On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions

By Thomas Verenna
Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
October 2012

I wish to pose this question to all accredited academic institutions: “How do we want to educate students in the field of Biblical Studies?” There are perhaps dozens of answers which could be given. I suspect that any answer will depend greatly upon one’s affiliations academically. A scholar teaching the Bible at a research institution will probably have a very different answer than one teaching at a seminary or Christian College. Then there are also Catholic universities which probably share a different perspective all together. How one answers this question has some serious implications, both morally and professionally—the answers posited by some have become the cause of a recent crisis in the field.

As someone who was raised Catholic, some of my perspectives on biblical interpretation are a result of my many formative years of Catholic school and Sunday school and catechisms and encyclicals. The function of the question of education practices played out heavily during my high school years, and I remember them also as the most difficult time for my faith. I had many questions, and I was reckless in my asking of them. I was never afraid to challenge something I thought was inaccurate or possibly even wrong. But I was fortunate in my first year—for the most part, I had very good theology teachers who were open to my criticisms and challenged me to think more deeply about what I was reading in the biblical narratives.

But those years were not always so pleasant; some of the priests at my school were not very open to new ideas, nor did they appreciate the challenges of a lone student who was trying to come to grips with his own place in his faith. I was finding it more difficult to locate God within what I saw then as contradictions of scripture and the intolerance of the Church Fathers. I read Aquinas with some great interest but, while I admired his brilliant mind, I found myself loathing him for how he sought to deal with heresy.

For a whole quarter during my sophomore year, I was sent into “exile” from my theology class. I had asked too many questions it seemed and, when I did not stand to say a prayer at the beginning of one of our lessons, the Father demanded I “leave while I could.” It was embarrassing; I did not get the chance to defend my actions nor offer any explanation as to why I did not stand to pray. But in my “exile,” I found some solitude. I didn’t roam the halls idly. I spent my time in the school library, educating myself. I had questions, after all, and I wanted answers. Books seemed a more profound teacher than the dogma-bound priest who had humiliated and expelled me over curiosity. I wasn’t wrong. I found more hope in Bultmann than my whole time in that Father’s class.

The school administration was split on how to handle me; the principal chastised me and called me a sinner; another sat down and treated me with respect, like an adult, and had a great conversation with me. I had caused quite a ruckus with the faculty and—apparently—the dioceses. Go figure! Some thought I should be expelled from school because my questions might contaminate the rest of the student body. Other members of the faculty thought I was being mistreated by the other half—questions should always be asked, and they believed the school should have the gravitas to answer them in the best manner they could. I would never have thought then, with my small amount of life experience at the time, that a sixteen-year-old asking a few questions could be the cause of so much drama. At some point, though, I did go back to class. But these events would change the course of my life forever.

This all occurred some thirteen years ago. But I see the very same duality in academia today. On the one hand, there are many scholars who encourage critical thinking in their classroom, they engage with modern scholarship, and they discuss openly the implications of new ideas with their students. On the other hand, there are those who do not agree that there is value to intellectual freedom. This often leads to a negative effect on Biblical Studies education and, unfortunately, it seems to occur predominantly at institutions that practice some form of confessional theology. There are many academic facilities where faculty at particular seminaries and colleges must take an oath at the start of their employment that they adhere to the faith-based principles of their institution. They must not only accept it, but they must teach it.

The latter system of Biblical Studies education has its own consequences—especially for faculty who like to get their students to think critically. What does a scholar do when s/he is persuaded by an argument that conflicts with the ideals of that institution at which they work? There are usually layers to this as well (i.e., the institution portrays itself as one that is open and accessible to students of all faiths or creeds, or that it presents itself as one that encourages rigorous academic discipline to the sources—which would imply that it welcomes new and differing academic opinions).

What is quite interesting about all of this is the dualism latent within these situations whereby you have a group of scholars interested in enlightening students and in other instances a group of others (scholar or otherwise) who seek to diminish the valuable work the first group of scholars are doing. This dualism seems to be prevalent within Christianity, wherein it produces extreme cases of oppression (examples are many--like the various inquisitions, crusades, and purifications) but has also produced many wonderful thinkers (i.e., John Locke, Charles Darwin, etc.) and incredible charity work and advancements in scientific and philosophical thought (especially during the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment).

I should specify here that I’m actually quite fine with faith-based theology and exegesis. Nor do I have any sort of grudge against seminaries or confessional institutions, those who teach at them, or with any administration specifically. There is a place in our society for institutions such as these. However, there is a difference between expressing one’s faith and demanding that the dogmatic convictions that support that faith be adhered to under penalty of termination or academic disciplinary action. Such threats can be damaging to a student body and to faculty, if not the field as a whole. That this sort of treatment exists in our modern age is difficult to accept, yet the crisis does exist and it appears to be worsening.

