Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar: David Williams Intro (1/2)

“I am doing what I can to help Christian scholars to integrate their faith with their scholarship.” — David Williams

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

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Edited by Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays. InterVarsity Press, 2010) — resulting from the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference — provides insight into the current conversation.

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.

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David Williams

David is a campus staff for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries at New York University, where he serves as a university chaplain, and as a pastor and advisor for the school's medical, dental and law student fellowships. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, David joined InterVarsity in 2011 and spent his first two years on staff serving the Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School. David holds masters' degrees in biblical studies and theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, and is a devoted lifelong learner. David is passionate about helping non-Christians to meet Jesus and about helping Christians — both Christian scholars and laypeople — to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. David and his lovely wife, Alissa, live in New York City. You can follow David’s ministry at his blog, 10000places.com and you can support his pastoral and writing ministries here.

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  • dsmccurdy@gmail.com'
    Daniel McCurdy commented on July 18, 2013 Reply


    I’m really looking forward to reading the next part of your post. Last weak I wrote about this topic, and I think that it is one of the most important topics for evangelicals to consider.

  • mboedy@msn.com'
    Matthew Boedy commented on July 18, 2013 Reply

    I thought your Berlinerblau quote applied well to academics in general, not merely seminary professors, apparently those on the ‘losing’ side. Even by Christians we are deemed speculative, ‘too smart’, liberal (political and theological), and in some respects too inquisitive. How sad.

    • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
      dmwilliams83 commented on July 19, 2013 Reply

      Absolutely, Matthew! No trial has seized Christian Biblical scholars except what is common to Christian scholars generally. I plan to examine these dynamics more fully in my next post.
      But don’t be sad. Take heart! This is where the rubber of your academic calling meets the road of the real world, and Christ will be in it with you. Following Christ, whether in the church or the university or the seminary or wherever, always involves bearing a cross. It’s not so much sad as just the way it is. Christian scholars must be prepared to joyfully suffer for and at the hands of fellow Christians.

  • futako@yahoo.com'
    Brian P. commented on July 22, 2013 Reply

    Must be nice to be a scholar! Consider us lay persons for a moment who have been somewhat informed by all of this trying to have civil, content-rich conversations with fellow parishioners, lay leaders, pastors, and others. Things may be roiling and acrimonious here and there from time to time in your world, but thank God you have conversation partners. If you knew what you knew, or fractions there of like me, and tried to engage in meaningful meaning-making conversations with my well-churched friends and family, you just get black stares once and conversation topic avoidance after that and sometimes social avoidance too. If for any reason why you ***must*** have these conversations, it’s because we ***can’t*** yet.

    Maybe I’m guilty if see a conspiracy theory, but it’s as if there’s a whole Evangelical industrial complex of religion, economics, and culture that needs to keep itself going.

    It’s as if coal must be endlessly shoveled into the engines so the steamship won’t stop. I don’t think the steamship is at risk of being tossed to and fro as the teacher sleeps soundly in the stern. I think more likely it’ll be like the Carnival cruise ship that lost its power at sea losing its abilities to cook, clean, and proceed ahead but retaining its smells from yesterdays above its flaccid propeller. They woke Him up. The wind had already been still for days. And they looked at each other, nobody knowing what to say.

    • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
      dmwilliams83 commented on July 22, 2013 Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Brian. One of the big challenges for Christian scholars is talking about what they know in church. For instance, just yesterday, I was talking with some folks after church and someone was excitedly sharing something that they had read about the Dead Sea Scrolls in an apologetics book: The Bible of the DSS is 99% the same as the Bible we have now, therefore the Bible has been transmitted reliably over the centuries. This is a common claim made by Evangelical apologists (e.g., Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, etc.) and it is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of what we’ve learned from the DSS about the Bible’s transmission.

      I have read most of the scrolls (in translation at least). I have taken graduate courses dealing with them. I have a friend who participated in Princeton’s project of translating them. The text-critical data gleaned from the DSS is a bit complicated and it is not exactly friendly to certain popular conceptions of the Bible’s origins. In fact, it’s not all that friendly to the thesis that McDowell and company are trying to defend. But how do I share what I know with my fellow church-goer without frightening him/her?

      The challenge for any Christian, scholar or not, is to learn how to speak the truth in love to one another, even when (or especially when) the truth might be a bit tough.

      • howiepep@cox.net'
        Howard Pepper commented on July 26, 2013 Reply

        I appreciate your going into some depth with this example, David. This kind of thing could be, as you know, multiplied many times over with similar cases… a common theme being the over-simplification of many things within Evangelicalism and its orthodox “cousins,” tho British/American forms seem to be the worst (not so much Anglicanism, but again, there’s such a strain within it, American and now “Global South” mainly).

