Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar (2/2)

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

Last week I began to introduce myself and my understanding of the Christian scholar’s vocation by briefly outlining the controversy which marked my time as a student at Westminster Theological Seminary.  (You can read last week’s post here.)  This week I would like to share what I think were some of things I learned about the challenge of Christian scholarship from my time at Westminster.  I should make it clear that my interest is not specifically in the challenge of doing serious scholarship within a confessional institution like a Westminster or a Wheaton.  Nor is my interest (in this post, at least) in the peculiar challenge of doing serious, faithful Biblical scholarship.  While confessional institutions and the field(s) of Biblical studies both present unique challenges for Christian scholars who venture into them, my purpose here is to share some of what I have learned from my experience at Westminster about being a Christian scholar in general:

1. Now we see through a glass, darkly.  Christian scholars in any field must be prepared for their studies to transform not only their conceptions of the world, but of God.  When I arrived at Westminster I thought I more or less already had all the answers and that I was there to learn how to better articulate and defend what I already “knew.”  I thought Christian scholarship was simply a matter of bringing my theological assumptions to bear upon the study of a particular field.  I did not expect to have those assumptions challenged by my studies, much less for me to undergo the theological equivalent of what Thomas S. Kuhn calls a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, shortly after my arrival at Westminster I began encountering information and evidence for which my working theological theory simply could not account—I encountered “anomalous data,” to again put it in a Kuhnian idiom. 

To give just one example, I had learned from reading evangelical apologists and theologians to assume that so-called “grammatical-historical exegesis” was the only proper way to interpret Scripture.  It came as something of a shock to me, therefore, when I discovered that by and large the Biblical writers themselves did not read Scripture in that way, but rather tended to interpret their Bibles in ways that were much more at home in the ancient world—that is, along typological, midrashic, and allegorical lines.  For example, we might ask by what principles of grammatical-historical exegesis could Daniel have possibly concluded that Jeremiah’s 70 years were to be understood as 490 years (cp. Dan 9; Jer 25:8-14; 29:10) or Matthew concluded that Hosea’s recollection of Israel’s exodus was really a text about Jesus’ childhood?  (cp. Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15)  These sorts of phenomena pushed me to have to rethink what I thought I knew about what the Bible is and how it tells us about God.  In other words, my studies changed my theology.

My experience is by no means unique either to me or to students of Biblical studies.  I have met Christian biologists who began as Young Earth Creationists but who came to embrace mainstream evolutionary theory through their studies of genetics, paleontology, comparative anatomy and the like.  I have met Christian sociologists whose understandings of human freedom and responsibility have been transformed through their studies of group dynamics and human communities.  I have met Christian historians whose research has led them to realign themselves denominationally.  Engaging in serious scholarship in any field may very well lead you to rethink not only what you thought you knew about God’s world, but also what you “knew” about God Himself.

And that’s a good thing.  C.S. Lewis reminds us,

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. . . . All reality is iconoclastic. (A Grief Observed, p.66)

From time to time we must allow reality, indeed, allow God to shatter our idea of God, lest we worship an idol or a figment of our imagination.  But in order for that to happen we must be prepared to set our apologetics aside for a moment in order to learn something new which may challenge our preconceptions.  To paint with a very broad brush, apologists basically say, “We know what the truth is and our job is to defend it,” whereas academics is about saying, “I’m not sure what exactly the truth is but my job is to try to find out.”  While both the apologetical and the academic impulses are important to Christian scholarship, they often pull in opposite directions and Christian scholarship—real Christian scholarship—cannot live on apologetics alone.

2. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Theological shifts such as those I have just described can be quite terrifying because they often come with deeply personal ramifications.  A shift in even the most arcane theological areas (e.g., in the interpretation of the Book of Revelation or the first chapters of Genesis) can involve breaking with the tradition one grew up in, changing denomination, strained familial relationships, and more.  These sorts of breaks, shifts, and changes can be tumultuous and taxing, and the temptation to avoid them at any cost can be quite strong—even if that means leading a divided life with one’s faith safely on one side and one’s scholarship on the other, and neither influencing or informing the other.  While such compartmentalization may serve to stave off crises of faith (at least temporarily), the result is almost always a sort of intellectual and spiritual schizophrenia which, in the long run, will prove deeply dissatisfying.  Ignoring one’s faith while at work and turning off one’s brain while at church is a sure recipe for spiritual disaster.  Moreover, such bifurcation between one’s faith and one’s studies involves shirking one’s vocation as a Christian scholar, depriving the Church of one’s gifts and depriving the Academy of salt and light.

My college friends will tell you that my time at Westminster changed me.  It changed my piety (I now think for the better).  It changed the way I think.  It changed my denominational affiliation.  It changed my career path (I had never intended to pursue Biblical studies or pastoral ministry).  It changed some of my relationships (some very dear people think I have lost my mind).  All of these changes were tough.  There were times when it felt like the sky was falling.  In fact, there were times when I was not sure there was a way forward.  It took me a few years and another graduate degree to find my path. But the fact of the matter is that there is life after such changes if you will own the change and press on in faith.

So let me offer one bit of advice: Live one life.  Let your faith influence your scholarship and your scholarship inform your faith, and be the same person at church that you are at school or work.  Don’t live two lives.  Allow your studies and your faith to change you.  It might mean switching churches or denominations.  It might mean going through dark nights of the soul.  It might mean having tough conversations with people you love.  But I promise you it’s better than the alternative.

Loutherbourg, Philippe-Jacques de, 1740-1812 ; Fittler, James, 1758-1835. The Macklin Bible — Christ Walking on the Sea, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54067 [retrieved July 25, 2013]. Original source: A gift to Vanderbilt University from John J. and Anne Czura.

3. Do not fear.  When Jesus approached his terrified, storm-tossed disciples, walking on the waves, He said to them, “Take heart. It is I (literally, I am).  Do not fear.”  In Matthew’s account of the event, Peter was able to walk with Jesus on the roiling, surging sea until he lost sight of His master and gave in to fear.

