Guest Post: Lament for a Maternal Home (or, Is There No Place for Believing Criticism in Evangelicalism?)

Today’s post–or better, testimonial–is by Dr. David Lincicum, Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Oxford University. His research interests include Pauline theology and exegesis, the Jewish milieu of early Christianity, and the theological interpretation of Scripture. He is the author of Paul & the Early Jewish Encounter With Deuteronomy, which is published by the prestigious academic publisher Mohr Siebeck in the series Wissenschafliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament (and costs about as much as a month’s rent for a small studio apartment).

Like many younger and academically trained Evangelicals, Lincicum has had to do some thinking about the pressing tensions between his Evangelical heritage and his academic training. The relationship between the two has been put into sharper relief for him by virtue of his time spent in a British Evangelical context. He shares his experience and thoughts below.


Recent months have witnessed a scene that is becoming all too familiar in contemporary North American evangelicalism: a noted evangelical scholar makes statements about Scripture that seem edgy or uncomfortable. The self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy turn on him, calling him to account for his errors in a public flagellation; their verdicts, in turn, are parroted by the petty tyrants of blogdom and the new social media. After repeated failed attempts to assuage his combatants, the embattled figure steps down from his post to avoid further distraction or pain.

Last year it involved a controversy concerning Michael Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27 in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, a book defending the bodily resurrection (and the irony of this context should not be overlooked).

Most recently, one thinks of the firing of Anthony Le Donne by Lincoln Christian University because of his work in the Gospels (Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?). Many will know of similar examples with lower profiles, battles fought locally and resolved quietly. One recent high profile case, among others, was Bruce Waltke’s resignation from Reformed Theological Seminary following his statements in a BioLogos video “Why Must the Church Come to Accept Evolution?”

I am a grateful son of North American evangelicalism. I spent the summers of my undergraduate days working at Christian camps and in evangelistic ministry in Glacier National Park, completed a two-year internship program at Bethlehem Baptist Church under John Piper and Tom Steller. I earned two Masters degrees, in Biblical Exegesis and Historical and Systematic Theology, at Wheaton College. At the recommendation of my professors, I traveled to the UK for doctoral studies in New Testament, where I now live and work with my family.

Along with many of my young evangelical colleagues, I look with a mixture of sadness and perplexity on these intramural squabbles, and wonder what it signals for the future of North American evangelicalism, the future of our maternal home.

It’s not just that we’re perplexed at the visceral reactions to what seem to be relatively benign positions on critical issues in the interpretation of Scripture, though of course there’s no shortage of befuddlement on that front.  Many of us believe that one can be both critical and evangelical in one’s interpretation of the Bible.

Of course not all will share these critical views, but so what causes more consternation, and in fact, sadness, is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way in which those who hold divergent positions are pushed outside the evangelical tent by the eager theological bouncers at the door.

Evangelicals have a penchant for policing their borders that can be downright shocking in its brutality. Such parsimoniousness is the luxury of an establishment that is quickly fading in the West as we find ourselves at the dawn of a fully post-Christian age.

But more than this, the very thirst for control expressed in this theological McCarthyism is undermined by the theology of the cross these evangelicals hope to safeguard.

A God who gives himself in crucifixion to his people, who dies at the hands of the powerful in a moment of horrendous self-dispossession, can hardly be made to fight the petty squabbles of the institutionally powerful.

Moreover, the specter of anti-intellectualism (which has been haunting evangelicalism from its youth) rises in the doublespeak that says, “We are happy for you to use the best tools and methods available, as long as your conclusions agree with our own.”

As Plato’s Glaucon (mutatis mutandis) might have suggested, some apparently think it best to have the reputation of engaging in intellectual inquiry while actually knowing the answers in advance. But this sleight of hand can only tarnish the integrity of Christian witness in a world of public scrutiny.

With the storm of so many public controversies still rumbling, many of my generation of younger evangelicals think with trepidation about joining the evangelical institutions that sent us out.

The principled commitment to exegetical rigor that we learned from our Evangelical mentors and professors has ultimately led us to conclusions some of those same professors would dispute: a number of us find it untenable to subscribe to a historical Adam, or to affirm the theological usefulness of inerrancy, or to deny the presence of pseudonymity in Scripture.

Having been inspired, as many of us were, by Mark Noll’s incisive diagnosis of lackluster evangelical academia, we have taken the education and the opportunities given to us by our evangelical family and done our best to grapple with all the complexities of Scripture, seeking to do full justice to their historical situatedness while not losing sight of their divine perfection. Now we long to share our work without fear of the witch-hunt.

