Thursday, September 20, 2007

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?


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, I appreciate your position. Although I don't have quite your background, I have been through rejection of the theological positions I was brought up on and relying on the Bible alone. In fact that has brought me back to a position not far from where I started, and I can't claim to be totally unaffected by that starting position. Anyway, ultimately I put my trust not in theology but in the God with whom I have a personal relationship based on experience.

I think you are being a bit harsh on seminaries, at least those in the UK. Many, if not all, genuinely encourage their students to look into other traditions and theological perspectives. Of course it is not surprising that most come out with the same perspectives as they entered with, but they are not forced to. The result is that there is no more any denominational theology in the UK (perhaps excluding Catholics who have a different system), more a matter of different theological streams crossing traditional boundaries.

Anyway, I think there are plenty of other fields of academia, even natural science, in which students are encouraged just as much to follow without question their professors' and the academic world's preferred interpretation of the evidence. Just try to get a paper published questioning those preferred interpretations. The difference is perhaps that very often all institutions in the world take the same position. Perhaps theology is unique in that there is genuine debate between very different positions.

Blogger Bryan L said...

"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..."

You seem to place a lot of confidence in your ability to discover what is the truth and what is not and to decide that everyone is wrong while you are the one who is right and has figured it out. Andrew are you the only one who is not blind or seeing blurry or who can see everything apart from your world view and tradition? Although I believe it is right to approach the study of theology open and willing to question everything I also realize I'm just as fallible as the next guy and in the end it all boils down to my opinion and my beliefs and I don't feel comfortable saying all the others who don't agree with me are mistaken while I'm right.
But hey, that's just me.

Bryan L

Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

While I appreciate what you're trying to say, I must express a slight scepticism. I suspect that through a whole range of teaching and activity, and the culture of the particular church, its hymns and prayers and expected behaviour, you actually absorbed a great deal of "interpretation." It just looked like being "only what the Bible says," but depsire being entirely unarticulated, the theology and interpretation was there all the time. There is, ultimately, no such thing as an uninterpreted text.

Blogger Andrew said...

I'm not at all trying to claim that all, or even a majority of seminaries are guilty. And I am certainly not saying that every one except me is guilty of bias. And of course I would never for a moment think I am totally free from all influencing factors.

I am however extremely frustrated by the amount of bias that is out there, and the degree to which it affects theological study...

Blogger Bryan L said...

Hey Andrew, I should have mentioned this but I actually agree with you a lot on this. When I see certain scholars write books on subjects that haven't really been tackled yet and I seem them come to certain conclusions about through their 'scholarly" work that are completely in keeping with their theology (usually battleground theologies) then I just roll my eyes and say it figures and don't even give them much thought. Now when a scholar comes to a conclusion about a passage that does not help support their case and it really would then I listen up all the more.

Of course in the end I'm no scholar and I've written no monographs or had any articles published in any journals, so who am I to judge.

Bryan L

Blogger EONsim said...

Good points, every one certainly has certain biases, which they bring with them when they undertake any sort of study.
The biggest problem I see with those biases is when they refuse to consider that they may be biased. It really would be nice if people put a little section in their books/papers declaring what their background is and or potential sources of bias. Would certainly help in understanding where they're arguing from.

With regards to the natural sciences, undergrads especially are often taught to follow the "preferred" or "correct" view. Postgrad is different, assuming you have a decent supervisor, where it is much more, "what you've been taught is not entirely accurate, go look at the Literature and read it, comeback once you understand and have seen the full range of theories". Of course the big advantage most science has is that it is easily testable, something that can not be said for theology.


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