Volume 24 - Issue 1

The Evangelical and Scholarship—Personal Reflections

By Graham A. Cole

It was back in the late sixties and I was seated in St. Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Sydney. I was a new Christian who was eager to hear a church leader who had been imprisoned for many years by the Soviets for his faith. Pastor Wurmbrand spoke passionately about the underground church. I never forgot what he said about ministers with DDs. He said that a DD either stands for Doctor of Divinity or Doctor of Darkness. That was my first hint that not every Christian was persuaded that a theological education, let alone research, was a good thing. Other experiences soon followed. When it became known at my church that I intended to do theological study at a theological college, rather than a bible college. I was admonished that I would lose my faith. Indeed one dear lady wrote a forty-page exercise book full of warnings and Scripture passages in an attempt to dissuade me. I was experiencing what J.A.T. Robinson described as ‘the fearfulness of the fundamentalist’ rather than ‘the conservativism of the committed.’1

Given criticism such as the above from within the evangelical constituency how then is the evangelical to relate scholarship to his or her evangelicalism? The question is a complex one and admits of a number of dimensions. What do I mean by evangelical? What do I mean by scholarship? Other questions need to be asked: What is the context of scholarship? What tensions come in its wake? How do scholarship and spirituality relate to one another? What is the value of scholarship?

Let’s then turn to some definitional issues raised above. For what is evangelicalism?

Some Defining Characteristics of Evangelicalism

An historian of evangelicalism (at least in Britain) and an evangelical theologian of note have described evangelicalism as a movement with at least four defining assumptions. Bebbington and McGrath argue that evangelicalism is bibliocentric.2 The Bible has been and is integral to evangelical epistemology. They further argue that the movement has been and remains crucicentric. The cross has been central to the evangelical construal of Christianity. Still further, they claim that evangelicalism has been and is conversionist in aim. Evangelism and evangelicalism go together. Lastly, for both evangelicalism has been and continues to be activist. Evangelicals believe in and practice compassion.

In my view the above defining characteristics are necessary for defining evangelicalism, but they are hardly sufficient. What has happened to the great Reformation catch cries like ‘Grace alone’ and ‘Faith alone’? What has happened to the article of the standing or falling church, to use Luther’s way of framing the issue? In other words where is justification by grace alone through faith alone? Bebbington’s and McGrath’s lists beg the questions asked above.

A theological definition of evangelicalism turns Bebbington’s and McGrath’s ‘assumptions’ into imperatives. After all, theology is a normative discipline and not simply a descriptive one. The evangelical believes that the Bible ought to be the final authority for any theological proposal. The evangelical believes that the cross ought to be central to any construal of Christianity. The evangelical believes that conversion ought to be the aim of evangelistic proclamation and witness. The evangelical believes that the Christian life ought to be a matter of the hands and feet and not merely the head. Lastly the evangelical ought to believe that salvation is a matter of grace, not merit. As the classic, eighteenth century hymn from Augustus Toplady puts it: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.’

Be that as it may, whether the list is the Bebbington or the McGrath one, or my expanded one, we need to note that the pursuit of scholarship is not a defining characteristic of evangelicalism. When historically considered, rescuing the perishing rather than publishing the seminal has been the evangelical’s desideratum. Of course, that observation does not foreclose the question of whether the pursuit of the scholarly is consistent with evangelical convictions nor, more fundamentally, whether the pursuit of the scholarly is consistent with a biblical worldview. Indeed evangelicalism is a movement that crosses many institutional forms, of which some have exhibited a deep commitment to the life of the mind such as Old Princeton Christianity (e.g. J. Gresham Machen) and such as in Dutch Calvinism in the Kuyperian tradition (e.g. Abraham Kuyper himself) to give only two examples.3 In my view, the pursuit of the scholarly can be grounded in the biblical pursuit of wisdom, but that is another story.4

But what exactly is the pursuit of the scholarly?

The Concept of Scholarship

At this juncture of the discussion a distinction might to be useful. There is a difference, in my view, in between being learned and being scholarly.

Being learned is about knowing a field of scholarly inquiry (e.g. Trinitarian studies). G. Campbell Morgan, a noted preacher of earlier this century, suggests somewhere that new ministers ought to keep up with a field of scholarship to preserve the momentum of their theological studies. For me as a young minister it meant my reading all I could on the Sermon on the Mount, whether in article or commentary or monograph. I found the advice excellent as the exercise kept up my Greek and my reading. As a result I became more learned in an area, but the practice did not make me a scholar.

