N. T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, British evangelicals and me

N. T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, British evangelicals and me March 5, 2011

I find it so refreshing to talk with British evangelicals such as N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham and others.  Both of those fine gentlemen have read Reformed and Always Reforming and told me they consider themselves “postconservative evangelicals.”  Both have also said they don’t find themselves embroiled in theological controversy as happens so often among evangelicals in the U.S.

Indeed.  We seem to be the only country where evangelicals feel compelled to debate not just with vim and vigor but with serious intent to expose heresies among us and even cast each other out of the evangelical movement.  (Of course, no one has the power to do that, but some try anyway!  What else does “Farewell, Rob Bell” mean?)

This week I had the privilege of hearing and meeting Richard Bauckham–author or editor of something like 40 books of biblical scholarship and theology.  He is widely regarded as one of the finest Christian scholars in the world today and his work is taken seriously even by those (mostly liberal scholars) who disagree with him.  He considers the gospels histories and even, in some sense, biographies of Jesus.  Without feeling the need to say anything about inerrancy or to harmonize everything in the four gospels he defends their basic historicity and reliablity as based on eyewitness testimony using technical tools of scholarship equal with or surpassing those used by skeptical critics.

Thank God for Wright and Bauckham and others like them who remind us American evangelicals that it is possible to be evangelical and progressive (not bound by past formulations or conclusions).  Only (or primarily) in the U.S., it seems, do we have fundamentalists who have the power to dog cutting edge evangelical scholars and actually force them into constantly defending themselves against charges of heresy for fresh and faithful biblical scholarship.

So why do we have to do this?  Why do progressive, postconservative evangelicals have to defend themselves?  Why do I have to defend myself merely for defending open theism (as an evangelical option), Seventh-Day Adventists (some as truly evangelical), Rob Bell’s yet-to-be-published book (as something that should be read before being criticized), etc., etc.?  (PLEASE know that I do NOT have to defend myself here–in my present professional context.  My collagues and administrators have never pressured me or even implied that I need to conform to some conservative or fundamentalist agenda.)

The only reason is because SOME evangelical administrators are all too easily swayed by fundamentalist heresy-hunters with lots of influence over people with deep pockets and people with too much time on their hands to attack fellow evangelicals.  Rather than standing up and defending their own broad tent views of evangelicalism, some (not all) cave in and allow the cranky, narrow-minded, backward-looking fundamentalists to make them overly cautious in hiring and firing and publishing and granting tenure, etc.

Example: I know a fine evangelical philosopher who was denied tenure at an evangelical seminary ONLY because he dared to interact sympathetically as well as critically with postmodern thinkers such as John Caputo.  I have made it my business to read that philosopher’s works and I know, without any doubt, he is not a relativist.  (Neither is Caputo, by the way!)

When I served for five years as editor of Christian Scholar’s Review we (the editorial board) worked hard to solicit scholarly manuscripts from faculty members of the nearly 50 supporting evangelical colleges and universities.  Most of our manuscripts arrived from scholars NOT teaching in one of them.  We decided to find out why.  Our representatives went back to their schools and asked their colleagues.  What they heard was that their colleagues were afraid to publish in CSR because they were afraid for their jobs.  (Then CSR was provided free to every member institution’s entire faculty and administrators.)

LEST ANYONE SAY those scholars were liberal or anything like that–that’s not the case.  They were solidly evangelical scholars who were simply afraid that one of evangelicalism’s many heresy hunters would jump on something they wrote (e.g., about evolution) and make such a federal case out of it (as has happened) that their administrators would feel obligated to discipline them in some way (e.g., by denying them tenure or salary increases, etc.).

I once wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper (where I used to work and live) explaining that Westboro Baptist Church (Fred Phelps’ church that pickets funerals) does not represent all Baptists’ views.  In my lengthy letter (which was published in its entirety) I explained that Baptists are diverse and there is no “headquarters” of all Baptists.  I explained that some Baptists are fundamentalists and some are liberals; some refuse to ordain women and some ordain women; some would never ordain a gay person and some do.  (There were Baptist churches in that city all across that spectrum, but most people were Lutheran or Catholic and tended to tar all Baptists with the ultra-fundamentalist brush.)

My letter contained simply facts; it did not advocate anything except knowledge and understanding of Baptist diversity.  Apparently my president was fine with it until a parent (who I later discovered was also a donor to the college) called him and complained about me to the point of suggesting I be fired!  (I also found out later this man was a King James Only fundamentalist Baptist.)  My president, with whom I got along very well, called me in and chided me for writing the letter and asked me to let him view and censor my letters to the editor henceforth.  Of course, I refused.  Why was he surprised when I left?  (Well, it wasn’t for that alone, but partly, at least, because of that tendency to allow loud fundamentalists to cast a chill over academic freedom even to write completely innocuous letters to the editor!)

I could go on and on and on with similar examples from our American evangelical subculture.  All too many administrators who are themselves moderate-to-progressive feel forced to cater to ultra-conservatives because they seem to have a lot of influence via their blogs and e-mail lists and youtube videos and podcasts and twittering and pastors conferences and tweets, etc., etc.

I envy the British evangelicals who, for the most part, agree to disagree among themselves and do their work for the Kingdom of God without fear of someone who agrees with them watching over their shoulders to censore or punish them JUST BECAUSE some ultra-conservative person with a following puts pressure on them. (I envy them NOT because I have anything to fear where I am now, but because I fear for younger evangelical scholars trying to do faithful, creative work in non-tenured positions in evangelical institutions.)

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