The Bible, Christianity and Scholarship

I’ve wanted to join in the discussion arising from Dan Wallace’s post about the Society of Biblical Literature, the low representation of Christians (whom he defines in specific terms as those taking a conservative stance on key tenets of orthodoxy) in the guild, and scholarship. But I’ve been resisting doing so for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, I have known and continue to know individuals who have studied or are currently studying at conservative seminaries and similar institutions, who have been threatened with or undergone heresy trials or been hassled for even discussing topics that are simply mainstream Biblical scholarship. On the other hand, I certainly recognize the perils of presenting as “liberal” an approach that in fact seeks to engage only other liberal voices in discussion. Like Tevye, I have several “other hands” I could add, including the fact that I personally had positive experiences of open discussion of ideas in the context of conservative/moderate Evangelical Bible colleges in the UK, and so I certainly agree with Dan that both closed-mindedness and genuine openness can be found on both ends of (and indeed all points on) the theological spectrum.

There seem to be a number of posts around the blogosphere this morning which relate to this theme conservative Christianity and Biblical scholarship. Perhaps most striking is an article in USA Today (HT The Bible and Interpretation) which highlights that Ken Ham of Creation Museum infamy will not be having his museum depict the infant Jesus in a stable, because the best Biblical scholarship suggests that Jesus was born in a private home. My only question is why Ham will accept the best Biblical scholarship about the nativity stories, but not the best Biblical scholarship about the creation narratives.

Dan Wallace’s post defined the majority of Biblical scholars out of his definition of “Christian.” Meanwhile, Nick Norelli asked just what “Evangelical” means when defined broadly, while Scot McKnight shared a video presenting an Orthodox answer to the question “Are you saved?”

Brian LePort is blogging through Nick Perrin’s book on the Gospel of Thomas including a post relating to Thomas’ apparent interaction with other early Christian texts.

I’m not sure what to make of all this, but several issues seem worth discussing further.

– Should Christianity be defined in terms of adherence to some particular understanding of orthodoxy? Can Christianity be defined at all, and if so how?
– Has Biblical scholarship been a blessing or a curse as far as your perception of its influence on your life, faith, and views is concerned?
– Have you had an opportunity to experience discussion of scholarly ideas in both conservative and liberal, or both religiously-affiliated and secular, contexts? If so, what was your perception of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

I encourage anyone interested in doing so to share their experience, and to engage one another in conversation. I also encourage you to click through some of the links I shared and join in (or where necessary start) the discussions going on elsewhere in the blogosphere.

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  • Rod

    James, I have a friend who went through a heresy trial at Dallas Seminary. After the heresy trial was over, Dallas Seminary wrote to the parents of this said student, explaining that he was an anathema to the church. Dan Wallace's complaint about liberal intolerance will fall on deaf ear when it comes to me.

  • My problem with Wallace's argument is this: Even if liberals reject his conservative view out-of-hand, by definition the liberal view is more open, and thus more reasonable.Basically, the conservative view says, "Only X is true. Everything outside X is false."The liberal view (as the conservative view characterizes it) says, "Only X is definitely not true. Everything outside X is possible and open to investigation."So which position is more reasonable? To accept only a tiny set conclusions and reject the vast area outside, or to be open to a vast range of possibilities, and reject only one tiny set of conclusions? Logic tells me the liberal approach is more true to the spirit of scholarship.

  • David Gutfeld

    I just graduated from a small Christian school and now am studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I can say that for me it is quite freeing to be out of those conservative circles. Often they stifle you because they don't allow to ask certain questions.Often classes get wasted by covering peoples pet theological peeves[everything is about Calvinism] or someone's spiritual dilemma [How does this apply to me]. Conservative scholarship often isn't academic, rather it is theological [of the poorest quality at that]. The problem is that they stretch facts, and always come to certain conclusions. For example, Jesus is always inline with Nicea, Paul always agrees with Peter, every thing has to agree, there can not be discrepancies in this line of thinking. Its asking questions to preconceived answers.

