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The Making of a Good Christian Scholar

June 2005

From time to time, I get emails from up-and-coming scholars: students heading for Cambridge, Oxford, Catholic University, St. Andrews, Duke, Drew, TEDS, DTS, etc. Over the years, I have seen many abandon their faith, or, in the least, get confused about the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian message. Some colleagues have suggested that we should not send our graduates to non-confessional schools because of the school’s potential to destroy their faith. So, instead, they urge the students to go to a “safe” school. By “safe,” they usually mean a school that not only is conservative theologically but also does not engage directly with the gatekeepers of biblical scholarship. That is, a school that takes potshots at other evangelicals in the trenches, rather than fighting the real opponent who is making disturbing claims. My own concern for this kind of approach is that it is a waste of time. One gets only a partial education, for he never engages with the toughest questions without having that magic wand of inerrancy in his back pocket, ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice when the going gets tough. Thus, in some conservative schools, one’s historical method (e.g., concerning the literary interrelationship among the Synoptic Gospels) is dictated by one’s bibliology rather than by a genuine inquiry into the historical data. This is what I call “leading with one’s theological chin.” And the problem is, many of those who lead with their theological chins have a glass jaw! Unless one gets into a real battle, that glass jaw may seem like it’s made out of steel. The problem with many of the “safe” schools is that because their initial premise is bibliological, all they can do is confirm the student’s prejudices.

But in reality, it’s not the primary theological convictions one starts with that should determine the outcome of his education; rather, it’s the method. To be sure, that method is very much informed by theological convictions. But there is an important difference: it is informed by theological convictions, but not determined by them. However, when theological convictions are seen as determining method, that in itself is a methodological consideration. It is essentially the same as saying the ends justify the means, because the resultant theology will be maintained regardless of the evidence.

Recently I received an email from a student heading for one of the Ivy League schools for doctoral work. He wanted to work in an ancient version of the Bible to demonstrate that most of the variants to the Old Testament found in this translation had been misunderstood. That’s an awfully bold statement. I wondered if he’d get eaten alive in his doctoral program. When I hear comments such as this student made, it tells me that the individual making them probably has an ax to grind. I do think that our service to our Lord is better rendered when we are more preoccupied with him than with the text. This does not mean that evangelicals should not work in the text, nor unmask naïve arguments that are out to destroy our confidence in the text (and there are plenty such arguments out there that need to be unmasked!). But it does mean that we should, first and foremost, be involved in the breathless pursuit of truth. The incarnation of Christ demands this of us. If, in the end, we also learn that our honest diligence has helped us to affirm the historicity and reliability of the Bible, that is an excellent by-product of our research. But when we make it our primary goal, then I think that we have both assumed a particular historical method (and one that is often ill-informed), and have gotten sidetracked on the relation of Christ to the Bible. To put it bluntly, too many evangelicals make Christ the handmaiden to the Bible rather than the other way around.

At bottom, I think there are three different kinds of biblical scholars:

      1. Those who are out to destroy the faith. These almost always came from an evangelical or fundamentalist background, and they feel that they were deceived in their early training. (And many times they were: the professors would be threatened by their irreverent questions, and would give them glib answers or a theological tongue-lashing.) The rest of their lives becomes an apologetic for their moment of "wising up"! But they soon fall into the very patterns of thinking that they so eschewed in undergraduate studies: they tend to close doors on any real evidence, just as many evangelicals do too, because such evidence doesn’t fit their perceptions of the world.

      2. Those who are out to defend the faith, or at least a particular form of the faith, at all costs. These, too, are dangerous, since they are not primarily interested in truth. They are just as dangerous as their liberal counterparts, because their methods are the same and because they, too, are not moved by the incarnation as a motivation and method for their study. Martin Hengel calls both of these groups “radical fundamentalists.” The conclusions are already made; the data now just need to be manipulated to justify such conclusions. Just because the results might be what the orthodox agree with does not justify the means by which those results were obtained.1 Frankly, this group is where many conservative seminary graduates in years past started out. If they were smart enough to go on to doctoral work, they often ended up in camp #1. Very sad, but also predictable: their method, in both instances, was the same: results drive inquiry even to the point of skewing the data.

