Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Academy and the Pulpit: A Disconnect

Among those who study Christian history and New Testament scholarship, there is one issue that frequently comes up: Why is there such a disconnect between what is being taught in universities, divinity schools, and seminaries across the country, and what is being taught every Sunday from the pulpit?

This isn’t a question that presupposes any theological bias – scholars and historians from across the theological spectrum agree that this disconnect exists. I’ve heard it discussed by New Testament scholars who are agnostic, and I’ve heard it discussed by New Testament scholars who are evangelical Christians. Across the board, scholars of Christian history recognize that what is being taught in universities to future ministers is not translating to the pew.

Why is that?

Well, there are probably dozens of reasons. Based on my own consideration of the problem, I would suggest three possible explanations.

The first is that some ministers, though they learned about the conclusions and debates within Biblical scholarship while in college, never really bought into much of it. If they learned something that did not mesh well with their faith, they simply rejected it as either wrong, or highly unimportant. Thus, when they later become ministers, those conclusions are not at the forefront of their minds, because they never really accepted them anyway.

The second possible explanation is simply that ministers don’t want to alarm their congregations by consistently talking about the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship. Since congregations are made up of lay-people, they might have their faith shaken if they learn that, for instance, we don’t actually know who wrote most of the books of the Bible, Church tradition of authorship notwithstanding.

Daniel B. Wallace, an evangelical scholar at the very conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, has said: “Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage…The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ.”

His argument here is that by keeping congregations in the dark about issues of Biblical scholarship, when the “barrage” hits them (from books, magazines, movies, documentaries, etc.) it may shake their faith to such an extent that they lose their faith – they defect from Christ. Wallace is ultimately, of course, arguing that the disconnect between the academy and pulpit is real, and should be dealt with accordingly. In the same article quoted above, he states: “Those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers.”

The third possible explanation is that pastors want to keep their jobs. People come to church to worship God and to hear how the Bible can be made relevant to their modern lives. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. But, if instead of this, a pastor is constantly barraging his congregation with historical scholarship instead of feel-good sermons reinforcing their faith, not only will he start losing members, he might even put his own job in jeopardy. I’m not suggesting that many pastors are, therefore, liars, I’m simply saying that pastors frequently don’t see their role in church as a historian and scholar – they see their role as shepherd to the flock. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but this is one of the reasons, I believe, why the disconnect between academy and pulpit exists.

With that established, I want to highlight one issue from critical Biblical scholarship that perfectly illustrates this disconnect.

One of the most famous stories in the entire Gospel tradition is that of the woman caught in adultery, found in John, chapter 8. In this story, Jesus is approached by a group of “teachers of the Law and Pharisees.” They bring with them a woman caught in the act of adultery and, after reminding Jesus that Mosaic Law says adulterers should be stoned, ask Jesus for his opinion.

At this point, the writer tells us that they did this in order to lay a trap for him, so they could have a basis for “accusing” him. You might wonder exactly what this “trap” was. If Jesus affirmed Mosaic Law, he would be contradicting his own message of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. But if he contradicted Mosaic Law from the inspired Word of God, handed down by God through Moses, he could be accused of blasphemy.

As in so many other similar Gospel stories, Jesus outwits them. He first refuses to answer, biding his time by writing “on the ground with his finger.” The Pharisees, however, continue to pester him for an answer. Jesus finally stands up and delivers what is arguably his most famous quip: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Justifiably chastised, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law leave one by one in shame, never uttering another word.

Jesus is finally left alone with the woman. Apparently not realizing that she’s still there, he suddenly notices her and says: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She tells him no, and he responds, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

As I said above, this is one of the most famous stories from the Gospel tradition, and it includes a quip from Jesus that is one of his most recognizable. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” is such a familiar statement that it’s even commonly used in secular circles. A quick Google search returned several secular references to this saying on the first page, the least of which was a Star Trek episode named “Let He Who is Without Sin.”

The aforementioned Daniel Wallace, of Dallas Theological Seminary, notes that “strong emotional baggage” is attached to this story for many people. It’s a good story. It’s one we like. It illustrates the kind of Jesus we believe in.

There’s one problem though.

It’s a forgery.

Scholars have known for at least 300 years that this story was not original to the Gospel of John. Edward Gibbon, famous for his 18th century tome “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” was the first mainstream writer to note that the story is inauthentic.

Textual scholars have literally thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the various books of the Bible, going back to the 2nd century. In the case of this story from John, it is completely absent from every ancient manuscript in existence, and does not appear in any existing manuscript until the beginning of the 5th century – roughly three hundred years after the Gospel of John was written. Scholars know from other clues, such as diacritical marks in earlier manuscripts that suggest there are alternative readings of the chapter in question, and commentary by early Church fathers, that the story probably originated sometime in the 3rd century. That is still, of course, 150-200 years after the original composition.

