Modern Critical Thinking About the Bible? Or, Should 2 Timothy 2:15 Be Restricted to Ancient Readers?

Posted By on June 28, 2012

A recent guest post over at the Patheos blog author by Dr. David Lincicum, will likely be of interest to Naked Bible readers: Lament for a Maternal Home (or, Is There No Place for Believing Criticism in Evangelicalism?). I appreciated the essay. Though I don’t know Dr. Lincicum’s work or any of his positions on issues of NT interpretation, I’ve lived several of the experiences he relates in his lament.  It truly is discouraging to strive to make sure one’s positions are text-driven only to have the very audience you’re trying to serve look upon you with suspicion if what you say doesn’t align with some home-spun doctrinal position or a well-meaning, but badly under-informed, sermon.

Those concerned with theological and interpretive honesty are compelled by certain commitments: honoring God’s use of real people on the ground, at their own time and place, to produce this thing we say is inspired; interpreting the Bible in its own intellectual context; and taking the primary text as it is, preferring it over translations, acknowledging that the content at times points to editorial activity and arrangement and literary intent. It’s hard to believe this has no place in many churches that profess to take the Bible seriously. For those who feel called by God to devote their lives and gifts to the academic study of Scripture, pariah status was unexpected. I never thought I’d have to pay a price for sticking to the text, but I have. But I’m used to it now, and am unrepentant.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the essay.


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28 Responses to “Modern Critical Thinking About the Bible? Or, Should 2 Timothy 2:15 Be Restricted to Ancient Readers?”

  1. JH says:

    A better word than “Lament” for this article is “Whine”.

    I didn’t look up all the examples, but to bemoan the resigning of a man who believes the church should embrace evolution or else it will be perceived by the world as a cult, does not strike me as a legitimate cause to defend. Since when should we let the world dictate the meaning of Scripture.

    I don’t doubt that going against traditionally held beliefs will cause grief, but he is simply as intolerant of others’ beliefs as they are of his.

    While there is always room for academic improvement in the understanding of Scriptures, there is also a need to examine the intellects of the faith who have gone before. We live in a very narcissistic post-modern culture and I see it influencing some of the exegesis I hear. A dose of logic and clarity from the scholars who have gone before can help keep things in balance.

    • MSH says:

      There’s nothing narcissistic about grappling with issues that thinkers of the past had no exposure to. On the other side, great theologians of the late 19th and early 20th century should not be neglected, and often are. For example, few fundamentalist young earth creationists know that one of the champions of fundamentalism — in the landmark series of essays (“The Fundamentals”) defending fundamentalism, no less – defended theistic evolution. I speak here of James Orr, who wrote two articles in The Fundamentals (see And then there us B. B. Warfield, who did the same.

  2. Andrew T. says:

    You wrote: “It truly is discouraging to strive to make sure one’s positions are text-driven only to have the very audience you’re trying to serve look upon you with suspicion if what you say doesn’t align with some home-spun doctrinal position or a well-meaning, but badly under-informed, sermon.”

    Take heart! Modern Protestant Christianity has constructed it’s own false doctrines and has it’s very own new popes (Calvin, Arminius, etc., even if these popes were/are sincere, God-honouring believers).

    Accordingly, Exegesis often confronts Eisegesis! You are NOT alone.

    • MSH says:

      thanks; I want to respect the work of great thinkers of various wings of Christian history, but they must be subservient to the text, not the other way around.

  3. John says:

    I work in higher ed at a fundamentalist Pentecostal institution, and unfortunately, I see the reality of the unwillingness to tolerate dissention on a daily basis. One of my greatest complaints with evangelicalism (and the reason I no longer consider myself Evangelical) is this sort of “nod and wink” mentality which exists amongst the faculty. When discussing some of the currently controversial issues of biblical interpretation, I find it is common that I am asked to keep the individual’s beliefs a secret out of fear for their jobs. This is not isolated to the institution I work at, as I have had the same experience at other well-known seminaries. In a one on one setting, faculty are willing and able to intelligently engage many of the pressing issues. But from the lectern, these issues are brushed over in favor of spouting the “correct” answers which will not find them fighting for their job.