This crisis became most evident to me when I learned of my friend Dr. Thomas Thompson’s previous academic censorship at the hands of his examiner in systematic theology at Tübingen in the 1970’s.1 That this sort of censorship could occur within our modern era, in Europe no less, was shocking to me. But I had considered this the move of a single man who was not at all happy with the papal encyclical Divino afflante spiritu from a few decades earlier and who felt threatened by a certain brilliant PhD student’s rather exceptional doctoral thesis on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives.

Then in 2009, Dr. Gerd Lüdemann was removed from his position at Göttingen due in part to his work on the supposed authentic sayings of Jesus (i.e., that perhaps on 5% of what is attributed to Jesus might be what Jesus actually said).2 More recently, Dr. Anthony Le Donne was fired from Lincoln Christian University for the (excellent, but not at all controversial) publication of his volume on the historical Jesus. Something happened with these cases though—public outcry from the academic community.

A tidal wave of support did not stay the hand of Göttingen; Dr. Lüdemann was not fired, but while he retains a position there, he was unfortunately stripped of a good portion of his academic authority and relegated to teaching noncredit courses. In the case of Dr. Le Donne, Dr. Chris Keith left Lincoln soon after (which seems to be related) and both he and Dr. Le Donne moved the highly anticipated Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity conference—originally meant to be hosted by Lincoln—to a different institution.

The point here is that there seems to be a pattern with certain seminaries and Christian schools where some of their staff wishes to be a little more engaging are finding themselves in trouble. And now, quite regrettably, something similar seems to be happening to Dr. Christopher Rollston at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.3

I have only known Dr. Rollston for a little over a year, and I have found his work both enlightening and important, but “controversial” is not one of the words I would ever use to describe him. Apparently, however, some members of Emmanuel’s faculty—as demonstrated by Thom Stark4 in a recent blog post—have found it extremely controversial (especially about his recent Huffington Post article).5 This whole situation leaves a rather sour feeling in my gut.

It seems that patristics scholar Dr. Paul Blowers, in a matter unbecoming of an administrator and colleague, has been going after Dr. Rollston publicly on his Facebook wall, where he wrote (among other things):6

[W]hen you teach in a seminary your first audience (and responsibility) is the religious community, not the secular blogosphere, and the expectation is that what you publish “out there” will still reflect that responsibility responsibly (i.e., putting things “out there” in fairly blunt and minimally nuanced form, without due consideration for the hermeneutical complexities within the interpretation of ancient texts received as sacred within faith traditions, does not seem, in my humble judgment, to meet that responsibility).

In other words, Dr. Blowers is saying that he doesn’t believe Dr. Rollston is following his faith-bound duty to Emmanuel because Dr. Rollston dared to publish a paper on the Bible’s marginalization of women (which is nothing new, by Blower’s own admission). To follow this up, Dr. Blowers wrote (also publicly on Facebook):

We are looking at disciplinary action in the next few days. I still scratch my head trying to figure Rollston out. He seems to be totally atheological and now interested simply in selling the “Rollston brand,” no matter how it might reflect back on Emmanuel.

This is all very scandalous.7 The real tragedy here is that Dr. Rollston didn’t say anything that contradicted a confessional theological contract; i.e., he didn’t say the Bible was uninspired, he didn’t say the Bible contradicted itself, he didn’t say anything negative about the church, or about faith, or that Christianity is a terrible religion. In fact, there is nothing in the article that isn’t worded carefully, to the point where Dr. Rollston’s article is quite tame and very responsible. I would argue it is one of the more responsible treatments on the issue of the marginalization of women by a scholar affiliated with a confessional institution that I have seen and that is to Dr. Rollston’s credit.

So that raises the question: what “brand” is Dr. Rollston “selling” that doesn't fall in line with Emmanuel’s teachings? Is it that Dr. Blowers would not like to admit that the Bible generally marginalizes women? Would he also apologetically defend his students from learning that some of the authors of the Biblical books condoned slavery (and the beating of slaves)? It is odd that someone who holds the Bible to be so sacred would flat out deny the words so clearly written in the text! It isn’t Dr. Rollston’s fault the words are there. The sobering facts are that the words are there, and they must be dealt with responsibly. Denying their existence does not seem like a very responsible measure, in this author’s opinion.

