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Seminary Musings

January 20, 2008

It’s funny how the grass is always greener on the other side of the septic tank.

The other day Daniel Kirk posted on a new website by Westminster Seminary (PA) alumns: Their major concern is the recent theological shift at Westminster.

Westminster Theological Seminary has always been a place where historic traditions and cutting-edge scholarship go hand in hand…. But the Westminster we loved is in danger of disappearing. It is being replaced by exceedingly narrow interpretations of the Westminster Standards, by an atmosphere of suspicion that stifles inquiry, and by embarrassing flirtations with a far-right-wing political agenda.

Rather ironically, this reminded me of a similar website run by alumns from Biblical Theological Seminary (also in PA): However, their major concern seems to be that Biblical’s older exceedingly narrow interpretations of the Bible, atmosphere of suspicion that stifles inquiry, and embarrassing flirtations with a far-right-wing political agenda are being replaced by historic traditions and cutting-edge scholarship. (Though, I grant that such traditions and scholarship are being addressed with in an emerging paradigm.)

One wonders if those who had once considered going to Biblical are now attending Westminster for the very reasons that have caused the latter’s alumns vexation…

  1. January 20, 2008 2:08 pm

    That was essentially my assessment of the situation – same coin/flip side.

  2. January 23, 2008 12:15 pm

    And vice versa–see my post today on Biblical’s recent doings! Might those who want the Biblical theological tradition of Westminster now need to start thinking about, possibly, going to Biblical?

  3. January 23, 2008 12:22 pm

    Wrong coin altogether:
    I think you are much mistaken in stating that is concerned about “exceedingly narrow interpretations of the Bible, atmosphere of suspicion that stifles inquiry, and embarrassing flirtations with a far-right-wing political agenda” being replaced by “historic traditions and cutting-edge scholarship.” This was not the earlier BTS atmosphere AT ALL in my experience, nor is PBTS concerned with “historic traditions” (what are these anyway?) nor supposed “cutting-edg scholarship.” If such scholarship was taking place there, certainly it should be championed, since it would seem that the only scholarship that is truly “cutting edge” is that which is truly faithful to God and the scripture.

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    January 23, 2008 1:23 pm


    I’m so glad that Biblical is getting Steve Taylor! This will be good all around (maybe now he’ll answer my email…).

    I’ve met many folks who graduated from Biblical ten or more years ago. I really don’t think that it is going to far to say that BTS used to be a place with an exceedingly narrow (i.e. fundamentalist) hermeneutic, etc etc.

    As for what the postbiblical ilk is concerned with, I just flipped the saveourseminary rhetoric around. By “historic traditions” I would assume that the WTS crowd meant the Early Church Fathers (I could be wrong here, but that’s my guess). I do know that BTS is now more concerned about the great cloud of witnesses and the historic traditions of the Church than it had been in days of yore. As far as scholarship, I would cite John Franke and Scot McKnight as two excellent examples (not to slight my old colleague from Fuller, David Lamb, whose book on Jehu I’m still trying to find time to read).

    As for your last sentence, I think it pretty much sums up my point in this ironic mess: folks define things differently. I don’t know how you can be “faithful to God and the scripture[sic]” without knowing what the historic traditions of the Church are. The Holy Spirit has a history and God didn’t stop directing scholarship between the years of 100 and 1500 CE (or whatever date you would choose on either side). But that’s me. The irony is that two seminaries (both within 20 minutes of my house) are moving in two very different directions with very similar outcries from their alumn communities.

  5. January 23, 2008 6:53 pm

    You seem to suggest that BTS did not have an interest in the history of the church, ths history of doctrine, and the theologians of the early church. I do not know where this information comes from, but perhaps you are thinking of a different seminary than BTS(?). The present perspective there, however, does seem to share this revision of most recent evangelical history, with a dogmatic PoMo narrowness that would make the fundies blush.

