Indoctrination, Creeds, and 'Scholarship'
I was brought up in a Baptist church that believed in "the bible" only. No one in my presence ever taught any theology, or any statements of faith. There was no interpretation of the bible, no "this is what the bible says". Rather I was simply encouraged to read the bible as much as possible, and I did. In this way I managed to reach an age of about 17 being extremely knowledgeable of the literal content of the bible, but being totally and completely ignorant of the various interpretations of the bible and of theology in general.
My first exposure to real theology was in visiting an Anglican church where the Athanasian Creed was read. I remember reading the line "in this Trinity... none is greater or less than another" and thinking "Um, that's pretty unbiblical: 'the Father is greater than I' (John 14:28)." Of course since that time I have made a fairly serious study of theology and biblical exegesis. But the fact that I was taught the bible and not any theology or creeds as a child continues to profoundly shape my viewpoint.
I have found that not everyone is like me. Many Christians grow up being taught a certain point of view as correct. They get presented with "the truth" about what the bible "really" says and means. They get taught a particular theology. They get given creeds and told that they contain precious truths needing to be defended. From the age of four their parents teach them certain interpretations of the bible as truth. They grow up in churches that endorse the same theological view. Then they go to seminaries who teach them how true and how biblical their creeds and confessions are. Then they become 'biblical scholars' and I get to read their writings.
That process scares me and disturbs me. I grew up as a Christian with no theology I would identify as my own, so I have no theological attachments, no particular preconceptions I am afraid to challenge. At the age of about 19 I simply one day thought "hmm, I should probably do some study of what those various denominations believe and find out who is right." My search has been one of neutral and disinterested curiosity to search out the truth. I did not care in the slightest if the Catholics rather than the Protestants turned out to be right, nor would I lose a moments sleep if I found out that the doctrine of the Trinity was rubbish, and if it turned out that 99% of Christians in history were totally mistaken I would shrug and move on... I was simply curious and had no particular attachments to any doctrines or teachings at all - I wanted to know what I ought to believe precisely because I didn't believe anything at all. Yet unlike me, most Christians have undergone 20-50 years of rigorous indoctrination. I can hardly conceive what that's like. It is also somewhat frustrating, because this part of their background so heavily biases their work in favor of the creeds they have been taught that they do not approach the issues from even a remotely neutral angle.
But what can I do about this? If I read a book by a scholar, and in it they do some study and then conclude that the bible precisely agrees with their own denomination's doctrines, what can I meaningfully get out of that? I can try and separate the bad arguments from the good ones, and I would like to think I'm pretty good at that. But bias can heavily affect the presentation of the evidence itself, which makes drawing any conclusions impossible. I have got to the point of taking the view that systematically biased scholarship is not worth the paper it is written on. I have to wonder though, in what sense can these people be meaningfully be called 'scholars' or said to engage in 'scholarship'. The correct term for a defender of a preset position is an 'apologist'. I'm sure they think of themselves as scholars, and think that their work is really a serious and unbiased study of what the bible really says... and it just happens by pure chance that they always end up concluding the traditions they have been taught are correct.
I have learned from experience to be extremely wary of other people's theological baggage and indoctrination, creeds, or confessions that they bring with them to the study of the bible and theology. Easily the worst offenders at systematic indoctrination and apologetics is the Reformed denomination, and it has reached the point where if I know a person is Reformed I will simply not read their works. But Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, Lutherans and Anglicans can be almost as bad at times, and with all writers it is necessary to keep a look out for indoctrinated bias.
This problem makes biblical studies a lot more difficult than other fields I have studied (ie philosophy, classics, maths, computing). All fields have their crackpots (and philosophy more so than many), but only in biblical studies are there hundreds of people churned out of seminaries per year dedicated to proving the truth of the traditions passed on to them, who will masquerade as scholars and write books defending their preconceived positions that supposedly impartially examine the evidence. It's depressing... how can the field of study advance when there are institutions dedicated to freezing it in stasis due to a perceived attainment of perfect doctrine?