23 March 2006

Christian academics: not an oxymoron

by Dan Phillips

The recent discussion over N. T. Wright, and some of the frankly off-base comments in that thread, jogged some memories and stirred some thoughts.

After the Lord saved me in 1973, the first real Biblical scholar I remember reading was F. F. Bruce. Most of you will know the name. If you're old enough, you'll know that particularly in the '70s and '80s, it was "cool" to be able to name Bruce as "one of us." He was reputed to be both an evangelical and a first-rank scholar.

In my little experience of him, he was also a very nice fellow. I had been absolutely bowled over by the man's body of work. It seemed has if he'd written on everything, had scholarly "chops" both in Old and New Testament, and all his work was meticulously footnoted and detailed and sourced and painfully precise. In Answers to Questions (Zondervan: 1972), the sort of book I devoured as a new believer, he answered all sorts the widest variety of questions. (Much later, I realized that many of the answers were very... wriggly.)

So I wrote Professor Bruce over there in England, myself being around 18 years old and just getting my Biblical feet under me. I told the professor that I couldn't believe that he was just one man. No, he had to be a committee of scholars writing under a pseudonym. Otherwise, how could he do it?

To my delighted startlement, Professor Bruce actually took the time to answer me. He assured me he was an individual. "My name is not Legion, for we are not many," he added wryly. Then he gave me a priceless bit of advice. "How do I do it?" he mused, to my question. Then he said he'd never stopped to think about it. He supposed it was a matter of "filling up odd moments." That very practical little nugget has helped me ever since.

But as I grew in my studies, I began to wonder about Bruce's own convictions. I was learning about Biblical criticism, and liberalism, and some of his writings left me a bit unsettled. He characteristically couched everything he said, hedged, cited this or that scholar, or the "early Christian community's" beliefs. He often seemed evasive. What did he believe?

I naively asked him if he believed the Biblical books were "authentic." He replied that, if I meant were they "authentic witnesses to Christ," then yes he did. I realized I'd left some weasel room... and he'd leapt for it. (I was learning about talking to "academics.")

So I wrote and asked him point-blank who wrote the Pastoral Epistles, and the like. I came to learn that he did not accept the Bible's attribution of the Pastorals (among others) to Paul, nor various other straightforward canonical evidence. He had a fairly standard liberal line, but he seldom came out with it in his writings, which evangelicals like me bought prodigiously.

At the time, I was disappointed. But years later, my disappointment turned to real sadness as I read Bruce's Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, from 1977. Published when Bruce was in his late 60's, this should have been the seasoned product of decades of immersion in the text of Scripture. Surely years of deep Pauline studies had touched the heart of this evangelical scholar.

Yet what I found was constant, once-removed, third-person academicisms. Still, one could read between the lines; and what one read was not heartening. Bruce saw Paul and Luke as disagreeing with each other, he batted about what the early Church believed about Scripture rather than what it says; in fact, Bruce did not seem to think that the meaning they took from OT texts was legitimate.

Since Bruce wrote the book, of course it had a wealth of good academic information. What it didn't have was heart, contrary to the title. No proclamation, and a troubling concern about and from the wrong side of issues from Paul -- usually between the lines. Since Bruce rejected Pauline authorship of some of the apostle's last and most passionately personal letters, a fair bit was left out of the portrait of the great apostle.

Now, back more broadly to the issue of academics. Going just by the interview, I continue to grow in my sense of the mass of frustrating confusion that evidently is N. T. Wright. Consider:

What Wright says about anastasis is just wonderful, right-on. His defense of the eyewitness character of the Gospels, and his broadsides at Bultmann and his ilk -- simply delightful. But then it comes down to some "touchy" issues, and he waffles, is diffident, double-spoken, tepid.

Wright's defenders say, "Oh, sticklebats. That's just how academics talk." So... academics get a "pass" from being Christians 24/7? And besides, what's that word that comes before "Wright"? Isn't it "Bishop"? What's that mean? What are the office-hours for a "Bishop," anyway? Did he do the interview in his "off" hours?

I've done academics, I've got some dusty "creds," I guess; taught beginning and advanced Hebrew in seminary, Old Testament Theology elective, and this and that here and there. But I never got the idea that my discipleship ended when I opened a book, or stood behind a lectern. No one ever explained that doing academics gave me a "pass" from being passionately gripped by a Biblical worldview.

Here's the Christian vision: "The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). God is not confined to a ghetto. It's all His property -- everything, material, spiritual, conceptual. There is no atom in all the universe that is not His possession, not His by right, does not own Him as its master. Or else the Bible is nonsense, and you shouldn't bother with it.

Historiography? God's. Lexicography? God's. Theology? God's. Higher criticism, lower criticism, middlin' criticism? God's. See the pattern?

Consider the attitude that speaks thus: "Well, that's all very nice, but to be an academic, to speak and walk in that world, one must put aside one's religious convictions, and concern oneself objectively with facts, not faith."

That's an urbane way of saying, "You know all that Bible stuff? Nonsense. Sheer bosh and fairy-tales."

Am I making a naive or obscurantist statement? I don't think so. While the Bible bears the marks of its human authors (it is "letters" and "Scripture"; 2 Timothy 3:15, 16), it is unlike any other book in that it is theopneustos, God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). It claims to present God's words from the first verses to the last.

Now, with all due apologies to pomo's (i.e. none), this is a categorical statement. It is true, or it is false. And in approaching the Bible, we approach it as necessarily what it claims to be, or not necessarily. For all intents and purposes, "not necessarily" = "not."

What about being all things to all men? That's potentially the subject of a much longer post, and probably by a better man than I (Phil?). But I do note that in Athens (Acts 17), Paul was able to hold his own with the philosophers, and quote some of their own writers from memory. Yet they knew he preached Iesous and Anastasis (Jesus and the resurrection), and they had no doubt that he was making an authoritative proclamation to them.

