Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Go Where the Evidence Leads

Thanks to James McGrath, I became aware of this recent post by Dan Wallace and the ensuing discussion (363 comments and rising). I found myself agreeing with most of what was frustrating Wallace except for the odd statement up front that "most biblical scholars are not Christians." I (and I imagine many others) are wondering how he's defining "Christian." The thrust of the post seemed to lean toward "Christian=conservative evangelical" in which case a better statement would have been - "most biblical scholars are not evangelicals." The definition of "Christian" was clarified by Wallace in comment #32:
Again, I would say that a Christian is, by definition, conservative. And that means that he or she believes in the atoning work of Christ, the God-man, and in his bodily resurrection. Jan thought that I was defining things awfully narrowly, but this is the historic position of all three branches of Christendom. In light of that definition, I would say that SBL is overall not conservative, not Christian.
I'm still not sure that his definition moves much past the equation of Christian with "conservative evangelical." Despite that minor problem with semantics, I think the issue Wallace raises is important. I have to admit that even coming from a conservative evangelical Christian background, I have had the impulse to brush off or ignore students or scholars who I perceived to be from more conservative institutions. I've hesitated to discuss issues with them, fearing that it might devolve too quickly into an apologetics debate focused on defending the nearest untenable doctrine that critical scholarship has questioned. Unfortunately, Dallas Seminary seems to have become the poster child for uncritical conservative Christian institutions, possibly undeservedly so. Of course, there are more fundamentalist institutions out there, but they tend to not even make a blip on the academic radar. Dallas does.

For some reason, fostering true intellectual debate and encouraging critical thinking is threatening to the status quo on both sides of the conservative/liberal divide. (Liberal and conservative are slippery terms, I know, but it's what Wallace was using. Both are a matter of perspective. I'm too liberal for some and too conservative for others.)

Apparently, consensus (no matter how wrong it might be) feels safer than allowing students or scholars to "go where the evidence leads" (Wallace's mantra as he says toward the end of the post).
A genuine liberal used to be someone who was open to all the evidence and examined all the plausible viewpoints. Now, “liberal” has become a hollow term, invested only with the relic of yesteryear’s justifiably proud designation. Today, all too often, “liberal” means no more than left-wing fundamentalist, for the prejudices that guide a liberal’s viewpoints are not to be tampered with, not to be challenged.
If we’re to judge liberal vs. conservative by one’s method, then the new liberal is the evangelical and neo-evangelical who is willing to engage the evidence, examine all sides, and wrestle with the primary data through the various prisms of secondary literature. He’s open. I tell my students every year, “I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don’t.” And they know my mantra, “Go where the evidence leads.”
It's unclear to me, however, how "going where the evidence leads" would work at a conservative evangelical college or seminary. The evidence often leads to a discussion no one wants to have because it challenges the consensus - theological or otherwise. Also, most Christian institutions have some kind of doctrinal statement. What if the evidence leads away from some of the positions on the school's statement of faith? That doesn't go over well. In college, a friend over-dramatically nailed his "theses" arguing why many of our lifestyle rules were unbiblical to the chapel door. Unfortunately, his 50-page well-documented piece was quickly dismissed as "specious" by the administration. The doctrinal statement often takes a very narrow position on non-essentials (like eschatology). What if the evidence led me away from pre-tribulational premillenialism? Well, I'd just have to keep quiet about that or risk rocking the boat.

So, I agree with Wallace that evangelical scholars are capable of quality scholarship, and I share his desire that all of us in academia should feel free to "go where the evidence leads." Those of us who try, too often find ourselves in the middle - getting shot at from both sides.


  1. I'd read Wallace's post and recognized much of what Doug identified, too. I tend to avoid the discussion that Doug has entered into because much of what happens in scholarship (both confessional and not) is really just identification with a certain interpretational community. Btw, it happens in historical-critical programs just as much as everywhere else. Most everyone strikes a pose, because if one doesn't, one gets discarded. The pose becomes the price of admission--like a ticket.