That it was added much later to a text that originally did not include the story is obvious even from a general reading of the passage in question. If you read all of chapter 7 and all of chapter 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t seem to fit. It starts abruptly and ends abruptly, and doesn’t fit the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, if you skip the story (which occupies John 7:53-8:11), John 7:52 flows naturally and cleanly into John 8:12.

The point of all this is clear: the story of the woman caught in adultery was not original to the Gospel of John. At the earliest, it was developed well over a century after John was written and more than two centuries after Jesus died. The scribe who first added it may have been telling a story he knew from oral tradition, or may have been loosely conflating two stories attested in 2nd century writings, but in any case, the story as it appears in our Gospel is not original and is not historically reliable.

This is not the opinion only of “liberal” scholars or disinterested academics. Scholars from across the theological spectrum recognize that this story is not original to the text and almost certainly does not provide a historically-accurate account from the life of Jesus. I’ll refer again to the evangelical Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary: “For years, it was my favorite passage that was not in the Bible. I would even preach on it as true historical narrative, even after I rejected its literary/canonical authenticity. And we all know of preachers who can’t quite give it up, even though they, too, have doubts about it…This inconsistency is appalling. Something is amiss in our theological seminaries when one’s feelings are allowed to be the arbiter of textual problems.”

So what does all this mean? As I said above, it is a clear illustration of the disconnect between the academy and the pulpit. Ministers are not educating their parishioners. And with this particular story, what is the possible reason why so many church-goers have never heard about the historical problems with the text? First, it’s a feel good story. It’s the kind of Jesus we like. Who wants to face the fact that it’s not actually something Jesus said or did? Secondly, we can turn again to Daniel Wallace, from a statement I quoted earlier: “Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage.” What barrage? The slippery slope into defections from Christ when people begin to learn that maybe the book they believe is infallible is not actually infallible. If it has scribal errors, additions, and omissions, what other mistakes might it have? Maybe it’s not reliable at all and Christian faith is in vain? This is the barrage Wallace is talking about, and it’s that barrage that no doubt causes many pastors to fail to tell their congregations that this story is not historical.

From Wallace’s perspective, pastors need to educate their parishioners to “insulate” them from this barrage, so they don’t lose faith. Let them know about it from the pulpit, so they hear it from their pastor and not from a novelist or a college professor in a CNN interview. From my perspective, pastors need to educate their parishioners because people deserve not to be lied to, even in the name of their faith. Wallace points out, I believe correctly, that this particular story doesn’t impact the core doctrines of Christianity. It’s just one story from the life of Jesus, given in the Gospels, that isn’t historically accurate. But it’s important for Christians to know the truth about this story because it’s important for Christians to have authentic and realistic perspectives on their own religious beliefs.

In the first chapter of Proverbs we are told: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Christians should not be afraid of knowledge. They should welcome it and embrace it as the pathway to better understanding God. When people turn from knowledge, and when pastors are culpable in that endeavor, God is not served, and Christianity begins to lose its meaning.


J.P. Hoornstra said...

Great post, and great to know. Too bad that, after going to churches across the theological spectrum all my life, I'm learning about the historical origin of this passage from John for the first time at age 28.

the Rev'd C. Allen Colwell said...

I have seen all three of your explanations in my experience with my colleagues, but your argument is exactly why I am Presbyterian. As ministers we are "free" to bring what we learned to seminary to our congregation; it's why we are a denomination that requires a Master's degree; requires that our ministers can read Greek and Hebrew.

But here's my approach, or where I find my balance: some things are better to teach; some are better to preach. My call as a preacher is to always preach the GOOD NEWS; that's why most people come to worship--they want to be reassured of the Good News of forgiveness and the hope of New Life, while wanting something they can bring into their daily walk to be a better disciple. It's about edification more than education.

Which is why I lead three Bible Studies during the week, inviting people to join them if they want to really dig into the Scriptures. And do we ever, and as a pastor I'd love to have someone as a part of those discussions. In a discussion you can raise a lot of the points that catch your attention, but these are more appropriate in a Q&A setting. It's more pastoral, because yes, it can be shocking to discover some of the things we do when we go deeper into Scripture. But there's time to discuss it, to clarify, to hold someone's hand as their minds and hearts open to the Word. Sermons tend to be one-sided, no matter how hard you (I) try to make them conversational.

Thus, Schmoo, it's context, and some things are better in a Bible Discussion, others in a sermon.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, JP.

Rev. Colwell: Totally agree with your points. A Bible study setting is the more appropriate setting. The important thing is that it is happening in the Church and not being hidden.

Anonymous said...

It is always easier, whether you are a preacher or a politician (but I repeat myself) to tell people what they want to hear rather than tell them the truth. The people least open to the truth in the world are religious people. And pastors have to try to "lead" these people. It usually ends up being the other way around, even in the best of churches. Because the truth will force you to change! And folks don't want to do that.

Scott said...

Well, I think your criticism of religious people is a bit heavy-handed, but yes, in general, I agree.