I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship

John Byron and Joel N. Lohr, eds.
Published by Zondervan in 2015

This fine little book provides a fascinating collection of autobiographical sketches by a diverse group of well-known biblical scholars. These insightful sketches describe the formative influences on the authors’ lives, developments in their theological and academic thinking, and (especially) how their personal faith has been affected by critical biblical scholarship. The latter is an issue of special interest to those of us who teach biblical studies in an academic setting: how do we encourage a personal faith rooted in the authority of Scripture, given the challenges posed by critical biblical scholarship?1

For many of these scholars, critical scholarship has provoked no crisis of faith—indeed, several have found critical study helpful and liberating as they wrestled with problems in the Bible; but for some, critical study of the Bible has resulted in a whole different trajectory. Many speak of the powerful influence of inspiring professors in leading them into biblical studies. Several speak of the way that believing professors, in particular, helped them to come to an appreciation of critical scholarship that enabled them to move away from their earlier fundamentalist perspectives and a strict view of inerrancy, without denying the authority of Scripture. Several have found their view of the Bible considerably broadened as a result of wrestling with contemporary social concerns (such as feminism, sexuality, ecology, race relations, poverty, and justice). The book also offers some nuggets of advice for scholars beginning their academic careers. Arranged in alphabetical order (as per the book), here is a brief summary of a few of the highlights of each sketch:

Richard Bauckham, a trained historian, experienced no crisis of faith in his academic studies. For him, a critical historical approach to Scripture affirms the reality of the Jesus of the Gospels; the Gospels are firmly rooted in actual history, though not in a simplistic sense.

Walter Brueggemann, raised in the tradition of German pietism, has never been troubled by historical or doctrinal conflicts in the Bible; his is a more artistic, imaginative, post-critical, liberationist approach to the Bible, driven by a passion for social justice. For Brueggemann, the Bible offers a divine alternative to the toxic ways of contemporary society, and the gospel is about emancipation.

Ellen F. Davis sees her work with African Christians as the most formative influence on her teaching and writing for the church. Seeking to be guided by the Spirit speaking through others and in her own life, she became aware through Christians in South Sudan that her teaching of the Bible must deal with the practical realities of a suffering world.

James D. G. Dunn found that academic study helped to shift his focus away from the problematic details of the Bible to its primary teachings, but posed no significant crisis of faith. Although his thinking and writing on the New Testament and the shaping of early Christianity has evolved and broadened over his career, his faith remains strong—though he is less satisfied now with the adequacy of words to express that faith.

Gordon D. Fee, shaped by the Assemblies of God and the example of his scholarly pastor-father, encountered no crisis of faith as a result of critical scholarship, but did experience tensions with colleagues and denominational leaders troubled by his scholarly conclusions. His lifelong goal has been to be a “scholar on fire”—a serious scholar driven by a passion for God and a desire to follow Christ—and to help students and readers become better listeners to the Word of God and stronger disciples of Christ.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa became “intoxicated with the Greek New Testament” at Union Theological Seminary in New York. For her, biblical scholarship proved to be invigorating rather than challenging to her faith. Since then, however, as a mother and a teacher, Gaventa has come to have serious questions about the “cost and contribution” of biblical scholarship. But she continues to find joy in the study and teaching of the Bible and in the experience of God she finds in it.

John Goldingay’s questions about faith have stemmed not from biblical criticism but from his wife’s long-term decline with multiple sclerosis. Through this and his study of the Old Testament (especially Ecclesiastes), he has come to accept that the world’s problems will always be with us and to believe that Christians have little hope of making the world better. Believers are called to live for the ultimate realities of the final resurrection and eternal life.

Donald A. Hagner writes of his freeing move away from a “closed” view of inerrancy to an “open,” believing view of biblical criticism, modeled for him by faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary. The example of believing critical scholars who affirmed the authority of Scripture without demanding absolute certainty in matters of history and criticism has kept him from a crisis and loss of faith.

Morna D. Hooker found that theological study raised troubling questions for her about faith and the idea of God. As one who has wrestled with doubt all life long, she has learned to live with uncertainties. But encouraged by the faith of believing scholars, she remains a Christian because the sacrificial love of God in the gospel is “the only thing that makes sense of the human situation … and because it rings true to my experience. The word ‘God’ I find difficult; the word ‘love’ I understand.”

Edith M. Humphrey’s move from the Salvation Army to liturgical Anglicanism (with a brief spell in an independent charismatic community), then to the unity, tradition, and Trinitarian spirituality of the Orthodox Church, reflects the priority of church in her thinking. In the process, she has moved from a defensive and intellectual focus on the faith to a deeper personal hunger for Christ; now, the goal of her teaching and writing is to point to Christ.

