In Support of Christopher Rollston

In Support of Christopher Rollston October 9, 2012

Thom Stark and others have blogged about the unfolding events related to Christopher Rollston, a widely-appreciated and well-known Biblical scholar and epigrapher, who is facing disciplinary action and perhaps even termination at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, because of an article he wrote for the Huffington Post about the marginalization of women in the Bible.

I have said before that there is a fundamental tension between schools having statements of faith (which aim to decide matters in advance), and encouraging research (which ought to mean following evidence where it leads).

But in this case involving Chris Rollston, a direct contravention of the school’s statement of faith doesn’t seem to be the issue. And so I want to avoid all potential side issues, and focus on one central point: If Chris is wrong about the marginalization of women in the Bible, as those who are seeking to have him disciplined or fired surely think, why not just disagree with him? There are plenty of Christians who agree with him, plenty who disagree, and no classic creed of the Christian churches takes a stance on this issue (not that that should matter to an institution connected with the Stone-Campbell tradition). Nor does the position statement of Emmanuel Christian Seminary as found on their web site takes a stance on this particular matter.

If Emmanuel Christian Seminary has failed to communicate to its students, some of its faculty members, and its board of trustees how to disagree constructively as Christians, and that it is possible to disagree as Christians without punishing, firing , expelling or otherwise using authority in an attempt to silence the person you disagree with, then they have failed to engage in the most fundamental mission of any educational institution, and have failed to live up to their identity as a Christian institution.

An action like this can only ever be self-defeating. For surely if your own stance were self-evidently true, a simple correction or pointing out of the error would be sufficient. Resorting to the use of power and exclusion indicates fear, not confidence. Rest assured that the views you fear will get increasingly more attention as you try to silence those who articulate them.

Here is a round up of letters and blog posts that I have come across by others in support of Christopher Rollston, from elsewhere around the internet:

Bob CargillJames BosJoe ZiasJames TaborJim West (twice, and he also shared more on academic freedom), Thom Stark (twice), Nathaniel E. GreeneDuane SmithTom VerennaJoel Watts (who also replied to Paul Blowers more than once), and Jim LinvilleTimothy Michael Law has recommended that some of the bloggers who’ve commented on this topic take a moment to think about whether they are doing more harm than good. See also Brian Le Port’s thoughts at Near Emmaus. Now there’s also a Bible and Interpretation piece by Paul Blowers on the topic.

UPDATE: Since I first posted this, Joel Watts has commented on the topic again, as has the blog Unreasonable Faith.

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  • Jim West

    Jim, not to be self-promoting (which i loathe) – but i’ve got a piece for B&I coming out sometime tomorrow. I think you might find it interesting (or at least you’ll find it something). just fyi- feel free to delete when you see this note.

    • Thanks for letting me know – I’ll try to remember to include a link to it here when I see it!

  • Eric

    Jim M., many thanks to you (and those linked) for bringing this to light and speaking up for Rollston. A question: what action, exactly, is Emmanuel Christian Seminary taking or planning to take against Rollston? I’ve read a few of the links, including Thomas Verenna’s BI piece, but have yet to see any details or a source for the claim beyond Verenna’s reference to “public and common knowledge of the events discussed above.” Thanks.

    • Hi Eric. I’m loathe to talk about the details beyond what I’ve said in the blog post. What little I know for certain, I know from Chris himself, and I am unable to confirm or deny some of the things that have been mentioned by others. And I also don’t want to treat as a done deal things that the institution might or might not have made a final decision about, and might be prepared to backtrack on in response to criticism.

      • Eric

        Thanks Jim. That’s mostly what I was wondering–the origin of the information. I understand your reasons for not saying more, though I do hope you’ll keep updating the story.

        • I didn’t blog about the topic initially since I didn’t have the impression that the matter had been made public. Chris certainly didn’t OK me to comment on it, but once I saw the matter being discussed on blogs and at B&I, I assumed it was now OK to do so.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    the first sentence runs as follows: “Emmanuel
    Christian Seminary is a Graduate Christian Seminary committed to the lordship
    of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and to the vision of the unity of
    world Christianity as arising from the work of such thinkers as Thomas and
    Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone.” So when an ECS professor openly describes (what he believes to be) Biblical doctrine as something that no one should value, this poses a problem. Of course bloggers who routinely reject Biblical authority will not view Dr. Rollston’s article as controversial, but to people who believe that professors at a school that trains future preachers should present the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, the article contains some objectionable claims. And to do nothing in light of such an open challenge to Biblical authority would be to acquiesce to it.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    • I find your comment quite bizarre. It presumably represents the sort of thing that Paul’s opponents said to him back in the first century, when, on the basis of some Scripture as well as contemporary evidence of God’s inclusive mercy, he set aside clear fundamental teaching of Scripture about every member of Abraham’s household needing to be circumcised or else be cut off.

      You seem to have adopted the line of fundamentalism, which is to pay lip service to Scripture and then pretending that you are doing and standing for everything that it says.

      I far prefer Christopher Rollston’s approach, which recognizes that there are fundamental teachings of Scripture, a high standard to which even the Bible’s authors did not always manage to attain, which we need to take to heart and follow even when it leads us to depart from what seems like the clear teaching of this or that passage. The alternative is to adopt the approach that led Christians in past ages to defend geocentrism, slavery, and many other things that Christians are today ashamed of having done. If you choose to follow that discredited path, that is your choice. But to pretend that in doing so you are defending Biblical authority, rather than undermining Biblical authority by bringing the Bible and Christianity to disrepute, is truly shameful.

      • James Snapp, Jr.

