Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Frank, Aubrey, Chloe, Benjamin, Abigail, Rebecca, Shane, Kaylee, Michele, last Sunday at the San Jacinto Church.

Left to right, the storage room, Michele, and Frank at Amarillo Bible Chair the day after Christmas.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Books I Read in 2009

2009 was a good reading year. Here are three of the best books I took in:

1. Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea. This is one of the funniest books ever. Shea chronicles his year-long reading of the Oxford English Dictionary, all 20 volumes, even the bibliography. Along the way, he talks about some of the more interesting words he encounters, a different section for each letter of the alphabet. It's much better than I'm making it sound here. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed. I've talked about this book here and here.

2. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, by Alistair McGrath. McGrath is one of those really dumb people. First, he earned a doctorate in the natural sciences at Oxford. After his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he decided to pursue religious studies and has since become a world-class professor of theology. In this book, though, you won't find any stuffy academic terms or specialist jargon. Just a straightforward, easy-to-read account of the events leading up to the appearance of the King James Bible, and the legacy of this most significant document in the English language. An interesting, enjoyable read. To hear more about this one, go here.

3.
There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, by Antony Flew. I didn't plan on reading this one until I was asked to do a presentation at church on "The Existence of God." Flew was a name that I remembered. Years ago, he debated the late Thomas B. Warren on this question, and I'd heard that he had since done a turn-around. So I picked up this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Among other things, Flew is a good example of how a person can make a strong case for the existence of God without preaching or even believing the good news about Jesus Christ. And, no, one doesn't necessarily lead to the other. I don't believe that the first is preparation for the second. I've made a few other comments about this book here and here.

So, what did you read this year that was especially good?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Religion Courses for Spring 2010 at Amarillo College

This is likely my last post for this year. Maybe one more on the best books I read in 2009.

Once we make it to 2010, I plan to resume the series on American Evangelicalism and Old Testament scholarship. Next up: The Boom and Bust of Biblical Archaeology. But now it's time for an announcement:

Classes for the Spring semester at Amarillo College will begin on Tuesday, January 19, 2010. This time around, I'm scheduled to teach the following courses:

The New Testament (RELG 1302), Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:00-10:15 AM.

A first-year survey course. I try to get to all 27 books of the NT. Before that, the class spends some time on units like "Why Study the New Testament?" and "The New Testament Canon." Like my Old Testament course, this one frustrates me. We're always just getting started with a book when it's time to move on. But move on we do. At the beginning of this college-teaching thing, I remembered one such O.T. survey course I took many years ago. I felt so let down when, at the end of the semester, we were about halfway through Judges! I vowed never to do something like that in a survey course. So the class stays on pace.

Life of Paul (RELG 2302), MW, 10:30-11:45 AM.

A second-year course focused on the life, letters, and legacy of Paul the Apostle. Using the two primary sources (Paul's letters and the Book of Acts) the class establishes a minimal biography. As we work our way through, we survey each letter at the point where it was most likely written. Thus, the first letter we get to is either Galatians (ala Ben Witherington) or 1 Thessalonians (ala Abe Malherbe), depending on how I'm feeling about it at the time. I usually start with Galatians. Do you think that's right? Anyway, the last letter we take up is 2nd Timothy. And, yes, I consider all thirteen letters in the Pauline corpus to be genuine, although we do give some attention to the case against Paul's authorship of the Pastoral Letters. At the end of the semester, we usually have a couple weeks to take up special themes like Paul and the Holy Spirit, high-profile women in Paul's network (a.k.a., "Women's Role in the Church"), and Pauline ethics (e.g., homosexuality).

Introduction to World Religions (PHIL 1304), MW, 1:30-2:45 PM.

I begin this course by telling my students that this is the most impossible one I teach. "Impossible" because it's just so vast. Besides, what do I really know about Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam? A lot more than I used to. But still next to nothing. Almost all of them are in the same situation, although I occasionally have, for example, an Asian student who grew up in a Buddhist family. But we begin with a strong dose or reality regarding what students should hope for the course to accomplish. If at the end of the semester they have a basic, working glossary of five or six major world religions, then it's a success. In my opinion, this is the sort of course that really should be taught to all high-school seniors. Religious literacy in the United States is astonishingly low. We really can and should do better.

Elementary Biblical Hebrew II (RELG 2312), Thurs., 7:00-9:45 PM. (Sorry, no link for the syllabus. But here's the textbook we're working through).

Following our start in August with more than 50 students, as of last week about 20 were still showing up. We'll see what the numbers are like in January. Many are called, but few are chosen. This class is one of the highlights of my week. Not only do I get to sing and read and study Hebrew, my enthusiasm never fails to make Michele roll her eyes, groan, and call me a nerd. All the better.

If you're interested in any of these courses, to register you need to follow the appropriate links at the Amarillo College website. Also, anyone is welcome to audit my classes. I don't require auditors to register. You may simply come to class. However, I would appreciate it if you would call just to let me know who you are, and that you're planning to sit in. Phone: 806-372-5747.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Blight of Anti-Supernaturalism: Christianity Today's Common Complaint

I'm now several entries into a series. These posts aim to explore a particular intersection: that place where world-class Old Testament studies meets up with American Evangelicalism. My question is, how has Evangelicalism in the U.S. reacted and responded to the larger world of biblical scholarship? I'm using Christianity Today magazine as my main source.

A common contention among the writers of CT is that objectionable theories regarding the Bible are founded upon a philosophical bias against all things supernatural. For example, in a 1959 book review, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. (pictured above) applauds E. J. Young’s booklet, Who Wrote Isaiah? for its “excellent defense of the genuineness of the entire 66 chapters of Isaiah.” The book, says Archer, “furnishes much-needed apologetic material for scholars, Bible teachers and seminarians who hold to the historic Christian faith.” Again, “Not simply as a matter of faith but of keeping true to the laws of evidence, Dr. Young most convincingly demonstrates that no other theory of authorship does justice to all of the facts.” Then, reinforcing Young’s thesis, Archer states that it is a fallacy to think “that Isaiah 40-66 could have been inspired, no matter who wrote it.” Such a view “by implication renders the New Testament untrustworthy, for John 12:41 unequivocally asserts that the same Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 6:10 also composed 53:1.” Higher critical theories positing multiple authorship and different periods of provenance in the book of Isaiah stem from infidelity. Their inconsistencies and confusion are united only in “a philosophic prejudice against the possibility of supernatural prediction of the future.” [1]

Young’s own review of 1962 books on Old Testament theology sharply criticizes several of the entries on the ground that their underlying positions fail to “do justice to the supernaturalism of the Old Testament.”[2] A reprint essay by C. S. Lewis on “Faulting the Bible Critics” asserts that scholars go wrong by their “constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur.” [3] (Evangelicals using the voice of C. S. Lewis in defense of supernaturalism may have been a little misleading, though. In another context, Lewis said that some of the early biblical stories were clearly "legendary").

In one of the few substantial biblical essays to appear within the last 30 years, Allan MacRae takes on the question of the unity of Isaiah:

After some higher critics had generally accepted the idea of “second Isaiah” on the ground that predictive prophecy was impossible, some of them continued to marvel at its great similarity of style to “first Isaiah.” One even said that this second Isaiah wrote in such a way as almost to make one think that he was actually Isaiah come back from the dead! Higher critics who have adopted a naturalist frame work on which to stretch the books of the Bible have not done well in helping us to determine the author of the biblical Book of Isaiah. The same could also be said for the Book of Daniel. Any light that higher criticism can therefore shed on the authorship of a book of the Bible, or on the circumstances of its writing, is desirable. Yet we must take great care to avoid being misled by antisupernaturalists who rule out the activity of God in directing the writers.
Later, MacRae criticizes Wellhausen’s theory of the Pentateuch because “The theory leaves no room for divine revelation.” [4]

But in at least one review, the defense of supernaturalism is viewed not so much as a badge of honor, but more as a crutch. In a 1972 book review by L. R. Dewitz, The Old Testament: Its Claims and Its Critics by O. T. Allis receives its own share of criticism. With apparent tongue in cheek, Dewitz laments the side-stepping of real problems: “For one who, like Allis, acknowledges the unique disclosure of God in the Old Testament and realizes his way of action, nearly everything falls into place. There are hardly any problems left.” Regarding the 600,000 men reportedly involved in the Exodus, the reviewer quotes Allis to the effect that “it is only when full justice is done to the supernatural in the record that [the numbers] become credible and we can accept and rejoice in them as the biblical writer would have us do.” [5]
___________________________

[1] CT, III (February 2, 1959), 35-36.

