Evangelicals, Scholarship, and Discrimination

Categories: Biblical Studies, Politics & Economics, Religion & Theology

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I know I’m getting into this discussion a bit late, but I can’t resist. Dan Wallace’s post about a widespread bias against Evangelical students (specifically Dallas Theological Seminary students) and scholars has stirred the waters of discussion in the biblioblogosphere, with numerous others offering their opinions on various aspects of Wallace’s case (e.g., Scot McKnight’s initial observation here and his response here, Joel Willits’ post at Euangelion, Pat McCullough’s admitted bias and openness, David Miller’s brief reponse, James McGrath’s excellent points about open- and closed-mindedness at both ends of the spectrum, Mike Kok[e]’s question of whether “Evangelical Scholarship” is an oxymoron). At the risk of repeating much of what has been said already (and I have by no means read all the comments even on Wallace’s blog post), my thoughts are below:

Firstly, I have all too often seen Evangelicals use their beliefs as a built-in excuse for failure. What I mean is that all too often Evangelicals push their less popular beliefs forward at the very start, then taking it as a badge of honor when they are rejected, being self-justified that they were rejected as some form of discrimination or persecution. For example, the Evangelical student who asserts his/her belief in inerrancy in a personal statement or writing sample has self-sabotaged his/her application, providing an easy excuse for rejection—surely the student wouldn’t have been rejected had the faculty not been so anti-Evangelical!

But it’s not so simple. That the student pushes such an idea forward when it wasn’t really relevant will suggest to the committee that the student is either 1) overly pugnacious about religious beliefs and thus will damage the departmental ethos (and too many Evangelical students have fallen into this category in the past for many departments to take that risk), 2) self-sabotaging as a defense mechanism, displaying the lack of self-confidence necessary to finish such a rigorous program, or 3) unprepared enough for academic study that the student actually thinks leading with such information is prudent. Any of the three will rule the student out, and none of them have to do with any systemic rejection of Evangelical beliefs. I have known of this sort of situation even in departments such as Chemistry or Physics, believe it or not. (Wallace himself admits in comment #32 that Evangelicals all too often “lead with their theological chins” in this sort of manner.)

Secondly, though I agree with Wallace that, at least to some degree, the most “liberal” academics have ironically become “conservative” in their preservation of particular perspectives (more on that in a moment), I would argue that the “conservatives” (usually Evangelicals) are guilty of the same “liberal” practices they most condemn: they force external systems and assumptions onto the texts in question, refusing to step back and deal with the texts alone, outside of the boxes they have built for them. Preston Sprinkle gracefully addresses this in a comment on Euangellion:

I had the same experience in attending a university in Britain, “liberal-land,” as one of my seminary friends labeled it (he had actually never been to the UK). What I experienced was a relentless pursuit of the text by both students and faculty (again, and of course, there was some exceptions). I almost didn’t know what to do in my first year when I was forced (for the first time, it felt) to defend my beliefs from the text of scripture, and from scripture alone. In fact, when I taught briefly at a British university thereafter, the mantra among the (non-evangelical) faculty was: “sure, we wouldn’t mind hiring an evangelical, as long as HE JUST STICKS TO THE TEXT!” American evangelicals are often perceived as pushing theological agendas at all cost. But rigorous and faithful exegesis, I have found, is actually respected on both sides of the pond.

Given that the assumptions and frameworks Evangelicals bring to the texts are so well-known as to be transparent, this is an especially damning problem for those who want to work within the Academy—their conclusions are often suspect, simply because it is (often rightly) assumed that the conclusion was determined long before the work was done. Such is the weakness of thoroughgoing conservatism (considering the word in its true meaning)—if everything is merely a defense or “conservation” of past systems, what contributions are really valuable for the Academy as legitimate research? How can the envelope be pushed from this perspective?

It is here that many so-called “liberal” academics also run aground, as they are themselves merely trying to “conserve” some previously established theoretical or systematic framework. McGrath points to this problem as well: “On the other hand, I certainly recognize the perils of presenting as “liberal” an approach that in fact seeks to engage only other liberal voices in discussion.” In this way, the hardening of battle lines on “liberal” and “conservative” fronts has only resulted in two different types of conservatives fighting in defense of opposing positions. This is a major reason for my antipathy for the labels “conservative” or “liberal” in today’s scholarship: I would rather get beyond having two sets of opposing conservatives fighting from deeply entrenched positions, each occasionally lobbing a grenade or launching a minor skirmish on the other’s territory, and move toward a focus on a thorough re-examination of the texts and issues in question, looking at things from different angles and perhaps coming to better conclusions than either set of “conservatives” has been defending. In other words, we should be willing to question our assumptions and work at being puzzle-solvers rather than merely serving as apologists for some long-held and deeply entrenched orthodoxy (whether that is the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, the existence of Q, JEDP, or the unity of Isaiah).

This brings up a third issue: why should anyone be an “Evangelical scholar” in the Academy to begin with? The very fact that someone would self-identify in this manner (at least it seems to me) reflects an unwillingness to question one’s assumptions. In effect, it’s advertising from the start, “I am starting from this inviolable perspective, and nothing that I research will ever call these certain things into question, no matter what the data suggests, and I am going to operate from this set of assumptions, come hell or high water.”

