Faith, Reason, and SBL

There is an interesting op-ed piece in the July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a magazine that has been very worthwhile to follow in recent years. Some believers in the history and theology of the Bible will find BAR troubling. Others will be able to eat the fruit and spit out the rind, as it were.

The battle between faith, reason, and revelation constantly plays itself out on the pages of BAR in drama after drama in archaeology and biblical studies.

In this issue, Berkeley professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies Ronald Hendel explains why he has left the Society of Biblical Literature (or SBL). SBL used to have joint meetings with AAR (American Association of Religion) and ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) until “petty disputes among the leaders of these groups” led to dissolving links.

SBL, meanwhile, needed to increase attendance and funding for meetings now diminished by the absence of AAR and ASOR. So what did they do? According to Hendel, SBL did two things:

(1) Change its mission statement in 2004 to remove the phrase “critical investigation” in preference for the broader language of mission to “foster biblical scholarship.”

(2) To invite evangelical and fundamentalist groups to SBL, so that now such groups as the Society of Pentecostal Studies and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies are part of annual SBL meetings.

Hendel’s Idea of Faith and Reason
Hendel extols the virtues of Blaise Pascal’s separation of faith and reason. Faith is about the heart according to Pascal, and the “heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Faith is intuition, a leap of the emotions and will to conclusions not demonstrable by wisdom.

The other exemplar of Hendel’s ideal balance of faith and reason is the much more disturbing Baruch Spinoza, who first wrote that Moses could not have written the Torah (Pentateuch), disowned the biblical image of God, and chose instead a pantheistic idea of God and reality.

Faith and reason must be kept separate. The Bible can be critically investigated, found to be historically unreliable in the extreme, and yet faith is possible even in the God discussed in the Bible.

I wrote recently in “Faith and Reason, Part 1,” that some of the confusion about faith and reason comes in not distinguishing between two things:

(1) Reasons or evidence for belief on the one hand and

(2) The actual reasons we believe, on the other.

That is, we don’t actually believe because of some fictitious, neutral, objective investigation of the revelatory documents (the Bible, for instance) which leads us inevitably to belief and also to a certain theology of that belief.

But Hendel is upset that SBL is no longer restricted to a certain type of biblical inquiry. He sees it as a loss of professional status. SBL is now open to what we would have to assume Hendel considers non-professionals, people who have no business being part of the dialogue amongst “professional” Bible scholars.

These scholars who allegedly do not belong include all who mix faith with reason. That is not only evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, but also feminists, eco-theologians, and some postmoderns (one would have to assume also some Orthodox Jews would not be welcomed by Hendel).

Should Faith and Reason Mix?
Hendel has let his membership in SBL lapse. He wishes to avoid conflict. At last year’s SBL, he says, the Adventist group invited some Jewish scholars and then handed them material intended to persuade them to convert to Christianity (or Adventist Christianity).

I have to say that believing that faith and reason to some extent belong together is a separate matter from the ethics of proselytizing at professional conferences. Few of the many people who fail to separate faith and reason like Baruch Spinoza would also have blatant disregard for our fellows and harass them with evangelistic literature, especially at SBL meetings.

But the larger question Hendel raises is whether the only professional or serious biblical research is done by people who maintain a strict separation between faith and reason. Here are a few thoughts:

(1) While I have not read any of Hendel’s scholarship, I must say I am more than just dubious that his research is objective or neutral in any sense greater than that of a fellow in the Society of Pentecostal Studies.

(2) Hendel too, like the hypothetical fellow in the Society of Pentecostal Studies, is part of a small group of idealogues with a group consensus on certain points.

(3) I have read some of Spinoza (notoriously difficult and I claim no special insight into Spinoza) and his claim to follow pure reason is pure fiction. It is more accurate to say that Spinoza rejected and replaced the faith of Judaism in his day with faith in certain other philosophical notions (pantheism). Spinoza was an individual and an independent thinker compared to his fellow Jews at the time, but he was no more neutral, objective, or right about the nature of the universe than anyone else (or we should all become pantheists).

