It was one of those great days in seminary, and I was in a small class studying prophets from the Hebrew text. The professor favored following the consonantal text as written. (For those unacquainted with the Massoretic text, there are occasions when something is specified “to be read” [Qere] that is not as it is written [Ketiv] in the text. There are various reasons for this [Wikipedia], but those aren’t important right now.) I would tend to choose one or the other text in a rather eclectic manner, so we had an ongoing discussion.
That day we came upon a passage which was very important to this professor theologically, and the reading that best supported his theology was Qere and not Ketiv. He looks at me and says, “Henry, now’s your opportunity. You can finally accept the Qere!”
I’m a contrary fellow, and it turned out that in this case, I thought a perfectly good translation of the Ketiv could be produced and that it was the better text. I don’t know whether I was right. I’ve been wrong about many things. But that isn’t the important thing here.
As he said that, I was thinking, “You are just accepting that text because it suits your theology.” And as I was thinking that, he said, “You just reject that text because you want to undermine my theology.” Of course, neither of those accusations moved any discussion forward.
I’d heard that accusation before, and I’ve heard it many times since. I do believe people often arrange evidence to suit their preferences. We should all avoid doing that. It’s important to look at your reasoning and see whether it will stand up to scrutiny from someone who disagrees, who would prefer a different conclusion.
As an accusation, it doesn’t prove anything, nor does it advance the argument. In fact, it’s a way of avoiding the argument entirely. I know someone is wrong. How? Because he desires a particular conclusion and has so arranged his evidence as to make that conclusion plausible. But isn’t that what we do when we arrange evidence? We arrange it to point to a conclusion. It’s going to look like we did that. Ah, but the question is whether we came to that conclusion with an open mind by studying the evidence or whether we came to that conclusion prior to a study of the evidence. We would do well to watch for this problem in our own work.
But there is a use of this accusation that troubles me, and my professor’s and my own mutual accusation illustrates it. It’s quite possible for the more progressive among us to assume that all conservative conclusions come from producing evidence to support a foregone conclusion, and for conservatives to think that progressives come to their conclusions for the very same reason. At the same time, each group looks at their own camp as truly following the evidence where it leads.
Traditionalists can use this argument: You only say that because you want to undermine tradition. Progressives can use it: You only say that because you want to uphold tradition.
One of the things I teach regarding Bible study is that we should learn to point the scripture we read and study first at ourselves. It’s easy to read scripture to find all the things other people ought to be doing. It’s much more challenging to read scripture to find out what I should be doing and how I should change.
Similarly, it’s easier for us to see the bias in other people or other groups. Demonstrating that bias is a bit more work, but unless you do that extra work, you’ve done nothing worthwhile.