Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Are Evangelicalism and Rigorous Scholarship Mutually Exclusive (Part 2)?

A couple of weeks ago I raised the question, prompted by Peter Enns's recollections of the late James Barr, as to the compatibility of evangelicalism and the type of rigorous scholarship demanded in academia. Barr, of course, the erstwhile Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, was a pointed critic of evangelicalism, not least the academic pretensions it developed in the decades immediately after World War II. Indeed, his little book, Fundamentalism, originally published in 1977, was alternately infuriating and enlightening to me as I began my academic and decidedly evangelical theological education in the early '80s. For his part, Enns has also raised the question more than once, no doubt precipitated by his own experience of being forced out of his position at Westminster Seminary due to the controversy stirred up by his own little book, Incarnation and Inspiration.

The issue, at one level, is fairly straightforward: Are evangelical presuppositions about the nature of scripture compatible with the unfettered free inquiry that is foundational to academic research? To put it differently, do prior commitments to biblical "inerrancy" or to pre-critical confessions alter the conditions for "playing the game" by ruling out certain potential conclusions a priori? At another level, however, the question becomes a little more complex for the simple reason that not all "evangelicalisms" are created equal (see my earlier posts here and here). For Barr, as the title of his book indicates, "evangelicalism" is but another name for the dreaded "fundamentalism," or at least what today might be deemed the "neo-fundamentalism" of certain elements of the Evangelical Theological Society and the resurgent Southern Baptist Convention of Al Mohler. This indeed is the regnant perception of evangelicalism in the popular imagination, at least here in America, where such "evangelicals" are numerically plentiful and wield enormous ecclesial influence. I know this movement well, having grown up in it and taught for eight years at an institution that considers itself a "premier" college of its type within those circles.

But such "evangelicalism" is emphatically not the only type worthy of claiming the name. There is, for one, British evangelicalism, many of whose scholars such as F. F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, Donald Guthrie, and Dick France, were well respected in the international scholarly community. Indeed, Barr knew of such men, and respected them too, especially his fellow Scot Bruce, who remains the only person to have been elected President of both the Societies of Old Testament and New Testament Studies. Barr may have viewed Bruce as an exception that proved his rule, considering the latter's advocacy of three Isaiahs and a Maccabean date for the Book of Daniel. And so he relegated discussion of Bruce to a footnote. But Bruce was a classicist and historian, not a theologian—someone once told me they considered Bruce "neo-orthodox" rather than evangelical, but such doesn't ring true; Bruce and Barth (let alone Brunner) hardly breathe the same intellectual air, and the whiff of dialectic rarely if ever may be discerned in his writings—and he treated the biblical text as one might expect a historian and linguist to do: with utmost respect and critical acumen. While in seminary I was privileged to listen to a series of lectures he delivered on the letter to the Colossians and attend a dinner the New Testament department held in his honor. One student had the temerity to ask why he didn't hold to "inerrancy." His reply was classic: that simply wasn't an issue in his circles, be they ecclesial (and he was a member of a Plymouth Brethren assembly!) or academic [On a related note, I just read a prepublication release from Zondervan about a forthcoming book entitled Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy; one chapter is written by the Australian Michael Bird, arguing that inerrancy is not necessary for evangelicalism outside the USA.]. One need only read Bruce's great commentaries on Galatians, Acts, and Hebrews, however, to realize the man was an evangelical, with a respect for the text interpreted historically and a deep commitment to Christ. The same may be said for today's preeminent British New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, despite the ignominy attached to his name by many, though certainly not all, American evangelicals. Needless to say, such a broader understanding of what constitutes a genuine evangelical is present in certain circles of America as well. 

The real issue is whether or not rigorous scholarship can coexist with the more stridently conservative type of evangelicalism that undoubtedly exists in America and, to a lesser degree, elsewhere.  For example, last week I came across a blog post written by a man called Clint Archer at The Cripplegate entitled "How to Spot a Liberal Seminary." One of the defining marks of a so-called "liberal" seminary was its propagation of the view, dominant in New Testament scholarship since the 19th century, that Mark was the earliest of the canonical Gospels to have been written. This view is deemed "liberal" because it is supposedly based on an "evolutionary" view of the Gospels: Matthew, being more complex than Mark, must therefore be later and secondary. But, in Archer's view, such "liberalism" fails to take into consideration "external" evidence (Papias, I'm guessing) for Matthew's priority, not to mention its author's having been an eyewitness of the events. In any case, all of this is irrelevant, for the verbal similarities between the two Gospels are, according to Archer, to be attributed to their each being inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Failing to account for that is simply evidence of an insufficient commitment to biblical inspiration.