Indeed, I wonder what is more appropriate: one’s responsibility to an institution or one’s responsibility to the female students at Emmanuel? I believe Dr. Rollston fulfilled both roles admirably in his article. He showed academic poise and discipline in his discussion of the sources but also expressed his commitment to the values of Emmanuel—as a representative of Emmanuel, it seemed to me, that he was saying “it is okay to be a scholar at a confessional institution” and also respect women—despite what the “sacred literature” suggests one’s values should be concerning women (of which, might I add, make up 25% of Emmanuel’s student body).8 This should be in line with Emmanuel’s own teachings on equality in its “about me” section of their website:9

4. To recognize the dignity and worth of all men and women as persons created in the image of God.

It seems to me that Dr. Rollston was merely demonstrating this value in his article. So where does Dr. Blowers feel that Dr. Rollston erred? Does Dr. Blowers not agree with Emmanuel’s own goal statement? Does Dr. Blowers disagree with Dr. Rollston where he wrote “Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential”? I am not sure what to make of his argument beyond this.

In fact, I am not sure what Dr. Blowers specifically (but confessional institutions more generally) care about more—the successful education of the students (female or male) or the amount of money that can be made by rubbing elbows with investors whose interests are not always parallel to those interests of academics. In no way is this a non-issue—Le Donne’s firing, for example, was due largely to the role that investors play in matters of seminary education. The position seems to be that a student is not successful when they are taught to deal with the sources in a meaningful way, to handle differing views like adults, to accept the role that critical (not necessarily “secular” or “liberal”) scholarship has to play in academia. Instead, some of these investors at confessional institutions like Lincoln, if one were to judge them specifically by their actions, seem to believe that a successful student is one who is capable of shutting out or silencing differing opinions or is incapable of thinking critically beyond a point which the institution feels borders heresy.

At this moment, Dr. Blowers—but also Emmanuel—and other leaders at institutions like Emmanuel have a question to answer. Before another school launches the inquisition into heresy, before disciplinary action is taken, consider this answer carefully. This answer should not be directed towards me or to contributors, but to their students and their faculty (especially those who are paying for a challenging education): “How do we want to educate students in the field of Biblical Studies?”

How do you intend to deal with curious students and with critical scholars? Will you silence them or force them out or threaten them (in turn demonstrating to your staff and student body that you have no sufficient response to their queries)? How do you intend to instruct your faculty to educate your students? Are your administrators really interested in bringing up a group of scholars capable and engaging, thoughtful and interesting? Or do you wish to manufacture the next batch of ideologues?

If your answer is of the former, then good for you and keep it up. If your answer is the latter—you seek to stymie all ideas that are beyond your confessional theology—then let’s stop pretending and call it what it is: the prevention of academic and intellectual freedom and the censorship of critical ideas. It is also a sign that you do not respect your students, your staff, or your theological conclusions; you do not trust them. If you did, you would give your students the opportunity to engage the issues which you find most critical; you would have confidence enough and be comfortable enough in your own conclusions that you would not be afraid of “contaminating” your students with the possibility that women were marginalized in ancient civilizations—including those founded by early Semitic peoples.10 If your response is to demonize the scholar who would dare to show compassion towards women by denouncing that sort of mentality, then chances are you’re missing something, and what that “something” is happens to be pretty important. So one should think carefully about these questions and make good decisions because the whole of academia and the future student bodies of your institutions are very interested in your answers.


1 On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire

2 Sad News for the Academy: German Courts Limit Theological Inquiry

3 I would like to state clearly that none of the above mentioned were contacted about this piece. This was written and submitted completely without their knowledge and represents my opinion based upon public and common knowledge of the events discussed above.

4 The Affair of Dr. Blowers and the Blog of the Three Young Men: A Response to Christopher Rollston’s Cultured Despisers

5 The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don't Like to Talk About

6 Thanks to Thom Stark for documenting these on his blog; link above (n.4). These comments have since disappeared from Dr. Blowers’ public Facebook page. Dr. Blowers apologized for them, stating that they were for a student and meant to be delivered privately. One should not reflect on where these comments were made or for whom they were meant, but rather why they were made at all. Though it is a curious thing that Blowers should accidentally publish this comment on his wall rather than in a private message; this would appear as an entirely unique screen from the homepage on Facebook.

7 Dr. Blowers has, as they say, “taken to the web” in what appears to be a public finger-wagging at Dr. Rollston. On public blogs and on his Facebook page, he has chastised Dr. Rollston in a manner that borders on ad hominem, yet argues that this has nothing at all to do with ‘censorship” or “academic freedom.” One must wonder how it cannot be understood any other way. If Dr. Blowers were to have written an article in response to Dr. Rollston, as colleagues and professionals will do, claims of academic silencing could not be made. But what sort of civil academic discourse can come after threatening disciplinary action against someone with whom you disagree? That reads an awful lot like censorship. I would also note that on another blog, Dr. Blowers seems to have threatened an anonymous commenter—whom Dr. Blowers believes is a former student under him—who posted a link to Stark’s blog. Dr. Blowers ended his leveled assault by suggesting that he “certainly needs to realize that before he draws conclusions, he better have all the evidence, otherwise his dissertation will be a disaster.” (http://www.christianhumanist.org/chb/2012/09/listening-to-the-bible-when-youre-hard-of-hearing-a-response-to-chris-rollston-by-nathan-gilmour-wes-arblaster-and-micah-weedman/#lf_comment=37345193) It is unclear if this student is still at Emmanuel or if s/he were somewhere else, but the comment could be read as a veiled threat.

