I am writing the following as an evangelical. As an evangelical I am watching debates between fellow evangelicals over subjects like the inerrancy of Scripture, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the doctrine of hell closely knowing that whatever conclusion I reach on these subjects will have important consequences. As we’ve seen with the careers of people like Peter Enns and Bruce Waltke it only takes one slip to find your job on the line. Even a slight aberration like teaching infallibility that allows for the Scriptures to have slight scientific or historical errors or an acceptance of the doctrine of hell that is framed as annihilation rather than eternal conscience torment could end future employment opportunities in some churches, seminaries, and colleges with evangelical convictions. What I know is that as an evangelical there is an orthodoxy that may or may not determine whether one is considered a legitimate evangelical or a fringe evangelical.
In my time around Pentecostalism it was no different. If you denied the doctrine of initial evidence (speaking in tongues = the sign that you’ve been filled with the Spirit) you could find yourself on the outside. It is not as if one has the ultimate freedom to state whatever one wants about anything while being in these circles and I am not arguing that this should be so. I am fine with pastors and deans, church elders and college boards restricting what can be taught. Peter Enns is better now with BioLogos than he would be if he had managed to remain at Westminster Seminary. Christian Smith fits better teaching at the University of Notre Dame. Rob Bell is likely going to have an easier time now that everyone knows his views on the doctrine of hell.
Why am I mentioning this? Well, because fellow evangelical C. Michael Patton has argued something that I think ignores our sub-culture while misrepresenting our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. In a blog post titled “Embracing Doubt or Why Roman Catholic Scholarship is an Oxymoron” Patton argues the following:
(1) “I don’t believe one can be a true Roman Catholic and a scholar at the same time. Why? Because being a Roman Catholic militates against what makes someone a scholar in my opinion.”
(2) He says that once someone becomes a scholar they cannot be a true Roman Catholic because “they have to depart to some degree from Rome.”
(3) He begins by noting the important contribution by Rene Descartes to western thought. Descartes argued that one must be able to doubt something to prove it (going back to “I think, therefore I am.”), so doubt is an essential aspect to qualifying one’s faith/belief.
(4) Scholarship takes it’s cue from Descartes because “In order to learn, one must be willing to change.” There cannot be scholarship without the possibility of adjusting one’s views. If one has predetermined that their view cannot change they cannot do true scholarship. Patton notes, “Scholarship is based on the assumption that the best, most accurate, and trustworthy information is being sought. Scholarship is not based on the assumption that we are attempting to prove what we already know or believe.”
(5) Patton quickly notes that even apologist cannot make good scholars because one cannot do good scholarship when all one is doing is defending presuppositions.
(6) Patton choses several passages of Scripture to argue that God wants people to question what they believe to see if it is true.
(7) Finally, Patton argues that Roman Catholic scholarship is an oxymoron because:
“Roman Catholicism, however, exists under a official umbrella of authoritative – indeed infallible – dogmatic assertions. Again, while no one is completely objective in their studies, Roman Catholics, when it comes to their defined dogma, cannot really study objectively. Why? Because their conclusions are already laid out. For example, if a Roman Catholic is interpreting the Scriptures, he must come to conclusions that are in line with what Rome has already said about the subject. He doesn’t have the freedom to disagree. He doesn’t have the freedom to doubt, if the doubt implies an actual possibility that Rome is wrong.”
In a response post titled “Misunderstanding Roman Catholicism…Again” former-evangelical-turned-Roman-Catholic Jeremy Thompson responds by mentioning the official Vatican document titled “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian”. He notes that this document allows for the following (I am directly quoting Thompson’s argument here):
(1) Theologians who disagree with the Magisterium should not present their views as unarguable conclusions. In other words, they admit to the fact that they could possibly be wrong and the Magisterium right.
(2) Disagreements must be based on argumentation that seems well-founded to the theologian. In other words, theologians cannot reject the teaching of the Magisterium simply because it doesn’t suit them.
(3) Theologians should make sure that they truly understand the teaching of the Magisterium. In other words, they are not disagreeing with a misunderstanding of the teachings of the Magisterium.
(4) Theologians should address disagreements in the proper context, i.e. within the Church and not within the mass media.
(5) If the disagreement persists (and yes, the document does allow for the fact that a disagreement can genuinely persist), the theologian remains open to the teaching of the Magisterium, though they may not accept it.
Likewise, as Thompson mentions, there are some important critical scholars who are Roman Catholic because of the very provisions allowed by the Vatican such as Raymond Brown (who was on the Pontifical Biblical Commission). I would add names like Joseph Fitzmyer, John P. Meier, Margret Mitchell, and a host of others teaching and doing research at various institutions around the world.
Would the University of Notre Dame employ an accomplished evangelical scholar? Sure. Would Wheaton College employ a Roman Catholic scholar? No.
JohnDave Medina co-blogs with me here and there have been times where I have envied the liberality with which he has been allowed to pursue his interest in academia. I will be taking a class on the Synoptic Problem this fall and let me confess that I was hesitant to investigate this subject lest the conclusions I reach cause me trouble within the evangelical circles wherein I reside (a fear I am overcoming as made obvious by this public admission). It has been my observation that Roman Catholic friends like John Dave Medina and Jeremy Thompson sometimes display more academic freedom than I experience among evangelicals.
So if a Roman Catholic cannot be a scholar, can an evangelical? Are not the consequences often similar? Isn’t employment in most evangelical institutions even less stable for those who doubt “orthodoxy” than in Catholic institutions? Could not both be shamed and shunned by the hierarchy (ask Rob Bell how John Piper is treating him these days)? As an evangelical I don’t understand Patton’s point and I think he has created a false juxtaposition. We evangelicals are under as much scrutiny when we enter scholarship as our Roman Catholic friends. To say an evangelical is free to do scholarship but a Roman Catholic is not is to ignore the current state of most of evangelicalism.