Westar Fellows are critical scholars. What does it mean to be a critical scholar? How can one tell a critical scholar from other kinds of scholars?

  • Critical scholars make themselves accountable to the established body of knowledge and theory. They belong to a guild of scholars, the cumulative work of which reaches back for centuries. Individual scholars may elect to add to the body of knowledge or modify particular theories, but in so doing they cannot ignore the cumulative achievements of their own fields of study. Critical scholarship forms the larger pool of learning and research that has dominated universities since the Renaissance.
  • Critical scholars adopt the critical methodologies integral to their fields of study. Biblical scholars must know and employ the methodologies of linguists since they deal with written texts, and they must know and utilize social scientific method. And they must know other special fields of study, such as archaeology, history, philosophy, and computer science.
  • Critical scholars practice their craft by submitting their work to the judgments of peers. Untested work is not highly regarded. The first questions asked of the critical scholar is what has he or she published on the subject? And where and by whom has it been reviewed?
  • By submitting the work to the judgment of other critical scholars, one is actually offering to have one’s work judged by the standards and criteria common to all scholarship. This is what makes critical work critical: the acceptance and use of established standards and criteria.
  • It is precisely for this reason that critical scholarship in the biblical field does not permit special pleading on the basis of theological doctrine or other bias. Of course, critical scholars are human and subject to human frailties. The only means they have of protecting themselves against private interests is to insist that every fact, every theory, stand the test of examination by other scholars with different private interests but common standards. Scholars must make their cases on the basis of evidence accepted by all scholars.
  • It is therefore appropriate that Catholic scholars submit their work to the judgment of Protestants; that Christian scholars pass review by Jewish scholars; that biblical scholars measure up to the requirements of historical and philological learning in related fields. Conservative theologians may be skeptical about certain historical events (and often are). Liberal theologians may make conservative historical judgments (and often do). To cite one example, critical scholars may value secondary material in the gospels more highly than something Jesus said. For these reasons, it is difficult to guess the religious convictions or church affiliation of scholars on the basis of their critical judgments. In fundamentalism, by contrast, theology and fact are collapsed into each other, because religious conviction is the controlling element.
  • It is of course the case that scholars are alert to special biases that affect scholarly judgment on the current American scene. For example, many scholars are concerned not to perpetuate biblical translations that demean women. They see no reason to continue anti-Semitic readings of biblical texts. They prefer to avoid ethnic slurs, nationalism, and other forms of intellectual and moral provincialism. Ideally, scholars are dedicated solely to the search for truth, wherever and whenever they find it.
  • Westar Fellows, like critical scholarship generally, represent a wide spectrum of religious belief. Fellows include an ample number of both Catholics and Protestants. A few Jewish scholars have participated in the deliberation. Fellows come from all over the United States and Canada, as well as from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Fellows are affiliated with leading colleges, universities, and seminaries, or they are pastors of a wide variety of churches.

The scholarship Westar Fellows represent is the kind that has come to prevail in all the great universities of the world. It is also the scholarship that has been adopted by the predominant forms of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism; it is therefore the kind of scholarship honored in the theological seminaries connected with those churches.

Even more conservative churches and their seminaries have slowly but steadily adopted the canons of critical scholarship in order to participate more fully in the research and debate characteristic of all fields of study in the modern university.

Want to know more? Try “Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus” by Westar founder Robert W. Funk

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