Now, as one who took a doctoral seminar in the Synoptic Gospels, read Streeter, Farmer, Tuckett, and countless others, and dutifully colored his Nestle-Aland Synopsis to compare verbal similarities and differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I can say that the one critical position on which I would stake my reputation as a New Testament scholar is that of Markan priority. The so-called Synoptic Problem is exceedingly complex, but a literary relationship at some stage is well nigh demanded by the evidence, and once redactional issues are taken into consideration, Markan priority becomes, in my view, all but certain. The basis for Archer's view is instructive: tradition (!) and an a priori understanding of the entails of biblical inspiration: why posit "plagiarism," so the "argument" goes, when similarities can be attributed to "inspiration" or "divine revelation," which obviate the necessity for such "liberal," "naturalistic" explanations as literary dependence (despite Luke's claim [Luke 1:1-4] to have consulted many such written and oral sources!). Simply put, it is the naive assumption of what "inspiration" and "inerrancy" must entail, rather than measured literary or historical argument, that determines the conclusion at which Archer arrives. Let me be clear: it is not Archer's conclusion per se—indeed, there are some who argue for a purely oral approach to the Gospel traditions, and even more who posit Matthean priority—but the means by which he arrives at it, that renders his approach incompatible with rigorous scholarship. And Archer's approach is hardly unique. It is duplicated by countless preachers and writers on that and many other issues as well, not least those of cosmogony and human origins based on the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2. Whenever someone claims that the earth must have been created in six literal days thousands, not billions, of years ago, and claims that any "compromise" on the issues of the age of the earth and/or biological evolution is disallowed by a commitment to biblical inerrancy, that person is speaking as an ideologue rather than a scholar. He or she may be right or wrong (I have my suspicions), but the fact remains that historical and hermeneutical work has been short-circuited by theological presuppositions which simply cannot be assumed without further ado. The fact that such a person operates with presuppositions, of course, is not the problem. We all do. Such cannot be helped, and the desire to operate without them is both naive and misguided. Nevertheless, presuppositions—in particular, secondary assumptions about what kind of book the Bible must be and a modernistic view of what inerrancy must look like—simply cannot be made to screen out unwanted and inconvenient evidence willy-nilly. We are, of course, told to love God with our minds as well as our hearts.

Most evangelicals, however, are not so naive and unsophisticated as the previous example might suggest. This is particularly true of so-called "confessional evangelicals" who trace their roots to the great Protestant confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, whose tradition of learning runs quite deep. Nevertheless, commitment to such pre-critical confessions brings with it challenges, not to mention temptations, of its own. Back in my seminary days I was struck by the words of Charles Cranfield with reference to John Murray's NICNT commentary on Romans: "Since the beginning of 1960 we have had Murray's two-volume commentary, which is admirable in its learning and carefulness, and often sound in its judgments, but somehow leaves the impression, at least in the mind of one student, that the author did not offer very serious resistance to the temptation, which of course is common to us all, to conduct inquiries with one's mind already made up that the answer to emerge shall be the one which suits one's own preconceptions" (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [2 vols.: ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1973-79] 1:44). Murray, of course, was a Highland Scot Free Presbyterian who served for decades as Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary, and who, as one might expect, gave whole-hearted allegiance to the 1646 Westminster Confession. Hence a traditionalist spiritual descendant of John Knox would find little with which to quibble with Murray's exposition (though, as a good Scot, Mr. Murray did have a mind of his own and occasionally would come to surprising conclusions; indeed, a friend of mine once told me the story of an Orthodox Presbyterian elder who warned a ministerial candidate to be "careful" with Murray because he was too much of a "biblicist;" ironies always abound in conservative Protestantism). His commentary indeed is, in my view, the best ever to come from the pen of a Presbyterian. Yet Cranfield was right. At times the only explanation I can give for his interpretative decisions and theological deductions is their amenability to his antecedent theological commitments.

Therein lies the problem with strict confessionalism. The adherent confesses that his or her preferred document contains the system of doctrine taught in the Bible. Not only does this tend to promote a view of the Bible as a repository of "timeless" propositional truths, it tends to blind the confessor to the historical "situatedness" of the confession itself and thus illegitimately promote the confession as a filter through which to read the biblical text itself. The confession, in this scenario, provides not merely the answer as to what to believe, but also the environment that determines what questions to ask from the text

