I am objective, you are biased, he is a fundamentalist bigot; blogs and the SBL

Bill Mounce runs a Christian blog, Koinonia, and happened to mention that:

ETS is now over and many of the people have move on to Boston to attend IBR (Institute of Biblical Research) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature), which is the largest of the three organizations.  SBL is the least friendly of the organizations toward evangelicals and therefore perhaps our greatest opportunity for engagement in a non-evangelical theological culture.

For some reason Jim West decided to ridicule him for this, surely fairly banal comment:

So -what can SBL do to be ‘friendly’ to the poor, benighted, oppressed inerrantists?  Formulate a statement of faith asserting biblical inerrancy and force members to sign it or be denied membership?  Deny membership to anyone with a different point of view?  (etc)

Phew! This is the language of hate, not reasoned discourse.  Or is the SBL something Holy That Must Not Be Criticised? 

James McGrath noted this exchange, and it was his comment that I found most interesting:

That post helps clarify what the issue is: at SBL we study the Bible, have to face critical scrutiny of our arguments from others, and cannot get away with simply imposing our presuppositions on the text. So indeed, those who want that should look elsewhere, but the irony is that those who do go elsewhere form sectarian groups that manage to persuade themselves that they are the ones who are treating the Bible with respect by shielding it from the honest critical investigation of mainstream Biblical scholarship.

Those of us with a habit of looking at arguments from all sides will recognise that this is open to the objection that he is merely saying that the views he agrees with are objective, “honest”, “critical”, it seems; those of others are not.  But asserting it does not make it so; indeed usually indicates the reverse.

Isn’t treating the bible as NOT inspired just as much a religious position as treating it as inspired?  Is there any practical difference between treating the bible like this, and treating the bible as uninspired?  The latter is emphatically NOT a value-neutral position, after all. To say that “we cannot get away with simply imposing our presuppositions on the text” is the problem; that is precisely what any such gathering must do, once it decides to reject the Christian perspective as a “presupposition”.

The tendency for those who study the bible from the non-Christian point of view to treat this as if it was objective has gone on for at least a century.  Christians naturally demur, and quite rightly.  It’s time to recognise that, on issues of politics and religion, there is no neutrality.  We Christians notice the animosity — and Jim West will help any who don’t! Instead, wouldn’t it be more constructive to manage the various biases, rather than blandly claiming objectivity for one side?

Postscript: Jim West did not comment on this post.  James McGrath posted three comments, all essentially the same, attacking the ETS instead of addressing the post or engaging in dialogue.  When he posted yet another, I was forced to moderate it, as he knew I would have to – brinking me, in effect (I explain this version of trolling in the comments). Then he posted a further FOUR diatribes; eight in total.  He then scampered back to his own blog and attacked me personally for being “intolerant” in a further three posts.  I admit to being mildly amused at provoking such a vicious rage for merely querying whether the SBL was doing the right thing! 

I’m not a member of either the ETS or the SBL.  But the original query was whether the SBL was as welcoming as it might be to Christians.  The response of its defenders was to viciously attack the Christians in a frankly hysterical manner.  Still, this indicates just why the Christians feel hostility – because, indeed, there is hostility. 

14 Responses to “I am objective, you are biased, he is a fundamentalist bigot; blogs and the SBL”


  1. James McGrath

    Thanks for chiming in on this. My point was simply that, on the one hand, groups like ETS often are seeking a venue in which to make certain sorts of claims without having them objected to. On the other hand, there were plenty of Evangelicals presenting papers (to a not-unfriendly reception, in my opinion) at SBL, while one can get kicked out of ETS for being the “wrong sort” of Evangelical.

    My point was not about objectivity. It was about viewing critical feedback on one’s claims and ideas as presented at an academic conference as “being less friendly”. I appreciate the points you’ve made, but I still find that problematic, since it is precisely the desire for that sort of critical analysis and feedback that is a key reason I read papers at SBL!

