Friday, April 20, 2007

What Church of Christ Scholarship Should Be

The most recent issue of Restoration Quarterly (Vol. 49, No. 1) arrived several weeks ago. For nearly 50 years now, RQ has been the scholarly publication on Bible, theology, church history, etc. that's produced by folks from the Churches of Christ. This latest issue contains several fine pieces, including a short article by James W. Thompson entitled, "What Is Church of Christ Scholarship?"

Thompson begins by noting that within the last 50 years scholarship within Churches of Christ has come into its own. He doesn't name names. But if he did, he could mention several fine scholars from Churches of Christ who have made their mark in their chosen fields of study. Thompson himself has made significant contributions in the area of New Testament. But that's not what he wants to focus on.

Although he doesn't say it in these words, the question behind his article is, "Now what?" Our people have earned the doctorate at schools like Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. And they've gone on to teach and to write well. But one of the unintended consequences has been that such achievement has driven these scholars into a sort of no-man's land. Why? Thompson gives four reasons.

For one thing, such work takes place in the shadow of the Enlightenment, whose claim to objectivity, says Thompson, "provided the basis for all confessional traditions to find a shared lingua franca for scholarship" and "placed all traditional interpretations under examination" (p. 34).

In keeping with the rules of the game, the more scholarly one became, the less one could detect the Church-of-Christ-ness of the scholar. And of course, not just our people, but all scholars in the broad academic tradition have played by the same rules. This is how and why a graduate school sponsored by Churches of Christ might require students to read Brevard Childs (even though he's Presbyterian), Luke Johnson (even though he's Roman Catholic) or Gordon Fee (even though he's Pentecostal). It's also why seminary students might read and be taught by Abraham Malherbe (even though he's from the Churches of Christ).

A second problem for churchly scholars, says Thompson, is that they begin to see the doctrinal inconsistencies in their group of origin.

Third, they see the truth in those other religious traditions that have emphasized ideas that, for us, have been neglected if they were noticed at all. The Holy Spirit has a wide and wonderful history.

Fourth, if scholars from the Churches of Christ decided that their work was to be boldly confessional (that is, emphasizing our traditional strengths) what would they confess? The doctrinal consensus that used to characterize the Churches of Christ is eroding. As Thompson puts it, scholars in the Church of Christ "face the challenge of knowing what the tradition is" (p. 35).

One of my teachers at Freed-Hardeman used to say, "I've been asked a few times what the Church of Christ teaches about divorce and re-marriage. My answer is, 'Everything!' " This reflects, of course, the practice of congregational autonomy. But if the Churches of Christ represent a coherent tradition, the question is, What are its hallmarks, the positives that should be accentuated?

I'd like to unpack and comment on Thompson's article some more. He's just getting started. But I'll stop here and ask you:

1. Is his diagnosis, as I've described it here, on target?

2. Most of the people reading this blog are not Ph.D. scholars among the Churches of Christ. However, in what ways does academic engagement by people in Churches of Christ create tension at the congregational level? For example, if the preacher is feeding on first-class scholarship written by whosoever will, does that tend to create wider distances between the pulpit and the pew? If so, is that a necessary consequence?

3. Going back to Thompson's fourth idea--that Church of Christ scholars would have a hard time knowing what their tradition was--What would you place on a list of doctrines and themes that scholars from Churches of Christ might explore and present to the larger Christian world?


Matt said...

I would love your take on this post by James Wiser, a Harding grad who now works in the library at Pepperdine -

Well, I am certainly not a scholar but I have been in the pews as someone who hasn't read all those names and now in ministry as someone who has. Maybe that qualifies me for something.

1 - Increase in scholarship = decrease in "church-of-Christ-ness". In theory this should not be true because we are the people of the book and the more you read and study it the more on target, theoretically, you should be than someone who has not. In reality, it is probably true. It seems like the more you read diverse opinions the more you realize that some of the things you learned were so solid when you were younger have some holes in it that were never mentioned. That is something I now have to deal with as a Bible class teacher and occassional preacher - how much to bring up and how much to leave alone. Some people are not ready to hear some things and you have to be respectful of that.

2 - That is probably true regardless of religious group.

3 - because of the increase in scholarship and technology we are having an increased dialogue between groups. That is a good thing. Just like with #2, we are getting outside of our bubbles and being exposed to things that will only make us stronger as we inform ourselves about God and the church.

4 - This one is going to get harder and harder to define. I think this is going to get more and more basic as we fall back on what we are certain about in scripture and emphasize less the things that cause so much division that have been strong tenets of the church in past generations. The problem is we are becoming less certain of things that used to be held so strongly.

Q1 - On target? For the most part. I wonder what is going to happen to our church schools that have required professors hold to certain doctrines or at least teach them. That is going to get harder and harder to do. Yet, if we lose that we may lose some of our distinctiveness. On the other hand, it seems like Christ calls us to be distinctive to the world, not to each other. The hard part with that is there are certain things we should hold on to (baptism, etc).

Q2 - The tension will be more with the teacher than the congregation as they find ways to bring up things in a non-explosive way. It is especially hard with the older members. It is inevitable that there will be some distance between the pulpit. We need to diminish it but it will be there for most people in the pew.

I will shut up now

Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the feedback, finding out what things look like from your viewpoint.

A follow-up thought on scholarship and church work:

1. As you're pointing out, not all doctrines were created equal. When asked to prioritize the commandments, Jesus did it. Preachers and teachers should likewise identify what's major and what's minor. I've had a good relationship with all sorts of believers who disagreed with me; we agreed that the other person could be wrong and still be okay.

