“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?”

After accepting Professor Bruce Waltke’s resignation, for having spoken aloud about the plain facts of the state of our knowledge concerning the natural world, Reformed Theological Seminary Campus President Michael Milton gushed enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of scientific/historical conclusions that the seminary would find acceptable from its faculty:

“Oh, we got both kinds: Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism!”[1]

Milton said that the seminary allows “views to vary” about creation, describing the faculty members there as having “an eight-lane highway” on which to explore various routes to understanding. Giving an example, he said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing “a framework” for some period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for “a diversity” of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn’t arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life), are not allowed, he said, and faculty members know this.

Here’s a hint to President Milton, but especially to any prospective students considering places like Reformed Theological Seminary:

  • no matter how “diverse” the spectrum of “acceptable” conclusions,
  • if an institution draws a line anywhere and says, “The conclusions of your research may extend here, but no further; beyond this line your inquiries may not lead you,” then
  • you are not in an institution of learning. In fact,
  • you couldn’t be more in the dark if you were stuffed into a sack.

I was going to add that those who enforce such parameters or assent to them should be willing to stop using the internet, and all computers (which rely on those merely theoretical critters called “electrons”); forego the MRI, the CAT scan, antibiotics, and all of modern medicine, returning to the leech-craft of their forebears; grow their own food, eschewing the disease-resistant strains available at market; keep the radio off, doing without satellite-produced early warning of natural disasters. After all, these are all the results of unbounded critical inquiry, and have arisen only where such inquiry has won out over efforts to suppress it.

But then I realized that these folks won’t return to their pre-modern dystopia without dragging everyone else along by force, so sorry, they’re just going to have to learn, one at a time, to live in the actual world, with its pesky, bias-challenging data. If one fears that one doesn’t know how, I offer the gentle and redoubtable Professor Waltke as an example.

For other feedback in the biblioblogosphere, see John Hobbins’ response and his round-up of other responses, and more recently, Jim Getz.

BACK TO POST “Creationism,” including so-called Intelligent Design, is always the view that God created all the species in the form that they have today: in other words, that evolution leading to speciation has not happened.

[“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/04/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

25 Responses

  1. Brooke, as you know from my comments on FB, I am stupefied by RTS’ decision and think their administration is an embarrassment. I will rant no further here, but I trust you get the drift. However, I think this post is curiously black -and-white.

    You say, “if an institution draws a line anywhere”… so you’re saying (for example) that if a seminary professor’s research leads him or her to conclude that there is no God, and if that professor goes on to teach his or her seminary students that there is no God, the seminary is “not an institution of learning” if it draws the line and says, sorry, you do not belong on a seminary faculty?

    Just a point of clarification.

    FWIW, I bet many science faculties would fire a professor who on whatever grounds decided s/he no longer subscribed to some basic theory of the universe and went on to teach students that the dominant theories of the discourse were false.

    • Hi Chris,
      These are good questions. And yes, I do mean to be absolute in my claims here, but only concerning a fairly narrow area: reasoned arguments about interpreting data (e.g., the results of research). I do not believe that claims about God can be determined simply from observation of the natural world. Observation of the natural world may challenge someone’s claims about what God has or hasn’t done in the world, but can’t determine God’s existence or properties. So, I don’t imagine a situation where someone’s research into the natural world (alone) determines such a theological claim.

      Now, if a person’s research leads them to conclude (for example) that there were or weren’t defense walls around Jericho in the late 13th century, or that an enormous migration from Egypt did or didn’t happen, these are claims about the natural world, and a researcher must be allowed to present her evidence and make her arguments, wherever they go. If she teaches her students that evidence for a biblical exodus are is lacking (or plentiful), and if that bothers the institution, then they should have to be able to martial their counter-arguments.

      A seminary may, of course, have rules about the range of theological beliefs that a faculty member may profess (and I’d be genuinely curious about the data on tenured faculty whose beliefs change greatly over time). But this is, in my view, very different from saying that the results of a person’s research is are predetermined.