We dream of working at evangelical institutions without signing doctrinal statements with fingers crossed and one eye closed. In short, we warmly embrace the full authority of Scripture and historic Christian orthodoxy, and want to debate the critical details beneath the banner of over-arching agreement on what is most important.

To our evangelical mentors we would say: You taught us that being evangelical does not require us to sacrifice our intellect on the altar of received opinion. You taught us to be restless in our pursuit of truth, reformed and ever reforming. You taught us to use the best critical tools on the trail of the clearest understanding of the text.

Now we are asking you, not to agree with all of our critical conclusions, but to hear us as sisters and brothers in an evangelical family.

Someone has rightly remarked that each generation needs to write its own books. We do not proclaim, in patricidal fashion: let the old men step aside. We do ask you to hear us without reactionary judgment.

Does not the process of passing on our evangelical heritage mean that each generation needs to release the next to its freedom? With accountability, yes, but the accountability of reasoned dialogue and charitable hearing, rather than public scourging.

Dr. David Lincicum

So to our evangelical forebears in the halls of power in North America, as young evangelicals who strive to practice a believing criticism, we ask: Will you hear us? Will you receive us? As Paul might say: ‘Open wide your hearts to us.’ Welcoming the other is, after all, as much a Christian practice as defending the truth.

 

  • Timothy J. Stone

    Thanks Dave. Well said. In my limited experiences with Evangelicalism they will not hear us or receive us. Not all, but many Evangelical institutions are busy changing their statements of faith to keep us out. These changes invariably concern the hot issues of our time that will soon cool and pass away. What does it say about the maturity of Evangelicalism that is has exchanged the core beliefs of orthodox and historic Christianity for the passing fads of our age?

  • http://www.karlgiberson.com Karl Giberson

    Outstanding post. I fear that the same polarization that has given us the Tea Party driven political stalemate has infected evangelicalism. I wonder where this will lead as gatekeepers work ever harder to expel dissenters, no matter how moderate. This is a snowball effect. I have watched, for example, gatekeepers push thoughtful scholars out of the Church of the Nazarene for two decades. The removal of these voices strengthens the hand of the gatekeepers, emboldening them to be even more aggressive. This trajectory is very troubling as it feeds on itself.

    • http://www.drmsh.com Mike Heiser

      Nice needless jab at the Tea Party. That helps. The Tea Party was founded out of a concern for constitutional government, less government intrusion into personal liberties, and restraint in government spending. Are those societal and intellectual ills? Hardly. Their opposites (present in both parties) are the problem. But aside from commenting on this pointless and seemingly uninformed swipe, I appreciated the post quite a bit, having lived it. It expresses well the heartfelt drive to love God with one’s mind, remain loyal to the fundamental truths of the faith (perhaps arguing for them in different ways than the non-specialist can follow), and appreciate one’s heritage. Many thanks.

  • RJS

    Great post. This puts the issues out in a clear fashion. We cannot have a conversation because admitting there is something to converse about is out-of-bounds.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    Well said, David. Sadly, I get the feeling that those who would welcome us know that in doing so they may be cast out as well. So I think they stay quiet and they tell us in their own way that this is how it is and if we want jobs someday we’d better learn to pick our battles. I hope things change.

  • Steve Aldridge

    Thank you. This affects the rural pastors also. We get out Master’s degrees from evangelical seminaries and they teach us the languages. As we read, we discover the answers we got in class on the critical issues are not intellectually satisfying (especially those of us also with Masters in Biology). So we preach under the tension of evangelical correctness and and our intellectual integrity, ending up a basket-case. It’s good to know that we are not alone. Thank you to all the leaders who are stepping up.

  • http://mldriedel.com Meredith Riedel

    Thanks for your eloquence, Dave. I have long wondered why faith and charity so rarely are found in the same people. Sometimes it’s just hard to go home, I guess.

  • CGC

    Good post! I am a graduate of LCU where Anthony Le Donne was fired. If you can imagine, things are pretty hush, hush. So here is the bottom line. Ready?

    Money – The cat is out of the bag. There might be a prof as LCU teaching heresy? Money, support, and students will drop and nobody in today’s economy can afford more negative publicity and lose financial support. It is simply easier in getting rid of a prof than renewing his contract and dealing with the supposed fall out.

    Churches have been doing this for years. Fire the minister and let’s start over with someone else. What is really sad in all this are the boat rockers, the one’s who cry fire in a crowed theater are never typically called to give an accounting. Worse, they can do it again! They are never the bad guys but are always one of the good guys fighting one of the perceived bad guys who is always somebody else.

