Fundamentalists and Scholarship, Part 3

Hazards of Scholarship

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1 and Part 2.

In the past two essays, I have tried to articulate how scholars understand their own craft. My guess is that many fundamentalists will think that I have defined scholarship too rigorously. To this I can only reply that I shall be embarrassed if real scholars stumble across these essays, because they will most likely think that I have not understood their work rigorously enough. What I have articulated is, I think, a fair if minimal description of how scholarship is perceived within the real world of the academy.

I now wish to ask a question that will move us toward the core of this series: Does fundamentalism need scholars? In order to answer this question, we need to make two assessments. First, we need to perceive the hazards of scholarship so that we can calculate what fundamentalism stands to lose by having scholars. Then we need to understand the benefits of scholarship so that we can estimate what fundamentalism stands to gain. In this essay I will mention three hazards or dangers that come along with scholarship.

The first hazard is that scholarship consumes considerable resources. Would-be scholars must normally devote most of a decade to formal education—more, if they are studying for the theological disciplines. The upper levels of their preparation require them to master languages, to refine rigorous research skills, and to control large corpora of literature. Doctoral education is a full-time job in itself, and it leaves very little time for recreation, relationships, or ministry.

Institutions that wish to produce scholars must invest significant resources. Scholarship requires more than classrooms. Scholarship is about research, and a school that prepares scholars must be a research-oriented institution. It will hire the best faculty, then give them leisure for their own research and writing. It will spend significant sums to build first-class laboratories and libraries. The expense of scholarship is considerable.

A second hazard of scholarship is the risk of subversion. In many disciplines, scholars will be exposed to thinking that is repugnant to their Christianity. This exposure will come to them in very credible forms, often backed by the authority of academic prestige. Christian scholars must face these ideas fairly, for scholars who reject ideas without understanding them have betrayed their calling. The problem is that a fair appraisal of ideas means opening one’s self to the possibility of being convinced.

Indeed, scholars do find themselves being convinced, sometimes against their previous wishes. For example, philosopher John Hick once considered himself to be a fundamentalist, but he subsequently moved on to become one of the foremost defenders of religious pluralism. While Hick is a bit of an extreme instance, similar stories could be multiplied. It is not uncommon for scholars to find themselves abandoning positions to which they once held for views that they would once have rejected.

What is even more hazardous is that some scholars neglect to change their venues when they change their views. Their new ideas may be repugnant to Christian organizations with which they are affiliated, but they do not change their affiliations. Not uncommonly, scholars who have changed their thinking will attempt to subvert quietly the organizations with which they have been identified. The result is that entire institutions have sometimes been swept to deny the very thing they were created to defend. Scholarship does carry the risk of subversion, and some believe that risk is not worth taking.

The third hazard of scholarship is pride of intellect. Scholars spend long years mastering their disciplines. They typically earn the right to claim titles that command respect in the world at large. They are consulted on difficult questions. They may come to think quite highly of themselves, and correspondingly to think disdainfully of the non-scholarly world. In brief, scholars have potential to become arrogant and elitist.

Any scholar who is worthy of the name has earned the right to speak authoritatively within a particular discipline. Some scholars, however, presume the right to speak authoritatively outside of their disciplines. They may even speak authoritatively on issues of which they are largely ignorant. Pride of learning and arrogance of intellect can lead to such behavior. This, too, is a hazard of scholarship.

How do we weigh these hazards? Should they dissuade us from wanting to have or to be scholars? A few words of assessment are in order.

First, the expense of scholarship (and it is high) must be weighed against its benefits. It is impossible to know whether scholarship is too expensive until we know how valuable it is. We do know that it costs something, but we do not know whether it costs too much. Of course, some good things (sanity, family, devotion, ministry) are not worth sacrificing, even for scholarship. We must not begin by presuming, however, that the pursuit of scholarship is less valuable than huge evangelistic campaigns, church building programs, or sending a particular number of missionaries. We might even ask whether evangelism or missions might be more effective if we had greater scholarly involvement in these tasks.

Second, while subversion is a serious risk, it is not clear that we can avoid subversion by avoiding scholarship. Three considerations bear mentioning. First, scholars are not the only people who abandon positions that they once held. Second, when people can only prop up a conviction by refusing to hear the evidence against it, they do not really hold the conviction. They have already de facto conceded that their supposed conviction cannot bear the light of examination. Third, in almost every instance the refutation of error has come from scholars who have studied and understood the error. Thinkers like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Machen possessed detailed knowledge of the errors that they refuted.

Third, pride of intellect is a sin to which some scholars are susceptible. Pride of ignorance is a sin to which some non-scholars are susceptible. Which is more comical: a girl who is proud of being pretty, or the homely girl who jealously accuses her of pride? Rants against scholarship by the ignoranti are sometimes amusing, but they are rarely persuasive. In any case, the problem is neither scholarship nor ignorance. The problem is pride, and it is the common property of the human race.

Granted, scholarship carries certain hazards. By themselves, however, these hazards are not a reason to forego the scholarly task. Therefore, we next ask the question, “Do we need scholars?” What do we lose if we do not have them? But that is a question for another essay.


Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769)

Draw me to Thee, till far within Thy rest,
In stillness of Thy peace, Thy voice I hear—
For ever quieted upon Thy breast,
So loved, so near.

By mystery of Thy touch my spirit thrilled,
O magnet all Divine;
The hunger of my soul for ever stilled,
For Thou art mine.

For me, O Lord, the world is all too small,
For I have seen Thy face,
where Thine eternal love irradiates all
Within Thy secret place.
And therefore from all others, from all else,
Draw Thou my soul to Thee…
…Yea—Thou hast broken the enchanter’s spells,
And I am free.

Now in the haven of untroubled rest
I land at last,
The hunger, and the thirst, and weary quest
For ever past.
There, Lord, to lose, in bliss of Thine embrace
The recreant will;
There, in the radiance of Thy blessed Face,
Be hushed and still;
There, speechless at Thy pierced Feet
See none and nought beside,
And know but this—that Thou art sweet,
That I am satisfied.

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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