Being scholarly assumes being learned but goes beyond it. The scholar not only knows a field (e.g.Gospel studies), he or she also contributes to it. Contributions may be direct. The scholar publishes in the field or forms a research team that publishes in the field. But contributions may be indirect. The scholar by teaching, supervision and modelling may prepare new generations of scholars as well as help to increase the numbers of the learned. Whether the contributions are direct or indirect, the scholar endeavours to work in a methodologically self-conscious way with proper attention to whatever academic conventions prevail at the time (e.g. footnotes).

Contributing to a field may take one of two forms. Scholars may ask internal questions of the field or they may ask external ones. What’s the difference? The debate in Australia over whether the country should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic provides a good illustration. An internal question would be: ‘Assuming the monarchy is retained how could it be made to work better in Australia’s interests?’ One answer might be that the Queen tours the world as the Queen of Australia for one month of the year promoting Australian trade interests. An external question would ask: ‘Why have a monarchy at all?’ The external question prompts us to think outside the square.

Scholarship needs to ask both sorts of question. At times, therefore, scholarship, especially when asking external questions, may appear iconoclastic, but necessarily so. A good example is the classic work of James Barr on the semantics of biblical language. As a consequence of his work an approach to reading the Bible for a so called distinctive Hebrew way of thinking was stopped in its tracks.5 However, thinking outside the square may also be very constructive as with Brevard Childs’ canonical criticism.6 To be constructive, Childs need not be right. What he provided were new questions to open up a field to fresh exploration and his own work to criticism. Richard Bauckham provides a more recent example. He and others raise questions about the current NT scholarly paradigm that the each of the four Gospels had a particular community of readers in mind: the Markan community, the Matthean community, the Lukan community and the Johannine community. In contradistinction, Bauckham with others asks whether the Gospels may have been written with all Christians in mind.7 This is no refinement of the current paradigm (by asking internal questions), but a challenge to it (hence an external question).

Importantly, however, when scholars pursue their questions they do so in particular social and historical settings. Scholars, unlike angels, live in bodies. The evangelical in pursuit of scholarship needs to be aware of the challenge of context.

The Context of Scholarship

Most evangelical scholars work in a double context: the academy (code word, Athens) and the church (code word, Jerusalem). The academy is the world of scholarly publication, conferences, and for some, a university department. The church is where they worship, perhaps preach, perhaps write at a popular level, and for many, the context in which they teach in a seminary or Bible college.

There have been, historically speaking, three ways that Athens and Jerusalem have been related by Christians, as a subset of the more general issue of how Christians are to relate to their culture. These three ways are those of accommodation, repudiation and engagement. The first of these two ways I will touch on briefly, before concentrating on the third.

The way to accommodation allows Athens, not Jerusalem, to set the agenda. A contemporary scholar who embodies this approach is Don Cupitt of Cambridge. I recall a lecture of his at the university during which he stated that he changed his theology every three years as a matter of principle. These days an anti-realist postmodernity sets his agenda. The way of repudiation is as old at least as the days of Tertullian of the early Christian era. For him Jerusalem always sets the agenda, Athens never. Jerusalem ought not to have dealings with Athens, the church with the academy as he famously argued.8

The way of engagement, however, is committed to Jerusalem, but open to learning from Athens. At times the evangelical will say ‘No’ to Athens, but at other times ‘Yes.’ In the language of Augustine, the way of engagement is ever ready ‘to spoil the Egyptians’, that is to say, appropriate for the service of Christ any wisdom to be found outside of revelation.9

Calvin was even more positive about Athens as a series of rhetorical questions in the Institutes shows. His lucid prose is difficult to improve upon and so I quote in extenso:

If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon some of the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful descriptions of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labour to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?10

If the above represents the ‘Yes’ of Calvin’s engagement with culture then his criticism of Plato’s doctrine of recollection in the previous section of the Institutes reveals the ‘No.’ Calvin’s ‘No’ is even more strident when discussing whether human reason can discern matters of the kingdom—especially the way of salvation. Here Calvin is emphatic: ‘… the greatest geniuses are blinder than moles!’11 On this view, Jerusalem always, but with Athens sometimes the response is ‘Yes’. sometimes ‘No’.