[2] CT, VII (February 1, 1963), 7.

[3] CT, XI (June 9, 1967), 8.

[4] “The Ups and Downs of Higher Criticism” CT XXIV (October 10, 1980), 34-35.

[5] CT, XVI (July 7, 1972), 28-29.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Certain Word for Successful Mission: A Sub-Plot in the Story

During its fifty-plus years, what has Christianity Today magazine said when it comes to scholarly analysis of the Bible? My current series of posts is exploring that question, with a special focus on Old Testament studies.

At this point, I want to give attention to what might be considered a tangent. This post is about one sub-plot in the story. It deals with questionable ideas and their impact on Christian mission. In the pages of Christianity Today, it is not simply the case that the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch or theories about multiple Isaiahs, are wrong simply because they fail to square with the facts, merely because they refuse to go where the evidence leads. More than that, according to CT, the confusion that the misguided theories create serves only to undermine the church’s evangelistic mission.

For example, a few months before Cyrus Gordon’s first article on pentateuchal criticism came out (see previous post), a piece by Carl Henry recalls the author’s recent speaking engagement at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Henry, pictured in this post, was CT's first editor-in-chief. As he explains, during the question-and-answer session he was asked about his views toward higher criticism and its relationship to Christian faith. “And my answer, now as then,” he wrote,

is that modern criticism has shown itself far more efficient in creating faith in the existence of manuscripts for which there is no overt evidence (J, E, P, D, Q) . . . than in sustaining the confidence of young intellectuals within the churches in the only writings that the Christian movement historically has received as a sacred trust. Modern criticism too often bestows prestige upon the critics by defaming the sacred writers. [1]

Here we get a glimpse of the evangelical emphasis on the mission of the church to instill and sustain faith rather than to merely prove that the methods and conclusions of higher criticism are incorrect. In this instance, the defense of the Bible is a means as well as an end. The end is the promotion and sustenance of genuine Christian faith.

Along the same line, a 1965 piece by Otto Helwig stands out. A missionary working in Teheran, Helwig tells of his discussions with prospective converts who assure him that another of their teachers (presumably another Christian missionary) has taught them that the Bible contains errors. Based upon his experience in attempting to convert Muslims in Iran, Helwig announces his belief that critical appraisals of the Bible are “detrimental to the goal of extending the Gospel, particularly among Muslims, who hold such a high view of the authority and infallibility of the Koran, or among Jews with their high view of the Old Testament.” Even those who teach in Middle Eastern mission schools present theories “about J, E, D, and P and different Isaiahs” which do not “directly inform a non-Christian about the Gospel.”

Helwig says that to the ears of these prospective converts, critical theories sound like “a discrediting of the Christian religion.” Thus, until a Bible teacher accepts “the Bible as truth, . . . he cannot be a fully effective witness to the saving work of Christ.” Helwig goes out of his way to leave to the side the whole question of the how much truth said critical theories contain. For him, it is imperative that the missionary “take the leap of faith.” Only then does he stand on the side of effectual certainty. [2]

_______________________

[1] CT, III (March 30, 1959), 5.

[2] CT, X (November 19, 1965), 15.

Friday, December 18, 2009

American Evangelicalism Losing Its Mind: Old Testament Scholarship and CT Magazine

This post is part of a series focused on evangelical Christianity's reception of, and reaction to, world-class Old Testament scholarship. Evangelicals are known for being committed to the Christian Bible as Holy Scripture. But how has Evangelicalism interacted with the larger world of biblical scholarship? In order to explore that question, I have used Christianity Today magazine, the flagship publication of popular American Evangelicalism, as a gauge.

From the pages of CT, it's clear that evangelical leaders of the 1950s and 60s were determined to inform the rank and file of current Old Testament scholarship, and to offer persuasive counters when the prevailing theories ran against evangelical commitments and sentiment. New Testament and theological counterparts to the Old Testament articles abound in the early years. The number and size of the articles make it obvious that the editors wanted the considerable readership to know about such topics as
  • the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch
  • the Synoptic Problem
  • the priority of Mark among the Gospels

They also wanted their readers to know about the ideas of influential theologians like Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Emil Brunner. What this post will show is that, by the late 1970s, the substantial attention and criticism, along with occasional appropriation, had all but vanished.

One of the earliest treatments of the Pentateuch to appear in the pages of CT was, ironically, written by the Jewish scholar, Cyrus H. Gordon. In his article, “Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit,” [1] Gordon complains that he is faulted even from the right because he is “not devoted to JEDP, the badge of interconfessional academic respectability.” One can only wonder who it was to Gordon’s right faulting him in this way. My guess would be that it was some of his Jewish colleagues. It certainly wasn’t any fundamentalist or emerging evangelical.

Gordon recalls from previous years that he came to realize that his knowledge of biblical archaeology and his commitment to higher critical views of the Pentateuch were “mutually exclusive.” Indeed, a commitment to “any hypothetical source-structure like JEDP is out of keeping with the true scholar’s obligation to go wherever the evidence leads him.” As he explains, following World War II his studies in Ugaritic and Sumero-Akkadian materials revealed that in pre-Mosaic texts there were to be found literary themes and even specific phrases that also turn up in the Bible, indicating that the biblical texts are not necessarily later. Instead, because of the similarities, it is more likely that such biblical texts are early, dating from the same period as the materials with which they compare.

There are plenty of other arguments, says Gordon. For example, a different style does not mean a different author; the same speaker will use remarkably different styles in different settings. Moreover, repetition is no ground for positing different authorship because “repetitions are typical of ancient Near East literature.” Gordon says that it was, again, his studies in Ugaritic that led him to reject the different divine names as a criterion for source identification. Every sort of literature, from Ugaritic to the works of Herodotus, reveals that many gods had more than one name. Thus, the two-name expression Yahweh Elohim no more justifies the notion of conflated J and E sources than the Egyptian Amon-Re is “the result of combining an ‘A’ document with an ‘R’ document.” The only certain sources of the Old Testament are the ones cited in the biblical text itself, such as “the book of the Wars of Jehovah cited in Numbers 21:14.” As it stands, “No two higher critics seem to agree on where J, E, D, or P begins or ends.” And this leads to a dismal experience. Gordon writes:

I am distressed to meet ever so many intelligent and serious students who tell me that their teachers of Bible have killed the subject by harping on the notion that biblical study consists of analyzing the text into JEDP. The unedifying conclusion of all such study is that nothing is authentic.

Here we should note that Gordon does not claim that the Pentateuch has no literary sources. He asserts the opposite. Because the Bible was written within a “great international culture” it “cannot be devoid of sources.” But, he adds, the problem is that modern attempts to probe the development of the biblical text have led to very few conclusions on which we can stand. Thus the “hypothetical system” should be abandoned.