  6. jimgetz permalink*
    January 23, 2008 10:54 pm


    Didn’t mean to imply that BTS was devoid of church history before their recent new direction. I was confused by your question of what the “historic traditions” might be, and reacting to that rather than anything I’ve heard or seen concerning BTS (e.g. you were the source by the way you [perhaps rhetorically?] commented).

    As for postmodernity, I really think the whole thing is passé. Last year I went to the Emergent Village conference with Jack Caputo and Richard Kearney at Eastern University. What I came away with was a new understanding of my own structural view of religion. As a ritual scholar, this is partly necessary for me simply to do what I do (I read a lot of Catherine Bell). But on another level, I think that when deconstruction begins to embrace religion (as it is doing) it inevitably leads to a new from of structuralism. Granted, postmodernity is now among the masses, but I haven’t really been running across it the academy in recent years.

    However, for all my desire to move beyond postmodernity, I am curious as to why would you characterize it as narrow or revisionist in focus. These are accolades more commonly applied to the Enlightenment and Modernity (e.g Galileo), though they are probably common to anything in the human experience.

  7. January 30, 2008 6:05 am

    “Biblical’s older exceedingly narrow interpretations of the Bible,” — in reality, the old BTS constantly harped on the need to not major on the minors, what was taught there was simply historical Christianity (I was there 1976-79); “atmosphere of suspicion that stifles inquiry,” — in reality, students were allowed to go on ad nauseum presenting their views, challenging the profs, often to the chagrin of other students who thought we were paying tuition so the profs could teach us; “and embarrassing flirtations with a far-right-wing political agenda” — in reality, the old BTS was apolitical to a fault — you could go through there as a socialist and never have your views challenged by anything in class (as I recollect, anyway).
    How easily the broad minded slander!

  8. SH (stephenhague) permalink
    February 5, 2010 6:59 pm

    It has been long since you asked a question on my comment on the revisionism of PoMo in Evangelicalism (as at BTS)! I just came across it today while doing some web browsing in the midst of the blizzard that has descended on us.

    It is my impression that PoMo is as much a moving target as was existentialism, so comments and criticisms are sometimes subject to swift PoMo rebuttal with “you just do not understand us.” Thus, it often comes with a magisterial assumption of being something entirely new and something better than what preceded. As in most ideological revisions, it inclines to a particular (and narrow) philosophical interpretation of the past. This is not unique to PoMos, but their insistence on being free of our prejudices “hoists them with their own petard.” Indeed, it often allows for no other prejudices, thus it is extremely narrow, and thus its dated shelf-life is already widely known. I would differ with you, all the same, on the comment that it is passé. It certainly is not so among BTS faculty and the “emerging” movement, and Evangelicals who feel they missed the fun of the sixties. Also, for the past four years I had close contact with secular academic institutions, and found that the presuppositions of the moral, theological, spiritual framework of their world is by and large characterized by the slippery term PostModern. Nevertheless, I do think that it is simply one of the many philosophical/social/political fads that change with the winds of style and fashion, and that it is also intimately related to quite a few other faddish movements of the 20th cent, many of which did not share in a Christian or biblical worldview, belief, or ethos.

    As might be (sarcastically) said, Postmodernism includes the fundamental and foundational dogma that everything is relative except what I believe. Since it is a radical denial of meta narratives, it is a narrow meta narrative that leads to a nihilism akin to existentialism.

    The concerns of PBTS relate largely to the hermeneutical and theological consequences of a philosophy that is less informed by biblical theology (in both senses of the term) than it is driven by the contemporary, political, moral, and spiritual forces of secular Modernism that saw its best fruit in the revolution of the sixties.

    LeoPurdue’ comments on postmodernism are worth further reflection (from Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, pp. 278-279):
    “The losses to human thinking and understanding, should the post modern agenda be fully implemented, would be enormous. Perhaps the most debilitating one is dispensing with any affirmation as true in any sense of the word. Postmodernists in religion are quick to deny this and reject the claim that they advocate nihilism. But one is hard pressed to see their arguments as anything but nihilistic, similar to the anti-Kantian view expressed by Schopenhauer in his understanding of blind will: there is no meaning whatsoever that may be claimed and attested as objectively and representationally true. For Schopenhauer, the human will seeks to represent the world experienced through the senses in orderly forms through which knowledge may be obtained that is objectively true.(1) Yet we simply construct our world through self-interest with intent to realize immediate goals that inevitably become conflicting and contradictory. Try as they must, humans cannot escape or abolish this will in the attempt to know what is objectively true. Ideas are nothing more than the epiphenomena of a blind and irrational will that expresses itself through self-constructed ideas and actions based on self-interest.”

