The Presumption of Doubt

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About a month ago, I was going to blog about Ben Witherington's Justification by Doubt, but I got distracted, forgot, and it got off the first screen of my blogging file. I remembered it last night as I was going to bed and thought I should post a link to it before I forget again. Witherington points out a very strange standard in mainstream biblical scholarship. It's as if the word 'critical' has become a synonym for the word 'scholarly', when calling something critical actually amounts to speaking of a person or work's willingness to doubt positive claims. Somehow it's become a virtue not to believe anything you see but to think that some more complex conspiracy theory about the text underlies it rather than what might be seen as a more straightforward reading of the only information we have, which is what the text itself says.

Then this skeptical approach is called objective, as if it's less biased to assume from the outset that someone is misreporting the information but without any evidence that there's any deception. I have to agree that much of biblical scholarship is like this, and I cannot see how this constitutes critical thinking in the way that philosophers encourage us to submit our views and arguments to careful scrutiny. It seems to me that the push toward doubt is at least an attitude and plausibly a view, and there ought to be an argument for doing so if it means moving away from what the key evidence we have (the text itself) actually says. Such arguments should themselves be submitted to careful scrutiny, i.e. critical thinking, and they should not simply be presumed. Maybe there are good arguments, and if so maybe we should accept them, but this equation of doubt and skepticism with critical thinking and careful scrutiny seems to me to be a thoroughly uncritical acceptance of a bias.

4 Comments

This sounds a bit like the hermeneutics of suspicion, where the text surface of the text is assumed to be masking or concealing some other interest. So one approaches the text with suspicion in an attempt to unmask those interest. Marxists, Freudians, Femenists, Gender theorists, etc, often proceed along these lines. It's something that has seeped into biblical scholarship with the growth of pomo approaches in being taught in seminaries.

I think it was in biblical scholarship long before the pomo stuff. It was common enough in the 19th century and dominant in the field long before pomo stuff ever appeared in biblical studies. With some people it takes pomo forms, but the stuff I'm thinking of is closer to positivism than pomo. It's pretty much as modern as you get.

To my knowledge, the pomo movement is in most ways a reaction against the positivism of much 19C thought, including biblical studies. While various pomo thinkers have various ways of being skeptical of things, not all of these are inherently inconsistent with a christian view of the scriptures (IMHO). For a very sypathetic account with a wealthy bibiography, see AKM Adam's fine book What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism.

Paul, I'm a fan of neither movement. Not everything they say is wrong, but I don't find the majority of either approach to be very helpful. I find deep inconsistencies in both, and some of the driving force in both seems to me to be contrary to some things I think are very important.

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