Fundamentalists and Scholarship, Part 5

Does Fundamentalism Have Scholars?

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Let me summarize my argument to this point. Scholarship is a calling that is worthy of being pursued by Christians, and particularly by fundamentalists. While many fundamentalists do not understand what scholarship involves, Fundamentalism needs at least a sprinkling of scholars. Unless fundamentalists are willing to allow those scholars to do their work, they will suffer at least two consequences. First, fundamentalists will leave themselves open to being influenced by philosophies that are contrary to their core principles. Second, fundamentalists will fail to advance a case for those principles that will seem coherent and convincing even to their own constituents.

Now the time has come to make a sober assessment. Does Fundamentalism have the scholars that it needs? To answer that question, I must mention a couple of caveats.

The first caveat is that Fundamentalism offers few venues for the pursuit of scholarship outside of the theological disciplines. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Fundamentalism is an idea that is propagated by Christian churches, and the mission of churches is not to prepare physicists, paleontologists, or philosophers. It is to bring believers to maturity. Mature believers will apply their Christianity to their vocations, whether they are butchers, mechanics, or scholars. Mature Christian scholars will be able to pursue their disciplines within the scholarly world, and they do not necessarily need a distinctively fundamentalist environment.

How many fundamentalists are scholars in the non-theological disciplines? It’s a bit hard to say. I have known fundamentalists who made serious contributions to scholarly research in both the academic and the corporate worlds. Their scholarship, however, was largely invisible to other fundamentalists. Most of their church friends did not think of them as scholars, but simply as brethren who were in a slightly unusual line of work—and that is exactly as it should be.

Still, I suspect that the proportion of non-theological scholars among fundamentalists is lower than it is in the world at large. I have known several fundamentalists who contributed to scholarly research in disciplines such as physics, genetics, mathematics, and medicine. I have not known many who made significant contributions in literature, history, jurisprudence, or philosophy. Perhaps this situation simply reflects my own lack of exposure, but fundamentalists seem to have a greater level of tolerance for scientists than they do for humanists.

So Fundamentalism does have some scholars in the non-theological disciplines, though it is hard to say how many. Probably the more important question, however, is how many theological scholars fundamentalism has. The answer to this question requires a further caveat, and this caveat takes the form of three distinctions. The first distinction is between scholars and students. The second distinction is between scholars and theologians. The third distinction is between scholars and professors.

As for the first distinction, the word scholar derives from a Latin progenitor that means student in a general sense. We have a few fundamentalists who have appropriated this older, more general use of the term and who claim to be “scholars.” What they are attempting to do is to cash in on the connotation of the modern usage by appealing to the denotation of an older usage that has fallen into obsolescence. This tactic is both dishonest and a bit comic. Every person who has ever lived is a student of something, and is therefore a “scholar” in the broad sense. To be a “scholar” in the broad sense is no more noteworthy than breathing air or drinking water. Fundamentalists are all “scholars” in the broad sense—but the question is whether fundamentalism possesses many scholars in the strict and technical sense of the term.

Second, not all scholars are theologians, and not all theologians are scholars. Fundamentalism possesses a fair number of theologians who are reasonably competent at what they do. The question is not whether we have theologians. We do. The question is whether we have people who actually pursue biblical and theological research and participate in theological discussion at the scholarly level. A glance through the tables of contents in the major peer-reviewed venues will answer that question.

Third, good scholars and good professors are not the same thing. On the one hand, excellent scholars often perform poorly in the classroom. They may invest in scholarship without investing in students. On the other hand, the most effective professors are often so active in their teaching that they are robbed of time for scholarly research and publication. Good professors will have scholarly training (typically, a research doctorate). Whether those professors are scholars, however, depends entirely upon what they do with the research skills and the literature that they mastered during their doctoral studies.

Fundamentalism does have its share of effective professors. The better colleges and seminaries have built their theological faculties around individuals who hold research doctorates from good institutions. For example, at the seminary in which I teach, every professor holds a doctorate from a recognized institution outside of Fundamentalism. The better schools all have faculties of similar quality. Students who attend one of the four or five best fundamentalist seminaries will receive an education that will be comparable to the training that they could get in any other institution. (Incidentally, I know this fact by experience—I have taken doctorates at two non-fundamentalist institutions, where I have been in class with graduates of most of the leading seminaries and divinity schools. While my own masters degrees were from a fundamentalist seminary, I never met a classmate who was better prepared for doctoral work than I was.) The level of classroom instruction in the best fundamentalist schools is genuinely good.

What about the level of scholarship, though? How many recognizable biblical and theological scholars can Fundamentalism count? How many are contributing to the scholarly literature? How many are recognizably articulating and defending their faith and the distinctives of their Fundamentalism within the scholarly world?

The answer is lamentably few. With rare exceptions, fundamentalists do not speak to or within the scholarly world. Even the professors in fundamentalist institutions (many of whom are fine teachers) seem generally uninterested in speaking to anyone but other fundamentalists. Some fundamentalist institutions will not even hire theological professors who are trained outside of their own school.

In short, Fundamentalism suffers from a severe deficiency of recognizable theological scholars. As long as this deficiency remains, several consequences will follow. First, Fundamentalism will lack a “distant early warning system” for developing heresies. Second, Fundamentalism will lack credibility as long as it lacks able defenders. Third, fundamentalists will be forced to look elsewhere for the most cogent responses to current issues. Fourth, in the long run, fundamentalists will follow those leaders who provide the best answers, which means that we can expect to see people leave institutional Fundamentalism.

If this price is too high to pay, then fundamentalists must become concerned about producing scholars who can articulate and defend their position. They must liberate those scholars to do the work that only scholars can do. And they must foster an environment in which scholars can do their work without having constantly to apologize for being intelligent and well-read.

What will fundamentalists have to do in order to meet this need? I hope to answer that question in subsequent essays.

Love. II

George Herbert (1593-1633)

Immortal Heat, O let thy greater flame
Attract the lesser to it: let those fires,
Which shall consume the world, first make it tame;
And kindle in our hearts such true desires,

As may consume our lusts, and make thee way.
Then shall our hearts pant thee; then shall our brain
All her invention on thine Altar lay,
And there in hymns send back thy fire again.

Our eyes shall see thee, which before saw dust;
Dust blown by wit, till that they both were blind:
Thou shalt recover all thy goods in kind,
Who wert disseized by usurping lust:

All knees shall bow to thee; all wits shall rise,
And praise him who did make and mend our eyes.

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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