Fear driven theology is inevitably bad theology.  Fear driven scholarship is inevitably bad scholarship.  Fear makes us duck hard questions, fudge the facts, and demonize those who won’t do the same.  Fear is unbecoming of a Christian scholar and, if Saint John is to be believed, it is antithetical to love (1 John 4:18).  So much of apologetics is just fear-driven theology.  Too many apologetics are no more than just so stories that we tell ourselves to feel more secure.  But in the very eye of the hurricane Jesus says to us, “Take heart.  I am.  Do not fear.”

Two autobiographical details for which I will always be grateful are, first, that I grew up going to a Methodist church where we said the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday and, second, that the first real theology book I read as a teenager was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  Between these two experiences the idea of a “mere Christianity”—a basic, catholic faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints,” that is held in common by all the orthodox Christian traditions, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, and that is distinguishable from and more important than any particular traditions’ doctrinal distinctives—got into my bones very early on.

The truth of mere Christianity is vastly more important to me than the truth of Evangelicalism or Presbyterianism or inerrancy or any other theologoumenon I might hold, and having this set of theological priorities has served as an anchor for my soul as I navigated the storms at Westminster and beyond.  Whenever I have found myself confronted with a difficult, new piece of information or a challenging new thought—say, for instance, the fact that archaeology and the Book of Judges tell against the conquest of Canaan having happened quite in the way that the Book of Joshua describes it—I have tried to keep calm, to take deep breaths and to ask myself, “Worst case scenario, if this is true, would that undermine mere Christianity?  Would it logically entail that Jesus is not risen?  Could I no longer affirm the Apostle’s Creed?” or, to borrow George Ramsey’s quip, “If Jericho was not razed is my faith in vain?”

Hardly.  Mere Christianity is a flexible and resilient creed, and, while more than mere Christianity is needed for a full-orbed faith life, it is robust enough faith to see you through.  In other words, it’ll do in a pinch.  So take heart.  Be honest.  Seek and tell the truth.  Whatever you discover, Jesus can handle it.  He is risen.  Do not fear.

In Why You Must Be Dying to be a Christian Scholar (Wrap Up), David follows up with a few more lessons, some concluding thoughts, and a word on where he’s heading with future posts.

Update: 9/9/2013. 12:15 PM. Final sentence updated with link to “wrap-up” post.

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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 25, 2013 Reply


    Thanks for your post today. I have to admit that I have really been looking forward to it. It is encouraging to me as the more I study the Bible the more a number of my views change. I’d be really interested in hearing more of what you have to say about breaking through the academic barriers that seem to keep biblical studies from the masses, and the barriers between biblical scholars and theologians.

    • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
      dmwilliams83 commented on July 26, 2013 Reply

      Glad you found it helpful, Daniel. As for breaking down barriers, I am still figuring that out. I hope to flesh out some of my ideas on this front here on the blog.

  • bluediamond7@gmail.com'
    Frederick commented on July 26, 2013 Reply

    How much more scholarly and theological writings (speculations) does the world need.
    Why, if the Bible is supposedly the eternal and unchanging “word of ‘God'” does every last word of it need to be examined and re-explained again and again and again – especially the New Testament.
    How many more commentaries does the world need?
    More theology is now available than at any time in history. More being studied and written. Every possible subject/topic has been written about countless thousands of times.
    And yet the world is becoming more and more insane every day. And what is more some (most) of the leading edge vectors of this now universal insanity are right-wing and/or so called conservative Christians – practically everyone who is associated with the Manhatten Declaration.

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

      Frederick, from your comment, I’m not sure what issues/questions you are most grappling with. But for insights on “where things are headed” in the world and why, you might find some real help, as I and many have, in Integral theory. Particularly in the book, “Integral Spirituality” by Ken Wilber. And since that writing, which reflects Wilber’s mainly Buddhist leanings but openness to (and keen awareness of) Christianity, a number of “Integral Christians” have applied the general paradigm to Christianity in some depth… on the same basic trajectory that David here (and Pete Enns, Brian McLaren, etc.) seem to be on.

      • bbdemy99@hotmail.com'
        Bob Demyanovich commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

        Christianity is a useful abstraction. Scholarly treatments are very polite and not the eruptions or shattering acclaimed but dodges that tend more to dilute with keen awareness of preferred methods for what? There is hope however where Mere Christianity is still acknowledged. While it is necessary to meet rigor with rigor there is the message of Jesus that this world is a place of death. We are told that we must be born again. Paul has the necessary focus to know Christ and Him crucified. 1Cr 2:2

  • howiepep@cox.net'
    Howard Pepper commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

    In reference to your third-to-last paragraph, David, what IS the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” and when was it “delivered”?

    (I ask out of a lot of relevant study/knowledge, not a lack of knowledge, and know it is a phrase presumably taken from Jude… thus whenever one thinks Jude was written, it would have been prior to that.) So I mean the question in terms of an “Apostolic age” form of faith, or the earliest we can find. I know the Apostle’s Creed is relatively early (pre-Nicaea, probably) but see no evidence it was actually composed by all or any of the “12 Apostles”.

    My best conclusion to date is that SOME form of resurrection belief, a messianic role (but not necessarily as “vicarious atonement”) and soon return of Jesus were widely held in common… can we say more? If so, based on what?

    • bbdemy99@hotmail.com'
      Bob Demyanovich commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

      The mode of Creeds is contrary to awareness commanded in the first 2 commandments and confirmed where even the stones of the altar were to be unworked. The Q material would need extensive stretching to suggest a taint of creed seeds. Creeds are more comfortable with denominational pronouncements. Vicarious atonement such as Is 53:5 was certainly a component of Jewish tradition.

