Unconscious Theological Bias

By: Ray Pseudo - March 26, 2021

Theological bias is always something of which people should be aware. Bias exists in many forms, but as biblical scholars we must recognize that it can be particularly subtle and creep around in insidious ways. As scholars, the ideal is not necessarily to be non-theological, but rather to present arguments that are not slanted one way or another by preconceived non-academic ideas. The easiest cases to recognize are when scholars argue something that confirms later theological traditions. Certainly some traditions are correct, such as that Paul wrote Galatians, but if a scholar argues that Paul wrote 2 Timothy, it is reasonable to suspect there may be a theological agenda (biblical inerrancy) motivating the work. Sometimes, however, the sheer power of the Christian tradition in history can cause theological bias in ways actively counter to the scholar's intentions. This happened to me (at least) once, and the following is that example. The goal here is to explain an instance where a scholar (me) held a view that this scholar did not realize was a theological bias. This highlights the importance of critical examination of traditional and contemporary scholarship due to the tremendous influence Christianity has had on the field, both in the self as with others.

Back when I was in grad school, I was an atheist (as I remain, for that matter). On the surface, then, one would not expect my thinking to exhibit theological bias. I certainly didn't think so. I had rejected the Christianity with which I was raised and fully embraced the tenets of academia, that the disciples didn't write the gospels, that Paul didn't write all the Pauline letters, that the book of Revelation didn't predict the future, and, most importantly (for me), that there was no divine inspiration in anything (note, I'm not saying scholars must believe this, only that the academic standard is to operate as if there was no divine inspiration).

I was taking a course on Paul's letter to the Galatians, and I was introduced to the problem of "faith in Christ" vs "faith of Christ." I believe it was Richard Hays I was reading (probably The Faith of Jesus Christ, 1983). Here's a rundown of the problem:

Paul talks a lot about faith "πίστις," and the traditional understanding of what Paul means is that one must have faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. Pretty basic tenet of Christianity, right? In fact, isn't that the whole point? Well some scholars point out that Paul's Greek typically reads "πίστις Χριστοῦ," not "πίστις ἐν/εἰς Χριστοῦ" (Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16, 3:22; Philippians 3:9; the only exception is Gal 2:16, which contains the phrase 3 times, one of which uses the verb form of πίστις and does have “εἰς,” I won’t get into all that). The difference is that the second phrase adds "ἐν/εἰς," which, conveniently enough, is the word for "in/into." What happens when you don't have that word? Basically, you have a genitive construction, where "πίστις" is the nominative modified by the genitive construction "Χριστοῦ" (the nominative of which is Χριστοῦ). The genitive is the default for assigning possession, such as the "will of God” (Romans 1:10). So "πίστις Χριστοῦ" is actually translated most straightforwardly as "faith of Christ," that is, "the faith which Christ himself had." What is this faith that Christ had? Faith in God. Therefore, in this reading (the "subjective genitive") Paul is not telling his audience to have faith in Christ, but rather they should have the same faith that Christ himself had, the faith in God.

One can readily see how impactful this would be on understanding Paul. If Christ is not the intended object of faith (the "objective genitive"), then does Christianity crumble? What is Christianity without faith in Christ? Judaism?

A further complication in the matter is that "faith (πίστις)" didn't mean in antiquity what it often means now. These days one can talk about faith as synonymous with "religion," such as people of "different faiths" or one's "faith tradition," etc. In antiquity, πίστις was more like "trust" or "fidelity," so you would have faith in military leaders or even a friend to whom you loaned money (you would have faith in them that they would pay you back). This meaning still operates in modern English for the word "faith"; we have essentially divided the word to mean two very different things. We talk now about having faith in vs faith that. A person having faith in God is very different from a person having faith that their boss won't make them work on Saturday. Regardless of prepositions, a parent might have faith in their child to be successful in the future; this is very different from having "faith in Christ."

I will leave the debate about this for another post (you can check out Hays’s book noted above, or see Caroline Johnston Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs, 2007, pgs 82-84). The point at present is that I was incredulous of this reading of Paul. I didn't have faith in Christ, but surely, I thought, Paul did and wanted his audience to as well. I rejected this reading. But...why?

It took me years to figure out why I found this reading so objectionable. Basically, I was convinced that I was pretty well-informed about Christianity; I knew what Christianity was. After all, I rejected Christianity in my own life, which only occurred after years of painful emotional introspection. If I didn't know what I had rejected, was I wrong to reject it? If Paul's "Christianity" was really just a version of Judaism, was I an atheist for nothing? Furthermore, was I so ignorant about Christianity that I didn't even know such fundamentals of Paul's views? I already had a BA and MA in religion at this point in my life (this was my second master's), so how could I have been wrong about this? Wasn't I basically an expert already (HA)?

Rather than go through an existential crisis, I simply rejected this reading of Paul and all the (perceived) consequences that followed it. None of this was on the conscious level. I only knew at the time that this reading jarred me. I threw it out as fringe. Essentially, my theological bias, my preconceived understanding of Christianity, prevented me from taking the idea seriously. I thought that, as an atheist, I had no theological bias. I was wrong.
I have now actually accepted this reading of Paul, but it was only after I became convinced of this that I could look back and ask why I couldn't before. It wasn't that the argument hadn't been made convincingly, it was that I was biased against it. Certainly many scholars do not think it is convincing, but that's not why I rejected it.

In conclusion, I like to think back on this internal debate I had with myself as a reminder of how deep-seated theological bias can be. Christian scholars must be even more careful about this, as they are not only more likely to be called on it but are that much more vulnerable to being ignorant of it themselves. There are plenty of great Christian scholars, and I do not intend for a moment to posit that they cannot make good, convincing arguments for a view that happens to line up with their theological opinion. As I noted above, there are plenty of arguments that I find convincing that do in fact support certain theologically driven ideologies. The key is, as is so often, to be very careful in all respects, both when reading others or making your own argument. If the foundation of an argument is supported only by a theological bias, it will crumble under the weight of scholarly scrutiny. Theology can certainly be a leg of the table, but the table must be capable of standing without that leg. Otherwise, it ceases to be good scholarship.

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Ray Pseudo


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