Contra Hayek, Maybe: The Intellectuals and Christianity

In The Intellectuals and Socialism Hayek attributes the success of socialist thought to its penetration among intellectuals, defined as “second-hand dealers in ideas” such as writers, editors, and pillars of the community, who were not theorists but relayed the ideas of theorists to the people at large. Students of Hayek to the present day have tended to accept this hypothesis, but I think it is incomplete.

Consider a narrower case. The traditional accounts of who wrote the Bible haven’t held up to scrutiny very well. Scholars of the New Testament almost universally agree that the fourteen books of the New Testament traditionally attributed to Paul were not all written by him.* David Aune writes in the Blackwell Companion to the New Testament:

While seven of the letters attributed to Paul are almost universally accepted as authentic (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), four are just as widely judged to be pseudepigraphical, i.e. written by unknown authors under Paul’s name: Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).

Some scholars go lower than seven. F.C. Baur went as low as four (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans), and Bruno Bauer went all the way to zero. Regardless of the actual number or the possible biases of individual scholars, the fact is the consensus is lower than fourteen (or thirteen, removing the anonymous and long-debated Epistle to the Hebrews). Included in the consensus are the reasoned opinions of many self-professed Christians, who make up a majority of Biblical scholars. Even the Vatican, as official an organization as can be, acknowledges that this is the consensus, although it appears to lend greater weight to other theories.

There is a clear intellectual link between these Christian academics and the Christian faithful: church leaders and Christian writers. Yet it is far from common knowledge that even most scholars who are Christians deny Pauline authorship of a substantial number of the Pauline epistles, or that this is a topic of debate at all. The second-hand dealers in ideas have failed to relay what seems to be a very important piece of high academic theory to their non-specialist audiences. It is not as though these ideas are new; for example, Schleiermacher challenged the authenticity of 1 Timothy in 1807.

The question, then, is why the process by which socialist ideas were transmitted from theorists to the public is not repeated for scholarly takes on the Bible. I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. Most Christians already have stronger opinions about the Bible than citizens in general have about forms of social organization. The people who were influenced by socialist ideas adopted a position where they didn’t have one before. Changing minds is a bigger task than making them up.
  2. Socialism is a clearer articulation of a perspective people already had; social creationism is and has always been popular. They were already ripe for it in a way that Christians as a whole aren’t ripe for accepting the scholarly consensus or they were in effect already socialists, just waiting for a creed.
  3. The essential aspect of these beliefs is the psychological desire for purpose. Socialism as a new ideology provided it and the current product in Christianity provides it, not the “newer” scholarly version. In the minds of the consumers of the Christian message there’s nothing to improve. You don’t consistently give sermons nobody wants to hear or you end up talking to an empty room.
  4. There are more intellectual rōnin in this arena who end up dominating the narrative. The second-hand dealers in ideas are disconnected from the theorists in the realm of Christianity in ways they are not disconnected in other areas. This is probably the least credible. It may have some small explanatory power for popular Christian books, but for church leaders the situation is probably the reverse; seminaries are full of stubborn apologists, of course, but they often teach critical scholarship and employ critical scholars, and the boundary between the two groups is not firm.
  5. The information isn’t relevant. I think this one is, if not self-evidently false, at least highly unlikely. Apologist theorists have spilled a lot of ink dealing with this issue. Even those who don’t think it leads to significant changes think it’s relevant.

This only recently occurred to me so I am not confident in ranking these options. I suspect some mix of 2 and 3.

I sign off for now with Colossians 1:24-26:

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.

…wherever it came from.


* I use this case as an example but it extends far beyond the New Testament, and indeed beyond Christianity.

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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