      • howiepep@cox.net'
        Howard Pepper commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

        So are you saying you also (with me) don’t see much, if anything, in terms of a “faith” (read as agreed-upon theological concepts either supplementing or superseding Judaism) that was “delivered” to “saints” by the time of Jude’s writing (say somewhere around 80-100 C.E., to go with “conservative” dating)?

        (I’d still like to hear your thoughts also, David)

  • bbdemy99@hotmail.com'
    Bob Demyanovich commented on July 27, 2013 Reply

    No writings have been found from that span between the crucifixion and approximately 80 CE specifically documenting the faith. What is testament of this faith is not vague inference however. There was faith outside Judaism evidenced by the gospels and epistles. A new faith bridging cultures, contrary to orthodoxy in a rudimentary communication era found voice throughout the civilized world in an incredibly short time.

    • howiepep@cox.net'
      Howard Pepper commented on July 28, 2013 Reply

      Your lead-in is an important fact (I’d footnote re. Paul’s 50s-60s letters that they cannot be said to either represent or fully to have FORMED a united form of the new faith which you rightly note did arise relatively quickly). On this last point, R. Stark, in “The Rise of Christianity,” has shown, via important comparisons, etc., that its remarkable rise did not require large mass conversions and supernatural interventions (true “miracles”–not just charismatic phenomena)… its growth is NOT without parallels of significant similarity.

      Yes, what eventually (in about 300 years) became a theologically and organizationally relatively united faith, was “contrary to orthodoxy.” But the evidence is abundant, including within the NT texts, that the “abstractions” of which you first spoke took many different forms…. I.e., the theology differed significantly (particularly in the minds and practices of the various “faithful” groups THEN, despite how we now harmonize), and was often seriously fought about, in some pretty nasty ways (cf. even I John, which ironically and thankfully DOES emphasize that “God is love.”) We’ve gotten thrown off from a realistic picture by paying too exclusive an attention to Acts, taking too much at face value there, without careful comparison to Paul, closer analysis, understanding the author’s genre and purpose, etc.

  • wguerrant@hwhlaw.com'
    Bill commented on July 28, 2013 Reply

    David: I have really enjoyed reading your posts and look forward to more of them. I can relate to much of what you’ve written here. My faith has been stretched and re-formed by seminary in ways I certainly didn’t expect. I suppose I went into it with the idea that it would be like some form of advanced Sunday school. One of the first books I read was Inspiration and Incarnation and it rocked my world. That rocking continued and hasn’t stopped yet. While I never had to go through anything like what you experienced at Westminster, I have certainly experienced much of what you describe in this post, including a sense of alienation from my tradition (as i had understood it) and anxiety about what awaits me on this journey. Most of all though, I have felt a sense of liberation–a freedom to explore God and faith without fear. Anway, just wanted to thank you for expressing this all so well in these posts. Peace.

    • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
      dmwilliams83 commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

      I am glad you have found the posts to be helpful, Bill. Blessings!

  • richard@emmanuelphx.org'
    Richard Klaus commented on July 28, 2013 Reply

    A couple of comments…


    1. Your comments regarding apologetics seem like an excessive psychologizing of one’s opponents–especially these comments: “So much of apologetics is just fear-driven theology. Too many apologetics are no more than just so stories that we tell ourselves to feel more secure.” This is not argument but borders on name-calling.

    2. You speak of the resurrection of Jesus as being seemingly an irreducible minimum of Christian orthodoxy (“Would it logically entail that Jesus is not risen?”). What of different conceptions of the resurrection of Jesus? John Dominic Crossan has argued that the body of Jesus may have been eaten by dogs and the resurrection is a metaphor. John Shelby Spong argues the resurrection is something that happens inside of Peter and the other the disciples and not an event in history. Are these acceptable conceptions of the resurrection of Jesus? If not, are those who would argue against them motivated by fear and “just so” stories?

    • bbdemy99@hotmail.com'
      Bob Demyanovich commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

      There it is. Who is to be believed fishermen, a tax collector, a physician and a Pharisee or scholars? Is the theology of Israel no more than a culture’s mysticism and philosophy fit only for understanding the motivation for a peoples’ course in history? Is not this theology then fear driven or an overlay of control? There are the gospels and epistles that proclaim the interruption of the mode of Hebrew temple worship. Jesus states and admits that he is God. Jesus states that he has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. Treatment of the unknown and extension of personal life are universal elements of religions. Is the Bible the product of exceptional people, a happenstance collection of beneficial behaviors or is it the record of divine instruction.

      The taint of name calling is a useful device to enhance the promotion of opinion. Sophistication and comportment plead the position where evidences are scarce. The unsettling, frightening components of theology are the witnesses of superhuman events.

    • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
      dmwilliams83 commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

      Richard, thank you so much for commenting.
      1. Let me clarify, I did not say, “All apologetics is just fear-driven theology.” I have a great deal of appreciation for apologetics when it is done well–when it is done without overreaching, special pleading and so on. In fact, I think that it is an integral part of the Christian scholar’s vocation to engage in apologetics where necessary. And I am more than happy to point to contemporary scholars who have taken up the task of Christian apologetics in very constructive ways: N.T. Wright, Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, Alister McGrath, John Polkinghorne, to name a few.

      Nor did I necessarily mean those comments as a cheap dismissal of those with whom I disagree. What I am trying to do is speak to a pastoral concern, a spiritual condition–namely, fear that someone is going to take my faith or my assurance of salvation away from me–that keeps many people from engaging difficult data honestly. I think fear is a major road-block to a faithful integration of Christian faith and serious scholarship. I don’t know how many times I have seen people enabled to move forward in studying tough stuff by taking the time to step back and deal with their anxieties. I know I was only enabled to move out of a sort of knee-jerk defensiveness because I know I was only enabled to move out of a sort of knee-jerk defensiveness because I had teachers who showed me with their lives that Christian courage and intellectual honesty must go hand-in-hand.

