What if We Talked Like Evangelical Scholars?

After reading The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment and Don’t Waste Your Life over the last couple of months, I wanted the next book I read have some scholarly and intellectual teeth to it. Unfortunately I picked up What Have They Done With Jesus? by Ben Witherington. This book was required reading for a class I audited (and hence didn’t have to read the book), so I really wanted to be favorable towards it.

I know next-to-nothing about Witherington’s theology or position in the evangelical world. In the book he comes across as thoroughly orthodox, with a slight liberal bent in regards to New Testament authorship (holding to the “First Witness” composition of Matthew, Markian Priority, and a rather unique position about the Gospel of John). The purpose of his book is to critically examine the bizarre world of alternate theories about Jesus and his relationships with his disciples. Witherington examines everything from the Gospel of Judas to The Da Vinci Code.

Despite some mildly beneficial content, I  put the book down after about 65 pages. It was an incredible waste of time. This book serves as a microcosm of the problems with current mainstream evangelical scholarship. I say mainstream because the church is blessed with many many God-glorifying, courageous men like DA Carson and David Wells who refuse to cheapen the truth for the sake of fake “intellectual humility.” And I say current because it hasn’t always been that higher learning and tepid writing go together. To quote:

Very likely Isaiah 22:15-25 lies in the background…” (64)

Probably, then, the keys are a symbol of Peter’s authority in general…” (64)

Perhaps one could argue…” (64)

“Peter may have been one…” (65)

“This may explain…” (65)

“We should perhaps envision…” (66)

“It is, of course, possible to see…” (66)

If the reference…” (66)

I began thinking, what would it look like if we talked in everyday life like we did in evangelical scholarship?

“After studying the mathematics, I am persuaded that the bridge most likely will be able to support your car as it travels across.”

“Hello ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for flying Southwest. Our destination will possibly be Phoenix today.”

“Thank you for paying with PayPal. The seller might send you your package.”

A referee: “That perhaps could have been a touchdown.”

Parent to child: “It’s possible that we love you.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ matters far more than a plane flight or a football game. It is of far more importance than banking statements and engineering. So why do we reserve unreserved assertions of truth for only things that don’t matter?

It’s sad to see the life-giving gospel muddied by pandering to the culture of trendy intellectual uncertainty. I claim to speak a message that brings reconciliation and redemption to the human heart. May God grant courage to speak it with all the force and clarity and compassion the Son of God slain for us deserves.

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2 responses to “What if We Talked Like Evangelical Scholars?”

  1. Gunner says :

    I understand your suspicion of scholarship, but this isn’t the best example. I would be interested in what follows the ellipses above. It’s easy to make him sound bad by showing that he often uses words like “perhaps” or “likely” or “probably,” but you would have to show what specific things he’s talking about in those sentences to prove that he should be making stronger claims.

    Is Witherington speaking with uncertainty about “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” “the life-giving gospel,” the “message that brings reconciliation and redemption,” and “the Son of God slain for us” (all terms you used in the last two paragraphs)? You’re accusing him of speaking with uncertainty about those issues, which is a massive claim.

    Speaking in probabilities can be necessary and healthy in some (not all) issues of backgrounds and interpretation, because there’s no merit in being dogmatic and confident about some debatable issue of historical background. For instance, your first piece of evidence that Witherington is undermining the certainty of the gospel (!) is this quote: “Very likely Isaiah 22:15-25 lies in the background…” I’m not sure what NT passage he’s referring to, but typically it’s fair for NT scholars to say that it’s “likely” that a specific OT passage serves as the background for a NT passage. This is because NT authors often allude to or echo OT themes and passages without directly quoting them, so we can’t say with certainty that a particular OT passage is in the NT author’s mind. I’m dealing with just such an instance as I write my thesis on 2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul SEEMS to be alluding to words and themes in Isaiah 42:9, 43:18-19, and 65:17-18. But for me to say that Paul is DEFINITELY and WITHOUT A DOUBT alluding to any one of those passages (or all three of them) would be exegetically irresponsible and misleading. I just can’t be completely certain (check out all four passages if you think I should be certain; I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove it). So I speak in terms of likelihood, and I don’t think I’m selling out the gospel (though you may differ with me on that).

    So you make a good and necessary point, but I wonder if the evidence (if presented in full) would validate your connections. I’m all for doing scholarship in a way that glorifies God for the clarity of His truth and in a way that doesn’t cave into the pressure to speak in uncertainties and endless caveats, but we’ve got to make clear, solid, fair, proportional arguments when we point out negativities in scholarship. It’s hard to do, and it takes a lot of time, energy, mental labor, and prayer.

    Feel free to interact on this. It’s an important issue to me, because I want to be involved in the world of evangelical scholarship, and I don’t think I have to sell out to do it. I share your concerns and distaste for much of “scholarship” (many others do, as well), but we’ve still got to make good arguments for our assertions.

  2. brooksnj says :

    I was somewhat hesitant to publish this post in the first place, given that I am not a scholar and don’t want to be one who criticizes others who do what I don’t. I want to be fair in my critiques, accurately representing the person/people I’m talking about. It would be incredibly wrong for me to charge this author for muddying truth without him actually doing so.

    That being said, what falls beyond the ellipses is of critical importance. Unfortunately I’m 2000 miles away from the book right now. However, as I was writing this post, I tried to be faithful to Witherington’s work. Doing unto others and I would have them do to me does not go out the window when quoting other people!

    Your point on the first quotation is duly accepted and entirely accurate. I personally would prefer to talk about how the passages connect, being part of God’s whole counsel, but that is unnecessarily splitting hairs.

    As for the other quotes, some were points he was setting forth as truth (as in Peter and the keys), and others he was critiquing. I tried to communicate well the overall tone of the book by only focusing on 3 pages. Some of the quotations probably do not merit confidence assertions in their place. Again, I was trying to establish a tone for the book. If that is unfair to the author, I would happily retract my critique of his book. The problem is that having so many “possibilities” leads the reader (me in this case) to believe that he’s reading an intellectual house-of-cards. And THAT muddies the message

    My biggest concern in the whole issue is the foundational issue of the clarity of Scripture. That is, did God communicate in such a way that we can UNDERSTAND what He has said. By seeding exegesis with phrases as “perhaps” and “likely” it diminishes the reader’s/listener’s confidence in being able to rightly interpret Scriptures. If we can’t be assertive about what the Scriptures say, we can’t be assertive about anything. Granted, there are dozens of different interpretations of many (most?) texts, but if someone is claiming to speak the truth, he needs to do so confidently.

    I appreciate your critique and friendship, Gunner. I’d like to know what you think of what I’ve just written.

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