The present article assumes the way of engagement in the Augustinian-Calvinian tradition. However, the way of engagement brings a certain tension in its wake.

The Tension of Scholarship

The tension is that of the dialectic (in the sense of debate) between faith and reason. Inside the evangelical scholar’s head is both Anselm and Socrates: the believer and the questioner respectively.12 If Anselm stands for ‘faith seeking understanding’, then Socrates stands for the dictum ‘that the unexamined life is not worth living’ and for that other dictum of ‘following the argument wherever it might lead’. If Anselm is the archetypal Christian thinker, then Socrates is the archetypal western thinker.

In practice for the evangelical scholar the presence of the Anselmian and the Socratic together means believing amidst questions, while following the argument wherever it may lead. The evangelical scholar should not be surprised by any of this. Not everything has been revealed and some matters await eschatological clarification (Dt. 29:29 and 1 Cor. 13:9–12). There is an epistemological humility that is entirely appropriate to believing scholarship and consistent with asking questions.

But to be practical there are three tools to help address the internal debate between faith and reason. The first is the A.F.L. box (Awaiting Further Light). I have always found it useful to have some mental space reserved for ongoing questions awaiting answers or better answers than the ones I already have. Over the years I have seen many such questions resolved after a time. The second tool is that of a pensées journal (or thoughts journal) which helps preserve the questions in a clear form. As questions arise jot them down in an exercise book and review them periodically to see if they have been addressed.

For me a long standing question both in my A.F.L. box and pénsees journal has been as to why God has created such a vast universe if humankind is so central to the story. God’s creativity appears prodigal. One answer that I eventually came to has to do with the variety of values. Some values are intellectual like truth, some are moral like goodness and some are aesthetic like beauty. Perhaps the vastness of creation and the diversity within it has aesthetic value for God. A few years ago at a university semmar, I heard another answer from John Polkinghorne who was first a noted physicist then a noted theologian.13 Polkinghorne argued that the elements that make up the human body were once forged in the stars. Without a universe of such a scale and history we would not be here to speculate about it. Here then is a scientific answer to complement my philosophical one. Again all such answers are provisional ones, as they are not revealed from on high.

The third tool is a more sophisticated view of commitment than many evangelicals appear to entertain.14As a young Christian I was taught that to question was to doubt, to doubt was to fall into unbelief and to fall into unbelief was to fall away from Christ. So don’t question. It is as though Christian commitment reduces to belief in certain facts. This view of commitment poses special difficulties for those evangelicals who are doing doctoral work. A key dimension of doctoral work is learning to be Socratic (if they have never learnt to be so before) as integral to the very exercise they are engaged in.

The view of commitment that I was taught fails on philosophical analysis. Philosophically analyzed, to be committed to X is to believe that X is a fact of some kind, to believe that X has value of some kind and to behave accordingly, that is to say there are certain practices that are integral to commitment. For example, if am committed to a political party I believe that the party exists, that it is worth supporting and I vote for it at elections. And so if I am committed to the gospel as understood by evangelicals (and by all major historic Christian denominations) then I believe that Christ is risen, that his resurrection does matter and I pray in his name as my mediator because he is alive from the dead. However, my studies may lead me for a time to question the resurrection doctrine both as to the factuality and nature of the resurrection. To so question may be an expression of unbelief, but it may also be an expression of an intellectual integrity that is God honouring because it honours realism and truth. If it is the latter, then to both ask questions and pursue answers does not necessarily mean that I am no longer committed to Christ. I still pray in his name and meet with his people because of the value I have found in believing in him as death’s conqueror. I also deploy my A.F.L. toll and use my journal. Why? Because that which has been found to have value ought not to lightly or peremptorily be given up. My experience over thirty years has been that the answers, satisfying answers, do come as in my quest for an answer to the scale of the universe question. My understanding of life in the groaning creation (Rom. 8:18–25), however, leads me to expect that some of my questions won’t be answered in this life.

The context of scholarship does bring its tensions as the Anselm and the Socrates inside one’s head both believe and question. Yet the context of academy and church is not the ultimate one.

The Ultimate Context: Evangelical Spirituality and Scholarship

The Christian lives coram Deo (before God) in all of life’s pursuits, including that of scholarship. Essential to any spirituality are the practices (regular patterns of activity) that flow from the beliefs and values that are espoused by the adherent. Christianity is no exception. For the evangelical pursuing scholarship the practices of an evangelical life are vital. For once the practices go, evangelical theology begins to make no sense. But what practices?

