How Liberal Scholars are Made

How Liberal Scholars are Made February 19, 2015

Wallace quote

Yuriy Stasyuk shared the image above on Facebook, with a quote from Daniel Wallace. It draws attention to the fact that studying the Bible in a rigorous, academic way, results in people feeling compelled to draw conclusions which conservatives dislike – in many cases, which they themselves dislike, having started out as conservatives.

Most liberal Biblical scholars, including myself, are people who set out to be conservative Biblical scholars. But actually studying the Bible and other relevant evidence forced us to move in a different direction.

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  • Amy Brann

    I work at UNC, which is home to Bart Ehrman (one of the foremost scholars on Jesus & the Early Christian Church). He was raised fundamentalist and has since (after his research) become an agnostic. And, in my personal experience, I know so many persons who started off fundy and after giving theology/religious studies a serious academic look can no longer, in good conscience, be conservative. So, yeah… his number is probably correct. And, given I’m Episcopalian, reason/logic is important. And if your god-given reason/logic lead you to abandon your formerly fundamentalist/conservative Christian beliefs and become a liberal Christian, I cannot help but think that’s what God would want for us.

    • KEB

      Thank you, Amy Brann. Your insight is comforting.

    • This more or less sums up my personal journey as well.

  • John

    I was raised Southern Baptist; in a particularly fundamentalist SBC church. You know the kind; evolution is a lie the devil teaches children to disprove creation. Gays are evil and most importantly; education is the devil. Home school your kids and don’t you dare let them go to college!

    It was a fundamentalist who made me much more liberal. And not because I was ‘disgusted’, like I should’ve been. I had felt a call into Pastoral Ministry, and of course I expressed that call to my church. Since I voted Republican and was a man, I was fully qualified! I preached on occasion, but preached pretty “easy listening” type sermons. I really felt that the deeper theologies were for the Pastor to preach, not for me as an occasional fill-in. Someone ‘called me out’ on that, and mentioned I should be preaching about sin and homosexuality and all of this persons favorite topics (so he could go home and feel better about himself, I suppose.) I was honest and told him I didn’t feel theologically ‘strong enough’ to really preach on deeper topics. He then told me that I had ‘better learn’, because as a Pastor, people would listen to me, and I mustn’t “lead them astray”.

    I took his warning to heart and began pouring over the scriptures, and every resource I could get my hands on. And, more importantly, I began intensely challenging my built-in beliefs and seeking to know more from God. I prayed earnestly for the first time in my life (instead of just praying obligatorily). And before you know it, I’m a Progressive United Methodist Pastor.

    And guess what? My old church says it’s because I went to college. That darn college (Since I went to a secular undergrad institution, not a “Bible College”) done turned me liberal!

  • Ellen K.

    numbers seem to forget about Catholics, like we don’t exist. And I
    somehow guess that, just like within the Catholic Church, in
    Christianity outside the Catholic Church there are conservative
    Christians who were never evangelicals nor fundamentalists, and who may
    or may not later become theological liberals.

    • That’s a good point. In general, Catholic scholars don’t fit this model, since Raymond Brown and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor would be considered “liberal scholars” by conservative Protestants, but that is not how Catholics would view them.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Crossan also grew up RC and was even a priest for a time. And he said he was never particularly conservative.

    • Pearce Owen

      my Anglican grandmother explained it all to me…the Catholics are a cult, you see. life is so simple if you never think about things :/

  • Alan Christensen

    I’m curious what compelled those who made the journey from “conservative” to “liberal” to remain Biblical scholars. It can’t be just careerism, because there are more lucrative ways to make a living. What’s compelling about the Bible for those who have given up on inerrantism?

    • A nuanced, historical understanding of the Bible is much more fascinating and compelling than inerrancy. If the Bible existed as a kind of historical anomaly (which inerrancy implies) then scholars would have no good reason to study it.

      • Alan Christensen

        That’s close to what I think about it. A lot of what I find compelling about the Bible now is how human it is. Rather than entirely being dictated by God is a dialogue between many voices over time. I’m not a professional, though, just a fairly literate layperson.

    • Bethany

      Maybe (probably) I’m overgeneralizing from my own experience, but I think you can take pretty much any academic in any discipline and get roughly the same answer to that question, which is, “Because it’s so interesting! This molecule/fungus/bird/math problem/19th century author/game theory dilemma/battle/disease/whatever is the most fascinating thing ever!”

