The following excerpt is taken from the presidential address given by R. B. Y. Scott in 1960 at Union Theological Seminary titled “Priesthood, Prophecy, Wisdom, and the Knowledge of God.” While the entire article is worth reading, the opening comments are quite good.
To begin with, we are concerned with the Bible as the sacred book of the Hebrew-Christian tradition. It lies before us as a historical document in objective form, the product of a particular ancient religious culture, to be studied by the methods of literary, historical, and form-historical criticism.
Our concern with the Bible would be much more limited if it were no more than this. To those of us, as least, who are related in varying degrees of intimacy to the Christian and Jewish religious communities, the Bible, though we delimit and define it differently, is a canonical scripture. It is the Book
of the Peopleof the People of God. It is our national heritage as a peculiar people, our family archives, the source book of our spiritual history. It has unique meaning and authority within the community of belief which cherishes it and which has transmitted it to us from the beginnings. In this aspect we cannot be wholly detached in our study of it, for the Bible is part of us, and speaks to us as to a congregation assembled before the Lord.
There is still a third way of viewing the Bible, which really is an extension of the second. To the believing Jew or Christian the Bible in a real sense is his Book of the Knowledge of God. It provides its own distinctive answers to basic questions of religion: What is the meaning of the paradoxical nature of man–part spirit and part beast? What is the nature of the world in which man finds himself, and why is he here? What is the all-encompassing spiritual reality with which he has to do? Who and what is God? How can man enter into relationship with God? What, if any, is the way to the knowledge of God? Has God revealed himself, and if so, to whom? how? when? and where, and with what objective result?
However one may conceive the process, the faith of the Bible postulates an actual divine self-disclosure to man. Many who cannot accept this nevertheless find in the Bible much material of interest and value for research into the history of religion as an objective phenomenon. But if ancient Israel, Judaism, and the Christian church had not believed it, they would never have come into existence, nor have preserved these writings for literary and historical study. If we would take the Bible seriously, we cannot evade the question: how and why did these ancient people reach the conviction that God had made himself known to them? That they did so is beyond doubt. If their faith was an illusion, what is the truth to be put in its place? If their faith was not an illusion, this is the most important fact with which mankind must come to terms.
The answers to such questions doubtless belong primarily to the realm of faith and confessional affirmation rather than to biblical scholarship as such, and this is not the occasion to pursue them further. But I must here affirm my conviction that biblical scholars have a responsibility to face ultimate questions raised in our field of study. We expect our colleagues, the natural scientists, to accept some moral responsibility with respect to the consequences for humanity of their professional conclusions. Are we biblical scholars to be so absorbed in the minutiae of scholarship and in our private provinces of special interest, that we–of all people–have nothing significant to say on what the Bible is all about? (Speaking for myself, I confess to a haunting doubt that the precise length of the Hebrew cubit is knowledge necessary for eternal salvation).
In this paper I want to raise a question which lies back of the religious and theological problem of biblical revelation but which is basic to its exploration. It is this. What is the nature of the knowledge of God as the biblical writers themselves understood it, and how did they come by this knowledge? It is a large area of enquiry, and in this galaxy of learning I am only too well aware of the perils of attempting a synoptic view. In looking for an answer I confine myself to the OT, though for me as a Christian the final and irrefutable evidence is the appearance within Judaism of Jesus Christ. (R. B. Y. Scott, “Priesthood, Prophecy, Wisdom, and the Knowledge of God” JBL 80/1 : 1-2. Bold emphasis mine.)
R. B. Y. Scott was a Canadian scholar who finished his career as a professor at Princeton University. While some of Scott’s comments do raise questions, overall I am impressed with the fact that Scott did not see confessional biblical scholarship ultimately at odds with serious (or even “critical”) biblical scholarship. In fact, he indicts his colleagues for spending their careers studying the Bible only to come up empty when it comes to answering the questions that really matter. I also appreciate Scott’s willingness to openly state his presuppositions from which he begins the interpretive process. Apparently, back in 1960 you did not have to pretend to be a robot in order to make objective claims about the biblical text.
I am sure that there are currently people in the SBL that would resonate with Scott’s desires. However, I think most would admit, the tone and confessional warmth of Scott’s address is by no means commonplace (or even accepted in some sectors of the society). My hope is that this generation of biblical scholars would indeed take the Bible seriously and not evade the question as to whether or not the faith found in the Bible is an illusion or not. As Scott states, this is not tangential to our discipline and may we be left speechless when queried about “the most important fact with which mankind must come to terms.”