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My Response to John Hobbins

July 19, 2011

Recently, John Hobbins responded to one of my posts in the Does Higher Criticism try to “Destroy the Bible”? series. For me it is an example of uncharitable reading (some of it so far between the lines it’s not even in the lines), and extreme nitpicking. As we go forward in this series it is clear that regardless of what I write or how I frame the conversation there will be dissenters. This should not be unexpected as there are a variety of epistemological and hermeneutical methodologies applied across the broad range of biblical studies. However I think John’s disagreements with me might be a priori rather than a posteriori. Let me respond and clarify a few of his ‘grave’ concerns.

In the post that John refered to there were two videos by Chuck Missler who was talking about how the DH has been shredded. I pointed out that the situation was more complicated than Missler was making it out to be. Note what I actually wrote

Just to be clear: the DH has not been shredded; if anything subsequent formulations of the original DH (really should be the Documentary “Theory” if we are going to follow the program of methodological naturalism) posit even more sources for the Torah. J1, J2, or H as final redactor, do not add anything, at all, in any way, to the veracity of Mosaic authorship.

The context of this quote is responding to Missler and the idea of single scholarship for the Torah. But somehow in John’s mind, who knows me and my scholarship so intimately, it becomes a stunning leap in logic:

Scott on his part brandishes Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis as if it were a sword capable of slaying dragons – the dragons who breathe the fire of a full-bodied Jewish or Christian faith. Nothing could be further from the truth: the sword of Wellhausen, and the others Scott tries to wield, are made of papier-mâché.

Hyberbolic much? Exaggerate much? Read my quote again: we should use the word theory properly and there are more sources. The point is that in the reformulations and modifications of Wellhausen’s theory that “today, it must be conceeded, the majority of biblical schoalrs in American and European universitiesare convinced by the idea of the Pentateuch’s multiple authorship.” (James Kugel, How to Read the Bible, 42). The point then is just because the DH has been modified by some subsequent scholars, suddenly Mosaic authorship does not become the best theory.

Furthermore, as I mentioned in the post, “In addition, the most popular theory–as far as I can tell–in recent Torah scholarship, asserts that we can learn very little, to no, actual history from the Pentateuch but instead learn about the social conditions in Yehud in the fifth or fourth century.” I assume, though I could be wrong, that this idea would be very disturbing to the average person in the pew who has been told very likely many times some sort of formulation that they can trust the Bible because it is historically reliable.

While John knows me and my work better than myself apparently (I also listen for the divine word from Bultmann apparently, a scholar I don’t believe I have quoted or sourced in a single academic paper) the reality is that Wellhausen’s work while groundbreaking and influential in its day–and let’s face it if you say you work with the OT and don’t know it, forget about it–if I was merely regurgitating his positions for my current work I would very likely receive very poor grades. In fact, the academic work I actually do uses the second theory above and moves away from some of Wellhausen’s ‘fracturing’ of the text.

Second, John is adamant that I am misreading Plantinga and thereby misleading my readers. I may have not reproduced enough of Plantinga’s essay for John but I don’t think the quote I used was out to lunch

Here is the [unsourced] quote Scott provides:

There is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing the procedures and assumptions of historical biblical criticism are to be preferred to those of traditional biblical commentary. [Page 412 of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.]

Little will Scott’s readers suspect that his unsourced quote is part of a larger argument which Plantinga introduces further with the following words:

A little epistemological reflection enables us to see something further: the traditional Christian (whether in the pew or not) has good reason to reject the skeptical claims of HBC [emphasis mine, JFH] and continue to hold traditional Christian belief despite the allegedly corrosive acids of HBC. [Page 412 of Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.]

There you go. I used a quote that said there is “no compelling reason…for supposing the procedures and assumptions of HBC are to be preferred” and John though I should have used a quote that said they had “good reason to reject the skeptical claims of HBC.” I hope you all don’t think less of me now that shocking bombshell has been dropped!

Another reader at John’s site, Patrick Mefford, wrote

I think Scott is far closer to the mark than you give him credit for John.

In my reading Plantinga, his two fold rejection of Troeltschian and non-Troeltschian HBC is his rejection of their presuppositions and the unlikely event of any a posterior evidence had from Troeltschian and non-Troeltschian HBC that could reasonably give Christians a problem (pages 420-421 of WCB).

Anyways, for me, this is an example of John’s uncharitable reading. In a series with thousands of words and several posts title Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? John does not deal with any of the first posts or the primary question that is being pursued. No, instead an ancillary point that if stretched just enough (maybe) can show how I am misleading my readers. When someone has decided to approach your posts in such a fashion you simply cannot win.

Therefore, I will move forward in the series, and though it is partially in my brain I’m not really sure how it is going to come out at this point. But I believe I’ll discuss a little bit about how I view methodology and what I value in historical study. We shall see.