      Regarding science departments, I can imagine a situation where a department becomes embarrassed about a faculty member’s claims, but only if they could be shown to consistently commit an identifiable fallacy: cherry-picking evidence, presenting false dichotomies, or the like. Then they’re firing her for having crappy method, not because her conclusions are “unorthodox.” If they fire her because they dislike her conclusions, but her use of evidence and line of reasoning is are sound, they’re going to get a reputation as an inferior science department.

      To make a long answer longer, then: Seminaries might certainly have a limited range of theological belief-systems to which they want their faculty to adhere, but if they begin to say that one’s scientific and historical research—and Waltke’s resignation revolves around evidence-based historical, not simply faith-based theological, claims—must produce pre-selected results, then they are not institutions in which new learning is possible in any reliable way.

    • P.S.:
      I guess that means I should affirm what John Hobbins suggests by my place in his roundup (link in post above): that I am opposed to “confessionalism in higher ed,” if that means adherence to statements that amount to, “Faculty and students may reach evidence-based conclusions a, b, and c about the Bible, its origins, and the natural world; but may not reach evidence-based conclusions x, y, and z about the Bible, its origins, and the natural world.”

  2. I find it highly ironic that Dr. Waltke is seen as taking a stand for science and enlightenment on this topic. On Gen. 3:16 he taught a lecture hall full of 200 students that this verse is a clear indicator that the cause for the high rate of divorce is that women resist their role. When I asked him later if he could provide evidence for this statement – that women resisting their “role” is the cause of divorce – he indicated that he could not.

    He is unable to set aside his theological commitments to the submission of women even when the evidence does not support it, and yet he does not allow for those who cannot set aside their theological commitment to creationism. It is odd that he treats Gen. 3 so differently than Gen. 1.

    • Sue, your points are right on, for what my opinion is worth. Rightly or wrongly, I hesitated to lengthen (and complicate) my post by noting how far I distance myself from much of Waltke’s theology and his readings of the Bible. I am very glad that you feel comfortable doing so in the comments.

  3. Hey Brooke, I kind of echo Chris’ thoughts but in light of your response I’d like to add a follow-up. If a professor at a Jewish seminary decided through historical research that Jesus really did bodily rise from the dead would the seminary be in the wrong for them to say that s/he does not belong on faculty? In this case the results of historical research would be predetermined in some sense yet the results are intimately intertwined with American Jewish identity and experience. Or, would it be appropriate for a professor at BYU to teach that her historical research has shown that Joseph Smith was a con-artist who made up the Mormon faith whole-cloth? I could go on but you get the point…

    • “Or, would it be appropriate for a professor at BYU to teach that her historical research has shown that Joseph Smith was a con-artist who made up the Mormon faith whole-cloth? I could go on but you get the point…”

      Careful. Most scholars and even more educated people probably think that talking snakes, a tree and a flood is even more ridiculous and discrediting than Joseph Smith.

  4. Hi Charles,
    I’m glad we’re working through cases, which is make it easier to find precision than if we were staying in the abstract-o-sphere.

    Preliminarily, I’d say that my interest is in claims that are evidence-based and falsifiable. Every school is entitled to its own opinions and its own non-falsifiable, faith-based theologies, but no institution of learning is entitled to punch-block attempts to investigate the evidentiary warrants for their falsifiable claims.

    If a school says, for example, “We mean for our faculty to believe in Jesus’s bodily resurrection,” that seems to me to be so open-ended that no amount of material evidence could falsify it: even if we found bones with DNA proven (somehow) to be Jesus’s, a person might still make the theological claim of a bodily resurrection (a “resurrection body,” or what have you). It’s a non-falsifiable claim, and so not determinable by evidence-based inquiry. In that case, let them set their standards as suits them: faculty far outside the fold may be considered a poor fit. But if a school says, “We mean for our faculty to believe that Jesus was resurrected in a particular way, leaving no organic matter,” then that claim is falsifiable in principle: in the unlikely event that someone thinks they have counter-evidence, the school should let them present it. They’ve invited it, so to speak.