Now, I can hear objectors sputtering, "So you are saying that a man should warp and twist the evidence to fit his religious convictions?!" That is in fact exactly what I am not saying. Think: that charge rests on the premise that the Bible is not what it claims to be.

Think further. If I have to twist and hide facts to treat the Bible as the Word of God, then it isn't the Word of God. I'm deceiving... someone. Myself, my readers; someone.

But equally, if the Bible is what it claims to be, and I speak of it as if it is not, it is then that I am twisting facts and being deceitful.

I don't really see any way around it. Read Matthew 22:34-40 carefully. Find me an exemption-clause for academics. In what settings should one love God will less than his whole heart and mind and soul and strength? In what interview-settings should one not be lovingly concerned for the souls of his interviewer and listeners? How could not being ready to answer the question, "What must I do to be saved?" possibly be seen as a positive Christian quality?

If you and I are not striving to be genuine Christians fulltime and everywhere, will we be genuine Christians anytime, or anywhere?

Dan Phillips's signature


Unknown said...

I appreciate the heart you've put into this. Thanks for it. While I disagree that Wright is as tepid as some suggest, I wholeheartedly agree with most of your observations.

But in short I cannot suffer under the delusion that our narrow, evangelical way of saying and doing theology ought to be projected upon the entire Christian community. There are certain doctrines that are essential, to be sure. But let's not pretend that if one non-essential falls by the wayside, the whole house comes tumbling down.

It's like admitting that there were later editors (than Moses) with respect to the Pentateuch. How in the world does that infringe upon the authority of Scripture? Couldn't the editors be led by God's Spirit too?

No Christian ought to be interested in denying truth. But he ought to be concerned with admitting he does not have the corner on it.

Sharad Yadav said...

Does loving God, being a disciple of Jesus, and being a Christian necessarily entail a belief in Pauline authorship of the pastorals? Does belief in non-Pauline authorship forfeit salvation for those who trust in Christ's atoning work? I of course believe in Pauline authorship for all the canonical books attributed to him - but are we saying that not believing this is grounds for excommunication? This sounds a whole lot less "biblical" a requirement for salvation and fellowhsip than the Scriptures actually give, especially with someone like Bruce, who regards the entire Bible as authoritative (whether that's consistent with his other views on Bibliology I'll leave that for you to decide - but inconsistency in believing the Bible's authority but not verbal-plenary inspiration isn't the same thing as a denial of the Bible's authority). Even Carl Henry didn't regard a belief in inspiration as a sign of apostasy (although he vigorously argued for it as a logical entailment of authority). I find it a touch judgmental to say that his work didn't have "heart" - there are some men in our churches that don't seem to get as noticably exercised about spiritual topics as we do, and if they did we might recognize it - but to say that this is a lack of "heart" might be a bit heavy handed. You're right about the problem with separating scholarship from faith - but that doesn't mean that Bruce, or other evangelical NT scholars, believe that the Bible is just so much "fairy tales" - Bruce is also known for saying that the historical task can't answer questions about faith and the holy spirit because they are "spiritually discerned" - he believed that there were two levels on which the Bible can be examined, one with reference to the historical record (with criteria which can't prove theological statements), and the other with reference to theology, which examined the actual spiritual claims of the others. You can disagree with that (and I certainly do) but it doesn't make his historical work "proof" that he didn't really believe in the theological truth-claims of Scritpure.

Regarding historicity, however, Bruce also said:

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament than have many theologians.

As for God's lexicography - I might appreciate the point if I knew what on earth that meant. Which lexicons do you refer to in your study?

In short, you shouldn't be apologizing to pomos (whoever you may have had in mind) - you should be apologizing to Bruce - and maybe you'll get your chance when you see him in the kingdom!

Sharad Yadav said...

sorry, that's meant to read:

there are some men in our churches that don't seem to get as noticably exercised about spiritual topics as we do, and if they did we might NOT recognize it - but to say that this is a lack of "heart" might be a bit heavy handed.

Sharad Yadav said...

Having read Phil's response to my latest comments in another thread I wanted to clarify that the last bit about apologizing to Bruce was a joke!

Craig Schwarze said...

Was it only the pastoral epistles he doubted - ie. 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus?

More on the Wright thing. A number of american evangelicals have spoken fondly of our archbishop, Peter Jensen.

But he also speaks very carefully to the secular media, and is rather academic at times. His committment to orthodox Christianity is beyond dispute, but I fear he may eventually come under attack from "these quarters", which I would very much regret as he is an outstanding champion of the gospel.

Matt Gumm said...

Raja: I don't think any one thing necessarily puts one on the outs. But it is certainly can be a sign that something is wrong.

For example, since John Stott is now claiming annihilationism versus Hell, does that mean he's not a believer? I would say, not necessarily. But I wrestle with believers who start rejecting historic doctrines--what does that say about the direction of their faith?

In my mind, the real danger of not holding to correct views on the inpiration of Scripture or Pauline authorship is not "oh, you don't believe the right thing, so you're going to Hell," which is the straw man some keep trotting out every time someone tries to say there is anything definitive that must be believed. The real danger is the ease with which that aberrant view turns into aberrant theology, and aberrant theology does send people to Hell.

Phil Johnson said...

Good post, Dan.

Raja: "Does belief in non-Pauline authorship forfeit salvation for those who trust in Christ's atoning work?"

The question being raised here is not whether someone who sells truth in order to buy "academic respectability" ought to be regarded as an unbeliever or excommunicated. (Which is not to dismiss that question as unimportant or suggest that the answer to it is always obvious.)

