Monday, November 25, 2019

Iain Murray on the Evangelical Search for "Academic Respectability"

Recent discussion on the text of Scripture and academic scholarship, sent me back to skim again a chapter in Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000 (Banner of Truth, 2000). The entire book is worth reading for its narrative of the doctrinal compromise that led to the word “evangelical” becoming essentially meaningless with regard to Biblical fidelity by the end of the twentieth century.

The chapter that I returned to was chapter 7 ‘Intellectual Respectability’ and Scripture (173-214).

Murray traces, in particular, the efforts of evangelicals in the late twentieth century to seek degrees and teaching posts in major academic institutions (particularly in the UK) in hopes of gaining respectability for the evangelical cause in the wider academic community and exerting a traditional Christian influence on scholarship. Sadly, rather than seeing the evangelicals influence the academy, Murray suggests it has been the academy that has influenced evangelicals. As is often quipped in Christian home-school circles: “If you send your children to Caesar to be educated, don’t be surprised if they come back as Romans.”

In this regard he traces the careers of the likes of F. F. Bruce, James Barr, James D. G. Dunn, I Howard Marshall, etc. He also traces the trajectory of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVF) and its Tyndale Fellowship of Biblical Research, founded in 1944, whose establishment was, according to Murray, “a move to counter the image of evangelicals as people who did not believe in intellectual labour and who held blindly to traditions regardless of scholarship” (175).

Let me illustrate some of Murray’s points made in this chapter with a few brief quotations:

First, he describes the goal of this rapprochement:

Applying this to the academic level, evangelicals would work with liberals on the human aspects, using the same critical tools, while retaining their own overall position. The immense cleavage of opinion over the actual authority of the Bible could be by-passed, yet with the ultimate intention of making the other side sit up and rethink the credibility of the conservative position (180).

Second, the problems inherent with this approach:

The academic approach to Scripture treats the divine element—for all practical purposes—as non-existent. History shows that when evangelicals allow that approach their teaching will soon begin to look little different from that of liberals (185).

Third, the consequences:

I turn now to the consequences which always follow a lowered view of Scripture. It is that biblical truth become a matter of possibilities or probabilities, rather than of certainties. According to liberalism this is an asset, not a defect, for it is ‘dogmatism’ and the ‘closed mind’ which are indefensible and ‘incompatible’ with scholarship (198).

He adds a range of further consequences including:

First: A proper understanding of the Bible passes from the hands of ordinary men and women to the professional scholar…. (202).

Second: It follows that, if Christian belief in Scripture is reduced to conjectures and uncertainties, then a broad toleration of almost all opinions is allowable. Any dogmatism over ‘points of view’ has to be unscholarly as well as uncharitable…. (203).

Third: Finally, it follows that a denial of the full inspiration of Scripture leads to theological teaching and education which is destructive and futile rather than enriching and upbuilding in the faith. Instead of certainties, worthy to be preached and taught, students are introduced to what their lecturers trust are the latest results of Biblical scholarship. The fact that this scholarship is so quickly out of date, and to be replaced by new ‘insights’, seems to cause the instructors no misgivings. Presumably they regard change as the inevitable result of progress, and think that theology is no different from any other branch of learning (204).

I don’t think it will take much prompting for thoughtful readers to connect the dots here between Murray’s assessment of the “evangelical crisis” (especially with regard to the search for “academic respectability”) at the end of the twentieth century, and how that crisis has continued into the twenty-first century, or why some academic evangelicals (and I’m not talking about the PIA here) have been among the most intense, active, and impassioned critics of the Confessional Text movement.


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