The Bible: scholarship vs faith? (1)


It seems inevitable that there will be a tension for christians between academic knowledge and faith. But sometimes the tension becomes very personal in its impacts, and feelings are high on both sides. These issues have come to a head a number of times in recent years at universities and colleges in the USA.

Academics under scrutiny

I am not very familiar with the academic scene, but I have become aware of a number of academics who have lost their jobs at christian universities and colleges in the last five years because their views no longer fitted within the requirements of those institutions.

Anthony le Donne

Anthony le Donne is a New Testament scholar whose books have been well-received. A year ago his employment at Lincoln Christian University was terminated. I have not seen any statement of the exact reasons for this, but they related to his book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know it?. I have, and have read, the book, and I didn’t find it especially heretical, but I can see it might be disagreeable to many christians. He has a postmodern view of history, arguing that we cannot be sure of historical facts because people’s memories and perceptions colour how they record history. Applying this to the Bible may be a stretch for many christians.

There was strong support for le Donne, and criticism of Lincoln, on the web, from fellow scholars – Mark Goodacre, Michael Bird and Brian LePort. They felt that academics need freedom to pursue the truth, and that le Donne didn’t step outside the boundaries. There was at least one voice in support of Lincoln.

Peter Enns

Peter Enns is an Old Testament scholar whose blog, Re-thinking Biblical Christianity I follow and learn a lot from. He taught Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary for 14 years until 2008. The seminary requires that staff teach in accordance with the Westminster Confession of Faith, a 1646 protestant credal statement. But after a long investigation, Enns’ 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, was considered by the majority of the faculty and board to contradict the confession – though many faculty and board members disagreed, and 9 board members resigned after the decision. Christianity Today (also here), and others, generally reported his departure with little comment.

The main issue for the seminary was that Enns’ views on the Old Testament, based in part on modern historical scholarship, seemed to question standard evangelical views of the Bible. I don’t find Enns’ views all that radical, but that may be because my own view of the Old Testament may be less evangelical than his.

But wait, there’s more!

In 2010 Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke resigned from his position at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida. It appears that he was more or less forced to resign because he said publicly that christians should accept the truth of evolution, a position contrary to that of his college. This decision attracted comment from both christian and secular sources.

In 2011, professors John Schneider and Daniel Harlow at Calvin College were investigated by the college for their views that genetics and evolution raised questions about the traditional, literal reading of Genesis. Schneider resigned (though Harlow has said he was pushed and the college treated him badly), but Harlow stayed on.

Biblical scholar James McGahey refers to several academics, including himself, who lost their jobs for supporting the views of historian NT Wright.

Then late last year, theologian Michael Pahl was “relieved of his duties” at Cedarville University, after doubts were expressed over his commitment to a literal Adam and Eve. He said he did believe they were literal people, but he didn’t believe the text of Genesis 1-3 required that. This wasn’t sufficient for the college.

Intellectual freedom for academics?

I can see both sides of this question. Colleges training students for the ministry work within strict doctrinal boundaries, and honesty requires that staff keep within those boundaries, and they don’t want to be attacking the faith of their students.

But if academics (or the rest of us) are prevented from examining difficult questions and coming to honest, well thought-out conclusions, some serious problems are exposed:

  • The college makes the assumption that their doctrinal statement is the certain truth on this matter, and there is nothing new we can know. They will justify this by claiming their statement is Biblical, but it is in fact an interpretation of the Bible, and may not be wholly true. Failure to recognise this is hubris.
  • Many scholars comment that the average christian is unaware of many of the historical and theological issues that scholars have known for years. The doctrines of the inerrancy and historical reliability of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, are under serious threat today from science, archaeology and history, and most christians (and even many pastors) are unprepared to deal with the issues because they are generally only given a one-sided view of the questions. As a result, many give up the faith when confronted with difficulties that can be answered.

I can’t help feeling that christian colleges should require their staff to have christian faith, but be less specific about their exact doctrinal position. As christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga said “It doesn’t make sense. It does damage to a college atmosphere to pretend there’s no sensible diversity of opinion among Christians.”

Wider implications

I want to look at the wider implications for all christians in a separate post, see The Bible: scholarship vs faith? (2)

Photo Credit: mystuart via Compfight cc. I don’t know who the person in the picture is, I have just used a photo from a free source for illustration, and I’m not inferring he has any connection to the events described here.

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  1. That’s interesting, I hadn’t heard of these stories where people had lost their teaching jobs for these types of things. On one hand I suppose it somewhat makes sense, I could see a Christian college not wanting their teaching contradicting each other on matters of faith. On the other hand, isn’t college the perfect place for such things to be challenged?
    Also it seems like it might be bad for scholarship long term. If a professor there has a new idea, they might have to think twice about pursuing it, as it might get them in hot water with the university.

  2. I think the sad thing is that it means churches and colleges are somewhat closed to the Holy Spirit teaching them new things.

  3. It’s ironic because what they’re doing is they’re saying “all views are created equal except for the orthodox Christian view, that’s one that we absolutely must reject.” It’s terribly ironic. There are revisions that are going on on so many issues about the Christian faith, and things that were considered to be absolutely certain before, are now being questioned. The dates of certain manuscripts, certain beliefs that Jesus suffered the wrath of God on the cross for example, that’s being questioned even by evangelical Christians. Virtually everything in the Christian faith has all of a sudden come up for grabs again, as far as some people are concerned.

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