But the question here is whether such a person ought to be automatically revered by other Christians just because of his intellectual prowess or scholarly credentials. It seems to me that everything Paul says in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians mitigates against the notion that scholarship can ever trump truth.

And that's a point, Raja, that goes to the heart of every disagreement you and I have ever had.

Sharad Yadav said...

Are those my only two options? Revere him or . . . what?

The fact is that your categories of "groupie" or "opponent". I'm neither. I don't stare lovingly at his priestly collar or throw confetti at his academic credentials. I've read his books. I don't think he's being read rightly. I find as much good as bad, as with every study tool I've ever used. I read comments like the ones I posted here and see some people finding any and every possible way to construe it as "heresy" or "indifferent" or "indefinite" and I come to the conclusion that one of us is crazy, and I know me better than you.

In any case, if a refusal to join the firing squad or a determination to point out what IS useful and helpful means being percieved as being in a fan club replete with button and decoder ring, I guess I'll have paid my membership. You can fill in all my usual yada yada yadav about double standards, mischaracterizations, and blah blah blah - as you said, we've had this conversation before. I keep telling myself we won't be having it again. What can I say - I'm weak.

And by the way, after next week I'll have just finished preaching through 1 Corinthians. I get it. World's wisdom. I agree with the principles. Not your application in this case. Of course no one should sell truth in order to buy "academic respectability". I don't think he's doing that.

Of course scholarship can ever trump truth (I'm not even sure that this makes sense, assuming the definitions of those words).

In any case, I'm glad for the clarification you gave about me, and I hope I won't be McCarthy-ized into questions about my own orthodoxy. But, for the eighty-ninth time today, here's my resolution to drop it.

See you tomorrow?

Sharad Yadav said...

Matt -- agreed. But I don't think either Wright or Stott classify as "send you to hell" sort of way. I guess it comes down to our interpretations of what we've actually read in the guy's books - the substance of which seems to be assumed more than discussed. But I'm happy to disagree about the substance of an uninspired sinner's work. I'm also happy to agree (and affirm) the Gospel, the doctrines of grace, justification by faith alone et. al.

I thought I was going to STOP blogging? I probably shouldn't be writing my enteries on OTHER people's blogs.

Here's to taking my own advice every once and awhile. . .

Martin Downes said...

How we think about error is nuanced. All error, being out of step with God's truth, is going to lead to problems. Errors in sanctification like the higher life movement, Keswick "let go and let God", Wesleyan perfectionism, in my estimation are not biblical and have bad pastoral and theological consequences. Are they heresies? I doubt it, but they are errors. And they are errors that have been promoted by well meaning Christians.

No of course there are errors held by a man that he will hold inconsistently, and then the next generation comes along and takes them to their logical conclusion...and you end up with departure from the faith. Isn't that the road from Edwards to the New Haven theology?

Error over the pastorals is hardly a small thing. Would I regard someone as unconverted because they hold to it? Probably not. But it would get me wanting to ask more questions about how they do theology, and where they go with it. Carson draws out this difference in how men think about ther own error in the Gagging of God when he compares Stott and Pinnock on Hell (caveat, no one actually thinks that they are in error).

As a pastor I would not invite a man to preach in my pulpit who denied hell or who denied pauline authorship of the pastorals. I would not be confident on how, and whether, they would teach the whole counsel of God. That isn't a final judgement on their relationship to Christ but it is a question of their faithfulness and usefulness for the church.

DJP said...

Petty Athanasius, Matt, Phil, Martin -- I deliberately didn't "weigh in" immediately, because I wanted to let others have a go first, given I'd already written a lengthy enough post. You make me glad I did. Excellent responses; thanks for them.

More later, DV.

DJP said...

Oh, and Phil -- thanks for showing me that trick about pictures. A whole new world opens up to me.


Heidi said...

Everytime I read N. T. Wright I think of C. S. Lewis. Except I think we see Lewis more clearly, for both his faults and his greatnesses -- not just as a brilliant man and a great author, but as a great Christian -- for being somewhat distanced from him. I think if he were alive today, we would find him to be soft spoken and 'compromising' on many issues that some of us consider quite fundamental (as he was in his own day), though no doubt, just as Wright is -- he would be, as he was, very hard core on others. And of course it is necessary to fight the present battles. Only Lewis is still a brilliant man, my favorite author, and most of all one of my Christian heroes.

And N.T. Wright reminds me of him.

Caleb Kolstad said...

A most helpful post and good discussion once again.

A.D. Riddle said...

We should not imagine that there are no problems in biblical study. There are many places where we lack a complete picture, or we lack any picture at all. And a Christian worldview does not inherently contain the answer to these problems (historical, textual, critical, archaeological, etc.), nor does a high view of divine revelation. But these are the very areas that scholars occupy themselves, struggling to make sense of incomplete evidence, partial clues, or apparently "contradictory" evidence. I don't think it's fair to brush away the problems as if they didn't even exist, and then set about beating up these supposed evangelical scholars for failing to come up with a "Christian" answer--as though the answers to these problems were readily avialable and scholars adamantly refuse to acknowledge it. Sometimes, evangelical scholars have been forced to abandon "sacred" views, to the benefit of evangelical scholarship, precisely because they have integrity and are intellectually honest. Surely this attitude is a Christian one too.

Note: I am not writing specifically about Wright. I have not read anything he has written and do not intend to defend or accuse him. I am writing about Christianity and academia in general. Christians academics face a certain dilemna: there are certain things that they affirm by virtue of their confession, but which they must hold in suspense and examine critically as academics. I don't think we appreciate how difficult this can be. For example, an evangelical scholar believes there was an exodus because he believes the Bible is true and inspired, but in the process of studying the exodus as an academic, he must be prepared to discover that the exodus happened in a way rather different from what the historic church has pictured it. Now if he outright denies the exodus, then we have a problem, but if he suggests that the actual exodus event is more complicated and involves a lot more (including people/events not mentioned in the Bible) than what the Bible portrays, what do we do? Kick him out, because he goes against the Bible? Recognize his work, and acknowledge that the biblical account is necessarily selective in its presentation? Sometimes deciding these issues is not so black and white.


