Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Nonpartisan Evangelical Scholarship Part 4: Donald J. Verseput

Before his untimely death of a brain tumour at age 51, Donald J. Verseput was a professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary. In addition to the personal loss experienced by his family, the world of biblical studies lost a fine scholar who was "about half-way through" a major commentary on the book of James.

I had the good fortune of having Don as a faculty advisor during his year as a visiting professor at TEDS in 1997-1998. Although I never took a course from Don, he had an extraordinary impact on my education. As I recall, students at TEDS were to meet in “advisee groups” with a faculty member every two weeks. Don took the idea a step further by inviting us to join him for dinner once a week before an evening class. As a relatively unknown visiting professor, Don’s group was small, and I ended up being the only one who was able to accept his invitation. I was surprised that a faculty member would want to spend time with a mere MA student, and impressed to discover a scholar so committed to his family, so down-to-earth, and so candid. A few years later, I met up with Don at my first SBL in Denver 2001, and had to smile when I learned that he had his family—and skis—in tow, and planned to hit the slopes after delivering his paper. What else would you expect from someone who chose to do a PhD at the University of Basel because his family enjoyed skiing?

When in 2004 I heard that Don had passed away, I made a point of reading through some of his published articles. This had the effect of reinforcing what he had said about exemplary scholarship with a series of exemplary models.

To get a sense for the difference between partisan and non-partisan evangelical scholarship, one need only read Don’s response to Craig Blomberg in the 2001 issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research.

Blomberg’s essay responded to the question, “Where Should Twenty-First-Century Evangelical Biblical Scholarship Be Heading?”, with a laundry list of academic topics that merit more attention by evangelical scholars. For example, work on the historical Jesus needs to be expanded to include the historicity of John’s Gospel and the historicity of the Old Testament; the historical context of the Bible needs to be examined “from an evangelical perspective”; we need an evangelical Hebrew grammar. And so on. These are not necessarily bad ideas, and those who work in the areas Blomberg recommends are not thereby “partisan” as long as they are willing to follow the evidence where it leads. (See F.F. Bruce’s comments in part 1 of this series).

What does strikes me as partisan is the location from which Blomberg surveys the field. Although Blomberg decries closet fundamentalists who are “committ[ed] to sociological separatism” and encourages his fellow evangelicals to “engag[e] the larger, scholarly world,” his comments presuppose and thus reinforce an insider-outsider divide between “us” evangelicals and “the scholarly world in general.”

Unlike Blomberg, Verseput’s reply is marked by a persistent refusal to make distinctions along tribal lines:
  • Where Blomberg called for “a thoroughgoing evangelical study” of Christian ethics to correct the work of Richard Hays, Verseput remarked that Hays, along with the German scholars, Wolfgang Schrage and Rudolf Schnackenburg, “need some help,” and then explained why, and why it matters for the church today. 
  • Wayne Meeks’s sociological study of the earliest Christian churches does not need to be redone “from an evangelical perspective,” it needs to be “updated” with attention to the theological convictions that Meeks overlooked, so that Christians in a post-Christian age can learn from the example of the early church.
Instead of evangelical bona fides, Verseput emphasized quality. Where Blomberg referred repeatedly to “evangelical scholars,” Verseput preferred different adjectives—“rigorous scholarship,” “leading biblical scholars,” “the latest research.” In fact, the word “evangelical” only appears in Verseput’s essay once, as part of a summary of Blomberg’s article. This is not, I take it, because Verseput rejected the label, but because he believed evangelical scholars need to do good scholarly work, and good scholars will necessarily engage and learn from the best contributions of the guild, irrespective of party affiliation.

What should distinguish evangelicals who are biblical scholars, Verseput implies, is not in-house conversations, or footnotes that cite only evangelical publishers, but scholarship that addresses “the needs of the church”: 
"Blomberg himself remarks that our scholarly efforts must "self-consciously serve the most crucial needs of the church of Jesus Christ at home and abroad." But if this is indeed the case, would it not be profitable to pause for a moment to ask what questions the church might have for us?" - Verseput (p. 173) 

Because the church’s needs are vital, Verseput urged Christian scholars to address them with all the academic resources at their disposal. Verseput’s footnotes, as much as the main text of his response, illustrate how he thought this sort of nonpartisan evangelical scholarship should be done.

Blomberg, Craig L. “Where Should Twenty-First-Century Evangelical Biblical Scholarship Be Heading?” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 161–72. (Online here)

Verseput, Donald J. “Considering the Needs of the Church: A Response to Craig Blomberg.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 173–77. (Online here)

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: F.F. Bruce 
Part 2: John Goldingay 
Part 3: N.T. Wright


Joe W said...

Thank you Dave. I have similar memories of Dr. Verseput from the same year. Mine are from an advanced Greek exegesis class he taught and a handful of office conversations it led to. It still amazes me how often I think of him and those conversations for how relatively brief my contact with him was.

P.S. Thank you for this series of posts. I have really appreciated them.

d. miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Joe, and for sharing your Verseput memories. I'm glad you have enjoyed the series.

Peter M. Head said...

Thanks for this. I was very impressed with Verseput's dissertation on Matthew 11-12. Great stuff. Maybe collecting a bibliography and getting at least a list of his published articles would be a helpful move.

Thomas Renz said...

Don Verseput was an outstanding lecturer (in German!) at what was then the Freie Theologische Akademie Giessen (today: Freie Theologische Hochschule). He was meticulously well prepared, engaging, inspiring, encouraging. He played a significant part in making me a biblical scholar. I was his assistant in my final year (1992-1993). Thank you for remembering him!

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comments, Peter and Thomas. I have now posted a bibliography.