    Now I assure you, I am no great loss to the Evangelical academic community, but I have become convinced that I simply don’t belong amongst Evangelicals. Hence, I am looking elsewhere for the remainder of my graduate education. Issues which should be on the periphery have become the markers of orthodoxy, and it gets exhausting realizing that not only are your ideas not in line with the movement with which you self-identify, but they are frankly unwelcome.

    • MSH says:

      Thanks for the candor. It’s unfortunate that a zeal for the Bible creates an environment that encourages people to lie about their thoughts.

      • Richard Brown says:

        I see something different here, which I alluded to in my main Reply: what our brother expresses, extrapolated to the larger picture, is what SHOULD happen over time. Isn’t God big enough and meddlesome enough to also be involved in the development of orthodox ecclesiastical institutions of higher learning? I think so. So, though the issues at hand produced consternation and frustration and probably some wasted time for our fellow-traveler here, in the broader picture things are working the way they should.

  4. Patrick says:


    I think it’s a human thing to be mentally rigid myself. IF most US based theology had traditionally been like you are presenting and then another theologian group came along and started teaching fundamentalism, it is my opinion they would be attacked harshly by many fellow theologians.

    The attachment to long held and long developed practices& doctrines especially attached to denominations, even if erroneous, is strong.

    I lost any attachment to a denomination as a young man around 21, so it’s easy for me to reconsider beliefs.

    Example, transubstantiation IMO is senseless and ignores the clear teaching that Jesus mainly was a metaphorical speaker from the OT text and the NT texts, but, the Catholic church is never going to reconsider a 1500 year old doctrine, IMO.

    Not picking on the Catholics, that’s just an example.

  5. Charles says:

    It’s funny how he notes that some people seem to be hoping that modern scholarship will simply reaffirm what they already believe – seems to put a bit of a damper on study. I’m not exactly sure of all the possible meanings one can take away from the part of Daniel 12:4 where it says ‘knowledge will increase’, but I sometimes get the feeling that some would either prefer the verse to disappear, or to believe that the increase in knowledge has stopped.

  6. SDB says:

    I’m not fully aware of the battles that wage between scholars and theologians but I do sense something that might be related as I read the “alternative” views of scholars like Mike and Enns. From a fundamentalist or evangelical background it seems like the alternative scholars create so many forks in the road of that coherent and compehensive bible story that is so important to maintaining the Judeo-christian worldview. Maybe that’s just me not being able to get my mind around all the new thoughts or to reconnect the dots again but I’ve also shared many of the things I have learned by these scholars to my uniformed Christian friends and received my share of strange looks.

    So, for example, there are implications when bringing up a new idea about who, say, Adam and Eve really were. Many people can’t handle the implications because they can’t think for themselves very well. But often the scholars will just lay open the new idea and leave it there on the table, then they walk away. They do not often seem to care about the implications, only that they have stirred a possible new truth. They do not deal with the implications. So the readers run around in a panic trying to close the new loose end. And since they cannot often deal with these new truths they just attack the scholar. Something like that.

    On the other hand, I appreciate books like “The Myth that is True” because that does not happen in that alternative book. Instead, the alternative view is clearly defined and explained but the implications are dealt with, the loose ends tied, and a new coherent and comprehensive story told. That is why everyone likes it, because much of the thinking was done for us.

    • MSH says:

      On the first paragraph, the main reason for the “forks” is that the biblical text is often more ambiguous than we’re led to believe (and much of that can be attributed to the nature of language). On the second paragraph, you’re right that it can frustrate people when scholars take no position. I try to lay out the possibilities and rank things in terms of how I assess the plausibility of each. And as readers know, I won’t shy away from telling people what I think — and why — and to provide enough information on what I would need to see to change positions.

      • SDB says:

        Yes, and if the scripture is often inherently ambiguous imagine what happens when you add in the presupposition filters and inherent subjectiveness of the reader. Even with perfect exegesis there would dissension. Thank God for the Holy Spirit.

  7. Shaun says:

    I think that there are problems on both sides. I fully agree that ‘traditional’ Christians who think they are the guardians of the orthodox faith have made really bad moves. But Christians who embrace modern scholarship have made some bad moves as well.

