Baker Academic

Was Rudolf Bultmann's impact on biblical studies generally positive or generally negative?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Critical Scholarship and Theological Institutions--In Defense of Anthony Le Donne and Christopher Rollston - Chris Keith


Forgive me this long post.  It’s hard to keep up with Anthony’s rate of twenty posts per day, so I’m going to try and catch up all in one. 

I am supposed to write a wrap-up blog on the Jesus Conference in Dayton surrounding Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.  Something else has stolen my attention, though; namely, the crisis of critical scholarship in theological institutions in American Christianity and especially institutions associated with the Stone-Campbell church tradition, wherein I was raised, educated, ordained, and, until recently, employed.  To borrow the wording of Mark Noll’s Introduction in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I write this post as a wounded lover of this church tradition.  I used to have no problem identifying with the tradition as such.  Yes, some of the fundamentalist factions within the tradition could be embarrassing now and again, but it’s my heritage and there were always scholars like Everett Ferguson to whom I could point as serious academics.  These recent events, however, have moved me to a position of being just embarrassed.  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed to answer when people ask me what church tradition I’m associated with.

...more...


At the conference, I asked a panel what the role of historical Jesus studies was in theological education.  It came across, I think, like I was asking them to speak to spiritual or faith formation.  I wasn’t actually.  I was trying to offer them an opportunity to weigh in on what happened to my colleague and friend, and co-founder of this blog, Anthony Le Donne, who was presiding over the panel (and in no way would have wanted to be the center of attention, which is why I was trying to do this coyly).  Anthony, as many readers of this blog will know, was unexpectedly dismissed from Lincoln Christian University, where I too was employed at the time and had served for four years. 

The Le Donne Affair at Lincoln Christian University

The essential problem at LCU was over Anthony’s popular level book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?  It’s a fantastic book that has justly been praised.  The problem was that Anthony does several things in there that, from one perspective, seem too friendly to liberal approaches to the biblical texts.  For example, he says he reads the fall of Jericho as a legend; technically a genre statement, but some of the fundamentalists on campus and around campus didn’t like it.  He also talked about demonic activity and how it often fails to square with a modern worldview, but that ancients had no problem believing in such things; technically cultural criticism, but some of the fundamentalists on campus and around campus didn’t like it.  He also praised Rudolf Bultmann; technically one hundred percent correct because Bultmann was a genius and the greatest NT scholar of the twentieth century, but some of the fundamentalists on campus and around campus didn’t like it.  They wanted him to bash Bultmann, wanted him to self-identify as a Christian, etc., and so were upset as much with what he didn’t do as what he did.  From the time that the book was published until the time that Anthony was dismissed, the administration and other senior faculty members continued to affirm that nothing in Anthony’s book was outside orthodox Christianity or the faith statement of the institution.  Let me say that again—no one in a decision-making position believed Anthony or his writings failed to meet the faith statement of the institution or orthodox Christianity.  The problem was people (who appeared to be) not in a decision-making position who were on campus, in the community, and in the supporting churches.  They eventually created enough of a ruckus that Anthony was dismissed in an attempt to calm them down. 

My deep shame at the actions of the institution, sense that this was a dangerous precedent and I’d be next, along with the exciting opportunity to join the faculty of St Mary’s University College in London, led to my departure.  It is a shame, a true shame, because there are many fine people at Lincoln Christian University. 

The Rollston Affair at Emmanuel Christian Seminary

More recently, another school in this church tradition has been the center of controversy, as the news of Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s disciplinary actions toward tenured professor Christopher Rollston has gone public.  Rollston is a very close friend of mine, and I have always had great respect for Emmanuel’s other faculty as well.  I even delivered the Frederick D. Kershner Lectures in NT there in 2011.  Despite this familiarity, I do not know the ins and outs of the Emmanuel situation and so will not try to speak to its intricacies.  I think it’s healthy for all of us to acknowledge that we do not know what’s going on behind closed doors unless we’re in the room. 

