Many of you are familiar with Godwin’s Law. Technically this law is only applied to online discussions of varying types. However, I would like to add the following amendment or reformulation of the law:
As a discussion of German critical scholarship grows longer, the probability of Reductio ad Hitlerum approaches one.
I suppose, in the interest of fairness, something about “at conservative seminaries” should be thrown in there. Let me explain the story…
However, before I do let me make a brief excursus. In all probability you, my beloved readers, will have to endure posts such as this on a roughly weekly basis, coinciding with my Theology of the Pentateuch class. If these posts irritate you, I apologize. They are a way for me to maintain my sanity. I’m sure I’ll have other, far more interesting, things to say from time to time. But on Thursday’s or Friday’s, be prepared–you have been warned.
So, I’m sitting in Theology of the Pentateuch with Mandy and Adam. We are finishing our discussion on the Documentary Hypothesis and various higher critical approaches to the Torah. We’ve just finished talking about Julius Wellhausen when Dr. Neihaus makes the argument that the idea of critical scholarship was so ingrained in German society in the 1930s that it allowed Hitler’s rise to power. Leaving aside the logical fallacy and false causation that precedes to such an assumption, what place does it have in a Biblical Studies class? You are, at that point, merely appealing to emotion to convince your audience of your view. I wanted to jump up from my seat, and shout “Godwin’s law! You lose!” But I was able to restrain myself.
Near the end of class we were discussing Gunkel and his thoughts on Genesis as legend. Earlier in the class I had already labeled myself a liberal by asking why God couldn’t have inspired the use of fictitious accounts. We were discussing something de Wette had written and I made a comment that was something to the effect of, “I think de Wette makes the same mistake we do in the modern evangelical church. We assume that if something is myth, if it is not 100% historically accurate, that it means it is not from God.” After half the class stared at me aghast, Dr. Neihaus responded that such a position was “untenable” and would eventually “fall apart.” But, back to the end of the class. We were discussing Gunkel. Adam decided that it wasn’t enough for me to be the class “liberal” (what does that would even mean?) alone. He asked about the parallels between Moses’ and Sargon’s birth narratives. I don’t remember the exact question, but I think he was getting at something like, “Since there are a number of parallels, couldn’t this be a fictional literary form that is used to introduce the hero?” Unfortunately he also mentioned Qohelet and fictional Akkadian autobiography, and Tremper Longman, which distracted from the question itself. Mandy, taking her lead from Adam, brought up Sargon and Moses a few minutes later. This time Dr. Neihaus answered the question by saying that the Moses narrative wasn’t written as if it were legend. It was written as if it were historical fact. Mistakenly thinking that we were getting somewhere I quickly raised my hand and asked, “What would it look like if we were supposed to take it as fiction? How did historical documentation and myth or legend differ back then?” Dr. Neihaus initially said that it would be poetic if it were fiction, but then amended his answer to say that there would actually just be figurative language if it were poetry, but it would still be historically accurate. Adam made one final, noble attempt to get answers by posing the question this way, “What are the triggers that would clue us into an ANE document being myth or legend?” (not an exact quote). Dr. Neihaus eventually answered by saying that one would only really know if it was meant to be taken as fiction after years of immersing oneself in ANE literature, as he had done. The class was dismissed shortly thereafter, sans any talk of the triggers that would indicate that something was not meant to be taken as 100% historically accurate in the ANE.
So, in a way yesterday wasn’t too bad. Largely because I think that I asked some decent questions. I didn’t get the answers I was hoping for, and sometimes I didn’t really get an answer at all, but it’s helping me to establish why I don’t agree with the conservative position on some things. It’s also forcing me to think through what I do believe and how to articulate it. So, there is profit here, even if not of the kind that I would like. I’m far more interested in open dialog. I think in the long run it is far more profitable to have open discussion that is accompanied by gentleness and humility. Nevertheless, since I’m taking the course I’ll take what profit I can find.