Scholarly ‘populism’ stirs SBTS lecturer’s optimism
By Andrew J.W. Smith & Sarah Haywood
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — A confessional interpretation of the Bible can flourish in the 21st century church, New Testament scholar Robert W. Yarbrough said in three Gheens Lectures at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in contrast to the dominant critical interpretation of the Bible in academia.
Yarbrough divided contemporary New Testament theology into two camps: populist and elitist. The populist camp, he stated, is marked by a desire to affirm the authority and reliability of the Scriptures, while the elitist camp is marked by a skeptical scholarship of the Bible that is mostly interested in constantly updating its methodologies.
Yarbrough listed a series of convictions that populist Christians believe — a transcendent Creator God, the divinity of Christ, new birth by the Holy Spirit, and an inspired and authoritative Scripture. These doctrines, he said, offer a fertile soil for thoughtful interpretation of the New Testament and the growth of the Christian church.
“It is my contention that a set of convictions like these is a plausible representation of true assertions found in the Bible and valuable for ongoing synthetic analysis of the New Testament,” Yarbrough said. Populist conviction affirms “the positive connection between salvation and history that the New Testament claims” and provides “a promising framework for theologically rich exegesis and exposition of the Bible.”
Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and author of numerous books, including a commentary on 1-3 John in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series on the New Testament series. His Feb. 27-28 lectures at Southern were titled “Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology.”
Populism, which dates back to the first century, encompasses groups that affirm the Bible’s portrayal of God, the world and the church’s identity and mission, he said, placing Southern Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention as part of this ideology, which has been the viewpoint of the confessional Christian church for millennia.
Elitism, meanwhile, which dates back only a few centuries to German scholars, does not necessarily take the Bible at face value and views the Bible from “a superior vantage point,” often dismissing or reinterpreting the claims of Scripture, Yarbrough said. It is the viewpoint of academia, he said, and is marked by a critical study of the Bible that rejects a doctrinal interpretation of it.
“Undergirding graduate-level study of Scripture is what we may call ‘the guild,'” Yarbrough said. “In the guild’s view, they establish the rules and they set the tone,” he said, describing them as “the world’s elite biblical study authorities.”
While scholars who reject Christianity can still produce valuable scholarship for true believers, their work can be unhelpful, Yarbrough cautioned. Much scholarship written by elites — such as German lexicographer Walter Bauer’s “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity,” which argued that confessional heresy existed prior to orthodoxy in the church — only confuses or hinders the development of orthodox scholars.
“A book like that is a reminder of the unhelpful and erroneous claims often advanced by post-confessional scholars,” Yarbrough said. “It cannot be helpful either, [in that] dealing with erroneous claims must so often consume the classroom and research time of students in theological training where the Bible is believed…. Not all emerge with their faith and healthy reason intact.”
Yet the Christian church is growing without the help of New Testament theology elitism, Yarbrough said, citing growth in the number of Christians in Latin America and Africa in recent years. In 2018, 41 percent of the world Protestants are in Africa and merely 11 percent are in North America. This expansion, he said, is a movement widely ignored by Western elite. Church growth in the West represents a populist reading of the Bible, a reading regarding the Bible to be true, he said, whereas churches led and trained by elite New Testament theologians have declined.
Despite the poor returns of the elitist mindset, it seems to be making a comeback, Yarbrough said. The work of two German theological elites of the 19th and 20th centuries — F.C. Baur and Rudolf Bultmann — has garnered an uptick in scholarly attention in the last decade.
Yarbrough recounted that Baur believed the New Testament was written much later than the church has historically believed, which renders impossible the writers’ witness to the life of Jesus and undercuts the historical reliability of the Christian Scriptures and Jesus’ resurrection. Bultmann, one of the most important post-Enlightenment theologians, thought the New Testament needed its more supernatural elements “demythologized.”
Calling these approaches “neo-allegory,” Yarbrough said some scholars are returning to their methods. A book of Baur’s New Testament theology lectures was published in 2016, and former Wheaton College student David W. Congdon has written three books on Bultmann in the last three years.
