Are Evangelicals Allowed to Use Our Minds? A Response to Peter Enns image

Are Evangelicals Allowed to Use Our Minds? A Response to Peter Enns

Peter Enns wonders how far it is possible to be an evangelical and have academic integrity, when the results of scholarship are predetermined from the outset. Taking Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind as a starting point, he argues that "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to use it." He writes:

The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. Biblical scholarship is the recurring focal point of this type of scandal:
- Sure, dig into evolution and the ancient context of Genesis, but by golly you’d better give me an Adam when you’re done.
- Knock yourself out with scholarship on the Pentateuch, but make sure at the end of it all you affirm that Moses basically wrote it.
- Be part of cutting edge archaeological studies, but when you’re done we want to see you affirm the historicity of the exodus and conquest of Canaan pretty much as the Bible describes them, regardless of what others say.
- Do whatever work you need to do, but when the dust settles, explain how your conclusions fit with inerrancy.
The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that doctrine determines academic conclusions.

A large number of Pete’s posts are aimed, in some way, at destabilising the evangelical belief in inerrancy, and this is no exception. But his approach - to argue that evangelical practice and academic integrity are incompatible, and that the former should be adapted in the light of the latter - is interesting. Four things occur to me in response.
Firstly, Pete is not really talking about evangelicalism as such, but about confessionalism. It is not evangelicalism that results in outcomes being agreed from the start (witness the substantial changes in the views of Steve Chalke, Rachel Held Evans, and countless others including Pete Enns himself), but confessionalism, in which a previously agreed statement, whether from centuries or months before, becomes a standard of orthodoxy. Not all evangelicals are confessional, and not all confessionalists are evangelical; some evangelicals have minimal established boundaries for belief, and many people that do have such confessional boundaries are not evangelical at all (whether Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon, or whatever). The fact that Pete’s experience occurred in an evangelical institution - he was required to leave Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia over his views on inerrancy - does not mean that such things only take place in evangelical institutions, nor that they must do in all of them. Strictly speaking, he should have been talking about the scandal of the confessional mind.
Secondly, Pete talks in this post (and in others) as if the drive towards evangelical conclusions is externally imposed upon the scholar, against his or her will, rather than being something which the scholar pursues as a matter of conviction. The straw-man speaker in the above (“by golly”, “regardless of what others say”, etc) is not the inner voice of the scholar, but the voice of the Evil Evangelical Institution, trampling on the intellectual integrity of the poor maligned academic, and that suggests that Pete’s real problem is not with the evangelical mind, or even the confessional mind, but with the confessional institution. There are all sorts of evangelicals (including me) working on biblical studies in research institutions that put no restrictions whatsoever on the results of research, so long as they are properly substantiated - which, I imagine, is precisely what Pete is saying we need - yet who nonetheless work hard to demonstrate how their findings cohere with their understanding of Scripture as the word of God. Perhaps this is unknown in the US, but somehow I doubt it. So I suspect that his lament is really over the constraints of confessional institutions, not the constraints of evangelical minds.
Thirdly, it strikes me that all Christians engaged in academic scholarship have some prior commitments, whether we call them basic beliefs or predetermined outcomes, that will shape the way their research is conducted. Tom Wright has written openly about his commitment to the essence of Christian belief, which he could not abandon “without becoming a totally different person”, and the way this affects his biblical interpretation; numerous leading and very serious scholars (one thinks of Dunn, Wright, Bauckham, Gathercole, Marshall, Thiselton, and that’s just a few of the British ones) have explicitly stated, and/or contributed to commentary serieses which explicitly state their commitment to Scripture as the inspired word of God. (In fact, secular institutions have prior commitments as well; I imagine Rosaria Champagne Butterfield would find it harder to get a job as a Women’s Studies professor these days.) I assume Pete does not regard any of these minds as scandalous, and if he doesn’t, then his problem cannot be with the existence of prior faith commitments about Christian doctrine, or about Scripture, per se. Rather, he must be objecting to the extent of the confessional statements adhered to by the institutions he is talking about: he believes many of them ought to require fewer (or perhaps different) affirmations from faculty members than they currently do. As such, I don’t think his argument is really about “the scandal of the evangelical mind”, but about “the scandal of some of the affirmations contained within the confessional statements of some evangelical institutions” (even if that mouthful is somewhat less pithy than Mark Noll’s original title). Basically, he disagrees with some of the things some evangelical seminaries require faculty to believe in order to work there, whether about Adam, the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the doctrine of Scripture, or whatever else. Including, one assumes, Westminster Theological Seminary.
He is entirely entitled to that belief, of course. Whether it constitutes an argument for the scandal of the evangelical mind or not is a different matter altogether, but he is perfectly at liberty to object to the extent and nature of confessional statements with which he disagrees. But in light of the fact that many seminaries were established to preserve a particular view of Christian doctrine, and to train their seminarians in it, it occurs to me, fourthly, that there is an alternative way of responding to seminaries which have confessional statements with which you disagree - one that does not require blanket statements about the intellectual rigour and integrity of evangelicals. In fact, it is quite simple. You can simply choose not to work for them.


Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology

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