“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (13): Carlos Bovell

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (13): Carlos Bovell August 4, 2014

c bovell 2014Today’s “aha” moment is brought to you by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog (for his last post go here and work backwards). Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).


I can very definitely remember that “aha” feeling in my spiritual journey. But truth be told, I doubt it was really just a moment, or if it was, it had to be a moment that was years in the making.

Before attending Westminster Theological Seminary I audited courses in Old Testament studies at Philadelphia College of Bible (later Philadelphia Biblical University, and now Cairn University). I eventually graduated with a math degree at The College of New Jersey, but I had had a life-changing religious experience before enrolling here, which is what prompted my sitting in on courses at PCB. I enrolled as an M.Div. student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. It was as a result of studying at PCB and Liberty that I had learned a really valuable lesson.

(Side note: My spiritual counselors at both PCB and Liberty insisted I disregard my religious experience—even though it changed my life—because God doesn’t do those kinds of things anymore. He rather makes provision for us through holy scripture.)

While at PCB my OT professor, Brian Toews, was teaching us about the “canonical approach” to scripture of late Yale professor Brevard Childs. To help us understand how it would look when done by evangelicals, my professor had us work through numerous readings by John Sailhamer–a well known inerrantist OT scholar who had taught briefly at PCB but moved on to Western Seminary by the time I took classes there.

A quote from Sailhamer’s Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach illustrated for me just how much preliminary work a student of the Bible is actually doing, philosophically, before thinking about how and whether the Bible is inerrant:

Thus the world that one stands before as a reader is never more than a representation of the “real world.” In the case of the Bible, the text is a true representation and an accurate representation. However, no matter how true or how accurate the text is, the accuracy of the Scriptures should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the text is, in fact, a representation of those actual events.

Now I should make clear that “what the Bible represents it always represents accurately” was not something I had any interest in criticizing at the time. I had wholeheartedly believed that. It was just that there was something about the way Sailhamer mentioned it here that seemed forced, contrived. What is he so worried about here?

Then, after spending a semester studying at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, I read a book by Liberty faculty that talked about the nature of Christian scholarship. The book was a compilation of essays and bore the title, Opening the American Mind: The Integration of Biblical Truth in the Curriculum of the University.

Each chapter gives an overview of a specific university discipline and was written by a professor who was active in that specific field so that the mathematics chapter was written by a mathematics professor, the economics chapter by an economics professor, the arts chapter by a music professor, and the biblical studies chapter by . . . a philosophy professor!

What’s wrong with this picture? Why is it that for every other field a practitioner of that field can explain how it relates to faith, but when it comes to biblical studies, a philosopher (none other than Norman Geisler) has to be called in to tell students in biblical studies what biblical studies must ultimately look like?

Both the Sailhamer assignments and the Liberty book got me thinking more intently about evangelical spirituality—particularly how it is shaped by evangelical philosophy—and cumulatively contributed to an “aha” moment for me: evangelicals, at least some, use philosophy to shield them from the “threats” of biblical studies.

Why the need to emphasize what inerrancy “requires” from biblical studies—ahead of time—before actually doing any biblical studies? I found this to be a very troubling question. Why are inerrantists going to settle matters for students before they gained some familiarity with the discipline of biblical studies?

It seems that the reason is to protect students from drawing “dangerous” conclusions. Even Sailhamer, a biblical scholar, felt the need to put on his philosopher’s hat while he did his biblical studies.

This raised a larger question for me: Where does biblical studies begin and inerrantist philosophy end? Is inerrantist philosophy driving the evangelical engine?

As much as I did not want to, I had to answer this question with a “yes.” An inerrantist historical Jesus scholar, for example, is not able to say that the early church put words into Jesus’ mouth in various portions of the Gospels or that a number of events recounted in the Gospels never really took place, being made up by a later generation of well-meaning disciples. Evangelical philosophy will already have decided these matters ahead of time. Thus evangelical, historical Jesus scholarship would have no choice but go through the motions of “discovering” that the Gospels are actually “true.” And this pattern carries over to other aspects of biblical studies.

I sensed a clear and widespread pattern among evangelical writers. The Liberty book I read thought that it would be best for an inerrantist philosopher to explain to students what biblical studies is and what it cannot find. Sailhamer wanted students and others reading him to know upfront that their researches in biblical studies would never come into conflict with inerrantist philosophy.

