Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Scholarship vs. Apologetics

In my three part series on the Census of Quirinius (I, II, III), one concept has been lurking just below the surface, and that is the concept of apologetics.  Now, there is no one definition of apologetics, but let the following quote from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) website serve as a starting point:
"Apologetics is the branch of Christianity that deals with the defense and establishment of the Christian faith."
CARM follows up this definition with a quote from I Peter 3:15 as follows:
"But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence,"
At the heart of any definition of apologetics is the idea of defense. Apologetics is the defending of a position. Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia which simply means defense. Think of Plato's dialogue Apology, or simply Apologia in Greek, which is the dialogue which presents Socrates' trial and his defense in that trial. Also within the word apologia, there is the embedded concept of logos, the Greek word which carries many senses, but one of them is logic or reason. There is the expectation that an apologia will be logical and well reasoned.

Christian apologetics therefore is a reasoned defense of the faith.  To that end, Christian apologetics engages in research, evidence seeking, logical argumentation, etc. in the pursuit of defending certain doctrines, dogmas, or claims of the Christian faith.  Fair enough.  It makes perfect sense to attempt to reason out one's faith.  Apologetics can be seen as the logical outflow of Anselm's famous phrase, fides quaerens intellectum translated "faith seeking understanding." Begin with faith, then seek logical reasons that support that faith. Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing.  Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point.  Apologetics starts with the conclusion.  The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be "defended" through research.

The method of scholarship follows a completely different, and in my mind more valid, order.
Scholarship begins with observations and questions, does research and collects data and evidence, and only after a careful analysis of the evidence, do scholars form conclusions.  I have compared biblical scholarship to a modified scientific method in another post here.  I think that this is the most valid way to pursue truth.  Your starting point is essential.  You must start with observations and questions, then seek your facts and evidence, and only then form conclusions. To begin with your conclusions and only then seek your facts leads to all sorts of problems. Any position can be defended by facts, and that is what apologetics seeks to do.  But, just because I can find some evidence to defend a conclusion, does not mean that that conclusion is valid.  It merely means that I could find some facts that seem to support the conclusion.  It in no way means that I have treated all of the data fairly or completely.

An illustration of this sort of seeking facts to support a conclusion came up very clearly in my posts about the census of Quirinius. I submit again the following quote from Raymond Brown:
"There is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census of Palestine under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. (Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.)"*
Sure one can seek evidence of a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great, but as Brown states, that pursuit would not ever enter anyone's mind based on the evidence.  The only possible reason to seek for a Roman census during the reign of Herod the great is to defend an already fixed conclusion.

For an apologist dealing with the Lukan birth narrative, their conclusion is their starting point. Namely, their conclusion is that Luke presents historically accurate information. This is the one thing that must be defended.  It is the only conclusion that is allowed.  So, an apologist reasons, if Luke presents historically accurate information (which is not a conclusion based on an analysis of the facts, but is rather an unassailable presupposition) then there must be data to support and defend such a conclusion.  The apologist then seeks for any data that might possibly defend their position. Which has led to the claim that their was a Roman census of Judea during the reign of Herod the Great.  Yet, as Brown notes, "Indeed, as regards the non-biblical 'evidence,' it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he [sic] were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy." An unbiased analysis of the data does not suggest such a census, but is only suggested as a possibility due to the need to defend one's presupposed unassailable conclusion.

In my mind apologetics is fundamentally flawed and does not provide a valid method for the pursuit of truth.  You cannot begin with your conclusions. You must, as rigorous scholarship demands, begin with your observations and questions, then look at the data and evidence, and, only after careful analysis of the data, form your conclusions. What do you think?

* Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 554.

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