    Insofar as our claims are so articulated as to be falsifiable, then we have to let the process of falsification (or confirmation) happen unhindered. That’s what bothers me about litmus tests like that implied in Michael Milton’s: the claims are not simply theological, but historical and scientific (the world was made thusly or thusly, but not thusly), yet are not subject to historical and scientific challenge. They want the “goodies” of authority that come with historical and scientific claims, but not the responsibilities.

    Okay, your examples: I can’t imagine what kind of new artifact might come to light to substantively add to a *scientific* case for Jesus’s resurrection: only more written accounts, saying similar things. If a Jewish scholar wanted to try to show that the case for Jesus’s resurrection is a strong one, I don’t see why he shouldn’t get a hearing. If he were teaching students that the case is a “slam dunk,” then the issue is his incompetence as an historian, because it isn’t a slam dunk. This would all be true whether he were personally persuaded of Jesus’s resurrection or not. If he *were* to become personally persuaded, then I think a question about his fitness would be in order, yes: but this matter is distinct from that about the state of evidence for an historical claim of Jesus’s resurrection.

    So with the BYU case: I think if a professor wants to try to demonstrate that strong arguments can be made for human authorship of the Book of Mormon, this should be welcome (arguments for a “con” would have to be legitimate and not ad hominem: perhaps documents in Smith’s handwriting planning the alleged “con”). I think that a Mormon of strong faith might hypothetically present such evidence (as a Christian theologian of faith might demonstrate the weakness of some of the logical arguments for God’s existence). But if the BYU prof found himself *personally convinced* that the Mormon scriptures rest on falsehood, then a conversation about his fitness to BYU would be in order.

    “Fit” is a criteria that we use all the time, and I’m comfortable with it if it’s not a smokescreen for undisclosed grievances. But while “fit” might involve evolving, personal, faith-based convictions (likely engaged with but not determined by physical evidence), I don’t see how it can “fit” can involve the mere choice to follow the evidence in reasoned inquiry. Of course, at a “school” that consciously limits the results of inquiry to a pre-selected “acceptable” range, I guess someone who undertakes inquiry in a genuinely scientific mode would be a poor fit.

    I happily admit that I can’t imagine getting myself into the position that Waltke finds himself in (I don’t blame him: we are of different times, different backgrounds, and all that). If you sign on with a place that says, “You research into science and history will produce this range of results and no other,” well, that’s a mistake, if you actually plan to ask real questions and investigate the evidence for answers.

  5. Brooke, I appreciate your clarification, and I tend to agree that the existence of God is not subject to scientific verification.

    However, you might run into trouble since scholarly historical discourse is, in its own way, scientific. According to the rules of scientific historiography that many scholars play by, many things in the Bible are simply impossible, among them the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, which are two core tenets of Christian faith.

    In other words, nearly any Christian seminary with a faith statement violates scientific principles, and so you really are tarring them all with the same brush — including maybe the one(s) where you teach.

    Finally, there is a good number of institutions of higher ed in the world where not a whit of original research ever takes place, so I’m not sure that a lack of research courage makes even a fundamentalist seminary “not an institution of learning,” unless you also mean to exclude a whole bunch of others as well.

    • Hey Chris,
      I’ll take your first point and let the second one simmer, if I may.

      First point: I don’t think that scientific or historical method rules supernatural events (exceptions to natural rules etc. etc.) to be impossible: to call them “impossible” would itself be non-falsifiable, since they might be happening somewhere unobserved.

      Rather, in explaining events, science (including the science of history) refrains from appealing to the supernatural. This is simply a matter of method, since an appeal to the supernatural is a game-stopper: once we say, “Maybe it was supernatural intervention,” then we stop looking for other explanations.

