WHITHER EVANGELICALISM ?

Wither Evangelicalism?
Was I the only one who was both frustrated and disappointed by the recent interview of Robert H. Gundry in Christianity Today?

Written by Ron Henzel | Monday, November 9, 2015

It is hardly newsworthy that a scholar is publishing whacked-out conclusions about the gospel of Matthew. That happens so regularly that scientists could use the intervals to check the accuracy of their cesium clocks. Nor is it particularly newsworthy that in this instance the name of that scholar happens to be Robert H. Gundry. What is a bit more newsworthy is the fact that CT is covering it as a story about “evangelical” scholarship. Thus CT has become part of the story: the institutional amnesia on display there is appalling.

Was I the only one who was both frustrated and disappointed by the recent interview of Robert H. Gundry in Christianity Today?1 For those who missed it, the eminent Dr. Gundry has come out with a new book on the Apostle Peter in which he claims that “Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple of Jesus, a disciple who went so far as to apostatize.” Just about everything most people would want to know about the book can be gleaned from its title: Peter—False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew.

Yowzers!

So, apparently, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years someone has finally understood Matthew’s true opinion of Peter. (You remember Peter? That guy who walked on the water with Jesus, had his own private audience with Him after His resurrection, converted 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost, and wrote two of the books in our New Testament?) And according to this startling new insight, it seems Matthew put Peter pretty much on the same level as Judas.

Uh, thanks for clearing that up. I’d say I’ve endured many a sleepless night wondering about this, but that would be a…

Never mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m neither frustrated with nor disappointed by anything Dr. Gundry has said or written. I am saddened by it, but not frustrated or disappointed.

After all, this is the same Robert H. Gundry who was unceremoniously bounced out of the Evangelical Theological Society 31 years ago for claiming that Matthew played fast and loose with history to the point of putting stuff in his gospel that didn’t actually happen but seemed to him to make for a nicer story. (That whole part about the Three Wise Men? Fuggedaboutit!)2

How frustrated or disappointed should I be when someone is simply being consistent with his presuppositions? I am frustrated and disappointed by several things concerning this article, but that is not one of them.

You want my list?

For starters, I am perturbed by the complete title of the CT article: “Did Matthew Think Peter Was a False Disciple? A new book from a top evangelical scholar makes the case.”

Let us concede for the moment that Dr. Gundry is a “top scholar.” But an evangelical scholar? Did you miss the part where I mentioned that he was booted from the Evangelical Theological Society 31 years ago? Any red flags there?

Apparently not for CT. Even though they devoted a 1,447-word article to Gundry’s forced resignation in 1984, the author of the current article, Kevin P. Emmert, apparently experienced no cognitive dissonance whatsoever in omitting any reference to that debacle while referring to Gundry as not only a “top evangelical scholar” but a “leading evangelical scholar”—an ominous reminder that other such “evangelical scholars” are following.

And we can be sure that younger evangelicals are, in fact, following in Gundry’s footsteps, because not only did his allegedly-evangelical employer, Westmont College, not fire him after his expulsion from ETS, but it named an academic chair after him. The current occupant of that chair is a man whom I used to believe was reliable on the doctrine of Scripture, but his recent statements give me grounds for strong doubts.3 Very strong doubts.

Yes, brace yourselves for a new generation of “evangelicals” who are “open” to such new ideas as that of Matthew dissing Peter. They’re coming.

This is not a new problem. In 1971, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave an address titled “What Is an Evangelical?” in which he bemoaned the practice—already widespread 40-plus years ago—of calling just about anyone who said nice things about Jesus an “evangelical.” It must have been a doozy to listen to, because the print version goes on for 57 pages.4 His concept of an “evangelical” was a sturdy one, built to last.

Lloyd-Jones constructed his definition of “evangelical,”in part, with a very strong doctrine of Scripture. Unfortunately, today’s architects are using cheaper materials. CT itself is still asking Lloyd-Jones’s question, but its answer is so stripped-down and dumbed-down that it’s obvious that the new building is not up to code.5 I question how it will fare when the next major doctrinal storm blows through.

Someone might say, “What’s the big deal? We live in a world in which Rachel Dolezal is an African-American, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, and Facebook lets you identify with any of 58 ‘genders.’ So why can’t Robert Gundry be an evangelical?”

To which I respond, “Do you really think that ‘world’ actually exists? I mean, like—really? If so, I invite you to go back to it, because you won’t be happy in mine.”

Problem solved.

