On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions
By Thomas Verenna
Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
I wish to pose this question to all accredited academic institutions: “How do we want to educate students in the field of Biblical Studies?” There are perhaps dozens of answers which could be given. I suspect that any answer will depend greatly upon one’s affiliations academically. A scholar teaching the Bible at a research institution will probably have a very different answer than one teaching at a seminary or Christian College. Then there are also Catholic universities which probably share a different perspective all together. How one answers this question has some serious implications, both morally and professionally—the answers posited by some have become the cause of a recent crisis in the field.
As someone who was raised Catholic, some of my perspectives on biblical interpretation are a result of my many formative years of Catholic school and Sunday school and catechisms and encyclicals. The function of the question of education practices played out heavily during my high school years, and I remember them also as the most difficult time for my faith. I had many questions, and I was reckless in my asking of them. I was never afraid to challenge something I thought was inaccurate or possibly even wrong. But I was fortunate in my first year—for the most part, I had very good theology teachers who were open to my criticisms and challenged me to think more deeply about what I was reading in the biblical narratives.
But those years were not always so pleasant; some of the priests at my school were not very open to new ideas, nor did they appreciate the challenges of a lone student who was trying to come to grips with his own place in his faith. I was finding it more difficult to locate God within what I saw then as contradictions of scripture and the intolerance of the Church Fathers. I read Aquinas with some great interest but, while I admired his brilliant mind, I found myself loathing him for how he sought to deal with heresy.
For a whole quarter during my sophomore year, I was sent into “exile” from my theology class. I had asked too many questions it seemed and, when I did not stand to say a prayer at the beginning of one of our lessons, the Father demanded I “leave while I could.” It was embarrassing; I did not get the chance to defend my actions nor offer any explanation as to why I did not stand to pray. But in my “exile,” I found some solitude. I didn’t roam the halls idly. I spent my time in the school library, educating myself. I had questions, after all, and I wanted answers. Books seemed a more profound teacher than the dogma-bound priest who had humiliated and expelled me over curiosity. I wasn’t wrong. I found more hope in Bultmann than my whole time in that Father’s class.
The school administration was split on how to handle me; the principal chastised me and called me a sinner; another sat down and treated me with respect, like an adult, and had a great conversation with me. I had caused quite a ruckus with the faculty and—apparently—the dioceses. Go figure! Some thought I should be expelled from school because my questions might contaminate the rest of the student body. Other members of the faculty thought I was being mistreated by the other half—questions should always be asked, and they believed the school should have the gravitas to answer them in the best manner they could. I would never have thought then, with my small amount of life experience at the time, that a sixteen-year-old asking a few questions could be the cause of so much drama. At some point, though, I did go back to class. But these events would change the course of my life forever.
This all occurred some thirteen years ago. But I see the very same duality in academia today. On the one hand, there are many scholars who encourage critical thinking in their classroom, they engage with modern scholarship, and they discuss openly the implications of new ideas with their students. On the other hand, there are those who do not agree that there is value to intellectual freedom. This often leads to a negative effect on Biblical Studies education and, unfortunately, it seems to occur predominantly at institutions that practice some form of confessional theology. There are many academic facilities where faculty at particular seminaries and colleges must take an oath at the start of their employment that they adhere to the faith-based principles of their institution. They must not only accept it, but they must teach it.
The latter system of Biblical Studies education has its own consequences—especially for faculty who like to get their students to think critically. What does a scholar do when s/he is persuaded by an argument that conflicts with the ideals of that institution at which they work? There are usually layers to this as well (i.e., the institution portrays itself as one that is open and accessible to students of all faiths or creeds, or that it presents itself as one that encourages rigorous academic discipline to the sources—which would imply that it welcomes new and differing academic opinions).
What is quite interesting about all of this is the dualism latent within these situations whereby you have a group of scholars interested in enlightening students and in other instances a group of others (scholar or otherwise) who seek to diminish the valuable work the first group of scholars are doing. This dualism seems to be prevalent within Christianity, wherein it produces extreme cases of oppression (examples are many--like the various inquisitions, crusades, and purifications) but has also produced many wonderful thinkers (i.e., John Locke, Charles Darwin, etc.) and incredible charity work and advancements in scientific and philosophical thought (especially during the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment).
I should specify here that I’m actually quite fine with faith-based theology and exegesis. Nor do I have any sort of grudge against seminaries or confessional institutions, those who teach at them, or with any administration specifically. There is a place in our society for institutions such as these. However, there is a difference between expressing one’s faith and demanding that the dogmatic convictions that support that faith be adhered to under penalty of termination or academic disciplinary action. Such threats can be damaging to a student body and to faculty, if not the field as a whole. That this sort of treatment exists in our modern age is difficult to accept, yet the crisis does exist and it appears to be worsening.
This crisis became most evident to me when I learned of my friend Dr. Thomas Thompson’s previous academic censorship at the hands of his examiner in systematic theology at Tübingen in the 1970’s.1 That this sort of censorship could occur within our modern era, in Europe no less, was shocking to me. But I had considered this the move of a single man who was not at all happy with the papal encyclical Divino afflante spiritu from a few decades earlier and who felt threatened by a certain brilliant PhD student’s rather exceptional doctoral thesis on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives.
