Posted by Stephen Venable

Part of the difficulty with the landscape of theological studies in the Western World is the way that doctrinal positions have become institutionalized. Ideas and beliefs have become irreversibly intertwined with money, buildings, and reputation. Seminaries have aligned themselves with a particular tradition, which then determines which scholars they will hire to be on their faculty and what research they will fund. There is nothing wrong with insisting on a general perspective on Scripture in order to preserve unity. The problem, however, comes when someone’s livelihood is bound to their biblical conclusions. For an individual in the academic world to genuinely change their position on a subject is almost unheard of. Once they have taught classes and written books espousing a certain view, the pressure to defend that view and sustain their flow of income is immense.

The dynamic this creates is that theological disagreement is largely galvanizing instead of edifying. Differing positions tend only to harden each other toward greater degrees of polarity as both sides dig their heels more deeply into the ideological ground they have chosen to defend. To actually be convinced of another view does not simply  mean a change in personal convictions. It means being ostracized from your niche within academia, it means your next book may not be published, and it means you may be forced to resign from your teaching position. Few, if any, have the courage to face these consequences.  There is much good fruit to be gleaned from biblical scholarship, but there is no question that in many cases money and prestige are influencing conclusions. Some beliefs – beliefs clearly held by the early church – militate so strongly against the rationalism of the academic world that to espouse them would effectively end one’s career. Although this is the extreme scenario, it should be enough to arm us with caution as interact with interpretive possibilities.

While most of us do not find ourselves in a position like this, there are still lessons to be learned. As we purse the truth with ardor, we must always try to be open to truly hearing perspectives that we do not share. Not only can this help us to refine the accuracy of our own beliefs, it may help us to see our own error. If our love for truth cannot triumph over the threat of prosperity and popularity, it is difficult to see how it will one day endure the test of persecution.

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