Martin Downes said...

a. d. riddle

I think that your comments are fair. Evangelical academics live in two worlds and serve two constituencies. There are pressures in the academy to play the game according to the academy's rules. It would be honest to recognise that there is the pressure to compromise.

Evangelical academics also face the struggle of what happens if they do change their minds and hold new positions that differ from historic evangelicalism. There is the pressure to slip into hypocrisy. 19th Century Scottish presbyterianism is an interesting case study on this.

What I am saying is that theology is essentially a moral discipline. There are temptations to sin that academics face. The resurgence of Evangelical scholarship in the 20th Century (for which I am grateful) also sought to gain influence in the academy. Gaining that respectability when the rules of the academy were not favourable to evangelical belief came at a price.

We shouldn't underestimate the ability of scholars to sin in high places.

Martin Downes said...

Sorry, I meant to say that "some of your comments are fair"

Anonymous said...

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing William Dembski, of the Discovery Institute, debate an athiest on whether or not Intelligent Design is scientifically viable. The secular/sacred split always amuses me as this athiest claims you can affirm blind evolution and still hold your religious beliefs. I think this chasm is the failure of the modern mind. If a religion, or religious book, is true then it ust be scientifically true as well. It must accurately address every aspect of life and Scripture does just that. This chasm is also the great failure of many Christian academics. You should be passionate about all truth because all truth is God's truth. Gravity is God's truth. God not only designed us a complex biological systems He also designed and governs the naturalistic systems that controll our universe. We must begin to see that Christ is Truth and all truth belongs to Christ, because of this all our pursuits for Truth should be passionately pursued.

Heidi said...

(I wanted to clarify that I did not mean to address the issue of whether we should always respect the authority of scholars on Biblical issues - I agree with Mr. Downes about the temptation to sin in high places. I was replying more to the idea that the measure of a man can be fully taken on one battlefield. If it can, it is not always the battlefield other men choose. It would be blatantly wrong to accuse Lewis of not contending for the faith because he didn't take large tracts of the OT literally, or was too ecumenical.)

Phil Johnson said...

HZ, Lewis was a lit professor, not a theologian or pastor, so the parallel you're making doesn't quite hold for the point you are trying to make.

Which is not to say I approve of Lewis's waffling on certain key issues. It's just that I don't see many evangelical pastors revamping their whole understanding of the Pauline corpus in order to get in step with Lewis's opinions. So if it seems I cut Lewis more slack than Wright, it's only a matter of perspective.

But I'll tell you what: if the evangelical world gets swept up in a debate about whether to adopt a Protestant version of purgatory just because Jack Lewis believed in it, I'll probably unload. So hold off assuming I'm soft on Lewis until that issue comes up for discussion.

a. d. riddle: "if he outright denies the exodus, then we have a problem, but if he suggests that the actual exodus event is more complicated and involves a lot more (including people/events not mentioned in the Bible) than what the Bible portrays, what do we do? Kick him out, because he goes against the Bible?"

It depends on whether his opinion actually goes against the Bible or not. If he indeed has gone against the Bible, don't expect me to think his academic credentials trump what God has revealed, or act as if his anti-biblical opinions (or squidgy opinions on matters where the Bible speaks plainly) are worthy of great respect and deference. That's all I'm saying.

"Sometimes deciding these issues is not so black and white."

Agreed, but often they are a lot more black and white than some in the "scholarly" community want to acknowledge, such as on the questions of hell, homosexuality, and the ordination of women.

Matt Gumm said...

Phil, isn't Wright's view that Second Temple Judaism is more accurately portrayed by contemporary scholarship than through the New Testament an example of what's being discussed here?

Heidi said...

Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bayly, thank you:

As far as the ministry goes personally I am not thrilled with N.T. Wright's public performance. And no: I would not go to Lewis for a systematic theology. However one of the best books I have read is his book on prayer: I certainly did not agree with everything in it, but there were some incredible doctrinal insights. (And though Lewis was a lit professor, he was also a religious writer, looked to for such insight.) My point is not to argue that N. T. Wright is a good minister, but that I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that he is somehow not a genuine Christian anytime anywhere, because he has lost a battle we have picked to measure him by. Are we going to claim because Lewis fell down in much the same areas and dropped the ball at times as a prominent religious author that he was not a good Christian anytime anywhere? That he was not striving to be one?

I understand that like Lewis, a great deal of what White says has to be sifted through. But American fundy Christianity badly needs the corrective emphasis of some of N.T. Wright's work. His critique of an evangelicalism that has degenerated into a Saviour who is not the reigning Lord is right on. A lot of people are making this critique, but without the massive bulwark of vision he punches into it, of Christ as the fulfillment of Judaism, the true Jew. Despite growing up very thoroughly reformed, I never began to grasp how all things cohere in Christ until I read Wright. In fact some of the most amazing glimpses I have had person and work of Christ, and the impact of that not only on humanity but on the principalities and powers, on the whole creation, have been in reading him. I think he's wrong on some aspects of justification. But we have largely ignored the cosmic aspects of the cross, and so we have reduced the Lordship of Christ out of its significance. I think we are hurting ourselves if we throw out his incredible grasp of Christ as Lord, as fulfillment with the areas in which he is wrong (& I believe this emphasis is a big reason is why people are attracted to White). And I think we misjudge him if we don't take this part of his work, and his vigilant defense of it, into account. He has managed to make some incredible statements of sound theology in an area we have largely lost. He has replanted the cross as a symbol of power, at least in my mind. And for that I am extremely grateful to him; and very unwilling to suggest that his Christianity is never genuine, because he has more public sin than I do.