    Several of the famous cases involve scholars that knowingly teach things contrary to a school’s theological statement (that they willingly signed) and then they act surprised when action is taken against them.

    Next, modern scholars who don’t separate science and the text are going about things wrong. I think Enns does a great job when he sticks to ANE textual issues. But then he goes and writes articles on why everyone should accept Darwinian evolution. Evolution may be true, but these issues do not need to be combined into a all-or-nothing pill that Christians must swallow. True or not, evolution has long been used like a hammer by the enemies of our faith. So when Christian scholars pick up that very hammer and wave it around they shouldn’t be surprised when some people overreact.

    I also think there are a lot of people on the side lines who are comfortable with modern scholarship but saying nothing. For example, if you listen to the theological classes on William Lane Craig’s website you will hear him make several statements that are in line with modern OT scholarship, theological evolution and so on. But I have not heard anyone jump on his back. Nor have I heard WLC come out in defense of anyone like Enns. (my apologies if he has)

    Lastly, scholars (like all humans) tend to stick with like minded people. A scholar may go to the trouble of writing an entire book defending some textual/theological point. But would that same person be willing to pick up a phone and personally call a Christian leader on the other side of the argument and invite them to dinner to talk out their differences?

    I am very open to modern research. I am very appreciative of those like you Dr. Heiser who are willing to explain your position over and over again to lay people. But I want point out that mistakes are being made on both sides.

    • MSH says:

      On the first paragraph: agreed; believing scholars are just as guilty at times of observing the obvious (some item of biblical criticism that has a sound textual basis) and then extrapolating to the unnecessary conclusion.

      Agreed on paragraph three; as my thoughts on Adam note, I’m not going to pretend that evolution has no problems. When evolutionists raise issues that need attention, it seems reasonable to not put all my eggs in that basket (or a single perspective on that idea).

  8. Kirk Shelton says:

    I think more people would agree with the specific sentiments of the article than would actually follow through with them in real life. Its one thing to explicitly affirm something like progressive revelation, and another to recognize and parse it well when it shows up. And possibly another thing to disagree with others well.

  9. Patrick says:

    I love learning new stuff even if it changes old beliefs, so long as it squares with the text. That’s why I found the “mythbook” so fascinating. It fit within the actual text whereas tradition has exegeted that stuff out of the text erroneously.

    You’ll have to admit that Enns is pushing the boundaries though in his new thesis because he is claiming Paul is flawed on theology, not cosmology or history, theology. That’s a tough cause to push as a theologian, IMO.

    I respect Enns and all confessional researchers, but, let’s be honest, all of us err.

    Augustine wrote a book called something like “82 retractions” or something like that.

  10. NW says:

    This post brings to mind a couple of observations. The first is the reality of a reactionary defense of traditional doctrine, whatever that means in context, on the part of the bulk of the church. In general, the new discoveries that a Christian biblical scholar would like to bring back to his community of faith will not be welcomed by that community because people in general do not like having even small components of their religious metanarrative challenged (e.g. I’m thinking of the church splits that took place in the 90s over whether the rapture will take place before the tribulation or after the tribulation). As part of the discipleship process, most people learn a particular religious metanarrative that becomes so valuable to them as to even allow its finer more speculative points to inform and/or shape their own religious identities so that they feel (wrongly in my opinion) personally assaulted whenever that metanarrative is called into question even by members of their own faith community. How many of us would love to correct the many theological weaknesses in our community and thereby improve the process by which we disciple new members of Christ’s body but – alas! – such correction are seldom welcome.

    The second observation is that the bulk of church isn’t aware of the first observation. Most people like to think that they are rational, open-minded seekers after truth when in reality they are quite dogmatic about their own beliefs and are not about to change much of anything (i.e. they are sincere liars). Hence, the reality in which young scholars are encouraged by their faith communities to study their scriptures and search after the truth of things only to learn that “the truth of things” must conform to the initial set of beliefs that the young scholar was given by his faith community.

    Of course, within even relatively conservative evangelicalism there is some room with which to share new discoveries and open up people’s minds to new possibilities, but this must always be done with an awareness of what the boundaries are in any particular context.

