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Back in 2014 (you remember 2014—the good old days; before Brexit, Donald Trump, and exploding cell phones) I ran a series on biblical scholars and their “aha” moments, meaning when they saw that their older ways of looking at the Bible seemed simplistic and had to be abandoned.

What kicked off that series was a Huffington Post article by New Testament scholar Greg Carey (Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary) on how the Bible itself challenges fundamentalism rather than supports it. The article, with its provocative title, “Where Do ‘Liberal’ Scholars Come From,” wound up attracting some attention, both pro and con.

Many (including me) resonated with Carey’s article, and though some found it unconvincing, Carey is simply rehearsing a well-worn path in western Christianity over the last several hundred years:

“I was taught to believe the Bible unequivocally says X, but I just don’t see it, so I am going to stop believing X.”

Fill in X with any one of a number of issues.

I have known many people, and heard of many others, who have come from conservative or moderately conservative backgrounds and whose earlier paradigms have been seriously challenged by the simple process of paying attention to scripture in context—whether the immediate literary context or the historical context. This is especially true of those who have done higher level academic work outside of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but is by no means restricted to this group.

Why does this happen?

I think it’s because scripture doesn’t line up very well with the conservative paradigm of scripture (some form of inerrancy). That’s why the paradigm needs constant tending and vigilant defending in order to survive.

I mean, there’s a reason why Carey’s phenomenon keeps rearing its head generation after generation. It’s not (as I hear far too often) that the offenders are intellectually naive (or dimwitted) and have been duped or are too spiritually weak-kneed to “hold on to the truth.”

The recurring unrest with conservative readings of scripture from within conservative circles suggests that the paradigm is flawed.

So now and again over the course of the summer, I will be reposting from that ancient series, where biblical scholars from evangelical backgrounds tell us what brought them to reconsider the older paradigms they were taught, and to let us in on their own “aha” moments that brought them to  make a decision between staying put and moving on–and why they chose to move on.

[A reminder that it may take me up to a day to moderate comments, so your patience is appreciated. And a further reminder, although I welcome counterpoints to my posts and to comments by readers, belligerent, know-it-all, sermons complete with prooftexts will not pass moderation but will be deleted, with a great company of the angelic host rejoicing.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

12 Comments

  • Jack says:

    Well, Pete, there is a need for apologists because the world is out to commite violence against Bible-believing Christians. The world wants to suppress the truth. There is a need to ensure the integrity of the faith from the misguided, and to educate them with the “self-evident” and sound doctrine that the self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy that is conservative Christianity offers.

    You have an objection to some simplistic reading of the Bible?

    You’ll find that inerrancy starts sounding a lot like, “I want my views to be accepted as inerrant.”

    Funny how that works.

    Where does the Bible claim to be inerrant? As a reader, you immediately notice some peculiar things in the opening chapters of Genesis. If a person has done a more thorough reading of the Bible, looked at how OT is handled by people like Paul, it seems that inerrancy is simply incompatible with what we see in the texts…

  • glennsiepert says:

    I love this. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time and have gone through 4 years of Bible college, 4 years of seminary, and now 2 years of a doctoral program and I’m starting to question … so much. I feel like I’ve been reading my Bible at a first grade level for a long time, for way too long. It’s time to dig deeper. Thanks for doing what you do!

    • Wesley says:

      For some reason, people tend to get stuck in childhood versions of religion and spirituality really easily… I’m 31, in seminary, and trying to spend as much of my time as I can deconstructing and reconstructing faith with my friends in the same age group… it’s not easy but it is a real adventure!

  • Read Robert M Price’s INERRANT THE WIND: THE TROUBLED HOUSE OF NORTH AMERICAN EVANGELICALS to discover how long such unrest has been around

  • JesusMan says:

    Can you give us a hint so we can read ahead…?

  • jacknb says:

    In the denomination I’m in, it’s pretty much understood you’re not allowed to ask hard questions. I’ve flirted with this line by asking some only slightly difficult questions. There’s a stunned, unappreciative silence. I once overheard a Bible teacher tell a friend, “When somebody asks a hard question that might hurt the faith of other believers, I tell them to wait till after class, and the 2 of us will discuss it.” It’s my belief more, not less, people would follow Jesus, if there were less smoke & mirrors and more willingness to acknowledge the Bible’s not always perfect, humanly influenced side. I was actually taught in Sunday School as a child, even though it’s not in the Bible, that the people who wrote it all fell into sort of a trance when they were writing, so God was just using their body to write.

  • jacknb says:

    In the denomination I’m in, it’s pretty much understood you’re not allowed to ask hard questions. I’ve flirted with this line by asking some only slightly difficult questions. There’s a stunned, unappreciative silence. I once overheard a Bible teacher tell a friend, “When somebody asks a hard question that might hurt the faith of other believers, I tell them to wait till after class, and the 2 of us will discuss it.” It’s my belief more, not less, people would follow Jesus, if there were less smoke & mirrors and more willingness to acknowledge the Bible’s not always perfect, humanly influenced side. I was actually taught in Sunday School as a child, even though it’s not in the Bible, that the people who wrote it all fell into sort of a trance when they were writing, so God was just using their body to write.

  • Kathie says:

    My own church was quite progressive in its early days with ordaining women and approaches to ministry. To suggest we veer from some ways of thinking about our theology brings out the worst and I hear things like “weak liberal theology” in an intonation that suggests those who question sound doctrine are heading to hell. There is some hope and younger grads are getting a slightly different education from some progressive thinkers. What I appreciated about the book that got me thinking, The Bible Tells Me So, is the way you laid out your thoughts. I need logic and reasoning and trail of breadcrumbs to show me the way through the traditional teachings to reach new conclusions. I’m looking forward to the postings – they’ll be new to me.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    Carey has an interesting recent article about the relationship between Apocalypticism and Evangelical support for Trump.

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_5935b175e4b0c670a3ce674e

    This particular version of the “conservative paradigm of scripture” (end-times scriptural interpretation) is so fervently defended, the adherents are willing to toss out far more important biblical principles, in order to stand behind a politician who willingly feeds their prophetic vision of a final literal battle between “good” and “evil”. Of course the very notions of what are “good” and “evil” are perverted in the process. As Carey says:

    “Yes, white evangelicals tend to be conservative, but one would hope their gospel values would reject dishonesty, authoritarianism, and cruelty.”

  • Brad says:

    Thanks, Pete. I’d like to hear more on the social implications of these “Aha moments” (you’ve touched on this several times in the past). A huge problem is that when people realise what the Bible is and how it acts they are in for a form of shunning. It is a difficult process to lose (or become ‘dangerous’) to ones known Christian community.

  • Adam Spivey says:

    My first “Aha moment” is when it occurred to me that they had four Gospels for a reason and that I wasn’t supposed to try to reconcile all of the contradictions between them like many apologists do. They each emphasize different aspects of Jesus’s character and have different theological points. They weren’t just recording history, if that was the case then it wouldn’t be necessary to have four distinct accounts. Just write one and be done with it.

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