Thoughts in the Dark

Trying to Bring Ideas into the Light

Fundamentalists and Liberals in the Church and Academy: Finding Middle Ground

Lately we have heard a great deal about academics and scholars losing their positions (sometimes even tenured positions) at conservative Colleges and Universities (for example, see my posts about statements of faith). Michael Pahl, Christopher Rollston, and Anthony Le Donne instantly come to mind. All three of these men are top-notch academics and also somewhat conservative in their beliefs, at least from what I can tell from their blogs and publications. Yet they were all fired based upon what the majority of Christians (and all academics) would consider minute details of little importance. The fundamentalist alumni and donor base at each of these colleges pushed them out the door because these scholars challenged the status quo of fundamentalism. The fundamentalists attacked these conservatively-moderate scholars because they disagreed with basic, non-essential ideas.

On the other side of the coin, you have the minimalists. I am most familiar with those taking part in the biblical studies Yahoo group, namely Thomas Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, and Philip Davies (collectively named “The Copenhagen School” on wikipedia). Now, I have learned a great deal from these scholars through the email group, however, their tone is as negative towards moderate scholars as it is towards fundamentalists, and the disapproval of anyone disagreeing with their ideas seems as harsh as that of the fundamentalists.

The problem that I see in both of these groups (which I term “fundamentalist” and “liberal,” although other terms could be used in their stead) is their inability to converse with the other, or with anyone falling in a middle category (the “moderates”). Instead, all we see is finger pointing and ad hominem attacks.

This problem is not a new one. While doing some research for a paper that I will be presenting this March concerning the Divine Warrior Motif, I ran across an article that Paul D. Hanson wrote in 1985. This article is nearly 30 years old, yet it describes our current situation very well. The title of the article is “The Responsibility of Biblical Theology to Communities of Faith,” and it was published in Ex Auditu (Wipf and Stock) volume 1, pg. 54-62. Hanson begins by arguing that theologians, academics and scholars in biblical studies and theology, pastors, teachers, and church leaders need more self-criticism and ethical responsibility. In other words, we have to be held accountable for what we do. If we sit in our own circles of like-minded peers and never interact with “the other,” the people with whom we disagree, then we are not being held accountable at all.

Hanson states, in regard to the “liberal” leaning members of the church and academy:

Biblical scholars who understand their vocation within the larger context of a community of faith have reason to be concerned that a large proportion of the younger members of the profession consider the questions of spiritual and moral accountability beneath their scholarly concern.

And in reference to the “fundamentalist” leaning persons:

Uncritical, self-serving enthusiasm has had a sordid history of its own, and movements advancing under the banner of a return to the Bible have often made powerful contributions to social oppression, nationalism, and a host of other personal and communal ills.

These statements are very telling of our own situation. Hanson moves on to explain how proper biblical theology works:

Within a community of scholars that draws together members from a wide diversity of confessions and theological positions, biblical scholarship exercises its critical function only if from the perspective of its own history, accumulated research, and collective wisdom it subjects all positions to a steady critique.

Therefore all positions, fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, and liberal, need to be criticized and critiqued in order for the field to grow. Simply shunning academics who disagree with your position will not further the conversation or the field of biblical studies / biblical theology. We need to critically engage all ideas. Hanson goes on to say:

A further degree of modesty and integrity is cultivated by the frequent gathering together of biblical scholars of all confessions for serious discussion and open dialogue on issues of the Bible and theology. Such occasions foster understanding and trust even as they encourage an openness both to self-scrutiny and the criticism of others. Because the commitment for drawing scholars together for dialogue should transcend the interests of any particular group, suspicions and animosities which have created barriers between biblical scholars in the past can be overcome.

This statement rings very true, especially as I read it a couple of weeks after my 2nd annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (and the first one I’ve attended in which AAR and SBL combined their meetings). I heard a number of papers from positions much more conservative than my own, as well as many papers much more liberal. I had conversations with old friends and new contacts in which I was challenged from both sides (I will again note that I am using the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” which may not be the best terms. I continue to use them for lack of better terminology). Ultimately, I learned the most from listening and critically engaging ideas that were unfamiliar and even somewhat scary. Engaging new ideas is different than embracing new ideas; I feel that the fundamentalists (who are, by and large, absent from meetings such as SBL) are scared that to critically engage a new idea means adopting that new idea. I learned a great deal from conversations with people whom I disagreed (and still disagree) with.