Not Exactly Woodward and Bernstein

Speaking of unhappiness: I also find it disturbing that when interviewing Gundry’s academic peers on an issue of this magnitude, the flagship publication of evangelicalism did not even know how to ask the most basic question.

It is hardly newsworthy that a scholar is publishing whacked-out conclusions about the gospel of Matthew. That happens so regularly that scientists could use the intervals to check the accuracy of their cesium clocks. Nor is it particularly newsworthy that in this instance the name of that scholar happens to be Robert H. Gundry. What is a bit more newsworthy is the fact that CT is covering it as a story about “evangelical” scholarship. Thus CT has become part of the story: the institutional amnesia on display there is appalling.

If I had been preparing this article and had professors from other evangelical seminaries on the phone, it seems to me that the first question I’d bring up would be: “How is it possible for evangelicalism to have changed so much over the past generation that a notion like this could come from the pen of an ‘evangelical’ scholar, with other evangelicals even finding ways to praise it?”

Is there not a story-behind-the-story here—one that goes beyond the superficial facts of this one author and his book and straight to the heart of evangelical identity?

Indeed there is.

And it is deeply disconcerting to me when I know that every one of those professors could have explained it, but apparently the pertinent questions were never even asked.

There are actually several ways to answer the question. There are several brushes one can use to paint the portrait of how we came to be where we are. I’m going to pick one, and I’m going to brush with broad strokes. I will try to keep the paint on the canvas.

A Tale of Two Methodologies

Academically speaking, Robert H. Gundry is first and foremost a biblical theologian. And if there was ever a Trojan Horse in the history of Christian theology, it arrived when biblical theology was introduced as an academic discipline.

I know a lot of people will find what I just wrote confusing. After all, what sounds more pure, spiritual, and godly than the phrase “biblical theology?” How can it possibly be a bad thing? Allow me to explain.

When those in academia refer to “biblical theology,” they are not simply referring to the theology that you get from reading the Bible. Rather they are referring to a particular method of doing theology that was born during the Enlightenment, the philosophical movement that enthroned human reason in place of divine revelation.6 And from the moment it became an academic discipline it consciously distanced itself from the historic goals of Christian theology.

Prior to this, whenever orthodox Christians wrote theological works, they started with one basic assumption. They assumed that while the Bible was written by many human authors, it ultimately speaks with one voice: God’s. Thus, when reading the Bible, the goal is to find out what God has said concerning the major topics presented in the whole Bible. This, in turn, led to methods that we associate today with “systematic theology” (sometimes also known as “dogmatic theology” or “dogmatics”).

What does the whole Bible teach about God? Okay: there’s your doctrine of God (theology proper). What does the whole Bible teach about salvation? There’s your doctrine of salvation (soteriology). And so on.

When you’re finished doing this for all the major doctrines of the Bible, you have produced a systematic theology. Just like a school pupil whose teacher asks her to put the lesson into her own words in order to show she understands it, you have taken the lessons from the Bible and put them into your own words for the same purpose. And hopefully this both honors God and helps His church.

Furthermore, since it all comes ultimately from God, and since God does not promote confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), what you find in one part of the Bible does not contradict what you find in another. All of Scripture is in perfect harmony with itself.

The notion of biblical theology as a separate academic discipline from systematic theology changed all that. Born at the height of the Enlightenment, it began with a speech delivered by Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826) on March 30, 1787 titled, “On the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.”7 To be fair, Gabler did make some good and reasonable points.

For example, one thing that systematic theology has not been very good at is providing an idea of how revelation progressed over time. God did not reveal everything all at once, but gradually. And yet systematic theology tends to present what God has revealed as a kind of finished portrait rather than as something that He unfolded step-by-step.

One of the strengths of biblical theology, on the other hand, is that it was originally designed to answer questions like, “What did people in biblical times know, and when did they know it?” For example, did Abraham know as much as the apostles knew about God’s plan of salvation? Questions like these help us better appreciate the original contexts of many biblical statements that might otherwise be confusing.

But the original, vintage version of “biblical theology,” à la J.P. Gabler, also asked other questions that traditional systematic theologians had long considered settled issues of orthodoxy. Questions like: does the Bible contain any merely human teachings and how do we distinguish them from the ones that really come from God? 8 And: did the biblical writers disagree among themselves, and if so, how?9 In keeping with the Enlightenment view that reason is the arbiter of all truth, Gabler & Co. saw no problem with the idea that human intellect alone could determine these things.

