Tuesday, December 08, 2009

University Bias against Evangelicals?

If you have discovered yet there is a very interesting discussion happening right now by Dan Wallace over at Parchment and Pen and over at Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight. Both men I have had the privilege to know very well and consider friends. I think I've said before on this blog that I was one of Dan's interns at DTS and of course Scot is my colleague now.

For my two sense, I think Scot is right in his response. I attended DTS and was not accepted at any American universities I applied to and attended a British university. One element that has not been discussed is the ecomonic angle. American universities especially the top end schools (e.g. Duke, Notre Dame, etc) don't need students. They have 100 applicants for 2 spots each year. Furthermore, one has to score extremely well on the GRE before one is even given a siff. These kind of odds make it extremely difficult to get into the program no matter who you are.

On the other hand, as has been well documented, British universities are in desperate financial crises. And many of the more well-known schools are dependent on North American students to bolster their bottom line. The economics of the situation make it easier for an evangelical student to get accepted into a British university and that has nothing to do with a non-liberal bias. This is not to say that the British system is not more "open" in ways pointed out by both Dan and Scot. Indeed it is and this is a strength of a British research degree: You're on your own with regard to your research.

One last personal note. I have not felt slighted at the SBL meetings because of my evangelical pedigree. I am a co-chair of the Matthew section and have had very positive engagement with non-evangelicals-many of whom I consider good friends. I think it is not so much that you are an evangelical, it is how you wear it that really matters.


Denny Burk said...

Thanks for weighing-in, Joel. Inquiring minds want to know. What do you mean by "it is how you wear it"?

Denny Burk said...

One more comment so sign-up for e-mail follow-up.

Anonymous said...

Denny: what does "sign up for email follow up mean?" Sorry I'm still slightly uninformed.

What I mean by the "how you wear it" relates to both the issue of posture and scholarly engagement. With respect to the first issue, I think it is important that one can relate well to people of all kinds and go to places where people are hanging socially. For example, going to a Publisher's reception in the evenings at SBL and just hanging out over a beer talking. Just being a person goes a long way in this regard. Obviously I could say more here. As for scholarly interest, I like what Scot said here. What I have found is that if your interested in similar issues you end up connecting to folks who may have similar ideas for very different reasons. I think for example the post-new perspective on Paul that sees Paul as a Torah-observant Jew. One may be inclined to this view in light of a post-holocaust righting of wrongs done to Jews. Another, an evangelical, might come to this view because they read Acts 21 and take Luke's account seriously.

Well those are my thoughts. Any push back?

Denny Burk said...

Some evangelical beliefs are so abhorrent to non-evangelicals, that they won't take you seriously no matter what accomodations you make. Non-evangelicals are never going to like our commitment to exclusivist soteriology. That just doesn't sell well to the fallen mind apart from grace. Likewise, they typically don't like our commitment to inerrancy and biblical authority. On that point, consider Ehrman. He cannot stand inerrancy and is doing everything to undermine it in his writings. No amount of scholarship will ever impress Ehrman (and many others like him). Even though I would love to reach Ehrman for the gospel, it would be counter-productive to spend my whole scholarly life trying to impress the likes of Ehrman.

Daniel Kirk said...

Denny, I've only met you once, so take my comments with a grain of salt. But I'd say that your last comment is "wearing" your evangelicalism precisely in the way that would make you persona non grata at SBL.

First, the idea that exclusivist soteriology will always make you an outcast because minds darkened can't comprehend it--well, if that's how you're assessing yourself and denigrating the other people in the room they will not accept you.

But there are people who are in the thick of SBL goings on who believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and I'd say that contingent has a growing voice. Hays or Wright would make similar claims, even in their scholarship, but they have found ways of expressing themselves, and picking their battles, that enable them to find respect among colleagues who might disagree.

On inerrancy: you won't get a paper accepted that defends it, but if you're doing good scholarly research on a text, that might get in. The problem with inerrancy isn't that someone holds to it, but that it can make people say goofy things about the Bible--and Christianity. Part of finding one's way at SBL is developing a robust sense of charity that allows for non-inerrantists to teach you about the Bible. It's when evangelicals wear inerrancy on their sleeves either as an answer to complicated questions or as a reason to ignore good scholarship that it causes them to be on the outside.

Finally, the idea that SBL is for the purpose of reaching people for the gospel is not going to win an evangelical friends; walking off triumphant when we abuse SBL for that purpose hurts the cause. SBL is a professional organization for scholarly research about the Bible and its related fields. It's precisely when we come in with the mindset of our work there being for the purpose of converting the evil errantist that we confirm the secular world's ideas of what it's like to have to deal with an evangelical at SBL.