    “If the postmodernists and their intellectual predecessors, including the philosophers of the New Academy, the Romanticists, and possibly even Schopenhauer, are correct, then the interpreter, located in multidimensional contexts, determines meaning. Thus, there is no objective reality, and all assertions are ideological construals of self-interest. Nothing may be affirmed as true whether theological or ethical. There is no basis on which behavior may be judged as ethical or unethical. Yet if we abandon ethics, do we not allow marginals to continue in the squalor of degrading, humanity-denying subsistence or fail to oppose authoritarian regimes in their pillaging, destroying, and controlling, without so much as uttering even a whispered protest?”

    “The most significant concern I have with postmodernism is that it is astendentious as the ideologies of texts and interpreters that it strongly criticizes. While no text or interpreter is capable of transcending self-interest, the biased character of much postmodernism is clear. Thus, the criticisms postmodernists raise about texts and interpreters, especially historical critics, are just as partisan, if not more so, since they operate with the deception that their approach transcends ideology. Historical critics may be suffering from self-delusion in attempting to interpret the text as “objectively” as possible, but at least they make the effort. Postmodernists do not. They choose, rather, to reify their own political, social, sexual, and theological affirmations in every text that is interpreted without any accountability to critical scrutiny. They have attempted to construct an approach to biblical interpretation that is ‘beyond criticism.'”

    • February 6, 2010 10:53 am

      Thanks for your post, Stephen.

      Purdue’s comments are sad on many levels. I really enjoy his work on wisdom lit, but I found the book problematic for many reasons (which I can’t get into here). The older paradigm of a “biblical theology” was already falling part in the late sixties (I think Dever declared it DOA at that point). One need only look at how older classes on “biblical theology” have been replaced in catalogs with ones on “the religions of ancient Israel” to see the shift.

      Needless to say, I think Purdue overstates his case as to the epistemological humility that postmodernity seeks to bring to the hermeneutical table. While postmodernity requires biases be addressed, this is not limited to the biases of other interpreters or the text itself. I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve heard on post-colonial readings of the Bible that begin with the speaker explaining their own social location!

      Further, postmodernity can actually move beyond overly individualized readings of the text. This can be beneficial for a seminary (trying to bring the post as a whole into focus). By pointing the biases of both text and interpreter, the community of the text (past and present) becomes important in defining the rules for interpreting a text. In Christianity and at a seminary, this means that suddenly church history has something to say about hermeneutics—and not simply one or two figures in that history, but the entire history of interpretation. It all becomes part of the language game. Child’s introduction to the Old Testament and Sander’s work on canonical criticism serve as early forays into this new paradigm, with IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture being the most robust example.

      However, most of this seems tangential to what is actually happening at BTS. The folks over at the seminary that I know tend to be a conservative group. They are not out to deconstruct texts, destroy meaning, or get kinky in SanFran. Rather, they have realized that the extremely conservative (fundamentalist?) roots of the seminary do not properly equip pastors to minister to the world in which they now live.

      That this change would upset some alumns is not surprising. I think of the whole brouhaha at Fuller when they drop their inerrancy statement. This all gets tied up in the tired trope of the culture war to which your post alludes. The litmus tests changes over the years (e.g. single authorship of the Pentateuch, Matthean priority, historicity of Jonah, etc. etc.), but the war rages on. In this respect, I’d recommend a recent post containing NT Wright’s thoughts on Adam, Eve and the USA. These conflicts are rooted not in the text but in the cultural factors that surround those interpretation (and yes, I know how PoMo this sounds).

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