      3. Those who are truly liberal in the best sense of the word. That is, they examine the data and pursue truth, regardless of where it leads. They are even-handed, and motivated by a desire to know, even if the results are not what they expected or hoped for. This is true scholarship, and it is honoring to Christ because it intuitively recognizes that in the incarnation God not only invites us, he also requires us, to investigate the facts. God, in fact, is telling us to be critical of the Bible! Acts 17.11 is a good model for us here. Critical, yes; but not with a critical spirit.

Now, within that third group are two other groups, broadly speaking: (a) those who hold to a closed universe, and (b) those who hold to an open universe. The first group has already put blinders on their eyes, which do not allow them to see things as honestly and clearly as they would like to. The second group is in the best shape of all scholars to see the data clearly and to reason through it. And here I come back to the incarnation, broadly speaking. The watershed issue for where one is theologically, when it comes to Christian scholarship, is the bodily resurrection of Christ. Those who do not embrace it are, by definition liberal. Those who do embrace it may well have some liberal tendencies but they are more in the conservative camp (whether they would label themselves that way or not). Once a person has been persuaded by Christ’s resurrection, the single most important miracle of all time, he can no longer hold to a closed universe. Now, to be sure, there are those who have a high Christology and a low bibliology. But at least they are starting in the right place. Of course, once they recognize that Jesus himself had a high bibliology—and that the dominical sayings to this effect were not created ex nihilo, for they were contrary to view of first-century Judaism (which, though it gave lip service to the authority of the Bible, added layers of tradition to it) and consequently become an important criterion of authenticity—then they will recognize that a consistently high Christology also embraces a high bibliology. This does not mean, however, that one must necessarily embrace inerrancy or even infallibility to hold to a high Christology. I do think that holding to infallibility is quite consistent with a high Christology. Holding to inerrancy can be consistent with it, but all too often the way inerrancy is defined nowadays simultaneously reroutes our allegiance from Christ to the Bible and thus produces in us a kind of docetic bibliology (to borrow David Scholer’s expression).

In short, what is it that makes for a good Christian scholar? The belief that the incarnation matters and that it should drive our investigative method. Because God became man in time-space history, because the events of his interaction with his creatures is recorded in the Gospels—with places, times, people, circumstances, etc. all mentioned—we dishonor the Christ of the Bible by assuming a certain interpretation of these events. The good Christian scholar investigates, motivated by a breathless pursuit of truth, because the incarnation demands that he do so. Insatiable curiosity is always a healthy mark of a good scholar. The bad Christian scholar either assumes error in the biblical record without truly investigating the data, or he assumes accuracy in the biblical record, as defined by his own presuppositions. Either way, he is dishonoring the Christ of the Bible. To be sure, there are bad Christian scholars who can produce an enormous amount of literature. They can be extremely intelligent. And they can put on the façade of genuinely honest historical inquiry. But if their fundamental motive is a minor theological agenda, then there is always the temptation that their results will be contaminated by their own blind spots.

The basic question for you who evangelicals, who are about to launch into a doctoral program, is what kind of scholar you want to be. If you are truly willing to learn, you may be surprised as to how much you will change in your program. This is a good thing! But it’s easy to get sucked into the peer pressure of doctoral-level scholarship, and to think that only those who will get a job are those who agree with the party line. (This is true in both conservative and liberal seminaries.) Now is a good time to be bold and stand with your convictions—whether they are to the left or to the right of your colleagues. And always keep Christ at the center of your affections and your attention, and you'll do fine.2

1 You might notice some parallels with radical Islam. There is no discussion, for example, among the right-wing of Islam about the myriad of textual variants for the Qur’an. As far as they are concerned, such textual variants don’t exist and never have. The reason for this stance is to show that the Christian faith has evolved, that its sacred documents have changed over time. The reality, however, is that although we do not yet know exactly what the original New Testament said, we are sure of about 99% of it. On the other hand, the transmissional history of the Qur’an is much harder to track because those who have revealed any variants have often been destroyed, along with the manuscripts they produced!

2 For more help in how to handle doctoral work as a Christian, the reader may wish to read two of the chapters in the book forthcoming from Biblical Studies Press: Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today (edited by M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace). See especially, “The Witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:16: Interpretation and Implications” (by D. B. Wallace), and “The Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures?” (by M. J. Sawyer).

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