So from its outset, vintage, academic biblical theology, along with its Enlightenment sibling, historical criticism, was so open to the notion of discrepancies and even contradictions in the Bible that it spent much of its time claiming to find them. And because of that, for the first 100 years or so of biblical theology’s existence as an academic discipline, orthodox seminaries generally kept it at arm’s length. The then-conservative Princeton Theological Seminary, for example did not have a professor of biblical theology until 1892, when it installed Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) in that position. Vos was well aware of the origins of biblical theology,10 but if there was ever a theologian who could help rehabilitate the discipline and rescue it for orthodoxy, it was Vos. His Biblical Theology text11 is still in print and is required reading in some seminaries.

The Latest Story Never (or Rarely) Told

Even though Vos made his reputation as a biblical theologian, he considered systematic theology the “crown” of Christian theology. Theological liberals of the 19th and 20th centuries were actually hostile to systematic theology and sought to replace it with biblical theology, sometimes even accusing systematic theology of being unbiblical.12 Vos would have none of this. As far as he was concerned, “Dogmatics [systematic theology] is the crown which grows out of all the work that Biblical Theology can accomplish.”13

So the brand of biblical theology that Vos pursued was of a newer vintage, one capable of opening the minds of many evangelicals to the fruitful possibilities of the newer discipline. It would serve to support the goals of systematic theology, not undermine it, much less eliminate it.

But not every evangelical who jumped on the biblical theology bandwagon did so with pure motives. As the 20th century progressed, many were actually joining a movement to restore evangelicalism’s intellectual reputation in the academy. As the title of one recent book puts it, they wanted “a place at the table.”14 At times it was less about faith seeking understanding than it was about scholars seeking respect.

Meanwhile, liberals were unimpressed. As they continued to happily hoe the garden of the older version of biblical theology, they made sure that it had all the soil, water, and sunshine necessary to produce such exotic new crops as source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism. Of course, these new strains and hybrids of higher criticism that the liberals were cultivating were rooted in assumptions that ran totally contrary to the orthodox doctrine of Scripture, but that did not diminish the allure they held for young scholars eager to establish an academic reputation.

So evangelicals entering the field of biblical theology had a choice to make. They could grab a hoe and work alongside the liberals, or move over to the field that Vos was cultivating near the turn of the 20th century and raise crops that would actually edify the church.

Many did not make the right choice. Gundry, for example, chose to cultivate redaction criticism. Back then, when he brought the fruits of his labor to the evangelical market, the Evangelical Theological Society properly gave him the bum’s rush. Christianity Today wrote him up for “his position on the historical trustworthiness of Matthew’s Gospel.” He became an official outcast of evangelicalism.

Nowadays, it sometimes seems that evangelicalism’s ostensible leaders are more likely to give him a “book of the year” award.

Rotting from the Head Down

They say that fish rot from the head down. This is a way of saying that when groups, movements, organizations, or nations fail, it begins with a failure of leadership.

On the same page where CT publishes its mission and vision statements, it takes up the cause of “beautiful orthodoxy” and vows to “shape the evangelical conversation,” and “bring important issues to the forefront.15

Is giving heresy the velvet-glove treatment helping to make orthodoxy more beautiful? Should not the question of the propriety of calling Gundry “evangelical” be part of the evangelical conversation? Is it not important enough to be brought to the forefront instead of completely ignored?

Not only are few in evangelicalism’s current leadership expressing concern over how we came to this point, but few are even taking note of it. Hardly anyone even seems curious about it. We are rotting from the head down.

Or perhaps withering is a better term. No, I did not misspell the title of this article. The same evangelicalism that craved academic respectability in lieu of spiritual integrity is now withering for lack of both.