      2. That’s a really, really good question. Personally, I’m with N.T. Wright, Richard Hays and others in thinking that Crossan, Spong, & co. have not made their case for early Christians having taken resurrection as either a metaphor or a purely subjective experience. And I clearly do not think Spong or Crossan’s view of the resurrection is reconcilable with historic, mere Christianity.

      As for people’s motives for arguing the case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, fear may be part of it. Of course. We are complex creatures. “And,” as Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….” If I’m honest, Crossan and Spong’s views give me the heebie-jeebies. I’ve staked an awful lot of my life on the empty tomb. So, clearly, I don’t approach this question without some admixture of motives.

      Nevertheless, I’m trying to be as balanced as I can in dealing with the evidence. While Wright’s case has a few chinks in it (e.g., there were, it seems to me, probably some ancient Jews who did not conceive of ‘anastasis’ as being bodily), I still think that his argument and conclusion is far more compelling than Crossan, Spong, et al. But, of course, I have a vested interest in Wright being right on this point and I need to own that fact.

      Does that help any?

      • howiepep@cox.net'
        Howard Pepper commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

        I appreciate this comment particularly, David. Rarely do I see such honesty, especially “in public”, and from someone who is admitting to still being in transition of viewpoints (which we all are; but few will admit it to themselves OR others). It cannot be otherwise for broadly growing people. Growth IS a choice — we can SEEK to grow only devotionally or in “personal relationship with Christ, etc.”, but optimal, substantial growth requires the inclusion (at least, if not the leadership) of the cognitive (including theological) realm.

        Yes, our anxieties, based often on theological uncertainties, or on “practical” concerns such as “How would belief change of ‘x’, ‘y’, or ‘z’ impact my job, my close relationships, etc.?” greatly affects what we are willing to consider or re-consider, and thus, to believe. That is one reason why the power of tradition and of formal and informal institutionalism is so strong (within which, I’d include creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed). And it’s really tough to uncover how one layer of tradition built on another and another, from many centuries back with our limited extant texts, and their limited use of texts.) That’s why I’ve spent so long (post-M.Div. and Ph.D. studies — interdisciplinary, not straight biblical studies) studying Christian origins and the NT texts.

        When it comes to issues around “what KIND of resurrection”, if any, took place, I think it is helpful, though in a limited way, to see how a variety of strong scholars deal with the data. (I’d put Crossan in that category but not Spong, tho he has a lot of valuable insights and done some good study.)… Many of the better are not “household names” among even educated Christians… e.g., SGF Brandon, J.Z. Smith and B. Mack, G. Riley, R. Horsely, L.M. White, Tabor, Barrie Wilson, Paula Fredriksen, etc. Oh… I would include also the “household name” of Ehrman as a solid scholar, tho he is somewhat a popularizer and remarkably prolific.)

        As to understanding the resurrection, it does seem tough to grasp it very well from the NT texts alone…. HOWEVER, I think the strongest arguments against the traditional “empty tomb” concept comes directly out of a close reading and inter-gospel and Paul-gospel comparison (along with some textual transmission attention, such as the addition of the ending of Mark, and likely of John, ch. 21 as well, tho the latter, especially, does not make or break the case that there are overtly different “stories”, oral histories, or whatever, that do not line up at all well with each other, nor with claims particularly of Matt. 27/28 and all the supernatural stuff there…. Nor does the reported post-crucifixion/resurrection picture of events in Jerusalem, as in Acts, fit at all with Matt., in particular, when one reads closely and thinks it through, with a moderate knowledge of the Jerusalem geography, demography, religion, recent history, etc.)

        People who harp just on the existence of “contradictions” have only begun the observation, re-construction-of-developments process, not found legitimate reason to merely “not believe”. There are literary and theological REASONS different stories, different details exist — and THAT is what interests true scholars and historical/religious detectives…. Along with willingness to go where the data leads one. There need not be a fear of “loss of faith” (in the broad sense), tho I know that exists heavily in many peoples’ hearts. Loss of one’s job? THAT may be a more realistic fear if one is in ministry work. But… other jobs exist to potentially move into.

      • richardjklaus@gmail.com'
        Richard Klaus commented on July 29, 2013 Reply


        Thanks for your quick reply. Your comments are somewhat helpful but in others ways they miss the mark (at least for me!).

        1. I don’t mean to be tedious but I did not say you said that “All apologetics is just fear-driven theology.” I very specifically quoted your original statement: “So much of apologetics is just fear-driven theology. Too many apologetics are no more than just so stories that we tell ourselves to feel more secure.” You, of course, did not use the word “all” but you did tend to dismiss “so much” of apologetics. You mention a number of names you find to be responsible apologists and none of them are in the Westminster tradition which you seemingly dismissed in your first post. Am I to assume that you believe the Westminster theological and apologetics faculty is pushing “fear-driven theology?”

        2. You wrote: “Nor did I necessarily mean those comments as a cheap dismissal of those with whom I disagree.” I wonder how much latitude is laden in the word “necessarily?” The way I read your statement makes me wonder if you meaning to engage in a “cheap dismissal” of some of those you disagree with but not necessarily “all.” This would seem to fit the tone of your posts–at least to me.

        3. Are you conflating your graduate school experiences at Westminster with those who are at the level of scholarship? I’m sure many who are entering their graduate level theological training face various levels of fear. But you seem to be claiming more. You structured the division at Westminster between Biblical studies professors and those from the theological/apologetics faculty. You seem to be arguing that the theological/apologetic side was motivated by fear rather than studied, reasoned arguments. Now, of course, you didn’t mention names but since you are speaking of theological/apologetic faculty at Westminster it’s not too hard to figure out who you are referring to with your pschologizing of fear as the (primary?) motive behind their concerns with Peter Enns. Does it further the cause of Christian scholarship to accuse those who disagree with you and your preferred teachers as motivated by fear? Shall we write off the arguments of someone like Greg Beale–someone who has examined the argumentation of Enns and yet argues that Enns’ views are deficient– as so much fear-mongering?

  • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
    dmwilliams83 commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

    Greetings and salutations, all! Thank you so much for reading and for this vigorous, serious engagement. The discussion above is fantastic.
    Please forgive my tardiness in responding. I was away for my stag weekend and am booting up my computer for the first time since Friday morning. I will try to work my way through the thread and make some responses.

  • james.woodham@ymail.com'
    James commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

    It’s fascinating to me that someone is putting Peter Enns in the same sentence with Tony Jones and Brian McLaren (who seems determined to prove that his critics were right in predicting where his theology would lead him). I’ve not examined Enns’s arguments thoroughly, but if his hermeneutic leads us down the same road as Jones and McLaren then whence any sort of orthodoxy if you are an evangelical, or even Protestant? I hope, for my part, that Enns would explicitly reject where McLaren and Jones have gone. If he doesn’t then issues a lot bigger than inerrancy are at stake. These are deep and dangerous waters indeed.

    • howiepep@cox.net'
      Howard Pepper commented on July 29, 2013 Reply

      James, would you mind elaborating what the “deep and dangerous waters” are to you?… And why they are deep and dangerous?

      BTW, I think it was a comment by me you may be referring to… If so, I haven’t read much of either Jones or Enns (though I have McLaren), but I do recognize the likelihood of significant differences in particularly Enns’ theology and McLaren’s. Each might well like to point out significant differences if they are aware of each others’ work. And of the two, I’m sure McLaren would admit to lacking the formal biblical studies/theological depth that Enns has, but the man does not write or speak, that I’ve seen, without “doing his homework” and “knowing whereof he speaks”… But my larger concern is with your closing sentence and if you’d not mind elaborating.

      • james.woodham@ymail.com'
        James commented on July 30, 2013 Reply

        Howard, my point is perhaps unfair because it’s too broad to properly account for or articulate in a comment thread. Yes, it was your comment I was referring to, but I was making an observation about evangelical intellectual culture as someone who was pretty deeply involved in it for a long time, and moved into other endeavors just as the fight about Enns’s work was really spinning up, and it’s interesting to see how it’s developed in the meantime. I’ll come back to that. As to McLaren my point is not that he doesn’t do his homework, but that he started with a certain approach. When he started to get a lot of press a decade or more ago his critics said his approach would get him to heterodoxy theologically and ethically (in terms of theological ethics, not personal). I’d say he’s pretty much there, and that his critics were right about where his ideas would lead him. That’s certainly not in itself an argument on the merits though to be honest McLaren is not at all an attractive figure to me, and never has been.

        Returning to Enns (and perhaps David can speak to this as well): the issue to my mind is not inerrancy but two assumptions the doctrine protects but which it’s strictly speaking not necessary to:

        1) God acts supernaturally in space and time

        2) Those acts have content and coherence which are in essence universally communicable across time and cultures (with particulars as to language, custom, etc — but an irreducible kernel which transcends them).

        Without those two assumptions you’re more or less stuck in Lessing’s ditch and supernatural, orthodox faith — Mere Christianity — becomes next to impossible.

        There’s more to the picture of course: low-church evangelicalism especially needs inerrancy to preserve a source of authority within its ecclesiology, and that’s why Reformed Baptists are among its most tireless defenders. I personally strongly sympathize with their impulse, and share it; even if I think they’re mistaken on details (I’m a high-church Anglican). The perspicacity of Scripture is next door to the perspicacity of Revelation in general. This is fully as much a pastoral as a theological point to anyone who really pays attention to these questions.

        To me the consequences of Enns’s approach depend on how effectively he preserves those two assumptions — and some cursory reading I did since I wrote my first comment indicates that’s his goal. If, however, it really takes him down the road Jones, McLaren, and other progressive/emergent folks have traveled then evangelicalism may very well be headed down the same tired road to irrelevance as liberal protestantism (or at least the wing of evangelicalism represented by its “cultural engagement” wing, e.g. Books & Culture, BioLogos, and Andy Crouch’s editor).

        Abandoning inerrancy, if that’s indeed what is called for, should not mean abandoning a vigorous confessional stance.

  • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
    dmwilliams83 commented on July 30, 2013 Reply

    I can’t engage all of your comments, James, but I would like to say, first, that I too have landed in a sort of high-church Anglicanism. In other words, I would not self-identify as a “Progressive.” Whether that makes me Regressive, I will let others decide.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that abandoning inerrancy should not mean abandoning a vigorous confessional stance. Amen and amen! For my part, I do not think inerrancy (a relatively recent theological innovation) is at all necessary to a robust confession of the Creed. C.S. Lewis is just one of my heroes who was not an inerrantist but who undoubtedly affirmed the creed ex animo.

    I would say, however, that I believe cultural engagement to be a vital part of the Church’s task in the world and that I appreciate the efforts of Books & Culture, BioLogos, Andy Crouch, et al. I would be curious to know what your qualms with “cultural engagement” are.

    • james.woodham@ymail.com'
      James commented on July 31, 2013 Reply

      David, the qualms question is a good one. I’ll compose a better response when I have a little more time.

  • howiepep@cox.net'
    Howard Pepper commented on July 30, 2013 Reply

    James, I really appreciate your meaty response; and particularly that, to my understanding, you have rightly identified the core issue of major theological paradigm “battles”. Very few do that, even among scholars… or they can ID it but seldom articulate it, perhaps. And to me these matters are both “pastoral” and “theological”, as you say in relation to perspicacity.

    I prefer to see Christians focus on compassion and deeds more than on dogma, whether rules or theological abstractions (virgin birth, incarnation, trinity, substutionary atonement — the CORE of the system for most orthodox Christians), etc.). That said, I do think it is vital that people (from least-educated laity to top scholars) focus on the “kind of God” they see as existing. (This is almost everybody, on my acceptance of surveys indicating there are very few true atheists). Further, focus on how this God does “act” (whether “supernaturally” as from outside an otherwise closed system or some other way).

