The Boundaries of ETS and the Task of Christian Scholarship

As this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) approaches, I want to return to an open letter to the members of ETS written by Stanley Gundry. In this letter, he expressed concern about the ramifications of a recent resolution affirming traditional marriage and the sexual binary of men and women. Commenting on the dangers he sees in defining ETS’s boundaries beyond its current parameters (affirmation of the Trinity and the Bible’s inerrancy), Gundry asks:

What better forum is there for collegial discussion and debate of complementarianism and egalitarianism, open theism and classical theism and all points in between, eschatology, the “new perspective” on Paul, and yes, even the question of whether same-sex “marriages” can be defended biblically, than a forum where we have agreed to appeal to the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the Bible, God’s Word written?

Gundry raises a question that will likely remain ongoing in Christian academia: What are acceptable boundaries for Christian academic societies? Some say ETS is already too narrow, while others say groups like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are too inclusive. I am not sure what the answer is, because all answers are somewhat subjective. But it leads to a broader question worth commenting on here: How should Christian scholars approach the task of biblical-theological inquiry?

Again, I am not making assertions one way or another about a specific society’s guardrails—after all, I am just a lowly student member of the ETS and SBL. Further, this is not an affirmation or denial of the resolution Gundry is addressing. However, we can learn a few things from the early Christians’ attempts at theological purity and from our own age of theological novelty. After a brief sketch there, I will offer some suggestions and reflections that I am chewing on as I seek my own career in Christian scholarship.

Early Christianity and Heresy

In his punchy little book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath considers a number of reasons why heresies popped up in the first centuries of Christianity. One interesting reason he points out was the desire or even pressure for theologians to make Christianity appear respectable among the non-Christian thinkers of the day. He notes,

As Christianity became more deeply embedded in the late classical culture, it was subjected to increased criticism by its intellectual and cultural opponents. [Leading critics such as Celsus and Galen of Pergamum] argued that its leading doctrines could not be taken seriously by cultured people. (86)

McGrath goes on to use Arius as an example. “Arius offered an understanding of the relationship between God and creation that was regarded as philosophically rigorous by the standards of the time,” but that his heresy ultimately “introduced radical inconsistency into the Christian understanding of its core identity.” Arius offered an intellectually and culturally acceptable proposal, but orthodoxy and orthopraxy won out in the end. “The vision of faith offered by Arianism was quite different from that offered by orthodox writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria.”

While heresy is heresy for a reason, it is often assumed that heretics were bent on destroying the Church. But as McGrath notes throughout, it seems that heretics were more often confessing Christians whose innovations were out of step with the core orthodoxy passed down from the apostolic period. Some heretics such as Arius or Marcion, for example, thought they were purifying Christian doctrine, not destroying it. The question is not about intention, though, so much as it is about doctrinal integrity.

Christian academia contains a hodgepodge of opposing views still today. There are well-meaning Christian scholars who seek to “recover” or “rediscover” certain aspects of Christian belief—for better or worse. Sometimes Christian scholars offer helpful considerations that cannot be ignored even in disagreement (e.g., the New Perspective on Paul), and sometimes they offer revisionist accounts that do not square with historic Christianity (e.g., approval of same-sex sexual practice). Other times, scholars who do not even claim to be Christians dedicate their work to undermining or discrediting Christian beliefs (e.g., Bart Ehrman). In other words, Christian scholarship (or scholarship about Christianity) comes in many forms and with mixed results. But we have to be careful to distinguish between the Arius, the Athanasius, and even the Celsus among us.

The Task of Christian Scholarship

I recently signed a contract with B&H Academic to write a book on the Trinity in the Book of Revelation (based on my PhD thesis), and the pull toward trying to be novel or unique is already threatening to take me off balance. In Christian scholarship, the idol of novelty is a real struggle. We are blinded by our own ambitions or by the expectations of our peers. We know “nothing is new under the sun,” but we do not always want to believe it.Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

1. Be faithful to God’s Word.

If only this were obvious. Christian scholars have a tendency, if we are not careful, to dance around biblical texts without actually dealing with them. Thousands upon thousands of words will be presented at Christian academic societies this year, with biblical texts only making brief appearances in between parentheses. I have sat in a few presentations where I have thought, “This passage either disagrees with him, or he needs to deal with it directly.” I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

2. Do fair, rigorous, and honest research.

This point is two-fold.

First, there is nothing worse than a scholar who blindly and unfairly derides positions in opposition to his or her own. I recently saw a Reformed scholar rail against the New Perspective on Paul with platitudes and overstatements, but without truly engaging the best arguments that school of thought has to offer. If our viewpoint makes the best conclusion of the biblical data, it can stand on its own and it can stand against its best challengers. Christian scholarship should exhibit rigorous considerations of varying viewpoints with no stone unturned, allowing the rigor of our work to make the case.

Second, Christians should be leaders in academic integrity. Expanding a bit on the previous paragraph, we should be fair to other viewpoints simply for the sake of being fair. It is not morally upright to trash an opposing view, even if you are right about its merits. Also, plagiarism is on everyone’s radar once again. This is not surprising—again, the pressure to produce something “new” is real. But Christian scholars especially should “do all things for God’s glory” (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the process by which they conduct and explain their research. We do not need to play dirty or cut corners; we have all we need in God’s Word through God’s Spirit to make compelling truth claims.

Scholarship that Is Always Christian

Now, back to Gundry’s point. On the one hand, he is right that Christians can pursue the truth together. We should not be afraid of dissension or critique, and we should keep the tent broad as we seek to develop doctrine in our own age. I cannot agree more with Gundry here.But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society is always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society isn’t always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

In any event, let us strive not to get too cute with our research, lest we become functional Arians or worse. Orthodoxy does not automatically equal empty-headedness. Heretics are often well-meaning people with big brains, but their doctrinal innovations are weeds in the otherwise beautiful garden of orthodoxy. Each one of us, in the end, is capable of giving into the pressure of unnecessary innovation or compromise. The desire to be accepted and respected by our peers looms over us. It is tempting to fudge a little or give a little rather than be labeled a fundamentalist or worse. But we can and must do better.

May our Christian scholarship go the way of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).

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