John J. Collins of Yale (not to be confused with C. John Collins of Covenant Seminary) is a believer. He believes in historical criticism (22). He believes in Troeltsch (12). He believes in archeology (5). He believes that the Israelite conquest of Canaan was immoral genocide (5). He believes that the Bible’s historical claims have been shown to be erroneous (4). He believes that the Bible testifies that God can be known “apart from the distinctive testimony of Israel” (6). He believes his moral code is superior to one in which Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is “depicted as a heroic act of faith” (7, cf. 57–58), and one that leads “to the subordination of women” (21). He believes that the Bible remains significant for modern culture, but that it “must be approached with caution.” The Bible cannot be ignored, but “It is also too dangerous to be removed from public discussion and relegated to the realm of unquestioned belief and acceptance” (7).
Collins knows that he has presuppositions (22), but he has not sufficiently sifted that knowledge. What I mean is that the above paragraph demonstrates that Collins has what amounts to a confession of faith. He has embraced what he considers to be an orthodox position. He does not believe in historic Christianity, and his orthodoxy is not Christian orthodoxy. But in Encounters with Biblical Theology he clearly states what he believes in and what he considers to be orthodox. Apparently he does not realize that his own affirmations and denials constitute a confession of faith. So he affirms everything in the paragraph above, all of which fits the Orthodoxy of Modern Protestant Liberalism, but he does not realize the way this makes him contradict himself.
For instance, Collins asserts that he rejects “a view of biblical theology as a confessional enterprise” (2). What he seems to mean is that he rejects a view of biblical theology that fits with positions embraced by historic Christian orthodoxy. But Christianity is not the only confessional position in existence. Collins believes in historical criticism, Troeltsch, and archeology, and he pursues what he calls biblical theology from that confessional position. So he claims to reject the very enterprise he pursues. In reality, though, he has made himself an exception. It is as though he is saying: all confessional approaches to biblical theology except mine are rejected. Collins unconsciously privileges his own religion, then asserts that no one else is allowed to do biblical theology from their religious perspective. Is this critical? Is this open-minded?
Collins writes, “Whether or not one can conceive of a biblical theology grounded in historical criticism obviously depends on whether one insists on a faith commitment that exempts some positions from criticism” (3). But Collins himself has exempted historical criticism, Troeltsch, and archeology from criticism. Or perhaps more accurately, Collins believes so firmly in historical criticism, Troeltsch, and archeology that however they might be criticized, what he believes in overcomes all opposition and defeats all challenges. I wonder whether he has considered the possibility that those who embrace historic Christian orthodoxy might be convinced that however their positions may be criticized, what they believe in defeats all challenges and overcomes all opposition? I wonder if he thinks it possible that our demurrals from his confessionalism, his orthodoxy, result not from closed-mindedness but from different appraisals of the available evidence?
This issue of closed-mindedness is another area where it seems that Collins has contradicted himself. He states, “One of the great strengths of historical criticism has been that it has created an arena where people with different faith commitments can work together” (4). But this is simply not the case, as shown by the next sentence: “The bracketing of religious identities and faith commitments has allowed dispassionate assessment of historical and literary questions, even when this might seem subversive to the religious identities in question” (4). So historical criticism is only open to those who bracket out their faith commitments when they assess historical questions. Collins lauds this conversation where the results subvert religious identities, but what if the dialogue were to support religious identities? That is not a conversation Collins will have. He wants faith commitments bracketed out. But Collins does not bracket out his faith in Troeltsch. He would probably reply that Troeltsch’s methodology is so clearly superior to other approaches that rejecting it will lead to false conclusions. It seems to me, however, that Collins’s own presentation of Troeltsch’s methodology asserts a faulty premise, assumes its conclusions, and contradicts itself. I highlight the first two of Troeltsch’s principles as summarized by Collins:
“(1) The principle of criticism or methodological doubt: since any conclusion is subject to revision, historical inquiry can never attain absolute certainty but only relative degrees of probability. (2) The principle of analogy: historical knowledge is possible because all events are similar in principle. We must assume that the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now. Troeltsch referred to this as ‘the almighty power of analogy’” (12).
