Fundamentalist Scholarship

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I’m assigning this article on evangelical theological scholarship by BJU PhD grad Andy Naselli as required reading for all PhD students at BJU, and for all PhD grads who aren’t older than me—along with a series of essays on the same topic by Kevin Bauder (if you haven’t already read them) that Andy references very positively. And I am directing this article at internal discussion, though I post it here because I invite others to listen in and contribute. (Note: I ran this post past several level heads and let it sit for three months before posting.)

Fundamentalists are right to view George Eldon Ladd’s story as a morality tale about the dangers of seeking a place at the scholarly table. And Andy shows that plenty of evangelical scholars have gotten the same message. But abusus non tollit usum; Christ gives teachers to his church, and I’m convinced that “teachers” includes scholars (I’m also convinced I’m not one of them—not every teacher is a scholar). I’m convinced that Christian scholars are gifts because their work has been so genuinely beneficial to my own spiritual walk and my own understanding of the Bible. At their best, as Tom Schreiner says in a great quote in Andy’s article, even the more arcane works of Christian scholarship are still aimed squarely at serving the church. I’ve seen it countless times. I know he’s right. My church most definitely benefits from Christian scholarship in countless ways, from the commentaries and other books (done by scholars) that our pastors use to shape their teaching, to the bookstore full of Bible translations (done by scholars) and Bible study helps (written by scholars).

I can’t recommend the article, however, without explicitly addressing an issue Andy raises. I’m going to include the whole paragraph and bold the line:

I earned two PhDs, but in the secular world those degrees aren’t terribly impressive. In God’s providence my first PhD is a theology degree from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. And I’m not embarrassed; I’m grateful for that school. My second PhD is in New Testament exegesis and theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. My mentor was D. A. Carson. From the standpoint of prestige in the evangelical academic world, going from BJU to Trinity was like going from high school to Harvard. But Trinity is still an evangelical school; it’s not Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Duke. And I’m not embarrassed about that either. I am thoroughly satisfied with my formal education, and I don’t think I lost out on much at all.

I think my friend Andy is right—right to be thankful and unembarrassed about God’s providence, and right to recognize the empirically verifiable point that a BJU is not viewed with any respect in the evangelical academic world. But I might amend his statement a little: “Going from BJU to Trinity is like going from ‘Huh?’ to Harvard.” The evangelical academic world, in my experience, doesn’t know BJU has a PhD program. They appear to pay as much attention to the BJU Press seminary line of books as I do to the combined literary output of all the King James Only colleges. I simply never find what they write to be helpful—even if I agree with a great deal of it—so I ignore it.*

I’m not saying that if evangelical academics only paid attention to BJU’s academic work, they’d realize they were wrong, that we deserve a reputation equal to that of TEDS. Though some of our books and dissertations are quite good, we don’t deserve a vastly better scholarly reputation. And there are at least two reasons for that:

  1. BJU doesn’t aim to teach pastorly scholars, it seems to me, but scholarly pastors. The object (at this point in our history, and empirically speaking) is not to produce a Porter but a Minnick. And I have benefited immeasurably from men trained in this system. I entered the BJU PhD program with essentially two goals, one serving the other: I wanted to be given access to the best tools available right now to understand the Bible so that I could teach the Bible accurately to others. I definitely feel that I received those tools. “I don’t think I lost out on much at all.” There are biblical studies books I have a hard time reading, but they tend to be pretty arcane (Stanley Porter’s dissertation is one of them, I’ll admit). Then again, there are other arcane books that, thanks to my BJU education, I have enjoyed. My godly and diligent BJU professors gave me access to 95% of the kind of theological scholarship that is genuinely relevant to my goal of accurate Bible teaching. (The best argument for going to BJU for your PhD comes from none other than John Piper.)
  2. But the goal in the BJU PhD program was generally not to produce such theological scholarship, only to consume it for the purposes of accurate Bible interpretation and sound teaching. That’s the main reason why the evangelical world doesn’t know we exist.

