Last week nearly 10,000 people invaded the French Quarter of New Orleans for a three-day conference. It wasn’t a convention of Mardi Gras mask-makers, a congregation of Bourbon Street miscreants, or an assembly of Hustler devotees. No, this was the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. This is a collective of the world’s religious scholars. SBL is the largest society of biblical scholars on the planet. The program of lectures and meetings is the size of a phone book for a mid-sized city. Too many choices! So many great biblical scholars were there: N. T. Wright, Jon Dominic Crossan, D. A. Carson, Bart Ehrman, Stanley Porter, Frederick Danker, Alan Culpepper, Craig Evans, Robert Stein, Joel Marcus, April Deconick, Elaine Pagels, John Kloppenborg, R. B. Hays, Peter Enns, Buist Fanning, Harold Attridge, Luke Timothy Johnson, Peter Davids, Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, Rikki Watts, Robert Gundry, Emanuel Tov, Walter Brueggemann, Eric Myers, Eugene Boring, J. K. Elliott—that’s just a small sampling of the names. Liberals and evangelicals, theists and atheists, those who are open and those who are hostile to the Christian faith—all were there.
Overall, the Society of Biblical Literature is comprised of professors who teach religion, humanities, biblical studies, history, ethics, English literature, and theology at virtually all the schools in the nation that offer such subjects. Not just the United States, but a multitude of other countries are represented (although because of the long distances and short conference, many scholars did not come). Private schools, public schools, elite schools, and unknown schools—all were represented. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Tübingen, Chicago, Duke, Dallas Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fuller Seminary, Princeton, Yale, Biola, Claremont, Manchester, Durham, St Andrews, Westminster Seminary, Wheaton, Gordon-Conwell, Emory, TCU’s Brite Divinity School, SMU, University of Texas, Northwestern University, Rice, Brandeis, London School of Theology, Münster University, Notre Dame, community colleges, even unaccredited schools were represented.
As remarkable as it may sound, most biblical scholars are not Christians. I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of SBL do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead. The post-lecture discussions are often spirited, and occasionally get downright nasty.
The annual SBL conference is a place where young scholars can present their papers, meet senior scholars, and talk to publishers about book projects. Great opportunities are at SBL! Master’s students meet with professors whom they’d like to study with for their PhDs. They make appointments, go out for coffee, or just happen to bump into them at the conference.
Now, what I’ve said about SBL so far sounds like an exciting, positive event in which a good exchange of ideas occurs, and people grapple with what the Bible is all about. To a degree that is true, but a darker underbelly to the conference, never far from the surface, shows up often enough. It has to do with the posture of many liberal scholars toward evangelicals.
One of my interns, a very bright student who is preparing for doctoral studies, met with one scholar to discuss the possibility of studying under him for his doctorate. The scholar was cordial, friendly, and a fine Christian man. He encouraged James to pursue the doctorate at his non-confessional school in the UK. (We have found the UK schools to be far more open to evangelical students, since they are more concerned that a student make a plausible defense of his views than that he or she holds the party line.) Later, James met a world-class scholar of early Christian literature and engaged him in conversation. James demonstrated deep awareness of the professor’s field, asking intelligent questions and showing great interest in the subject. Then, the professor asked him where he was earning his master’s degree. “Dallas Seminary” was the response. The conversation immediately went south. The scholar no longer was interested in this young man. James was, to this professor, an evangelical and therefore a poorly educated Neanderthal, a narrow-minded bigot, an uncouth doctrinaire neophyte—or worse.
This was no isolated case. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. There is an assumption that students from an evangelical school—especially a dispensational school—only get a second-class education and are blissfully ignorant of the historical-critical issues of biblical scholarship. Many of the mainline liberal schools routinely reject applications to their doctoral programs from evangelical students who are more qualified than their liberal counterparts—solely because they’re evangelicals. And Dallas Seminary students especially have a tough time getting into primo institutes because of the stigma of coming from, yes, I’ll say it again—a dispensational school. One of my interns was earning his second master’s degree at a mainline school, even taking doctoral courses. He was head and shoulders above most of the doctoral students there. But when he applied for the PhD at the same school, he was rejected. His Dallas Seminary degree eliminated him.
The prejudice runs deep—almost as deep as the ignorance. Yes, Dallas Seminary is a dispensational school. But it’s not your father’s dispensational school. Progressive dispensationalism, engineered by Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, et alii, about twenty-five years ago has tied a dispensational hermeneutic to a more nuanced appreciation of the biblical covenants. Gone are the days of seeing two New Covenants, of distinguishing the ‘kingdom of God’ from the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew, and of seeing eschatology as not-yet but not already. The differences between other hermeneutical systems and the dispensationalism of today are not nearly as great as they used to be. But much of liberal scholarship has simply not kept up. There is widespread ignorance about what dispensationalists believe along with what seems to be an unwillingness to find out.
Further, the great irony is that so many liberal scholars don’t even realize that Dallas Seminary not only has only one unit on dispensationalism, but it has never required its students to adhere to this system of interpretation. So much more could be said here; I would simply invite those who are interested in learning more to read Progressive Dispensationalism by Bock and Blaising.
I can speak to issues in New Testament studies at Dallas Seminary, which I know best. Our NT faculty have degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dallas Seminary, and Glasgow. We teach a historical-critical method of interpretation, tempered by our presuppositions that the universe is not a closed-system but one in which God has been active. Our students are trained extensively in exegesis of the New and Old Testament, are conversant with the secondary literature, and are able to interact with various viewpoints. Something like 80% of our doctoral dissertations are now getting published—and in prestigious, world-class series no less. (The same, by the way, is true of our master’s students who earn their doctorates elsewhere.) When Harold Hoehner was alive, there were three members in the department who were members of the prestigious Society of New Testament Studies. Now, down to two, we are anticipating several others getting voted in, in due time.
What irritates me is that so many so-called liberal scholars have already predetermined that DTS students get an unacceptable education. They are closed-minded themselves, thinking they know what is taught at the seminary. A genuine liberal used to be someone who was open to all the evidence and examined all the plausible viewpoints. Now, “liberal” has become a hollow term, invested only with the relic of yesteryear’s justifiably proud designation. Today, all too often, “liberal” means no more than left-wing fundamentalist, for the prejudices that guide a liberal’s viewpoints are not to be tampered with, not to be challenged. Doors have been shut in the students’ faces, opportunities denied. Spending $100 on an application is too frequently a waste of time and money, since applications coming from DTS students are routinely chucked into the round file.
If we’re to judge liberal vs. conservative by one’s method, then the new liberal is the evangelical and neo-evangelical who is willing to engage the evidence, examine all sides, and wrestle with the primary data through the various prisms of secondary literature. He’s open. I tell my students every year, “I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don’t.” And they know my mantra, “Go where the evidence leads.” Sadly, some of the most brilliant scholars in biblical studies have become radically intolerant of conservatives. When conservative professors have that same attitude, they’re usually afraid of having their ideas challenged because they’re insecure in their beliefs. And they’re labeled as fundamentalists. When many “liberal” scholars are just as intolerant, what should we call them?