“Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.” – I Cor. 16:13, NIV, emphasis mine
International Christian scholar and theologian D.A. Carson once said,
Christians in academia today are often tempted to sacrifice their integrity for academic respectability. This is the seduction of applause we must carefully guard against. If you shy away from some theological topics for no other reason than the fact that these topics are unpopular or controversial in your guild, then you are in the greatest spiritual danger.
In a recent Twitter feed, he tweeted, “The courage we need in this anti-Christian age is courteous and steadfast. It never apologizes for God.”
The scholar today often faces pressures to go with the flow of scholarly consensus, and the Academy often marginalizes those who try to buck the system. This calls for conviction, commitment and courage. Will the scholar play it safe and seek to hide his or her real perspective by choosing language that will guarantee acceptance from a wider academic audience for their research? Will the Christian author refrain from speaking out on controversial issues in order to not jeopardize a book contract with a leading publisher? These are relevant questions which we will all face sooner or later as scholars.
What is courage?
Often, in the Old Testament, the familiar refrain, “Be strong and courageous,” is given by God to such leaders as Moses and Joshua. Biblical courage is not psycho-babble; it is based on the presence and favor of God, on behalf of His people, and is predicated upon God’s promises in the present concerning His future intervention. In the New Testament, courage is taken to grand, new heights, with God’s presence richly manifested in Jesus, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, and also the epistles, we see the close connection between courage and the proclamation of the gospel.
“but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4, NRSV, emphasis mine).
So, the real question is: Whose approval really matters? Whom are we trying to please? Are we trying to gain the approval of our academic peers or the approval of God? The courageous scholar will swim upstream, convinced God’s approval is infinitely more important than that of his scholarly peers. Compromise, retreat, and cowardice will accomplish nothing before God. He has called us to research, write and teach His truth with courage and conviction. We can have every confidence God is with us; therefore, we don’t need to be afraid to stand up for what we believe, even in the face of what may seem to be an intimidating or even overwhelming critical scholarly consensus.
One thing is certain: if you or I, as evangelicals, hold back and produce mediocre scholarship, then our influence will be minimal on those outside our own circles of influence. A key resource for gaining a hearing outside our immediate sphere, if we remain true to our convictions, is scholarship characterized by true excellence. If we attempt to play both sides, claiming to be evangelical while seeking to gain the approval of the critical establishment by diluting our evangelical beliefs, then we will likely get caught in the middle and won’t fit in well with either group. How much better it is to show courage and backbone and stand up for what you believe in your scholarly work. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24a, NIV, emphasis mine). God has not called us to this location in order to abandon us to struggle on our own—He is with us and that makes all the difference!
Father, You have set us apart to bear witness for the truth in Your Word. As we engage in our spiritual warfare, in whatever form it takes, may we carry out our scholarly work for You with unswerving confidence of who we are in Christ and of Your presence through Your indwelling Holy Spirit. In Christ we pray, Amen.
Further Reading Suggestions
D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, (Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2012).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Courageous Christianity: Studies in the Book of Acts, (Crossway Publishers, 2001).