Scholarship, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Use of Doubt

Catholics, Evangelicals, Featured, Religion — By on August 16, 2011 at 5:00 am

Before beginning, yes, that is an Oxford comma in the title. While some have done away with it, I find it still has merit. So sue me.

Today, a friend of mine brought this article to my attention. The title told me that I would likely disagree with the article. While I land decidedly not Roman Catholic (*cough Evangelical Outpost cough*), I instantly had a predisposition against what I was about to read. For starters, I am relatively certain that Roman Catholic scholarship is something that I am glad exists, even if I ultimately do not agree with a large portion of it. But aside from that, the definition of scholarship that the author takes strikes me as empty. For his definition, I find it best to quote rather than attempt to paraphrase:

Scholarship is based on the assumption that the best, most accurate, and trustworthy information is being sought. Scholarship is not based on the assumption that we are attempting to prove what we already know or believe. I learned a dictum early in my seminary career from my friend and co-blogger, Dan Wallace: “We are in pursuit of the truth, not prejudice.” In other words, we must do our best to approach our studies with the intent to follow the evidence no matter where it leads. This is a hard thing to do, as we all have our prejudices. We all have a “home team” for which we root. This is why being true students is very hard. We don’t like to be challenged, only confirmed. However, if we are to be true students – true scholars – we must be willing to suspend, to the best of our ability, our prejudices.

While I generally agree that scholarship must take place with openness, and that we must be seeking accurate information, I think he teeters over the edge of honest research and falls into straight skepticism. Discounting research done with a viewpoint in mind seems problematic. In fact, I suspect that nearly every bit of research is done with a goal or a hope in mind.

I think by the definition provided, scholarship cannot be done by any individual. Who can realistically throw off all hopes of results, especially in regards to theological study? If someone, for instance, decides to study a passage with the hope of not following their bias, in all likelihood they will find themselves on the opposite end, coming to an ‘unconventional’ conclusion because they were looking for something that did not fit the status quo. Perhaps that is a good takeaway from the piece: scholarship is best done by a broad number of individuals and viewpoints, rather than a single person. Being a good scholar may be characterized by wide reading, but if you always assume you are wrong, or at least likely wrong, the slide into skepticism will not be a long one.

Doubt, of course, can be useful for scholarship. Many people are pushed to study and learn because they doubt or question a particular belief. But I think scholarship can be done outside of assuming one is wrong. If we are to build in any area, we do have to make certain assumptions.

Biblical theology, after all, begins with the assumption that the Bible is at least worth studying, if not true (depending on where you stand on the phrase ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant,’ take the term how you will). If the Bible is true, God must exist, and must have at least chosen to speak to people during a certain period of time. It is obvious how this quickly builds. An interpretation of a small passage depends, often, on our understanding of the Bible, of God, of Jesus, and of various other doctrinal positions. I should be able to read Romans 8, as an example, with or without my particular Calvinist bent; but of course I will read it within the doctrinal position I believe. A poor scholar is someone who never studies, but a good scholar not only approaches theology with an aim for what is true, but takes those conclusions and does more theology. The build-up, I think, is important.

While I have focused on the issue with the definition of the term scholarship, others have responded to the problem being described as a uniquely Roman Catholic one. I think the response there is fair: in short, Evangelicals also are found under a bubble of authority, though it is perhaps less ‘official.’ Perhaps the best example (which that author provided) is that of Rob Bell. If John Piper is any sort of authority with Evangelical Protestants, which I suspect would be difficult to argue against, then Rob Bell has surely felt the attack of ‘open scholarship,’ under this definition. Bell studied and came to a conclusion opposed to the dogma of Evangelical Protestants, and has been, at least in some senses, cast out for doing so. At the very least, no one can say that Bell’s inclusion in the ‘tradition’ is the same as before.

Let scholarship go forward, by a multitude of believers and doctrinal streams, that we may all arrive at the truth.

image from flickr.


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  • David N

    I didn’t read the article that you linked to, only the quote. However, from that I don’t see where the connection is to doubt. You seem to be suggesting that this author is saying “doubt your assumptions and assume you are wrong.” But, from the quote at least, he doesn’t appear to be saying that. He simply counsels scholars to try to avoid prejudice and follow evidence to whatever conclusion it leads to, rather than always seeking to make evidence fit into a predetermined conclusion.

  • http://longawaited.wordpress.com J.F. Arnold

    In hindsight, I suppose that quote gives his position that flavor. And I admit that might be a valid read, but given the greater context of his article, I don’t think that is what he ends up saying.

    He brings up Descartes as an example of how we should do all study, at least from my reading of his article. Following a way of doubt is important for the author of the original post.

    The title of his post, after all, is “Embracing Doubt or Why Roman Catholic Scholarship is an Oxymoron.”

  • Anonymous

    I’d recommend reading the source.

    In hindsight, yes, the quote certainly doesn’t support my claim as clearly as I thought. That’s what I get for reading the article and then not considering the quote out of context as thoroughly as I should have.