  • Dave Lincicum

    Thanks for all the solidarity. These comments and questions make me wonder what might be done on a large scale to open up a conversation about some of these issues. Would a Chicago convention held today retrench and defend, or open itself to the diversity of critical opinion on some of these questions? Anyone have ideas for constructive ways forward? CGC, you’re right to bring up the point about money. I’ve often heard complaints about a theological/ideological gulf between the faculty on the front lines and the trustees or donors with the purse strings. But surely there must be ways to create conversations among the latter group as well?

  • Chuck

    Would you fire someone from a seminary who taught that Jesus was not the Christ or from God or that the Bible was a hoax? If yes, then you agree there are viewpoints you don’t want influencing uneducated minds. I think we all have a different place where we draw that line. Do you want the church to end up like Harvard, once Christian, now anti? On a different note and for example, many scientists and intellectuals now realize evolution to be quite unscientific and actually a semi-religious belief, as one old biologist has said paraphrase ‘everything I learned about evolution in the 60′s is now known not to be true.’ Most people assume origin science to be reliable like operational science. Not even close to the same thing. Macroevolution is based first on the assumption of a naturalistic, no-god metanarrative, then the evidence is shoved into this theory. It does undermine Scripture because it would mean God called millions of years of death and decay “good” before the fall, where ‘death’ was introduced according to Scripture. It is not as if Christians have the Bible and biologists have science. The debate is a science vs. science, it just depends what worldview you place the evidence into. Biology students are the worst because they’ve been shown pieces of evidence (not the counter arguments), and it was placed in the assumptions of a flawed metanarrative. And what is taught to young people does influence their faith and lifestyle. It is a crucial issue for truth.

    • Dave Lincicum

      Chuck, I appreciate your comment. I agree that there is a case to be made for institutions having confessional identities and having a means of excluding those who sufficiently transgress those boundaries. My question is more about where precisely the boundaries ought to lie. There is often an ‘all or nothing’ mentality among certain strands of evangelicals, and this strikes me as problematic on a number of fronts. On the question of human origins, while I’m not really qualified to comment on the science, I don’t think it is a matter of equally probably models of scientific explanation in dispute. There are assumptions in your comment, shared by many, about the genre and purpose of Scripture, and these could certainly be debated in another context. But thanks for raising these important issues.

  • Elijah

    Great post. To respond to your statement about the ideological gulf between faculty and trustees, while I have no doubt that this is true in some cases, in my experience there are still a large number of college professors who are hostile to anything they perceive to be “liberal.” I just finished an undergraduate degree at a small bible college in the midwest. The college I graduated from is one of four educational institutions in the city offering theological training from the same denomination. In my experiences with faculty from all of the schools there exists a sharp hostility to “liberal” theology. Some my profs do not even see a need to address anything they perceive to be liberal. They might engage in debates between, say, Calvinism and Arminianism because they believe this to be an in-house debate. But suggest that Daniel might be a second century pseudepigraphic document and you get a shocked look, followed by a statement about scholars only supposing as much because of their liberal, anti-supernatural bias. In this kind of environment meaningful conversations on the topic are extremely difficult. Sadly, a know of students here who have lost the faith when a plausible alternative to conservative arguments were not provided (though, I suspect there are always multiple reasons why people abandon their faith). I went through a serious crisis of faith myself over this issue. Thankfully, people like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks published their books before I went through college!

    • Dave Lincicum

      Elijah, I’m sure you’re right that these issues play differently in different contexts. Like you, I know a number of people who have turned their backs on the Christian faith because (in part) they held to a black-and-white view of theology in which any deviation in detail was an overthrow of the whole. The slippery slope argument can unwittingly open the back door for apostasy, and this is another crucial reason for reasoned differentiation of the relative importance of theological positions.

  • James

    Perhaps one way forward is to bypass denominational and even academic leaders by appealing directly to the masses through progressive pastors of larger churches–who have their own following. A scholarly congress endorses by the likes of Timothy Keller of New York, for example, might have traction.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Elijah,

    “Thankfully, people like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks published their books before I went through college!” 

    You have been blessed indeed. As a retired Christian biology prof., it would have been so good to have had such resources in the 60′s. For you young theologians and Bible scholars who are publishing such helpful stuff now, please know that many of us in traditional churches are blessed and encouraged mightily by your work. Recent posts on this blog have ably highlighted your plight, and today’s essay by Dave Lincicum is exceptional in this regard.