      Regarding the biblical narratives of supernatural events: if we believe them, it’s not on scientific grounds, but neither does science say “This cannot happen.” Science just says that it’s fabulously unlikely, and that if one seeks to *explain* the origins of (say) Exodus 14, we don’t simply say, “Well, it must be that the miracle happened and they just wrote it down.” Historically, there are *likelier* (and more complete) explanations about the origins of the narrative, and we deal with them all the time: these may involve JEPD positing a Judean royal account with a late priestly redaction; small groups with some kind of minimal “out of Egypt” experience whose story is taken up by other Yahweh-worshiping tribes at Shechem; accretions of traditions; whatever. Insofar as I, as a person of faith, believe in an Exodus, that belief is not determined by physical evidence, and the science that works with physical evidence doesn’t reject that Exodus as “impossible” (though it may and should engage whatever elements of my faith-claims are falsifiable).

      Okay, just a swipe at the second point: even if original research isn’t taking place, there is the usual scholarly investigation into the *state of research* on an unfamiliar topic. By “institution of learning,” I don’t necessarily mean “a quote-unquote research school,” but I mean any place that claims to be in the business of advancing the knowledge of its faculty and student participants.

      (I suspected that if I hit “Publish” I’d have a busy day. Serves me right for not dedicating my morning to making pancakes instead of sounding off about other people’s problems. :^))

  6. It seems to me that *repeatability* is a sine qua non of scientific inquiry. That is, I can claim cold fusion took place in my kitchen, but if I can’t reproduce it, it’s not a scientific finding.

    Although history is by nature non-repeatable, historians reason similarly — if it doesn’t/can’t happen now according to our understanding of the universe, it didn’t/couldn’t have happened then. That makes a (confessionally) unique event such as the Christ-event a bit of a non-starter, from the standpoint of critical historiography.

    • Hey,
      I think we were writing simultaneously there for a bit. I’m with you 100% on history being “science-like while not having repeatability available to it”: historians’ claims are evidence-based in the same way that scientists’ are, and are similarly falsifiable. Historians, like scientists, hold their claims provisionally, pending new evidence (we just don’t get to produce that new evidence through repeatable experimentation, darn the luck).

      Our shared understanding of the science-like-ness of history should bode well for my response to your last comment, apparently penned while you wrote the comment to which I’m responding now.

      (It’s a beautiful day, and I really have been outside enjoying it quite a bit, appearances to the contrary! Hope you have too.)

  7. I’m not sure that I would group science and history so tightly together. I think Hayden White has shown convincingly that each historian ties events together into a coherent narrative based upon the historian’s ideological goals. In other words, historians take disparate events and interpret them in order to produce coherence. As far as I am aware most modern non-biblical historians admit this fact about their enterprise and do not claim to be doing the same thing as a chemist or something. Because, in fact, no historical phenomenon is repeatable–each event is unique in its own way so it is by definition unrepeatable and it does not fit the same methodological paradigm as the hard sciences. Furthermore, theoretical physics admits aesthetics as one of the elements that determines consensus theories–since theoretical physics is also unrepeatable you have to judge between theories on more subjective grounds.

    So, if biblical scholars perceive themselves to be historians–which seems to be the label of choice nowadays–then they should not claim to be scientists. Therefore, research that comes out certain types of biblical studies should not be judged on strictly scientific bases.

    • (I’ve also already read Chris’s feedback on this, below. Also, readers, see that Chris and I were talking similarly above about history and science.)

      Charles, I don’t control the theory on this as I’d like to, but am well enough acquainted with it to follow you and to be inclined to agree with you. Historians do create narratives that go beyond the minimal “voice” of the available points of evidence, and create these narratives in order to make things happen in their own time that they think should happen. (I think scientists do the same, though with clearer controls.)

      And yes, historians don’t have the benefit of repeatability. But controlled repetition is mainly a way to fast-track falsification of hypotheses, and I *think* that even postmodern historians still make their claims available to falsifiability (we hold our claims provisionally, pending discovery of unexpected evidence). Check me on this, Charles? I am at least somewhat out of my depth on how history describes itself after modernity.