Hanson speaks of engaging the use of scripture in one’s community as follows:

Those entrusted with the teaching of the Bible act responsibly by subjecting the use of Scripture in their communities to a rigorous, disciplined critique, in which underlying presuppositions are identified and brought into the light of community discussion. Only loss of confidence in the self-authenticating authority of Scripture leads to the desire to enshroud the presuppositions of faith in a cloak of ecclesiastical secrecy. Open discussion of presuppositions leads not to disunity or the erosion of faith but to a proper understanding of the nature of faith if it is carried on in a community context characterized by a sense of life derived from divine grace and dedicated to a self-transcending purpose.

This, I think, really hits the nail on the head. We must be open and engaging in both our own faith communities, academic communities, as well as engaging other communities for the sake of academic learning and spiritual growth.

I want to close with a brief sentence from Hanson’s closing paragraphs:

The most exciting of all challenges to biblical theology in its responsibility to communities of faith is the possibility of facilitating fresh new formulations of the dynamic center of our biblical heritage which, in a modem, emergent world, will invite growth of faith rather than its destruction.

This is key. Our goal needs to be growth, both academic and spiritual. As a member of a faith community and an academic community, I want to strive to see that we all grow closer both to God and to the truth found in scripture, through a proper understanding of the Bible, of the Ancient World, and how the two influence each other.

I want to note that one does not have to be a Christian in order to be a theologian or a biblical scholar. I, much like Hanson does in his article, question the effectiveness of being a biblical scholar without engaging the community of faith. The “liberals” or “minimalists” that I mentioned earlier are not people that I know personally (nor are the fundamentalists who were unnamed but referred to, for that matter), and I have no clue what their belief system is. I would say that the argument is still valid, however, in that to further the academic conversation they must still be willing to engage with those of other mindedness without reducing their own arguments to polemics.

Blog Tour: Review of “Francis Schaeffer” by Mostyn Roberts

Roberts, Mostyn. Francis Schaeffer. Darlington, England: EP Books, 2012. 144 pgs., paperback, $14.99.

Reading this biography was the first time I’ve read anything about Francis Schaeffer. At 144 pages, the author, Mostyn Roberts, moves the reader very quickly through the life of Schaeffer. The book can easily be divided into two major parts, chapters 1 through 9, which cover the history of Schaeffer’s life, and chapters 10 through 13, which cover the work of Schaeffer. Most of the chapters about Schaeffer’s life are 6 to 8 pages, while the later chapters average about 12 pages each.

The first 9 chapters, discussing Schaeffer’s life, move the reader along at a rather quick pace, stopping here and there for stories and anecdotes about Schaeffer’s life. Roberts does an excellent job of keeping the reader interested in the story while somehow managing to keep the book under 150 pages. The final 4 chapters, “Schaeffer’s Teachings,” “Schaeffer’s Apologetics,” “Films, Politics and the Final Battle,” and “Schaeffer’s Legacy,” move at a much slower pace. I probably spent more time reading the final 4 chapters than I did reading the first 9.

Ultimately, I disagree with a great deal of Schaeffer’s teachings and thoughts. The two issues that particularly irk me are his teachings on the doctrine of Creation and his schismatic mindset and desire to separate himself from other Christians who approach the Bible in a different way than himself. Roberts’ biography of Schaeffer, however, has allowed me to appreciate the good that Schaeffer did in his life over the disagreements that I have with him theologically. What I really took away from this book was the opportunity to see the good in an intellectual opponent that I would not have seen if I had focused solely on his theology.

Thanks to Cross Focused Reviews for a free copy of Francis Schaeffer, by Mostyn Roberts, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

What is Wrong with American Christianity

I watched the following video and became rather sick to my stomach. This should win awards for missing the point by the largest possible margin. The fact that any of this should be the focus of a baptism goes to show how truly confused American Christianity (which is the only environment, that I am aware of, that would allow something like this to happen) really is.

Really? Really …

My Email

So, my blog has been hit with a bunch of hits from Google where someone has searched “Matthew Hamilton Southwest Virginia Community College Email,” as well as my profile and my profile.

So, here it is! If you are the person on the web searching in vain for my email, it is:

All Saints Sunday

I just wanted to take a brief moment to lift up a prayer of thanks for all of the saints that have gone before us.

