What am I, a nice campus minister, doing on a blog like this? I am neither a scholar nor the son of a scholar. I occupy no endowed chairs. I will be presented with no festschriften upon my retirement.
Why, then, have I been asked to be a regular contributor here on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog? The short answer is that I am doing what I can to help Christian scholars to integrate their faith with their scholarship. I am an InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries staff person serving the students and faculty of New York University. So while I may not be a scholar per se, I am a pastor for scholars — for graduate students, faculty, and others engaged in post-graduate education. My calling is to help scholars and aspiring scholars to live out their callings by inviting and encouraging them to allow their faith to enrich their scholarship and to allow their scholarship to inform their faith.
The full story of how I got into the Christian scholarship business is a long one, stretching back through my graduate schooling at Duke and Westminster, my time as a philosophy major at a secular state college, and into my years as a bookish Christian teenager. But in many ways, my sojourn in Christian learning really began when I went to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I had long had aspirations of becoming a Christian scholar and I even had some fairly fleshed-out ideas about what that was supposed to mean — ideas largely influenced by George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). However, I really had not even begun to understand the challenges involved in actually doing Christian scholarship — actually giving oneself to the serious study of a particular field, following the evidence wherever it leads, and thinking things through from a self-consciously Christian vantage — until I was put through the wringer in seminary.
The Challenge of Christian Scholarship
“Unappreciated by their secular colleagues in the Academy, unknown to the religious lay masses, and not unconditionally affirmed by Church or Synagogue — this is the plight of the ideal-typical biblical scholar.” ~Jacques Berlinerblau 1
The battle-lines were already drawn when I arrived on the campus of Westminster in June of 2005, with the Theology and Apologetics faculty on one side, the Biblical Studies faculty on the other. Almost from day one, my classmates and I found ourselves in the middle of a roiling and at times acrimonious theological debate between these two parties. What was at issue was the fundamental question of whether new discoveries in Biblical scholarship — be they exegetical, critical, archaeological, or historical — should be allowed to inform conservative Presbyterianism’s hitherto settled doctrinal formulae. The Theologians and Apologists thought not. To them, Presbyterian theology as it was handed down to us by the framers of the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith was already more or less the paramount summation of Christian truth, and all that remained was to expound and defend it. In other words, they thought that this 17th-century dog did not need to learn any new tricks. The Biblical Studies faculty, on the other hand, were working day in and day out with a body of recalcitrant data — difficult texts, ancient artifacts, and cold, hard historical facts — that threatened to burst some of these 17th-century theological wineskins. As a result, we were faced with the tough question of whether or not serious (Biblical) scholarship and serious Christian (or, at any rate, Presbyterian) faith could be integrated.
Historical-Criticism and Sacred Scripture
The first doctrine at stake was the doctrine of Scripture itself: What sort of text is the Bible and how ought we to read it? One of my Old Testament professors, Peter Enns had just published his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) and both the school and the Evangelical theological world in general was abuzz with a good old-fashioned theological controversy. Enns had argued that, whether we realize it or not, we Evangelicals need a new paradigm for understanding the Bible if we are to read it faithfully in the twenty-first century. We needed a paradigm capable of embracing the better methods and the more assured findings of historical-critical biblical scholarship while still retaining a robust conviction of Scripture’s divine inspiration. This was no small claim, to be sure. You see, both American Evangelicalism (the kinder, gentler offspring of American Fundamentalism) and Westminster were born out of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies of the early twentieth century precisely as movements resisting the claims of modern historical-critics. At the turn of the century historical-critics had begun to study the Bible afresh, seeing it as an ancient text, examining it in light of new evidence — antique documents, ancient ruins, and so on — which had (sometimes quite literally) just been unearthed, and asking tough questions about the provenance and meanings of the biblical texts. They had argued, for instance, that Genesis 1-11’s resemblance to ancient myths like Enuma Elish were suggestive of that Biblical text’s genre, that the Pentateuch as we now know it was a product of the 6th century and not of the days of Moses, that Jericho was not razed, and much more in that vein.
Historically Evangelicals’ engagement with historical-critical methods and historical evidences has been half-hearted at best, largely because we do not trust them to deliver what we already “know” to be the “right” answers — or, at any rate, the answers we learned in Sunday school. We appreciate such methods’ and evidences’ capacity to elucidate obscurities in the Biblical text, but only insofar as they are commensurate with our predetermined theological shibboleths (e.g., whatever resemblances Genesis 1-11 may bear to ancient Near Eastern mythologies, it cannot be mythological itself; Isaiah must have written all of the Book of Isaiah; Moses must have written the Pentateuch; all apparent contradictions and/or historical errors in the text are merely apparent and reconcilable; Biblical historical narratives, as a rule, must be taken to narrate things exactly as they really happened; the Gospels must have been written very early on and by precisely the persons for whom they are named, and so on).2 Meanwhile, evidence for many of the historical-critics’ initially disconcerting claims about the Biblical text has continued to mount which has resulted in Evangelicalism’s ironic marginalization in the world of serious Biblical scholarship. In his book Enns had suggested that Evangelicalism’s inconsistent and selective engagement with uncomfortable new evidence and nettlesome historical-critical issues was unsustainable. Grabbing the bull by the horns, Enns argued that Evangelicals’ understanding of Scripture itself needs a significant overhaul in order for us to be able to embrace the discoveries of modern Scripture scholarship without losing the integrity of the Christian faith.