        I often look at the “oversimplification” and other dynamics you refer to from a psychological perspective (area of much of my study). In that, one can see that a good bit of what you refer to relates to a sort of idealism that often refuses to deal with the real world… whether the internal mental/emotional world of the “true believer,” the immediate social context in church and/or denomination, and then the broader societal and international context.

        These psychological forces and the inertia of an established comfort zone are indeed powerful forces that make true reflection and adjustment extremely hard for people… And then add the inertia of institutions (church, denomination, seminary, etc.) and we get some idea why the input of scholars penetrates only very, very slowly…. And even academic folks tend to change only very slowly — that even while working heavily with challenging data.

  • heatherwilson101@gmail.com'
    Heather commented on July 22, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this David, looking forward to part 2.

  • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
    dmwilliams83 commented on July 22, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Heather!

  • muniz5@comcast.net'
    Eric commented on July 26, 2013 Reply

    Born into Catholicism, I went through a journey, starting around 14, through most of my adult life. At one point a ruling elder in a reformed Presbyterian congregation. Lay teacher and all that entails. Through what I hope is level headed reflection I am returning to where I started. This paradigm shift is of tectonic proportions. I am like a zombie at church, worshiping through the hearing of preaching but starving because I cannot worship through the participation of sacrament, but once a month. The reformed concept of worship through the hearing of preaching, for me, is the same concept as worshiping through the communion experience. I find that the evangelical DNA is overly dominated by apologist tendencies, where all are suspects, especially when folks don’t stay in file. It is similar to questioning party lines in a hard core socialist/communist country. Honest questioning is encouraged, but when you dare question Martin Luther, or WCF, you might as walk away quietly. Now at 51 I am tired and care little about what others think, except for my dear wife, who thinks I have gone crazy and betrayed her. God has indeed shattered the idea I had of Him. But I am so thankful for that. Thank you so much for sharing your heart. When I, as a lay person, see the “professionals” struggle, it does me good. Thomas doubted the resurrection and was rebuked. I hope to be blessed, because even though I have not seen, I believe in the resurrection, yet with many, many, other doubts.

  • howiepep@cox.net'
    Howard Pepper commented on July 26, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this post! Very interesting to me… I’ve been following, as much as I have time for, such developments as you speak of within Evangelicalism and particularly its more scholarly element. There are quite a few of us who’ve left Evangelicalism (its theology if not its ethos and ethical ideals) who are quietly (mostly) cheering you, Pete Enns, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, et al, on from the “sidelines.”

    Some others much earlier than me, and some since my mid-90s transition, have found that “faith” and the many evidences for spiritual realities can be well-framed within a “process” philosophy/theology which does the very things scholarship is supposed to do, such as honor data coming from all angles and show willingness to go wherever the strongest indicators of “truth” lead. I’ve been looking long for intellectual AND experiential consistency and, with lots of searching for good paradigms, find the best-to-this-point to be Process and its more recent cousin, Integral Christianity. (See great book by that title by Paul Smith, 2012.)

  • sranney97@hotmail.com'
    Steve Ranney commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

    I was interested in your mention of ‘D.A. Carson-Justification and Variegated Nomism.’ Around 2008 at the evangelical church I was working at at at the time, this tome (two volumes if I remember) was sitting on the pastor’s desk. The New Perspective, it seemed, as a bad thing. I ran across a blog that gave a critique of the book (I found it today at http://www.thepaulpage.com/Tendentious.pdf) that said that “Although the overall tenor of the various contributions to this volume lends qualified support to Sanders’s thesis, the title, introduction, and conclusion all steer the reader toward a more critical judgment of his work. Carson concludes, Covenantal nomism “is too doctrinaire, too unsupported
    by the sources themselves, too reductionistic, too monopolistic” (548). Such a ringing conclusion, while not lacking in rhetorical flourish, hardly does justice to the actual content of the essays. Carson thus detracts from the carefully nuanced studies that he is supposed to be representing.”

    At the church the issues were known by the pastor at least, but the people wouldn’t know and still don’t know there is even an issue. The pastor told me at the a professor from the nearby seminary had told him it was best not to mention N.T. Wright.

  • flyinglenny@hotmail.com'
    Jeff Martin commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

    I graduated from WTS in 2004 and had a feeling something was going to happen. There was a bit of grumbling back and forth between professors. I was one of the few Arminians going there at the time. I also never understood why some there were so opposed to the New Perspective. I thought, as NT Wright did at the time, that they simply were not reading him carefully enough. They were creating a straw man. This has been quite common since Van Til. He was by far the worse.

    I hope all goes well in NYC

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