Can A Christian Be A Historian? Heretic Hunting in 2012

I’ve never been able to find a dichotomy between being an historian and a theologian–or a good historian and a Christian, putting it very bluntly. I do not believe that gods and goddesses or anyone ever comes out from heaven and produces divine babies; I don’t believe it actually happens. Nor do I think that Jesus, in a literal sense went up to heaven to take his place at the right-hand of God. John Dominic Crossan

Many years ago at the University of Notre Dame the brilliant philosopher/theologian Philip Devenish gave a lecture provocatively titled with the question: “Can a Christian Be A Historian?” Devenish’s response was essentially “no,” assuming one defines a “Christian” by the affirmations of the traditional creeds–that Jesus was born of a virgin, raised from the dead, ascended bodily into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God, ready to return in the clouds of heaven and usher in the last judgment. Devenish argued that this is not and can not be the stuff of historical investigation, of Jesus or any other human being of the past. We can talk about the development of ideas, theological or otherwise, but no historian can take literally tales of gods impregnating women, walking on water, turning water to wine, dead people being resuscitated and taken bodily to heaven, or any other mythological story. There is nothing wrong with myth–unless you confuse it with history!

Devenish was of course familiar with ways of “demythologizing” these Creedal statements, and indeed Bultmann was one of his heroes, along with Hartshorne and his teacher Shubert Ogden. His point was that unless Christians are willing to take seriously the differences between “myth and history” they were bound to end up “outside” the bounds of the academic study of religions.

That was in 1979 and I had just taken my first teaching position at Notre Dame in the wonderful and thriving Department of Theology that the brilliant and visionary Father David Burrell had helped to shape for over a decade. Though surely Christian, and Roman Catholic at that, the Department of Theology required no faculty to sign creedal statements and a number of prominent non-Catholics, including several “historians,” happily taught there in those days. I was hired to teach Christian Origins and my approach and method was precisely what they have continued to be now for over 30 years.  My courses on Jesus, Paul, and so forth fulfilled the required two courses in “Theology,” for all bachelors degrees.  Unfortunately, there was a Hesburgh inspired “purge” in the 1980s resulting in a half dozen or so of us moving on by choice. Today, I am happy to note, so far as I can tell, the Department of Theology at Notre Dame is once again thriving in terms of an academic approach to the study of religions.

Unfortunately such is not the case everywhere. One has only to think of the terrible purge of some of the finest academic professors at several Southern Baptists seminaries a couple of decades ago or any number of other denominational attempts to demand that faculty swear allegiance to Christian creeds while maintaining that they continue to be “accredited” academic institutions. Not too long ago Ron Hendel opened a huge can of worms with his provocative essay in Biblical Archaeology Review titled “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies.” Ron explained his genuine grief over the trend in the Society of Biblical Literature in recent year to dilute its standards of historical-critical biblical scholarship by sanctioning “faith-based” approaches to biblical studies as part of the academic enterprise to which higher education is committed. If you missed Hendel’s piece you can find it linked here, with subsequent heated discussion at the SBL website. At the time Ron withdrew his membership in SBL as a protest and I am not sure if he has returned or not, but he surely is to be thanked for putting that issue before this esteemed society, chartered with the task of representing the Bible to our culture in an academic way.

Sadly, the latest chapter in this sort of heresy crackdown involves one of the finest scholars in our field of biblical studies–Chris Rollston who teaches at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.1 Chris is being attacked from various quarters for not upholding the theological stance of his institution.2 The irony here is that what Chris is being criticized for is a very fine essay published in the Huffington Post on the “Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About,” that could hardly be seen as a violation of any creed–Christian or otherwise. In fact, the “goals” of the Seminary are stated in very “non-creedal” ways that allow for the broadest possible application, see here.  Further, the Stone-Cambellite heritage, from which Emmanuel stems, has been historically open to reason and critical thinking in biblical studies going back to Alexander Campbell’s own very textually based  and linguistically oriented approach to the Bible. Rollston seems the perfect heir to the higher “end” of that movement, as was my teacher Abraham Malherbe whom I wrote about earlier this week here. Fellow biblioblogger Tom Verenna has some salient thoughts here, not only about Rollston’s latest trials but the enterprise of Biblical Studies and “faith” more generally. Comments on Verenna’s post include an extensive exchange between Robert Cargil and Emmanuel’s Paul Blowers and lots of comments by others.

  1. Update: Thom Stark, who broke this “story” on Rollston’s trials at Emmanuel is keeping tabs on things as they develop. You can see his initial post here, and an “update” of posts around the blogosphere here. 

  2. According to their web site “Emmanuel Christian Seminary is a Graduate Christian Seminary committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and to the vision of the unity of world Christianity as arising from the work of such thinkers as Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. Though students from a variety of denominational backgrounds come to study at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, the school has a relationship with churches of the Stone-Campbell Tradition (Disciples of Christ; Christian churches/churches of Christ; and Church of Christ).