Faith, biblical studies and teaching in ‘sectarian’ universities

Over the past few days, one of the hot issues in the blogosphere has been the sacking of Anthony Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University because the understandings expressed in his writing do not line up with the university’s confession of faith (see for example Larry Hurtado, Jim West, Chris Skinner, Ben Witherington III and James McGrath). It sounds as though the university has done a really bad job of dealing with the issue and I am very sad for Le Donne and his family and also sympathetic to his colleagues.

I haven’t read the book in question (although I’ve just ordered a copy from the library) but I have read his 2007 “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition: a Study in Social Memory Theory” in S. C. Barton, L. T. Stuckenbruck & B. G. Wold (Eds.), Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (pp. 163-177), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, which I found helpful in my article on eyewitness testimony. I can see, however, how the average conservative evangelical Christian would have issues with comments like “memory is distortion. This is so regardless of any claims to veracity” (p. 168) although he explains that this is because it is not possible to view an object from every perspective or to recall an event without emphasizing some details.

Much though we might like it to be otherwise, the reality is that an awful lot of biblical scholars teach in institutions that prepare people for ordination in particular christian churches and this has always been the case. They are therefore not doing their teaching and research in a vacuum. Not only that, a significant proportion of biblical scholars are confessing Christians and maybe some keep their research and their faith in two separate compartments in their lives, but most don’t. This stuff doesn’t make you lose your faith!! If, however, my theological training institution was anything to go on (and I’m sure it was), very little time is actually spent on trying to help students preparing for ordination to make sense of what they are being taught in terms of their faith, so they are left to their own devices to work out how to communicate what biblical scholarship teaches about Scripture and many, fearing the same kind of reaction from their congregations as Le Donne has had from his university’s board, say nothing. Others just view it as a hoop they need to jump through in order to be ordained and forget everything they’ve learned as soon as they pass their exams. In either case, they don’t share what they’ve learned with their congregations.

Helping them isn’t all that hard, either. Last year I presented my work on human memory and eyewitness testimony to a local lay preachers’ course. I told them basically what Le Donne says – human memory is simply not accurate. You can’t rely on eyewitness testimony to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, especially 30 years down the track. The student from one of the very conservative congregations in our region came up to me afterwards and said that she had thought that she was going to really hate what I was saying, but instead had found it incredibly helpful. This is because I went on to talk about what I believe this means for our use of Scripture (that we can’t reasonably preach a sermon that turns on one or two words in a biblical text) and about the role of our faith in God in guaranteeing the trustworthiness of Scripture. Really, all that our research on human memory, social memory and eyewitness testimony is demonstrating is that we are not ever going to be able to produce empirical evidence that the Bible is true. We are just saying “we can’t prove this”, not “this isn’t true”. Why is that such a big deal? People of faith have been dealing with that for a couple of millennia. And furthermore, being able to provide very convincing empirical evidence for something does not mean that people will believe it, anyway. Look at the evidence for climate change. Psychological research also demonstrates that people are very good at believing what they want to believe and ignoring evidence that conflicts with their world view, except under specific circumstances (and I don’t have the research readily available and can’t remember what the circumstances are).

I don’t think people in the field of academic biblical scholarship have actually helped, either. I think there is a big difference between allowing the particular teachings of your faith group to shape what you see and say during your research and reflecting on what the consequences of your research are for Christian faith. It seems to me that Lincoln wants Le Donne to do the former and he clearly can’t and maintain either his academic or personal integrity. I believe, however, that if you are being funded by a christian body to teach and do research, you have a responsibility to do the latter, and not just in your own mind. So often, however, when people in biblical discussion forums try to do this, they are howled down for being ‘confessional’. But where else but in a group of people who are also specialists in the field can you work out where the holes are in your thinking before you present a case to those who are not educated in the area? Surely, we owe it to the people who donate from their wages and savings the money that pays our stipends to show them how you can know these things and still remain Christian? So often when I do share it, I am greeted by relief that what people had suspected but were afraid to ask is true, often swiftly followed by anger that no-one had told them about it years ago.

And maybe, if more of us (both ministers and biblical scholars) had been doing this for longer, Le Donne would not have been sacked for telling the truth?