  11. DT says:

    I think that the essay highlights a serious issue, and one that runs beyond the scholar/academic arena vs The Establishment Evangelical debate.

    While I am no biblical scholar, I believe the problem of anti-intellectualism reaches much farther than academia; it affects churches, friendships, and families.

    I know many folks within the church have experienced the same sort of intellectual malice over one thing or another. Generally speaking, the more educated a man or woman happens to be about the bible, the more they get “the look” or “the talk” by their fellow Christians.

    My experience being raised in a KJV-only, hellfire and brimstone, YE Creationist, “literalist” church introduced me to the close-minded insanity that plagues much of the Evangelical community. Sermons were preached against any education that ran counter to what was taught in the church. Numerous falsehoods were taught as truth, and Proverbs 3:5 was the go-to response to any question.

    Is it a serious issue, and one worth fighting over? Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, yes! I nearly had my belief in God and interest in Christianity destroyed by the false doctrine taught in that church. I know dozens who experienced the same as young adults. Depending on one’s views of Hell and the afterlife, souls are quite literally at stake, here. No matter how “accepted” or popular, false doctrine needs to be confronted and destroyed (or, failing that, mitigated to the extent it can be). The problem is, of course, that this is precisely what the “Old Guard” thinks they are doing.

    As a result, critical scholars and clergy are on the front lines of a war; many of us less-armed grunts have mortar shells of moronic madness falling nearby, but there is a disparity in how we experience the effects. The difference is, of course, that when the scholars and clergy are hit, they lose their jobs and get blackballed by the entire establishment. You guys have far more on the line. I can find another church, or just refuse to engage a family member in the interest of peace-keeping. But it isn’t that easy for you.

    It’s those willing to mindfully engage the scripture who give victims of textual abuse a shot a retaining or rediscovering their faith in this post-Postmodern world. That duty is of profound importance since — unless we are able to appeal to the authority of highly educated, careful, sober-minded men and women — we grunts don’t have much to fall back on.

    I suspect that a new [sub]denomination will spring up relatively soon (within the next decade or so, if it has not already) that is wholly accepting of ideas like Biologos and thoughtful treatment of the scriptures. While that idea does not solve the problem, I find it extremely appealing, and it may be a necessary step to combating the foolishness that the Evangelical Establishment so often embraces and defends.

    All that said, I consider myself an “evangelical”, at least in the sense that I speak openly of my faith with the intent of introducing others to Christ, and I believe the weight of the burden lies with “our side” to treat our entire church family with love and respect.

    Even those with intellectual beer-bellies hanging over their belts.

    • MSH says:

      Thanks for the candor; the second paragraph/premise rings true to my experience as well (“…the problem of anti-intellectualism reaches much farther than academia; it affects churches, friendships, and families”). And I agree with your conclusion. I am loathe to “go after” the non-scholar for that reason. I’d rather have people think I’m nuts and get motivated to study Scripture in their effort to prove that point than have them be apathetic about studying the Bible.

  12. Ashley says:

    Mike, I just have to say as someone raised in an evangelical context, who has seen a lot of the negative reactions to new ideas and interpretations first-hand, I really appreciate all of the work you do here. I no longer consider myself denominationally-affiliated for many of these reasons – there was too much emphasis on maintaining orthodoxy at the sacrifice of genuine textual evidence. In other words, if someone presented Bible-based evidence for a different doctrinal view, people chose to stick with the doctrine they knew and rejected the Bible. As an intellectual, that bothered me from an academic and scientific point; as a Christian, it worried me when people chose to ignore parts of the Bible that made them uncomfortable or didn’t agree with what they already thought to be true.

