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.
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.
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.