    You ask for suggestions and I wish I had better ones. For now, perhaps all those laymen and women out there reading these sad stories could give these young theologians an encouraging shout. I know in my spirit that you are out there. These people are helping us think through some matters that, when better understood, will strengthen not weaken our faith. In this forum, you can even offer a word of encouragement anonymously!

    As a further step, if your church has someone on staff who is facing unreasonable opposition while trying to get people to ask important questions about long-held interpretations, support them if you possibly can.

    If there are any church, denominational or Christian college leaders reading this series of situation reports, and if you have any insight at all into what these faithful servants are trying to say, support them in any way you can. You are among the most important voices to educate those precious donors. If you don’t understand what these studious fellows are on about, shame on you! Do some reading, do some praying and smell the coffee!

    The church has been waiting for decades for faithful, Creed-believing theologians to tackle many of these issues in a Christ honoring way. That time has arrived, many books have already been written, rejoice, the ‘liberals’ whom you fear so much have been bested by your former partitioners and Church workers. A new day has already dawned. Don’t miss this great opportunity.

  • toddh

    Beautiful post, kudos Dr. Lincicum.

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  • J. Michael Strachan

    David, Very well said. You speak for many of us. I’m glad to see that you’re doing so well.

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  • Liz Klassen

    Great post, David. Glad to hear you’re doing well in the U.K.

  • r. stark

    Perhaps too many evangelical professors, administrators, donors, alumni, etc., see the university as a church, not a university. –Ergo, the unusual number of potluck events at evangelical schools, haha. –Not to mention the specter of anti-intellectualism that bubbles up with the related sentiments of fear and cruelty. One of the solutions is satire. Swift. Pope. Sterne. More Sterne. What to lampoon? Well, for starters, some of the statements of faith at evangelical universities are obsessive and lend themselves nicely to critique in the mode of Erasmus, who lampooned scholastic excesses in edifying ways. I guess that’s one of the real tricks–to satirize/ridicule/parody and edify at the same time.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    Thank you for this. As a new Christian with a commitment to faith but a questioning soul, it is nice to know there are others who believe there is room for inquiry in the face of received wisdom.

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  • Andrew T.

    You make a fair point, but isn’t there another side to this coin?

    Isn’t there some point in the spectrum where intellectual allegiance to the full authority of Scripture and historic Christian orthodoxy is brought into question? There are many New Testament scholars noting feeling your pain (such as current James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), but one might argue “They are not evangelical”.

    The point is this, what is the purpose of teaching and research as an evangelical? Is it to push forward the bounds of knowledge for the sake of academic pursuit, or to build up theology for the church or prepare the next generation of teachers/preachers? When gauging constraints on intellectualism, we must ask who our audience is, and what our purpose is.

    Let’s face it, most evangelical institution are more designed to churn out the next generation of church leaders, then to to churn out academics. The tension is between cross-purposes. As long as they take serious the responsibility to churn out leaders, they will take seriously the called to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’, which means it is doubtful they will ever divorce the signing doctrinal statements from employment.

  • Giorgio

    Hmm. I wonder what would happen to the great ‘open minded’ secular universities if some biologist said that he did not believe in evolution, or if some OT scholar defended with arguments the Solomonic authorship of Proverbs (most of them – e.g. Waltke)…?

    Maybe I do not have to imagine because there have been such real cases and if the professor did not get fired, he certainly was marginalized.

    See for example Michael Behe in Canada.

    Let me raise another problem, since HONESTY seems to be an important issue here. It seems to me that many of these professors who get fired from evangelical seminaries do not actually honestly support the statements that they sign when they get hired. I understand – they need a job.

    However – it would have made the lives of the seminaries who end up firing them easier, if they were honest with themselves and the school when they signed the statements!
    Isn’t that true?

    • peteenns

      No, Giorgio, that is not true. It is not a matter of honesty but intellectual integrity, which many of those evangelical instituions claim to uphold. Also, evolution and authorship of Proverbs cannot be paired you do here–Pentateuch or Isaiah maybe, but not Proverbs.

      • Giorgio

        I just gave some random examples, Pentateuch and Isaiah work as well.

        I am still inclined to believe that many (most are still hired) of the professors who signed in agreement with the statements of the (usually confessional) schools they work for are not (and were not from the beginning) in full agreement with those. They did it because they wanted a job.

        I hope I am wrong.

        • peteenns

          That is a very serious accusation of people’s character.

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