Heidi said...

Mr. Bayly, I was interacting with the article in my original 2 responses, which works from Mr. Wright's errors to this conclusion:

"If you and I are not striving to be genuine Christians fulltime and everywhere, will we be genuine Christians anytime, or anywhere?"

In clarifying what I meant, in my last post, I did not mean to accuse either you or Mr. Johnson of making this statement; and more than you apparently meant to defend it - quite sincerely, I meant only to further clarify remarks which you and Mr. Johnson seemed to take as a defense of Mr. Wright the minister, rather than Mr. Wright the Christian. Thank you again.

Heidi said...

(um.... 'and' should be 'any' in 'and more you meant' etc.)

DJP said...

blueraja, a.d. riddle and hz -- it might be interesting if you went back, read my post, interacted a bit more with what I said in it, rather than with what you think I meant but didn't say.

Who's ruling Christians in or out of the kingdom, or suggesting that all their work be trashed or that they be silenced? It's a bit discouraging actually to work very hard to express oneself clearly -- as I think cjd did catch (thanks) -- and then get such emotional, far-afield responses.

I particularly mean you, blueraja; and so to you I now turn.

You don't like my response to Bruce's book? ::shrug:: Did you read it? Write your own review on your own blog, give me a heads-up.

Does loving God, being a disciple of Jesus, and being a Christian necessarily entail a belief in Pauline authorship of the pastorals?

Let me re-phrase that: Does loving God, being a disciple of Jesus, and being a Christian necessarily entail affirming the truth of every assertion, every truth-claim of Scripture?

Yes, it does.

Does belief in non-Pauline authorship forfeit salvation for those who trust in Christ's atoning work?

Let me re-phrase that: Does sin forfeit salvation for those who trust in Christ's atoning work?


Does that mean we should sin, should encourage sin, should minimize sin, should rationalize sin, should mollycoddle sin? Particularly in those who've taken on themselves the mantle of leadership -- it we really, really like them?


BTW, I shouldn't need to, but probably had better clarify: I regard repudiation of God's Word to be sin. (It's odd to have to say that, but there you have it.)

It seems important to you, and to some others, to work hard to whittle away at the meaning of "evangelical" so that you can fit in some of your favorite people.

I've gotten value from people who probably (or certainly) aren't evangelical: Thielicke, Barclay, Lewis, Bonhoeffer.

Shall I batter and abuse the word, so I can fit them in?

Best not to.

Phil Johnson said...

HZ: Over the past five years, in numerous forums, I have raised a lot of questions about Wright's published views on this and that, or specific statements he has made here and there. I don't recall ever once raising any question about whether his profession of faith in Christ is genuine or not. That is a matter about which I would not care to speculate. Its not an issue that has been raised in any of the posts or comments here. It seems little more than a diversion from the real criticisms that have been leveled at him here.

I agree with you that evangelicalism as a movement has lost hold of the significance of Christ's lordship, and a strong corrective is sorely needed. (I've actually edited a couple of famous books on that subject.) That has been one of the central issues in my meager ministry for some 25 years.

And I agree with you about this much: When it comes to diagnosing and dissecting the symptoms of the evangelical failure to embrace and bow to Christ's lordship, Wright is capable of sounding almost prophetic. I appreciate him for that, as well as for the way he defends the historicity of Christ against rank skepticism. I certainly don't disagree with everything the man has ever said.

I think, however, that Wright's proposed remedies are seriously problematic, beginning with his wholesale reinterpretation of the apostle Paul. It seems to me that Wright's answer to torpid evangelicalism would involve the abandonment of historic evangelicalism altogether (meaning, ultimately, the abandonment of historic Protestantism).

And I think that's worth fighting against, even though saying so plainly seems to upset a lot of vocal people.

Heidi said...

Wow (I'm smiling not upset) It is obviously easy to be misunderstood. I want to clarify that I have not been emotional. I was confused about the obvious indictment of Wright as not being genuinely Christian in the way he pursued academics, with the windup paragraph. I realise I could have expressed my concerns from the first more clearly, but obviously trying hard is not a guarantee.

Also I don't believe I ever suggested that anyone (& certainly not Mr. Bayly or Mr. Johnson) had tried to exclude Mr. Wright from the kingdom. Only that it seemed a slur was being cast on his Christianity with the phrasing of the article. If I was wrong in this, then forgive me: it is the kind of argument a lot of people make, and I did try to put my foot in very tentatively before I jumped in, lest I had misunderstood: I also tried not accuse anyone, simply to say that apart from whatever public errors as scholar and minister, I believe Mr. Wright to be a brilliant Christian man.

Mr. Johnson, thanks for your response. & I would agree, that we have to fight Mr. Wright's errors, even while profiting from his best work. This seems to be the kind of discussion where one mostly says "I never meant to say otherwise." (But I really didn't!)

The moral of this story is, that in assiduously avoiding finger pointing I seem to have made everyone feel that I was trying to accuse them and distract from the real issue, whereas I was merely trying, given that I agree with many of the criticisms leveled about the issues, to put in a good word for the Christian character of a man who has had a great influence on me.

Matt Gumm said...

Dan, this recent post from Al Mohler's blog seems pertinent to the discussion as well.

Neil said...

Somewhat off topic, but to do with Bruce, The Spreading Flame was a wonderful book. It does not read (to me) like a mere academic book. It reads like an academic book with heart. I believed that the author believed. I am disappointed to hear of the distantness and the questioning of biblical authorship in his later work and life.

farmboy said...