    So what sources will they use for info on “the God who is there” (I don’t mean necessarily Schaeffer’s conception)? Then comes your point 2: If there are acts that are communicable broadly, where may that communication exist?

    Again, I think of at least two options: “special” revelation, such as potentially the Bible (or Upanishads, Gita, Koran, Book of Mormon, etc., each needing examination separately under the special revelation assumption); and “general” revelation, or that which is generally observable — within which I’d include also potentially the Bible as human observation of acts possibly by God but not “specially” or “divinely” revealed by some privileged process. (Of course Xn’ty has long suggested both kinds of revelation, but I speak of them as one OR the other, as to the source of the Bible, for purposes of simplifying here.)

    However, to step back to the “nature of God/reality” question, I do NOT find it practical, effective, satisfying (etc.), nor necessary to work with only two options: Supernaturalism or strict naturalism (i.e. natural causes only within a closed system–no God). Oversimplified, this is merely “religion” (including Xn’ty) vs. “science”, as to ultimate reality. (Fortunately, many scientists do not claim to be dealing with ultimate reality while doing their work, but probably a majority DO, and the media and popular culture treat things this way, generally.)

    Astute as you are, you probably know where I’m headed, but other readers may not: There IS a well-developed philosophical/scientific/theological system which I feel has contributed a LOT to reasonable but still “enchanted” (not in the literally magical sense) views of the universe, within God, and ourselves within both — Process and/or panentheism. (So it’s not just theism, atheism or pantheism [Eastern religion/philos.], but panentheism has to be included as a distinct category, and one which I think makes better sense of both the Bible itself and of the broad range of “regular” and scientific observations of the world and of inner experience — much of which I’d label “spiritual”.)

    To tie back to our 2 examples: While McLaren still ID’s as an Evangelical (last I heard), I’d say he fits better under Process (I realize he might well dispute that); the little I know of Enns… I have read a couple recent blog posts of his… I’d say he does still fit better as “Evangelical”. However, to me, he IS seemingly on the “slippery slope” which indeed is likely to lead to, hopefully for the astute company, panentheism.

    • james.woodham@ymail.com'
      James commented on July 31, 2013 Reply

      A brief response here as well until I get more time. Deeds have no more meaning outside dogma anymore than a few lines pulled out of Hamlet for their clever turns of phrase have any meaning absent the characters and the story.

      • howiepep@cox.net'
        Howard Pepper commented on August 1, 2013 Reply

        Until further clarification, I MAY be in agreement here, James… For example, if deeds are consistently of one type or another, they evidence being tied to a set of beliefs…. However (and it’s a big however), the real substance and power of such a “belief system” is that which is often just below consciousness or rational analysis… such as how one perceives the world around one, and the God they may credit with its creation/operation…. Thus the agnostic may be as love-based as the typical Christian, or even more so, and as grace-filled (or “Christ-like”). I think CS Lewis recognized this quite well, and other Xn’s do also.

      • howiepep@cox.net'
        Howard Pepper commented on August 1, 2013 Reply

        Clarification on my 3:41 comment: I realize, by def., an agnostic doesn’t specifically credit God for anything, consciously…. I’m presuming, however, that he/she may be doing so subconsciously (or on-and-off, consciously, thus declaring “I don’t know”).

  • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
    dmwilliams83 commented on July 30, 2013 Reply

    Richard, I began my initial post with a disclaimer and it seems I should add another: Not only am I neither a scholar nor the son of a scholar, neither am I a psychologist. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” As I already said, we’re all complex creatures, and I really have no interest in teasing out the motives underlying the actions and arguments of Westminster’s Apologetics and Theology faculty. That’s between them and God.

    My interest is much more in the present and in enabling Christian scholars to do their work with integrity. In my experience, one cannot honestly engage with data if one is afraid to look at it or if one is more inclined to explain it away than to explain it. Fear prevents Christians from dealing with data. Fear makes us rely on shoddy slippery-slope arguments. If that’s not your problem, then good for you. But a lot of people can relate to fearful defensiveness as being the motive behind their “ready defense.”

    The point of my posts is not to reopen the Westminster controversy, but rather to cast a vision for the Christian scholar’s vocation. The Westminster controversy played a significant role in shaping that vision (and me!) and that’s why I bring it up. There may be a place to get into the details of that debate, but this comment thread is probably not it.

    • richardjklaus@gmail.com'
      Richard Klaus commented on July 31, 2013 Reply


      Thanks for the continued interaction. I still think we may be missing each other a bit. I recognize your main point about fear and your desire to help scholars and would-be scholars engage in the pursuit of truth with openness and without fear. I’m not looking to reopen the Westminster controversy or go over its details. You brought up the division at Westminster between those who pursued biblical studies and those who were part of theological/apologetic faculty. You then later state that, “So much of apologetics is just fear-driven theology. Too many apologetics are no more than just so stories that we tell ourselves to feel more secure.” Now you mention you “have no interest in teasing out the motives underlying the actions and arguments of Westminster’s Apologetics and Theology faculty.” That’s fine. My question is how do you justify your assertion that “so much of apologetics is just fear-driven theology”? More specifically, is this a result of the conclusions drawn by those who seek to defend certain theological items? Is the accusation of “fear-driven” theology merely the result of someone holding different theological conclusions than you do? Since you wisely refuse to speculate on the internal states of certain Westminster faculty how is it that you justify your assertion of “fear-driven” theology? If I, for example, come to conclusions regarding the historicity of Adam that (1) are in conflict with Peter Enns and the Biologos crowd and (2) are more in line with a traditional viewpoint does this render my desire to defend this item a result of “fear-driven” theology? Again, the issue is how do you justify your assertion? How does one know when they are confronting “fear-driven” theology? If it’s not the conclusions that warrant the charge perhaps it is the method of reasoning involved. You mention “shoddy slippery-slope arguments.” Is this the element that is indicative of “fear-driven” theology? Can you help me with this? It still appears to me that some of your comments border on psychologizing name-calling.

      • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
        dmwilliams83 commented on August 5, 2013 Reply

        Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, Richard. I have been in the middle of a move (geographical, not theological or ecclesial) and this is the first time I have sat down in front of a computer since Wednesday.

        My statements about a lot of apologetics being motivated by fear are basically attempts at articulating a hunch based on my own experience and based on the testimonies of friends who think of themselves as “recovering Fundamentalists.” In other words, I know that there were times (particularly in my late teens) when I relied on apologetics because I was terrified that my Christian faith was not grounded in reality. I desperately needed some assurance that I was not crazy to be a Christian, and I looked to Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, and, eventually, Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Til, & Co. to give me that assurance. I *needed* the arguments to hold. I needed certainty. I didn’t want theological loose-ends, either, because I was afraid they might unravel my entire worldview. This was my Fundamentalist phase and it was thankfully short-lived (maybe age 17-20).

        At some point during my college years I got over all that–somewhere between reading Wolterstorff’s Reason Within The Bounds of Religion and Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology–and learned to get on without absolute, Cartesian certainty, to live with open-ended questions, and to rest in the simple faith in mere Christianity I’d learned as a kid.

        In the meantime, I have met boatloads of self-described “recovering Fundamentalists” who describe their experiences in very similar terms–fear-driven dependence upon apologetics. And I am struck by how often I meet would-be apologists whose knee-jerk reaction to difficult issues is not to ask about the evidence but to ask about the stakes (If Adam & Eve are not historical, is my faith in vain?). I can’t be sure, but my hunch is that when our default questions are “What’s at stake?” and “What’s next?” (slippery-slope), we are engaging issues from a place of fear. I also think that belligerence is often symptomatic of fear.

        Maybe the fear isn’t even for ourselves. Maybe it’s fear that our kids will hear something and abandon the faith. Maybe it’s fear about the direction our society is going in. Whatever it is, a natural reaction is to circle the wagons and defend ourselves with whatever arguments we find ready-to-hand.

        In any case, this isn’t a counter-argument but a hunch about the motivation for some arguments. If we want to talk about Adam, we should talk about our reasons for thinking what we think. I wouldn’t start by speculating about your motives at all and I hope you would extend the same courtesy to me. But if the conversation seemed to evade vitally relevant evidence, if the conversation kept coming back to questions about theological stakes and slippery-slopes, and especially if the conversation became heated, I don’t know if I could help wondering about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of the discussion.

        Finally, I should make it absolutely clear that I do not think that anyone who disagrees with me only does so out of fear. I thought that could go without saying, but now I’m not so sure.

  • dmwilliams83@gmail.com'
    dmwilliams83 commented on July 30, 2013 Reply

    Howard, I am way behind on responding to you, and I apologize for that. As regards your comment about fear of losing one’s job, I am reminded of what Upton Sinclair used to say, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    As regards your comments on the nature of the resurrection, I would urge you to slog your way through N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God (if you haven’t already). While the book is not without flaws (as I mentioned above), I think Wright shows the deficiencies in alternative explanations of the early Church’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection. However, I don’t think Wright PROVES the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I’m not sure that any such proof could be made. History doesn’t work that way generally, much less claims about miracles. But, of course, man cannot live on historical-criticism alone. We can know much more than we can prove.

    As for your question about “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” that is, as you know, a very complex question. The New Testament, I think, is packed with theological diversity. I’m not sure Matthew and Paul are on the same page regarding the Torah. I’m not sure John and the Synoptics are on the same page about the eschaton. Nevertheless, there are clear commonalities and family resemblances (to borrow a Wittgensteinian notion) between the theologies of the various New Testament books which, I think, cohere quite well with what would later be called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) or “rule of truth” (kanwn tes aletheis). I believe, too, that the early Church said and thought more than they wrote (much less, canonized) and that the New Testament only encapsulates some of the teaching of the Apostles. Long story made short, I am a curmudgeonly, musty Anglican who still thinks the Ecumenical Creeds have a lot to be said for them.

    That means, too, that I am still a classical Trinitarian theist. I believe in evolution, Quantum theory, the Big Bang, JEDP. “the Death of the Author,” the collapse of “Foundationalism” and all of that, but I don’t see how any of that entails Panentheism. But maybe I’m just thick.

  • howiepep@cox.net'
    Howard Pepper commented on July 31, 2013 Reply

    Thanks much for the reply, David. No issue, to me, as to “way behind.” I do note your reply to James is time stamped about 7 min. prior to my long one to him… I was writing and didn’t see yours till just now. Anyway, on a more personal level first, I do really appreciate both your spirit (tone, etc.) and your mission/goal in your whole blog as well as your last reply. I truly am encouraged in seeing such a focus on dealing with the fear issue and trying to help people recognize it and get it out of the way, so as to be able to really deal with the “data” (which sounds way too intellectual or cold and unfeeling often, but I do find it a useful term, almost without a good alternative sometimes).

    We are designed (by some kind of designer, ultimately) as both thinking and feeling beings… keeping the two in relative balance is a big challenge, and does require some conscious attention; and I don’t find that most conservative X’ns give it much…. You are among the few I’ve found to both understand and directly address the issue. (Sorry if “conservative” doesn’t fit you, indeed your approach doesn’t fit that term as I generally apply it… maybe “creedal” or orthodox? You probably aren’t picky re. the label.)

    I’m not technically a psychologist either, David. But I’ve been in the general field via study and practice for an earlier decade in counseling/psychotherapy, and I try to “keep up” just a bit, but mostly “interdisciplinarily”. Incidentally, “Integral Theory” represents this kind of approach and within just the last 2 to 4 years, “Integral Christianity” has emerged with broader Integral Theory. The book by that title by Paul Smith, 45+ year pastor in ONE church, is a fascinating and, to me, a very important read. (I’ve reviewed it on my blog.)