What I came to understand is that when inerrantist, philosophical pre-commitments of this kind are at work, the kind of scholarship needed to be done most by evangelicals would never get done from inside of evangelicalism.

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  • ‘… evangelicals, at least some, use philosophy to shield them from the “threats” of biblical studies.’
    ‘…the kind of scholarship needed to be done most by evangelicals would never get done from inside of evangelicalism.’
    are a pair of fantastic insights. Some ironies are spoken. Others are lived.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Perhaps this is why evangelical scholars sometimes seem like they’re waiting for developments to occur OUTSIDE of evangelicalism in order to advance their more in-house conversations.

  • Tim

    Great post; so true. This business of deciding the outcome beforehand is a plague in evangelicalism.

    • Lars

      Second this. Evangelicalism is often far less interested in determining truth than in protecting predetermined truth.

      • Carlos Bovell

        Yes, I hope we can get this to change a little or my kids (and the kids of many other believers) will not be interested in faith when they grow older and can begin thinking for themselves.

  • Brian Drawbaugh

    Thanks Carlos- I appreciated this, as I have longer writings of yours as well. There’s a common thread to these stories that also best describes my experience- It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. (Kin Hubbard- 1913)

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for taking an interest in my work. I have a short book on the Bible’s inspiration and authority coming out in a few months. It’s a multi-authored work. I’ve been trying to get more people in on the conversation so that the upcoming generation might have some other model to turn to other than the Chicago Statement.

  • Mark K

    Hi Carlos,

    I see from one of your comments that you are concerned for the faith of kids. I have taught 7th-12th grade Alt Ed for 25 years, and had–and have–many believers come through the door. One of the things that drives me is helping them make sense of faith, including reconciling what they have heard the Bible says (means) and what the Bible actually says for itself and how it has chosen to say it. It’s always a struggle to explain this in a way that allows teens and preteens to let go of the preconceptions they’ve been taught by people in the mold of the writings of Sailhamer and Geisler.

    I’m thankful we have committed young scholars as yourself and the others who’ve shared Aha! moments to help us move forward in seeking a faith that kids can hang on to.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your encouragement. I firmly believe that too much emphasis on inerrancy at an early age sets students up for a very difficult time later in life. My own four-year old daughter explained to me very matter-of-factly the other day that although snakes don’t ever talk, there was one time that a snake did talk because she saw a picture of it in her Bible, and God wrote the Bible. [I certainly didn’t teach her that (just ask my older kids–they know better than to make such a simple equation between God and the Bible).] It’s a popular conclusion to draw, especially for school-aged kids who are raised in a religious environment (family and church, etc). But believers should quickly grow out of it (the earlier the better). Unfortunately, there are just too many adults in evangelicalism who still think like this about scripture and influencing kids to conceive of scripture the same way–or else you become an unbeliever.

      • mrmarkley

        I’m struggling with this right now. My oldest daughter is 11, and she is very thoughtful and philosophical. She has been asking me questions lately about Scripture (especially Genesis) and I’m personally not settled on an inerrantist framework, having been questioning that pretty strongly for a couple of years now. I have not really explained that to her, though; I don’t know how to (for myself even) fully utilize Scripture when I am questioning parts of it.

        Personally, I grew up in a charismatic context where I felt I experienced God’s presence in some neat ways. Like you, those encounters have given me confidence in His working. So my faith didn’t “begin” with the Bible but with my parents, other believers, and my own experiences. Still I’m perplexed. I was wondering if you had any advice for those of us who are parents and want our children to love the Lord. How do we handle teaching them about Scripture?

        • Carlos Bovell

          Mr. Markley,

          Thanks for your comment. Parents play an important role in developing a child’s faith, but the role is not always the all-important “doctrinal” one that we may sometimes think it is. I might recommend that you (and others who might be going through similar things as you) to take a look at Vern Bengtson’s sociological work on how faith is passed down to the next generation. What he found is that a warm and loving relationship with the father is the number one indicator that faith will successfully transmit to a child during their adult life. The second strongest indicator is the relationship with the grandfather.

          So how do “handle teaching them about Scripture”? With warmth, love, and acceptance.So if’s the historicity of Genesis that you’re dealing with presently, perhaps you can say something like, “There are believers that believe that a lot of this didn’t actually happen, and they may be right, but right now I (or the family) believe(s)…”

          Grace and peace to you and your family,

        • Mark K

          Have you considered Genesis for Normal People (by Pete Enns)? I’ve not read it, but it seems it may provide a good bridge between your own journey and a preteen’s.

