Sundays with Silva: On Academic Responsibility

In a recent post, I pointed to academic responsibility as the higher path that believing scholars should relentlessly pursue as they go about their work. I realize, however, that this may be a little too abstract a notion, and that even those who may wish to follow the summons might be left wondering precisely what this entails. Fortunately for us all, our Infallible Hero has written a number of articles that address in some detail the challenges of conducting one’s intellectual work at the juncture of faith and criticism, so I have decided to quote at length from one of them below.

In his conclusion to a masterful analysis of Ned B. Stonehouse’s brilliant (and even daring) interaction with critical scholarship as a confessional biblical scholar, Silva suggests:

“[W]e should recall Stonehouse’s appreciation for careful scholarship, whether arising from evangelical circles or not. Stonehouse himself, no doubt, was strongly influenced by his teacher, J. Gresham Machen, in this regard. The tendency to play down the significance of contemporary critical theories, and the apparently related habit of too swift a use of modern scholarship when it supports a conservative positionthese are qualities that we must eschew once and for all”1.

Twenty years later, Silva returned to these short yet tightly packed lines in his Presidential Address before the Evangelical Theological Society, marvelously entitled “‘Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed?’ Evangelical Theology and Biblical Scholarship” (the full text of which is available both in an invaluable anthology of ETS Presidential Addresses and in PDF format from the JETS website). In this address, Silva seeks to engage James Barr’s “valid insights” into the problems of Evangelical scholarship in his well known book Fundamentalismthough not, of course, without frankly discussing the many regrettable deficiencies of  Barr’s overall argument. It is at this point that we catch up with Silva, as he raises the often uncomfortable issue of intellectual honesty in confessional biblical scholarship, which speaks directly to our stated concern with academic responsibility:

“We may begin by noticing Barr’s complaint that conservative literature often uses a double standard when assessing the validity of critical views with regard to history:

The fact that historical demonstration is probabilistic and not absolute is constantly exploited by fundamentalists in order to show that critical reconstructions are not certain; on the other hand, . . . the same probabilistic element is exploited . . . in order to achieve at all points the most conservative picture possible. . . . Critical judgments [according to the fundamentalist argument] are at the best hypotheses, which cannot be demonstrated unless the most final and coercive proofs are brought: conservative judgments on the same historical issues are fully reliable knowledge, and cannot be disproved except by the most final and coercive proofs.

“The point is overstated, but if we are not honest enough to recognize that there is considerable truth in this complaint we are not likely to make much progress in articulating a view of Biblical history characterized by intellectual integrity and persuasive power.

“More damagingly, Barr exposes a serious defect in the development of evangelical Biblical scholarshipnamely, the tendency to adopt a critical point of view but to use that approach only when it supports the evangelical agenda. This can happen directly or vicariously. By vicarious I mean the approach of many evangelicals who themselves reject critical methods in principle but who read liberal works looking for arguments that debunk other scholars. Barr justifiably says that this is not fair. How can we claim that a conservative conclusion developed within the framework of so-called higher criticism is valid unless we are willing to say that the framework itself is legitimate and that therefore in principle nonconservative conclusions too may be valid?

“In addition to this secondhand use of criticism, there is the more direct approach of many of us who are actually engaged in critical Biblical scholarship. We explore text-critical problems, analyze linguistic data, pass historical judgments on the literature, and so on; but we tend to avoid dogmatic arguments by focusing on areas that do not conflict with evangelical convictions. Barr points out that

the framework within which such conservative scholarship sets out its position, and the overt principles of demonstration that it uses, lie within a world that is largely shared with critical scholarship. . . . Unlike all scholars who share and actually work with the dogmatic positions of fundamentalism, these conservative scholars share the same universe of discourse with critical scholars and know perfectly well that they do. What they fail to do is to point out the fact, and its lessons, to their fundamentalist readership.

“Barr then remarks that works like the New Bible Dictionary and the New Bible Commentary contain developments that are “quite equivocal in relation to the principles” held so dear by conservative readers. These readers take pride in the fine scholars who defend conservative ideas, but in fact “the deservedly high reputation of some conservative scholarship rests to a large extent on the degree to which it fails to be conservative in the sense that the conservative evangelical public desiderate.”

“We can hardly afford to ignore such criticisms. In fact, the problem may be even more serious than these quotations suggest. Barr suggests that scholars who in one way or another identify themselves as conservative know that they have abandoned distinctive evangelical principles and are simply not very honest about it. That may well be true in some cases. But much more alarming is the evidence that growing numbers of evangelical scholars are blissfully unaware of having adopted approaches or positions that conflict with their religious convictions at a fundamental level.

“In any case, Barr’s criticisms highlight a tensionreflected in the title of this addressthat needs to be faced squarely. I do not concede that this tension is a bad thing in itself or that it indicates a fundamental instability in the work of evangelical scholarship. The fact that we may feel pulled in different directions says nothing about the validity of our position. We may be sure that we will always experience that kind of frustration in this life. The question, however, is whether we are willing to acknowledge the problem, reflect on its implications, and work toward a cogent articulation of our position”2.



1 Moisés Silva, “Ned B. Stonehouse and Redaction Criticism,” WTJ 40 (1977–78):302.

2 Moisés Silva, “‘Can Two Walk Together Unless the Be Agreed? Evangelical Theology and Biblical Scholarship,” JETS 41/1, pages 7-9.

4 responses to “Sundays with Silva: On Academic Responsibility

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