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Academic Integrity within a Confessional Institution: An “Insider’s” Response to Thomas Verenna





I went public with my criticism of the essay, and still believe that it is not a responsible presentation of the full biblical evidence on the treatment of women, as it barely skims the “push back” texts in OT or NT and has no mention whatsoever of Jesus’s interactions with women in the Gospels. My criticism has focused not only on the imbalanced nature of this essay, which enjoys a huge public audience, but the lack of circumspection in putting something so un-nuanced into the public domain with no consideration of its reflection back on the integrity of the institution which Dr. Rollston serves.



See Also: On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions By Thomas Verenna



By Paul M. Blowers
Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History
Emmanuel Christian Seminary
October 2012


One of my favorite quotations of late is Merold Westphal’s line, “There are no cheap seats where the love of wisdom reigns” (Whose Community? Which Interpretation? p. 69).

It has come to mind a lot lately as I have watched unfold a thickening saga in which allegedly informed “outsiders” have decided, through the blogosphere and even on a reputable internet journal like this one, Bible and Interpretation, to hold court on the “inside” of developments involving the seminary in which I have taught for almost 25 years, a school of which I have, indeed, been quite protective in the fray of a recent controversy showcased and given interpretation-replete-with-footnotes by a certain graduate student from Rutgers University, Mr. Thomas Verenna. Mr. Verenna is a blogger and ostensible self-appointed vigilante for academic freedom whom I don’t even know but who seems to know all about me, my colleagues, and the institutional identity and policies of Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Emmanuel is a graduate seminary of the Stone-Campbell (Restoration) tradition with a historic and especially abiding relationship with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

As those who have been following things are aware, the major controversy has surrounded one of my colleagues, Dr. Christopher Rollston, an eminent scholar of Near Eastern studies with special expertise in epigraphy, and with additional international acclaim as an expert in the identification of archaeological and epigraphic forgeries. He is the author of a marvelous recent book, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL, 2011), which has been widely praised. Dr. Rollston wrote a blog in late August on the Huffington Post concerning the marginalization of women as a “biblical value.” I went public with my criticism of the essay, and still believe that it is not a responsible presentation of the full biblical evidence on the treatment of women, as it barely skims the “push back” texts in OT or NT and has no mention whatsoever of Jesus’s interactions with women in the Gospels. My criticism has focused not only on the imbalanced nature of this essay, which enjoys a huge public audience, but the lack of circumspection in putting something so un-nuanced into the public domain with no consideration of its reflection back on the integrity of the institution which Dr. Rollston serves. The title of the essay is “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About.” This editorial “we” is very problematic, as it blurs the line between the “we” of the church, the “we” of Emmanuel, and the “we” of secular public opinion. This is even more serious than it appears. Presuming this “we” includes Emmanuel and his faculty colleagues, the very context in which Dr. Rollston spends most of his time, and where he is most likely to have knowledge of a lack of awareness of the issue of difficult texts of the Bible dealing with the status of women in ancient societies, his article insults those of his colleagues who have indeed proactively engaged not only the biblical evidence of the marginalization of women but the church’s responsibility to deal with it. One could easily draw the conclusion, as have some of my Emmanuel colleagues, that Dr. Rollston hasn’t been listening at all to our conversations on women in the Bible and women in ministry (an issue we’re passionate about in an ecclesial tradition often resistant to opening doors to women in ministry).

But let me come more to the point. Mr. Verenna (who, I assume, as a graduate student has never taught in a theological seminary) has prefaced his prosecution of me and Emmanuel with his own autobiographical reflection about originally being bullied in a Catholic school, and moved from there to a totalizing discourse on the sorry state of academic freedom, especially in confessional schools like Emmanuel (though Emmanuel requires no signed doctrinal statement from faculty). His discourse is well-rehearsed and nothing novel, a simplistic polarization between traditionalist and progressive/critical learning approaches, as if no one could possibly dwell in the shadowlands between or beyond them. His specific point is that it is a flat choice, in schools like ours, between “intellectual freedom” and being confessionally enslaved. (If one reads Mr. Verenna’s article, Dr. Rollston incarnates the former, and I the latter). Mr. Verenna’s personal story is echoed and mirrored by Dr. Robert Cargill and Dr. James Tabor (an old teacher of mine during his time at Notre Dame), who have now joined into a controversy in which—to recall Merold Westphal’s line—they have taken up the “cheap seats.” There is a common and familiar narrative here, of which Bart Ehrman is perhaps the most famous case study, though unfortunately he completely lost his faith a good while back and hopefully will be able to retrieve it. It goes like this: Part 1: emergence from a constrictive, hierarchical, or fundamentalist-biblicist background; Part 2: gradual liberation to a truly “critical” perspective and acquisition of a PhD from a reputable university that grants one academic legitimacy; and Part 3: varying degrees or forms of dispossession of one’s past and tendency to reinterpret all scholars’ (and students’) experience in the light of one’s own. Dr. Cargill has written of his own journey in this regard (http://blog.beliefnet.com/
omeoflittlefaith/2010/09/robert-cargill-skeptic-sanctuary
.html
). He was liberated from his allegedly narrow Church of Christ roots and now teaches in the University of Iowa, from which position, in this particular controversy, “as a member of the academy, and as a scholar and a professor engaged in the academic enterprise” (his words), he has claimed the sanction of the whole “academy” (very nebulous term) to prosecute Emmanuel and myself. Perhaps this is sheer hubris. So far as I know, however, he’s never stepped foot on the campus of our seminary.