          • Mark K

            A book I have read and which has helped me quite a lot in talking to kids about the Bible, especially OT narrative, Is The Art of Biblical History, V. Philips Long.

  • Truths very well expressed. I have long been aware of the dynamic you describe so well. But I hadn’t simplified all the presuppositions and circular reasoning and escape to “mystery” as “philosophy”. I think that nails it in a word.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Thanks for your comment. I would say that there’s been a renaissance of sorts going on in evangelical philosophy of religion for some time now. It is par for the course, though, that for all the philosophical activity, none of it is going to directly challenge the Chicago Statement, much less propose to replace it with something better. That kind of work can only be carried out in a non-evangelical setting, but once you arrive at that point, there is really no reason to continue pursuing that line of thought.

      • Brian P.

        Meh. Let the fig tree die. No need to challenge the Chicago Statement.

      • Besides the phil. of religion area, where do you see key points at which open Evangelicals can be encouraged and supported toward continued growth? (“Growth” is how I see it, generally more than competition between competing paradigms, tho consciously grasping a new paradigm is part of the growth process for at least thinking, idea-oriented people and ideally for everyone. To me, Fowler’s stages, or others similar, carry a lot of wisdom.) I spent over a decade in training and practice in “Christian counseling” (Evan. perspective) – 70s and 80s – and if things remain similar, I’d guess Evangelicals professionally in that field (not just as pastors) are somewhat “ahead” and more open, and potentially could be in key leadership for change.

        Maybe that IS happening rather quietly, but from the periphery I haven’t seen much of it. Are you much aware of happenings in that arena… is it in the midst of significant paradigm change? Is there much maturational influence coming from either organizations or many individuals in psych and counseling? Do you know blogs or connections for me to investigate this more?

        • Carlos Bovell

          I’ve found http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ to be helpful for using psychology to help keep theology in check.

          There are parts of evangelical theology (or any religion for that matter) that can be damaging to people and seriously mess with their heads and emotions over time.

          • Brian P.

            That’s a poor ascription of agency perhaps. It’s people who hurt–and help–people.

  • Brian P.

    I would have personally more so enjoyed the Bible being picked up by a literature professor.

    • Carlos Bovell

      That would be interesting. Somehow, though, I am still interested in striking a balance between the comparative/diachronic elements that relate to surrounding ancient cultures along and the synchronic, religious element that suggests that the Old and New Testaments together can be used for Christian anagogy, even today.

      • Brian P.

        One of the themes among the stories of the authors of the Bible seems to be the delightfulness of losing pre-commitments necessary to find something more.

  • Daniel Fisher

    Now, accuse me of suggesting a “slippery slope”, but I am forced to wonder where this method ends – should we likewise deny our presupposition of Christ’s sinlessness so that we can be similarly open minded regarding scholarship that would impugn his character? Should we rid ourselves of presuming the possibility of the miraculous, so we can be similarly open-minded regarding scholarship that would deny the miraculous? Or deny any presumption of Jesus’ deity when we examine our theology?
    Moreover, there is an underlying assumption here that only the evangelical/inerrantist scholars are bound by their presuppositions. But suppose, hypothetically, that the Bible were an inerrant communication from God – would not a presupposition against this inerrancy similarly skew any accurate investigation, allowing researchers to go down paths that will lead away, not toward, truth?
    Having or not having presuppositions is really not what this is about, but whether the presupposition in question is the valid one –

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment. I am quite familiar with Dutch Reformed presuppositional apologetics (I went to WTS and ICS). Although it may not satisfy you, I did take time to try to critique a presuppositional defense of inerrancy in a forthcoming book, which should become available early next year.

      Grace and peace,

      • Daniel Fisher

        Thanks for the additional thoughts, though I’m generally not a fan of Reformed/Van Til style Prepositional apologetics, (and honestly don’t really understand it), so that’s not what I was referencing. I was more interested though in your thoughts about whether the same technique should be applied to Christological studies, etc… for example, your statement, “why the need to emphasize what inerrancy “requires” from biblical studies—ahead of time—before actually doing any biblical studies?

        Couldn’t someone just as legitimately claim, “why the need to emphasize what the deity of Christ ‘requires’ from Christological studies-ahead of time-before actually doing any studies on the life of Jesus”?

        Would you also agree with this method, given its similar (if not identical) methodology? or if not, why not?