Then in 2009, Dr. Gerd Lüdemann was removed from his position at Göttingen due in part to his work on the supposed authentic sayings of Jesus (i.e., that perhaps on 5% of what is attributed to Jesus might be what Jesus actually said).2 More recently, Dr. Anthony Le Donne was fired from Lincoln Christian University for the (excellent, but not at all controversial) publication of his volume on the historical Jesus. Something happened with these cases though—public outcry from the academic community.
A tidal wave of support did not stay the hand of Göttingen; Dr. Lüdemann was not fired, but while he retains a position there, he was unfortunately stripped of a good portion of his academic authority and relegated to teaching noncredit courses. In the case of Dr. Le Donne, Dr. Chris Keith left Lincoln soon after (which seems to be related) and both he and Dr. Le Donne moved the highly anticipated Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity conference—originally meant to be hosted by Lincoln—to a different institution.
The point here is that there seems to be a pattern with certain seminaries and Christian schools where some of their staff wishes to be a little more engaging are finding themselves in trouble. And now, quite regrettably, something similar seems to be happening to Dr. Christopher Rollston at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.3
I have only known Dr. Rollston for a little over a year, and I have found his work both enlightening and important, but “controversial” is not one of the words I would ever use to describe him. Apparently, however, some members of Emmanuel’s faculty—as demonstrated by Thom Stark4 in a recent blog post—have found it extremely controversial (especially about his recent Huffington Post article).5 This whole situation leaves a rather sour feeling in my gut.
It seems that patristics scholar Dr. Paul Blowers, in a matter unbecoming of an administrator and colleague, has been going after Dr. Rollston publicly on his Facebook wall, where he wrote (among other things):6
[W]hen you teach in a seminary your first audience (and responsibility) is the religious community, not the secular blogosphere, and the expectation is that what you publish “out there” will still reflect that responsibility responsibly (i.e., putting things “out there” in fairly blunt and minimally nuanced form, without due consideration for the hermeneutical complexities within the interpretation of ancient texts received as sacred within faith traditions, does not seem, in my humble judgment, to meet that responsibility).
In other words, Dr. Blowers is saying that he doesn’t believe Dr. Rollston is following his faith-bound duty to Emmanuel because Dr. Rollston dared to publish a paper on the Bible’s marginalization of women (which is nothing new, by Blower’s own admission). To follow this up, Dr. Blowers wrote (also publicly on Facebook):
We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out. He seems to be totally atheological and now interested simply in selling the “Rollston brand,” no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.
This is all very scandalous.7 The real tragedy here is that Dr. Rollston didn’t say anything that contradicted a confessional theological contract; i.e., he didn’t say the Bible was uninspired, he didn’t say the Bible contradicted itself, he didn’t say anything negative about the church, or about faith, or that Christianity is a terrible religion. In fact, there is nothing in the article that isn’t worded carefully, to the point where Dr. Rollston’s article is quite tame and very responsible. I would argue it is one of the more responsible treatments on the issue of the marginalization of women by a scholar affiliated with a confessional institution that I have seen and that is to Dr. Rollston’s credit.
So that raises the question: what “brand” is Dr. Rollston “selling” that doesn't fall in line with Emmanuel’s teachings? Is it that Dr. Blowers would not like to admit that the Bible generally marginalizes women? Would he also apologetically defend his students from learning that some of the authors of the Biblical books condoned slavery (and the beating of slaves)? It is odd that someone who holds the Bible to be so sacred would flat out deny the words so clearly written in the text! It isn’t Dr. Rollston’s fault the words are there. The sobering facts are that the words are there, and they must be dealt with responsibly. Denying their existence does not seem like a very responsible measure, in this author’s opinion.
Indeed, I wonder what is more appropriate: one’s responsibility to an institution or one’s responsibility to the female students at Emmanuel? I believe Dr. Rollston fulfilled both roles admirably in his article. He showed academic poise and discipline in his discussion of the sources but also expressed his commitment to the values of Emmanuel—as a representative of Emmanuel, it seemed to me, that he was saying “it is okay to be a scholar at a confessional institution” and also respect women—despite what the “sacred literature” suggests one’s values should be concerning women (of which, might I add, make up 25% of Emmanuel’s student body).8 This should be in line with Emmanuel’s own teachings on equality in its “about me” section of their website:9
4. To recognize the dignity and worth of all men and women as persons created in the image of God.
It seems to me that Dr. Rollston was merely demonstrating this value in his article. So where does Dr. Blowers feel that Dr. Rollston erred? Does Dr. Blowers not agree with Emmanuel’s own goal statement? Does Dr. Blowers disagree with Dr. Rollston where he wrote “Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential”? I am not sure what to make of his argument beyond this.
