FAITH AND SCHOLARSHIP
A Position Paper
Dr. Jonathan Pennington
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for 81260
Matthew Douglas Woodburn
FAITH AND SCHOLARSHIP
There rages a debate within the academic community. This debate is not limited to the academic community, but filters down to religious and non-religious people alike. In fact, the debate affects the entire way “knowing” takes place. The debate is whether faith and scholarship can coexist and if so, what their relationship should be. It could also be said that a debate within that debate is whether scholarship and faith can exist exclusively from one each other. Can a person of faith be an academic? If he or she can, are they less faithful than the individual that trusts the Holy Spirit and Bible as they understand it? Can an academic be a person of faith, or will that faith make pure unbiased research possible? What is every person’s responsibility to work at knowing all they can, regardless of the means? All of these questions will remain unanswered without a clear understanding of the relationship between faith and scholarship. The question as to the relationship between faith and scholarship can be stated as follows: Although scholarship can take place without faith, faith cannot remain strong without scholarship. Secularists, atheists, and scholars that take care to not involve faith of any kind, exclusively in the academic world. It may be said that these individuals still are influenced by some sort of faith. The reading of “faithless” academics’ journals and books suggest that faith does not need to be present for true scholarship to exist. On the contrary, the academic not only operates under the weight of his or her faith, but seeks to know more about their faith using scholarly principles.
What is Scholarship?
Scholarship intentionally seeks to know more, or learn about something. The word scholarship can also refer to high learning where students study at a university or graduate level. At its core, scholarship is the active pursuit of knowing more. This knowing could be about something, everything, or a group of things. Scholars vary in their field. Some want to know more about biology, anatomy, general science, or psychiatry. Some scholars want to know more about the different languages, history, art, religion, the humanities, music, or dance. Some scholars live outside the walls of college campuses, actively pursuing knowledge in the areas of parenting, money management, health, and wellness. To actively pursue a greater understanding of something is to be a scholar. Many things may inform this pursuit, but the pursuit itself is what is considered scholarly.
What is faith?
Faith in general is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Faith is generally used as a religious term to address a confidence or trust in God or some kind of Deity. Faith is the lifeblood of millions of people around the world. There are many types of faith, but the common thread remains that it gives people hope. Faith is more than just a remedy for stress and a source of hope. For many, faith in what they believe is part of the foundation of how they live their lives and see the world around them. The Christian understanding of faith is that faith is an indication of a belief that Jesus died and rose again. For Christians, without this faith, it is impossible to be a Christian. Because faith is used predominantly in religious circles and its emphasis is on believing what can not necessarily be proven, it has been considered suspect in academic communities. Much like the scientific method, many academics feel that true scholarship must be done in a zero bias environment. Along with these thoughts, some academics believe that having a strong faith disqualifies a scholar from truly understanding truth. It is understood by some, that a man or woman of faith will inevitably insert what they believe into their findings.
The Blind Faith Myth
As mentioned in the previous section, many academics believe that faith can cloud the mind of someone seeking to really know about an area of discipline. This is built around an understanding that people of faith have blind faith. That is, that their faith is so deeply embedded in their person, that they could be blind to any facts, details, or conclusions that run contrary to their set of beliefs. This is where the debate begins. Men and women of faith feel that their faith is part of who they are and that everyone, whether people of faith or not, are impacted by a core worldview.
Theology, Epistemology, and Heresy
Because this argument has to do specifically with the relationship between faith and scholarship, it is important to step back and away from general scholarship and focus directly on theological pursuits. To be clear with terms, theology is the study of God and epistemology the pursuit of knowing. Heresy would be considered any doctrine or belief that is counter to Biblical text and possibly historical orthodoxy. The same questions can be asked of a theologian. Can a theologian really be in pursuit of truths about God while already holding firm to their own truths? Should a theologian be concerned with epistemology, chanting, “all truth is God’s truth?” These questions and more have been subject of debate with Christian colleges and seminaries for some time. On one side, you have the traditionalists who hold to institutional creeds as a crucial part of building a faculty and enrolling students. These institutions are criticized as being closed minded and uninterested in following the truth of scholarship where it leads. On the other side, you have more liberal institutions that have put epistemology first, and theology second. They are admittedly Christian, but also focused on finding truth, regardless if it runs contrary to traditional orthodoxy. These schools are criticized for being ungrounded. They are warned of the history of European and American Ivy League institutions that become more liberal over time. Traditional institutions warn that this type of thinking can lead to heresy. An example of this was a battle fought among the president and faculty of Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. The conservative creed driven school was shaken to its core when one of its professors began to teach that God used the evolutionary process to bring about all of creation, including human beings. The school’s traditional stance was that God created everything in six literal days and then rested on the seventh. This professor began to teach that Genesis, chapter one, was a poem and was not to be taken literally. Eventually the college and the professor parted ways. The college stuck to its conservative roots and the professor went to work for BioLogos, a non-profit group focused on teaching the theory of evolutionary creationism. The professor was accused of heresy because he drifted from the school’s traditional creed. The professor accused the school of not knowing whether they have committed heresy because they are too closed-minded.
Honest Scholarship Leads to Faith and Strong Faith Requires Scholarship
As with most debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Of course, scholarship must be the pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also true that faith does not negate one’s ability to be a scholar. Honest and focused scholarship will lead to a greater understanding of how much information is unknown. As with Einstein’s theory of relativity, what seemed to answer so many questions, in time, showed scientists and physicists how little they new. There is no way to be a scholar seeking new knowledge without an excitement and anticipation for the unknown. A certain evolutionary scientist gave a Ted Talk and told the crowd about the moment he realized that after looking for the beginning of the universe, he was left only with the question of, “But what started all of this?”
Maintaining a strong faith requires scholarship. The apostle Paul hints at this concept when he implies that the early church has the maturity of a child only able to drink milk. In this statement and many more, the church fathers challenge the church to mature. This maturity takes place primarily through Biblical scholarship. Following the generation of the first apostles, the Patristic period focused intensely on scholarship that would lead to many of the key doctrines of the church. Many experts on the evangelical church claim that more scholarship in the churches would be good. Although scholarship can take place without faith, faith cannot remain strong without scholarship. Scholarship happens throughout the world through search and discoveries. Faith, on the other hand remains strong for the very reason that it is the confidence in the unknown that drives people of faith to investigate the universe. Faith is then an engine, not a deterrent for scholarship. It is important for debates like this to continue. It is also important not to remain at separate poles of the debate. The mass of American and European educational institutions are liberal. I would encourage all students and professors to give grace to people of faith, as people of faith should be challenged to see all truth as truth that can shine light on their faith.