Christian Scholarship & Deliverance from Chronological Snobbery

One of the criticisms that ‘progressive’ Christians level at orthodox Christians is that they are anti-intellectual since they oppose the idea of applying insights drawn from critical theory and social sciences to interpret the Bible. This criticism is surely unfounded. For orthodox Christians, “All truth is God’s truth,” and the scholar of the Book should also be a scholar of many other books. As such, they would welcome any interdisciplinary exercise that seeks to enrich our understanding of Bible on its own terms. However,  orthodox Christians who engage in interdisciplinary studies should be clear about their presuppositions and priorities so as to avoid compromising their faith inadvertently.

First, the Bible as the infallible word of God should function as the background controlling belief in the integration of faith and contemporary knowledge like critical theory and social sciences. For example, when discussing the issue of homosexuality, it should be the case of biblical doctrine and ethics determining how Christians may appropriate insights from secular psychology, rather than the case of secular psychology making adjustments to Christian doctrine and ethics. Likewise, while new developments in archaeology and sociological studies of the ancient world have been helpful in bringing fresh perspectives on the biblical texts, nevertheless, historical background research should not replace analysis of the biblical text as the primary focus.

Second, scholars are taken seriously only if their research is in accordance to the rules set by the gatekeepers of the secular academy.  Biblical scholars in particular would need to demonstrate their competence and erudition within the framework of the reigning academic paradigm of historical-critical analysis of the biblical text, a method premised on philosophical naturalism. For example, Old Testament scholars may demonstrate how the Old Testament is to best understood in the light of parallel teachings found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New Testament scholars may read the New Testament through the lenses of the latest literary theory or apply some fashionable sociological theories to reconstruct the ethos early Christian Christianity in the context of Graeco-Roman social institutions and kinfolk relations.

We should be mindful that some social theories are reductionist(e.g. Durkheim’s functionalist theory of religion and morality). Some forms of literary criticism inherently challenge the claims of Christian propositional revelation (deconstruction theories). Nevertheless, we should maintain an openness to learn from secular disciplines as new knowledge can help us analyze and evaluate untested theories of biblical interpretation. It would be unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Biblical scholars should continue to engage with the secular disciplines in the spirit of “robbing the Egyptians.” However, caution is in place if biblical research ends up majoring in study of the historical background and elucidation of extra-biblical texts and minoring in theological exegesis of biblical text in its canonical context. After all, while historical study may establish “what is there” in the text, nevertheless, such study is no more than preparation for theological exegesis and spiritual discernment of the text.

It would be good for Christian scholars who labor strenuously to gain secular recognition to the extent of minimizing theological exegesis of the biblical text to be reminded of Karl Barth’s ironic observation that the “Culture-Protestant” scholars of his time who were no less erudite, gained at most a grudging tip of the hat by the secular academy.

Third, one of the reasons for misplaced priorities found among many biblical scholars is the unacknowledged assumption that the biblical text lacks clarity unless it is interpreted by a learned ‘priest’. It is arguable the old paradigm of reading the texts in the spirit of biblical prophecy has been replaced by the new paradigm of reading the text in the spirit of Greek prophecy (prophētēs). The Bible assumes God speaks clearly through the prophet (nabi). In contrast, the Greek prophētēs assumes that gods like Apollo utter dark, incomprehensible sounds. The priestess, Pythia (the Oracle of Delphi) whose senses have been enhanced by narcotic fumes must intervene to render the oracular noise intelligible to ordinary mortals. The contrast is evident, “the Biblical God is light in Himself and His word gives light to all who seek it, although He uses the nabhi’ as His transmitter. Somewhat of the savour of subjectivity always clung to the Hellenic term. A philosopher is prophētēs of immortal nature. Poets are prophētai of the Muses.” [Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948), p. 195.]

Scholars who promote the historical-critical method would like to present the discipline as an objective inquiry. However, in truth and in practice, the historical-critical method is not objective since historical inquiry is shaped by the presuppositions or subjective preferences of the historical critic. The subjective approach and critical attitude towards biblical revelation shared between the ancient Greek Pythia and the secular academy is uncanny.

Fourth, one of the temptations of ‘progressive’ scholars is to assume that Christian doctrine enshrined in Creeds and Confessions have been rendered questionable by advancement of modern knowledge. Surely this is a case of “chronological snobbery.” J.I. Packer aptly captures the spirit of this mindset as, “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is descent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.” [J. I. Packer, “Is Systematic Theology a Mirage? An Introductory Discussion,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World, ed. John Woodbridge and Thomas McComiskey (Zondervan, 1991), 21.]

C.S. Lewis cautions, “I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood…From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” [C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955) pp. 207-208.]

