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.
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