The truth is we are all in the same boat. We are all partially blind to truth, the meaning of it all. Our limited perspectives make us all equally able and at the same time unable to determine truth.

Some choose to follow partial evidence down a certain path and to put faith in this path. Others are holding out for greater certainty (which they will never achieve).

If we are all lost in the forest and some of us choose to follow what appear to us to be signs and sounds of the way home and others prefer to keep walking aimlessly until the signs and sounds are more clear, who can criticize those of us who follow partial evidence?

That is, the idea that God has appeared in history, that the Bible gives the best history of God’s intervention in this world, is an idea able to be defended but not proved.

And if some of us mix faith with reason, believing we are whole persons and unable to dissect ourselves as Hendel imagines we can, who can say we are wrong? We would say Hendel only imagines he is able to make the separation and only imagines that critical investigation is purely possible.

Meanwhile, isn’t the discussion richer, not poorer, if people beyond the limits of skeptical scholars come to the table and discuss? I admit that certain viewpoints don’t interest me (including Pentecostal and Adventist viewpoints). But neither would I want to limit myself to the same subset Hendel prefers (scholars who doubt the Bible entirely and choose some sort of faith based on a leap of intuition).

The heart (faith) does have reasons reason knows not of. But we can be critical realists, evaluating the story of our existence and choosing to believe the story is real while always questioning our perception of the story. That is the path I prefer.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Bible, Faith, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Faith, Reason, and SBL

  1. warland52 says:

    should have left a comment on your earlier faith and reason post. I think this is an area where Catholic thought is very useful. Faith is not contrary to reason, but necessarily goes beyond reason. There was a very good encyclical put out by John Paul II called Fides et Ratio which you might find helpful as a resource.


  2. Thanks, warland52. Yes, that sounds like a good extension of the Augustinian saying that reason is faith seeking understanding. I think that idea of faith and reason fits well with the epistemology (theory of knowing) I subscribe to: critical realism. We know only in part and only through distorted perception, but there is actual knowledge to be apprehended. So we believe in realism in our story and continually question and critically evaluate the stories we see looking for coherence and choosing to believe in the best story we can reconstruct.

    I would certainly enjoy reading the encyclical (it would be the first I’ve ever read).


  3. I like your perspective on this topic Derek. Interestingly, in this month’s JBOM, Potok mentions Spinoza two or three times in the context of expressing regret over his cherem, or excommunication, by the Jewish leaders of his day.

    -David Cook

  4. rightrudder says:

    “The truth is we are all in the same boat. We are all partially blind to truth, the meaning of it all. Our limited perspectives make us all equally able and at the same time unable to determine truth.”

    Well put.

  5. judahgabriel says:

    >> Some choose to follow partial evidence down a certain path and to put faith in this path. Others are holding out for greater certainty (which they will never achieve).

    Great quote. Thanks for this post, Derek.

  6. PraetorDrew says:

    There are things we cannot verify, yet we believe in anyway. I cannot prove nor can I provide a strong argument that solipsism is false. I cannot prove the reality of the physical world, or that the world was not created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age. I cannot even prove that our mental faculties are reliable enough to reason properly, yet to deny these things would be insanity. These beliefs are called properly basic beliefs, which form the foundation of our knowledge. They aren’t arbitrary, but based on our senses and intuitions. But these basic beliefs are necessary to reason in the first place.

    In other words, one cannot even reason without a foundation of faith.

    Furthermore, the evidence for the existence of a transcendent, personal creator is overwhelmingly superior to the evidence against the existence of such a being. The absolute beginning of the physical world, the initial conditions at the origin of the universe, the existence of objective moral values, the existence of consciousness, the origin of life, and the historical evidence surrounding the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth all point squarely to the existence of a personal God.