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for your note, and your welcome. I can’t get very involved in biblical studies issues, because I don’t take much interest in them, but I stumble over the odd contretemps. To someone outside the hothouse, naturally some of them look rather odd.

    Now it seems a little strange to object to a society for evangelicals admitting only evangelicals. Let those who want to found confessional societies do so, surely? Or do we feel that it is OK to insult any who operate admissions policies of which we disapprove? But let’s recognise that, when we operate a society which has no such entry criteria, that it may have others, less recognised. Everyone has biases; but the worst are those who say “I am unbiased,” for they will not tolerate anyone else.

    Let’s not suppose that those who prefer “non-confessional” societies are in some way more scholarly, more objective, etc. It is unlikely that anything of the kind is the case, except accidentally. I fear that rather we’re merely standardising on a different religious norm; and enforcing it by means rather more deadly than a creed. But let me explain with an example.

    Years ago I remember hearing a paper at a patristics conference given by a Belgian, advocating a very early date for the Didache. He didn’t get “critical feedback” when the time came for questions. He got silence, mixed with sniggers. Yet his paper was no different in quality to many others. I felt that he had transgressed some unwritten consensus, that papers should not seem to endorse Christianity, or advocate positions that might seem to do so. Probably I was wrong, but I doubt that if he had advocated a date of 200 AD he would have got that reception.

    Isn’t a silently enforced conformity more deadly than any open one? This is the problem; that the problem is not acknowledged, never mind addressed.

  3. James McGrath

    Roger, I am certain that there are what we might call “fundamentalists” on both sides, who will laugh or sneer at those who challenge the “assured results” of those they regard as experts. But I’ve seen topics as supposedly “taboo” as an early date for the Didache, historical value in the Gospel of John, and even this very year at SBL Non-Septuagintal Hebraisms in Luke-Acts given polite attention, if not always being found persuasive. But those genuinely interested in advancing our understanding must know that either progress or greater certainty about a consensus comes by critically reassessing what is taken for granted.

    As for Evangelical organizations, I have no objection to their accepting only Evangelicals as members. But as someone from that tradition, I know from the inside that there have been individuals kicked out for not matching this or that particular understanding of what it means to be an Evangelical. And my point was not even about that per se. My point was that the Evangelical organizations often are extremely unfriendly to Evangelicals who dare to question assumptions, in a way that more “pluralistic” organizations are not.

    Once again, my point is not that someone or other is unbiased. My point is simply the irony of a representative of the sort of organization that does kick out Evangelicals (albeit of the “wrong sort”) criticizing an organization far less prone to do that sort of thing as “unfriendly”. Again, having been on the inside of that worldview, I would say that the unfriendliness I often perceived as emanating from others was in fact a projection of the unfriendliness I was unable to see in myself and my faith community.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for your note!

    Now I think that we must be talking past each other, since your comment reads like reiteration, rather than engagement with what I said. I am a little disappointed that you don’t address those issues.

    I will try to address your own comments.

    Surely it’s rather futile to attack people for failing to conform, while praising “pluralism”, as you do above? I don’t know what ‘pluralism’ means to you, but to me it means respecting different views. These attacks on the ETS do not suggest any such respect to me.

    If you query this, why not look at your two posts. Don’t they both change the subject from “why the SBL needs to change” to “why the Christians are bigots”? :-) It won’t do.

    Your comment also seems to involve silent endorsement of an SBL position that, for practical purposes, the bible must be studied on the basis that it is untrue. This won’t do either. Nor will argument by insinuation. Whatever position we hold, let it be openly stated and evaluated, hey?

  5. James McGrath

    I must concur with your assessment that we are talking past each other. I disagree that SBL requires one to study the Bible on the assumption that it is “untrue”, whether spiritually or historically. On the contrary, there are plenty of devout religious believers who are members of SBL. My point all along has only been the irony that anyone would call SBL “less friendly to Evangelicals”. Evangelicals are welcome in SBL. Not all of them are welcome in ETS. What is the nature of the “unfriendliness”? Is it a failure to kick out everyone else? A failure to shield Evangelicals from criticism from others?