While we all know some incredible people in our churches and communities that have passed on, I also want to point out that there are many academics in the field of biblical studies who have enlightened us to the meaning and context of the scriptures, that have also passed on. I won’t take time to name anyone here, because there have been so many, but everyone should know that whenever they open up their Bible, the only way they can read it is because linguists and biblical studies scholars have studied and translated the texts, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.


Thank you, saints who have lifted up the scholarship and academic aspect of faith.

Wednesday Afternoon Cults! Freemasonry!

This is bound to upset some people, but I cannot help but share Dr. Steve Tsoukalas’ video (made for Asbury Seedbed) on freemasonry and why it is a non-Christian cult. Enjoy!

Statements of Faith and Academic Integrity: A Follow-Up Question

Most of you read my post yesterday, but I have been thinking about the subject and have a follow-up question:

What is the purpose of having a statement of faith in an institution of higher learning?

Now, I’m not trying to argue that colleges and universities should not have a statement of faith, but rather trying to find out the purpose of these statements. Are they to limit the pool of candidates for employment to only those of the same belief system that is imperative to the college? If so, how limited do you want that pool to be? While I understand that a Christian college, university, or seminary might only want Christians to be teaching, do you really want all those Christians to be of the exact same mindset about every little detail of their faith? Without diversity, where is the room to grow in one’s faith? Without an environment that can challenge one’s thoughts and ideas, where is the room for ingenuity and innovation? And furthermore, while I understand that it makes sense for a denominational college or university to want Christians teaching biblical and theological studies, as well as Church history and ethics, what does it matter if a Muslim or Jew teaches calculus or structural engineering or nursing classes?

While I wish that this was the only answer to the above question, I think there might be other reasons for having a statement of faith: pleasing an aging and elderly board of trustees; attracting potential students from conservative families within the denomination; attracting conservative donors; continuing to receive denominational funds, etc. My biggest problem with all of these is the fact that none of these reasons encourages academic integrity. Professors must fit themselves in tiny boxes designed by the board of trustees and the school, and if their research takes them outside of that box, then they either have to risk being fired (even those professors who have tenure), not publishing their research, or hiding the true results of their research to preserve their jobs.

What do you think the purpose of having a statement of faith (and particularly a statement of faith that all faculty and staff must sign) is?

Statements of Faith and Academic Integrity: Can They Co-Exist?

Another issue of an academic being relieved of his duties was published in Christianity Today this morning, which will hopefully bring this lack of academic integrity into a broader readership.

What is going on in religious colleges in America? Why are professors, even some tenured, losing their positions over disagreements over non-essential matters (such as this case, which involves an historical Adam and Eve, or even over the treatment of women in the Bible). Inside Higher Ed summed up the situation fairly well, when they said (describing a specific situation concerning Christopher Rollston and Emmanuel Christian Seminary) that he was “scaring off prospective donor.” I think that this is a primary reason for most of these schools to attack professors: they want to continue their revenue stream.

Why else would an institution of higher learning sacrifice academic integrity in exchange for the uncritical acceptance of blanket statements covering vast subject matter, that in the long run is not particularly important to the Christian faith (most people would agree that an historical Adam and Eve, accepting the fact women were treated as property in biblical texts, and even searching for the historical Jesus are not essential matters in the Christian faith)?

I, personally, want these institutions to know that unless they establish a stance of academic integrity and freedom, I would never send my son to attend their school. I would never want to attend or present at any conference held at any of their schools, and I certainly would never consider donating money to a school that takes such an immoral stance towards education.

Going to SBL / AAR this year? There is an App for that!

The SBL and AAR app has been released! Click here to download it!

Mine is downloading right now, so I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but it looks like it will have an interactive map as well as an interactive program guide that lets you plan out your schedule. The ability to take notes and download program handouts is also included.

It sounds pretty helpful, so be sure to check it out!

Blog Tour: Review of “Christ and the Desert Tabernacle” by J. V. Fesko

Fesko, J. V. Christ and the Desert Tabernacle. Darlington: EP Books, 2012. Paperback, 133 pps., $15.99.

First, I want to thank Cross Focused Reviews for the free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

J. V. Fesko is the Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, although in this book we see the pastoral side of Fesko instead of the academic. The goal of this book is to “show readers, young and old alike, that far from being boring or uninteresting, the Old Testament tabernacle, and later the temple in Solomon’s day, is a shadowy picture of Christ and the church” (12). He attempts to achieve this goal through detailing each step in the construction of the tabernacle in each successive chapter.