In his post Mr. Phillips mentions facts and evidence several times. I believe these words are central to the issue at hand. One who aspires to be a scholar is duty and honor bound to base his/her conclusions on the evidence.

In theology evidence comes from two sources – special and general revelation. How does one evaluate the quality of evidence from either source? How does one resolve seeming conflicts between evidence from these sources? When push comes to shove is it special that trumps general revelation or general that trumps special revelation?

As an example, regarding the origins of the universe, how does one evaluate the evidence from special and general revelation? From general revelation one observes the order, regularity and complexity of the universe. A conclusion that follows from this evidence is that such a universe must be the product of a designer. So far there is no conflict between general and special revelation. However, what if the consensus evaluation of general revelation is that the universe is relatively old? Does one adjust his/her interpretation of Genesis 1 to fit the consensus evaluation of general revelation or does one hold to his/her interpretation of Genesis 1? Which is primary special or general revelation?

In a similar vein, regarding authorship of Paul’s letters, does one place a greater weight on the evidence from Scripture or on the evidence from extra-biblical sources?

In considering the above examples, how often has a revolution in scientific thought radically changed the consensus understanding of general revelation? Which has the higher probability of revision based on future discoveries, the consensus understanding of special or general revelation? Given this, why is evidential apologetics more popular than presuppositional apologetics? What is a more trustworthy starting point special or general revelation?

Given the above, one explanation follows for F. F. Bruce’s equivocation on the authorship of Paul’s letters: He placed a greater weight on general, extra-biblical revelation than he did on Scripture. To what extent is such a weighting the result of years of immersion in a scholarly community that interprets Scripture from a theologically liberal perspective?

With special revelation (as with general revelation) the evidence is clearer in some areas than it is in others. Thus, one can draw stronger conclusions in those areas where the evidence is clearer. Given the Divine authorship of Scripture it follows that special revelation is clearest on those doctrines that are most essential to the Christian faith. As examples, based on the clarity of the evidence one can speak with more certainty on the doctrine of justification than one can on the exact procedural details of Christ’s second coming.

Given the clarity of the evidence from Scripture on the doctrine of justification, the conclusion one reaches regarding N. T. Wright’s reinterpretation of the doctrine of justification is similar to the conclusion reached regarding F. F. Bruce and the authorship of Paul’s letters.

The related pressures to publish and to come up with something new are ever present in the academic community. Given that the canon has been closed for almost 2,000 years and that there is nothing new under the sun, these related pressures can only lead to mischief. The world would be better served by an academic community committed to mastering the received wisdom from previous generations and passing this wisdom on to the next generation.

Heidi said...

Mr. Bayly, I appreciate that people want to make sure I am thinking accurately. Thank you as well.

Unknown said...

matt gumm, it's not quite related.

Reading the SBL article by Fox and the posted responses are probably worthy of their own post.

It seems common sensical to agree with Bowley's observation (the last posted response) that "scholarship of any kind that has predetermined outcomes or required ideological results is pseudo-scholarship." But this is not to agree with Fox's thesis, that faith-based biblical studies necessarily bring with them such predetermined outcomes or required ideological results. Nor can secularists be acquitted of the charge of importing their own bias into biblical studies, as is clearly evidenced by Fox's comments on Joshua, et al. Any biblical studies scholar who approaches that study with an agenda of defending some particular ideological position is probably guilty of glorified quote mining, regardless of whether the enterprize is faith based or not. The suggestion that a scholar, because he or she is rooted in a confessional community, is therefore incapabale of conducting sound scholarship, is insulting, demeaning and just plain false. But i abounds in the academy. Of course, scholarship should be judged on its merits, not on the imagined motives of the scholar.

To relate this to the discussion at hand, the beautiful thing about Wright is that I've only seen secularists get mad at him and accuse him the way Fox accuses all faith-based scholarship. They have yet to knock him down, even a little.

farmboy said...

In his original post Mr. Phillips states partly as follows: "…a belief in Pauline authorship of the pastorals?" In a later comment he amplifies this as follows: "…affirming the truth of every assertion, every truth-claim of Scripture?" Mr. Phillips amplification is broader than his original statement as his amplification extends to every truth claim of Scripture while his original statement focuses on the truth claim that Paul is the author of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.

Given that a fundamental of evangelical Christianity is (or at least until recently has been) a belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, Mr. Phillips is emphasizing the point that for evangelical Christians belief that Paul is the author of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus consistently and logically follows from the evidence contained in inspired, inerrant Scripture. The evidence from special revelation is sufficient to answer the question of the authorship of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.

Mr. Phillips is not equivocating. What he wrote in his original post is consistent with what he wrote in his follow up comment. To amplify is not to equivocate.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, (1 Timothy 1:1, NIV)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, (2 Timothy 1:1, NIV)

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness – (Titus 1:1, NIV)

Jacob Mentzel said...