And I’m convinced we need to take steps to remedy the state of affairs described in that second point. Not because I want us to have a place at any table or want us to aim for a reputation like that of TEDS, but because we have gifts Christ has given to his church and we are withholding those gifts. I’m not a scholar. I don’t have the gifts. But there are guys at BJU who do. I do not think it is a necessary corollary of biblical teachings regarding separation from disobedient brothers (2 Thess. 3:6, 14) that we refuse to use our gifts to serve the broader church. I believe BJU-style fundamentalism does need to keep up a protest about certain views and practices within the evangelical world (and the fundamentalist world!), and I do think it’s possible to compromise that protest by being too chummy with people we ought to be rebuking and withdrawing from. I personally would not want to publish with Eerdmans, for example (as if they’d ever want anything I wrote). I have some great books from them, but I also have some horrendous Eerdmans books that are actually bound in wolf fur. I would rather HarperCollins make money off of me than Eerdmans.

Ladd’s story shows  how much truth you have to pay to get influence—if getting influence is your goal. So I don’t say, “Let’s publish on verbal aspect and inaugurated eschatology and transformational grammar (etc., etc.) so we can get evangelicals to listen to us talk about separation.” I say, “Let’s use our gifts for the church out of our love for Christ’s body.” How often we choose to talk about our disagreements with other portions of the church will be a matter calling for careful wisdom and overt discussion among ourselves. And we shouldn’t drop those issues. But conservative evangelicalism manages to write cris de cœur, jeremiads, and straight up polemics and write an even greater number of books that are simply edifying. We can do the same, and we owe it to Christ’s body to do so.

I have been duly warned by evangelical history and by older fundamentalists with scholarly gifts: don’t seek scholarly recognition. But that’s where too many educated fundamentalists stop. With warnings. And I don’t think it’s right to stop there. Publishing in an academic journal is not (necessarily) compromise; journals are, generally speaking, forums for disagreement within given bounds. I do not believe that an article or book review in JETS, WTSJ, or Themelios validates everyone in ETS, WTS, and TGC. The key question, it seems to me, is “What level of doctrinal agreement do I imply by my publishing here?”

I have no authority at BJU, and I count myself as a loyal son and not a critic. I write with the confidence that “constructive suggestions are appreciated,” even in a touchy online atmosphere (and once again—I checked this article with older, wiser heads). I’m a student who went through and profited from the system but who, with the progress of a (very) few years, sees one significant missed opportunity: we should write more.

Now, we are writing more, as of about ten years ago. And I’m eager to see what’s about to come from the pen of some of our seminary profs on sabbatical. They are writing with scholarly depth, and they are writing for the church. But I believe there is more service we can do. I’m not trying to burden busy teachers; I’m just encouraging us all to be a little creative. A lot of books out there began life as lecture notes, grew up to become journal articles, and then got collected together. We can do that. If we’re intentional. If we really want to serve the church.

One fundamentalist leader for whom I have great respect told me that fundamentalists would write more, but evangelicals wouldn’t listen. My strong impression—speaking as the presenter on the most popular Bible Typography video done by a redheaded fundamentalist on all of YouTube, a video watched and shared (I happen to know) by a broad swath of Bible-loving Christians—is that they will let us serve them. They won’t care about the source as much as the help, even if some of what we write is a rebuke and a challenge to their sensibilities. We clearly need the gifts God has given other groups of Christians; without them we wouldn’t have any seminary textbooks. But they need our gifts, too. Let’s give them.

*I did just run across an ETS member with a genuine PhD who teaches at a KJV-Only school. But he’s the only one I’ve seen. And he’s not KJV-Only.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

29 thoughts on “Fundamentalist Scholarship”

  1. Do you see the entire Bob Jones Seminary program as designed to train “scholarly pastors” or just the PhD program? From my experience, evangelical institutions usually demark DMin training for “scholarly pastors” and PhD training for “pastorly scholars.”

  2. I say “Amen. ” Let’s take up the challenge! There is much to offer and much to gain for the glory of God!

  3. Good question, and that’s a great way to put it. I didn’t go through the MDiv track, though I shared quite a few classes with those guys. My impression is that, yes, the whole Bob Jones Seminary program aims at producing “scholarly pastors,” guys who can use the tools of scholarship to teach the Bible accurately. The emphasis may be more on the “scholarly” for the PhD track and more on the “pastors” for the MDiv track.

  4. As someone who completed the MDiv track (but is friends with several who did the PhD there), I’d agree with Mark’s assessment.