    And look at the way Jesus of Nazareth treated the events of the Tanakh. Such statements as “Before Abraham was born, I am” make no sense if he didn’t consider Abraham to be a real historical figure. Or consider his belief in Mosaic authorship of the Torah, or the historicity of Jonah. This man believed that the Tanakh was historically accurate, and he was raised from the dead!

    So where is the conflict between faith and reason?

    If the hard evidence really was heavily stacked against the Biblical worldview, then no one should hold such a worldview. To do so would be delusional.

  7. PraetorDrew:

    Some people demand more evidence of God. If believers are honest, we’d admit that God’s absence is overwhelming. Evidence for God is not of the type that most readily fosters belief (sensory evidence).

    I think you are being too simplistic about the nature of the evidence. I believe in God and that there is strong evidence for God. I never said otherwise. I hope you can see the other side too. Shouldn’t the absence of God bother you more? Have you not witnessed senseless tragedy that defies meaning?

    Derek Leman

  8. PraetorDrew says:

    Greg Bahnsen addressed the question about demanding sense evidence if God exists:

    We might ask , “Is there a box of crackers in the pantry?” And we know how we would
    go about answering that question. But that’s quite different than how we answer questions about barometric pressure, quasars, causation, memories, dreams, the mind-body problem, causation, beauty, or love.

    The kind of evidence you need to look for is different for different fields of study. To think that investigating the existence of God is like investigating the existence of the Lock Ness Monster is to think that investigating the existence of a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, and super-conscious unembodied mind is comparable to investigating the existence of a physical, mortal, contingently existing, visible animal. They are not remotely in the same category.

    So what other evidence would you expect if such a mind existed? You can’t even prove that I have a center of self-consciousness, and am not an automaton. In fact, no philosopher has ever been able to come up with a good argument for the existence of other minds.

    So we go with natural theology. If the Ontological Argument is sound, then the existence of God is a logically undeniable reality:

    If the Ontological Argument is convincing, then no evidential or probabilistic argument can go through. If the Ontological Argument is not convincing, that page links to three other sound arguments from natural theology.

    If the problem of evil is the issue, remember that it is in times and places of tragedy that the opportunity to share the love of Messiah exists. It is in the third world, the war-torn zones, El Salvador during the civil war, and China under the oppression of Mao that the Messianic faith spread like wildfire.

  9. PraetorDrew:

    You’re not being very convincing. I too think the cosmological, teleological, and (some forms) of the ontological arguments are evidence. They are not proof.

    You are not thinking deeply enough, in my opinion, about tragedy and the absence of God.

    If faith were as easy as you make it out to be, why would we have half of the Psalms in the book of Psalms? Why Job? Ecclesiastes?

    So, if you have a personal need to say, “Faith is obvious; what’s the problem?” go ahead.

    Meanwhile I will say that faith is a decision to follow evidence that is unproven. Faith is difficult.

    Remember, there is a difference between:

    (a) reasons we actually believe and

    (b) reasons to believe.


  10. PraetorDrew says:


    I apologize if I offended you. Certain statements about faith and reason tend to strike a nerve. Few things seems as hypocritical as pretending to have faith, but limiting it to the personal realm. In other words, worshiping God on one day of the week, and then following a methodological naturalism in your scholarship. This is deism, not a Biblical faith. If the universe is a closed system under physics, or if the resurrection is unhistorical, then the Bible should be thrown out. Like Gary Habermas and Michael Brown, if the evidence turned heavily against my beliefs, I would walk away from them. This is one reason I could never be a Mormon.

    Also, there is a difference between belief in the facts of God, and a real trust in God. I find belief in the former to be rather easy. It’s putting something on the line, taking real risk, that it difficult. There is a difference between being totally intellectually convinced that skydiving is safe and actually taking the plunge.

  11. PraetorDrew:

    Did I say anything approximating methodological naturalism? I hope you were talking about someone else.

    Derek Leman

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