Ancient Judaism and Paul’s Gospel
The second major issue being debated was the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith versus the so-called New Perspective on Paul (hereafter, NPP). In a nutshell, in the mid-twentieth century the world’s post-WWII horror at the Holocaust and the discoveries of ancient Jewish texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls led to a renewed scholarly interest in ancient Judaism. These newly discovered evidences had enabled us to gain new insight into the nature of Jewish thought and practice during the Second Temple period — the time of Jesus and Paul — and were making it quite clear that the Jews of Paul’s day were not trying to “earn their salvation” by building a strong moral résumé. Instead ancient Jews understood themselves to already be God’s chosen people simply because, well, God had chosen them and thus they took their responsibility to keep the Law (i.e., the Torah) to be a consequence (rather than the antecedent) of their divine election. E.P. Sanders famously labeled this pattern of religion as “covenantal nomism,” which is a handy bit of jargon. But the upshot of all this was that ancient Jews do not seem to have been proto-Pelagians who were attempting to hoist themselves into God’s good graces by their own moral bootstraps.
As a result of these developments in Judaic studies, many scholars no longer thought it plausible to interpret Paul’s critique of the Judaism of his day and the “Judaizers” (as they are sometimes called — Christians who were requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised) in his letters to the Galatians, the Philippians and the Romans as being that they were trying to “earn their salvation.” So far as we have evidence, there is no reason to think Paul’s Jewish or “Judaizing” interlocutors would have been thinking that way.3 Nor was it any longer possible to understand Paul as Martin Luther had, seeing him as being a recovering legalist who had formerly struggled with an agonized, guilty conscience under the impossible moral burden of “the Law.” Indeed, not only did Paul think that “righteousness under the Law/Torah” was attainable, he thought he had attained it! (Philippians 3:6) Thus New Testament scholars like E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn had begun suggesting fresh interpretations of Paul’s thought that took into account this new picture of Second Temple Judaism. While no clear interpretive consensus had emerged on how exactly to interpret Paul’s letters (nor has it yet), for many of us, the newer interpretations by Wright, Dunn and others made better sense of both Paul’s letters and the extra-biblical evidence than the older Protestant interpretations had. Thus our interpretive paradigms had effectively and irreversibly shifted.
Naturally, controversy ensued around these two issues. The Theologians and Apologists felt that in these debates both the gospel (or, at any rate, their understanding of it) and the Bible (or, at any rate, their understanding of it) were at stake, and so these new developments within Biblical scholarship were seen not as advances in understanding but as threats to the faith, and those who advocated them were treated as apostates. For the Biblical Studies faculty and those of us who had sided with them, what was at stake was the very project of faithful, serious, intellectually honest, Christian scholarship.
What happened at Westminster is largely a matter of public record (see, e.g., here). Several Biblical Studies professors were pressured to leave the school, the most prominent being Peter Enns, who resigned in just before my graduation in 2008. People lost their jobs. Disenchanted, some left ministry and some even lost faith. It was pretty devastating for most of us. Many of us left seminary wondering whether serious Christian scholarship could ever be done within a confessional or Evangelical institution like Westminster, and whether faith and scholarship would always be at odds with each other.
As you have undoubtedly already gathered, I had positioned myself squarely on the losing side of this controversy, siding with Peter Enns and the other Biblical Studies faculty. It was one of the most fateful, difficult decisions I have ever made. In hindsight I can say it was also one of the best, and I am deeply grateful for what Pete and my other teachers taught me about the scholarly vocation.
My purpose in rehearsing all of this is not to publicly unpack my baggage, nor even to revisit the specifics of that particular controversy. Rather, my purpose is to set the stage for some reflections on what my experience at Westminster taught me about the Christian scholar’s vocation. In my next post I will outline some of the hard lessons I learned through the Westminster experience.
Future posts in the series: Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar 2/2 and Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar (Wrap Up).
1. Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 73. Berlinerblau says also, “None of this means that they are harassed or mistreated in their own religious communities. Better to say that they receive the less enthusiastic handshake, the guarded, tensile hug that has been perennially reserved for those afflicted by subversive knowledge.”
2. For a very helpful historical overview of American Evangelicalism’s rocky relationship with modern biblical scholarship, see Mark Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991)
3. D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid’s edited volume Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) seems to have been intended to problematize this new picture of Second Temple Judaism. As many of the book’s reviewers have noted, the conclusion of this volume is deeply problematic. I may return to this subject on the blog if necessary.
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, John Henry Newman’s, and Abraham Kuyper’s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.