by J. Carl Laney
I was clearing my bookshelf of old Biblical Archaeology Review magazines the other day, salvaging noteworthy articles for my files, when I came across an intriguing article which I read five years ago.
The article (“Losing Faith”) was an interview conducted by BAR editor Hershel Shanks, with four biblical scholars–James F. Strange, a leading archaeologist and Baptist minister; Lawrence H. Schiffman, a prominent Dead Sea Scroll scholar and Orthodox Jew; William G. Dever, one of American’s best-known archaeologists and formerly an evangelical preacher; and Bart Ehrman, a leading expert on the apocryphal gospels and New Testament scholar.
The question being raised in the BAR interview was this: “What effect does scholarship have on faith?” The answers were candid, honest and scary. Ehrman, formerly a fundamentalist who embraced the Bible as inerrant Scripture, answered the question simply: “I lost my fundamentalistic faith because of my scholarship.” He went on to explain that as a graduate student he started finding “contradictions” and “discrepancies” in the Bible which led him from being an evangelical Christian, to a being a liberal Protestant Christian, and finally to being an unbeliever.
James Strange had a similar journey, but a slightly different outcome. He is still a Baptist minister but problems he has come across trying to reconcile archaeology with Scripture has led him to abandon a propositional faith based on truth. He says, “My faith is based on my own experience [with God].” Although he believes that “Christ is alive,” the story of Jesus’ resurrection is “a sort of metaphor.”
Schiffman, an Orthodox Jew, admits that there is no required doctrinal views in Judaism. With a touch of humor he says that the only requirement for being Jewish is not believing in Jesus. He doesn’t have problems with discrepancies in the Bible because in classical Judaism the Bible is not taken literally in the Protestant sense.
Bill Dever’s comments were the most interesting. He was the son of an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher and became an ordained minister at the age of 17. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School he took a congregation and served as parish minister for 13 years. Then one day in a graduate school lecture, G. Ernest Wright (God Who Acts) said, “Everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened.” That statement profoundly impacted Dever’s thinking. He shifted his studies to archaeology, moved to Israel, married a Jewish woman, converted to Judaism “because you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew.”
The interview/article includes a side note showing the results of a survey of American college and graduate school professors. Only 6.1 percent would affirm that “the Bible is the actual word of God.” The survey found that 23.4 percent of the professors surveyed classify themselves as agnostic or atheist (compared to 6.9 percent of all Americans). In elite doctoral institutions the professors tend to be less religious with 36.6 falling into the agnostic/atheist category.
So what does this have to do with me as a prof at Western Seminary? Over the last 34 years of teaching the Bible, have my convictions changed? Well, yes and no. One of the most significant changes over the years is a diminished concern for being “right.” I am still seeking to be a careful exegete in my biblical studies and accurate in my lectures. But I have come to realize that if I am right, then scholars with equal training and exegetical skills must be wrong when they disagree with me. Often the disagreement is not so much a matter of what the Bible says, but how it is interpreted. The decision behind the interpretation of a particular text is often the question of hermeneutics–how do we interpret Scripture.
Take the subject of divorce–a topic on which I have written and contributed to books (The Divorce Myth and Four Views on Divorce). I did this research and writing early in my career as a prof and was anxious to prove to the world that Jesus taught the permanence of marriage and that divorce and remarriage (except for porneia) constituted adultery. I still believe that this teaching is a biblical position and that it is in the best interest of God’s people and Christ’s church to maintain strong and lasting marriages. In a sense, nothing has changed. But my interests and passion have shifted more to helping people restore their marriages and find forgiveness and healing from failed marriages. Am I becoming liberal? Am I on the pathway to losing my faith?
Eschatology is another hot topic. I am still a pretribulational premillennialist, (primarily because of my hermeneutics). And while this is important, it is not as important as I once held. More important than these doctrinal distinctions in eschatology are the abiding principles of love, justice, community, forgiveness and compassion. If I am right on the rapture, but treat others with disrespect or hostility, what does it matter that I happen to be right? Isn’t love for God and for my neighbor more important than being right?
Over the years I have come to hold my beliefs and personal convictions more loosely. I have come to believe that the experience of careful study of God’s Word in community and with respect for different viewpoints is more important than coming to the right interpretation.
In my preparation for teaching the book of Revelation this fall I am reading an excellent commentary, Revelation and the End of All Things, by Craig R. Koester, an amillennial theologian. He makes a very good case for the amillennial interpretation of the book. By appreciating his insights, am I losing my faith?
Like most Christians, I have had my doubts over the years. Does God really exist? Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Do I believe these truths because of my background and training? Would I believe differently if I had been born into a Moslem family? Have you asked yourself any of these questions?
While my views as a Christian have modified and softened over the years, there are some truths that I hold dear. God exists. Jesus is real and he loves me. He is my God and Savior. By his compassion and grace I will live in His presence forever. Everything else is fair grounds for discussion and debate.
I have not answered all the questions of theology nor resolved all the apparent discrepancies in the Bible. But I have learned to live with unanswered questions. I have learned to live with the tension of knowing that others might be right and I might be wrong. I have learned to respect those who disagree with me and to embrace the joy of the journey toward a greater understanding of God’s revealed truth.
Am I am following in the footsteps of the scholars noted above? Am I on the slippery slope that leads to losing my faith?