    Since then I’ve had opportunity to rub shoulders with people involved in PhD programs at institutions that represent vastly different segments of broader evangelicalism, and I also noticed this difference. At one of these places, someone told me they were shocked to see me at their conference because people like me “usually don’t have anything to do with us.” Of course, he was correct that we usually keep our distance, but I think we’ve been wrong to avoid all engagement whatsoever.

    As Mark suggests above, there are different postures one can or should take on the extent to which one should pursue scholarly recognition. The people I’ve met would probably answer that question different ways.

  5. As someone caught between many different churchy labels, I would love more “educated fundamentalist” writings.

  6. well done, mark. your assessment of how evangelicals would hear fundamentalists is precisely the way i read christian authors: does this book/article/post serve me as i seek to follow Christ? i know comparatively very little about many whose writings line my shelves. but their scholarship and devotion aid my own, and eventually i learn their background. adopting that mentality—i am here to serve the church of Christ—frees us from fear of man on the one hand (“will they accept me?”) and seclusion on the other. thanks for laying out this path so clearly.

  7. Mark,
    I appreciate your conclusions, and I would say that my BA and MA at BJU was an excellent education. However, as someone who has a PhD from an ivy-league school where many evangelicals also get doctorates in divinity, I would say that you missed two contributing factors to this problem. First, BJU (and fundamentalism as a whole) has literally centuries of seclusion and isolationism. Is it any wonder that the broader evangelical world has said, “Ok, we’ll let you stay alone in your fort”?

    Second, no matter how much BJU has argued for their own stronger (and better) scholarship when compared to many of the other fundamentalist diploma mills, they have consistently jettisoned the regulating bodies that would _prove_ to outsiders that they are not in the same league. Yes, they have applied now, but really, why did it take them so long?

  8. We piped for you, Katherine, and you did not dance! =) Now that we’re going for that accreditation, please do pray for us. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  9. Thanks Mark, well said. You stated “They won’t care about the source as much as the help…” I would agree but would think that we all tend to be more prone trust and use “help” when it is done by someone with a certain level credentials from somewhere we respect and trust. In my case simply for time sake.

  10. A valid point, Paul. And I believe there are men with scholarly gifts at BJU who are worthy of the church’s trust, and would prove so if their writings made it out to the church.

  11. “centuries of isolation”??? Let’s see – BG controversy late 1950s, present year 2015, so 60ish yrs = centuries in the Ivy League, apparently?

    But that is just picking nits.

    Is your major premise that we should be writing because we have so much to offer to the church at large? That’s what’s coming across to me in this, maybe I’m missing something.

    I think we should write if we have something to say. Whether anybody listens or not is another question. In the past, our reach has been somewhat limited due to difficulty in getting books to market and market share. But electronic publishing is changing that. If we have something to say, we should say it. If it gets to a wide readership, great. If it doesn’t, there will still be probably sufficient rewards in getting our words out in the marketplace of ideas.

    I think that it would help if we had thirty or forty people regularly pumping out blog-length material as well, which might build market share by itself.

    But on the other hand, if we don’t have anything to say, or can’t say it well, then probably best to carry on as is.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  12. I asked Katherine privately what she meant by “centuries.” I’ll let you know what she says.

    I think you accurately grasp my major premise: we at BJU should write, because we have something to say that can benefit our neighbors, particularly those in the household of faith. Electronic publishing has made it very easy to write, and we’re still not doing it. I have a strong feeling we will be, but I write in order to encourage others to have that strong feeling…

  13. I have a PhD in Early Modern devotional literature, and was working on my own research at the time. My apologies, I should have said “decades.” Fundamentalism is a very new movement, in the scheme of things, so obviously, centuries is incorrect.

  14. Mark,

    What percentage of the BJU seminary professors are currently pastors of local churches? I would think such a position may result in a divided allegiance: the pursuit of academic excellence/relevance and the shepherding of their flock. I’m certainly not critical of such a professor (more like admiration of their work ethic!), yet there are only so many hours in a day, and pastors have sermons to be preached and souls to be evangelized/discipled (along with the lectures throughout the week). Just thinking out loud, but do the other evangelical powerhouses of academia have the same pastoral constituency in their seminaries?

    Great thoughts, Mark!!

  15. Three of the thirteen are pastors, but only two of those are really full-time on the faculty (Casillas and Reimers). The other (Minnick, my pastor) doesn’t teach as much.

