Response to Jim West, “Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder”

Our main point about presuppositions is that scriptural fundamentalism and the connected evangelical faith-generated bias of biblical inerrancy are incompatible with scholarly method and critical thinking. But we are happy for others to create the volume that critiques other interpretations that West would like to see. 

See Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder

See Synopsis of Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible?  

By Mark Elliott
University of Arizona

By Kenneth Atkinson
University of Northern Iowa 

By Robert Rezetko
University of Copenhagen and University of Sydney
September 2023 

We appreciate that Jim West put together a brief rejoinder to our recently published volume, Misusing Scripture: What Are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? (ed. Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko; Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; London: Routledge, 2023). He makes some helpful observations about the volume, specifically the introduction, but we also feel that several of his comments need clarification or we would like to distance ourselves from them. 

1. West enthusiastically affirms the characterization of evangelical biblical scholarship in Misusing Scripture, which holds that faith-based biblical scholarship, because it rests on assumptions or assertions derived from religious doctrine, is not a legitimate form of academic pursuit. He, therefore, appreciates the book very much, saying: “But I love this book. Genuinely. I love it because it shreds the lunacy of ideologically driven Evangelical scholarship.... Evangelical scholarship, as West explains, “cherry pick[s] Scripture and enslave[s] it to ideology.” Therefore, according to West: “The benefit of the present that it shows just how widespread that practice is among Evangelicals.” West sums up: “Exegesis in service of ideology (whether political or theological) is eisegesis. And eisegetes aren’t scholars and eisegesis isn’t scholarship.”

2. West also says, though, that Misusing Scripture “leaves Progressives untouched in spite of the fact that they deserve a shredding just as pronounced as the Evangelicals.” He says: “I love this book. But it should have also included denunciations of Progressive eisegesis in service of Progressive ideology. That fact that it doesn’t is its great weakness. Its great failure. Its own admission that it too is just as ideologically driven as any Evangelical.” Therefore, “I can only hope that there will be a companion volume forthcoming titled ‘Misusing Scripture: What are Progressives Doing with the Bible?’” We are a little puzzled by West’s argumentation. While Misusing Scripture does present and critique the views of progressive evangelicals (in addition to the main focus on traditionalist evangelicals), it does not describe or criticize or still less endorse the views of the broader stream of Progressive Christians (modernists, liberals, radicals, etc.), for the simple reason that the topic of the volume is evangelical biblical scholarship and not Christian biblical scholarship or biblical scholarship generally. But we are happy for others to create the volume that West would like to see. 

3. Despite West’s apparent redirect in opposition to Progressives, we are in agreement with him that all interpreters have presuppositions (prejudices, biases, motives, agendas, etc.). He says: “Put simply, because presupposition rules Evangelical ‘exegesis’ (which is really nothing but eisegesis), it is illegitimate. But what interpreter isn’t ruled by presupposition? It is an absurdity to insist that Progressives are somehow immune to presupposition, somehow hovering over the Bible like great spirits who are untouched by motives.” In point of fact, we address the matter of presuppositions in multiple places in our introductory chapter to the volume (pp. 3-9, 16-24, 31-32, 52, 54-55). Our initial point about presuppositions is that while we all have presuppositions, presuppositions are not all that we have, and we do not have to be held captive to them. Rather, through introspection and dialogue, scholars can, should, indeed must strive to recognize and test these, bracket them out, and when necessary reject them. 

4. Furthermore, our main point about presuppositions in the context of Misusing Scripture is that scriptural fundamentalism and the connected evangelical faith-generated presupposition of biblical inerrancy are incompatible with scholarly method and critical thinking. West does not specifically mention this topic in his rejoinder, but it is focal in our treatment of presuppositions and key to the argument of the volume in general, and West does nicely accentuate the issue (and apparently agree with us) in his previous book review on his blog

But what is the problem with Evangelicalism anyway? Aren’t people free to believe whatever they want? Certainly. But that doesn’t give people the right to describe their views as “scholarly.” The reason that Evangelical Scholarship is an oxymoron is profoundly simple and easy to state: Evangelicals don’t do scholarship, they do circular reasoning. They already know where they are going to come out whenever they approach the text: it is God’s word. No matter what it says. No matter how it proceeds. And certainly no matter what the questions are, the answer is always the same: it is God’s Word. To be uncharacteristically blunt, when you already know the answer you’re going to arrive at, the question is never really asked. Nor can it be. (See also West’s wonderful follow-up cartoon). 

5. Lastly, West quotes our explicit objective in Misusing Scripture (pp. 8-9), which he then construes as follows: “We [the editors and contributors] are alarmed that Evangelical scholarship gets a wider hearing than Progressive scholarship in the academic and political spheres, and we want to correct that. Because we want the kind of power that Evangelicals have to shape policies in politics.” We cannot speak for all the contributors to the volume, but we do not recognize ourselves in West’s reinterpretation of our objective, not least because we do not consider ourselves to be among the Progressives (or Progressive Christians) against whom he is speaking.

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