In a later article, “The Minoan Bridge: Newest Frontier in Biblical Studies,” Gordon asserts that the language of Minoan Linear A is Semitic. Indeed, “early Hebrew and Greek literatures have a common denominator and should be used to illuminate each other.” This, it turns out, confirms Gordon’s contention that the genealogy of Genesis 10 reports an historical reality: “the cradle of our civilization was One World and not a compartmentalized Near East.” One of the more-remarkable facets of this piece, and several others that are found in the early volumes, is its level of sophistication. Throughout, it is expected that the reader already knows the basic outline of the Documentary Hypothesis and is capable of understanding what is being put forward as evidence against it.[2]

Two years later, in another significant article, evangelical Edwin Yamauchi compares Homeric studies to biblical studies. The ancient Greeks, he begins, assumed the Homer had composed both the Illiad and the Odyssey. But in the late eighteenth century scholars, now referred to as analysts or separatists, dissected the poems into various layers. In the same way the likes of Astruc, Eichhorn and, most-notably, Wellhausen distinguished in the Pentateuch the source documents J, E, D, and P. In both enterprises, “the results were generally nihilistic.” But biblical archaeology, from its inception with the excavation of Nineveh begun in 1842, has overturned the negative evaluation of the historicity of the Pentateuch. The once-doubted existence of the Hittites was established in 1906. Customs referred to in the book of Genesis have been confirmed with the discovery of “10,000 texts from the Hurrian (biblical Horite) city of Nuzu in northern Mesopotamia.” Genesis 37-50 reveals a remarkable knowledge of ancient Egypt. And “Most biblical archaeologists . . . are now convinced of the substantive historical accuracy of the biblical traditions” (citing, with approval, the works of W. F. Albright). Nonetheless, the documentary hypothesis continues to be a pre-supposition of almost all Old Testament scholars. And this means that there is every reason to protest those who say they are not convinced by recent evidence from archaeology. To ask for irrefutable proof “is to overestimate the demands that can properly be placed on archaeological evidence—evidence that is circumstantial in nature, often fortuitous in discovery, and always but partial in survival.” [3]

To repeat and summarize then, in the early years of CT, the number and quality of articles dealing with biblical studies is impressive. But for what must have been a number of reasons, beginning in the mid-1970s, the once-common articles on subjects like the destructive Documentary Hypothesis or how the historical-critical method must be kept in the service faith begin to wane in number and size. It’s no exaggeration to say that by the early 1980s, the once-considerable coverage of the scholarly field was no more. For example, in place of the annual surveys of recent literature in the various fields was the occasional “Special Book Section” which featured mostly popular titles. [4]

Much more recently, a review of the first volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible leaves the reader with nary a clue that anyone ever suggested sources for the first three books of the Bible. Instead, the authors of the commentaries (T. Fretheim, W. Brueggemann, and evangelical W. Kaiser) are graded in terms of how well they juggle the various new schools and trends in biblical studies. [5] The next year’s volume of CT contains only a few articles dealing with the Old Testament and none, really, that match the depth of articles published in the early volumes. Instead, what we find for the most part are light reviews of light books. For example, the issue for March 4, 1996 contains a review by a New Testament specialist of three popular books on the Old Testament, all having to do with Jesus. [6] The “Annual Bible Issue” for that year turns out to be a conglomeration of a few light and cheery book notes combined with several sleek ads for new books and Bible-study software, an article on Old Testament divine warfare in the shadow of the Cross, and a series of sidebars on “My Favorite Old Testament Passage” written by contemporary evangelical heroes like scholar J. I. Packer and evangelist Luis Palau. The relatively-sophisticated pieces that made Julius Wellhausen notorious among the previous generation are completely gone.
______________________

[1] CT, IV (November 23, 1959), 3-6.

[2] CT, VII (Mar. 15, 1963), 3-5. Significantly, an editorial blurb accompanies this second article by Gordon and describes the author as follows: “A member of a conservative synagogue, he may best be described as upholding the Jewish tradition of those for whom scriptural study is not only an academic pursuit but also a sacrament and way of life.”

[3] CT, X (November 19, 1965), 3-6. Here, Yamauchi’s position can be compared to John Bright. Regarding the question of the historicity of Scripture vis-à-vis archaeology, the normal procedure is to give the biblical record every benefit of the doubt.

[4] See, for example, CT XXVIII (September 7, 1984), 29-52.

[5] CT, XXXIX (April 3, 1995), 104-05.

[6] CT, XXXX (March 4, 1996), 58-61.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Old Testament Scholarship and Christianity Today Magazine: Getting Started

In three recent posts, I traced out the early history of evangelical Christianity in the United States:

The first post describes The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement. Fundamentalism was partly a reaction. It was opposed to the advance of theological liberalism in the U.S. during the decades following the Civil War. (To get a taste of popular liberalism at the beginning of the 20th century, see this short article on how the book of Genesis should be taught in Sunday school. Note especially the last sentence). Another way of looking at Fundamentalism sees it as an effort to maintain the tenets and culture of early nineteenth-century conservative Protestantism.

The second post tells the story of Fundamentalist Defeat and Reaction. The 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee was a terrible blow to the public image of Fundamentalism. In the years following the trial, conservatives in America reacted in three distinct ways. The most progressive response (and, in time, the most successful) was what came to be known as evangelical Christianity.
The third post spotlights The Beginnings of American Evangelicalism, represented by what turned out to be two very effective institutions: Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today magazine.
So that's where we've been. Going forward, I want to use Christianity Today (sometimes abbreviated CT) as a scope through which we can view evangelical response to scholarship in general and especially to the field of Old Testament studies. The goal is to arrive at a better understanding of what is distinctive about American Evangelicalism, especially its attitudes toward the Bible and modern scholarship.

At the outset, it is important to note that from the earliest times of their discernible identity, American evangelicals have held to the traditional understandings of Scripture which they had inherited from their fundamentalist forebears. This is not to say that the evangelical view was pre-critical. In other words, fundamentalist biblical scholarship never attempted to retreat to the time before the Enlightenment. Even a fundamentalist text like Gleason L. Archer’s, Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), is a completely modern piece of work. So it is not the case that these “anti-modernists” called fundamentalists were not themselves modern. Rather, within the huge circle of modernity, both fundamentalists and their liberal or modernist counterparts had different sets of values. And those differents sets of values sent them down different pathways.

To someone who knows a bit about modern Old Testament scholarship, it comes as no surprise that the O.T. question taken up most often in the pages of CT centers on the unity, authorship, and date of the Torah, or Pentateuch. The second most-common question is the unity and date of the book of Isaiah. Running a distant third is the question of the date and interpretation of the book of Daniel. So, in the observations that follow, most of the material reviewed will deal with the Pentateuch. Questions regarding Isaiah will also get some attention.
My guess is that most of the people who frequent this blog cut their higher-critical teeth studying the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the unity of the book of Isaiah. These were considered to be big issues, questions that were raised by modern Old Testament scholarship, and that had to be answered. Such were the beliefs of early neo-evangelicals.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Best Books for the Break?

The last three posts have outlined the early history of American Evangelicalism. They explain, among other things, where Christianity Today magazine came from. The next installment in this series will be a few posts about American Evangelicals and Old Testament scholarship.

A few years ago, starting with Volume 1, I read through Christianity Today, focusing especially on evangelical stances towards mainstream Old Testament studies. The survey revealed a mixed bag that illustrates, I think, an inherent dilemma (and sometimes double-mindedness) when it comes to Evangelicals and the world in which they live. This has implications for the Churches of Christ, which sort of are and aren't members of the evangelical tribe. More later.

Now I want to ask you a few questions. But before we get to the questions and your answers, let's talk about me. Life gets busy. I know that most folks have a lot going on. It's been like that for me the last several days.

