Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Who gets to question the Bible?

Two professors from Calvin college recently came under scrutiny for their views on Genesis and evolution. Both, through study of science and the Bible, came to the conclusion that Genesis should not be read literally. As a result, one has lost his job and the other is fighting for his. Here is a piece of the story from Insidehighered.com:

Readers of The Banner, the publication of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, reacted instantly to the news in January that two religion professors at Calvin College had written scholarly papers suggesting that evidence of genetics and evolution raised questions about the traditional, literal reading of Genesis about creation, the story of Adam and Eve, and the fall of humanity out of an initial idyllic state.

The professors were not disavowing the role of God or of their church, but were arguing that modern science challenges traditional, literal readings of the Book of Genesis in ways that may require theological shifts.

Nonetheless, the reaction from readers of The Banner, as expressed in many (but not all) comments on the website, was clear: no deviation from Genesis as literal truth could be tolerated. “To protect the church and college from false teachers and contrary orthodox beliefs it would be right to let these guys go,” said one comment. “Cleary, professors who deny scripture as interpreted by our creeds and who have broken promises they made when the singed the Form of Subscription should be fired,” said another. One recent post says: “Why is it that so many Christians and academics in Christian colleges seem more concerned about keeping in step with what the world teaches than they are about what God’s Word teaches? Are we ashamed of God’s Word in the face of beliefs of our worldly peers?”

After reading the article and the comments above I wonder: who is it that gets to question the Bible? This goes beyond academic freedom and gets to an issue of the church. Who in the church is reevaluating what the church believes to make sure that we are interpreting correctly? Apparently, in this case, it is not these two gentlemen who are educated in their fields and can offer an informed opinion.

The church has always had a difficult relationship with those who question it. Ask poor Galileo about his experience. There tends to be a suspicion of education and an anti-intellectual prejudice. Quite often, however, the same people who are the most vocal about such issues know very little about the topic and what they do know is based on an English translation of the Bible. They are uniformed about the history and culture of the Bible and they know very little of science. The irony, of course, is that the very people they are reacting against are often the same people who help to give them their Bible. They are the scholars that some love to hate.

So if a denomination is going to prevent its academics and experts from looking at the Bible anew and to renew them when they challenge the denomination, then who gets to question the Bible? Who is it that will help us see our blindsides, our misinterpretation, our abuses of the Bible. If the academy is not the first and primary place where these discussions should take place, then where? Who? If freedom and space to question is not allowed, then the denomination is probably doomed to disappear.


  1. Hey John,

    Interesting stuff indeed. I'm a bit muddled about it all because the OT profs at Calvin Theological Seminary (not Calvin College) have for a long time not believed that Gen. 1 is not "literal" (whatever that means). That's a debate that happened long ago in the CRC. In other words, is what happened at Calvin College over whether Gen. 1-4 is "literal" or something else, like whether Adam was a single real human being. One doesn't have to take Gen. 1-4 "literally" to conclude that Adam was a real human being (as say Henri Blocher does).

    Moreover, when it comes to who questions Scripture it seems to me that:

    [1] Everyone, not just scholars, needs the freedom to question Scripture otherwise there is no freedom of conscience.

    [2] A denomination also needs some kind of confessional boundaries--otherwise they believe nothing and stand for anything.

    So, much of it comes down to a clash of rights: those of the denomination versus those of the individual. And I assume, the denomination has the right to expel those who don't fit into their own confessional beliefs (even if they are silly). That's how disagreement works? If a denomination is silly enough to expel people over theological matters of indifference that probably suggests the denomination isn't worth being in?

    One last point: the real Galileo story is a good deal more complex than his condemnation because of what he believed the Bible said. People(e.g. Nicholas of Cusa, Copernicus) before Galileo who had the same beliefs as he didn't get expelled from the church. Galileo was expelled not least because of the way he treated people with contempt etc. (Moreover, basically the entire scientific community rejected Galileo's arguments at the time, unlike say evolution today).

    Just some random thoughts dude.

    Walk the dance, live the liturgy, and keep it real, :)


  2. * mistake in text: the profs at CTS have believed Gen. 1-4 was NOT literal.

  3. It seems to me that their firing has more to do with their role rather than the fact that they questioned anything. If they are teaching the young people of a denomination *and* they have publicly come out against some of the doctrine of their institution/denomination, I can see why they'd lose their jobs.

    I'm guessing if they held a different role in their group they'd be fine. Meaning, if they were not teaching and equipping the future leaders of their denomination.

    I do understand your question and it is legitimate. But, as a leader of an organization, I have to side with the college.The college's value proposition, its brand and its position is to train young men (and women) in the ways and doctrine of their denomination. If you've got staff that run counter to that, then your brand looses integrity and your ability to draw students is weakened.

    Of course, they could rebrand as an institution that fosters free thinking, pure scholarship and cutting-edge biblical research—but there are a bunch of those out there I would guess and if they did that they would alienate their target market.

  4. John,

    An excellent post.

    Let me offer (hopefully) a little more to the discussion. You are right that these discussions properly take place in the academy, but they should also take place in the church. It is sad that there are churches who will not (for whatever reason) delve into the critical issues of our day. What has happened is that the church and the academy have become such self-contained institutions that it seems never the twain shall meet. Part of that is the fault of some Christian scholars who think that their work is somehow beside the point for the church, and part of it is the fault of the church who think that the work of Christian scholarship is somehow beside the point for the mission of the church.

    As one who engages in scholarship and pastoral ministry, I want my work as a scholar to be subject to the church (a church that is willing to engage me, not just dismiss me out of hand) and as a pastor I want my work to be informed by Christian scholarship.

    I think church and the academy have a responsibility to seek out the truth and follow where it leads. As a pastor I do my scholarly work in the shadow of the church. As a pastor, I do my work while looking over my shoulder, learning form the scholars who devote their lives to such important work.

  5. Okay. All the talking head rationalists :) have weighed in; here comes
    spirited chick. Isn't our God big enough to handle our questions? Does
    God really need our denomination to ride in on a trusty steed and "save"
    him from the questions of the gifted minds God himself gave us?

    good grief. Where would we be if we did not have each other keeping
    us in check? Huge danger today, in my ops, lies in our failure to
    gather in community and hold our beliefs up for scrutiny.

  6. Marty and Mike,

    I agree that the denomination has a right to fire these guys. I won't quibble there. And it is important to retain such rights. But where do these discussions take place if not in the academy. Moreover, from what I can make from the article, no one is accusing them of teaching this in the classroom. They gave papers in an appropriate setting for such topics and yet were fired.

  7. I attempted to post a response on FB but it is not showing so I'll give it a shot here.

    I do not believe the "best minds" are found solely within the walls of academia, and neither does the CRC, nor the RCA (my denomination). We believe the best place for such questioning is the local church where faith meets life. For the RCA--the sister of the CRC and same polity--the questions are then forwarded to the classis which would then submit them to the General Synod which would then turn the questions over to the Commission on Theology. The Commission on Theology consists of both pastors and professors who then do a detailed biblical study before responding with an answer. So questions are asked in a communal setting, since they have communal impact and are handled by both academics and pastors jointly. So, in answer to your question the academy in a denominational setting such as the CRC or the RCA is not the place for such questions. Since it would be foolish to turn the micro into the macro and generalize, and your question is specific to the CRC and not with all of academia in mind—I’m happy to have answered your question.