We must stop firing the Christian scholars and academics

Dr. Christopher M. Hays is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Keble College Oxford. [1]  He has a number of publications and is soon to be releasing a book entitled Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism [2] (co-edited with Christopher B. Ansberry [3]) I emailed Dr. Hays regarding his motivation for writing the book and challenges he faced and he has very kindly given permission for me to post his reply.

 

I suppose you could say that the book was conceived during the first year of my doctorate (that year was spent at St Andrews), insofar as it’s the book that I wish I could have read then. I grew up in a conservative evangelical environment, for which I am deeply grateful (let me hasten to add), and I studied at Wheaton College in Illinois (USA). It was a rich and wonderful place in countless ways, gave me a stellar education (in most ways), and when I left for my doctorate with three degrees under my belt (Ancient Languages, Biblical Exegesis, Theological Studies), I felt really prepared.

Then I arrived in the UK to do a doctorate in New Testament studies, and I realized that I hadn’t really understood what New Testament studies (as a historical-critical discipline engaged with questions of the ‘slippage’ between the text and the history behind it) IS. In fact, I didn’t even know how to think about such slippage, how to process it theologically, whether or not the Christian faith could handle the suppositions and out-workings of criticism. And I didn’t find any work that took a broad look at the historical-critical discipline and then helped me think about what it meant for my faith. There were lots of books on historical criticism in its own right, and lots of books by burned ex-fundamentalists, and lots of defenses/attacks of historical criticism as a discipline, but nothing to help me think theologically and confessionally about what it meant for me as a Christian. Over the subsequent years I found some wonderful, high-level thinkers who offered rich insights on the theological ramifications of individual critical issues (Brevard Childs, Paul Minear, NT Wright), but I couldn’t find anyone who looked across the whole range of critical issues and reflected theologically, let alone anyone who did so at a level accessible to students.

So, during the final year of my doctorate (spent in Bonn, Germany), I conceived Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism…I had ideas about a smattering of critical topics, but knew I couldn’t write the whole thing myself, so I recruited friends from Oxford and St Andrews (and a couple from Wheaton) to help me.

There were three major challenges with this book. The first had to do with my personal disposition. When I started writing the book, I was angry, angry at an evangelicalism that (I felt) had sold me a reductionist bill of goods; I felt that that fundamentalism had imperilled my faith by only introducing me to a critical straw man, and by telling me that if criticism were true, then my faith would fall apart. So the book started out with a scathing, perhaps figuratively ‘patricidal’ tone. But after I while I realized that precisely this sort of hostile tone was creating a schism in the evangelical community, as more and more evangelicals were getting burned and turning bitter voices into hostile articles and blogs. In this sort of vengeful response, the conservatives were simply being pushed further away from a sober (and I trust more profitable) view of historical-critical engagement with Scripture. So I had to go through a process of repentance for my own anger, insecurity, and wrath. Then I rewrote everything I had done, from a perspective of fraternity and charity (I hope), and I think the book is a great deal better for it.

My second big challenge was wrestling through whether or not I was actually abandoning or damaging the faith by doing this book. In particular, when I was coming to realize I no longer believed in inerrancy or a historical Adam (a shibboleth in US evangelicalism), I really wondered if this was how apostasy began. (I hasten to add that my contributors to the book land on both sides of those issues…we want to book to represent a new generation of evangelical scholarship, not just the left wing of the new generation!) I remember abandoning my office in Bonn on more than one occasion to go kneel in the basilica and beg for God to tell me if I was erring. In the end, I feel peaceful confidence that God had guided me into more even-handed truth…but there were some genuinely frightening moments for me.

Finally, I have struggled with the controversial entailments of this book. Without going into undue detail, the hot nature of the topic created some serious challenges in finding an evangelical publisher, in raising funds for missions (I’m heading to Latin America to work as a missionary scholar in a seminary in Buenos Aires), and in securing employment in the meantime. I worry that I am creating trouble for my collaborators, that they will suffer for contributing to this book. But in the final analysis the controversy shows, I think, that these book really needs to happen, because we’ve got to stop firing critical Christian scholars from their evangelical institutions, and we’ve got to stop telling keen and curious students that critical scholarship is simply a fad or a pagan self-delusion…because when the bright and inquiring student realizes that the critical scholars have a point, they wonder if their own faith was a sham.

 

On a personal note, Dr. Hays concerns are not the work of paranoia. Professor Larry Hurtado has blogged on the spate of scholars being fired or forced to resign because of publications they’ve written.[4]  Dr. Peter Enns resigned from his post at Westminster Theological Seminary after his book Inspiration and Incarnation was deemed to have been incompatible with their confession of faith. [5]  Many are now questioning whether Evangelical colleges and seminaries can truly be academic institutions. [6]  Whilst I have not attended such institutions, during my journey with Christ I have asked a lot of questions and often hit brick walls of people criticizing me for asking such questions and accusations of demeaning and devaluing scripture.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Hays for his openness and honesty, offer my congratulations on the publication of his book and encouragement to keep asking the questions and investigating the issues that are affecting many today.

 

References:

 

[1] http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/academics/about/dr-christopher-hay

[2] http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0281067325/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk

[3] http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/A/Christopher-Ansberry

[4] http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/academic-injustice-and-shameful-cowardice/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Enns#Controversy

[6] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/01/can-evangelical-colleges-and-seminaries-be-truly-academic-institutions/

 

First published February 12th 2013

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s