However, I’m sure that John will find some windmills to tilt at when I do.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 7:47 am

    vintage hobbins’ eisegesis.

  2. 4xi0m permalink
    July 19, 2011 8:02 am

    Lol…it’s written in flowery English, so it must be true!

  3. July 19, 2011 8:28 am

    This whole controversy reminds me a lot of the fundamentalist objections to evolution. It’s in the end not the evidence that is being discussed on its own terms but where it leads to in the mind of those who feel truth and revelation is at stake here, based on a more conservative view of authorship. I have no issues with well established theories being up for grabs based on new evidence but this “post-Christian” jab against Scott is revealing nothing but an extremely narrow view of how one ought to approach a text that is both historical and considered sacred at the same time.

    • July 19, 2011 9:18 am

      A clarification: my carefully qualified question about whether Scott is now a “post-Christian” was not meant as a jab. As I already stated, if that’s his current point of arrival, I wish him well with it. I simply wanted to invite clarification.

  4. July 19, 2011 9:14 am

    Well, Scott, I beg to differ with you with respect to the way you choose to represent your earlier postings.

    You said, and I quote:

    “In this comment from Plantinga’s essay he is rhetorically assuring people that they do not have to examine the procedures of historical criticism, because if they actually understood them and did….”

    That is not the case, on any fair reading of Plantinga, who says:

    “There is much to be grateful for with respect to HBC; it has enabled us to learn a great deal about the Bible we otherwise might not have known… ”

    – and then goes on at length to demonstrate that the procedures of HBC, wherever and whenever they depend on principled skepticism, rule out from the get-go principled belief.

    I am in favor of granting everyone a charitable reading, but that’s hard to do if I’m responding to an uncharitable and perhaps under-informed reading of someone else’s work – in this case, that of Alvin Plantinga (you have yet to say whether you have read his argument or depend on isolated quotes).

    Moreover, you misread my comment about you and Wellhausen and Bultmann, so if I misread you, at least we are even. Here is my response to your response re Wellhausen and Bultmann:

    “Perhaps you misunderstand the significance of my naming of Wellhausen and Bultmann. I name them because they are the two most illustrious practitioners of the historical-critical method. If you regard HBC as a door which leads to the truth of Scripture, then they *are* your oracles, and if not them, their pale reflections in people like Davies and Heard and Blenkinsopp. I read these scholars and others you mention with profit, but with the exception of von Rad, most are best at pointing out what Scripture doesn’t say, not what it says. Which, come to think of it, seems to be your forte as well.”

    On another note, in my response on-blog to your misrepresentation of Plantinga’s “both-and” position, I did not touch on another questionable assertion of yours, which you now repeat:

    “In addition, the most popular theory–as far as I can tell–in recent Torah scholarship, asserts that we can learn very little, to no, actual history from the Pentateuch but instead learn about the social conditions in Yehud in the fifth or fourth century.” I

    Popular, that is, among minimalists like your friend Jim West.

    Whereas it is likely that the final details of the various recensions of the Pentateuch known to us derive from the fifth to fourth centuries BCE and, in a few cases, later still (MT vs. LXX vs Samaritan Pentateuch; cf. also other recensional differences attested at Qumran), it remains probable that the vast bulk of the multi-stranded Pentateuch reflects time frames, social conditions, and the appropriation of more ancient traditions in the 9th to 6th centuries BCE. It surprises me that you would suggest otherwise. With respect to faith and history questions and the Pentateuch, furthermore, the most interesting recent scholarship comes, not from the arid corner of the minimalists, but from those pursuing cross-disciplinary research inclusive of cultural anthropology, such that it is seen that it is to be expected that the Pentateuch contains a fluid mix of protological narrative and cultural memories, rather than the kind of history no one was in a position to produce in the ancient world in the first place. How much of the following Pentateuchal scholars have you read: Jacob Milgrom, Baruch Schwartz, Ronald Hendel, Israel Knohl, Bernard Levinson, Jeffrey Stackert, Jeffrey Tigay, Robert P. Wright, Alexander Rofe, and Jon Levenson?

    Just examples, of course. I remain convinced that you are using HBC to bludgeon a wide range of people, from unsavory preachers you seem to have a fatal attraction for, to nuanced philosophers of a high caliber such as Plantinga.

    A vast number of people for whom the Bible is a primary resource of faith and practice, the norm which continues to norm all other norms, have learned that they have nothing to fear from historical biblical criticism so long as it is debugged of the ideological agendas of its chief historical protagonists, Wellhausen and Bultmann for example. Do you have a problem with that? It’s an honest question on my part.