I've been a religious studies student at Indiana University for 4 years now (I graduate in May), and I have to say: Well said, brother, and amen. I came here (IU), a believer of only a year, from a rather weak church and jumped right into this academic rigamorole. The academy has so thoroughly burnt me out that I have neither time nor the desire to pander about in the world of higher criticism. I have fought (or tried to fight) the fight of faith here in the context of one of the most liberal universities I know of. I've attempted rather poorly (as well as ill-equipped) to engage these scholars (J.Albert Harrill, for instance) on an academic level and have been thoroughly trashed. I've been called a redneck, a hillbilly, a backwards neanderthal... you name it. Holding to the authority of Scripture has constantly been equated to bowing to a "sacred cow." I've watched friends and fellow believers be seduced by the intellectual environment, and I've seen faith crushed under the weight of a professor with fancy degrees, semi-valid arguments, and a seat of authority that they use to bully Christians. In engaging with my professors on an academic level, I've even had the opportunity to even disprove a theory that was the premise of the professor's newest book. All of that to say, to engage the pagan academics in an academic way is something I've found to be a completely worthless pursuit. Every single one I've encountered has long committed their soul to the study of Scripture for one reason with one primary personal aim: To tear down its authority to justify their sin. They have no interest in hearing arguments opposed to them. They are deaf to them. To my knowledge, every professor engaged in Biblical Studies I've talked to has a troubled background with religion (and most with family) and has turned out either a flaming feminist or a homosexual with a vendetta against fundamentalist Christianity in any form it takes, with the exception of one rather liberal Roman Catholic. The point is that if we're to engage the academic world with any kind of heart at all, the place to start is right at the heart. The woman at the well was happy to talk theology in periphery, but Jesus went straight to her adultery. In the same way, the way to engage these academics is to confront them with their sin and the root of their rebellion. Now, to be sure, I really, really believe that biblical scholarship is something that evangelicals need to be engaged in. We need to have an answer for the pagans when they attack Scripture... but the most clear reason for this in my mind has nothing to do with persuading them. They're not budging until we put our fingers on the real issue. The reason I see is for all of the lambs that are sent to the wolves every year without any ground to stand on. It has to be done with a pastoral heart, or else it is vanity. And with that in mind, with my brothers who have stumbled and fallen on account of these wolves on my heart, I say with full conviction fie on anyone who does so in such a way as to cater to the academic community while lambs are being led to the slaughter. The matter is far too urgent, and as you said so clearly, we either believe the Word of God is what it claims to be and treat it as such, or we deny it. How can anyone, especially a man called to be a shepherd, be so careless and irresponsible? The air in there be poison... and I praise God for the breath of fresh air.

Martin Downes said...


Like you I studied under scholars who, with varying levels of intensity, were opposed to the cardinal doctrines of Christianity. I then spent a few years working alongside evangelical theology students studying in secular universities for the RTSF in the UK.
It was a case of the seed of the serpent teaching the seed of the woman.

As a conservative evangelical in the UK I have to say that Wright seems to be going down better on your side of the pond than ours. To be sure he is a little bit popular with left-wing (theologically and I guess politically) evangelicals here, but not those who are more confessionally minded.

Perhaps the most well thought of evangelical scholar in the UK is in fact Don Carson (I know he's not a brit, that tells you something). I for one am grateful for his faithfulness and polemics against the new perspective. He seems much closer to the model of the evangelical scholar than Wright. And of coure he is challenging Wright's relabelling of justification.

And finally. I considered going to seminary in the States (even flew over for a visit). When I asked one of the most senior, well respected, evangelical academics in the US how he thought his peers were reacting to the new perspective he said "younger evangelical scholars go after the latest theory like gadarene swine". Ouch.

Martin Downes said...

We do need to discern people as well as doctrine. Authoritarianism will provoke reactions. Perhaps is produces unwanted bad effects when it is coupled (wrongly) with anti-intellectualism.

That said I worry that portraying folks as victims and hurting because of ungracious orthodoxy is unhelful. It feels a little too much like we are following the culture's approach to this. Are you speaking here out of your own experience? (That's a genuine question). I worry about excusing responsibility in theological matters. The Galatians converts were bewitched, but the false teachers needed to go a little further with the knife! Paul is sympathetic to one group but unflinching with the others because of what is at stake.

If people don't want to make the cross of Christ their only boast now I'm not sure what is gained by fishing arounding in their supposed hurtful past.

Believing as I do that orthodoxy is arrived at ultimately because of the gracious work of the Holy Spirit I find that I have to watch my attitude toward others. Who made me to differ? And you are so right Stephen to say that people need space and help, within the bounds of orthodoxy. I'm very grateful for the help that I received in thinking through and submitting to the sovereign nature of the grace of God.

DJP said...

Tim Bayly --

That is a four-and-a-half-"Dude!" comment.

Jacob Mentzel said...


A couple of questions and a couple of observations.

Where do you find evidence for a divine calling to the academic realm? I see no such calling in Scripture. Now, the motive that I find primarily expressed by evangelicals for pursuing things like Biblical Studies is to keep up with the liberals and to be a witness in the academic community... to defend God and His Word and to try and persuade intellectuals by using their own weapons (higher criticism) and meeting them on their own terms. But this is not the way God works. God calls sinners to meet them on His terms. To engage in higher criticism you are forced to set aside your faith and come to the Bible as though it had no authority. In short, you are forced to replace the authority of Scripture with man's ability to reason and to interpret in light of a supposed historical context. When you do that, you're already on the slippery slope and you've neutered your testimony. You emasculate the Gospel when you and render yourself ineffectual.

Now I don't know which school you're a freshman at. Nor do I know what your professors are like. But think about it. Why would a pagan devote his live to the study of Scripture? What evidence of honesty, sincerity, and straightforwardness can you find in someone who deliberately teaches trash designed to make men stumble? What could possibly motivate such a lifelong investment? The answer is simple among the pagans I've seen. As I said before, every last one of them, with the exception of one, is either a feminist, a homosexual, or both. I don't think that's a coincidence.

I appreciate your tenderness, but I fear that it is green. I fear that if you spend your time among these folks long enough, you will either be jaded by them, seduced by them and the pride of the academy, or you will see it all as an appalling waste of time. Jesus' response to the Pharisees was, mildly put, less than tender. Jesus didn't give the wolves that assumed positions of authority over His people an inch- and the reason is because he loves His bride. He offended them and put them to open shame and in so doing unseated them and the authority of their teaching in the hearts of His disciples. How many tender Pharisees with bad backgrounds did Jesus offend when he called them whitewashed tombs? As Tim articulated, Jesus didn't come to save the righteous, but sinners. Think hard about what you're doing and why you're pursuing it. If you engage yourself in the rigamorale and hoop jumping, will you look back and see it as a waste of life? I don't know you, but I fear that you will. I fear that in most every case the alternative is ending up like so many of these evangelical scholars we see neutered or apostasizing. Bad company corrupts good character. Remember, there weren't any faithful in Sodom.

