Another Apologist: P.W. Dunn

Below is a comment of mine directed to P.W. Dunn in a discussion I started with him.  I also posted my comments in my blog here in the post titled About Canonizing Acts of Paul.  The comment here was originally intended to be posted in his blog, but I decided I no longer wanted to continue my dialogue with him as I didn’t see it going anywhere interesting.  Also, I figured this comment could use its own post. 

My discussion with Dunn reminds me of my discussions with Bedard.  The difference is that, even though Bedard was also a New Testament scholar, he overtly identified himself as an apologist and so was open about the fact that his scholarship served a purpose of apologetics.  Bedard even gave his blog the title of Apologia.  So, I knew what kind of discussion I was in the moment I commented to his posts.  Interestingly, I don’t think Bedard made religious claims in his blog but rather always kept the discussion on the level of facts and logic.  Like Dunn, Bedard presented himself as rational, even claiming his beliefs were based on his rationality.  To say the least, I had immense doubts about whether his rationality was actually greater than his faith, but at least he seemed more or less open about his bias. 

The peer-reviewed article of Bedard’s that I read was high quality scholarhip and so I had respect for his intellect… even though it served a purpose of apologetics which I consider far from worthy.  The ironic part of it was that objectively speaking his article easily could’ve been used as evidence in support of my criticisms of his religious beliefs.  It is rather odd how some people have objectivity in terms of their professional career, but can’t appreciate the obvious implications to their personal life.  That is what in psychology is called compartmentalization.  Maybe Dunn has compartmentalized in a similar manner, but it is far from obvious.

I must say I’m not a fan of apologetics and I’m outright critical of apologetics when it’s conflated with scholarship.  I sense enormous problems that are created when belief and rationality are mixed.  The danger is that there is a thin line between rationality and rationalization.  The purpose of scholarship is to lessen bias, and so scholarship that is intentionally biased seems blatantly wrongminded.  I’d even go so far as to say it’s a moral issue.  To me, the role of academic is a noble calling.  The role of professional scholar represents the human capacity for rationality and more importantly represents the ideal of truth.  If even academics lack the ability to see past their biases and lack the ability to seriously consider different perspectives, then there is even less hope for the average person.  An academic spends years training their intellectual faculties and analyzing difficult issues.  Society looks to them as authorities on the subject of their expertise.  Also, academics act as teachers.  In particular, acadmics at a college level are some of the most influential people in the world as they help to form the minds of society’s youth.  We should hold scholars to a very high standard.

However, in the past, fields such as biblical studies were used to support orthodoxy and it’s only been in recent decades that this field has come into its own as a secular endeavor.  Part of the reason for this is because the discoveries of many non-canonical texts only happened very recently.  The church spent great effort over the centuries destroying and suppressing these texts, and many of them were considered entirely lost.  Even once these texts were once again available, the first scholars read them through the bias of what the heresiologists had written at the beginning of Christianity.  New Testament scholarship had been meshed with orthodoxy for so many centuries that scholars initially had great difficulty studying the heretical texts without bias, and many scholars still today are still heavily influenced by the orhtodox criticisms of ancient heresiologists. 

Dunn seems a good example of this.

 – – –

Here is the aforementioned comment:

“I do believe that the New Testament as it came down to us is inspired and is a faithful guide for the church and witness to Jesus Christ.”

When I first commented, I was only making a point about an academic issue.  I wasn’t thinking in terms of religious faith and beliefs, and especially not in terms of orthodox doctrine.

However, reading your response, I’m not certain if this is an academic discussion or a religious one.  You spoke of which texts you considered inspired and which texts you considered inspiring.  It’s not surprising that you don’t find inspiring texts that you don’t believe to be inspired, but either way it has nothing to do with a scholarly discussion. 

My determining what we’re actually discussing is complicated by the fact that you started your response by declaring your belief in the orthodox canon as being an inspired witness to Christ.  OTOH you present this blog as a scholarly endeavor.  So, I’m confused by your using it as a platform for declaring your personal religious beliefs and defending orthodoxy. 

Do you see your role as an academic or as an apologist?  If your scholarship is merely in service of orthodoxy, then I don’t have much interest in continuing dialogue.  I could try to offer a rational response, but there is no rational response to a profession of religious doctrine.  Belief and reason are simply two different issues. 

The problem is that scholarship necessitates this division to be kept clear, but orthodox religion requires scholarship to serve doctrine.  Ultimately, a person can’t both be a scholar and an apologist at the same time.  The moment scholarship is constrained by or conformed to doctrine, it ceases to be scholarship and becomes apologetics.  This isn’t to dismiss religious belief, but it’s simply to say it has no validity in the context of scholarship and instead lessens the objective value of that scholarship.

I’ve yet to see evidence that you clearly separate the two.  If you did clearly distinguish them, then you wouldn’t have brought up your faith in a format supposedly dedicated to academic scholarship.  In having a discussion with you, I’d have to try to make distinctions between your beliefs and your scholarship.  However, this would ultimately be impossible as you’ve mixed them together in your comments.

You seem to be an intelligent person.  I don’t doubt you can make logical arguments supported by evidence.  Nonetheless, your strong religious faith seems to imply that your beliefs are conclusions that precede your arguments.  Before perceiving the situation to be otherwise, I’d have to see evidence of your willingness to change your beliefs to fit scholarly evidence and hence a willingness to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

One thought on “Another Apologist: P.W. Dunn

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s