    My position is that I was spiritually reared by the Evangelical tradition, of a conservative sort. I certainly no longer fit the label “conservative”. I don’t particularly mind that ETS is a “less friendly” organization for people like me who find themselves compelled by the evidence in the Bible itself to question some of the assumptions conservative Evangelicalism bestowed upon us. But I cannot but help feel the irony in someone claiming that SBL, where I have been welcome to explore the Bible both as a “conservative Evangelical” and as a “liberal Christian”, is less friendly, as someone who has been party first hand to “Evangelical unfriendliness”.

  6. Roger Pearse

    Your comment this time is entirely reiteration, and again ignores my own. I’m afraid I rather despise such tactics.

  7. James McGrath

    Perhaps when you actually engage the points I made both in my original post and in my follow up comments, I’ll feel like it is worth saying something new. But until you do so, I feel I have no choice but to keep trying to make my point in different ways until you seem to have understood what I’m actually saying!

  8. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for acknowledging (what I tried not to believe) that you have been simply ignoring both my post and my comments in favour of asserting and reasserting “lynch the Christians” to force me to “understand.” This won’t do.

    Your suggestion above that *I* have ignored your points seems like the technique of “projection” used by trolls online.

    I’m afraid that it seems that discussion is over; indeed did not begin. Thank you anyway for your comments.

  9. Ken Schenck

    I have never joined ETS, although I have a “very conservative” rating by the anonymous blogger/s known as NT Wrong. I belong to an evangelical denomination and teach at an evangelical college. In general, I find SBL as an entity very welcoming of me, although I know that there are no doubt leading figures in SBL who would look down on me as a conservative without ever getting to know me. On the other hand, Joel Green is one of the leaders of SBL, and he’s an evangelical.

    These are all individuals, and SBL isn’t known for voting on whether people belong in or out, like ETS is (Sanders, Pinnock…). So I think there are both fundamentalist “conservatives” and fundamentalist “liberals” (who thereby are not true liberals), both of whom are narrow minded and unwelcoming.

  10. Roger Pearse

    Note: I have unapproved yet another attempt at reiteration by James McGrath. Please make sure comments are on-topic.

  11. Roger Pearse

    Thank you Ken for your comment, much of which I agree with. But I do fear that you’ve been encouraged to see this as “tolerant vs intolerant” with the SBL portrayed as the good guys. But… let’s not be fooled by the spin. Let’s look at who is doing what.

    Now you say:

    “SBL isn’t known for voting on whether people belong in or out, like ETS is (Sanders, Pinnock…).”

    Indeed I’m sure that most organisations don’t “vote people in or out”. But any group nevertheless has means to enforce a consensus, if only that those who don’t agree with it will feel very uncomfortable. What these groups don’t do is make explicit the grounds on which people are permitted to belong and contribute. In a sense, isn’t this actually worse than an explicit policy? We’ve all seen the sort of manipulations where people claim to be “open” while actually rigidly enforcing a policy. The old Soviet empire used to claim to be campaigning for “peace.” What we need is to evaluate what actually goes on.

    Now back to the SBL. There is much wording about “objectivity”; but we know how this can be a code-word for a religious policy, in the hands of suitably minded people, rather than an accurate description. Notoriously some theology faculties operate a policy described in these terms. But the practical effect of this is that the bible can only be studied as if it was untrue; and to express any other view is considered to be “non-academic”, “not objective”, or a thousand other words all meaning “not allowed.”

    As I remarked initially, such a position is not value-neutral, whatever it claims. This is why I raised my initial concerns. Surely we need to move past this religious debate, where one side cloaks its pretensions in language of neutrality, to a real engagement and respect for difference?

    Complaining that a confessional society like ETS follows its confession seems ridiculously intolerant to my ignorant eyes. Likewise suggesting that such a society is not entitled to complain that a supposedly open society is “unfriendly.” Wouldn’t it be better to address the issue, rather than shoot the messenger?

