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The sad cycle of Evangelical Biblical scholarship

The sad cycle of Evangelical Biblical scholarship

About six weeks ago, Peter Enns wrote a column for Patheos that has been pinging around the Internet ever since. In it, he laments the situation the dilemma that evangelical scholars who do their graduate work at non-evangelical institutions face when they return to evangelical schools. He wrote:

Folks, we have a real problem on our hands, and everyone has to bear some responsibility. Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world. ….

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity–which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.

This is what happens to the “best and brightest” Evangelicals.

It may be that mainline and Catholic commentators have taken note of this column because it confirms our preconceptions, so without sounding superior, might it be possible to discuss what evangelicals could learn from the mainline’s approach to the study of sacred texts and vice versa?


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Philip Wainwright

I think the evangelical denominations represented in the article and the comments there could learn a lot from the Anglican evangelical world, where the problem referred to doesn’t seem to exist. Unfortunately, the learning seems to have gone the other way: too many evangelical Anglicans have become separatists, which is how these evangelical denominations came to exist in the first place.


Jim: I am not a scholar, but please allow me my 2 cents…

Yes, there is always something that we can learn from each other. One is that change is hard. Very hard. No matter how right something is, someone is convinced it is the tool of Satan and will go to extraordinary lengths to defeat it. Be prepared to be patient with that.

Two, Scripture is not black and white, and often not factual. That does not mean it is invalid, either to those who once considered it black and white, or to the others who see the colors of the spectrum in it. Scripture is central, foundational, and sacred to Christianity.

I like what my rector says about evangelical attitudes towards scripture vs. the Anglican attitude: “we take a very old, even ancient approach to Scripture, one that predates the evangelical way by several centuries. We try to read it in the spirit in which it was written, which is often not literalist*.” “…in the spirit in which it was written…” by Paul of Thierry ( or a’ Kempis?) leaves much room for us to move about.

Kevin McGrane

*I’m paraphrasing him here; can’t remember his exact words.


I think that (capital ‘E’) “Evangelical scholarship” is rather an oxymoron. Scholarship MUST be free to find its own way—be that to Evangelicalism or Somewhere Else—or else it’s not scholarship.

JC Fisher

Ellen Lincourt

First, why can’t Mainline Protestantism be evangelical. I like to think that I’m evangelizing every time I talk about my faith.

But I get your point – the only problem with your contention is that what is being taught in these “Evanglical” schools is evanglistic. I tend to see it as conservative, and I do mean conservative in the sense that they are trying to conserve a mindset that just isn’t going to help people in this time. To keep things the same, one must resist new ideas.

Michael Russell

This is an amazing article, thank you. I helps clarify the position that Anglicanism staked out with Richard Hooker as he rejected the ultra-Presbyterian assertions that the Bible was authoritative in all things, simply and that anything not commanded by God in Scripture was sin. In Book II Hooker radically restricts the role of Scripture and then critiques those who bring Scripture into disrepute by expanding its authority.

This is of course exactly what Evangelicals did and still do, but in fairness it is the fundamentalist Evangelicals who have the loudest voice and have most seriously abused Scripture.

So for an internal discussion to begin in Evangelical circles about the reaction against those who study more broadly, the same sort of reaction that Roman Catholic scholars experience under the current Pope, is a great thing. Good on them!

Return to your roots and read Mr. Hooker.

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