In fact, I am not sure what Dr. Blowers specifically (but confessional institutions more generally) care about more—the successful education of the students (female or male) or the amount of money that can be made by rubbing elbows with investors whose interests are not always parallel to those interests of academics. In no way is this a non-issue—Le Donne’s firing, for example, was due largely to the role that investors play in matters of seminary education. The position seems to be that a student is not successful when they are taught to deal with the sources in a meaningful way, to handle differing views like adults, to accept the role that critical (not necessarily “secular” or “liberal”) scholarship has to play in academia. Instead, some of these investors at confessional institutions like Lincoln, if one were to judge them specifically by their actions, seem to believe that a successful student is one who is capable of shutting out or silencing differing opinions or is incapable of thinking critically beyond a point which the institution feels borders heresy.
At this moment, Dr. Blowers—but also Emmanuel—and other leaders at institutions like Emmanuel have a question to answer. Before another school launches the inquisition into heresy, before disciplinary action is taken, consider this answer carefully. This answer should not be directed towards me or to contributors, but to their students and their faculty (especially those who are paying for a challenging education): “How do we want to educate students in the field of Biblical Studies?”
How do you intend to deal with curious students and with critical scholars? Will you silence them or force them out or threaten them (in turn demonstrating to your staff and student body that you have no sufficient response to their queries)? How do you intend to instruct your faculty to educate your students? Are your administrators really interested in bringing up a group of scholars capable and engaging, thoughtful and interesting? Or do you wish to manufacture the next batch of ideologues?
If your answer is of the former, then good for you and keep it up. If your answer is the latter—you seek to stymie all ideas that are beyond your confessional theology—then let’s stop pretending and call it what it is: the prevention of academic and intellectual freedom and the censorship of critical ideas. It is also a sign that you do not respect your students, your staff, or your theological conclusions; you do not trust them. If you did, you would give your students the opportunity to engage the issues which you find most critical; you would have confidence enough and be comfortable enough in your own conclusions that you would not be afraid of “contaminating” your students with the possibility that women were marginalized in ancient civilizations—including those founded by early Semitic peoples.10 If your response is to demonize the scholar who would dare to show compassion towards women by denouncing that sort of mentality, then chances are you’re missing something, and what that “something” is happens to be pretty important. So one should think carefully about these questions and make good decisions because the whole of academia and the future student bodies of your institutions are very interested in your answers.
3 I would like to state clearly that none of the above mentioned were contacted about this piece. This was written and submitted completely without their knowledge and represents my opinion based upon public and common knowledge of the events discussed above.
6 Thanks to Thom Stark for documenting these on his blog; link above (n.4). These comments have since disappeared from Dr. Blowers’ public Facebook page. Dr. Blowers apologized for them, stating that they were for a student and meant to be delivered privately. One should not reflect on where these comments were made or for whom they were meant, but rather why they were made at all. Though it is a curious thing that Blowers should accidentally publish this comment on his wall rather than in a private message; this would appear as an entirely unique screen from the homepage on Facebook.
7 Dr. Blowers has, as they say, “taken to the web” in what appears to be a public finger-wagging at Dr. Rollston. On public blogs and on his Facebook page, he has chastised Dr. Rollston in a manner that borders on ad hominem, yet argues that this has nothing at all to do with ‘censorship” or “academic freedom.” One must wonder how it cannot be understood any other way. If Dr. Blowers were to have written an article in response to Dr. Rollston, as colleagues and professionals will do, claims of academic silencing could not be made. But what sort of civil academic discourse can come after threatening disciplinary action against someone with whom you disagree? That reads an awful lot like censorship. I would also note that on another blog, Dr. Blowers seems to have threatened an anonymous commenter—whom Dr. Blowers believes is a former student under him—who posted a link to Stark’s blog. Dr. Blowers ended his leveled assault by suggesting that he “certainly needs to realize that before he draws conclusions, he better have all the evidence, otherwise his dissertation will be a disaster.” (http://www.christianhumanist.org/chb/2012/09/listening-to-the-bible-when-youre-hard-of-hearing-a-response-to-chris-rollston-by-nathan-gilmour-wes-arblaster-and-micah-weedman/#lf_comment=37345193) It is unclear if this student is still at Emmanuel or if s/he were somewhere else, but the comment could be read as a veiled threat.
10 It is worth mentioning that throughout Dr. Blowers’ “Internet inquisition” of Dr. Rollston, he has continually brought up the (absurd) point that Dr. Rollston is now somehow partly responsible for the opinions of nonacademic non-Christians everywhere because of his declaration that certain parts of the Biblical narratives marginalize women. One has to wonder, however, how non-Christian sentiment towards confessional institutions will be affected when these individuals learn that Dr. Rollston has been threatened with disciplinary action as a result of his article which, in totality, reflects the promotion of gender equality and the liberation of women from misogynistic mentalities (particularly in politics). I suspect that those individuals—to whom Dr. Blowers does not want to give ammunition—will find an adequate supply of ammunition, quite ironically, in the threats Dr. Blowers has issued against Dr. Rollston. It is an interesting notion that if things had been handled differently, had Dr. Blowers simply addressed this issue professionally (with a article responding to Rollston, for example), such a controversy could have been avoided and Dr. Blowers’ could have had the chance to make a case to non-Christians with greater impact.