholar to a compromised ideologue.)

Jurists/judges and lawyers are basically practitioners of Constitutional interpretation. They're insiders. Political scientists, I would think, should try to rise above the fray, extricate themselves from the tradition, in order to attempt a critical assessment or a more historical understanding of the ways humans organize themselves politically. The analogy, given its limited purpose, holds when viewed from this perspective.

To take the analogy one step further: The problem with biblical studies is that if it were political science, it would gladly admit sitting judges and practicing lawyers who have sworn to uphold the Constitution into the field and then call them "scholars." That's a problem unless the judges and lawyers were able to compartmentalize their sworn oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and not allow it to influence their scholarship.

I understand that biblical studies as a field arose and in many ways is maintained by religionism. But that doesn't mean it has to be obliged to religionism and allow it to dictate or shape the intellectual agenda. We should bite the hand that feeds us. It's our job! That's why scholars are (supposed to be) protected by tenure.

BTW, J. Bradley Chance, "American Scripture and Christian Scripture: The Use of Analogy to Introduce the Critical Study of the Bible," Teaching Theology and Religion, 3.3 (2000), 157-163, is a nice little article that, as the subtitle says, uses American political documents, especially the Declaration of Ind., analogically to teach a critical view of Scripture (at ebscohost).

Alan Lenzi

The ebscohost link probably won't work. Send me an email if you want the article but can't get access.


Alan, you make a number of excellent points.

For example, your rule about compartmentalizing is a helpful one, though not easy to make work in practice. I don't even try in the context of this blog. A blog, after all, ought to be a place where a person in his unity is able to express himself.

As far as non-confessional biblical studies are concerned, the rule however ought to apply to everyone equally. You know it doesn't.

People at SBL give papers all the time which, more than anything else, are confessions of faith in a liberationist hermeneutic of one kind or another. Fine, but inerrantists also confess to reading scripture from a liberationist perspective. There in no neutral ideological ground you can stand on from which you can include some and exclude other self-identifying liberationist frameworks. The only way to do that is to make it a condition of membership to believe that liberation consists in liberation from biblical literature, not liberation to be loyal, in some cultural or religious sense, to biblical literature.

Many of the best papers at SBL, and the best books and articles written by SBL members, reveal a tension between what the text says, and what the scholar wishes it says, or between what the scholar set out to prove, and what actually came out in the wash. The best scholarship utilizes the language of self-doubt and valorizes the work of others who come at the same problem from a very different angle and reach very different conclusions.

Inerrantists are just as capable / incapable of this kind of intellectual humility as are positivists, empiricists, womanists, and so on.

I would also say that papers given at SBL from an overtly sympathetic-to-scripture perspective are very well received so long as they relate to the whole field with grace and are not triumphalistic in spirit. Papers that come at the Bible from the point of view of queer theory or a third world perspective as seen from first world Harvard are also well-received, so long as they advance the discussion and are not too evangelistic in tone.

And if you wish to bite the hand that feeds you, that's fine with me. Not that you are in a position to do much damage, as I'm sure you realize.

The SBL will always be, I'm convinced, a place where a very large number of scholars don't see it your way. That is, like the founders of SBL, many of us want very much to pursue the evidence wherever it may take us, and ask the hard questions, and remain loyal to our religious traditions at the same time.

As far as your statement that political scientists should be "above the fray," well I'll be, you clearly do believe in transcendentals without the benefit of a scrap of empirical evidence. Welcome to the club; it's a big tent; there's room for everyone. Just remember, to paraphrase LBJ: direct your pee outside of the tent.

To the extent that political scientists claim to be above the fray, they are illusionists and quacks. Surely this is obvious. At the same time, we dearly wish they were above the fray. The desire instantiates a vision of truth which I am not asking you to give up. I share it. But let's be clear: it's not what we see on the ground. Political scientists are not above the fray. They are part of it. The best know it, but also respect their opponents greatly.

That's the key. Respect for the other.

Phil Sumpter

[T]o the scholar the Bible is data ... .

Isn't their a problem with this notion, namely that the "scholar" has already made a decision concerning the nature of the text before he or she has opened it? To say that the Bible is "just data" is to go against what the Bible itself claims, i.e. that it contains a living, history creating word (cf. somewhere in Isaiah and Zedekiah). You can read it as "raw data," and that will have certain interpretative implications, but unless you can prove that it is just data then you have already entered into the realm of ideology.

Others may wish to treat it as "witness" rather than "source." Or am I being overly cynical ...

You're correct to point out that there are other scholars who seem to revel in their ideology and allow it to control their sifting of data. We all do it on some level, but some do it more enthusiastically or for a specific methodological purpose. I would say that in many cases these people are practicing a form of methodological reductionism to get a take on the Bible from a particular vantage point. If they are also claiming a divine imprimatur, a divine ontological status for their ideology, like the inerrantists, which otherwise seems to be the difference between a political reading of the Bible and the inerrantist's claim about the Bible, then I would say they have lost their scholarly bearings. (This seems true sometimes for some strong forms of Marxism, e.g.) The issue here is that when one claims a divine status for one's viewpoint (inerrancy, even inspiration) one has tried to step outside the level of circularity within which all the rest of us humans are operating. One's claim, at least on the face of it, is above gainsaying. And that's not proper scholarship. I'm saying that the inerrancy claim is an all too human mechanism, ought to be recognized as such, and ought to be abandoned by scholars because those who accept it are trying to rise above the fray in an ontological sense by an appeal to something beyond us all. That's religion, not scholarship. See Bruce Lincoln's Theses on Method, especially no. 3.

