SBL on Faith and Reason or Upholding “Critical” Standards


I’m too much of a coward to post an official comment on the SBL site regarding this current issue in the life of the SBL, but I will post a few observations on my own blog🙂. For those who do not know to what I refer, see the following link, which is SBL’s initial summary and response to the claims of Ron Hendel that the SBL has lost its way and it no longer seeks to be a society steered by its critical aims:

Hendel’s letter has caused quite a stir among many in the SBL, some sympathetic and many not so. I’m only a student member of the SBL, so I realize that I have little clout here, but since Hendel is suggesting that the SBL has diluted its critical standards and now there is a discussion of making more strict the standards of membership (e.g. the work of students may come under tougher scrutiny), perhaps a student member’s response is appropriate. I want to respond to the “dilution of standards” as it affects student participation and the charges of “proselytizing.”

Dilution of Standards

I have not been a member long enough to know; however, I can say that the current policies regarding student papers are quite high. All first time presenters must submit a full manuscript before they present at SBL the first time. Then the student actually has to present the paper several months later. The next time the student wants to present a paper, only an abstract is required. Yet, if his first presentation did not go well, there is no guarantee that he will present again in the future, and furthermore, not every abstract from a student or professor is accepted. These measures seem like a sufficient “rite of passage” to me. If the Society decides to restrict the work of students by requiring full manuscripts and requiring letters from a co-sponsor (a full-member of the society, usually the student’s supervisor), this action will almost certainly result in less student participation at the meetings. There is something to the idea of a student’s work being supervised, but I think the student stands to gain far more from making actual presentations at the meeting rather than having his or her work policed at a higher standard than everyone else. If student’s work must be policed more strictly, why would the work of seasoned scholars not be, whose work may have become shoddy and perfunctory over the years? I say we agree to let the presentation at the meeting decide. Let the current process “play on.” That is really what it is all about. Hendel’s call for tougher standards based on the criterion of “critical” may not have intended to place students in the cross-hairs but apparently it has.

Student papers do not harm the SBL and its standards. The current standards are fine, and the student has much to gain from entering the discussion as a student. The wider community stands to gain from offering criticism of the student’s work and maybe from hearing a new perspective. What do you all think about this?

The Charge of “Proselytizing”

Again, I have not witnessed this type of behavior, but I have not been a member long enough to assess. If blatant evangelizing is happening, then I think this is out of place for an SBL presentation. We are not attending a Billy Graham crusade after all. The society meets for the purpose of a critical scholarly discussion of the Bible and related literature. If an evangelical or pentecostal attends these meetings, they must do so under the terms of the society. No one is forcing anyone to attend the meeting or be a part of the society.  Yet it must be stressed that all participants have biases and agendas when they come together to convince their peers of their points of view. Once this is admitted from the outset, the free academic pursuit of truth may commence.

The Real Issue

The problem with Hendel’s lament is that if the SBL follows his rhetoric, it will eventually become a uniform Society, which would be extremely dogmatic, and well, fundamentalist in the liberal direction. Since Hendel raised the example of Bruce Waltke, I will make a comment or two about his observations. Hendel actually respects Waltke for his scholarship, but then he dismisses Waltke from the world of critical scholarship for his positions that Solomon wrote much of Proverbs and Moses wrote the laws of Deut. Now, Hendel of course holds the enshrined conclusions here, but his view is not more “critical” than Waltke’s unless “critical” is defined by simple endorsement of the status quo. Both use similar if not identical methods. Many (myself included) are not convinced that the Hebrew of Deut. reflects a post-Mosaic period of the language (what does Mosaic Hebrew look like anyway?), and that the Hebrew of Proverbs represents a post-Solomonic stratum of the language (again, what does the Solomonic stratum look like). My point is not to dispute the diachronic changes in biblical Hebrew (few and debated as they are), but simply to say that this is one method, one set of evidence to consider, and certainly it is too narrow a base to consider whether one is critical in her scholarship or not. Waltke is convinced that the form of Proverbs is consonant with wisdom documents contemporary with Solomon (9-8 century BC), which lends much credibility to the view. How is this method not critical? How has this conclusion been reached by appeal to the angels of heaven or to faith traditions? Hendel seems to be sending a message to SBL that unless a scholar holds to the critical conclusions held by the self-proclaimed consensus of critical scholars, then they should not be let into the society. Frankly, I would want no part of this type of society.

