Sunday, April 6, 2008

Inerrancy and academic personality types

During a connversation elsewhere, Kent Sparks (author of God's Words in Human Words) makes the following observation:

"My experience is that evangelicalism has in their midst at least four kinds of scholars. First, there are those who really don’t know the critical evidence (because they found a grad program in which they could avoid it) and so don’t teach it or, if they do teach it, they present the criticism as a straw man that’s easily bested by their fundamentalism. Second, there are scholars who know something about the evidence and recognize that it’s problematic, but their response is “Hey, we just don’t know everything.” These scholars don’t give much attention to the critical issues because for any number of reasons they don’t want to take the time to mess with it. I call these, the “Don’t worry be happy” scholars. In the Enns situation, they are the scholars who think its bad business that Pete’s in trouble, they realize why Pete thinks what he thinks, but they don’t have the courage to say something in his support. Third, there are evangelicals who know the critical evidence quite well and privately recognize the serious problems that it creates for standard evangelical theology, but in actual scholarship and discourse they handle themselves pretty much like those in category 2. One only knows their real views in private. Finally, we have what I’d now call the “Pete Enns” evangelicals. They recognize the problems and are ready to engage them for the sake of God and kingdom."

His observation is only the tip of the iceberg. For if Kent’s taxonomy of professors is helpful, then an analogous taxonomy can also be used to categorize students and the two can be juxtaposed. I’m interested to see what dynamics are set off by mixing and matching each type of professor with each type of student.

Professor: A B C D
Student: A B C D

This is probably the conservative ideal and how, incidentally it sometimes pans out at conservative schools–where there is a match, I mean, between what students expect and what teachers teach–because schools tend to hire and retain based on how well faculty can promote the institutional/denominational agenda they wish to pursue. Institutional tension tend to build over time, I imagine, when there’s a kind of cross-breeding between teachers and students.

Professor: A B C D
Student: D C B A


Professor: A B C D
Student: C D A B

and so forth.

There’s a potential for such disparity that both parties (teachers and students) are bound to frustrate both themselves and each other, and grievances to that effect can overflow to administrations. That might help explain why conservative schools tend to hire people who either graduated from that school or from a comparable institution. Westminster hire’s mostly WTS grads, PBU mostly PBU affiliates, and so forth.

Now when A’s and D’s teach at the same school, that takes a toll on students, especially the A’s and D’s among them. First, plenty of A’s don’t know that D’s exist, whenever they encounter them, they think they don’t care about the faith. Second, D’s get to see A’s “in the flesh.” They’d heard about A’s and can’t help but find them an embarrassment to the faith. Third, it’s very tempting for D’s to go around bursting peoples bubbles and take not a little satisfaction in doing so. Fourth, there’s a great temptation for A’s to publicly question D’s doctrinal integrity and take not a little satisfaction in doing that. Fifth, there is such a disparity between the A’s and D’s that sometimes they won’t even have the same values (or at least not order them the same way, which can have the same practical effect): preserve the tradition vs. engage critical scholarship, making it hard for them to work together: grades each others papers, hear each others lectures, etc. Sixth, a competition can ensue between the A’s and D’s to gain support from the B’s and C’s. Thus, a social insider-outsider dynamic develops. Seventh, the entire interface involving the different “types” of professor/student is interpreted cosmologically and soteriologically, making it very difficult to for anyone to get along and for productive conversations to take place.

I could keep going but I myself don’t see any satisfactory gesture of reconciliation on the horizon for any of this, given such a complex social, philosophical, psychological and theological matrix of relationships within which teacher-student interactions take place. A first step in the right direction would be for some well-known evangelical personae to convincingly introduce a new metaphor that has nothing to do with "error" and to have such cultural and scholarly influence as to make it stick within some demographic segment of evangelicalism. At least, that would be a start.

[Kent's remarks (as well as my response) were made during the course of a very long thread on
'Conn-versation':, comment 76]