On Critical Thinking

All academic inquiry must be judged by the standards and criteria common to all scholarship.

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

See Misusing Scripture: A Brief Rejoinder

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

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
 September 2023 

I used to start a new class telling students that they should believe nothing that they are told. And most important, they should believe nothing I tell them. Academic inquiry demands evidence. It was easy to see from their reaction that they were more than surprised. They had probably never heard a teacher say that they should not believe anything the teacher told them.

The point, of course, is that the only acceptable academic inquiry must be 100 percent critical. Either you are critical – or you are not. There is nothing in between; not 50 percent critical or even 90 percent critical. All academic inquiry must be judged by the standards and criteria common to all scholarship.

As a critical scholar, you should never accept the results concerning any academic subject, unless it is subjected to a critical evaluation. There is no subject which is so venerable that you cannot critically evaluate it.

But tell this to theologians of the usual standard. We know that it is risky to travel to Iran and claim that Muhammad never lived and that what is written in the Quran is simply religious insanity. However, nobody claims that such assertions have anything to do with critical thinking. Of course they do not, and the consequence of such a way of thinking is absurd.

In Iran and fundamentalist Islam in general is there something different in their analysis of their sacred texts from the way fundamentalist Christianity is reading their texts? Many westerners argue there is. But is there? The recent collection of studies published by Mark Elliott, Kenneth Atkinson, and Robert Rezetko (Misusing Scripture; What are Evangelicals Doing with the Bible? 2023) has a different story to tell. They insist that the evangelical so-called scholarship has abused Scripture for its own purposes, claiming that evangelicals are defending biblical truth against assaults by non-believers. As a matter of fact, evangelicals are just repeating what fundamentalist theologians have always done. When biblical truth – as they understand it – is under attack, they react not with scholarly arguments but by using force. Biblical truth is the standard for studying the texts, but they are not very good at explaining what this means in a world which is very intellectually different from the world in which the Bible originated. By their arrogant claim that they know what biblical truth is, most evangelicals simply assume that they have some kind of mysterious knowledge of the ways of God. In reality, they are behaving like Iranian mullahs, although sadly (or so they think) restricted by modern secular beliefs. It never occurs to them that they are themselves relics from the past.

I have explained to the editors that I have only one problem with their title. I would perhaps not say, “What are evangelicals doing with the Bible?” but “What have evangelicals done to the Bible?” But I am also living in a part of the world where evangelicals do not have the importance as in “Iran” (using Iran as a symbol of a very serious problem), or for that matter in the United States. In Europe we certainly have evangelical Christianity, but politically and intellectually it is not very important, and has not been for the last hundred years, whether in Protestantism or in Catholicism.

Leaving Catholicism for a moment – after all the Bible does not play the all-important role which it has in Protestant communities – in Protestantism we have witnessed the rise of critical biblical scholarship, a movement that has by now lasted for more than 200 years. It is not perfect, but the general idea is that we are now living more than 2000 years later than the biblical era, and a lot has changed since then. I have sometimes referred to Johann Phillip Gabler’s inaugural speech at the University of Ingolfstadt in 1787. Here he commented on the relevance of the biblical passage stating that Paul said women should be silent in the congregation. Yet, this may only be true for Paul’s time, but we are living in 1787 … meaning that Paul’s advice may not carry much weight in 1787 (not to speak of 2023). (An English translation of Gabler’s speech can be found in Ben C. Ollenburger, ed., Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004: 497506.) As a matter of fact, Gabler’s speech has a lot to contribute to this discussion, as the main trust of his lecture is that biblical studies should precede after their own rules, and not impeded by dogmatic concerns.

Ever since Gabler’s time evangelicals have tried to diminish the importance of critical scholarship, creating their own forum for the interpretation of the Bible. It seemingly works very well for them especially in the United States. Critical scholarship of the kind described here, i.e., 100 percent critical and totally independent from “dogmatic” concerns – dogmatic just meaning any religiously based opposition – has been ridiculed, misrepresented and never accepted by religious people who are convinced that they possess the truth. This has resulted in an inappropriate importance for the Bible in general as a guide to the present, including the natural sciences in all their aspects. It has also resulted in the creation of a dichotomy within present society, between faith-based ideas of life and science, or to be blunt, in the marginalization of the Bible in modern discourse. This is a major problem when we realize that the Bible is providing an image of humans, which we should realize comes from an ancient era containing many different ideologies and beliefs, several of which are not compatible with Western notions of the value of human beings.

What have evangelicals done to the Bible: They have marginalized it, made it unimportant – except for themselves.

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