. Biblical Studies & the Myth of Neutrality

Biblical Studies & the Myth of Neutrality

Neutrality is a myth.

Put in biblical terms, either you love the Lord or you don’t. Every thought you think, every choice you make, every word you say, flows from that heart and is determined by its fundamental direction, whether toward God or away from him. There are no fully objective human arbiters of opinion.

And yet even evangelicals who share this conviction sometimes slip into a mythological world in which neutrality is possible. I’ve developed a special highlighting style in Logos to mark these little slip-ups, because I just can’t let such statements go by without scrawling out my disapproval. (I’m an emotional reader, not just an analytical one.)

I’m not questioning the sincerity, salvation, or scholarly acumen of those who make such claims to neutrality. (That’s why I won’t be naming names in this post.) I’m just questioning whether it’s truly evangelical to say, for example, the following about a saying of Jesus in Luke:


That was written by a respected evangelical commentator in an otherwise excellent commentary. But, emotional reader that I am, I marked it up:


Here’s what I did: I made a bright-red highlighter style, added some red question marks into it, and assigned it to the shortcut key Q, for questionable.


Can you see why I would call this statement questionable? This evangelical scholar says the historicity of this saying of Jesus reported by Luke is “possible, and indeed probable.” And one of the major reasons he thinks so is that he can’t imagine why the early church would have made it up.

What I’m critiquing here is, of course, what used to be called higher criticism—”the critical study of biblical texts, especially the evaluation of questions such as authorship, date, sources and composition.“ (Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies, Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 57) I am not questioning all such criticism. Form and source criticism, as well as questions of author and date are all valid domains of inquiry into the Bible.

But here’s my point, and it’s by no means original to me: if no academic discipline is neutral, and if evangelicals are distinguished by their view of biblical authority, then the authority of the Bible ought to extend to biblical studies methodology, not just to biblical studies conclusions. It is the spirit of our secular age to claim objectivity about certain matters of history and science, such as the historicity of biblical events. But it isn’t neutral, dispassionate, and objective for someone to step back and weigh the validity (as opposed to the interpretation) of biblical statements. If God spoke the words of Scripture, and if we are to love him with all our hearts, “dispassion” is disobedience. (Not to put too fine a point on it.)

I’m not saying that we should let our passions run wild and outstrip our thinking, or that non-Christian academics are incapable of saying anything valuable or insightful about the Bible, or that everyone who loves the Lord will get his exegesis right all the time. I’m saying that we are told to love God with our minds (Matt 22:34–41): affect and cognition should not be dichotomized.

When secularism demands that all apparently religious presuppositions (such as “in Scripture God speaks authoritatively”) be set aside in order for something to count as scholarship, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from Stanley Fish:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. (“Why We Can’t All Just Get Along,” First Things, Feb 1996)

(Note that Fish is not talking about a particular political party but about “classical liberalism,” which includes most major political viewpoints in American history. This is not a political but a philosophical point.)

Religion is necessarily doctrinaire because at its heart, the Christian message can’t be proven empirically. Jesus’ resurrection is publicly available history (1 Cor 15:5–7), most certainly, but the gospel demands that we believe also that that resurrection had a particular theological significance (1 Cor 15:3). This truth can only be accepted on authority. And people have a habit of accepting the authorities that accord with their loves.

Common ground

Here I enter mind-reading territory—but only in an effort to lovingly believe the best. I suspect the evangelical commentator I first quoted above, the one who concluded that Jesus probably said what Luke said he said, was making a sincere attempt to meet unbelieving academics on their own ground. And he was doing this, I think, in an effort to reach out to them and persuade them to trust and obey these and other words of Christ.

And it has happened. Higher critics of Scripture have repented of their methodological naturalism and have taken every thought captive to Christ. Eta Linneman comes to mind. Jesus’ call to repentance (Mark 1:15), she saw, goes deeper than our conclusions. As Vern Poythress says in his intro to Apologetics to the Glory of God, we can never go off duty as Christ’s disciples, bracketing out our belief in Christ. And as Tim Keller shows in The Reason for God (and elsewhere), non-Christians don’t bracket out their ultimate beliefs either. Nobody’s neutral.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • My Dad is 87 and seems to feel threatened when speaking about faith. He thinks he believes. He also loves to read and is captive to his chair awaiting an operation for a new hip. Can you recommend an entertaining fiction or non-fiction book I could get him which might get this point across – that being neutral toward God is a death sentence?


  • To keep this to something that can be posted, let me make a plug for the great theologian and debater of the 20th century whose work I cannot seem to get Logos to publish, The myth of neutrality was a key theme of theirs, Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen. And the work I speak of is “Van Til’s Apologetic” by Greg Bahnsen.