As for me, there are too many souls at stake in this battle to waste my time on those who have declared themselves God's enemies by waging war against His Word. Their talk and manner of speaking is easy and seductive, but as Martin said, it is a case of the seed of the serpent teaching the seed of the woman. Engaging them on their level is only to put myself in a position of engaging in endless, lifesucking controversy. Therefore, such men I will have little to do with. And when I do, I don't intend to do the two-step with them as they ask me about which mountain they're supposed to worship on. That wouldn't be compassionate or loving at all. I'm far more concerned about those they are trampling under their feet as they dance circles around neutered evangelical scholars with nothing but blanks in their guns. This isn't a matter of shooting blind arrows at the academy. It's a matter of protecting God's sheep from the arrows they are shooting at them.

I realize that you're primarily dealing with evangelical scholars, at least I think you are. And believe me, I have no desire to despise a Thomas for his weakness. But the kind of fallout that is typical among these scholars and seminary students is directly related to the neutering of the Gospel and the relegation of God's truth to the academic realm. So then, for those who stumble and are heading down the path to destruction, we pull them out. For those that have been corrupted by the pride of life and have lost sight of what matters, we expose them and protect our sheep from "feeding in their pastures." I don't think a single person commenting here wouldn't love to see these men repent. However, when they exercise the authority that comes with their academic credentials to the ruin of the faithful, it is incumbant on the church to disassociate herself from them, not only to protect the church but that they might repent. For an example of this, see Paul's treatment of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:18-20: "This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme." Paul's language with the unrepentant wolves was not what you would call charitable: "I wish that those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" Galatians 5:12.

Stephen, I'm not trying to undercut your compassion, but I am challenging you to consider what it means to be compassionate for these people and what it means to love and protect the church.

In Christ,

Jake Mentzel

Unknown said...

I think what Lewis said, in regards to Christ has to be the best punchy line ever.

"Call him liar, lunatic, or Lord, what ever you do, do not call him just a good moral person, he has not given us that option.

I think Lewis started the foundation for some of the best apologetics of the Gospel against Liberalism that could ever be found, and we need to keep all his writings in that context.

craig b

DJP said...

Dan, I appreciate your doing me the honor of a careful re-read. You do seem to have missed something. I won't reproduce the whole section, but it's the part that starts here:

"...But then it comes down to some 'touchy' issues, and he [Wright] waffles, is diffident, double-spoken, tepid.

"Wright's defenders say, 'Oh, sticklebats. That's just how academics talk.' So... academics get a 'pass' from being Christians 24/7? And besides, what's that word that comes before 'Wright'? Isn't it 'Bishop'? What's that mean? What are the office-hours for a 'Bishop,' anyway? Did he do the interview in his 'off' hours?"

I was responding mostly to the defense, "Oh, well, he's an academic, that's the way they talk." My point, argued at length, was that an academic Christian is still an academic Christian, and that there is no "punch-out" time.

pgepps said...

I really want to say that I appreciate this conversation. As a Christian and a scholar (lit scholar), I find this sort of thing very helpful.

I do want to say how much I appreciate those who have pointed out the reasons for the academic habit of qualifying and temporizing, of (as Dan put it in the post) leaping for the wiggle room. Simply put, academics with strong but unpopular convictions must "choose their battles."

When that habit becomes generalized--as one's vocational exigences tend to--the result can be disheartening, to be sure. I have more than once begun to feel heartbroken over the thousand qualifiers that creep around the edges of some "words that once, in our capricious lexicon, were so alive and vital" (from E. A. Robinson's The Man Against the Sky)

There is a difficult trade-off, here.

One does not wish to be incapable of confessing what other believers confess.

And yet, one does not wish to assume, contrary to the clear evidence, that the words confessed can be spoken in other contexts with unchange meaning.

Let me take one that falls into "the other side" of many of our conservative/liberal divisions: I confess, with Paul, the unity of the Body of Christ and the inextricability of unity and peaceableness from our calling as believers and as churches.

Yet, if I go about making unqualified proclamations that "All Christian churches are unified," my words will be contradicted by the evidence (in one recpetion of the phrase); co-opted by liberals and ecumenicists; castigated by separatists; and bandied about endlessly by those who style themselves "evangelical," whatever that term may yet mean.

What's left is to assert them as trivially true in the least controversial possible sense (usually done by saying "it's a *spiritual* unity, not an *organizational* one"); or to qualify them, hedging out the non-intended or undesirable meanings and tendencies in each term and phrase.

The result is something like "Paul teaches us that the Christian life is not one of autonomy; but that the individual is a member of a local body which is headed by Christ, and which, to the extent it has been formed into the image of Christ, will also be seen to be in confessional, spiritual, baptismal, and communicating unity with all other local bodies headed by Christ, so that they are all, together, headed by Christ and being built together into one Body."

...And safer yet to simply refer to the passage directly.

So there is something about the academic concern with qualifying things that is, I think, intentional and desirable; yet there is also something that is disheartening, and I appreciate what Dan was feeling when he spotted the lack of *heart* in Bruce's later work. It is an affliction which has driven me back upon church-ly resources, and which has convinced me that the church must teach, and must use its teachers; and that buying into the world's segregation of teaching into "the academy" has hurt us more deeply than we can even begin to clearly perceive, these days.

Be well,