2. It really upsets people if the speaker (right or wrong) tramples on the tradition from the pulpit. That's experience talkin' there. If it's worthwhile to examine and correct a teaching, better to do it in a class setting where people have the opportunity to raise their hands and say, "I don't think I agree with you, preacher." We don't typically do that during sermons.

preacherman said...


Many people especaially younger generations don't know much about Church of Christ history, about Stone, Campbell, Freed, and Harding, etc. Many don't understand why we have held on to some of the "patterns" or traditions of the past. We just do becuause it has always been done. Alot of Church don't dare ask questions because they are afraid of the answers. Ignorance is bliss. Scholorship has been in opinion I believe. Scholarship has been based on the quote, "Speak Where The Bible Speaks And Be Silent Where The Bible Is Silent." And so we think a person who quotes that is scholarly in the "brotherhood." Frank, do you see another slit in the future of those who don't see the traditions of the church of Christ as form? Or do we need to let the older generations know that the church will look different by those who are "Scholarly within the brotherhood" taking a lead of change in form.
I think true Church of Christ Scholarship should be Biblical then you get into other problems of exegesis and translation.

Royce Ogle said...

It strikes me as odd that what our coC people defend most stridently for the most part are not considered to be "fundamentals" of the historic Christian faith. When was the last time you heard a fuss about the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

My observation is that two subjects dominate the discourse, a cappella vs instruments, and water baptism for the remission of sin.

Perhaps the weakest position one could possibly take would be to attempt to prove from the Bible that a cappella singing is all that is biblical, or "authorized" as many like to say it. (By the way, I love a cappella singing and want to keep that tradition.) It is sad that such disunity has been caused around a simple issue.

As for the baptism distinctive of restoration churches I suggest the following.

1. Baptism for the remission of sins is not the gospel, it is one response to the gospel.

2. Repentance and faith, two admitted so called "steps" to salvation are mentioned many, many more times than water baptism in the Bible.

Why not emphasise what the Bible does? The Bible message of 1st Century believers was that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead.

Those who hear that message must respond to it by repentence (a change of the mind) and faith (not an acidemic belief, but a dependent trust). Only then do they qualify for baptism.

When we define who we are and what others are not by one or two issues, that leaves us in a position where we must conclude that we are the only Christians and everyone not exactly like us is not. That is a very unfortunate ending. And is a position not held by the Campbells, Stone, and other Restoration leaders.

Grace to you,
Royce Ogle

Messianic Gentile said...

For the most part, I echo Matt here. I like his reaction and mine is predominantly similar. So I will not rehash his.

Where I offer something new or different is this:

I think that the enlightenment language that gave scholarship from different strands of Christendom a common language with which to build (dare I say a tower?), is now also coming under attack from the postmodern world view. And I think the modern scholars tended to be liberal (I mean liberal in the scholarly sense here -not the Church of Christ sense). And I think that was not such a good thing.

I read after R. Horsley and W. Wink a bit and find liberal strands all through these guys. Not on the order of the Jesus Seminar, to be sure, but liberal all the same. And that is difficult for me as a conservative believer. And yet, these guys offer things of tremendous value to my understanding of life, the world and Jesus!

The Modern tower of Babel is coming down (brass heaven as Leonard Allen terms it), and a new language must take the place of the myriad offered by the postmodern crowd. This is partly why I like N. T. Wright soooooo much. He is giving new sense to what it means to be "biblical" and conservative. I am thrilled to see his perspective either taking the scholarly world by storm, or at least being dealt with with the seriousness it deserves. And I think he is opening up a new language that is both unmodern and past postmodern. A deconstructionism that goes on through deconstruction to a new thing. And he is profoundly biblical every step of the way.

The next thing I offer is:

I think the pulpit and in house scholars need to make these new understandings accessible the best we can to the laity. Technically, I am laity too. I have some training, some grad school even, but I have not acheieved scholar status. I am young too, and there are advantages in that for me as well, but basically, if I can come to terms with these things, so can others. And besides, when we are honest, really really honest about how we arrive at our opinions and beliefs as laity, we must confess that the vast majority of our opinions and beliefs are the product of how we were shepherded and what we FEEL about things rather than strict rational understanding.

I have been around the blog-o-sphere enough to see this literally all over every CoC blog with very VERY few exceptions. and yes, I feel a bit of that "no mans land" the article talks about. And we cannot expect people to jump ship from their traditional beliefs and opinions automatically, not even if they are arrived at rationally. The fact that so much is arrived at through more visceral means only complicates the whole process. And when the prevailing mood finally takes on the sense of newness that scholarship has to offer, it will again be the result of shepherding and "FEELING" for the most part - I suspect. And that will take time.

But it must be done. And people are sheep - no new concept for Bible readers. And some sheep will be stubborn, also no new concept. Many will stray. But the shepherd must lead them where the sheep are supposed to go -to God. And that will likely mean cutting some losses along the way.


I say, I don't care much about matters of "distinctiveness" except where that is characterized by LOVE. If the whole CoC heritage were swallowed up in a new thing and forgotten altogether, that might be a source of angst for the new bread of church historians to come up in the last generation, but I do not see it as a problem for God or the Church at large.

I would hope we can continue to learn from our past, as that is important, but I see no reason for our past to define us simply because it is OUR past. (I fear I sound hostile to chruch history, I am not).

Love is our true distinctive. Even if it kills us, it is to be our character and demonstrates who really is Jesus disciples.

Great post. Very engaging stuff. Thanks.

Jesus is Lord!