    It’s important to see such an “application” in community and “worship” (Smith preserves that term and concept in what I’d call a “panentheist” system, as I think he does also — or would if asked). That is application of a decidedly-other-than-traditional view of Scripture, redemption, etc. The book “Integral Christianity” does a wonderful job of bridging from traditional category concepts that are dualities (or polarities), such as “infinite” and “intimate” (a rework of “transcendent” and “imminent”) to a new system which I feel strongly is more clear and balanced in how it deals with these things which “orthodoxy” has long recognized and sought to deal with also.

    This then gets us to panentheism again. I get that in your own (apparently similar to Wright’s) reworking of concepts, you don’t feel the need to move from supernatural theism to panentheism. (And just to be clear, panentheism, as I understand and embrace it, does not at ALL deny the activity of God nor deny/minimize the importance of a spiritual “realm”, including personal experiences that are often unexplainable by science… but also by Xn orthodoxy… or at least not touched much by either but rather avoided, such as NDE’s, evidences for extreme antiquity of human civilizations, etc.) Again, I appreciate what seems to be primarily an Anglican approach to this whole area and numerous particulars (cf. you, James [?] [above], McGrath [?] [or is he non-Anglican?], C. S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright particularly–BTW, I may well read his resurrection book specifically, but HAVE gotten probably some of that via a ch. in the book “The Meaning of Jesus” [I think is the title] with him and Borg interacting.)

    Finally… (too much to cover!), as to “deposit of faith” and such, and the NT texts: I find Paul’s discussion of resurrection and his personal experiences with the “risen Jesus” as particularly of interest and importance… too much to go into in detail. But in general, the earliest reported experience of an “appearance,” at least first-hand such that it was not just a 2nd, 3rd or futher-hand report or the result of literary purposes well after the fact. I find a lot of critical clues in mainly his I Cor. 15 account, coupled with other related teaching and remarks about his “revelations,” and his point to distance himself from direct apostolic teaching or influence. (He seems more in competition with them much of the time, and only begrudgingly in cooperation, out of necessity.)

    This latter point is just one sliver of much indication, both within and outside the NT texts, that there were a wide variety of “strains” of emerging Gnostic/Jewish/Christian belief in the 1st century, which continued (didn’t just begin) in the 2nd, etc. In an oversimplified way, that is part of why it seems so problematic (and leading to further problems) to think there was some generally-agreed-upon “faith” or set of beliefs/practices already before the end of the 1st century or “close of the canon.”

  • richardjklaus@gmail.com'
    Richard Klaus commented on August 10, 2013 Reply


    I appreciate the interaction. I’ll try to make this one of my last comments so that this does not become the unending thread!

    My comments have focused on your statement regarding apologetics. Now after our back and forth I see now that your comments are based on your own experiences as a late-teen and the experiences of others of your friends. This then produces a “hunch” that “so much apologetics is fear-driven.” Your initial comments thus seem to be a bit overblown. My concern is not simply with a lack of justification for your remarks. As I understand your purposes they are to minister in a pastoral capacity to those engaged in Christian scholarship. As this is your goal may I suggest that your initial comments were a bit of reckless rhetoric that did not serve your pastoral purposes. You could have developed your main concern about fearfulness in approaching theology without seemingly denigrating so much of apologetics–especially after setting up the entire set of posts with a division between the faculty at Westminster.

    • howiepep@cox.net'
      Howard Pepper commented on August 10, 2013 Reply

      Richard, since I get notice of new comments on this thread, I am still “following” it in that sense. I don’t feel any need to defend David in saying this (he and I are not theologically at quite the same place, and he is capable of defending himself well if he chooses), but I do think fear plays a larger place than most Christians want to admit or are even aware of. In other words, it’s often subconscious “fear” or just concern re. the real basis for certain (or all) Xn beliefs. Not unique to Xn’ty, as this is shared by all religions and even philosophies in a similar way.

      But I think it plays in “large” in traditional Christianity, and even more so in Evangelicalism/fundamentalism (I realize they are not the same). The system is a set of interlinked doctrines, any of which, if broken, tends to “break” or unwind the whole. On top of this, a large segment of Amer. Xn’ty decided to invest in linking theology to history via the Heb. and Grk. Scriptures. Further, many decided to make historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Christ central (or very important). This goes further, in a different direction, than Paul does, although more than any NT writer, he makes the resurrection (along with fall, election, justification) central in a developed theology, especially of personal salvation…. It basically became the theology of the Creeds, RC, Orthodox, Prot. orthodoxy (in varying forms, of course).

      As a well-educated Evangelical and then part-time apologist (I guess you’d say “paraprofessional”, as it was a good part of a paid ministry with the late Walter Martin), I wasn’t aware of most of this consciously and don’t recall that I felt fearful that some “chain of doctrines” might come apart. I felt quite certain, having been raised Evangelical and always regular in Sun. School, church, youth group, personal study, then Bible college (BIOLA), seminary (Talbot), etc. I merely wanted better tools to “share the Gospel” and “have an answer” for anyone who asked “the reason…”, “a workman not needing to be ashamed,” etc. (The story changed nearly 2 decades later, though.)

      But many people, esp. those converted in adolescence or later, stand in a different place, and are influenced by different “forces.” I do think David is right that a whole lot of apologetics is fear motivated, at least subconsciously… or otherwise put, motivated out of a desire to bolster what can easily look like it has weak and questionable underpinnings. (I happen to think that most of those surface appearances prove to be actually quite deep and the “common sense” impressions often right…. But NOT when the pursuers of them go so far as to deny any kind of God or a spiritual dimension that comprises our true, deep identity. Only a small minority here or anywhere in the world go that far with skepticism, however. When they do, then THEY become the ones defending THEIR positions out of subconscious fears, often…. The issue cuts both ways, as it were.)

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