      If something had to be the inerrant word of God to be interesting to ordinary people — let alone academics — then life would be very, very boring. 🙂

    • BrotherRog
      • Alan Christensen

        I’ve read that before, although I’d forgotten about it. I guess I was looking more for “personal testimony.”

    • brewster101

      They became liberal Christians/theologians, not atheists or Buddhists.

  • HappyCat

    There is a phrase I often use – “______ only looked at the pictures and never read the words.”

  • Joshua Steiner

    I have become much more liberal in my reading of what Biblical scholars have had to say on the Bible. I was raised as a staunch conservative Christian [we wouldn’t fit the definition of fundamentalist however, given that we were accepting of other denominations and other religions], but as I began reading more and more, I became more liberal. I first left Young-earth creationism, and eventually became more progressive. While I don’t classify myself as a progressive right now, I’m definitely a moderate that is left-leaning. I don’t hold to inerrancy or many pet doctrines found in Evangelical and Protestant churches, and am quite open to new ideas.

    The strange thing is that while I have become liberal, my faith is much more robust and I’m much more willing to be active in my faith than what I was. I don’t know if it was the inclusion of reason/logic-based thinking or if it was just the fact that I came to my own set of beliefs and conclusions rather than my parents.

    • Elsa

      I tell people that I used to have a strong set of beliefs, but very little faith (ie:trust), and now my beliefs are very fluid, but my faith is strong.
      Faith, I think, has little to do with the beliefs in your head, but with your experiences of God.

  • BrotherRog

    I was raised in liberal Christianity and evolved into progressive Christianity as a natural progression from that foundation. At least, on paper, it is the case that 100% of emerging Christians come from within evangelical contexts however.

    Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Christianity. Emerging Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of evangelical Christianity.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    On a related note, see: “16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible”

    • Tom Schneider

      CS Lewis an intelligent layman, an Oxford and Cambridge don, a member of the Anglican church, bridges the gap for me first with his book, “Mere Christianity”, then the various others he wrote. It appears Lewis was like an inerrantist but accepted things like evolution. Wasn’t Jesus ‘like an inerrantist’ or ‘an inerrantist’ when He was recorded as saying “the [Hebrew] scriptures cannot be broken” or that “salvation comes from the Jews”? I believe so and I am too, at least “like” the fundamental inerrantists, even after having studied religion in my secular university almost forty years ago (where the aim was to jolt one awake out of his evangelical ‘sleep’ or ‘stupor’).

      Since then I have never shielded myself from the writing or reasoning of liberal Christian scholars and preachers, old or ‘new’ atheist literature, or from anyone having something to say about why they believe traditional and/or historic Christianity is or cannot be for today. I feel that my faith in Christ and his recorded words, along with my habits and responses to obey them, has only gotten stronger over the years.

  • brewster101

    You should find the same is more or less true for just about any field or subject area, for many of the same reasons. e.g. the gap between ‘common’ lay attitudes/beliefs about mental illness and what is known to neuropsychiatry is utterly appalling. Some have even observed that we may have gone backwards, since the 1800s when the law began to reflect some compassion on those with diseases of the mind/brain – vulnerable to organic disease or dysfunction no different from any other organ – who may not be culpable or have lesser culpability for their actions. Today, in spite of all that neuropsychiatry has learned in the past 100+ years, it seems there may be more persons who take the attitude of “Mental-shmental-BS! Kill or imprison them all, let God sort them out” than there were even 100 years ago. Thanks religion and “compassionate conservatism”!

    To be a conservative, all one need is just to adopt whatever it is that your parents or some pastor with 10-month seminary diploma told you, which is the same that they learned from their parents or “pastors”, who also did not achieve a high degree of education. Conservatism is “stasis”; keeping the tradition, keeping things as they were. As such, you shouldn’t need much more knowledge or education than two generations ago, who was trying to preserve things from two generations before them, in order to keep tradition and modes of thought.

    Everyone begins to ‘harden’ some strong views, attitudes, and beliefs by their late teens, heavily influenced by their parents, grandparents, the culture of their community. Only some of them go on to learn in concerted manner before the age of 30, the extent of what they do not know, what their parents did not know, what they were not told. What 17 or 19 year-old is informed enough and has enough perspective to begin ‘hardening’ their beliefs, views, and attitudes? It would be a truly exceptional one.