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

by hamiltonmj1983

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.