Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

11 Aug 2016

How Much Should We Engage with Progressive Scholarship?

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I have been reading quite a bit about John’s Gospel recently. My reading has spanned the spectrum from conservatives to fairly progressive scholars (sometimes called “critical” scholars, but since a conservative can be critical in his engagement with Scripture, I have chosen to describe them as progressive). As a conservative, I naturally feel at home with other conservative scholars. They view the text the way I do—even if I may not agree on every element of interpretation. Reading progressives is not always an enjoyable experience. Their perspective on the text is foreign. Where a conservative would seek to harmonize two biblical accounts, some progressives appear to believe being “critical” requires finding a discordant witness between the two—especially if it is Paul against another New Testament writer.

The result of reading such progressives often leads professors towards an apologetic stance in teaching. Our students—especially if they are relatively inexperienced in scholarship—frequently do not even approach the text as progressives approach it, and therefore find our apologetic approach strange. I recently had such an experience. Readers of this blog may have noticed that DBTS asked me to teach an extension course at First Baptist Church in Wixom. We had a good turnout for the class, and while some of the students were there to take the course for credit, others (primarily church members) simply desired to learn more about the Bible. To my knowledge this latter crowd has never read anything by a progressive scholar. They were, therefore, sometimes puzzled by the arguments posed against conservative positions—e.g., Paul’s authorship of some of his works or the historical reliability of Luke’s account. For them, it is hard to imagine someone approaching the Scripture from an entirely different vantage point than they approach Scripture.

For these students, I believe a seminary class is a wonderful time for them to be exposed to such arguments. The popularity of Bart Ehrman, the first and only scholar to write a best-selling book on textual criticism, suggests that perhaps pastors should address some of these topics as well. Nevertheless, that is for a different article. Here I simply want to note the difficulty of describing the “scholarly world” of New Testament literature to the regular church layperson. The other day I stumbled upon one such attempt. The author, Adrian Howell North Green-Armytage, wrote a book titled, John Who Saw: A Layman’s Essay on the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel. His description of this scholarly world in 1951 fits quite well in our modern day:

There is a world—I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit—which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from the facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story. …In my world, almost every book, except some of those produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event.  In my world we say, ‘The first world-war took place in 1914–1918. In that world they say, ‘The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century’. In my world men and women live for a considerable time—seventy, eighty, even a hundred years—and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book, and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they ‘preserve traces of a primitive tradition’ about things which happened well within their own adult lifetime.

Green-Armytage recognizes that such a description may seem unjust and offensive. Nevertheless, to conservatives who have spent considerable time in the field of New Testament studies, it rings true. In light of the different presuppositions held by conservatives and progressives, the questions asked and the answers proposed are frequently at odds. Further, due to the nature of the presuppositional differences, conservatives find the positions of progresssives strange, far-fetched, and foolish, while progressives find the positions of conservatives strange, simple, and foolish. It is not enough, then, to introduce the position of the progressive without attempting to explain his or her presuppositions. If we limit our student’s exposure merely to the positions without focusing on the presuppositions, we have not really presented the progressive’s position.[1]

Balance is required, then. I do not desire to spend all my time as an educator interacting with this “world” of broader scholarship, developing its foundations and conclusions. There are riches within the biblical text reserved only for those who read it with trust and humility. Nevertheless, I do not want my students to be ignorant of this “world” either. If you are a theological educator, I would love to hear your advice on maintaining a helpful balance.

[1] I would argue the opposite position as well, i.e., progressives could take time to learn of the conservative’s foundations before critiquing the positions that derive from such foundations.

7 Responses

  1. Kent McCune

    I remember one time discussing worldview and biblical issues with a liberal United Methodist colleague here at Ford. I ran some of my colleague’s ideas past my father and before interacting with them he said, “their rocket is launched from a different pad.” I think that perfectly summarizes the conservative vs. progressive disconnect and the seeming futility of interacting with them.

  2. Tim Miller

    Yes, that is a pretty low threshold. After just finishing an excellent volume on the history of the Synoptic relationship with John’s Gospel, I was struck by how the author seemed apologetic each time he referenced a conservative. I think he was convinced a conservative stance precluded significant scholarship, and thus he had to prove that despite their conservatism, the conservative may have actually said something useful!

  3. Tim Miller

    Yes, I agree. I also think the popularity of Ehrman, for example, suggests that we might need to make students (and laypeople?) aware of this “other pad” and why progressives embrace the positions they do.

  4. Great discussion! For my grad students in NTI, I actually make them read a chapter from one of Ehrman’s books so we can critically interact with it. My thought is that since they are going to be the leaders of the church, they need to be more than one-step ahead of what their flock might encounter. Progressive scholarship has a way of filtering down to the masses (as we all know, Ehrman is just Baur with a fancier cover!)
    For undergrad, the degree to which I’m concerned with what progressive scholars is proportational to the likelihood I feel my students will encounter it “on the street” from the “average Joe.” So, for example, some basic discussion of textual criticism will help prepare them for “there’s 400,000 variants in the manuscripts” (One of my seminary students last year mentioned that our discussion of textual criticism actually ended up being helpful when he got an opportunity to witness to somebody) and a discussion of the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian concept of the resurrection will help prepare them for the “Jesus’ resurrection is just a copy of the Osiris myth” (which I once heard from the mouth of a teenager!) Side note: as much as I hate to admit it as a fundamentalist, N. T. Wright is accessible and absolutely golden when he discusses the resurrection. His Sewanee Theological Review articles, which you can find online, are probably easily readable by anybody with a college education).

  5. I have tried to explain a progressive viewpoint to the congregation, and perhaps I should have. However, I did always try to accurately explain heresies to the congregation, and have even shown video clips where the heretics were allowed to speak for themselves. For a Wednesday evening series I did on the Trinity, I played clips from Unitarian and Oneness Pentecostal scholars so the folks could see how these false believers try to dodge the reality of who Jesus really is. They didn’t just hear me dismiss them, them heard them speak for themselves. I think that some brief, but well-done interaction with a lie will help believers have a deeper thirst for the truth. Of course, that’s in a local church context. But, I think the point is still valid. You cannot challenge people to learn if all they ever hear is the stuff from your own orbit.

    I remember, during a sermon on 1 Thess 4:13-18, I mentioned that the majority of Christians did not believe in the idea of a rapture. One woman gasped and asked, breathlessly, “Are they even Christians!?” That’s the mark of somebody who has been way, way too sheltered in a comfy theological bubble.

    Your remark about presuppositions is probably the most important thing to do. If people can be shown where the progressives are coming from, then their way of looking at Scripture can begin to make some kind of sense. In a Seminary context, probably having students read commentary excerpts from liberals after explaining their presuppositions would probably be a good way to go. It would be interesting!