The practices I have in mind are many. They include the following: reading the Bible for personal transformation and not merely for information, hearing transformative preaching that is biblically based and addressed to the conscience, praying to the Lord of the harvest for the progress of the gospel in the world, fellowshipping with others in the body of Christ, witnessing to Christ as circumstances allow and giving to mission. Of the list, which is not exhaustive, but representative, petitionary prayer is of particular importance. What we are prepared to pray for and, indeed, if we are prepared to pray at all, provide the real diagnosis of where our hearts are because our prayers reveal what we truly value. Furthermore, our prayers show where our heads are, revealing as they do what is our real understanding of the nature of God and his relationship to the world: that is to say, whether we really are theists who believe in the living God of Scripture.15

The pursuit of the scholarly may lead to the neglect of the evangelical practices as discussed above. In my observation. when that occurs, over time a theological shift takes place to make sense of a lifestyle without them. Indeed, in some cases we find that the Christian faith itself, in any shape or form, is abandoned as the scholarly community replaces the church, and the Scriptures are reduced to solely an object of scholarly attention and no longer read as a means of grace, and prayer becomes meditation only or ceases altogether.

The Value of Scholarship

Scholarship has at least three values for the evangelical engaged in it. The first is personal value. To develop a critical rationality that knows how to sort out the valid and the invalid, the sound and unsound in argument, to develop an ability to weigh evidence judiciously and to theorize responsibly is to grow in the skilful use of a God-given talent. To push back the boundaries of knowledge (the constructive task) or to clear away undergrowth that is in the way (the iconoclastic task) can be extremely satisfying at the personal level. So too can be the enjoyment in working on a project as one of a team or leading the team. Likewise teaching the next generation of scholars or passing on the findings of scholarship to those who want to be more learned can be deeply rewarding. Above all, enjoying the sense of using a God-given gift in the service of him and others can bring great contentment.

Evangelical scholarship can also have value for the church. (By ‘evangelical scholarship’ I mean scholarship pursued by evangelicals within the framework of an evangelical theology). This is obviously so, as commentaries are written, theologies propounded, original languages explored, to name but a few examples. But even apparently arcane research may prove serendipitous. I spent much time researching the theological utilitarianism of the eighteenth century and the philosophical-theological system of the Anglican divine, William Paley (1743–1805) in particular. The Paley project has yielded, and continues to do so, its share of academic articles. However, in the nineties an excellently written book appeared in the Australian context on the nature of Australian Anglicanism.16 The book drew attention to the notion of classical Anglicanism that adopted the three-fold appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason as its method and to the incarnation as its central doctrine. As I read the book I could not help but think of Paley, one of the foremost theological thinkers of eighteenth century Anglicanism, for whom Scripture and reason, but not tradition were ‘co-ordinate authorities’ and for whom individual eschatology was the centre piece of his system. Paley did not fit the model. On further reflection neither did evangelical Anglicans for whom Scripture is the norm of norm which rules those other norms of tradition and reason and for whom the atonement is central. So I entered the lists on the basis of research done for an entirely different reason and which I never would have guessed would have its relevance to the issue of Anglican self-understanding in the late twentieth century Australian context.17

Lastly scholarship feeds the academy as both internal and external questions are pursued, as paradigms are refined or even replaced by better ones. Evangelical scholars join that great conversation and debate that has been going on at least since Socrates’ time on the real, the true, the good and the beautiful. Even postmodern scholarship is no exception with its covert commitments to the truth of conceptual relativism and the value of personal freedom. Scholarship then has value for the academy and in providing that value, the evangelical scholar participates in the fulfilment of the cultural mandate, as some call it, which is grounded in the Genesis story (Gn. 1:26–28 in particular).


How we view scholarship and the evangelical is a subset of the wider issue of how we regard the evangelical and culture. Some have adopted the way of repudiation. Athens never, Jerusalem always, they maintain. An increasing number are adopting a much more welcoming stance towards Athens (or, should I say Paris?). Once, such evangelicals would have been called liberal evangelicals, but these days they are called open evangelicals.18 The present writer, standing in the Reformed tradition of evangelical scholarship with its Augustinian and Calvinian roots, has argued for Jerusalem always and Athens sometimes as a biblical world and life view is brought to bear on the academy. This is the way of engagement.