That being said, a fury has been unleashed on the Bible and Interpretation site.  Thomas Verenna wrote an essay on the Lincoln Affair and the Emmanuel Affair and Paul Blowers, a church historian at Emmanuel, responded in defense of Emmanuel.  (Jim West has also now weighed in.)  The comments are where the action is.  It’s heated, and what’s immediately clear is that a major factor in Rollston’s situation is his Huffington Post essay on the marginalization of women in the Bible.  According to Blowers, part of the problem is that Rollston did not talk about Jesus’ positive interactions with women and did not speak more broadly about the Bible’s positive portrayal of women. 

Now, of course, theological institutions in my mind have not only the legal right but the responsibility to protect their borders.  The problem, though, is that I can’t find anything in the essay that is at variance with a confessional perspective.  It’s an astute, well-written, piece on an important issue.  I also think that the charge of not representing the broader portrait of women in the Bible is a red herring.  Rollston wasn’t trying to write an essay on the Bible’s complete portrait of women; he wrote an essay specifically on the texts that present a biblical value that we (as the title of his essay identifies) don’t like to discuss.  The texts that are relevant are defined by the topic—marginalization of women. 

Le Donne and Rollston Commonalities

Blowers has insisted that the Le Donne and Rollston affairs are not the same thing.  There are, however, some overlapping issues that are significant.  First, at core is not necessarily what the authors said but what they left unsaid.  Some members of the constituency did not like the impression that what was unsaid could give of the institution to outsiders, which in their mind is negative.  (I would demur here, arguing that both authors gave the institutions a hearing in contexts where they are not often heard, and represented them well.)  Second, and related, we have here in the crossfires the expectation of what people who work at X school should be doing, an expectation defined by people who are not doing the work and are not usually in that particular field.  This means that scholars at institutions of theological education have to answer not for what they wrote but for what others (who may or may not have the expertise to question them) think they should write as well as others’ (mis)interpretations of what has been written.  Being accountable for what you write is one thing; being responsible for other people’s (mis)interpretations of it is another.  Third, the issue of tenure is at stake.  When I was first hired at Lincoln Christian University I begged for the installation of tenure.  I was told by the (then) Dean of the undergrad, “Are you concerned?  It’s not an issue of job security.”  I didn’t want to annoy the person who just hired me, but I thought, “Yes, I am; and yes, it is.”  That turned out precisely to be the case.  In Rollston’s case, Bob Cargill has consistently brought up the issue that Emmanuel is acting against a tenured person, and if that’s the case, what is tenure?  It’s no surprise that the Kentucky courts have recently questioned whether seminaries can even have tenure.

Let me finish with two general thoughts about these matters.

First, we look like idiots, people.  I have often conceded to outside observers that this particular church tradition may look a little anti-intellectual because it historically has been, in fact, anti-intellectual.  This goes back at least to the Second Great Awakening and probably before.  But, I’ve always also pointed to important scholars in the tradition who are functioning at the highest critical level as exceptions.  When schools associated with the tradition are firing or disciplining people over these types of publications, however (and again I acknowledge that I don’t know everything about the Rollston affair, but the Huff Post article seems certainly to be part of it), I don’t know that it can or should be defended.  Let me take that back; I do know.  It can’t and shouldn’t.  The internet circus that has resulted in both instances (and ironically to which I’m actively contributing now) is just as embarrassing.

Second, is there a crisis in E/evangelical Christianity on par with the Modernist/Fundamentalist Debates?  At first, I thought these were isolated incidents.  But then I started thinking about Gundry and Pinnock and the nonsense of ETS, the famous Peter Enns affair at WTS, these two incidences and several others.  I, in fact, just this weekend heard of a rising NT star at a theological school in Ohio being dismissed unjustifiably.  Is E/evangelical Christianity tearing apart at the seams over critical thought again?  Oh my goodness; this can’t be happening.  We know this history.  Why is it doomed to repeat?  I thought it worked the other way around.  I can’t help feeling like all this gives up the hard ground that people like F. F. Bruce or Joel Green worked over a career to establish—that it was possible to be a churchman and a scholar. 

