Confessionalism Promotes Academic Integrity
The WordPress “Headline Analyzer” algorithm has determined that my title is not all that provocative or interesting, scoring a mere 22/100. When I re-titled it “top ten reasons why confessional institutions are better than the ‘free academy'” it scored 84/100; however, because I’m a responsible academician and refuse to cave to click-bate, I’m sticking with the original and more boring (and accurate) title.
If my reading of the academic landscape is correct, then most scholars, even those in historically confessional institutions, would likely disagree with or qualify my titular statement. After all, doesn’t being “confessional” mean that certain kinds of questions are, by definition, verboten? Wouldn’t that in turn mean that academics in those institutions have to sacrifice the “science” of biblical and theological study upon the altar of confessional consistency? At the very least it should be axiomatic that scholars at non-confessional institutions should regard the products of their confessional cousins as suspect, right?
Not at all. I believe the opposite is the case. Confessionalism, properly defined and winsomely practiced, provides a better and more productive academic environment than the “free-thinking” alternatives. I should qualify things before we continue: I recognize that this article presents an “idealized” view of how confessional academics work. If any of the following seems too rosy and glowy, feel free to insert copious “oughts” and “shoulds” in the list. With that qualification out of the way, here are a couple of reasons why confessionalism promotes academic research and integrity (with more to come).
Confessional Research is Slow
Slow doesn’t sound good but it is. Scholars that work in confessional institutions don’t often make the research headlines, and they’re usually not trying to make the headlines. They (hopefully) do not idolize the past, but they also don’t dismiss the knowledge and wisdom of previous generations. When they encounter a difficult text in Scripture they consult their tradition, and while they (should) feel free to disagree with that tradition if there’s textual warrent–the norming norm of all theology is Scripture–they ought also be reluctant to dismiss it. Slow can be valuable. Slow doesn’t mean that we ignore contemporary issues or drag our feet with regard to the tough questions; rather, it means that we are careful with the latest discoveries and reluctant to reject the wisdom handed down to us. We spend time assessing, debating, and integrating the best of what’s new with the best of what’s tried and tested, which will hopefully result in something fuller and more robust in the long term. But for more on that, see the next point.
Confessionalism Promotes Creativity
Related to the above, confessionalism forces scholars to ask questions that non-confessionalists can safely ignore. When I, as an exegete and NT scholar, encounter a problematic text, or a difficult to appropriate historical observation, I instantly have to wrestle with the relationship between that text and my theological inheritance. I can’t dismiss either (and that’s not because I pragmatically want to “keep my job;” it’s because I’ve taken an oath before God and the church, and I took that oath because I value the tradition in which I stand). The text is ultimately authoritative, and so I must, in the end, go where the text leads, but my tradition provides a tested and non-simplistic interpretative grid for all of Scripture, so I’m going to look to that tradition for a framework of understanding. The result of this is new questions–questions that would not otherwise arise if I were unconcerned about the history of interpretation. New questions are the seed-bed of new knowledge, which is the very definition of creativity. Confessionalism enhances discovery because it forces a unique sets of questions and reinforces a “long and slow” approach to developing answers to those questions.
Confessionalism is Transparent
Prior to the rise of relativism and postmodernism, the idea that we could pursue an “unbiased” perspective on the world was viewed as both possible and desirable, but now we know that we are not blank slates. We come with our own viewpoints, partially determined by our context and experiences. In my own seminary education, I was taught that there are no “brute facts,” that we interpret everything through the lens of our relationship with The Creator of All Things; we should seek to “think God’s thoughts after him” (a phrase I will borrow from Cornelius Van Til). If all this is true, it means that we can’t (and shouldn’t) be unbiased. Does that mean that there’s no path to “objective truth” (defined here, at least, to mean “God’s thoughts”)? May it never be! We can still pursue objective truth, but we must do so recognizing the limitations of our own experiences and perspective.
All this means that the path forward academically in a post-postmodern context requires being transparent about ones beliefs, values, and even to some extent our personal experiences. Some of that is built into confessionalism. The confessional academic isn’t pretending she is unbiased; on the contrary, she is transparent about the place from which she is analyzing and assessing the data. In response, those who read the work produced by confessional academics should not treat that transparency as a disadvantage (resulting in a dismissive attitude toward the research), but rather as an advantage, since the presuppositions and values of their interlocutor have been acknowledged from the outset. In fact, perhaps the unique confessional standpoint of their colleagues will result in a new perspective or point of view with which to process their own presuppositions and values.
Confessionalism Resists Exceptionalism and Idiosyncrasy
By contrast to the “slow” and “value-forward” perspective of confessionalism, the academy more generally encourages novelty and discovery, even at the cost of “upheaval” of traditional values and the existing “canon” of human knowledge. This is all well and good; questions and criticism and even upheaval are all values to be maintained in the right circumstances. But when novelty is a value in and of itself it can lead to a kind of radicalism and exceptionalism that is unhelpful. This has become increasingly prevalent across the academic landscape. New and idiosyncratic views are proclaimed and promoted as fact, spread quickly, generate headlines, and often result in a great deal of headache for the institution in question. In the end, a slow and careful approach would have been better. Quirks and idiosyncrasy can actually be helpful; no one wants a dull uniformity in institutional outlook. But when the idiosyncratic because the center of the circle, problems will inevitably arise. Confessionalism helps us to keep the main thing the main thing, while nevertheless integrating the new and novel and idiosyncratic.
More to Come
There are other advantages to confessionalism worth mentioning, but they will have to wait for the next post!