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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Guest Post: Lament for a Maternal Home (or, Is There No Place for Believing Criticism in Evangelicalism?)

The Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Today’s post–or better, testimonial–is by Dr. David Lincicum, Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Oxford University. His research interests include Pauline theology and exegesis, the Jewish milieu of early Christianity, and the theological interpretation of Scripture. He is the author of Paul & the Early Jewish Encounter With Deuteronomy, which is published by the prestigious academic publisher Mohr Siebeck in the series Wissenschafliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament (and costs about as much as a month’s rent for a small studio apartment).

Like many younger and academically trained Evangelicals, Lincicum has had to do some thinking about the pressing tensions between his Evangelical heritage and his academic training. The relationship between the two has been put into sharper relief for him by virtue of his time spent in a British Evangelical context. He shares his experience and thoughts below.


Recent months have witnessed a scene that is becoming all too familiar in contemporary North American evangelicalism: a noted evangelical scholar makes statements about Scripture that seem edgy or uncomfortable. The self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy turn on him, calling him to account for his errors in a public flagellation; their verdicts, in turn, are parroted by the petty tyrants of blogdom and the new social media. After repeated failed attempts to assuage his combatants, the embattled figure steps down from his post to avoid further distraction or pain.

Last year it involved a controversy concerning Michael Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27 in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, a book defending the bodily resurrection (and the irony of this context should not be overlooked).

Most recently, one thinks of the firing of Anthony Le Donne by Lincoln Christian University because of his work in the Gospels (Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?). Many will know of similar examples with lower profiles, battles fought locally and resolved quietly. One recent high profile case, among others, was Bruce Waltke’s resignation from Reformed Theological Seminary following his statements in a BioLogos video “Why Must the Church Come to Accept Evolution?”

I am a grateful son of North American evangelicalism. I spent the summers of my undergraduate days working at Christian camps and in evangelistic ministry in Glacier National Park, completed a two-year internship program at Bethlehem Baptist Church under John Piper and Tom Steller. I earned two Masters degrees, in Biblical Exegesis and Historical and Systematic Theology, at Wheaton College. At the recommendation of my professors, I traveled to the UK for doctoral studies in New Testament, where I now live and work with my family.

Along with many of my young evangelical colleagues, I look with a mixture of sadness and perplexity on these intramural squabbles, and wonder what it signals for the future of North American evangelicalism, the future of our maternal home.

It’s not just that we’re perplexed at the visceral reactions to what seem to be relatively benign positions on critical issues in the interpretation of Scripture, though of course there’s no shortage of befuddlement on that front.  Many of us believe that one can be both critical and evangelical in one’s interpretation of the Bible.

Of course not all will share these critical views, but so what causes more consternation, and in fact, sadness, is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way in which those who hold divergent positions are pushed outside the evangelical tent by the eager theological bouncers at the door.

Evangelicals have a penchant for policing their borders that can be downright shocking in its brutality. Such parsimoniousness is the luxury of an establishment that is quickly fading in the West as we find ourselves at the dawn of a fully post-Christian age.

But more than this, the very thirst for control expressed in this theological McCarthyism is undermined by the theology of the cross these evangelicals hope to safeguard.

A God who gives himself in crucifixion to his people, who dies at the hands of the powerful in a moment of horrendous self-dispossession, can hardly be made to fight the petty squabbles of the institutionally powerful.

Moreover, the specter of anti-intellectualism (which has been haunting evangelicalism from its youth) rises in the doublespeak that says, “We are happy for you to use the best tools and methods available, as long as your conclusions agree with our own.”

As Plato’s Glaucon (mutatis mutandis) might have suggested, some apparently think it best to have the reputation of engaging in intellectual inquiry while actually knowing the answers in advance. But this sleight of hand can only tarnish the integrity of Christian witness in a world of public scrutiny.

With the storm of so many public controversies still rumbling, many of my generation of younger evangelicals think with trepidation about joining the evangelical institutions that sent us out.

The principled commitment to exegetical rigor that we learned from our Evangelical mentors and professors has ultimately led us to conclusions some of those same professors would dispute: a number of us find it untenable to subscribe to a historical Adam, or to affirm the theological usefulness of inerrancy, or to deny the presence of pseudonymity in Scripture.

Having been inspired, as many of us were, by Mark Noll’s incisive diagnosis of lackluster evangelical academia, we have taken the education and the opportunities given to us by our evangelical family and done our best to grapple with all the complexities of Scripture, seeking to do full justice to their historical situatedness while not losing sight of their divine perfection. Now we long to share our work without fear of the witch-hunt.

We dream of working at evangelical institutions without signing doctrinal statements with fingers crossed and one eye closed. In short, we warmly embrace the full authority of Scripture and historic Christian orthodoxy, and want to debate the critical details beneath the banner of over-arching agreement on what is most important.

To our evangelical mentors we would say: You taught us that being evangelical does not require us to sacrifice our intellect on the altar of received opinion. You taught us to be restless in our pursuit of truth, reformed and ever reforming. You taught us to use the best critical tools on the trail of the clearest understanding of the text.

Now we are asking you, not to agree with all of our critical conclusions, but to hear us as sisters and brothers in an evangelical family.

Someone has rightly remarked that each generation needs to write its own books. We do not proclaim, in patricidal fashion: let the old men step aside. We do ask you to hear us without reactionary judgment.

Does not the process of passing on our evangelical heritage mean that each generation needs to release the next to its freedom? With accountability, yes, but the accountability of reasoned dialogue and charitable hearing, rather than public scourging.

Dr. David Lincicum

So to our evangelical forebears in the halls of power in North America, as young evangelicals who strive to practice a believing criticism, we ask: Will you hear us? Will you receive us? As Paul might say: ‘Open wide your hearts to us.’ Welcoming the other is, after all, as much a Christian practice as defending the truth.

 

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