Liberal Scholars are so Johnny-Come-Lately

I am alway amused by the “cutting edge” of liberal scholars and/or contemporary emerging church type scholars. If a person reads a little more than the average American homo sapien he will see that the top scholars of today are really johnny-come-lately in their discoveries.

Here’s a classic example: Compare something that N.T. Wright has said with a statement by the great theologian B.B. Warfield.

N.T. Wright: For my part, I believe it was a great gain in the 1950s and 1960s that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were recognized as theologians, not mere chroniclers.

Just take that statement at face value and ignore the Jesus Seminar issues and the implicit higher criticism. The average person reading Wright would assume that everyone prior to the 1950s and 1960s had either the classic liberal perspective of the synoptics or a stereotypical uncritical fundamentalist belief that viewed the Gospels as an inspired collection of stories about Jesus.

But here is B.B. Warfield (d. 1921): The incidents which the narrators record, again, are not recorded with a biographical intent, and are not selected for their biographical significance, or ordered so as to present a biographical result: in the case of each Evangelist they serve a particular purpose which may employ biographical details, but is not itself a biographical end. In other words, the Gospels are not formal biographies, but biographical arguments – a circumstance which does not affect the historicity of the incidents they select for record, but does affect the selection and ordering of these incidents.

Warfield was defending the inspiration of the Gospel against the attacks of the higher critics who simplistically mocked Bible believers who insisted the synoptic gospels were inspired even though there were apparent inconsistencies and differing arrangement of the events. Warfield simply responded with something that Wright thinks was discovered in the 1950s and 1960s: The Evangelists were theologians making theological arguments biographically.

But one wonders if N.T. Wright would be willing to admit that a fundamentalist like B.B. Warfield was so brillliant.

I think this illustrates Augustine’s famous dictum: Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.

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5 Responses

  1. Seems like each generation has to relearn what previous generations also relearned. Hopefully, over the generations, there is an overall progress. Nice comparison of Wright and Warfield.

  2. I don’t think that you’re interpreting Wright charitably. You take “recognized” to imply that “everyone prior to the 1950s and 1960s” thought that way, when it seems like a more reasonable interpretation to substitute “people in general” for “everyone.”

    The fact that Warfield thought it worth mentioning shows that that way of thinking was at least somewhat common.

    Besides, Warfield is not typical of fundamentalism in general, then or now. If someone says “fundamentalists are rubes,” and you point to Warfield, you haven’t disproved the statement.

  3. Actually, I don’t think I am misinterpreting Wright. In the context he followed up by saying that he hoped that the 1990s would be the time that people would start to understand Jesus as a theologian. While he obviously could not be charged with thinking that everyone was unenlightened before the 1950s or 1960s or 1990s, he certainly is speaking about scholars generally. And of all people, scholars should know.

    Warfield mentioned it, of course. That’s my point. But Warfield’s view was not common among liberal scholars. That’s also my point.

    I think you are speaking uncharitably of fundamentalism in the 1920s by saying Warfield is not typical of fundamentalists. There were also scores of liberal rubes as well. I would argue that a thoroughly intelligent, articulate, and educated liberal is as atypical among liberals as it was among fundamentalists.

  4. I think you are speaking uncharitably of fundamentalism in the 1920s by saying Warfield is not typical of fundamentalists.

    If you’re not just kidding, can you name five 1920s self-professed fundamentalists anything like Warfield?

    You may be right that liberals are equally likely to be rubes as fundamentalists, but that doesn’t speak to fundamentalists’ rube-ishness—they could all be rubes.

    As far as interpreting Wright, one can view the original remarks here.

  5. 1920s is a bit off the mark because Warfield died in 1921. My bad. But “anything like Warfield” is probably an impossible target to hit if you want to argue because it is so subjective. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a stab. Three come to mind immediately

    James Orr
    J. Gresham Machen
    John Murray

    All self-professed fundamentalists. But how am I to know what “anything like” means?

    My point is that scholarly answers are not the unique propriety of non-fundamentalist scholars. The stereotype, however, is that the sophisticated answers, the scholarly explanations, and the rational and intellectually defensible explanations for Biblical conundrums are the exclusive domain of the liberal theologians.

    I don’t know how much of Wright you have read, but you don’t have to read him long before you realize that he thinks of himself as breaking new ground, opening new vistas, and that his idea of good theology is the breaking of new ground. His arrogance is almost suffocating at times. Wright clearly thinks advancements were made in the 1950s in the study of the Gospels which, clearly, include something that B.B. Warfield at least said was as plain as day in the 1910s. The sophisticated teachers before the 1950s didn’t agree with that. I should challenge you to find five liberal scholars that were anything like Warfield intellectually and prolifically that aren’t totally discredited by scholarship today. The fundamentalist Warfield still stands.

    Maybe I’m totally missing your point.

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