  • Another way to approach the problem of historicity and Scripture is to acknowledge that the “historical fact” is a product of inductive reasoning from evidence and not at all deductive logic as in mathematics (although the actual arguments ABOUT the evidence used must be sound deductively as well). All this, put in a nutshell, means that judgments are based on probability amid sometimes contradictory evidence and in theory any historical judgment must be acknowledged as open to revision in the case of new evidence or better arguments showing up.
    One simplified scriptural example: The 3 Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness after 40 days of fasting, and their chronology. Of the 2 evangelists who identify the 3 temptations (John doesn’t mention the issue, and Mark just says Jesus was tempted) Matthew and Luke agree that the first temptation was for Jesus to turn stones into bread and eat. But for whatever reasons they individually reverse the chronologies of the remaining two. The result is not a problem for anyone who reads either Gospel, or both, without worrying about chronology. But for a historian not to attend to timelines is slipshod, to say the least. Either one or the other is wrong. The only other option is to suggest that Jesus was tempted by the same tempter twice using the same temptations but in different sequence, a tactic which I am given to understand has actually been suggested by some over-zealous harmonizers. From a historian’s point of view he can’t do this because none of the 3 authors who mention the issue mention more than 1 tempting. This of course is a Catholic sort of answer, based in the accepted concept that Scripture is meant for our salvation, and need not be looked on either as modern historical biography, modern notions of historical method or modern scientific methodology.

    • Thomas, I do think there is some flexibility baked into the common evangelical wording that the Bible is accurate “in all that it affirms.” Genre considerations, perhaps particularly in the gospels; “free citation”; summary—all of these go into determining what in fact the Gospel writers affirm. I admit that without Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus, I would assume that Matthew had intended to give a particular chronology (and vice versa). I admit, too, that it feels a little forced to point out that only Matthew uses the word “then” (τότε) to connect the second and third temptations to the first, while Luke uses the less committal “and” (Luke 4:5, 9)—allowing room for a non-chronological account. (I also agree with you that two sets of three temptations feels far more zealous than necessary.)

      But I like the alternative even worse: a world in which human readers get to doubt that Jesus really said, “I and the Father are one” or (as is the case with the passages dealt with in this post), “How can they say that the Christ is David’s Son?” Indeed, modern canons of historiography and empirical science were not all in place in that day, but a people who could be blamed for bearing false witness were surely capable of bearing true witness. I’m also not convinced that modern historiographical and scientific methodology are neutral tools, tools which I should trust if they tell me certain questions are open or closed. I believe that these tools are agenda-driven as is all human activity. I actually still use some of these tools; I just try to enlist the tools in the service of the Bible’s own agenda. Surely there are places where I have failed, where my own agenda has trumped God’s word. But all I can say is that by God’s grace I’m willing—no, wanting—to be corrected by Scripture. It is 2017 after all.

      Thanks for reading. I’m honored by thoughtful comments.

      • I too really appreciate thoughtful comment. And I think that I was not clear enough about the force involved when historians use inductive reasoning about evidence. Especially in ancient history in which the evidence is only available at the mercy of the historical randomness of finding it at all (this includes archaeological evidence as well.) It’s understandable that, given the historical methodology evolved from the 19th century, people who aren’t professional historians take professional historians literally when they use words like “scientific history.” History is not a science as a science means today. In history you cannot create experiments that can be peer-reviewedand replicated by colleagues and the replications should match or there is something wrong. Even so “soft” a science as sociology can do that through proper use of surveys and the results of an experimental trial can be be properly replicated or not.
        So in theory no “fact” of history can actually be absolutely counted on as “the” historic truth about anything. There can be no tool, even in theory, to tell you what is closed and what is not in the sense I think you are using. I myself think that there can be absolutely wrong answers to some historical issues. For example, I believe that Shakespeare was never influenced by the plays of Edward Albee. But when, say, the zombie apocalypse is old news and 2000 more years have made the issue one of ancient history, then, if today’s sense of methodology still stands, some poor PhD candidate will have to struggle to sort styles and get the chronological issues sorted out. And then it will all be up in the air.
        At any rate, the Catholic “solution” sends us right back to actual faith and the sense of history as often being wrong, and very often even needing revision. It encourages all to look to Christ’s words as God’s words which are for us and our salvation. And it encourages Christian historians to go ahead and use the jargon of their chosen trade as it is today so long as they are honest about it and about the limits of historical methodology.
        It has been a pleasure talking, so to speak, to you.

Written by Mark Ward