  1. Kevin P. Emmert, “Did Matthew Think Peter Was a False Disciple? A new book from a top evangelical scholar makes the case.” Christianity Today, October 30, 2015 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/october-web-only/did-matthew-think-peter-was-false-disciple.html?paging=off&gt; Accessed November 2, 2015.
  2. Leslie R. Keylock, “Evangelical Scholars Remove Robert Gundry for His Views on Matthew—Did Matthew embellish his work with nonhistorical additions?” Christianity Today, February 3, 1984. Uploaded November 1, 2003. <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/novemberweb-only/11-17-42.0.html&gt; Accessed November 3, 2015. What the whole fiasco boiled down to was this: just as CT apparently now thinks that you can believe whatever you want and still call yourself an evangelical, so Gundry has been arguing that you can say whatever you want about Scripture and still call yourself an inerrantist—and earlier, in 1982, he was even able to fool the ETS executive committee with that “logic!
  3. Justin Taylor, “Tremper Longman on the Historicity of Adam,” The Gospel Coalition, September 21, 2009, <http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2009/09/21/tremper-longman-on-the-historicity-of-adam/&gt;. Accessed November 3, 2015.
  4. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “What Is an Evangelical?” in Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942-1977, (Edinburgh, UK and Carlisle, PA, USA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 299-355.
  5. Rob James, “What does it mean to be evangelical anyway?” April 17, 2014. <http://www.christiantoday.com/article/what.does.it.mean.to.be.evangelical.anyway/36874.htm&gt; Accessed November 3, 2015.
    “With the rise of critical thought associated with Descartes (1596-1650) and Kant (1724-1804), the teaching of the church (as well as the Bible) was seen in a new light. Critical rationality could separate the temporal husk of the biblical writings from their enduring kernel. Thus one dogma, that of the church, was replaced by another—that of Enlightenment rationalism and its progeny. It was at this time that biblical theology as a distinct discipline made its appearance.” Robert W. Yarborough, “Biblical Theology,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA and Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Baker Book House Company and Paternoster Press, 1996), 65. Italics added.
  6. Cf. John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J.P. Gabler and the Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of His Originality,”Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980): 133-44. This is not to say that Gabler invented the concept of “biblical theology,” or that he was even the first to use the term. But he is considered the founder of the modern academic program that goes by that name.
  7. E.g., Gabler wrote, “…it is of great interest whether the Apostle proposes some opinion as a part of Christian doctrine or some opinion that is shaped to the needs of the time…” Ibid., 141.
  8. E.g., Gabler wrote that his goal was to identify those areas “wherein the separate authors” of Scripture “agree in a friendly fashion, or differ among themselves.” When that task was complete, he wrote that “then finally there will be the happy appearance of biblical theology, pure and unmixed with foreign things.” Ibid., 142.
  9. Vos wrote, “From the end of the preceding century, when our science first appears as distinct from Dogmatic Theology, until now, she has stood under the spell of un-Biblical principles. Her very birth took place under an evil star. It was the spirit of Rationalism which first led to distinguishing in the contents of the Scriptures between what was purely human, individual, local, temporal—in a word, conditioned by the subjectivity of the writers—and what was eternally valid, divine truth. The latter, of course, was identified with the teachings of the shallow Rationalism of that period. Thus, Biblical Theology, which can only rest on the basis of revelation, began with a denial of this basis; and a science, whose task it is to set forth the historic principles of revelation, was trained up in a school notorious for its lack of historic sense. For to this type of Rationalism history, as such, is the realm of the contingent, the relative, the arbitrary, whilst only the deliverances of pure reason possess the predicate of absoluteness and universal validity. In this Biblical Theology of Rationalism, therefore, the historical principle merely served to eliminate or neutralize the revelation-principle.” Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Richard B. Gaffin, ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, (Phillipsburg, NJ, USA: P&R Publishing, 1980; 2001), 15.
    Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, (Edinburgh, UK, and Carlisle, PA, USA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1948; 2004).
  10. Regarding biblical theology, Vos wrote, “It were useless to deny that it has been often cultivated in a spirit more or less hostile to the work in which Systematic Theology is engaged. The very name Biblical Theology is frequently vaunted so as to imply a protest against the alleged un-Biblical character of Dogmatics. I desire to state most emphatically here, that there is nothing in the nature and aims of Biblical Theology to justify such an implication. For anything pretending to supplant Dogmatics there is no place in the circle of Christian Theology. All attempts to show that the doctrines developed and formulated by the Church have no real foundation in the Bible, stand themselves without the pale of Theology, inasmuch as they imply that Christianity is a purely natural phenomenon, and that the Church has now for nineteen centuries been chasing her own shadow. Dogmatic Theology is, when rightly cultivated, as truly a Biblical and as truly an inductive science as its younger sister.” Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology,” in
  11. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 23.
  12. Ibid., 24.
  13. John A. D’Elia, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, (Oxford, UK and New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press, 2008). It was fairly well known before this book appeared Ladd’s failure to receive the respect of his liberal academic peers drove him to depression. As D’Elia reveals, it also drove him to drink.
    http://www.christianitytoday.org/ministry/mission/. Accessed November 4, 2015.
  14. =============================================================================================================================================
    Ron Henzel is Senior Researcher at Midwest Christian Outreach. This article appeared on MCOI’s website.
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