    Nothing I wrote demands the conclusion that such a practice stop—it’s obviously very valuable to have a pastoral perspective among professors training future pastors! I’m aware, too, that arguments about the proper education for ministers have gone around and around the tension of ministerial experience vs. academic focus. And I’m not wise or well-read enough to solve that tension or even validate its continuance. All I’m saying is that we—BJU, my small crowd—need to write more, for the sake of the body of Christ.

  16. Thanks to Katherine for correcting the hyperbole. I would suggest that the slip still betrays a part of the problem. Those on the outside of fundamentalism suffer from an anti-fundamentalist prejudice and aren’t likely to turn to our works to see what they say.

    Now Mark, what I am saying is that I agree with part of what you are saying, but I disagree somewhat with the way you express the motivation. You said “we at BJU should write, because we have something to say that can benefit our neighbors” – I think you could leave off the “that can benefit our neighbours” – it seems somewhat man-centered to say it that way, and somewhat smug, as in “we could be a big help to the rest of those slugs if we simply deigned to write.” I don’t think you mean it that way exactly, but I would leave it simply at the point of: we have something to say, so say it.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  17. I’m having trouble really following your point, Don. Every piece of writing has an audience. I’m saying that the main thing that will/should get us past whatever’s keeping us from writing is love for our neighbor.

  18. Let me see if I can do better. I asked earlier, “Is your major premise that we should be writing because we have so much to offer to the church at large?” You said in reply, “I think you accurately grasp my major premise” – but (and perhaps it is just me) doesn’t that sound kind of proud? We should write because we have so much to offer?

    I guess that’s what’s bothering me – but, as I said, perhaps I am just not seeing this right.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  19. And I still say that my emphasis is on the church at large more than on what we can offer.

    But I see your point. No, I don’t think we should be motivated by pride in any way. I’m thinking of the doctor who’s on vacation and notices another guest at his hotel choking—or something like that. =) Or, a little less graphic, a doctor who’s on vacation sitting with friends and who offers advice freely at the dinner table to people who feel awash in all the competing claims about nutrition. He may be motivated by pride, but he may be motivated by a desire to help his neighbor.

  20. Now, from my way of looking at it, “writing because I have something to say” sounds a lot more arrogant that “writing because I want to benefit my neighbor.”

    God said he gives gifts for the equipping of the body (Eph 4:12). If you think you fit in that category, there is nothing arrogant in saying so, provided you can say it with the appropriate humility.

    Perhaps the words “so much” implies some arrogance. If that be the case, I’m sure Mark would be glad to change it to “something.” Right, Mark? (don’t make me look bad :))

    In any case, the fact that people are made in the image of God should motivate us to treat them in certain ways (James 3:9,10) and I, for one, find that a compelling reason to write a book.

  21. Ok, I’ll leave that line of argument now. I think you get what I was trying to say.

    I also see that “having something to say” could also be arrogant.

    But I am thinking about something I am reading recently, Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage. He talks about men like Isaac Backus who worked tirelessly for liberty in the New England states (18th c.). Backus took to his pen as well as to his preaching, publishing several books on the subject.

    Personally, I think we should be motivated to defend God’s viewpoint of man’s folly and speak up about it. There are so many errors prevalent today, we ought to be writing on them constantly. This includes the errors in professing Christendom. There is much to be done and I think the fundamentalist viewpoint actually has the best answer to these problems. We have gotten used to not writing because the access to the market has been denied us. But things have changed and we can find ways to get our stuff out there now that didn’t exist before.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  22. This seems like a good philosophy to emulate:

    “Although there was a strong emphasis on the study of theological subjects, the seminary’s goal was to produce gospel ministers rather than academic scholars. Academic study was never viewed as an end in itself; rather, rigorous and sustained academic study was seen as subservient to the goal of producing well-educated and pious students, approved unto God, workmen that need not to be ashamed, who rightly divide the word of truth.” (“Introduction,” xvi.)

    Garretson, James M., ed. Princeton and the Work of Christian Ministry: A Collection of Addresses and Articles by Faculty and Friends of Princeton Theological Seminary. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012.

  23. Good find, Dustin. I really do need to do some church-historical reading on this matter. I’ve got the two-volume history of Princeton from Banner of Truth.

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