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.

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.

[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.
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 Philadelphia, Chicago, and Minneapolis 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.”

[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.”