Over the past two weeks, I finished reading all of the term papers and projects assigned to my students. And then there were final exams to put to together, and give, and grade. Once the finals were scored, I calculated course grades for the semester and submitted them to Amarillo College. This was for five classes I taught during the fall 2009 semester
  • The Old Testament
  • The New Testament
  • Introduction to World Religions
  • Gospel of John
  • Elementary Biblical Hebrew I
While that was going on, I was also finishing up work on another course: the one where I was the student instead of the teacher. This past semester, I was part of a graduate seminar at West Texas A&M U. on the History of Europe before 1648. The seminar focused on England, especially London, during the Middle Ages. I know it's cliche, but I what I learned most of all is how much I don't know.
Which is not to say I didn't learn a lot. We spent most of the semester reading and discussing primary texts. I wound up writing my paper on a first-person account written by a follower of John Wyclif, the Lollard priest William Thorpe, who recorded his informal heresy trial before Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. Fascinating stuff. The professor, Dr. Bruce Brasington, was really good too.
Anyway, while all that was going on, I was also teaching a Wednesday-night class on the Book of Isaiah at the Colonies Church of Christ. We finish up next week.
Which means . . . between now and mid-January, I'll have some downtime. Yes, there's the Holidays in the middle of all that. But especially after the first of the year, the good Lord willing, I'll have several reading days. My question is, What do you recommend? Especially in these three categories:
1. Fiction. I'm in the mood for a really fine novel (new or classic). I would also consider a collection of great short stories; but since that genre isn't doing so well these days, it would have to be a strong, convincing recommendation.
2. Bible-Theology. I'd prefer not to work through a new commentary, although I'm sure there are a bunch of fine new ones out there. I think I'm looking for something that takes a big, broad view of Scripture or a theological theme.
3. History. At this point, I'm thinking "American." But since I'm one of those dogs that'll chase any rabbit, I will consider any suggestion in the category.
4. Society-Culture-Politics. I like to learn and think about the past. But I also need to have a sense of what's going on right now. What's a good book for getting that?
Suggest away. I'll be buying or borrowing books soon. If I wind up reading something especially good, you'll be sure to hear about it here. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Beginnings of American Evanglicalism

So very much of the following I learned from Dr. Douglas E. Brown, Jr., whose teaching at Harding University Graduate School of Religion has had a sizable impact on the theological thought of preachers and professors among the Churches of Christ.

To make my work here more readable, I've placed documentation in numbered footnotes. Comments, corrections, questions, and disagreements are welcome.
_________________________

In the previous post, I described some of the effects that the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" had on conservative Protestantism in the United States. In short, over the next two decades those American Christians called "Fundamentalists" reacted in different ways and soon formed three distinctive groups which can described as follows:

1. Closed Fundamentalism -- defiant, militant, insular (e.g., Bob Jones University, and Carl McIntire's "American Council of Christian Churches").

2. Open Fundamentalism -- still mostly separate from the broader culture, but more-accomodating on some points than the group described as "Closed" (e.g., Moody Bible Instititute).

3. Evangelicalism -- determined to be culturally-engaged and world-class, and to avoid anti-intellectualism (e.g., National Association of Evangelicals).

Because the word "evangelical" was hardly new, the third and most-progressive group often referred to itself as “Neo-evangelicalism.” This group differentiated itself from both of the others in at least four ways:

First, evangelicals disassociated themselves from fundamentalist forms of separatism. Evangelicals did not abandon separation as a mark of Christian identity. But they did reject what they saw as fundamentalist extremes and a failure to promote cross-denominational unity and cooperation. An example of this point, E. J. Carnell identified fundamentalism as "the quest for negative status, the elevation of minor issues to a place of major importance, the use of social morays as a norm of virtue, the toleration of one’s own prejudices but not the prejudices of others, the confusion of the church with a denomination, and the avoidance of prophetic scrutiny by using the word of God as an instrument of self security but not self criticism.” [1]

Second, evangelicals disassociated themselves from the anti-intellectual tendency of the fundamentalists. Here the 1959 statements of evangelical spokesman John Gerstner are typical. The current scene, he said, is characterized by one kind of conservatism that is in “greater conversation with non-evangelical viewpoints.” In spite of the fact that the evangelical tradition “has known some in its fellowship to be obscurantist in their outlook," the best of the evangelicals have always been willing “to discuss vital issues with dispassionate academic objectivity." [2] Likewise, in 1960 Harold J. Ockenga (pictured here) distinguished evangelicalism from fundamentalism by saying that they were different “in areas of intellectual and ecclesiastical attitude.” [3]

Third, evangelicals disassociated themselves from the fundamentalist retreat from apologetic interaction with contemporary culture. The early works of Carnell are best examples of this emphasis. [4] It is likely that other American scholars would have written even more books on Christian apologetics had it not been for the tremendous success of the atheist-turned-Anglican C. S. Lewis. Books by Lewis such as Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, Beyond Personality, [5] and Miracles [6] filled much of what was considered a void.

Fourth, evangelicals disassociated themselves from what they perceived to be the weak social concern of fundamentalists. Prior to the early twentieth century, many of those aligned with Protestant orthodoxy had promoted social action as one expression of their faith. [7] But at least two factors had contributed to a fundamentalist retreat from those historic commitments. In certain pockets of fundamentalism, the movement’s identity was closely connected with dispensational premillennialism. This triggered a heightened expectation of the end time and a pessimistic retreat from general society. [8] Also, the well-known “social gospel” was clearly associated with liberal theology. Evangelical reaction against fundamentalist disengagement clearly began with the 1947 publication of Carl Henry’s little book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. [9] An early issue of Christianity Today carries on this emphasis by pledging “to apply the biblical revelation vigorously to the contemporary social crisis, by presenting the implications of the total Gospel message in every area of life.” The writer adds, “Fundamentalism has often failed to do this.” [10]

As concrete expressions of their distance from fundamentalism, evangelicals also established two historic institutions. First, they began a school that would train pastors and other sorts of leaders who would be capable of guiding churches, and who would be qualified to work in the world’s centers of influence: Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in Pasadena, California in May 1947. During the 1930s and 1940s, Charles E. Fuller hosted the immensely popular syndicated radio program, “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” At the formation of the Seminary named for his wealthy father, he was joined by Ockenga, pastor of the Park Street Congregational Church in Boston. These were days of bright beginnings. The Seminary was designed by Fuller to become “what Cal Tech is to engineering and West Point to military science.” [11] Fuller strongly recruited the best scholars among former fundamentalists, not the least of whom was E. J. Carnell. With earned doctorates from Harvard and Boston Universities, Carnell proved to be a powerful influence within the new school and its constituency. Fuller also secured the services of New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, whose writings deeply influenced Evangelicals. Significantly, among the faculty at Fuller were converts who had entered evangelical Christianity from mostly-unchurched backgrounds. The best-known and most prolific of these leaders was Carl F. H. Henry. [12]

Evangelicals also began a representative magazine, a flagship publication designed to express and guide evangelical thought. In 1956, Carl Henry became the founding editor of the magazine which has ever since served as a guide and clearinghouse for contemporary evangelicalism. They named it Christianity Today.
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[1] E. J. Carnell, The Case for Biblical Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 169-70. Along the same line, Clyde S. Kilby observed a greater tendency “for orthodox believers to wish to get together rather than separate from each other. Those who seem determined to be a law unto themselves are finding it harder to survive at all.” Christianity Today, III (December 22, 1958), 20.

[2] CT, III (February 16, 1959), 39. See also, III (March 30, 1959), 3.

[3] CT, V (October 10, 1960), 12.

[4] Carnell’s first book was An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948). Though his subsequent works were not so directly focused, they frequently took up apologetic themes.

[5] These three books were published from London by Geoffrey Bles in successive years 1942-44. A decade later, a revised and amplified collection of all three was published as Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952).

[6] London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947.

[7] See, for example, Clifford S. Griffin, "Religious Benevolence as Social Control, 1815-1860," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 44 (December 1957): 423-44; Griffin, Their Brothers' Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1865, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1960); and Charles I. Foster, An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960).

[8] “As evangelical thought developed along a premillennial line (notably since the Niagara Prophetic Conferences, 1868, and thereafter, reaching a certain peak around 1925), it often became increasingly apathetic towards civic involvement, expecting an immediate Second Advent.” George H. Williams and Rodney L. Petersen, “Evangelicals: Society, the State the Nation (1925-75),” in The Evangelicals, rev. ed., D. F. Wells and J. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1977), 260.