  12. JD

    “Isn’t treating the bible as NOT inspired just as much a religious position as treating it as inspired?”

    Not unless one has decided in advance that any scholarly finding can only discredit the Bible’s claims to truth. There are certainly presuppositions involved in all approaches to the study of the Bible, but these can be tested and challenged for their hermeneutical value. And this recognition (i.e. that both inspiration and non-inspiration begin with presuppositions) CANNOT serve as an excuse for endorsing bad arguments or always rooting for the home team.

    Say for example an evangelical scholar presents an argument for the historical reliability of John’s Gospel out of conviction that, because the Bible is inspired, GJohn should be accurate in what it tells us about Jesus. He/she bases this argument (partly) on the claim to eyewitness status in John 21:24. A non-evangelical scholar might reject this argument based on the possibility that 21:24 is a secondary addition, or that this claim may simply be a rhetorical device. This rejection CANNOT be pinnned solely on the non-evangelical scholar’s presuppositions, and the criticism is not nullified by simply making this claim. It can only be answered through further textual and comparative study. Or perhaps even an evangelical scholar would not be persuaded by this argument. This is not about presuppositions, this is about the realia of the text.

  13. Roger Pearse

    A few words about brinking, although I had never expected to encounter it here.

    Most of us are familiar with trolling. This is a trick used in internet fora, where a poster attempts to upset another poster by making statements calculated to enrage him, and thereby derail and control the debate. The victim makes an angry response, and the troll savours his victory.

    Brinking is a nastier variant of the same technique, used in moderated fora. In this case the brinker does the same, but in a carefully mock-polite manner. The object is to post at the brink of what is acceptable (hence the name) but no further; and to induce his victim to make an angry but honest response which is outside the forum rules. The brinker then reports his victim to the moderator.

    Someone unaware of these tricks and simply responding in good faith would find himself growing angrier and angrier, and eventually shouting at his tormentor, and then being rebuked for doing so. This leaves him feeling confused and upset. A really successful brink gets the victim to apologise.

    Fortunately such immoral conduct is relatively rare.

    James McGrath has brinked here. He repeatedly posted a “comment” which ignored my post, and any reply, and instead attacked the ETS. He posted what was essentially the same comment a total of FIVE times, each time ignoring any reply in favour of reiteration, and continued until I was forced to block his “comments”. He then gleefully posted on his own blog that this proved that I was a censor etc etc.

    This is not natural or normal behaviour. But I have been online quite a while, and seen most of the ways in which people attempt to injure each other online. The old trick of brinking came back to mind, and I realised that this is what was going on.

    I think that James hoped to do one of three things. Firstly he hoped to impose his own view of things on me, by ignoring my post, and to change the subject into an attack on the ETS. When this failed, he reiterated, hoping to provoke an angry response. When this failed, he kept on reiterating and ignoring replies, knowing that any blogger would have to obstruct such abuse of the comments. When this duly happened, he then tried to position me as the guilty person. The object of this, of course, being to make me reluctant to engage in this topic again because it felt painful, and to diminish my ability to do so.

    In short, this is classic brinking, and contemptible beyond belief as a way to spread your views. I add this note as a warning to others. To be informed of the tricks of the malicious is to be forearmed, and can save much heart-ache.

    Postscript: In addition to the three comments above, James then posted a further five — yes five! — more, which I have spared you. Thankfully he now seems to have stopped this gross attempt to abuse the comment facility. All, insofar as I read them, were yet further attempts to wear down opposition by reiteration.

  14. Drew Tatusko

    I think the problem here is that the dichotomy between true and false as hermeneutic structures of interpretation is falsely construed. Critical engagement of a text means that meaning is somewhat “suspended”. By this I mean that the meaning of the text is not collapsed into absolutes lest the propositional logic of a dogmatic tradition supercede the revelation of the text itself. This is a process of reification which is the problem, not whether or not one presupposes some form of inherent truth to the text. This position is closest to one of critical realism where truth is not simply a function of relativism, but neither is truth a function of fideism.