Andrew T. Lincoln experienced periods of radical questioning—not because of critical study, but because of crises in his personal life and relationships and failures in the church. A growing appreciation of the contextualization of the New Testament and its humanness has led him to a broader understanding of the authority of Scripture and a growing conviction of the need to apply it more freely to contemporary issues (such as women’s ordination and homosexuality). His primary interest now is in the complexities of theological hermeneutics for today.

Scot McKnight, whose college reading convinced him he was an evangelical but not a fundamentalist, has long had a fascination with Jesus studies. But his involvement in historical Jesus debates has convinced him of the limitations of the historical method and its usefulness and shifted his focus away from historical Jesus studies to the Gospel portraits of Jesus, and away from writing for the academic guild to writing for the church. He attests that the real answer to the academic questions people have about the faith lies in their coming to a real experience of Jesus.

J. Ramsey Michaels sees his life shaped by four strands that God used to draw him to Jesus: the Catholicism of his father, and the Fundamentalism, Anabaptism, and Calvin- ism he encountered as a student. Over the years, he has moved away from the diversity of evangelicalism to think of himself as a Calvinistic Baptist with an understanding of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who expected the Kingdom to come soon. His long-term interest has been in Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Patrick D. Miller followed in the footsteps of his father to become a Bible-loving Presbyterian pastor. Graduate study developed his interests in Old Testament exegesis and the history of religions. His lifelong pursuit has been to bring these two worlds together; biblical revelation is the result of the merging of the two. As a teacher, he seeks to focus not on the problems of the text, but on the joy of studying the text.

R. W. L. (Walter) Moberly, from his early days as a student convert, has wrestled with how to put together his “head” (scholarly study) and his “heart” (simple Christian faith). The example of believing scholars has helped to shift his focus away from defending the text to exploring it, and away from anxiety over questions of its historicity and theodicy (brought on by illness and bereavement) to studying its theology—“why Scripture matters”—in simple trust, a “second naiveté.” His continuing struggle has been to unite biblical scholarship with his desire to live out the biblical text in his own life.

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld’s early questioning of her fundamentalist background led her to an appreciation of critical study. She traces four stages in the development of her approach to Scripture: (1) historical exegesis; (2) feminist approaches; (3) approaches emphasizing the authority of the community; and (4) cross-cultural approaches. Her current interest is in issues of justice and interfaith dialogue, but still as a Christian believer who sees the Bible as the Word of God.

Phyllis Trible, who grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, discovered the fascination of academic study of the Bible during her college years, which also sparked her lifelong interest in feminism and its “subversive texts.” (During the 1970s, she did more than anyone else to bring feminist criticism into biblical scholarship.) More recently, distancing herself from the institutional church, she has developed an interest in interfaith dialogue and issues of social justice, ecology, race, and sexuality. With the passing years, faith became “more perplexing, challenging, and mysterious,” but she continued to “wrestle with God” out of her love for the Bible.2

Bruce K. Waltke has been rooted in belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and its infallibility for faith and practice all his life. Intellectual questions and discrepancies in the Bible were earlier met with apologetics and the confidence that revelation trumps human reason, and later with careful analysis that eliminated most of the seeming contradictions. Maturing reflection on certain aspects of biblical criticism and science has distanced him from fundamentalism; but his confidence in the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture remains unshaken.

Several points in these brief sketches strike me as especially interesting: (1) the key influence of Christian families and biblically-oriented churches in fostering students’ early interest in the Bible; (2) the powerful influence of academic institutions and their faculty in shaping the lives and thinking of their students (perhaps a note of caution for teachers who advise students pursuing graduate study); (3) the key opportunity that believing professors have to help students bridge the worlds of critical scholarship and evangelical faith, and to model the life of discipleship as scholars; (4) the crucial importance of prayerful listening to the voice of God speaking in Scripture, in the midst of academic study of the Bible, if one’s faith is to remain vital and fresh; and (5) the conclusion of several scholars that what “really matters” for Christian biblical scholar-teachers is not the academic debates, but the issues of ultimate importance—Jesus Christ, his gospel, and his church.

Cite this article
Roger Mohrlang, “I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 105–107

Footnotes

  1. See Roger Mohrlang, “Teaching the Bible as Scripture in an Academic Setting,” Whitworth University (2015). Theology Faculty Scholarship. Paper 1. http://digitalcommons.whitworth.edu/theologyfaculty/1.
  2. Trible died September 22, 2015.

Roger Mohrlang

Whitworth University
Theology, Whitworth University