Wise Words on the Breakdown of Trust between the Academy and the Church

When a biblical scholar, or any theologian, wishes to propose a new way of looking at a well-known topic, he or she ought to sense an obligation to explain to the wider community the ways in which the fresh insight builds up, rather than threatens, the mission and life of the church.

Such a statement will provoke protests–some of which will simply indicate that the protesters are still living within the modernist paradigm, and pretending to an illusory detached ‘neutrality.’ Of course, the church has sometimes gotten it wrong, and tried to demand of its scholars an adherence to various forms of words, to ways of putting things, which ought themselves to be challenged on the basis of scripture itself. The Christian “rule of faith” does not, in fact, stifle scholarship; even if it provokes the scholar to try to articulate that rule with greater accuracy and elegance, that itself will be a worthy task. Those who try to cut loose, however, discover sooner or later that when you abandon one framework of ideas you do not live thereafter in a wilderness, without any framework at all. You quickly substitute another, perhaps some philosophical scheme of thought. Likewise, those who ignore one community of discourse (say, the church) are inevitably loyal to another (perhaps some scholarly guild, or some drift of currently fashionable ideology).

What loyalty means is, in my experience, better discovered in practice than by hemming one another in through ever more carefully worded dogmatic statements which reflect ever narrower definitions within particular traditions. The Bible is a big enough book, and the church ought to be a big enough community, to develop a relationship of trust between its biblical scholars and those involved in the many other tasks to which we are called. True, that trust has been sorely tried in the last few generations. Sometimes the tension between scholarly freedom and loyalty to the community has become unbearable. Some scholars have cut loose from the church, or come up with theories which appear to mock what most Christians have cherished. Many in the church have turned their back on serious study, and have embraced an anti-intellectualism which refuses to learn anything from scholarship at all lest it corrupt their pure faith. It is time to end the stand-off, and to reestablish a hermeneutic of trust (itself a sign of the gospel!) in place of the hermeneutic of suspicion which the church has so disastrously borrowed from the postmodern world.

N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 135-36.

What I think is worth consideration is the very apparent fact that the church does not trust its scholars and the scholars do not trust the church–can we blame either side? I wish, like Wright, that the church could develop productive and trusting relationships on both sides of this divide.

I do quibble–and perhaps this is significant–with Wright’s last two lines. Trust itself is not a absolute value to be applied in every situation. Trust must be earned and given when earned. It should really be noted that trust has broken down because of offenses on both sides of this divide. It is not enough to say “trust each other because trust is a sign of the gospel”. In fact, I’m not sure I even know what he means by that. But I agree with the sentiment. A “hermeneutic of suspicion” is a contingency which relies on being misled. We ought not to think everyone is misleading us, not ought we to trust each other in every case. We ought to discern appropriately.

That said, his fundamental point is well taken. We must endeavor to build trust between the church and the academy.

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