I do not accept your attempt to make inerrancy just another methodological perspective NOR SHOULD YOU if you really believe it! Inerrancy is a claim about the true ontological nature of our data: it's flawless. I say, I'm not buying it, buddy.

Thus: when you say: As far as your statement that political scientists should be "above the fray," well I'll be, you clearly do believe in transcendentals without the benefit of a scrap of empirical evidence.

Don't damn yourself ("I'll be. .."), I'm not appealing to transcendentals. There is a long tradition of Western scholarship that seeks to uncover the sacred cows, political, cultural, religious, etc., of our society. Scholars and artists lead the way. If political scientists are not fulfilling that role, if biblical scholars can't "rise above the fray," not ontologically but in terms of their critical self-awareness and striving to see how our interests play out in culture--even though limited in their success and never fully detached from their cultural embeddedness (of course!), then let's close the universities! We are all vested, all limited, but that doesn't mean we are all mindless, trapped drones who cannot gain critical perspective at least in some measure. If we were, we would not have a history to study because nothing would ever change. I don't need to appeal to a transcendental. I can point to the history and sociology of scholarship. Inerrancy is an old paradigm that scholars have shown to be of little critical value. Let's embrace the Kuhnian revolution and leave the inerrancy paradigm behind as a historical curiosity.

Finally, you say:
And if you wish to bite the hand that feeds you, that's fine with me. Not that you are in a position to do much damage, as I'm sure you realize.

Critical Biblical Studies is the foundation of modern Religious Studies and it therefore paved the way for a new avenue of cross-cultural understanding and analysis. Whatever the personal beliefs of its practitioners, past and present, biblical criticism is part of this; it fosters a self-awareness and self-criticism in people at a very foundational level of existence, culturally and individually. The field and its implications has permeated Western culture. Religion no longer has the preeminence in our society that it once had. People can't easily appeal without defense to a divine decree to make laws, condemn a lifestyle, or exclude others. Try it and you'll see: there'll be someone around to question that appeal. That's a good thing in my opinion. Critical biblical studies therefore provides humanity with an important service generally. I think you've underestimated the impact of the field. Why do religious students stay away from religious studies classes at university? Why would Pete Enns even need to write a book to support the traditional view of inerrancy if critical scholars haven't made a dent? Why do some conservative scholars admit that their role in SBL is to be a witness for Christ if critical scholars weren't making a difference? (Yes, I've heard mature scholars say that.)

By the way, biblical studies also is a fun area of study that helps us understand human beings and the influence of a very popular book throughout history and today. So it is also worthy of study in its own right. I haven't forgotten that; I'm just not emphasizing it here.

I'm not calling for a purge. I'm calling for a renewed vigilance against unverifiable transcendental, theological claims being allowed to pass among critical, historically oriented scholars.

Alan Lenzi

(That last comment was mine; I always forget to fill in the form.)

Phil, you have exemplified what I am talking about all too well. Shall we also allow the Koran to tell us what it is? As scholars, I would say we are obligated to resist allowing the insider's take on a matter to steer our course. You're not being cynical; you're being religious. That's OK but not in a scholarly forum.


You've given me a lot to think about, Alan. I'm not going to rehash your points, except to say that I agree that critical study of biblical literature, not to mention other fields, such as anthropology, history of religions, and philosophy challenge traditional understandings of religious epistemology in very important ways.

For a few people the challenges seem insuperable and lead to the wholesale rejection of religious truth claims. For others, it leads to a chastened, but also richer, more robust, faith. On occasion, subjectively speaking, it is the only thing that makes faith possible for someone who is steeped in the Enlightenment.


I guess that comparing inerrancy to constitutional scholarship just reinforces my cynicism.

For example, the belief that abortion is a right directly derivable from the US constitution treats the constitution with utter contempt; while those who make these assertions insist that they are being more faithful to the meaning of the constitution than those who insist that the US constitution does not provide such a right.

Sadly, as soon as a creed is introduced which tries to weed out those who really don't adhere to Christian doctrines, someone figures out a way to negate Christian doctrines while remaining within the creed. The same applies to inerrancy.

Alan Lenzi

Re: You've given me a lot to think about

Given the fact that I learn so much from what you write on your blog, even when I disagree with you, I consider these words of yours here a great complement. Thank you.



what you're saying is that professed allegiance to scripture is no guarantee of actual allegiance. This is an important point. Under the cloak of inerrancy, all kinds of nonsense has been foisted on the faithful in the history of interpretation.

Peter Kirk

There is one significant difference between the Bible and the Constitution which has not been mentioned. Both can be reinterpreted. But only the Constitution can be amended. An American can campaign for amendments to the Constitution and not be considered a traitor to the USA. But any Christian who calls for amendments to biblical teaching, beyond what can be dressed up as reinterpretation, is automatically a traitor in the eyes of those who believe that the Bible should have "a privileged epistemological or ontological position within the Bible scholar's thinking".

Alan Lenzi

Peter, for believers your contrastive point is well taken. As for scholars, I'd say your point only highlights the usefulness of the analogy, not for epistemology but for textual development. Like the Constitution, the scribes in ancient Israel apparently felt free to amend (add or delete, etc.) the text as the need arose or they saw fit. The real difference is that the Constitution has not assumed its "final form" yet.

You should look at Bradley Chance's article on the composition of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. That analogy is even better because the DI is in its final form.

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    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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