The populist movement nevertheless is still well-equipped to respond to the challenge, Yarbrough said. While elitists often make it seem like nobody thought critically about the Bible until the Enlightenment and consider an “inerrantist scholar” to be an oxymoron, he said the presence of evangelicals of conviction in academia is increasing. The church flourishes when it does so with the help of excellent exegetes and theologians, he said, and a new generation of world-class evangelical scholars in elitist circles is emerging — in the spirit of the late Carl F.H. Henry.
The revival of the populist interpretation and application of the Bible is not limited to scholarship, Yarbrough noted. While churches who have adopted the elitist interpretation have seen their pews empty and their moral testimony grow compromised as they embrace abortion and sexual immorality, he said hundreds of millions of people all over the world are becoming Christians — and they want to defend the Bible and historical Christianity.
“It is my hope and contention that we are on the verge of a time when the populist harvest that has seen hundreds of millions added to the church will result in fruit in the form of the reclamation of biblical hermeneutics — for Christ and His Kingdom — in parts of the world where elitist interpretation has gained undue sway,” Yarbrough said.
Not only do these Christians believe in the saving power of the Gospel message and the doctrine of inerrancy — along with the vast majority of believers — but there also are more Christian martyrs annually than the number of elitist scholars existing in universities and graduate schools, Yarbrough asserted.
“The martyred church is not asking scholars’ permission to assert that Paul wrote Ephesians or that the Gospel words of Jesus are authentic,” he said. “And people who are willing to die for their belief in the Bible’s truth are not a subgroup shrinking, but rather a communion continuing to grow at a remarkable rate — both on earth and at the altar in heaven, where they cry out, ‘Oh Lord, how long?'”
Southern’s Gheens lectures were established in 1958 as part of an effort to bring noted scholars to the seminary campus. Previous lecturers have included N.T. Wright, David F. Wells and Leon Morris.
SBTS lecturer: Work is a God-given sphere of responsibility
By Sarah Haywood
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Christians should regard their work as one of three God-given spheres of responsibility, Greg Gilbert said in a lecture as part of The Commonweal Project at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to equip Christians and pastors with a biblical theology of work and economics.
Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., presented the first of two lectures based on his new book, “The Gospel at Work.” His March 7 lecture will be followed by one on April 25.
Gilbert listed three spheres of human responsibility — family, church and work — and emphasized the importance of bringing the Gospel to the workplace sphere in addition to the others, which typically garner the most attention.
“It makes sense that spiritual truth plays into our church and family spheres of life, but many seem surprised that work is also spiritual,” Gilbert said. “Christians should make it as normal to apply the Bible at work as it is to apply the Bible to family life.”
Drawing from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25, Gilbert explained that the talents — contextually a unit of measurement — are not representative of abilities but of everything given by God. Understanding this misconception changes the meaning of the text and the application of the parable, especially when it comes to work.
“If the message of the parable is that the talents are every responsibility and every opportunity that God has placed in your life, then the message of the parable becomes much more expansive,” Gilbert said. “In that case, what Jesus is saying is: ‘Until I come back, I expect you to be engaged heartily with your love and your energy and with great joy and determination in not just the things you like and are good at but in everything God has put into your life,’ which changes the meaning of that dramatically.”
Pastors should help their people remember that whatever they do, they’re doing it for the glory of the King, Gilbert said, as well as encourage congregants to connect their life in the workplace to Christian discipleship.
“When you speak to your people, you want to do it with relevance, in a way that’s going to interact with them where they are,” Gilbert said. “You want to be able to bring biblical truth to bear in the places where they’re feeling pressure.”
Gilbert also addressed the idea of “calling” and noted that the common idea of a calling in life does not necessarily fit what the Bible teaches in a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:17, which reads: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”
This call, Gilbert said, is not just the “one big thing” but the life God has assigned, encompassing all responsibilities, opportunities and changes. “Our jobs are one of the three massive arenas that the Lord has built into the fabric of our lives to make us more like Jesus, to sanctify us, to conform us more closely to the image of the Son,” he said.
Regarding idolatry and idleness — the two main issues Christians face in work — Gilbert said the key is remembering that work is for the glory of the King.
“If you’ve found yourself being idle in the heart when it comes to your work, it might be that that bad opinion of your job is coming from a low opinion of your master, who put you there in the first place,” he said.