    • July 19, 2011 10:38 am

      I have no problem with that. Seriously, I believe I will show that in my next post. My main though in swinging the pendulum from Wellhausen to the more recent ‘minimalist’ positions is that, it seems to me, the scholarship that followed Wellhausen did not move the authorship issue in a direction that would be more palatable to many evangelicals, i.e., mosaic authorship, but because, again it seems to me, the rhetorical environment they grew up in would still be as unseemly to cede to any sort of multiple authorship or social memory theory. Check out the myriad of sites online that argue vehemently against the DH.

      Now, what I am not suggesting is that because there are persons who significantly struggle with Torah authorship there are not groups of people who have what Sparks calls an experience of higher criticism that is both intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy. There are most certainly people that indwell both worlds, but it seems to me that the ‘average person in the pew’ would have a very hard time with the authorship issue. Perhaps that’s just the sort of anti-intellectual Christianity I grew up in, or too much politically charged theological rhetoric I see from many pastors, but nonetheless, I would guess it is a popular opinion, or to state it more theologically: a false fundamental.

      • July 20, 2011 5:41 am

        Scott,

        I look forward to your next post on topic.

        I have no issues with your rejection of anti-intellectual Christianity. The best-case scenario, IMO, is that that becomes a stepping-stone to an embrace of a form of Christianity that is intellectually satisfying. Such forms exist, after all. To be sure, it is easier to graduate from an anti-intellectual bash-the-unbelievers-good Christianity to an anti-intellectual bash-the-Christians-good agnosticism.

        It will not surprise you to learn that my story is different than yours. I grew up in a liberal family in a wonderfully liberal town, the Berkeley of the Midwest. As a teenager, I read evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s columns every month; in the liberal pietist church my family attended, I learned about “J” in third grade; the first movie I saw was “Woodstock.” In the midst of all of this, I was the recipient of a dramatic conversion experience to Christ. I never got the memo that I therefore needed to renounce my love of Gould and “J” (I did realize, however dimly, that not everything about the Woodstock mindset was compatible with the gospel).

        There was a time in which I looked down on fundamentalism. A friendship from university days cured me of that. Greg Bloomquist (now at St. Paul University) and I used to bop around together. How did you become a Christian, I asked (I was alarmed at the time that he was spending so much time as a volunteer for Rex Humbard ministries). I heard the gospel for the first time through a Pentecostal truckdriver in Spain, was his answer. Greg is a towering intellectual but was knocked off his horse in the most “embarrassing” of ways. In short, the world fits together in surprising ways.

  5. July 19, 2011 10:02 am

    Along with the theory of multiple authorship, is it consensus opinion among biblical scholars that little to no actual history can be found in the Torah?

    • July 19, 2011 11:09 am

      It depends what you mean by history, Geoffrey. In the ancient world, most everything people narrated beyond a 100 year window, falls into the category of cultural memories, which usually have a historical basis in one-time events, to which features and patterns of memory and history of the long duration often accrete. I can provide background reading if you wish.

      • July 19, 2011 1:30 pm

        By history I guess I mean the basic claims of the major narratives. For example, millions of ancient Hebrews escaped Egyptian slavery for the Sinai wilderness.

        Are there consensus opinions regarding claims like these? If so, how can the layperson learn what they are?

        Thanks,
        Geoff

        • July 19, 2011 1:37 pm

          For an excellent overview from a middle-of-the road perspective, try the relevant chapters in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (Michael Coogan, ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Among the most talented maximalist scholars, I would note James K. Hoffmeier. A brilliant school unto himself: Donald Redford. A favorite minimalist scholar: Thomas L. Thompson.

  6. Brer Rabbit permalink
    July 19, 2011 10:07 pm

    Engaging with John Hobbins is like engaging with the tar baby.

    • July 20, 2011 4:58 am

      What a fine compliment you pay me, Herr Rabbit.

      For bunnies like you, however, another tale is more fitting.

      “I wish Robert would play with me again.”

      “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

      “I’m real! I’m real! I’m a real rabbit! Did you hear that, everybody?”

    • July 20, 2011 1:26 pm

      Tar babies are more interesting.

      I’ll say this about Hobbins — nobody drones like him. Anybody who can get through an entire paragraph of his must have an acute medical condition. Certainly there are more unreasonablly fundamentalist and more slavishly orthodox bloggers out there, but the man has a habit about droning on about things that only his mother could care about.

      No, check that, she doesn’t care either.

      • July 20, 2011 3:52 pm

        Tar babies suit you just fine, pf. I’m sure of it. Your method of argument betrays you.

  7. July 20, 2011 4:49 pm

    Scott,

    John is clever and combative in equal measure. IMO he’s well worth listening to and as infuriatingly self-righteous as he is perceptive.

    Consider what he says, but don’t obsess about it.

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