Anonymous said...

Well there is a case in point. I had a meal once with Bart. It was quite fun to get to know him and here his story. I attempted to follow up with him and stay connected. We had a couple of email exchanges and then communication just stopped. I once saw him again and he did not recognize me or perhaps purposefully did not. So this would be a case that supports your point. However, I'm not all that interested in befriending a guy who doesn't accept me for me; even if I'm willing to accept him for him. But most folks that I have come to know are not like Bart. And so Bart is really not a good example since he is an exception in my book.

Now if I wear the topics you mention on my sleeve and that is all I'm interested is defending inerrancy and the like then that is not very interesting to most everyone else and I should say too not interesting to me either. I don't feel it necessary to defend. I just live my life as an evangelical scholar pursuing topics and research that interests me within the framework of a confession. I don't think people today get all that upset about a confessional perspective. I can't be different and I don't want to be and their not asking me to be. But I think the important point is to be able to relate to a person as people. As for the exclusive claims of the evangelical gospel, well I don't make that the center of conversation. Most of the folks who are outside a Christian confession already know what I would say about that and they are not convinced. So what's the point of talking about it.
I had to take a break from writing this and since returning Daniel has chimed in much more eloquently that I am able. But I concur with largely with his sentiments.

Preston Sprinkle said...

As an evangelical who attended a British University and who attends both ETS and SBL, I must say that there can actually be a stronger aroma of Biblical authority at SBL (in some sessions, at least) than at ETS. That is, I tend to see a more robust, unfettered exegesis exemplified in most of the NT seminars at SBL, whereas at some sessions at ETS, I may hear biblical texts being cited and "Christian-eeze" language expounding the text, but there seems to be a theological agenda driving the presentation. Again, I'm speaking in general not exclusive terms. Certainly there are agendas being pursued at SBL and good exegesis exhibited at ETS. My point is simply that I was shocked at how scripturally-centered SBL actually was--despite the many warnings I was handed from certain ETS-only evangelicals.

This was brought to light in a very dramatic way when N.T. Wright defended his recent book on Scripture against several liberal critics a few years back. What was shocking is that Wright's defense of Scriptural authority elicited a near standing ovation from a 500+audience--all SBL attendees!

I had the same experience in attending a university in Britain, "liberal-land," as one of my seminary friends labeled it (he had actually never been to the UK). What I experienced was a relentless pursuit of the text by both students and faculty (again, and of course, there was some exceptions). I almost didn't know what to do in my first year when I was forced (for the first time, it felt) to defend my beliefs from the text of scripture, and from scripture alone. In fact, when I taught briefly at a British university thereafter, the mantra among the (non-evangelical) faculty was: "sure, we wouldn't mind hiring an evangelical, as long as HE JUST STICKS TO THE TEXT!" American evangelicals are often perceived as pushing theological agendas at all cost. But rigorous and faithful exegesis, I have found, is actually respected on both sides of the pond.

That's at least been my experience.

Denny Burk said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond. It was a pleasure to meet you in New Orleans.

I was scratching my head as I read your remarks and was trying to figure out why you were talking about SBL. When I wrote my remarks, I wasn’t at all thinking about how evangelicals comport themselves at SBL. I was thinking about Wallace’s original point—liberal disdain for evangelicals. I think my remark was interpreted in light of Joel’s reflections on SBL. Sorry for the confusion.

I do understand that SBL’s membership comprises a broad theological spectrum. From LGBT/Queer Hermeneutics sections to IBR sessions, both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between are represented at SBL. But like I said, my remarks weren’t meant to be a characterization of SBL.

Rather, I had in mind the folks that Wallace identified in his post—“liberal scholars.” Wallace complains that liberals really aren’t very liberal anymore when they exclude solid evangelical scholars from their institutions. I believe that he is right. There is a left-wing in the scholarly guild that stands aloof to evangelicals no matter how much solid scholarship they produce.

Do you disagree with that point?


Ben White said...

As someone coming from an evangelical tradition, with a Master of Arts from Gordon Conwell and a Master of Theology at Duke under Richard Hays, I have really enjoyed my doctoral program under Bart. I'm in my fifth year at UNC and have learned that he in no way cares whether his grad students come from an evangelical, pentecostal, mormon, seventh-day adventist, agnostic, or baptist tradition. All of these have been represented among his most recent grad students. If you can do good work, that's all he cares about. Now, you would have problems in the program if you held to innerancy as defined by the Chicago Statement. But "innerancy," whatever that means, is crumbling from within the ranks of Evangelicals themselves, so I hardly think its fair to lay its demise at the hands of Bart.

