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:
- 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.)
- 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.