I have also argued that inside the evangelical scholar’s head is the ongoing debate between the Anselmian and Socratic outlooks (responsible believing and indefatigable questioning, respectively). The result is a tension that needs to be addressed practically by adopting the tools of the A.F.L box, a pensées journal and a more philosophically sophisticated understanding of commitment.

Most importantly, I argued that all of life, including the pursuit of scholarship accordingly, is lived coram Deo (before God) and if we are to remain evangelical then certain key practices should be our habitus like hearing transformative preaching that is biblically based and applied to the conscience. A practice that is especially important is petitionary prayer as it reveals our understanding of and commitment to the living God of biblical revelation who answers prayers unlike idols in their impotence (Is. 46:7).

Lastly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: ‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.’19The pursuit of scholarship may have many values (personal, ecclesiastical and academic). None is greater than truth. And the pursuit of truth, at whatever level, by the evangelical scholar is service before God for the people of God to help avoid the particular pit of self-preoccupation and delusion that Coleridge had in mind.

1 J.A.T. Robinson, Can We Trust The New Testament? (London and Oxford: Mowbrays, 1977), especially pp. 6, 25.

2 See D. W. Bebbington, ‘Evangelicalism’ in A.E. McGrath (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia Of Modern Christian Thought (Oxford/Malden: Blackwell. 1997), p. 183 and A.E. McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford/Cambridge: Blackwell, second edition, 1997), pp. 121–22.

3 For J. Gresham Machen see his ‘Christianity and Culture’ in Princeton Theological Review, 11 (1913) and the discussion of him in George M. Marsden. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 182–201. For Abrahm Kuyper see his Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931).

4 Key parts of that story are whether the writer of Proverbs used the Egyptian source Amenope and the exient to which wisdom in Israel fitted into Ancient Near Eastern wisdom. For a recent discussion of the issues see R.N. Whybray, The Book of Proverbs: A Survey of Modern Study (Leiden/New York/Koln: E.J. Brill, 1995), pp. 6–22.

5 J. Barr. The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: SCM, 1961). Brevard Childs wrote of Barr’s work that ‘Seldom has one book brought down so much theological superstructure with such effectiveness.’ See Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster. 1970), p. 72.

6 B.S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979).

7 See Richard Bauckham (ed.), The Gospels for All Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

8 See J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1970), p. 178.

9 Translated D.W. Robertson, Jr., On Christian Doctrine: Saint Augustine (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), Book Two, XL, pp. 75–76.

10 John T. McNeill (ed.) and translated by F.L. Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (London: SCM, 1961), pp. 273–274.

11 Ibid., pp. 273, 275.

12 For an example of this tension as experienced by an evangelical scholar see John Goldingay, ‘The Ongoing Story of Biblical Interpretation’ in Churchman, Vol. 112, Number 1. 1998, pp. 14–16.

A.F.L. Awaiting Further Light

13 For a recent book on the science and faith interface by John Polkinghorne see Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1995).

14 For this analysis I have adapted the work of Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment (Cambridge: CUP, 1973).

A.F.L. Awaiting Further Light

15 I am struck by the Lukan report that Jesus taught his disciples to pray like John the Baptist had done (Lk. 11:1–4). I suspect that the key pastoral questions that many evangelicals would ask would be: ‘How is your Bible reading?’ and ‘Are you in a small group that is studying the Bible?’ The question all too seldom asked would be: ‘Are you still relating to God in prayer?’ The failure to disciple the people of God in prayer may be the biggest pastoral weakness in contemporary evangelicalism.

16 See Bruce N. Kaye, Church Without Walls: Being Anglican in Australia (North Blackburn: Dove, 1995).

17 See my ‘Paley And The Myth Of “Classical Anglicanism” ’ in Reformed Theological Review, Vol. 54. September–December, 1995. No.3, pp. 97–109 and Bruce Kaye’s spirited reply “Classical Anglicanism” A Necessary Point Of Departure’ in Reformed Theological Review. Vol. 56. January–April, 1997, No. 1, pp. 28–39.

18 The identification I owe to Goldingay, op. cit., p. 14.

A.F.L Awaiting Further Light

19 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection: Moral and Religious Aphorisms quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Third Edition. (Oxford/New York/Toronto/Melbourne: OUP, 1990), p. 157.

Graham A. Cole

Graham A. Cole
Beeson Divinity School
Birmingham, Alabama, USA