[9] Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947.

[10] CT, III (October 13, 1958), 20. The essay is a “Statement of Policy and Purpose” which I presume was written by Carl Henry. As the first editor of CT, Henry continued his focus on this theme. In a substantial essay, “Perspective for Social Action,” he laments the opportunity that had been forfeited by orthodox Protestantism: “Perhaps at no time in modern history was American Protestantism so propitiously situated as at the early twentieth century for a world impact. . . . Sad to say, Protestantism dissipated this great opportunity and certain dire consequences followed hard upon its growing deference to the social gospel. . . . In its reaction against the social gospel, the fundamentalist movement became socially indifferent and even made the inevitability of social decline a part of its credo. To some extent, pessimism resulted from dispensational views which taught that world-wide spiritual apostasy must precede the second coming of Jesus Christ” CT, III (January 9, 1959), 10-11. Likewise, according to a history of neo-evangelicalism’s first 25 years in America, an evangelical “believes that a defense of the Gospel can be coupled with Christian charity and intellectual integrity.” The quote is taken from Ronald Nash’s review of Bruce Shelley, Evangelicalism in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), in CT, XI (July 7, 1967), 26.

[11] CT, III (January 19, 1959), 13.

[12] In addition to the general article by T. P. Weber, “Fuller Theological Seminary,” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, 460-61, a solid book-length treatment is provided by George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fundamentalist Defeat and Reaction

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. Bryan died just five days after the trial was over. Many in the popular media drew connections between the death of Bryan and a hoped-for demise of Fundamentalism.
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Note: This post is a continuation of the previous one: The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement. . . .

With such momentum behind it, only a public defeat, a national scandal, could slow down the fundamentalist movement in America. That defeat occurred in 1925 at Dayton, Tennessee.

Early on, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” was simply a case in which John T. Scopes, a young science teacher, would be tried for violating of a new Tennessee statute that banned the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible,” or of any theory “that man has descended from a lower order of animal.” But when the American Civil Liberties Union promised Scopes the best defense team in the nation and convinced him to confess, and when William Jennings Bryan agreed to join the prosecution team, the stage was set for one of the first real media circuses in American history. [1]

In spite of the prosecution’s initial victory—Scopes’ conviction was eventually overturned on a technicality—the coverage of the trial forever changed the image of fundamentalism in the United States. Clarence Darrow was one of the best defense attorneys of his day, and he took full advantage of Bryan’s miscalculated decision to serve as a witness in behalf of religious conservatism. What Bryan had somehow forgotten was that he would not be given an open platform. Instead, he would be required to respond to a series of barbed questions. From the standpoint of public relations, the trial was a rout from beginning to bitter end. The following exchange, for example, was reported around the world:

Darrow: When was the flood?

Bryan: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning [i.e., according to Ussher’s Chronology printed in many Bibles of the day].

Darrow: But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?

Bryan: I never made a calculation.

Darrow: A calculation from what?

Bryan: I could not say.

Darrow: From the generations of man?

Bryan: I would not want to say that.

Darrow: What do you think?

Bryan: I do not think about things I don’t think about.

Darrow: Do you think about things you do think about?

Bryan: Well, sometimes. [2]

Such reports were always accompanied by scathing editorials written by the likes of the caustic wit H. L. Mencken. As a result, the Scopes trial devastated the fundamentalist movement. Bryan’s true identity as a populist politician and spokesman was replaced by the image of a fundamentalist Pope. The character of the movement as an intellectually-engaged phenomenon with power centers in places like Chicago and Philadelphia was recast into something distinctively rural, unlearned and southern. As inaccurate as such representations were, they deeply influenced the way that Americans came to see fundamentalism. During the years that immediately followed the Scopes debacle, cultural ridicule drove the fundamentalist tradition to self-examination. The result was three distinctive groupings.

Closed Fundamentalism classifies those who, with little change, defended Protestant orthodoxy and a nostalgic early Americanism against modern trends. This approach is represented by the baseball-player-turned-preacher, Billy Sunday, Carl McIntire and his Twentieth Century Reformation Movement, Billy James Hargis and his Christian Crusade of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Bob Jones University. As a direct affront to the Federal Council of Churches--which later replaced “Federal” with “National’—in September 1941 McIntire, a prominent leader among the separatist fundamentalists, organized the American Council of Christian Churches. Its purpose was to be militantly pro-fundamentalist and anti-modernist. Hallmarks of this branch of the movement included a vehement rejection of both pacifism and any coexistence with suspected Communism, which was thought by these fundamentalists to be rampant. [3]

Open Fundamentalism classifies those who carried on the fundamentalist tradition, particularly its doctrine of dispensational premillennialism, without sharing the extreme attitudes, methods, and results of the isolationists. Representatives of this approach include the Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, and what became of the journal Bibliotheca Sacra. [4]

Evangelicalism classifies those who, while maintaining a commitment to the basic premises of the fundamentalist version of Protestant orthodoxy, clearly attempted to disassociate themselves from both groups of fundamentalists. At virtually the same time that Carl McIntire founded the ACCC, the National Association of Evangelicals was organized in October 1941. Because the term “evangelical” was not new, but was now taking on a new and more-specific definition, in the early days those who came out of fundamentalism often referred to themselves as “neo-evangelicals.”
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[1] Perhaps the best account of the proceedings and ramifications of the trial is provided by Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: the Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997). For an excellent short overview, see George M. Marsden, “Scopes Trial” in the Dictionary of Christianity in America, 1058-59.

[2] This part of the trial transcript is taken from George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 187.

[3] Description and advocacy of this branch of the movement is set forth by George W. Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University, 1973).

[4] Though Lindsey is spoken of as an “evangelical” in a Christianity Today news article [vol. 28 (December 14, 1984), 51], the piece goes on to report that “Serious Bible scholars reject Lindsey’s fanciful depictions of how today’s world events mesh with biblical prophecies.” It also observes that even Lindsey’s alma mater Dallas Theological Seminary did not take his interpretations seriously. Thus, one factor that apparently distinguishes open fundamentalists from their neo-evangelical siblings is the degree to which one insists on the correctness of dispensational premillennialism. More than any other figure, it was New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, an intellectual leader among the first generation of neo-evangelicals, who severed the close tie between dispensationalism and conservatism. In one of his earliest books, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom (London: Paternoster, 1959), Ladd powerfully argued that according to the New Testament the kingdom of God was present during the ministry of Jesus and the life of the earliest Christians. The force and import of his argument seriously damaged the dispensationalist claim that because of Jewish unbelief the Lord postponed the establishment of his kingdom and inaugurated in its place the “church age.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

This post is the first part of a paper whose working title is "American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship 1956-2006." In this first section, a good bit of the material is based on a set of outline notes shared with me by Dr. Douglas E. Brown, Jr., who formerly taught courses in theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN. His worthy successor, Dr. John Mark Hicks, was also one of my teachers there. I have learned much from these two great men. May their work result in the honor of God and the blessing of others.
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Prior to the Civil War, traditional Protestant (that is, “evangelical”) thought and life in the United States saw an impressive period of growth, sparked by the Second Great Awakening around the beginning of the nineteenth century.[1] The flip side to this phenomenon was that throughout the same period none of the liberalizing movements in American religion were able to gain much more than a foothold. For example, though Massachusetts liberals of the 1820s expected Unitarianism to spread “like a prairie fire across America,” the fire “sputtered out west of Worcester and south of the Connecticut line." [2]

But the Civil War not only brought unprecedented division. It also struck a blow to American confidence in divine blessing and in human ability to know the mind of God. President Lincoln described the two sides of the conflict with high rhetoric and his Augustinian sense of ambiguity:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. [3]

The post-war period of theological uncertainty opened the door to newer philosophical, political, and religious trends. And beginning around 1870, for the first time in American history, theological liberalism was steadily gaining ground.[4] In response, not far into the post-war years there arose a movement that intended to combat liberalism and develop a platform and strategy for the survival of traditional Protestant orthodoxy and the awakening of an increasingly-secular culture. Several indicators support this thesis.