And this raises the really important issue that brings us back to my question about the role of historical Jesus studies, or critical scholarship more generally, in theological education.  It was actually a question about the role of theological perspectives in critical scholarship.  Are we really in a place where institutions of theological education bow out of the critical discussion by terminating those participating in it, criticizing them, or perhaps failing to hire those capable of participating in it for fear of a constituency?  Isn’t the discussion important enough that theological institutions—whose very existence concerns precisely discussions such as “Who is Jesus?” or “What is the Bible and what does it mean?”—should be an important voice in it?

15 comments:

  1. Chris - Thanks for these reflections. You've echoed a lot of my own thoughts on the issue, as I also have come from a similar background. I don't have any good answers, other than simply waiting for the tides to change within these types of institutions. Change will come, but how many more decades it will take is open for discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Chris. Point of correction/clarification: Dr. Rollston has not been officially dismissed as of yet.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Tim, and thank for the clarification, Thom. I've amended the post to reflect this point. I assumed erroneously from the Cargill/Blowers exchange that some form of action had already taken place.

    ReplyDelete
  4. oh, rest assured, "some form of action had already taken place." but, to be technical, dr. rollston is still on payroll and teaching as of today.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Chris, thanks for this lucid, well-written post. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment. Further, having been raised, trained, and ordained in the evangelical tradition (and having left for greener theological pastures), I find that I am often embarrassed of the anti-intellectualism that pervades the realm in which I still have many friends and family. Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Excellent post, Chris. Well said.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Are you saying that Anthony Le Donne declined to identify himself as "a Christian"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Peter, no, that's not what I'm saying. At LCU, people must affirm the faith statement of the institution, and Anthony always did that. He publicly and privately identified himself as a believer. My point was that angry readers of his book were upset that he did not say in the book that he was a Christian.

      Delete
  8. The cases are different. Rollston's essay certainly sounds like an attack on the Bible as a moral authority. I don't know if that is what was intended, but it's the effect. And journalism is different from scholarly writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fernando, thanks for this. I don't think you could describe Rollston's article as "journalism," though. Also, my point wasn't that there are no differences, but that there are important similarities.

      Delete
  9. The problem isn't critical scholarship per se but evangelicalism's ongoing commitment to biblicism, which isn't compatible with historical-critical work on the biblical texts.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I read the entire article and thought it pretty innocuous, descriptively highlighting and confronting a number of texts that most modern readers would find difficult. I was about to conclude that this is yet another scandalously unreasonable conservative storm in a teacup, when I the following sentence in the final paragraph lodged in my gullet: "After all, to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women." The writer assumes that this would naturally follow for any reasonable hermeneutic.

    Precisely that, however, may be rather less obvious to institutional colleagues and donors training future ministers "to understand the Christian faith as it has been revealed in Scripture" (website). So I wonder if the concern has to do with the perceived public subversion of core corporate identity. That of course could land you in hot water in other lines of business too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, his view is that we, as Christians and as humans, should embrace the minority view of women in the Bible, which is to embrace liberation. Dominant/minority is value-neutral description. Some feminist scholars talk about a "remnant theology," in which the minority stands in judgment against the majority and sheds light on the dominant ideology. There is nothing in this at odds with Emmanuel's view of scripture. I was taught this sort of thing by numerous professors at Emmanuel, Rollston probably the least radical of them!

      Delete


  11. Christopher Rollstons's posts on Facebook have been a scholarly source of information on all types of work in the field of the ancient Near East, the Bible, excavations, etc. Why is a Christian Seminary so afraid of one article that appeared in the Huffington Post--the Seminary should be proud of Christopher Rollston instead of letting one man start an insanity.

    ReplyDelete

Note: all comments are moderated by an anonymous third party.