Today I would like to direct your attention to a series of posts which is currently in progress at the blog of Tim Gombis. Gombis is a professor of New Testament studies at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and he blogs at “Faith Improvised”.
In his current series of posts, he is taking a long, hard look at a recurring comment that he gets from students in his classes. His big idea is that this comment indicates something that is warped in how evangelicals approach the Bible, and in this series he attempts to get at it and what its implications are. The comment is “I’ve never heard this before!” and it comes in several variations. One variant is “I’ve never heard this before. What you’re saying isn’t biblical.” This seldom comes from a posture of challenge, but rather from a sense of bewilderment and betrayal. In the introductory post, Gombis speaks of his excitement at discovering new things in the study of Scripture and how this led him to become a New Testament professor, and reflects on the difference between this attitude and the attitude of bewilderment towards seeing new things in Scripture that he sees in so much of evangelicalism.
When I began teaching evangelical undergraduates, it wasn’t long before I heard a student say, “I’ve never heard this before.” My first response was, “I know, and there’s so much more to discover!”
But then I heard another variation: “I’ve never heard this before. What you’re saying isn’t biblical.”
I asked for clarification. The student responded by saying, “well, I think there’s a verse somewhere that says something like . . . ,” proceeding to blend together three different passages with the chorus of a praise song.
I figured this sort of thing was just the arrogance of youth, but it began to happen regularly. Just about three weeks into every semester, a student would raise his or her hand and say, “I’ve never heard this stuff before.”
I began to respond by saying, “you’re welcome! You or your parents are paying me thousands of dollars to tell you things that you don’t know. This is what we call ‘education’ and it sounds like I’m doing my job.”
It began to dawn on me, however, that there was something about evangelical culture that was making these students assume that if something was unfamiliar, it was unbiblical.
In the last few years, though, I’ve heard this comment from other evangelicals in other settings. It seldom comes from a posture of challenge, but from some sense of betrayal. A person lamented to me recently, “I’ve never heard this before. I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and this has never been taught.”
I’m currently teaching a course in a non-evangelical setting. The responses I’ve gotten have been telling. I’ve heard, “this is so interesting,” and “thank you, I’m really enjoying this and learning a lot.”
Only one person has said to me, “I’ve never heard this before.” You guessed it—an evangelical.
What strikes me as odd is that the very thing I have come to associate with studying the Bible—the excitement of discovery—is the very thing that somehow frustrates the evangelicals I’ve been teaching.
Like I said, I think this indicates that there’s something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.
In the second post, Gombis reflects on the evangelical posture of attentive submission to Scripture, and how this posture has been corrupted by misplaced priorities in contemporary evangelicalism, especially the culture wars. When you take on a culture war mindset, it is easy to slip into a posture where it’s us against all those godless liberals out there. We have the truth, and they don’t. They are attacking the Bible, and it is up to us to defend it and expose their nefarious schemes. It is then easy to fool yourself into thinking that you already know the Bible and that no further learning is necessary. Such a posture is inappropriate, because the Bible was never intended to be used as a weapon against others. Instead, we are the objects of its exposing and transforming work. We are to love others as we sit under Scripture and allow ourselves to be transformed by it.
In the third post, Gombis uses a comment from a student who felt badly about not being more conversant on what the Bible says about Jesus’ humanity as a jumping-off point. The attitude toward Bible study that is prevalent in evangelicalism today is that you must learn all you can about Scripture in order to get equipped to make an impact in the world. This means getting all the knowledge you can, mastering all the facts so that you are prepared to respond to every argument with all the right answers. If that is our attitude toward Scripture, then it is no surprise that people are uneasy when they find out that there are things they do not know. The implication is that their preparation is lacking and that they will therefore be ineffective in facing the world’s challenges. But learning the Bible is a lifelong process. We never attain complete mastery of the subject matter. That is not the point–the point instead is that the process of lifelong learning from Scripture transforms us into a different kind of people who know God more faithfully and love and serve others more creatively. This only happens over time.
More posts are coming next week, so be sure to keep tracking with him.