It takes courage to counter the ideas that are dominant in the secular academy. It would amount to academic suicide as the doors to academic appointment and publishing opportunities would be closed. But surely, for the Christian scholar, truth and faithfulness to biblical revelation should override secular recognition? Indeed, such integrity is vital for maintaining one’s spiritual vitality.

Fifth, given below are some lessons shared by the late Thomas Oden in his book, A change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP, 2014), as he offers a compelling account of how he overcame “chronological snobbery” and rediscovered the “deposit of faith” that has been entrusted to the saints.

Journey From ‘Progressive’ Christianity to Orthodox Christianity

Lesson 1: Contemporary scholarly method can inhibit and distort our understanding biblical revelation

Thomas Oden was an avant-garde theologian who drank deeply from the fountain of modern thought – Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, the three prototypes of modern consciousness. “Whenever I read the New Testament after 1950, I was trying to read it entirely without its crucial premises of incarnation and resurrection…I habitually assumed that truth in religion was finally reducible to economics (with Marx) or pychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche).” (pp. 50-51) Having received his Ph.D. from Yale under Richard Niebuhr, Oden was competent to engage the most prominent thinkers in the 1960s & 1970s – Tillich, Gadamer and Barth and Bultmann. Oden made his mark in his work on integrating Barthian theology with Rogerian psychotherapy. He recalls, he was initially enamored with the fashionable liberal approach to scripture. “I learned to take the New Testament texts very seriously, but only within the presumed framework of modern naturalist ideologies.” (p. 70) He describes his credo as a “new birth without bodily resurrections and forgiveness without atonement…the gospel was not about an event of divine salvation but abut a human psychological experience of trust and freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom. For me that passed as theology, but I remained uneasy about its insufficiencies” (p. 86). Indeed, Oden’s quest for novelty in scholarship rendered him vulnerable to heretical teaching. “I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy” (pp, 139, 140)

Lesson 2: The Christian classics help us overcome the “chronological snobbery” of the historical-critical method and be attentive to biblical doctrine and spiritual discernment

In response to a challenge by the famous Jewish thinker, Will Herberg, Oden decided to read through the Christian theological classics like the works of John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine. To his surprise he felt that in the process, he was “being guided by the Spirit toward an integral sense of Scripture based on the consensus of the early Christian interpreters of sacred Scripture…it was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. (p. 138)

He began asking anew the questions posed by the classical texts on how God could truly become human without ceasing to be God, how human freedom is distorted by sin and could become radically atoned on the cross etc. Put simply, historical-critical study may allow him to established the historical fact that a person called Jesus was crucified by the Romans, but it could never allow him raise such questions of sin and atonement by the incarnate Son on the cross, much less answer these questions on terms set by the Bible.

Oden confesses, “I had put too much uncritical trust in contemporary methods of historical study and behavioral engineering. Now I was seeing interpersonal transactions in relation to the creation, redemption and consummation of universal history…I came to grasp the distinctive way of consensual reasoning that had ripened within classic Christianity.” (p. 139)

“My previous relationship to Scripture had been a filtering process which permitted those sources to speak to me insofar as they could meet my conditions, my worldview and my assumptions as a modern person. Now I was finding that the fertile and prolific seed of orthodoxy could grow in the arid atmosphere of modern culture, even in academia (p. 147)

Lesson 3: The theological classics widen our theological and spiritual horizons and build bridges between the Bible and the lost reality of the modern world

Oden concludes, “Since meeting and dwelling with (classical and orthodox), Christian exegetes through their own writings in their own words, I came to trust the very orthodoxy I had once dismissed. I found myself living within a much larger community of discourse populated not just by modern companions but radiant minds of many past generations from varied cultures spanning all continents for two thousand years. Through this discipline I became even more relevant, not less relevant, to modern partners in dialogue…I experienced more crosscultural freedom of inquiry. Long ignored theological ideas came alive – like divine foreknowledge, revelation in history, demonist temptation, lives of saints and angelic succor. I felt incomparably blessed to receive that inheritance…The classic Christian mind is at home in every conceivable cultural setting.” I realized that I could be a theologian simply by reflecting accurately out of the great minds of Christian teaching. That was 100 percent more fruitful than the expression of my own imaginings. For once and for all, I knew my calling would be fulfilled through building bridges between the classical Christian consensus and the lost reality of the modern world.” (pp. 140-141, 144)

Postscript: As an antidote to intellectual snobbery, younger seminary students would benefit from reading the little classic, Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962).

Related Posts:
Ten Theses of The Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Reading the Bible as God’s Word: The Redemptive Historical Method and Progressive Revelation. Part 1

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