Biblical Scholarship as Onanism

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(David) I’m in the midst of John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch and finding it a worthwhile read. John is especially provocative in the first third of the book where he challenges conservative responses to higher criticism over the past two centuries. I appreciate much of what I’ve read thus far, though I’m not certain I’ll end up agreeing with his overall argument.

But working through the book’s history of Evangelical responses to higher criticism brings me face-to-face with the curiously schizophrenic state of modern conservative biblical scholarship which, though it labors to remain dutifully faithful to the supernaturalism of events in Scriptural narrative, so frequently fails to credit God with supernatural power at precisely the point of study in question.

For instance, no conservative Biblical scholar would deny the supernatural resurrection of Christ and few would resort to naturalistic explanations of the parting of the Red Sea, but almost without exception conservative scholars implicitly reject supernaturalism when it comes to the writing and transmission of the Word of God.

Which is why, I suspect, when they defend the overt supernaturalism of biblical stories it so often seems forced and half-hearted….

So you have the modern conservative biblical scholar laboring to prove himself a card-carrying conservative in defense of the miracles of the Pentateuch, but refusing to regard the process of inspiration as supernatural. The story of Moses parting the Red Sea is affirmed as supernatural, but Moses depended on oral sources in compiling the Pentateuch and was himself helped by a later editor because: first, the Pentateuch refers to events far predating Moses’s life which he could not have had first-hand knowledge of, and; second, his own death and subsequent events are described in the Pentateuch.

Yet credit the Holy Spirit with actually inspiring Moses’ writing and these objections tend to fall away. Moses doesn’t need oral tradition to write about the generations of Adam if God is supernaturally inspiring his writing. Similarly, under inspiration Moses can write of his own death.

Faith in God, it seems to me, isn’t just a general idea that God can do powerful things. True faith looks to God at precisely the point of difficulty and says, “My God is able.” It’s precisely here that modern conservative biblical scholarship fails so abjectly. God is supernatural everywhere but here. It’s as though Abraham were to tell Hagar to trust God for Ishmael but refused to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah himself.

Scholarship which excludes Divine power as the explanation of its mysteries is no more faithful when it’s engaged in by biblical professors at conservative Christian schools than when done by cosmologists at Harvard. In both cases the question is, does God reign here? The cosmologist may well permit a supernatural God in inspiration, but not in creation. The biblical professor permits God to work supernaturally in creation, but not in inspiration.

In the end, in both cases God is deprived of the glory that is His due. I suspect conservative Biblical scholarship will remain onanistic until supernaturalism is embraced at the very point of inspiration, and, equally, until supernaturalism is considered a potential answer to questions surrounding the transmission of God’s Word.