  • Anonymous

    If we’re to judge liberal vs. conservative by one’s method, then the new liberal is the evangelical and neo-evangelical who is willing to engage the evidence, examine all sides, and wrestle with the primary data through the various prisms of secondary literature. He’s open. I tell my students every year, “I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don’t.” And they know my mantra, “Go where the evidence leads.” Fine. Couldn’t agree more.But at Dallas Theological Seminary, students “need” to “agree with these seven essentials: * the Trinity * the full deity and humanity of Christ * the spiritual lostness of the human race * the substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection of Christ * salvation by faith alone in Christ alone * the physical return of Christ * the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.”I presume that over the centuries many readers of scripture, among them some distinguished self-labeled Christians, have read the evidence to lead to conclusions contrary to the seven essentials, at least as elaborated by the Seminary at its website. One of them, I suppose not particularly distinguished, was perhaps Rod’s heretic. But every student at Dallas Seminary “needs” not to permit the evidence to lead them anywhere but to the seven essentials, on pain of strong social sanctions if he or she is found to be have been misled. At the Seminary, one engages with evidence, wrestles with primary data, views interpretations through various prisms, puts their presuppositions at risk—but never does a piece of evidence, a datum, an interpretation, a presupposition lead anywhere but to the seven essentials. Either this restricted mode of inquiry is only professed but not practiced, in which case those who conform to it are hypocrites, or it is practiced, in which case those who conform to the restricted mode of inquiry should be surprised if they’re not welcomed into the circle of those whose mode is less restricted. For after all, free inquiry is what the Reformation and the Enlightenment were about. These advances were hard won and not to be surrendered to those who reject them at their gateway.

  • I admire students bound by statements of faith at theological colleges, who apply for further study at non theological independent universities, where they are free to go where the evidence leads them, to tell the truth as they find it and develop arguments supported by evidence.

  • Anonymous, good point about Dallas. I don't know how anyone can possibly think such requirements are compatible with academic integrity. It's like studying for a linguistics degree on condition you never disagree with Noam Chomsky.

  • Commitments to statements of faith and the like, don't allow you to tell the truth.

  • I find it ironic that at least one (if not all) the authors of the New Testament couldn't agree with item #5 on the DTS list ("salvation by faith alone in Christ alone"). The Epistle of James at the very least seems to disagree with this notion very strongly. So at least one author of the New Testament couldn't have attended or worked at DTS.

  • I actually know David Gutfeld (who posted above me) and attended the same college which he speaks of as conservative. While I understand his concerns with conservative institutions (concerns that exist at any institution), let us remember that it is our choice where we ultimately decided to study. If we are conservative and desire such an education, well then we will attend such an institution. If we are not conservative, then we will study elsewhere. I am sure Dave that you knew what you were buying into before you attended the unnamed college. I do know and understand you frustration with some of the classes and their Calvinistic leanings, but you cannot tell me that you Greek and Hebrew were theologically biased one way or the other? I would argue that are Greek professor is one of the finest in his field of undergraduate studies.Nevertheless, I am glad that you have been able to branch out and stretch you wings so to speak. Hebrew U is a good place for you; I know of your desire for a good education after are number of encouraging discussions. And you know that I share in your love for "liberal" scholars and broad scholarship. Be faithful to the Word and trust the Lord.

  • @David & theomus: I'm not so sure that your average undergrad student knows what they're getting into. You usually choose a college in the tradition you've grown up in, unless you belong to a particularly rebellious minority ;-)However, as your awareness expands and your spirituality and personality grows, you may find yourself disagreeing with some of what you believed (hopefully that's true of all of us, otherwise there wouldn't be development). Now what happens if that's part of your college's ethos? I'm sure that no-one would willingly join an educational institution if s/he could foresee having to undergo a heresy trial there. Luther also started out as a faithful Catholic monk …

  • JohnO

    Yay for the rebellious minority. I needed to leave my conservative community because I had the occasion to discuss with leadership there serious issues that were not being addressed, and even actively ignored. That led me to conclude that I had no further life there. Now I am attending an ecumenical Protestant school (BU, historically Methodist). As for me, critical engagement with the texts has greatly increased my faith, and in some cases pushed me towards a *more* orthodox stance (granted I came from a small minority unorthodox tradition).