Open Letter to New Testament Students

Posted on September 15, 2011

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J. R. Daniel Kirk has written an open letter to students of the New Testament. I thought it well done and important, and in some ways, according to the comments, enlightening to the kinds of assumptions and attitudes that people have towards seminary, higher education, and Biblical studies. It is duplicated below with my underlines and comments.

Dear NT Intro students,

Our quarter will be kicking off in a couple of weeks. I love the process of digging into the New Testament texts with students – you bring a passionate commitment to living out the Jesus story that is too often missing in the halls of the academy. You remind me why we study the Bible in the first place.

But there’s something you should know. Bible classes are often the hardest classes for seminary students. And I don’t mean that they’re the hardest academically. I mean that they’re often the hardest on students’ faith.

You’re coming to study a book that you love. You’re coming to delve into a book whose various verses and chapters have spoken directly to your heart – and transformed you. You’re coming to build on what you know and to enrich what you’ve already discovered.

But if I am doing my job, you are probably going to undergo a slow process of discovering that what you thought was a book is, in fact, a bunch of books; you’re going to find out that what you know is often incorrect; and what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.

Bible professors are not the only ones whose classes hope to leave you with transformed knowledge. But rarely do you have as much invested in the assumptions that the professor is trying to deconstruct.

People lose their faith in Biblical studies courses, and grad school in particular, because they discover the pervasive extent to which the NT was written by humans and speaks differently from what they anticipated.

This can all sound terribly bleak. But I want you to enter the class with your eyes open.

And more than that, I am going to make you a promise.

Here is what I promise to do for you: I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.

In other words, I promise that I will not leave you empty-handed; I promise that my goal is to strengthen you as a faithful follower of Christ. I have not come to steal, kill, and destroy, but to help you better see the One who is the way of life, and how scripture is a witness to him.

So for my part, I promise to leave you with a faith worth believing.

For your part, I ask that you come to learn. Here, more than anywhere else, if you have come to have your prior understandings validated through high academic marks, you are likely to experience frustration. Hold loosely to what you’ve brought through the door, and learn what is coming from your reading, from our discussions, and from the lectures.

Learn what is really on offer, resist jumping to conclusions, press to find out how it all holds together. I promise that I am striving to be a faithful teacher, I need you to enter in with the goal of being a faithful learner.

At the end of the quarter, we will likely disagree about a few things. Or maybe we’ll disagree about almost everything. That’s fine. I won’t down-grade you for that. But I need to know that you’ve learned. And, I hope that in the process you have seen more clearly a Jesus who is worth following. I believe with all my heart that this is what I’m helping you discover.

So if you feel like things are falling apart or spinning out of control, let’s talk. That’s not the direction this should go, but it’s always part of the danger of discovering that the Bible isn’t what we thought it was – or that Jesus isn’t who we thought he was. But the fresh acts of faith that such discoveries engender can themselves be the stuff of newness of life.

I look forward to learning with you in the weeks ahead.

Peace,
jrdk

— VIA —

For the sake of full disclosure, I had Dr. Kirk as a professor for one class at Fuller.

Several thought streams:

HERMENEUTICS. While reading the comments to this open letter, these thoughts came to mind. If this letter is read with pride, one could infer a hubris of the academy being imposed upon the laity. If read with fear, one could begin shoring up a religious “defense” to every intellectual engagement (“well, this is just what I believe.”) If read with denominationalism, one could begin critiquing where Kirk is coming from and deciding whether he is “in” or “out” of the approved vein of Christian thought…your vein of thought, that is (“does he really believe in the ‘plain meaning’ of the text?”)

In other words, ironically, the ways in which people read this letter is quite parallel to the ways in which people read the Scriptures…through their own eyes. Rather than engaging the letter on its own terms, and seeking to understand the heart of the professor, some in the comments simply read it as substantiating their own perceptions and biases. It is human nature to view writings — which are abstracted ideologies — through their own lenses. I am no exclusion. And that is how we all come to the Scriptures. And that is why, it appears, Kirk wrote what he wrote.

So, how ought this letter be read? Perhaps, with “a hermeneutic of love” as Wright puts it. As I say, “read it on its own terms,” not on ours. It is to seek meaning from the source, rather than to bring meaning a priori to the text. This is not a pure and exact science (as all historiology is messy), but rather, this is an approach that seeks to understand the heart and mind of the author (distinct a bit from “authorial intent”). Instead of using the words of a text written as a litmus test to discern whether or not this person aligns with our preconceptions, or as a “rule” to guide all belief systems, one ought to lay down our own frameworks and pick up the author’s.

It is from there that we can then make interpretations and applications.

And so, to the interpretations and applications:

“…a book that you love…” | In my experience, many Christians actually don’t “love” the book. They “revere” it, and are at the same time “confused” by it. Thus, their “understanding” of it is clouded by a perplexing reverence. To “love” is to dive deep, to engage, to ask questions, to seek intimacy, to wrestle, to humbly listen… In my experience, many Christians have chosen their own “canon within the canon” and have sought to protect their understanding of that “inner canon.” I believe Kirk’s heart in this statement is to acknowledge the pride of place the Bible has, and I also believe that there is another irony here in his phraseology, that hopefully they will come to truly love the book having been in a New Testament class.

“…what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.” | One of the most honest and well articulated statements regarding the growth and maturity we all must face in Biblical Studies (“BS,” as one commentator put it.) While I commend this honesty, I find it also troubling, and believe this raises more questions than provides comfort. I.e., What is the validity of these various voices? and If these voices had validity, why can’t they speak?

“People lose their faith in Biblical studies courses, and grad school in particular, because they discover the pervasive extent to which the NT was written by humans and speaks differently from what they anticipated.” | I had trouble with this statement because in this short sentence is packed several realities; “faith crises,” “inspiration,” “hermeneutics/exegesis,” “authors’ bias.” It begs deeper questions that go beyond Biblical Studies. What was faith founded upon in the first place? Why is the human authorship in an academic setting revealing a “pervasive extent?” Why is grad school the only place where this kind of discussion can happen? How are these students then being prepared to have this conversation with the laity, even the youth, so that new generations are raised with greater wrestling with doubts? et. al.

“I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.” | The most pastoral comment that I’ve heard from Dr. Kirk, ever (again, I only had one class). It has been a tension for me that a chasm between the laity and the academy has been wide and deep. It is statements like this that give me hope that the chasm can not only be closed, but that academy and laity, or academy and ministry can actually stand on the same side of the chasm with ignorance and religious dogmatism on the other side.

Thanks to Dr. Kirk for this thought provoking letter.

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Posted in: Theology