My post on Denver Seminary’s doctrinal statement was picked up by vorjack over at Unreasonable Faith and the ensuing comments by (whom I assume are mostly) non-Christians and atheists took the discussion in a direction that was not intended by me. Dr. Craig Blomberg (Denver Seminary) posted a very good comment on that thread, and I’d like to quote it here:
I wish you all could meet and get to know Rick. He spent years teaching in universities that did not have doctrinal statements of faith. He came to his convictions not because anyone coerced him into them for the sake of a job. He came to us because he believed what he did; he did not believe what he does because he came to us. He is internationally respected by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. He has been invited by the Chinese government on more than one occasion to teach about religion at major Chinese universities. His books are used as textbooks in schools with no confessional leanings. He is as likely to correct fellow evangelicals whose views are too narrow or just factually mistaken than he is to correct others. Of everyone on our faculty, there is no one I can think of who more often does agree with people of very different backgrounds than his.
Doctrinal statements work in different ways in different institutions. In some contexts, notably Southern Baptist ones, they can be used as clubs to keep people in line. In other places, they are used more in the sense of truth in advertising–like saying, “if you come here, here is what our faculty stand for. We just wanted you to know what you’d be getting.” We’re definitely in the latter category. Does “without mental reservation” mean that we can have no doubts? Not at all. One can believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture and still be very puzzled by many interpretive questions but not be flummoxed by them, because in our finite and fallen humanity we shouldn’t expect to be able to figure everything out. We’ve watched answers emerge after patient study time and time again so that we can proceed with confidence that they will do so in the future as well. We could probably even remove that phrase “without mental reservation” from the document and almost no one would even notice or care. But there would be a dozen (I pick the number almost randomly) loyal elderly constituents who would be befuddled by the omission when they noticed it, so why ruffle their feathers?
I can understand why, as outsiders to our milieu, others could read our literature and imagine a very different environment than what it actually is. I can understand why some who have had quite different experiences with different confessional schools might be very sure they knew what our environment was like. But I’ve just finished serving twenty-five years at Denver Seminary and never once felt stifled by our doctrinal statement, asked tons of questions, have my own set of doubts, am free to air them all, and find it an amazingly healthy work environment. I invite anyone who doubts me to come for a campus visit and I’ll personally introduce you to as many of my friends as time permits, so you can judge for yourself. I can’t make anybody believe me, I realize, but I offer my own firsthand experience nevertheless. All the worst-case scenario suspicions so confidently affirmed in this blog and its responses are just flat-out wrong.
I responded on the same thread with this comment:
Dr. Blomberg, thanks very much for your comment. Please do note that in my post I made clear that Dr. Hess does not believe in inerrancy just because his job requires it. My point was that if he came to be convinced otherwise, that would be problematic for his position. I am glad to hear the environment at DS is more open than the statement makes it sound. My point in my post was not to malign Dr. Hess but to speak to the issue of these doctrinal statements. I was not questioning his stature. But as you well know, recent years have shown that these doctrinal statements have posed a real problem for some academics who have sought to be honest with their understanding of the data. So my intention was to display the problem that could potentially be posed to Dr. Hess, not to malign him, despite our very strong disagreements. That was the point of my victims out of heroes statement. But I recognize that not every environment is the same. Nevertheless, the fact remains that had your doubts turned into something more like convictions, you would have been in a predicament. No doubt, of course, someone of your or Dr. Hess’s stature wouldn’t have to be too worried about finding employment elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a sad ordeal for all involved.
This is a great opportunity for me to clarify some things vis-a-vis my engagements to date with Hess. Although in my review of Copan my tone in my criticisms of certain of Hess’s arguments (used by Paul Copan) was overly-strong, (1) I never intended to imply that he is anything like a hack; as I’ve clarified elsewhere on this website, he is a very reputable scholar who does very fine work; (2) nevertheless, I continue to believe that his commitment to inerrancy serves to limit for Dr. Hess the range of plausible and probable interpretations. When it comes to texts that may be problematic for his doctrinal commitments, Hess’s tendency is to make arguments for what is “possible,” without giving due weight to the positions that are the more probable given the same historical and philological standards Hess employs when dealing with texts that are not so problematic, and I am far from alone in this evaluation of his work (just read the peer-reviews).
I’d also like to further respond to some of Dr. Blomberg’s comments. Again, I’ll clarify that I specifically stated in my original post that I was not at all making the claim that Dr. Hess’s beliefs have been dictated for him by Denver Seminary. Again, my point was that if his research were to lead him in future to unorthodox readings of the text, this would put him at odds with the institution, and ensuing events would very likely be damaging to his reputation within the Evangelical world, as it has been for numerous other evangelical scholars who have followed the evidence where they think it leads.
Regarding his books, again, I will reiterate that there is a wealth of very good information in them and they are very useful, especially in a college or graduate setting. That said, there are certain issues in his books which in my opinion (and in the opinion of many scholars) tend to be obfuscated by Hess’s presentation of the data, and this is routinely attributed to his conservative commitments. This is hardly a surprising or controversial charge.
“He is as likely to correct fellow evangelicals whose views are too narrow or just factually mistaken than he is to correct others.” And yes, no doubt Hess corrects Evangelicals too. I doubt Dr. Blomberg intended to direct this comment at me, but given the fact that Evangelical scholars and theologians spend much of their time telling each other where they’re wrong, this is to be expected. To contend that Dr. Hess has presented certain issues tendentiously is not at all to say that he isn’t on balance fair and balanced.
Does “without mental reservation” mean that we can have no doubts? Not at all. One can believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture and still be very puzzled by many interpretive questions but not be flummoxed by them, because in our finite and fallen humanity we shouldn’t expect to be able to figure everything out. We’ve watched answers emerge after patient study time and time again so that we can proceed with confidence that they will do so in the future as well. We could probably even remove that phrase “without mental reservation” from the document and almost no one would even notice or care. But there would be a dozen (I pick the number almost randomly) loyal elderly constituents who would be befuddled by the omission when they noticed it, so why ruffle their feathers?
Although I would advocate for the removal of the phrase (and for the removal of the doctrinal requirement altogether), I completely understand the internal politics involved here.
I continue to maintain, for the reasons stated in my original reply to Dr. Blomberg, that such doctrinal statements are an intellectual straight-jacket, even if only potentially so. I don’t expect Denver Seminary to drop it, but history has shown that as Evangelical academic institutions get older, these sorts of limitations become thinner and thinner, so I remain hopeful.