Approaching research from this perspective precludes certain conclusions, calling the whole project into question in a similar manner as a diet study funded by Kelloggs or a climate study funded by big oil would potentially taint the results of such studies. I am in no way condemning the role that faith can and does play in scholarship (we all have to start from somewhere—even atheists or agnostics have “faith” in the sense of foundational assumptions on which everything else rests); rather, I am suggesting that a healthy faith does not protect itself against examination. If one’s assumptions (read: beliefs) are correct, they can withstand any amount of attempts at disconfirmation, and if one is honest, one is willing to change one’s faith base if the facts stand against it. But can/will an “Evangelical scholar” even ask the questions that might disconfirm his/her faith? (I know of a number of scholars who were fired from their Evangelical seminary positions for asking such questions, suggesting it is at the very least a dangerous enterprise in that environment, where “heresy trials” are all too common.) That this is even a question accounts for much of the “discrimination” towards “Evangelical scholars.” (That said, I agree with McKnight’s point that if a person does want to be an “Evangelical scholar” and intends to stay within the realm of Evangelical seminaries, etc., there are numerous options available and little reason to venture out into the rest of the Academy for training. Brian LePort offers further helpful differentiation between the two paths in his post “Seminary v. University?” as well.)

At this point I can only echo what Patrick McCullough has already stated: I confess, I’m biased against Dallas Theological Seminary, though I am open to being surprised. In the same way I am biased against certain scholars I perceive as having an axe to grind, regardless of what the data says, I find DTS’s requirements that a student (in McCullough’s words): “must agree with the school’s doctrinal positions and research cannot ‘offend’ their doctrinal base,” especially given that DTS is avowedly Dispensational in its theology, forcing a 19th Century reading (and a weak one, at that) upon the biblical text as a mandatory element. Imagine the outcry against a school that declared that all the research produced must in not “offend” or question the “base” created by the numerous “liberal” German scholars of the 19th Century, since theirs was clearly the only possible correct reading of Scripture! Such uncritical preferencing of a particular 19th Century reading of Scripture at the systemic, institutional level deserves a certain level of bias and skepticism. That said, like McCullough, I must admit to having been positively surprised by some of the quality work done by those affiliated with DTS either in the past or present. In such cases it is important that our biases not become blind rejection—but it is true that someone coming from such a background has a higher bar to clear in order to gain a hearing for his/her work.

(One other note: DTS requires that all students agree with seven “essentials,” including “salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.” I find it hopelessly ironic that at least one New Testament author could not have attended or taught at DTS given such a requirement, as James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is made righteous by works and not by faith alone.”)

Again, I would like to see us push beyond being scholars of particular labels and move towards problem solving. We certainly won’t all agree on the best solutions, but it would be better not to stay in our long-dug trenches and then complain that the folks in the other trench aren’t playing fair when we want to spend time on their side. Institutions like DTS can help such a process by dropping some of the strictures they place on research (if their perspective is correct, will it not be revealed when the data is fully and clearly examined?), but complaining about discrimination while retaining the very kinds of requirements that epitomize it seems hypocritical. (On this, I want to make it clear that I am not accusing Wallace of being hypocritical, only the institution—his points are not entirely off-base in my estimation, and I’m fairly certain he wasn’t the one who set those strictures in place at DTS.)

Two final observations from my own experience:

1) Not all bias is anti-Evangelical; in an on-campus visit to a top Ph.D. program at a private, confessional institution a few years back, I noticed that I (having no Div school or seminary degree) was treated somewhat differently than the other candidates, all of whom had Div school degrees. There were a few moments where I had a chuckle at the assumptions and biases in play, given what I perceived as my somewhat “suspect” status as a “secularist.” I may have entirely misread the situation, but I don’t think that was the case. I doubt that was the only reason I didn’t get into that school, but I found it interesting nonetheless that there seemed to be a preference for those with Divinity degrees over secular MAs.

2) My advisor, Bart Ehrman, came up in the comments to Joel Willits’ post, with the suggestion that Bart, being such an opponent of inerrancy, would never take a student who believed differently. Echoing (another of Bart’s students) Ben’s reply in that thread, my experience with Bart has suggested that this is not the case; on the contrary, Bart takes students from any background imaginable, with his only concern being that the student does first-rate work and makes solid arguments. I also don’t see how such a thing would ever come up during the application process, and Bart doesn’t ask his students what they believe (nor do I think he much cares). Again, the only way such a thing would be an issue is if the student foolishly pushed it—in which case, see my comments above. Frankly, I would recommend Bart as an advisor to anyone who wants to do top work, regardless of his/her beliefs. Bart will simply push for better defense of whatever arguments that student chooses to make, regardless of what he thinks of them personally, and that can only improve one’s work. Bart is a first-rate advisor whether one agrees with him or not, and he takes the students he sees as strongest, regardless of their denominational/religious ties. I think he would even be open to taking a DTS grad, though perhaps only if the student had been outside that pond a bit (perhaps a Master’s in another place) and had showed outstanding work, along with having solid recommendations.

**I should also note for those who might be interested in the UNC program that Bart places a lot of emphasis on prior language training. Bart believes (rightly, I think) that a student who has paid dues with years of language training before applying to a Ph.D. program is more likely to “stick” and more prepared to do rigorous scholarly work.**

Tags: Biblical Studies, Evangelicalism, SBL

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