On Being Wrong As A Bible Scholar

Today I'm starting a series built around the theme "On Being A Bible Scholar." In each post of this series I am basically going to use some noun or adjective to help describe certain types of Bible scholars or certain characteristics of Bible scholars. I write these posts, of course, from the perspective of being "in the know" or within the circle; I also write as one who has often observed some of the traits in myself, so, when there are critiques, I'm definitely not exempt. So, to start the series off I want to talk about being "wrong" as a Bible scholar.

Being wrong is not something any of us, scholar or not, tends to aim for or to enjoy. Indeed, it would be rare to embark upon a goal with the hopes or intentions of being wrong. That, of course, is different than embarking on a goal with the realized possibility of being wrong. But there is a sense within the field of biblical studies that being wrong is to lose face, to lose social prestige or standing. Thus, it is in one's best interest to be right, even though that's not really possible all of the time (and we all know that).

Again, nobody sets out to be wrong but there are some dangers that come along with feeling like one has to be right all of the time. I have felt this pressure. One of those dangers is that it is easy to become closed-off or closed-minded when it comes to additional data, especially data that may call one's own view or hypothesis into question. Closely related to this is the danger of stunted intellectual and spiritual growth. The converse of this, however, is not necessarily true, that is, that to accept every idea that comes down the pipeline means you are intellectually superior or spiritually advanced. In fact, those types of actions can, in my view, be signs of weakness because they show an inability to reason through arguments and think for oneself.  In addition, the fear of being wrong can truly inhibit the creative process and can even cause one to stall (whether temporarily or permanently) and never produce or put their work out.  Recently, one of my students was expressing this sentiment to me, so, it is definitely real!  But there is a sense in which we just have to go for it and put ourselves and our work out there.  

Moving on, I might also say that when a Bible scholar always has to be right, another danger they can run the risk of is always being defensive. Now, being defensive is different than defending one's views. Being defensive is to hold a posture that listens to nobody, that responds to non-personal criticisms personally, that puts false words in the mouths of critics to slight or misrepresent them, and that isn't willing to entertain with any real seriousness counter-arguments. Offering a defense, however, is to hear a person out fully, with the intention of seeing if what they have to say can sharpen or better your own view (e.g. you may be bettered by allowing a certain view to be done away with).

In my own journey, I have had to relinquish views I once held dearly and I have adopted views I once called into question. This experience, however, was (and continues to be) formative. There are also times when I have found myself coming off to others as a know-it-all, an arrogant scholar.  This has happened typically without me being aware of it.  Thankfully, I've been blessed by a few honest people in my life who were willing to be truthful with me, and to point that out to me. So, I have been striving toward such self-awareness for a while now. I do not desire to to be the kind of scholar who must always be right and who resorts to belittling others if they call me or my views into question.  

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that being wrong is, in and of itself, virtuous. But I am saying that a posture of humility, which is a posture that leaves space to be wrong, is needed; such a posture, I do think is virtuous. Years ago, when I was very much into apologetics, I walked around with the former mentality while these days, more and more I aim for the latter. I always find it something of an admirable thing when reading a journal article or commentary and the author says, "In a former writing I held this view ___, but since then my understanding has changed." Such comments are encouraging and, as a newly minted PhD entering this field, I find that they help relieve some of the stress of always having to be right.

Should we strive to be right? Yes, I think so. But we should also strive to be humble. I love what Abraham Heschel once said, "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I'm old, I admire kind people." That remark has really been convicting in my life in the last few years.  I have come to truly admire clever people who can advance scholarship while being kind and humble. The ability to mix cleverness with kindness is something rare, I think. Cleverness often breeds arrogance, which is at odds with kindness. Cleverness also often blinds one to the fact that they can be wrong.

While I think things like spirited debate and civil arguments are good and can even be edifying, I've also found that the danger of surety can often lead a Christian to step out of who they are in Christ, all in the name of scholarship, to prove they are either a) more clever, or b) more right than others. I'm the first to raise my hand in guilt.  It is so easy, especially as a young scholar trying to rise in this field, to feel the need to have to prove oneself, establish oneself, and make a name for oneself, and in the process, to fall prey to always having to be right. Perhaps it's something we all need to be more aware of and reminded of with greater frequency. 

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