      For my purposes here, history (even conceived as we discuss it here) is science-like enough, in that these narratives are willingly vulnerable to being falsified by fresh evidence, or by a fresh evaluation of the evidence.

      In terms of my post, then: an evangelical theologian-historian is welcome to fashion a creationist historical narrative based on his ideological goals. But because the creationist narrative is historical, it’s subject to evidence-based inquiry. If a school says, “Our faculty are welcome to use their eyes and brains, but if they suggest that there is a strong evidence-based case to challenge our historical claims, then they’re outside the bounds of what we accept,” this suggests strongly that this school can’t be relied on to advance the learning of faculty or students.

  8. A reply to both Charles and Brooke:

    I think better historians and better scientists are aware of the provisional nature of their findings, and of the postmodern critique specifically, which is part of why better practitioners in these fields do not pick fights with theology. (Much as better theologians do not pick fights with science.)


    (1) There are a lot of people in both fields who are prone to speak as if their methodology disproved theological points, so I don’t think it’s improper to address that subset and their popular audiences;

    (2) Saying that “Hayden White has shown convincingly, etc.” is a bit like saying “Roland Barthes has shown convincingly that the author is dead.” OK, but are we realistically going to stop talking about authors? No. Are we realistically going to stop talking about “historical accuracy”? Doubtful.

    Furthermore, from a pedagogical perspective, there is nothing less helpful than teaching White’s critique to a student who barely understands what White was critiquing. Present-day theological students (and many theologians!) do not share the modernist positivism against which he was writing, so he merely (if weirdly) serves to validate their *precritical* notions instead of moving them to a *postcritical* place.

    And yeah, it’s a beautiful day, but I’m not going to pretend that a 4-year-old’s brithday party is more interesting than talking about theology, history, and critical theory.

  9. Chris and Brooke,

    I, like other postmodern historians, think that there are better and worse presentations of history (and I certainly think that young earth creationist rendering fall into the latter category as do blusterings of 8-lane highways). Historical reconstructions can be judged on many aspects including coherence, integration of data, aesthetics, etc. My main point was that, Brooke, you sounded an awful lot like a modernist in your portrait of the intrepid scholar going where no scholar had gone unbiasedly before with no constraints on her at all. This just isn’t how things work.

    Sure, we try to limit our biases and all that (I’m not a pre-critical scholar–I do believe in critical methodology) but every institution has at the least an unspoken narrative that they expect faculty to follow. I would treat this like I would treat historical reconstructions–there are better and worse guiding narratives.

    Now, I would argue that you don’t have to be a methodological atheist in order to be an institution of higher learning. I think there is a spectrum that various institutions fit into from propagandizers (or a kinder term like traditores) to fact conveyors (however, anytime someone goes beyond a bland statement of fact they add a layer of interpretation and shift down the spectrum toward tradition). Different institutions fit into this spectrum in different ways (for instance, there is often not that much methodological difference between the fringes both liberal and conservative even though their ideological outputs are different). I would say that every school has a degree of imposed propgaganda; the question is to its extent and if it is good/helpful or bad/hindering. There have to be some noetic structures in place before we can have rational thought (as Bultmann showed its not a bad thing to have presuppositions–we all have them–the trick is to have the right/most helpful ones).

    Therefore, theoretically an institution could use critical methodologies within a narrative structure and still be a place where genuine research and learning take place (I think that the institution would have to be open to changing the narrative as well but this is really nothing more than what was intended in semper reformanda). In my mind it all depends on what the narrative is and how tightly it is drawn.

  10. Can an Evangelical Christian Accept Evolution?

    [Note from Anumma owner: this is a YouTube link]

  11. Waltke is a highly accomplished scholar, whatever his presuppositions. As these fundamentalist institutions continue to drive out faculty whose intellectual honesty oversteps their commitment to doctrinal minutae, they will continue to systematically marginalize themselves from the broader academy. I’d be perversely pleased with this, except that it will mean that more and more seminarians are being trained by closed-minded, marginalized scholars.