In no issue have such problems come to the fore in recent decades than in the massive kerfuffle in evangelical and confessional circles over the doctrine of justification precipitated by the so-called New Perspective on Paul. The great Protestant confessions, as one might expect, consolidated the legacy of such Reformers as Martin Luther (Augsburg) and John Calvin (Westminster), both of whom read Galatians and Romans through the lens provided by their struggles against semi-Pelagian medieval Roman Catholicism. New Testament scholars associated with the NPP, however, prompted by the revolution in scholarly understanding of Second Temple Judaism caused by Ed Sanders's massive Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), began to understand St. Paul's conflict with the Jews and certain Jewish Christians of his day differently,viz., less as a struggle against legalistic "works righteousness" than against a "cultural imperialism" that insisted that membership in God's people was confined to those who attached themselves to the physical seed of Abraham and lived accordingly. Such a way of posing the issues is somewhat problematic, but the fact remains that supporters of various permutations of the NPP, from Jimmy Dunn to N. T. Wright to John Barclay to Richard Hays to Bruce Longenecker, all argue that the classic Protestant position was a legitimate application or contextualization of the apostle's teaching to the struggles of their time. Never mind. In certain confessionalist circles (and, as I know from experience, certain supposedly nonconfessionalist ones), favorability to the NPP is a career threatening offense. Classic here is the PCA's Report of the Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology. A newcomer to the debates would, upon reading this report compiled by reputable theologians, churchmen, and church historians, be excused if he or she wondered how in the world any "Reformed" Christian could be tempted to agree with such "dangerous" fellows. On the other hand, any trained academician specializing in Pauline studies would be hard pressed to recognize the real views of such men as Wright in the report's condemnation of his supposed views. The only explanation I can offer for this is the blinding capacity of the confession the committee members held to be the "system of doctrine" taught in the Bible. Not only did the Westminster Confession control what they believe to be absolutely true, it also colored how they understood the writings of contemporary scholars as well.

Now this does not mean that confessions are to be despised or ignored. It doesn't even mean that "confessionalism" per se is a bad idea. Yet it does call into question the way many Christians hold to their confessions. These confessions (even the Westminster) were documents of their times, colored by the conflicts their authors were fighting at the time of their drafting. They are, in a very real sense, tradition. Despite reflexive Protestant disdain for such, that is not a bad thing. All of us stand in a tradition or traditions. But, like all traditions, they must be subjest to the basic Protestant principle of sola scriptura, according to which Scripture, properly and historically interpreted, must be allowed to have the final word. A confessionalism which holds its traditions respectfully, but lightly, is far to be preferred to the type which acts as if its preferred confession, in effect, shares the inerrancy only legitimately posited (in whatever way) of Scripture itself.

Are evangelicalism and rigorous biblical scholarship mutually exclusive? The answer I would give is "Not necessarily." Some forms of evangelicalism—naive, uncritical fundamentalism and an overly strict confessionalism—are not amenable to such scholarship, at least as "scholarship," with its implications of free inquiry, is commonly understood in the academy. Strict confessionalism may be characterized by vast learning (especially in the areas of church history and systematic theology), but, as Pete Enns suggests, all too often treats biblical studies as a branch of theological apologetics.

Nevertheless, genuine evangelicalism, as I have argued, does not necessarily proceed on the assumption that the correct "answers" have already been given and that "inerrancy" or even "inspiration" dictate how we must understand what the Bible has to say. Indeed, as Christians we can only interpret the Bible we have been given, not the one we wish we had. And that means interpreting it literarily and historically, without illegitimately delimiting how it "must," a priori, be interpreted. If the Bible is indeed, as I—an evangelical, after all— believe it to be, then such rigorous literary and historical work is only to be welcomed and pursued relentlessly and fearlessly. And the work of such men as John Walton, Bruce Waltke, Fred Bruce, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, Doug Moo, Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, and Tom Wright has shown empirically that such labors are not in vain.

What about more overt "critical" scholarship? To that question I will devote my next, and last, post on this issue.


  1. Thanks for this great post!

    Having been an evangelical after my conversation, I came to the obvious conclusion that the Bible is a human book about God like many others.

    The question of Jesus uniqueness is a different one.

    I do believe that commitment to inerrancy AND materialism are an obstacle for a true, honest scholarship.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  2. I appreciate your comments here, James.

  3. God is in peoples hearts, not peoples minds. Any attempt to understand god with academic knowledge is bound to fail. People over the years have attempted to be gods mouthpiece. No person can speak for god. He is god. He owes you nothing. He does not care about people in the way religious people think they do. God was the one who set the plates spinning, but does not care where they fall. People love to believe he does however. I think, to give their lives meaning. They are fearful they do not have meaning. And their parents raised them up, as they wanted them to go. Not in way of truth. If we have learned anything over this last decade plus of war, is that religion divides us. It's just holding us back as a species.

  4. Hi James McGahey, I imagine you know that a village in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, McGaheysville, has your family name. I wonder if you pronounce your last name like the locals do (muh-GACK-eez-ville).
    I am interested in Matthean priority, and noticed your comment on it in http://jamesmcgahey.blogspot.com/2013/09/are-evangelicalism-and-rigorous.html, quote:: " Let me be clear: it is not Archer's conclusion per se—indeed, there are some who argue for a purely oral approach to the Gospel traditions, and even more who posit Matthean priority—but the means by which he arrives at it, that renders his approach incompatible with rigorous scholarship". I became involved in studying Matthean priority by reading J. W. Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, and wonder if you put him in the same class as Archer (with whom I am not familiar). I thought Wenham's book presented credible research even if out of line with the majority 2 source/4 source proposals for the synoptic conundrum. A Scot at and seeking peace, Jim McKinnell (muh-KIN-el)