If the SBL desires an environment of academic freedom in order to pursue critical discussions over the Bible and related literature, then it seems to me that they have no choice but to keep the standards the way they are now. If evangelicals such as Waltke are the target of Hendel’s rant, and these ones are the ones encouraged to leave the SBL, then I think SBL will become a very narrow place, not open to different interpretations of the evidence. Again, no one is denying the methods to be employed and their usefulness (though since we are critical these methods are open to critique), but some are denying the conclusions, to which scholars have come using those methods. If some come to different conclusions using similar or identical methods (of course this happens all the time, since not all agree on the conclusions anyway), then I would think that an open society would desire to hear the different perspective (different in the sense it has not adopted the conclusions of the status quo). It just so happens that “critical” may mean something like being open to having conclusions challenged, not just the faith tradition’s but also the ones of liberal scholarship.


My concern is that the SBL guards academic freedom to pursue truth within a critical framework for all (students and seasoned scholars). Evangelical scholars like all scholars (Jewish, atheistic et al.) have faith commitments and biases, which influence their interpretations of evidence and their implementation of critical methodologies. I think good scholarship admits this from the outset, and good scholarship does not dismiss the scholarship of another because of these commitments (that’s for the evangelicals out there;)). Good scholarship listens to scholars of all stripes and critiques conclusions based on evidence and methodological considerations.

I want to have a conversation about this matter with all who are willing. Please leave your comments and I will try to address them as I have time.

2 thoughts on “SBL on Faith and Reason or Upholding “Critical” Standards

  1. I am ignorant of the debate within the SBL, but I do resonate with your questions and criticisms. I do not consider myself conservative in my beliefs or methods, but in the current academic climate I could be perceived as one sometimes. I have several reservations with modern scholarship, the assumptions that underlie it, the methods that it has produced. I appreciate the modern turn towards a more critical scholarship, towards intensity of research and an attempt towards an honest subjectivity, but I am critical of several things that still function in academia as “most scholars agree…” I disagree with the JEDP source-theory, I don’t think there was a Q document behind the Gospels, and I don’t buy into Deutoro-Pauline epistles produced by a member of the “Pauline community”). I think these theories, along with those like them, limit research and critical thinking about texts. They do so mainly because they lead to pointless and unfounded choices and “decisions” that masquerade as “critical results” (I think of John Dominic Crossan’s book, “The Historical Jesus” being touted as “The first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said”). The Jesus Seminar is the best modern example of this, but Albert Schweitzer’s book “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” offers a nuanced historical discussion of modern scholarship gone rampant (I don’t think that was his intention, but there it is) as well. Being critical, that is, being thoughtful and committing to thorough research and skillful, simple, and persuasive argumentation, does not mean that one has to be modern in one’s thinking. Limiting one’s scholarship to the “assured results” of an elitist group, or excluding someone from the “academy” because their results lead them different places than “perceived wisdom,” would then be the opposite of being critical. As you said, it leads to a fundamentalism that is dangerous and dogmatic in nature. This should be the type of thing that critical scholarship eradicates, because it blows away the accumulation of time and attempts to recreate what has actually happened. I think what often happens is that some people forget it is always a mere recreation; it is never closed to revision or change. New knowledge or research may open doors that are as of yet unknown, and fundamentally change the thinking of the whole human race. I say let it be, and that we continue on with it (though I am quite the amateur in the field). Hopefully the “conflict” that is going on in the SBL reflects a commotion towards positive change, rather than evidence of the further downward turn.

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