  12. I agree with Brooke. Being on the job market, I have become patently aware of places that have faith statements, or perhaps even more stringent guidelines, which its faculty must maintain. My dissertation arguing for divine deception in the Jacob cycle, I suspect, is automatically worrisome to some of these places. These statements are often a limit to profitable research, and I find it hard to believe that some folk at these schools (though clearly not all) actually believe everything in these statements or doctrinal particulars of a given school. As the preseident of Reformed indicated, there is some wiggle room (though I hesitate to even call it that; there are still clearly defined boundaries that are hardly inclusive). But I think Brooke is spot on: if an institution says your conclusions can only go so far before your job is in jeopardy, that is not a place of academic honesty and integrity. i can get holding basic presuppositions (as commenters have pointed out, what if a Jew holds Jesus to be the messiah, or a Christian believes he wasn’t, or that God doesn’t exist, though I think there is some wiggle room here too; how many seminal scholars may fall into this category? Several come to mind, though I will not name them here), but I don’t think things such as this are right at all.

    I personally do not resonate much with Waltke’s ways of doing theology, and I tend to agree with the commenter above that his conclusions are usually driven a priori by his theology, not by the text (how Protestant of me!). But at the same time, I do recognize that he is a seminal scholar (Waltke/O’Connor, anyone?!). But, truth be told, I’d feel exactly the same way whether this happened to Bruce Waltke, Bart Ehrman, or any Joe Shmo scholar at PodunkU, whom no one has ever heard of . . . it isn’t a matter of stature, it’s a matter of the principle.

    It’s a funny discipline we are in here, folks. It seems like it’s easy to be religiously liberal (whatever that word means!) than to be conservative (whatever that word means!). At least then there are less surprises!

  13. Try being NON-religious!

    The field of Biblical Studies is really screwed up. And I’m thinking nothing can fix it.

    Assyriology is a lot cooler, anyway.

    • If I didn’t have one of those clear plastic covers, Alan, you’d owe me a new keyboard. Next time, I won’t read your comment during lunch. :^)

      And I’ll happily grant that, when the church-related biblical studies racket gets me down or in a twist, I run to Egypt and Mesopotamia to shake it off.

  14. Alan,

    Are you thereby differentiating biblical studies (screwed up / unfixable) from the rest of the human world (hunky dory / easily fixable)?

    Assyriology is a lot *smaller.* Reducing the complexity and diversity of a field is a sure way to make it more unified and “functional.” I am content to keep the biblical studies family large and diverse, even if it means putting up with dysfunctional cousins.


  15. True biblical studies is broken but Assyriology also has its own problems.

  16. I’m not idealizing Assyriology. It’s smaller, true, but that creates plenty of issues precisely because of the humans involved and their petty differences. Every field has problems. But go to the AOS or the RAI and you’ll see that the problems aren’t based in people having faith in the gods that the texts talk about or a priori notions about what the texts MUST say from a theologically dogmatic perspective. Rather, the biggest problems are certain kinds of resistance to integrate more fully into the Humanities. And this is changing. It’s really great to have Christians, Jews, and Atheists talking about ancient texts without really concerning themselves with contemporary theological ramifications. There’s no ban on theological talk. It’s just not done. I find this really refreshing a few months after SBL (if I go to the AOS). (BTW, I enjoy SBL for many reasons. The theological stuff just isn’t one of them!)

    I’m not saying biblical studies shouldn’t be big or diverse. I’m saying that the theological relevance of the bible for contemporary religion tends to make biblical studies a weird creature. I think some things will change in the next generation. But I foresee that it will remain the weird creature that it is for many years to come.

    • Try ETS with fundamentalist baptists who still think that the stories of Genesis have historical value.

      I’d rather learn about how families should function from Hustler than Adam and Eve.

      Better to just say “I’m a fundy and I don’t care about the evidence, so lets just have a beer and talk about crap that won’t impinge on my worldview.”

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