  2. Doug,

    Interesting note: Wallace has a list scholars who like to read what he writes, but have difficulty accessing some of what he publishes, because they are sometimes published in "conservative" journals like Bibleotheca Sacra, which many self-respecting 'liberal' schools do not suscribe to. It's also interesting to note that if you visit the DTS library, they carry every major journal, liberal or otherwise. Students at DTS can and are often required to read and respond to very 'liberal' material.

  3. T. Webb,

    It's great that DTS has a broad range of material. I think it's good for students to have access to all the sources.

    However, in my experience, I was taught to "respond" to "liberal" material, but not to engage critically with it in a serious way. I learned the correct apologetic harmonizing answers to the evil insinuations of critical bible scholarship. (I'm not talking about Dallas here-just my own experiences in Bible college and churches.)

    It is interesting to note that conservatives tend to gear up to "engage" in the debates of critical Bible scholarship while the critical Bible scholars tend to just ignore conservative faith-based scholarship. While some conservatives truly want to openly discuss and engage with the evidence, many already have their minds made up and are ready to engage in an apologetics debate.

    Because of the tendency toward apologetics and theologically pre-determined interpretations, the whole branch of evangelical scholarship is often ignored outright. Shouldn't be that way, but I think that's one of the things frustrating Wallace.

  4. T. Webb, can you document your claim that "many self-respecting 'liberal' schools do not subscribe to" Bibliotheca Sacra? Part of the problem, of course, is defining what one means by "liberal," but the following libraries subscribe to BibSac (I started to write BS, but then realized that could be mistaken for Biblische Studien), and if you take DTS as your point of reference, these institutions surely are to the "left" of DTS theologically (or are entirely secular): several University of California branches, Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley et al.), Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Pitts Theological Library at Emory, Wake Forest, Duke, UNC, Drew, Princeton, Rutgers, Harvard, Wellesley, University of Glasgow, Cambridge, Oxford … and how do you evaluate the "liberalness," relative to DTS, of places like Notre Dame, whose library also subscribes to BibSac? So the charge that "liberal" libraries aren't carrying Bibliotheca Sacra is just flat not true.

    It's also interesting to note that DTS itself is the publisher of BibSac. If you visit the BibSac web site within the DTS web site, you find endorsements of BibSac from … whom? Not from respected academics of any theological stripe, but from Joseph Stowell, Warren Wiersbe, Haddon Robinson, and Chuck Swindoll. Okay, I might call Robinson an academic in the field of homiletics, but not in the field of biblical studies. And Stowell is a university president, but I would not call him an academic. Also, three of those four hold degrees from DTS, which reduces the value of their endorsements (as far as I can tell, Wiersbe never attended DTS, but has taught at DTS); it smacks of in-house back-slapping. If DTS feels that BibSac isn't taken seriously enough by non-evangelical academics, perhaps they could start building up its scholarly reputation by getting endorsements from respected evangelical scholars who have no institutional connection with DTS or with BibSac, rather than from pastors who graduated from DTS.

  5. Doug, a friend sent me this link. I thought I'd briefly comment, but I'm sure I won't be able to follow up.

    You said, "It's unclear to me, however, how "going where the evidence leads" would work at a conservative evangelical college or seminary. The evidence often leads to a discussion no one wants to have because it challenges the consensus - theological or otherwise. Also, most Christian institutions have some kind of doctrinal statement. What if the evidence leads away from some of the positions on the school's statement of faith?"

    You are quite right: this is a problem that confessional schools face. But I tell my students that pursuing truth is more important than protecting presuppositions. Many of my students have gone on for doctoral studies; some of them can no longer sign the 7-point doctrinal statement that DTS requires of its students. I'm fine with that. From my perspective, I tell them that God is not pleased with cowardice or deception, and that they have to answer to him. I also tell them that if I ever came to the position that I could no longer sign the seminary statement, I would simply trust God for my life and livelihood. It is precisely because of my view of God's sovereignty that allows me to go where the evidence leads.

    Dan Wallace

  6. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Dr. Wallace. I appreciate your candor and your commitment to pursuing truth over presuppositions. I wish more people affiliated with confessional schools shared your perspective and were more open to investigating the evidence instead of protecting presuppositions.

  7. Lancaster Seminary subscribes to Bibliotheca Sacra