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?