Denny Burk said...


Thanks for the insight. One question about your statement, "You would have problems in the program if you held to innerancy as defined by the Chicago Statement." My question is this. Could one get into the program if one held to inerrancy "as defined by the Chicago Statement"? I think that was Wallace's concern.


Anonymous said...

Ben: I'm so glad to hear that you're having a good experience under Bart. I found him to be a very enjoyable person to be around. He is quite a transparent person and I appreciated that. I didn't get much by way of pretense from him and that impressed me. It sounds as though you have had an interesting educational journey.

Deny: I do think the SBL comments were appropriate to the conversation. Your post did not designate that you were addressing a liberal bias at SBL as well as more generally. For what it's worth, I'd be surprised if a professor would flat out ask if you held to a doctrine of inerrancy defined by the Chicago statement. I can't envisage where that would come up in an application process. There certainly would not be a question on the application. If this was not something one wore on their sleeve, I don't see how it would be relevant. I'm not denying that in some quarters of academia there isn't a liberal bias, but I don't think it is as widespread as Dan supposes. Its there no doubt, but not as prevalent. My guess is that it was a much bigger problem a generation ago than it is now.

Ben White said...

Denny - Joel makes the point that I was going to make. At what point in the application process would one's theological views arise? In a program like I'm in - "Ancient Mediterranean Religions" - why would my own views about God, Jesus, salvation, the Bible or any other issue come up in the application process? I applied to study what ancient people thought about these issues.

Anonymous said...

Ben: If I were a betting man, I would bet that you scored exceptionally well on the GRE.

Ben White said...

Joel - I did well on the GRE, but didn't kill it. Those are the Duke guys. As you know, getting into a program is a crapshoot and is often more about "fit" than anything else. My own research interests happen to match up quite nicely with Bart's current work on pseudepigraphy in early Christianity. I also try to straddle the NT/Early Christianity fence, which is good for a program like UNC, which knows no canonical boundaries. I think we've actually met before. I visited Cambridge with my Dad six to seven years ago and I have a vague recollection of speaking with you over afternoon tea at Tyndall House. I was in the ThM program at Duke at the time.


Jason said...


Ben's GRE score sounds like a really safe bet!

I agree with you, Joel, that comments on bias and the like can very easily be overdone. But at the end of the day certain issues (sexuality, etc.) are going to make it impossible for an evangelical to get hired in many N. American programs, regardless of publication record, interest in early Christianity outside canonical boundaries, knowledge of the ancient languages and the ancient world, connections, etc. The glut of PhDs is probably also a factor, but it's theology and belief that are the deciding factors. I learned this well interacting with the religion profs at my liberal arts undergrad school: one simply cannot believe this material and be accepted in the guild.

Over coffee last year Bart Ehrman nodded in agreement when I told him I wasn't looking at US teaching positions, and that in any event it mattered not, since I was an evangelical and therefore ineligible for hire. "That's correct," he said. Of course, it's also true of the institutions where Dan W. and Denny work, based on eschatology and belief about baptism, respectively.

On Bart; he was certainly nice, not pretentious at all, despite being the most famous person in our discipline by an enormous margin. I'd love to chat again.

I was struck though by the juxtaposition of two facts: (1) When we were talking about things for me to research in future, he spent a fair bit of time talking about how over-researched and over done the canonical material is. "Do work on Ps-Matthew or Gospel of the Hebrews," he said. (2) But in his own work, of course, spends a great deal of time on canonical materials...and almost always in a fashion specifically designed to challenge traditional thinking (that's the goal of his research, not just the conclusions), making much money in the process. I didn't think to ask him about that juxtaposition at the time.

Jason A. Staples said...

As another of Bart's students, I'm just going to back what Ben has said 100%. Bart doesn't ask questions about his students' backgrounds (even if he might make assumptions); he only expects first-rate work and solid arguments. Bart is a first-rate advisor whether one agrees with him or not, and he takes the students he sees as strongest, regardless of their denominational/religious ties.

I would think he would even take a DTS grad, though only if the student had been outside that pond a bit (perhaps a Master's in another place) and had showed outstanding work.

And with Bart the admissions process concerns the GRE a lot less than it does prior language training. Bart believes (rightly, I think) that a student who has put the requisite years of language training in before applying to a Ph.D. program is more likely to "stick" and more prepared to do rigorous scholarly work.

Anonymous said...

Jason and Ben: This is significant news to share. There are obviously much misinformation about Bart that obviously needs to be cleared up. What you're saying jives with my experience with him.