Monday, January 7, 2013

on intellectual honesty

A number of months ago a kind reader introduced himself. He let me know that he was particularly interested in watching how I would be affected by the claims of critical biblical scholars (a.k.a. "liberals"). He's writing a book about how evangelicals respond to what he calls "extensive data that seems to pretty clearly rule out the traditional Christian dogma about the inspiration and authority (not just inerrancy) of Scripture, the messianic fulfillment of prophecy, the writing and canonization of the NT, etc." His big question is this: "how can one stay 'orthodox' and be intellectually honest?"

His question is a good one, and deserved a thoughtful response, so it took me quite some time to reply. You can read my full reply in the comments section here (which I deleted and reposted because I found some typos), but I came across two statements yesterday that speak to this whole issue. Both are from an essay by V. Phillips Long introducing the book Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of 'Biblical Israel.'

Long says this: "who we are as whole persons affects how we approach and assess evidence" (8).

And this: "we shall make little progress in understanding one another and in intelligently debating our competing historical judgments until we are willing more openly to explore how our judgments are fundamentally affected by our core convictions" (10). In other words, it goes both ways.

The beauty of Postmodernism is that it has made (almost) all of us aware that we speak and listen from a particular vantage point. What we find persuasive largely depends on what we already believe is true and what counts as evidence in our way of looking at things. I'm not saying there is no absolute truth. I'm simply pointing out that our disposition towards it is very much determined by where we begin.

Intellectual honesty is important to me. For that reason, I have changed my views on a number of things since I started out in seminary seven years ago. But my faith is stronger than ever. Take "messianic prophecy," for example. Meeting with Jehovah's Witnesses helped me to realize that my simple, connect-the-dots understanding of prophecy was not robust enough to account for Trinitarian doctrine. I was forced to go back to the Bible with harder questions, and I was profoundly awakened to the radical claims of the New Testament. The New Testament authors really "got" who Jesus was and what his coming meant for world history. They were not just connecting the dots. They saw Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of what Yahweh himself had claimed to be and do. (You can read my posts on that topic here.)

I'll never forget my summer job after my senior year of high school. I was a "cast member" at Incredible Universe in Denver, where I welcomed "guests" for a shopping experience. One of my fellow cast members was a middle-aged man who worked in Software. We often talked about God in the break room. As I recall, he was not a Christian, but he admired my faith. He became concerned when he learned that I was going off to Bible College in the fall. He talked about how so many lose their faith in seminary (a.k.a. "cemetery"), and he didn't want the same to happen to me.

That was 1995. And here I am, more than 17 years later, still studying the Bible in academia and still loving Jesus. I do think about the Bible differently than I did in high school. My faith has been stretched and deepened in important ways. Some of my naivete about the Bible has been replaced, thanks to a better understanding of the ancient world and more time spent in the text. Its terrain is more exciting now than it was then, and I'm better prepared to pick up nuances in its message than I was before. Meanwhile, some of my "easy answers" about God have been replaced, thanks to the struggles of life. I no longer see him as the "anesthetist-in-chief" but my trust in Him is deeper than ever.

Wheaton is a place where students can engage openly with tough questions and other points of view and learn from critical scholarship . . . alongside professors and other students who are committed followers of Jesus, people who see the Bible as their authority for faith and life. Together we wrestle with the text and we wrestle with ourselves, seeking to live faithfully in light of what we learn. If Long is right that "who we are as whole persons affects how we approach and assess evidence," then approaching the Scriptures as believers will make a difference. It has for me.


  1. I have been asking the same questions and can't wait to read your response in more detail. I found Sandra Schneiders' essay, 'Remaining in His Word: From Faith to Faith by Way of the Text' incredibly helpful in this regard but also (I suppose somewhat ironically given the topic we're discussing) I love what I've read so far of Colleen Conway's work and appreciated her response article. Both can be found in Tom Thatcher's What We Have Known Since the Beginning.

  2. Laura,
    Thanks for sharing these essays! I found the first beautifully-written and winsome. Though Schneider goes farther than I would want to go, her conclusions are especially well expressed. I eavesdropped on that same SBL Forum she mentions and I was delighted that she felt free to respond in the way she did. Conway has a good point, too. We cannot assume that faith in the Scriptures is the only true motivation for a lifetime of studying them.

    We come to the table for different reasons -- some to eat, some to carefully observe, and some to do both -- but that does not preclude our learning from one another. Most importantly for this discussion, careful observation need not ruin our appetite.