Principles one and two here are in contradiction to one another because principle one advocates “methodological doubt” while principle two asserts the certainty of “the almighty power of analogy.” We must doubt everything except the fact that “the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now.” These principles present that classic sophomoric assertion that there are no absolutes, except, of course, for the absolute that there are no absolutes. Collins has presented a methodology that assumes its conclusion. By these rules the possibility that the supernatural accounts in the Bible are true is excluded a priori. In other words, Collins does not engage in study that is open to all exegetical possibilities. Rather, he engages in study that is constrained by his confessional commitments such that it will always produce results in keeping with the orthodoxy he has embraced.
Collins does not seem to recognize the power his own confessional position holds over him. He actually writes, “One criterion for the adequacy of presuppositions is the degree to which they allow dialogue between differing viewpoints and accommodate new insights. . . . All conclusions are subject to revision in the light of new evidence and arguments. This openness to revision is the trademark that distinguishes critical method from dogmatism of any sort” (16). Any sort of dogmatism, that is, except the dogmatism that everything is to be doubted except “the almighty power of analogy.” And this “principle of analogy” is the faulty premise I mentioned above. Is there an analogy for Shakespeare or Dante? Is there an analogy for Waterloo or September 11? Then does there need to be analogy for Jesus walking on the water or Moses parting the Red Sea? Who would believe that Beethoven could compose his Ninth Symphony while totally deaf? Where is the analogy for Milton writing Paradise Lost without the ability to read his own lines? I am not suggesting that all these instances are equal, but in a world where these kinds of things happen, is it so hard to believe that Jesus could be raised from the dead? And if he could be raised from the dead, could he not have fed the five thousand? Reality is stranger than fiction, and the world is bigger than the explanatory power of this “principle of analogy.” To assert that it is “almighty” is to take a leap of faith that requires more credulity than that paid by those who embrace historic Christian orthodoxy.
Collins thinks that the dogmatism he has embraced allows dialogue and accommodates new insights, and it does, as long as that dialogue does not include possibilities that would support historic Christian orthodoxy, and as long as the insights do not come from any who embrace that confession rather than the one Collins finds compelling. But is that open dialogue? One searches the index of this volume in vain for evangelical biblical theologians such as Block or Bock, Carson or Dempster, Hafemann or House, Schlatter or Schreiner, Scobie or Seifrid, Thielman or Thistleton, Vanhoozer or Yarbrough. Nor is N. T. Wright privileged to participate in this “open” conversation Collins conducts with himself and the other members of the Church of Historical Criticism.
Nor does Collins contribute to biblical theology, since his faith commitments have apparently kept him from understanding this world where Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is heroic, where the conquest of Canaan visits God’s righteous judgment against those who have committed the most heinous crime in the universe—that of refusing to honor God as God or give thanks to him. Collins does not understand the world-view that sees hierarchical relations between men and women as beautiful expressions of God’s own glory. And in spite of his insinuations that he is objective and dispassionate, he is not. Is it dispassionate to assert that the Bible is dangerous if it is believed?
What Collins calls biblical theology is more accurately termed “reception history.” He writes, “What does lie within the competence of biblical theologians, and what should engage us much more than it has traditionally, is the pragmatic study of the effects of biblical texts, and the metaphysical affirmations contained in them, on human behavior and society” (6, cf. 22). That is a valid form of study, but it is not biblical theology.
Collins is, of course, a learned scholar, and I have learned much from his writings. I think of his Hermeneia commentary on Daniel, in particular. It is sad that Collins thinks he is rejecting confessionalism while embracing a confession. Even more sad is the pitiful, contradictory, hopeless nature of the confession embraced by such a fine scholar. This is the essence of tragedy. When greatness defiles and ruins itself with what is unworthy. Collins is living out the role of the tragic hero. I am truly sad to say it, but it seems to me that John Collins does not understand the implications of his own positions, does not understand the world in which he lives, does not understand the world-view advocated by the texts he has spent his life studying, and does not understand the difference between biblical theology and the history of religions. His only hope is to apply the hermeneutic of suspicion to his own positions and demonstrate a genuine openness to all interpretive possibilities, including those that fit with the idea that Jesus was God incarnate who died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and was raised from the dead to accomplish salvation for all who would trust in him.