First, conservative Bible conferences, forebears of the prophecy conferences and full-gospel fellowship meetings of the twentieth century, became common. The best example of this phenomenon is the immensely popular Niagara Conference which first met in 1868 and which led to the organization of the first International Prophecy Conference held in 1878. The popularity of these conferences led to the establishment of dozens of similar events, which were typically held during the summer a week at a time. Hallmarks of the ascendant liberalism of the day were the adoption of higher critical approaches to the Bible and a rejection of biblical literalism. Conservatives like those who attended the conferences believed that such trends were motivated by a desire to defame the Scriptures and to explain away the supernatural elements of the Bible, undermining its authority and its power to convert outsiders. In such a climate it was easy for conservatives to conclude that if liberals were offering damaging discourses about the Bible, the only antidote was positive proclamation of the Bible, and little else. Thus, it was no accident that at the Niagara Conference and the events it spawned , a new sort of exposition was developed. Commonly called “Bible reading,” it consisted of a collection of passages, all relating to a single Bible topic, which were read one after another with only brief comments in between. However, prompted by the urge to root out the prevailing postmillennialism and supplant it with premillennialism, in 1878, James Brooks ironically issued a fourteen-point “Niagara Creed” which not only upheld the correctness of the dispensational-premillennial view, but also affirmed the verbal inerrancy of the Bible. [5]

Second, conservatives established Bible institutes for the purpose of defending the Christian faith, conducting mission work, and restoring the spiritual vitality of the church. Prime examples here are the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, named for the great revivalist Dwight L. Moody (pictured here)[6] and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), which featured the instruction of Yale Divinity School graduate and evangelist extraordinaire R. A. Torrey.[7] In 1959, Charles Fuller expressed what these para-church institutions meant to the fundamentalist heritage. Reflecting on his early years at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and his then-recent founding of a theological seminary, Fuller stated that at the close of the nineteenth century

many of our seminaries began to succumb to the lethal fumes of liberalism, and it became apparent that orthodoxy was soon going to be without an adequate supply of trained leaders. Providentially, God raised up many Bible institutes, which were very effective in training thousands of young men and women—many of whom were not college graduates—to know their Bibles and have a zeal for evangelism.[8]

Third, there appeared a tremendous quantity of distinctively conservative literature. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge [9] and A. H. Strong [10] produced systematic theologies. James Orr guided the production of the original International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the first edition appearing in 1915. Most significant of all, between 1910 and 1915 a definitive series of twelve booklets entitled The Fundamentals was published and mailed to as many Christian leaders as possible in the United States, Canada, and England.[11] And in 1923, the conservative Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen published his book, Christianity and Liberalism, which declared that the liberalism of the day and historic Christianity were essentially two different religions.

Fourth, in 1919 the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, whose name was taken from the popular booklets, was organized in Philadelphia. The Association stood against the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the rise of theological liberalism among the denominations. William B. Riley, a Southern Baptist leader, published its official magazine, the Christian Fundamentals in School and Church, later called the Christian Fundamentalist.

Fifth, conservatives mounted efforts to oust popular liberal ministers and to recapture their large, influential churches for the cause of orthodoxy. The controversy surrounding Harry Emerson Fosdick and the New York Presbyterian Church provides the best example. Brought up a Baptist, Fosdick was by no means the most radical of the liberal leaders in the United States. But he was one of the best known. A gifted wordsmith, he gave eloquent expression to the liberal view in his sermons and popular books. Moreover, beginning in 1915, he served as Jessup Professor of Practical Theology at Union Seminary in New York. With influential positions in both the church and Christian academy, he was rightly regarded by conservatives as an important target. Fosdick intended his famous sermon of 1922, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” as a “plea for good will.” But its clear definition, pointed language, and national distribution led to a terrible controversy which ended with him stepping down from New York Presbyterian’s pulpit three years later. [12]

That these efforts came together in order to make a powerful force in American Christianity cannot be denied. Here one needs only to repeat the shopworn complaint of H. L. Mencken: “Heave an egg out a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."[13]
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[1] Peter W. Williams, America’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 166-74 provides a good overview of the history and impact of what he calls “the Second Great Awakening(s).” Williams uses the unconventional plural because of what he identifies as three distinct centers of religious fervor. The first was Connecticut where the preachers Asahel Nettleton, a Congregationalist minister, and Timothy Dwight, the dynamic president of Yale College, were the main leaders. Another center was the southwestern frontier, particularly Kentucky, where the incredible Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 established the religious camp meeting as a staple of frontier life. The third center was western New York state, where the power and variety of religious life rendered the region “the Burned Over District.” See also the discussions offered by, for example, Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972) 413-35, and Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 166-90.

[2] William R. Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968), 3.

[3] The quotation is from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, just over a month before his death. I owe the recollection of these words and a sense of how they must have shaped post-war theological thinking to Jean Bethke Elshtain whose fine article “Abraham Lincoln and the Last Best Hope” originally appeared in an issue of First Things. I came across a reprint in The Best Christian Writing 2000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 92-104.

[4] See the overview provided by Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 1-14.

[5] For one of the better discussions of the Prophecy and Bible Conference movement see, Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 132-61. Most summaries of North American religious history give some attention to the phenomenon, especially its connections to the rise of dispensational premillennialism. See, for example, Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, 290-91. See also the references by George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 46, 51, 66, 93. For an overview of the Niagara Conferences, see the article by T. P. Weber in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 773-74.

[6] See T. P. Weber, “Moody, (D)wight (L)yman (1837-1899)” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 768-69, hereafter cited as DCA. The standard texts on American religious history report on the life and impact of Moody. For example, Winthrop Hudson, Religion in America, 3rd. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981) 230-36 provides a good overview.

[7] See P. C. Wilt, “Torrey, (R)euben, (A)rcher (1856-1928)” in DCA, 1180-81.

[8] Christianity Today 3 (January 15, 1959): 13.

[9] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Scriber, 1872-73).

[10] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Rochester, NY: E. R. Andrews, 1886).

[11] Notwithstanding the current derision associated with the word “fundamentalist,” Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 816, is right in his estimation of "The Fundamentals": The booklets, he says, were written “with dignity, breadth of subject matter, rhetorical moderation, obvious conviction, and considerable intellectual power. . . . The conservative case was firmly and honorably made.”

[12] For a reprint of Fosdick’s sermon, with a helpful introduction, see Hutchison, American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era, 170-82. Hutchison cites as his source for the sermon The Christian Work 112 (June 10, 1922): 716-22.

[13] H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Fifth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926), 74.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship

[T]he evangelical position is pledged to a scientific scholarship operating within the circle of Christian faith. No obscurantist methodology is available to the evangelical to enable him to interpret Scripture. . . . Evangelicals may be flayed for not facing up to modern criticism [i.e., modern analysis of the Bible] or for not making a significant contribution to it. They may be accused of harboring too large a population of obscurantists. But the thesis here propounded is undamaged: The pattern of the Reformers states that when divine certainties end, the only safe guide is the finest of scientific scholarship exercised in humility before God.

Bernard Ramm, "Are We Obscurantists?" Christianity Today 1 (February 18, 1957), p. 15.

No, it's not exactly an epigram. But the foregoing is my lead in, let's call it, for a paper that I'm planning to publish in segments here at Frankly Speaking. My working title at this point is (drum roll, please), . . . "American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship, 1956-2006."

The project goes back to a good bit of research I did just a few years ago. I've had some more time to think about it since then, and I'm ready now to pick up where I left off.

I may wind up submitting this work to a refereed journal. (Always think of men wearing striped shirts when I say that). Or I may hold on to it and save it for a future dissertation or book or all of the above. So I'll be glad to hear anything constructive you might have to say about its content, style, significance, whatever. One reason I've chosen to blog this material first is so that I can receive helpful feedback before going to press rather than after.

