The path forward academically in a post-postmodern context requires being transparent about ones beliefs, values, and even to some extent our personal experiences. Some of that is built into confessionalism. The confessional academic isn’t pretending she is unbiased; on the contrary, she is transparent about the place from which she is analyzing and assessing the data. In response, those who read the work produced by confessional academics should not treat that transparency as a disadvantage (resulting in a dismissive attitude toward the research), but rather as an advantage, since the presuppositions and values of their interlocutor have been acknowledged from the outset.
The WordPress “Headline Analyzer” algorithm has determined that my title is not all that provocative or interesting, scoring a mere 22/100. When I re-titled it “top ten reasons why confessional institutions are better than the ‘free academy’” it scored 84/100; however, because I’m a responsible academician and refuse to cave to click-bate, I’m sticking with the original and more boring (and accurate) title.
If my reading of the academic landscape is correct, then most scholars, even those in historically confessional institutions, would likely disagree with or qualify my titular statement. After all, doesn’t being “confessional” mean that certain kinds of questions are, by definition, verboten? Wouldn’t that in turn mean that academics in those institutions have to sacrifice the “science” of biblical and theological study upon the altar of confessional consistency? At the very least it should be axiomatic that scholars at non-confessional institutions should regard the products of their confessional cousins as suspect, right?
Not at all. I believe the opposite is the case. Confessionalism, properly defined and winsomely practiced, provides a better and more productive academic environment than the “free-thinking” alternatives. I should qualify things before we continue: I recognize that this article presents an “idealized” view of how confessional academics work. If any of the following seems too rosy and glowy, feel free to insert copious “oughts” and “shoulds” in the list. With that qualification out of the way, here are a couple of reasons why confessionalism promotes academic research and integrity (with more to come).
Confessional Research is Slow
Slow doesn’t sound good but it is. Scholars that work in confessional institutions don’t often make the research headlines, and they’re usually not trying to make the headlines. They (hopefully) do not idolize the past, but they also don’t dismiss the knowledge and wisdom of previous generations. When they encounter a difficult text in Scripture they consult their tradition, and while they (should) feel free to disagree with that tradition if there’s textual warrent–the norming norm of all theology is Scripture–they ought also be reluctant to dismiss it. Slow can be valuable. Slow doesn’t mean that we ignore contemporary issues or drag our feet with regard to the tough questions; rather, it means that we are careful with the latest discoveries and reluctant to reject the wisdom handed down to us. We spend time assessing, debating, and integrating the best of what’s new with the best of what’s tried and tested, which will hopefully result in something fuller and more robust in the long term. But for more on that, see the next point.