The first chapter, “Building Materials,” discusses exactly that: the materials used to construct the tabernacle in Exodus. Fesko carefully details the materials and the instructions for those materials before transitioning to Paul’s discussion of laying a foundation in 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. He closes this chapter with a discussion of giving freely to the church and of building the church with the Word, the sacraments, and with prayer. Chapter two, “The Ark of the Covenant,” opens up by detailing the Ark in Exodus, and then moves on to quoting verses in 1 John, Romans, and specifically the book of Revelation. “The Table and the Bread of Presence,” chapter three, discusses the Exodus material and then Fesko discusses each major New Testament story that involves bread in order to relate the Exodus account to the New Testament. He transitions into a discussion of the Eucharist and closes with a call to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Christ during the receiving of the Eucharist. Chapter four, “The Lampstand and the Oil,” again begins with a description of the Exodus description, and then transitions to the New Testament by way of a search for the word, “light.” A number of passages in the New Testament that use the word “light” are discussed, concluding with we should remember the Exodus passage in order that we “would unceasingly shine forth the light of the glory of Christ before the world” (46). “The Tabernacle,” chapter five, is related to the New Testament through the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost; ultimately the presence of God in the tabernacle is related to the indwelling of the Spirit in us as believers. Chapter six, “The Altar and Courtyard,” links the sacrifices on the altar to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Chapter seven, “The Priest’s Garments,” begins by describing the garments and then moving on to an understanding of Christ taking the place of the priest, and then, oddly enough, ends with a conclusion concerning the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. Chapter eight, “The Consecration of the Priests,” again relates the sacrifices performed by the priests to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. “The Altar of Incense,” chapter nine, immediately understands the incense to represent the prayers rising up to heaven. This is further explicated by discussing the New Testament intercessory prayers prayed by Christ himself concerning (according to the Fesko) the modern-day church. “The Census Tax,” chapter ten, discusses both the order to perform censuses and excise a tax when it is done, as well as a story about David performing a census and being punished for it. The end result of Fesko’s reasoning is that Christians should not be confident in their own numbers, but instead they should be confident in God’s strength. Chapter 11, “The Bronze Basin,” quickly moves from the Exodus description to a word search for “water” in the Bible. He discusses the “sea of glass” from the book of Revelation, the Flood account from Genesis and then moves on to baptism in the New Testament. Chapter 12 discusses “Oholiab and Bezalel,” who constructed the tabernacle. Fesko connects the idea that these men could only complete the tabernacle through divine inspiration to the New Testament idea of spiritual gifts, and does a full inventory of all three sets of spiritual gifts as discussed in the letters of Paul. The final chapter is “The Sabbath.” In this chapter, Fesko discusses the Sabbath of the Old Testament, the “Lord’s Day” of modern Christianity, and how to understand the two.

Fesko is ultimately successful in creating a book that might inspire those who are unfamiliar with the Old Testament to desire a further knowledge of it. It needs to be noted that this is not an academic book; there is not one single footnote or an appeal to any other authority other than Fesko’s own interpretation. Fesko does some things very well in this book; Fesko comes up short in other areas.

I agree wholeheartedly with each of Fesko’s conclusions. He makes a number of poignant statements that are not only valid but also necessary for the Church. I think that they are all biblically and theologically sound. I also think that Fesko does a great job of describing, in detail, the instructions to build the tabernacle in Exodus. My issue with this book is how Fesko gets from the tabernacle to his conclusions. They do not logically follow (and in some instances have nothing to do with each other), and he jumps through a number of hermeneutical hoops in order to show that the tabernacle account leads to these conclusions. I also have difficulty with the fact that Fesko completely ignores any and all critical scholarship that sheds some let on this passage. For example, he ignores issues of centralization of worship in Jerusalem during the divided monarchy. He also makes the comment that the Sabbath has already been discussed in the giving of the 10 Commandments, so why is it repeated in the instructions to build the tabernacle? Instead of using this opportunity to engage in a conversation with source critics, he simply says “that God reveals more information about the Sabbath” in this section of Exodus. I understand that his target audience is not academics, but to completely ignore the incredible amount of scholarship that has been done on this subject really does his audience a disservice.

Ultimately, I recommend this book for use within the Church. It would work well in small group study or Sunday school classes. It has potential to be a powerful resource for those unfamiliar with the Old Testament.


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