        Dear Dr. McGrath:

        I find it bizarre that you find my comment bizarre, because my point is so plain: part of ECS’ mission is to uphold the authority of Scripture. Dr. Rollston’s article appears to state that a Scriptural doctrine is wrong and that no one should value that doctrine. If the school’s overseers conclude that Dr. Rollston has undermined the mission of the school, then it seems to me that they would be entirely within their rights to impose some discipline or even dismissal.

        I don’t think you have gleaned from Dr. Rollston’s article what I got from it: you state that Dr. Rollston’s approach “recognizes that there are fundamental teachings of Scripture, a high standard to which even the Bible’s authors did not always manage to attain, which we need to take to heart and follow even when it leads us to depart from what seems like the clear teaching of this or that passage.” That seems congruent to saying that Scripture generally teaches something true, although this or that passage seems to teach something false. But what Dr. Rollston says in his article is that the normal, dominant Biblical teaching on a specific subject is false –actually false, not just seemingly – and that the passages which convey true doctrine on that subject are anomalies.

        I am not sure how one makes the leap from the observation that a seminary can hold its professors accountable for what they write and teach, to the conclusion that this will lead to some shameful path, as if the noble and honest path for ECS to take, having expressed a commitment to the authority of Scripture, would be to acquiesce when a professor gives his readers the impression that the Scriptures are misguiding the church. Nor am I sure how one can refer readers to webpages with crude profanity on them (such as the Unreasonable Faith page you mentioned) while giving lessons about what is or isn’t shameful. Perhaps such insights come more easily to professors who do not want to be held accountable for what they teach.

        Yours in Christ,

        James Snapp, Jr.

        • I am happy to be held accountable for what I teach, and how I teach. Fortunately, I have the privilege of doing so at an institution where there is less opportunity for people to use concern for doctrinal correctness as a means to bullying others, which typically means not the holding of educators accountable but the failure to hold donors and other laypeople accountable to Christian norms of love and behavior.

          The Bible’s authors clearly consistently had assumptions that we cannot share, about the fixity of the Earth, the presence of one or more domes or spheres above or around the Earth, a variety of organs in the human body having functions that we now know they do not, the appropriateness of owning other human beings and the treating of other people as property or at least inferior. I could go on. It seems that there are three legitimate options, and one dishonest one. I am curious which is yours. You could accept that whatever the Bible says is its teaching and embrace all the teachings that I listed above and more; you could reject Scripture because it includes such evidence of human fallibility; or you could do what people like Christopher Rollston (I believe) and myself do, and recognize that the Scripture includes overarching principles about how we are to treat others, including those we consider enemies, and embrace them and seek to apply them, even as we recognize that those principles are not embodied in every single Biblical author’s laws or instructions.

          But there is also a dishonest option, which is to say nice things about the Bible while pretending it doesn’t say the sorts of things that Christopher Rollston highlighted in his article, and pretending that merely because we say we view Scripture as authoritative, we really do, even as we brush things that we find too objectionable – or too demanding – under the rug.

          I am curious which approach is yours.

          • James Snapp, Jr.

            Dear Dr. McGrath:

            Let me take your points out-of-order (as I try to keep the focus on the initial topic). First, I don’t accept every assumption made by every Biblical author (for instance I do not assume, as Paul seems to in I Thessalonians, that Christ will return within Paul’s lifetime). But that is not to say that I do not accept all of the Bible’s instructions for the church. Dr. Rollston seems to say in his article that the Bible as a whole instructs the church to marginalize women, and that passages to the contrary are anomalous, and that the Bible’s instructions to the church about this should be disregarded.

            Second, I don’t reject Scripture as fallible. I take it on faith that the people who produced the Bible did so under the inspiration of God, and produced what God wanted them to produce.

            Third, I happily agree with you that Scripture teaches us overarching principles about how we are to treat others, etc., and I also agree that those principles are not embodied in every Biblical author’s work. But it looks like Dr. Rollston disagrees with you in his article. The gist of the article, it seems to me, is /not/ that the Bible teaches us an overarching principle which we should accept. Instead, Dr. Rollston seems to be saying that the Bible teaches us an overarching principle – the marginalization of women – which we should /reject./

            You mentioned a fourth option, part of which involved pretending that the Bible doesn’t say the sorts of things that Christopher Rollston highlighted in his article. But the question is not whether or not the Bible contains those statements; after all, the texts are right there in front of us. There are two questions to consider: first, whether or not the passages which Dr. Rollston claims advocate the marginalization of women actually do so (example: does an author who records the events in Judges 19:22-30 necessarily endorse those acts?) — that is, what do they /mean/? — , and second, whether or not those passage relate to other texts in such a way as to provide applicable instruction for the church — that is, how should they be /applied,/ if at all.

            Yours in Christ,

            James Snapp, Jr.

          • I find your treatment of Rollston’s views uncharitable as well as puzzling in their incoherence. Could one not say equally easily that the Golden Rule seems somewhat anomalous compared to the number of passages which legislate the institution of slavery or leave it in place unchallenged? Yet the principle of doing unto others what we would have done to us undermines slavery nonetheless, just as it undermines patriarchy. You seem to be trying to find fault with Christopher Rollston’s article when I expect that you accept his point when it comes to matters such as slavery. Do you have someing personal against him? If so, have you tried dealing with it personally rather than publicly in the first instance, as the Gospel of Matthew teaches?

  • Eldad Keynan

    James, I guess it’s quite late to comment, but still I can’t stand and watch. It’s no secret that Prof. Rollston and I do not agree on a certain topic. But as I am fighting others for my right to speak, I do understand Prof. Rollston and what he is undergoing. It also seems that his situation is tougher than mine. I wish Prpf. Rollston all the best and a successful ending of this affair. His success belongs to all of us and our free thought and expressing rights.