    I’ve read quite a bit of “controversial” thinking (though nowhere near enough to be conversant in the area), and at times I’ve been troubled by arguments that seem to violate the fundamental elements of the Gospel, and thus I understand some of the negative reactions. Maybe it’s cynicism, but I don’t think that everyone advocating textual analysis is doing so because they are seeking God’s truth. Frankly, some of the stuff makes me think that they are actually out to confuse and deceive, but most of the time I think it’s pretty easy to recognize these wolves in sheeps’ clothing, thanks to the Holy Spirit. As I’ve said to other folks to whom I recommend your blog, you are not one of those people – I’ve read a lot of things here that have been new ideas to me, but I’ve never felt that you’ve argued anything that doesn’t fit with what I know about the Gospel and God through His personal revelation to me. In fact, lots of times things that have always puzzled me (like those references to “sons of God”) finally make some sense. I guess all of that was to say, keep up the fight! It’s hard not to be discouraged, but know that there are many believers out there who are open and receptive to ongoing challenges to doctrinal orthodoxy.

    • MSH says:

      Thanks – and as to your sentence, “Maybe it’s cynicism, but I don’t think that everyone advocating textual analysis is doing so because they are seeking God’s truth,” I’d like to think it’s more “real-ville” than cynicism. Like everything else, motives vary. And the motive may be something between searching for truth and truly sinister, something like “this evangelical crowd and its blind loyalty to XYZ really irks me, so I’m going to go after their pet point of dogma.”

  13. Patrick says:

    It’s a problem , but, it is not only literalists who are the problem. Some of the ideas I’ve read recently are as harmful I think. One new idea is to “relativize” the OT with the NT.

    That meany old Yahweh that Jesus claimed to be really is just an invention of the human flawed mind, the real one is Jesus even though He claimed to be the old one, too.

    Instead of seeking to understand why Yahweh felt He had to do what He did , answers to which are available in the text as you’ve demonstrated.

    I think we can err on both sides, so splitting the goalpost isn’t always easy.

  14. Richard Brown says:

    If I could just treat that one article/guest-post on its own merits: it strikes me as a polemical piece, taking 8 or 10 paragraphs to make any real substantive comments.
    The main thing I notice, though , is that he does not separate the issues of employment from “being heard”. Any of us can see just how very different these forms of expression are.

    Michael I would be far more interested in an article or post you yourself would write vs. others who now have an axe to grind with a former academic/seminary Employer.
    Your perspective is different on those two vectors.

    Further, from the article I get an unstated implication that the same sort of “speech” tolerated in a Secular institution such as U of Wisconsin should be also tolerated in a Sectarian Seminary. I for one would precisely NOT like to see that sort of equivalence. Let denominational seminaries be very clear in their standards and aims, and the marketplace will work out their numbers and their credibility. I can agree or disagree with them, but the higher value is CLARITY.

    MSH does not mind kicking over sacred cow idols, but I’m not sure that level of bravery is the norm. Some want the adulation of the politically correct crowd at the intersection of secular humanism and the authentic Church, then become offended when the debate opponent turns aggressive.

    • MSH says:

      The notion that what a person says in academia can be filtered or censored or censured (Christian or otherwise) is true. I’ve seen it work both ways, secular and Christian, though for different reasons. In Christian organizations, some lines need to be drawn for what I think are obvious reasons (loss of identity being one), but what I object to is censoring scholars whose views can be found in wider evangelical discussion (now, or centuries before) and defended on a textual basis. Since I value the “textual basis” more than a “creedal basis,” I guess that’s easier for me to say than for some. One watershed moment for me was when I learned (actually heard) from the pastor that people like D. L. Moody and C. H. Spurgeon would not be allowed to preach at our church because of some position they took on some point of doctrine (that were peripheral to core orthodoxy). That was just wrong and arrogant (and pretends that theological diversity and textual ambiguity / variability don’t exist). On the other side, complete academic respectability in the secular academy is largely a myth as well. You can agree with the academy on 99 of 100 things, but if that 100th is affirmation of the supernatural and (here’s the litmus test) that notion of supernatural reality informs one’s academic work), then you’re viewed with suspicion or “not a true scholar.” It’s the myth of total objectivity — like the rejecting of the supernatural, or a view that says “yes, I believe there’s a God but he didn’t do anything that touched on the production of the Bible” aren’t also biases. That’s self-delusion. (No room for that sort of “diversity” either, I guess). Every scholars has biases because they’re human. We should lose just enough arrogance to let people be open about their biases and respectfully have them be critiqued by others who see things differently — without name calling, censuring, and yanking employment.

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