Meanwhile, I’m not interested here in developing a personal apologia, as my own publications indicate how seriously I take critical study of the Bible and church history, and Mr. Verenna’s attempt to profile me as anti-critical or anti-intellectual is a sheer farce. I’d rather reflect on the particular existential horizon of those, like myself, who teach within a seminary that has a record of always fiercely protecting the rights of its faculty to engage in historical-critical study of Scripture while being serious about certain basic theological and ecclesiological commitments that are “built into the system” with most seminaries. Within our own Stone-Campbell heritage, Emmanuel has been a “moderate” school, trying to avoid the polarizations of liberal and conservative and providing a healthy environment for students to be challenged in their faith, put through the refiner’s fire of tough questioning, and yet given strong theological and spiritual resources to build for future ministry. For us, historical-critical scholarship (and the biblical languages that we still require of most of our students) serve the church first, the academy second. Take it or leave it, that’s our stated understanding of things, and we expect students not only to “manage” their new-found learning in an ecclesial context, but to find constructive ways to use it for edifying purposes. Simply put, most of them will not be devoting large amounts of time to guiding their parishioners through form criticism or biblical-critical Forschungsgeschichte, but will have to help them pastorally with making sense of Job’s outcries or the outrageous death of Jephthah’s daughter. Our assumption at Emmanuel, certainly, is that students will need the engagement of historical criticism to help perform pastoral tasks, but this is only one component, of course, in their formation for ministry in churches, chaplaincies, campus ministries, overseas mission, teaching, non-profit organizations, or wherever they serve.

Always our faculty at Emmanuel are “checking themselves” over how to put all of the pieces together, especially as we deal with students who have all sorts of reactions to historical-critical scholarship (e.g. facile appropriation; rejection; compartmentalization; suspended judgment, etc.) and different levels of spiritual maturity. I suspect most seminary faculties struggle to do the same, at least those schools that bear the kind of onus that we do. It’s an unrelenting process that requires patience, mercy, accommodation to the specific needs of individual students, but also still, at least for Emmanuel students, some “Gospel” in the final accumulation of critical “data” only some of which will have been fully digested in the short time we have them with us. We want them to retain as much knowledge as they can, but more importantly to be wise in its use. Certainly we do not desire them to obsess over mimicking the “expertise” of their professors, which could set them up to fall flat in the “real world” of ministry.

Sadly, over and beyond this Huffington Post controversy, while still very much within the public domain (so that I am betraying nothing private here), Dr. Rollston, in his 2006 installation address for the Nakarai Chair in OT at Emmanuel, reflected on his own journey from a very conservative upbringing to an elite university education in Semitic studies. In the address, he declared to a broad audience that Emmanuel’s real purpose in educating students for ministry should be precisely to cultivate “religious elites” and “public intellectuals” (his phrases). I think not—especially if being a “public intellectual” means cavalierly undertaking commentary on sacred revelation in the secular blogosphere just to take shots at the fundamentalists and biblicists (the “biblical values” folks) whom Dr. Rollston already left behind long ago. Like many of our fellow seminaries, Emmanuel’s stated purpose has been, and I presume will remain, to prepare humble servants of the Church who interpret, proclaim, and most importantly love the Word of God in Scripture as a textual embodiment of God’s transforming grace for all people—and most certainly for the marginalized and the oppressed. Hopefully Emmanuel’s grads, like the women and men coming out of other “confessional institutions,” can learn to do that with excellence and eloquence, whether in the ecclesial or the secular domain.