My plan is to follow three steps: First, I want to describe the influences, events, and personalities that led to the establishment of Christianity Today magazine.

Second, I'll overview the contents of the magazine from its inception until 2006, especially as it takes up and deals with contemporary Old Testament scholarship.

Third, I will offer a couple of provisional conclusions regarding the identity of, and apparent changes within, American evangelical scholarship (and evangelicalism in general) during that period of time.

One of my main conclusions will be that, during the last half century, what I've decided to call the "intellectual middle class" of American evangelicalism, which was once quite strong, has all but vanished. Ironically, this has happened during the same era when the academic achievements of the best American evangelical scholars have grown more and more impressive.

It might even be possible to identify lines between what I'm describing and the apparent loss of vitality within evangelical circles coming into the twenty-first century. At any rate, I want the study to do more than simply offer description. I want it to also provide some analysis, and to show how the recent past has shaped the current scene. It might even provide at least part of the map that would indicate where the American evangelical movement should go from where it is now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Myth of Managing Grief

Here come the holidays. You know, "the most wonderful time of the year."

Alright, can we just say what everyone knows anyway? For a lot of people--many more than any of us will ever know--the holidays are horrible, a season in which the grief they carry around with them all of the time becomes that much more painful.

If that sounds autobiographical, that's because it is. But like so many people who hurt, I don't want to talk about it. Not here anyway. And not now.

The main reason I'm bringing this up at all is because not too long ago I was digging around in this wasteland called the Web when I came across the article that follows. It has a very specific context. It was first published on April 7, 2002, less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But its message is timeless.

And even though it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, a secular newspaper located on the left coast no less, it contains a lot of insight and even a good bit of what might be called pastoral wisdom. I copy it here for what it's worth:

The myth of managing grief
by Stephanie Salter

Not long ago, a friend in New York said that she often feels cut off from the rest of the country because Sept. 11 is still so much with most New Yorkers.

"We've all gotten on with our lives, and if you don't go down to the (World Trade Center) site, there are no visible traces," she said. "But there's still so much grief and sadness hanging in the air."

People outside of New York can't really understand, said my friend.

"You talk with them and, if you didn't lose someone directly in the twin towers, it's like their tone says, 'Hey, shouldn't you be moving on?' They don't get that there's a collective grief. I actually prefer it when people don't even ask how it's going. It's easier."

Our American culture boasts many virtues and several strong suits, but grieving -- collectively or individually -- isn't one of them.

Unlike older societies, we have few formal grieving rituals in place to guide us. So, we try to tackle grief in our typical American way -- as if it's a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured, an unnatural, machine-gumming breakdown that needs to be fixed, ASAP.

Perhaps more phobic about suffering than any society in history, Americans tend to start the clock ticking early in "managing" grief. While solicitous and caring of the newly bereaved, we encourage heartbroken mates and parents to medicate themselves so they can "keep it together" through the funeral.

This ignores the fact that wailing and keening and "losing it" are a pretty accurate rendering of what humans inside feel like when someone we love dies or leaves us. But, in our culture, public wailing and keening are considered bad forms; they are seen as unwelcome reminders of pathology among "healthy" people.

Even the most devastating loss -- that of a child by a parent -- seems to carry an unwritten statute of limitations on grief, something I learned several years ago when I reported on an international organization called Compassionate Friends.

Founded in England in the late 1960s, the massive support network's chapters provide something that bereaved parents and siblings can't get from the rest of the world: "unconditional love and understanding" (as its informal credo states) with no expiration date.

As one member told me, she knew that a Compassionate Friends meeting was the one place she could go and never hear the unintentionally accusing question, "How many years ago did you say your child died?"

Grief is not like an illness, to be fought and cured with medicine or chemotherapy and radiation. Generalizations can be made about human behavioral tendencies, and time lines can be drawn for predicted "healing," but each person's grieving process is unique.

Some people never "get better." And nobody survives grief unchanged.

As Stephanie Ericsson wrote in "Companion Through the Darkness," grief is "a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped."

Or, as a man who lost his 7-year-old son once confided, "I'd always thought of myself as a happy man, but that's gone now. We have moments of happiness, some of them long and filled with laughter, but the sense of what is lost is never far away."

In her book, Stephanie Ericsson also warned: "Grief makes what others think of you moot. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. It shoves away friends and scares away so-called friends and rewrites your address book for you."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sources for Introducing the Psalms

Today I'm especially grateful for the good service of our active duty military and of our veterans. Many thanks to my father, Frank H. Bellizzi, Jr., who honorably served in the United States Air Force for over twenty-six years.

For what it's worth, today veterans and active duty military eat free at Applebee's.

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Occasionally, I like to use this blog as a public archive, to store away things that might be useful to me later. It's important for any student to preserve the fruit of his or her study. And if what I'm saving might be useful to you as well, then I sometimes post it here.

Believers have always loved the Book of Psalms. A few statements and quotes that can be used for introducing the Psalms:

In a letter to his friend Marcellinum, the fourth-century bishop Athanasius said,

It is my view that in the words of this book the whole human life, its basic spiritual conduct and as well its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained. Nothing to be found in human life is omitted.

In the early sixteenth century, Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, said that the Psalms

might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine . . . handbook.

In his Commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote that in this book

there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of salvation.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis, said that the Book of Psalms

occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures. It is God's Word and, with a few exceptions, the prayer of men as well.

Source: James Luther Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 1

The Psalms continue to live and [to] grip the attention of needy humanity. Fads blossom and wilt, generations come and go, civilizations rise and fall, but the Psalms continue to serve the ages. No other book has been so fondly read and so freely commented on. The inescapable conclusion is—it has something helpful for [people] in every circumstance of life. . . . The Psalms are [a] common heritage, filling common needs. They contain guidance for the errant, power for the weak, courage for the trembling, rest for the weary, cheer for the despondent, hope for the fainthearted and comfort for the afflicted.

Source: Leroy Brownlow, Living with the Psalms (Fort Worth, TX: Brownlow Publishing Company, 1976), no page number.

The Hebrew psalms hold up a mirror to religious experience, to reflect with astonishing fullness and frankness its many moods. Exultation and doubt, pain, persecution and sorrow, passion and aspiration, fortitude, bitterness and despair, complaint, gratitude, and heartfelt praise--all find equally candid expression. The utter sincerity, the wide range, and the deep humanity of the psalms make them the voice of Everyman exploring the religious dimension of life.

The variety of circumstance and occasion covered by the psalms is truly amazing. Sickness and restoration, distress and the fear of death are frequently mentioned. So are the joy in nature and the moral instructiveness of history. Guilt-laden confession prompts some psalms; so do homesickness, nostalgia, and social and religious protest.

Source: R.E.O. White, A Christian Handbook to the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 4.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A is for Abductive, B is for Balderdash

It's not too often that you read "Hogwash!" in a scholarly book review. But that's exactly one of the comments that Tim Sensing, a professor at Abilene Christian University, makes in his review of the book A is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church, by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer. Sensing's review appears in the most recent issue of Restoration Quarterly (Volume 51, Fourth Quarter 2009, pp. 251-253), and it serves as a model of one of the functions of good scholarship: to drive out bad scholarship.

According to Sensing, A is for Abductive is a dictionary type book that "advertises itself as a primer for people desiring to discern the thought processes of churches that are responding to postmodern culture." The book includes entries like "I is for Icon." But Sensing doesn't have to go beyond the very first entry, "A is for Abductive Method," to find what he calls "enough fodder" for his review. In that first entry, the authors cite the work of philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, and advocate an approach to preaching that, instead of analyzing, looks to create an image or compose an experience. Sounds sexy, doesn't it?

