Fundamentalists and Scholarship, Part 10

Scholarship and Separatism

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.

Scholarship is not merely a matter of private study and learning. It is a shared activity, carried on within the community of scholars. The function of a scholar is to advance the frontiers of knowledge by participating in and furthering the conversation among scholars. Through careful research and writing, each scholar contributes to and expands some aspect of that conversation. Scholarship is never a solitary activity, and there is no parallel universe of scholars. To be a scholar means to participate in the community of scholars.

To be a fundamentalist is to be a separatist. The advocacy of ecclesiastical separation is the most obvious feature that distinguishes fundamentalists from other Christians. Fundamentalists do not extend Christian fellowship to people who deny the gospel. They also limit their fellowship with other Christians who propagate certain forms of error. Ecclesiastical separation is part of the definition of Fundamentalism.

This fact leads to a basic question: can a fundamentalist remain faithful to separatist principles while participating in the scholarly community? After all, that community includes many who deny the gospel. Therefore, scholarship requires conversation and even collegiality with infidels and apostates. Is not such collegiality a violation of biblical separation?

Many have thought so. Some fundamentalists have assumed that Christians ought to have nothing to do with the scholarly community except, perhaps, for criticizing it from a distance. Others have sometimes assumed that fundamentalist separatism was driven by a strict anti-cultural and anti-intellectual bias that would make “scholarly fundamentalist” an oxymoron. Both perspectives are wrong.

Biblical separation is not grounded in anti-culturalism or anti-intellectualism. For that matter, it is not grounded in dispensationalism, gathered-church polity, or even the biblical doctrine of holiness. It is rooted in a proper understanding of the nature of the church. That is why it is called ecclesiastical separation—not because it is about separating from churches, but because it is about separation within the boundaries of the professing church.

This is not the place to develop a theology of fellowship and separation. It is important to note, however, that a biblical doctrine of separation applies only to situations that involve Christian recognition and cooperation. That is why in 1 Corinthians 5 the apostle Paul requires that churches break fellowship with certain classes of professing believers, but he refuses to require that Christians terminate their relationships with the same classes of people in the world at large.

Scripture requires Christians not to extend Christian recognition to apostates. A Christian church is not permitted to have openly apostate leaders or members. An evangelist must not ask an apostate to lead his meetings in prayer. Any work done in the name of the Lord must explicitly reject cooperation with apostates.

On the other hand, Christians are not required to avoid contact with apostates in day-to-day life. Christians might discover apostates in their political parties, their homeowners’ associations, their genealogical societies, or their philatelic clubs. They may find that they are linked with apostates in all sorts of civic, social, or commercial endeavors. The Bible does not require separation in any of these undertakings for the simple reason that none of them requires apostates to be recognized as Christians.

The rule of thumb is that ecclesiastical separation must be applied to all Christian endeavors, but not to the ordinary situations of life. Therefore, we must ask whether scholarship is an aspect of Christian activity or whether it is a part of ordinary life. The question is especially acute with reference to theological scholarship. Obviously, disciplines like astrophysics and Egyptology are not distinctively Christian (though a Christian may bring unique perspectives to them). But what about the theological disciplines?

The short answer is that the theological disciplines as academic disciplines are not necessarily Christian in their content or activity. For example, the Society of Biblical Literature comprises scholars who are interested in the study of the biblical documents. Some of the members are conservative Christians, some are liberals, some are Jewish, some may be completely irreligious. The society exists, not to promote the Christian study of Scripture, but to further scholarly exchange about biblical literature.

Likewise, the American Academy of Religion comprises scholars who are interested in the study of religion—any religion. Some members are interested in Christianity, some are interested in other religions, some are interested in religion per se. The society does not exist for the Christian study of religions, but for academic study of religions.

Therefore, Christian scholars need have no hesitation about participating in learned societies such as the SBL or the AAR. True, those societies will bring Christians into contact with individuals with whom they cannot fellowship as Christians. The purpose of the societies, however, is not Christian fellowship, but scholarly exchange. Involvement in this exchange does not violate biblical standards of separation. With respect to ecclesiastical separation, membership in an academic society (even one that specializes in theological disciplines) is no different than membership in a political party or a country club.

The one possible exception to this rule is when the society aims to be both academic and Christian. Under those circumstances, all of the biblical rules for Christian involvement and fellowship do apply. If the society is identified as Christian (or some subset of Christian, such as Baptist or evangelical), then it is responsible not to extend Christian recognition to apostates. If it does, then fundamentalists will most likely wish to apply their understanding of biblical separation.

The foregoing implies that Christian scholars stand in a dual relationship and bear a double responsibility. On the one hand, they stand within and are responsible to the scholarly community. On the other hand, they stand within and are responsible to the visible church. This dual responsibility bears further examination. We shall direct attention to it in the next essay.

[The Passion]

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Since blood is fittest, Lord, to write
Thy sorrows in, and bloody fight;
My heart hath store, write there, where in
One box doth lie both ink and sin:

That when sin spies so many foes,
Thy whips, thy nails, thy wounds, thy woes,
All come to lodge there, sin may say,
No room for me, and fly away.

Sin being gone, oh fill the place,
And keep possession with thy grace;
Lest sin take courage and return,
And all the writings blot or burn.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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