But as Sensing points out, not only are the authors guilty of mere assertion, they apparently didn't bother to read the work of C. S. Pierce: you know, the work that supposedly provides the theoretical foundation for what they're saying. They do cite a 1970 dissertation dealing with Pierce's theory. So Sensing read the dissertation and compared it to A is for Abductive. What he found was "no basis for associating Pierce's understanding of the logic of scientific discovery to the abductive method presented by the authors." In short, Sweet, McLaren and Haselmayer have completely misappropriated C. S. Pierce, and are, at least in this case, patently guilty of a name-dropping sort of pseudo scholarship.

Meanwhile, Sensing points out, all of the sudden everyone's getting all "abductive." For example, a recent article by Paul Windsor, "A Space to Occupy: Creating a Missional Model for Preaching," (Stimulus, Vol. 13, no 1 [2005]: 20-25) cites A is for Abductive as though it were a genuine authority.

Carl Savage and William Presnell do much the same thing in their book Narrative Research in Ministry: A Postmodern Research Approach for Faith Communities (Louisville: Wayne E. Oates Institute, 2008). Sensing notes that Savage and Presnell cite A is for Abductive "to make claims about narrative research methodology. Relying on the authors' pseudo-work leads them to assert that the essence of narrative as the primary voice of theological research in ministry is 'non-logical.'" (This is where Sensing has to say, "Hogwash!"). He closes with, "Those footnoting this work contribute to the dissemination of ignorance."

Upon reading this review, I was reminded that some of the best preachers I've ever known didn't know much about communication theory per se. But they did love the Lord. They modeled, imperfectly, what it means to live for Him. And they understood a few things about how to convict and persuade people, how to show them the hope that is found only in Christ Jesus and build them up in faith. Most of that know-how came as a result of their deep study of the Bible and a passion for preaching God's Word.

I know, to some ears that might sound a bit sappy, nostalgic, inadequate. I can only protest that maybe that's part of what's behind the loss of vitality in American church life today. There can be no doubt that major shifts are taking place in American thought and life. I don't understand much about that. What I do know is that nonsense masquerading as Christian scholarship or "the next big thing" isn't the answer. How 'bout you?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Biblical Hebrew at Amarillo College

It's official. I got the letter about three weeks ago. Here's the Reader's Digest condensed version:

At the September 18, 2009 meeting, the Academic Affairs Committee reviewed and approved your request to add the following courses to the Amarillo College course inventory:

RELG 2311: Biblical Hebrew I

RELG 2312: Biblical Hebrew II

Yea! I'm so relieved and excited. This is something I've been working toward for a long time. More later. I've got to get ready for class.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Frenzied, Frantic Fall Semester

I know. Til now, I haven't posted anything in the entire month of September. Thanks for checking back with me. So what's been going on here?

1. School started. And, boy, did it ever start. Amarillo College set a record enrollment this fall, with well over 11,000 students, more now than ever before in the history of the school, and one thousand more than this time last year. My classes are packed. One of them, New Testament, maxed out at 30 students. (That's about as many as we can comfortably seat in our classroom). The other classes--The Old Testament, Introduction to World Religions, and The Gospel of John--are also pretty full. So it's a busy time at the Bible Chair. Lots of students, and that's nice.

2. School started. Yeah, I said that already. But I also went back to school as a student. I've always enjoyed the structure, the challenge, and the opportunity of a college course. Well, almost always. So I signed up to take a graduate seminar at West Texas A&M. It's a history class focused on medieval England, especially London. The professor, Dr. Bruce Brasington, is a full-fledged medievalist. He really knows his stuff. Best of all, he's challenging us to do almost all of our reading in the primary sources. I've decided to do my seminar paper on some aspect of the Lollards, those religious eccentrics who took their inspiration from John Wyclif. My working title is "Hell's Bells: Lollard Objections to Church Bells, the 'Horns of the Antichrist'." I hope the project turns out to be as juicy as it sounds. Maybe a Ph.D. in religious history some day? We'll see.

3. Hebrew. Oh, I'm also teaching another course this semester: Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. So far, student turn out has been high to say the least. The second week, we stuffed nearly 50 people into the classroom. We ran out of chairs. A few people went back to their cars and brought in their lawn chairs. I won't soon forget a doctor, still in his scrubs, sitting on the floor just a few feet away from me as we learned the Hebrew alphabet song. Here's the most exciting news about Hebrew: we're right on the verge of finishing up the process so that Hebrew I and II will be added to the curriculum of Amarillo College. This has been one of those long, drawn-out things. You wouldn't believe the work that goes into adding two classes to the course inventory of a college. But now it's done, and I'm just waiting to hear from the school that this has now gone through. If and when I get the news, then Biblical Hebrew I will be offered in the "Fall Too" semester at AC, which begins in early October. In the Spring semester, the second course would be offered on the regular schedule. Stay tuned.

4. Beautiful weather. This time of year it's very pretty here on the high plains. We've had some absolutely gorgeous days, with hardly more than a slight breeze. So I've gotten to spend a lot of time riding my bicycle and walking.

5. Preaching and teaching. Over the last few weeks, I did a couple of the sessions in the Wednesday-night summer series at my home church. Currently, I'm the fill-in preacher at the Church of Christ in Panhandle, Texas. For three weeks, I'm driving out for the morning Bible study and worship. The auditorium class is looking at a different psalm each week. That's something I really enjoy. So far we've looked at Psalms 4 and 113. Not sure which one we'll go with next Sunday. Any suggestions? (You have to say why). The sermon mini-series is entitled "Real Christianity." Seems like the lessons are about to convert the guy in the pulpit. But he's a sluggish soul. . . .

So what's going on in your world these days? I'd enjoy reading a few updates that I might not get from the blogs. Oh, anyone else going to the Moser Ministry Conference at Lubbock? Lemme hear from you. Cheers!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible

Over the past year or two, I've noticed the publication of several volumes in a new series called the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. R. R. Reno (pictured here) is the series editor. Reno is a professor of theology at Creighton University and authored the Brazos volume on the Book of Genesis.

Of all the commentary sets out there, I have to say this one intrigues me the most. For one thing, you might not always recognize the names of the authors. Most preachers and teachers expect to see commentaries on New Testament books by well-known specialists like Ben Witherington III, Scot McKnight, Gordon Fee, and the everywhere-all-the-time N. T. Wright. If it's a commentary on an Old Testament book, then you expect names like Tremper Longman, Choon-Leong Seow, Terence Fretheim, and John H. Walton. But none of those names show up on the Brazos list.

Something else about this series: when I do recognize an author's name, it's usually someone who's earned his or her reputation in a field next to biblical studies, not in it. For example, the volume on the Book of Acts was written by the late Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan, who made his mark as an historian of Christianity and the Middle Ages. Pelikan was a great scholar. But he was not a biblical scholar per se. The commentary on Colossians has been assigned to Christopher Seitz, an Old Testament specialist who, to my knowledge, hasn't published much at all in the area of New Testament (but who has always shown an interest in the theological unity of the Christian Bible). The volume on Matthew is by the popular theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. And Ellen Charry, a theologian who teaches at Princeton, is scheduled to co-author the commentary on the Book of Psalms.

In short, this series deliberately steers off the beaten path. Instead of biblical specialists, it turns to people who are more theologians to say what they will about the various books of the Bible. This comes across clearly in the official blurb:

Leading theologians read and interpret scripture for today's church, providing guidance for reading the Bible under the rule of faith. Each volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is designed to serve the church--through aid in preaching, teaching, study groups, and so forth--and demonstrate the continuing intellectual and practical viability of theological interpretation of the Bible.

It will be interesting to see where this series will go, what impact it might actually make in the way that students of the Bible hear and apply the text. If you need to know the answer to some technical question, there are a handful of resources you can turn to (e.g., Word Biblical Commentary, International Critical Commentary, etc.). But to hear what historian Timothy George might have to say about the Book of James? That sounds especially interesting to me.

So, has anyone out there taken a look at one of the Brazos volumes? What did you think?