8 http://www.ecs.edu/HEA/general.aspx

9 http://www.ecs.edu/about.aspx

10 It is worth mentioning that throughout Dr. Blowers’ “Internet inquisition” of Dr. Rollston, he has continually brought up the (absurd) point that Dr. Rollston is now somehow partly responsible for the opinions of nonacademic non-Christians everywhere because of his declaration that certain parts of the Biblical narratives marginalize women. One has to wonder, however, how non-Christian sentiment towards confessional institutions will be affected when these individuals learn that Dr. Rollston has been threatened with disciplinary action as a result of his article which, in totality, reflects the promotion of gender equality and the liberation of women from misogynistic mentalities (particularly in politics). I suspect that those individuals—to whom Dr. Blowers does not want to give ammunition—will find an adequate supply of ammunition, quite ironically, in the threats Dr. Blowers has issued against Dr. Rollston. It is an interesting notion that if things had been handled differently, had Dr. Blowers simply addressed this issue professionally (with a article responding to Rollston, for example), such a controversy could have been avoided and Dr. Blowers’ could have had the chance to make a case to non-Christians with greater impact.

Comments (30)

Dear Thomas,

Fine piece, and very sad indeed. But why should we be surprised? The most famous of such episodes may be Robertson Smith who was forced out of his position, although probably the brightest star of the then Anglo-Saxon world. De Wette was not forced out of his position in Berlin—that he managed himself —but he was substituted by Henstenberg, according to today's standards a bloody fundamentalist. I imagine that every theological institution will have its examples.

When such a thing happens as is the case of Lüdemann, we have to ask: Has theology any place in an academic institution? In many cases we have to conclude, not, not at all. In Germany there are plenty of clerical institutions that could do the job: prepare young people for the job as ministers of the Landeskirchen. It can hardly be the task of a university.

I like Avalos' book simply because he pulled out the plucks a let go. A lot of things may be said against him, but he said something that has to be said.

André Malraux, writer, freedom fighter, and later minister of cultural affairs in de Gaulle's government, said already fifty years ago that the 21st century is going to be a religious one. He was evidently right. The religious room and the fanatics who are populating it get more and more space in the life of also non-religious people, or people who are not ready to leave theology to Islamist, radical Jews, and Christian fundamentalists. Maybe it is a decease that has to rage until it dies out by itself.

Best defense may be not to read these persons. We lend them credibility if we do and quote them. Just ignore them.


#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/03/2012 - 14:18


Thanks for the note. I agree with you in many respects. I believe your chapter and Roland Boer's chapter in 'Is This Not the Carpenter' demonstrate the trouble with ultra-religious takeovers of academia. I highly recommend them to anyone who is interested on the history of scholarship--particularly in New Testament (at least, with Old Testament, the tables have finally started to turn). Though if this is any indication, more work needs to be done. Chris does not deserve to be thrown under the bus like this; no tenured scholar--with the credibility of years of work in their field (like Chris)--deserve to be put through this sort of trial. It is shameful. Absolutely shameful.

I cannot help but think of the tragic story of Bruno Bauer. It seems not much has changed since the nineteenth century.

#2 - Thomas Verenna - 10/03/2012 - 14:43

the theologians rabies: Thus Melanchton.


#3 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/03/2012 - 15:00

Dear Mr. Verenna,

Your blog was brought to my attention by an academic colleague, and I wanted to honor you with a response. As I am the principal object of your cross-examination of my alleged "heresy" trial on Facebook and Huff Post, I would like to encourage you to try to search out all the evidence before you make such judgments. (It is quite clear here that you have lifted most of your information from the blog of Mr. Thom Stark, I assume, and this is scarcely an objective or fully informed source). At any rate, I want to apologize for the comment that went public about disciplinary action toward my colleague Dr. Rollston, whom I have often (repeat OFTEN praised in public). When I made it, I thought I was in a private messaging mode on Facebook and had no intention of that comment going public (and in fact I immediately deleted the comment when I found out that it had gone public). I hope you (and others) will take me at my word on that, as it was an unfortunate oversight, for which I take full responsibility. On the other hand, my real fear at the time was that Dr. Rollston's post was something for which he was going to have to take his own responsibility. Meanwhile, my genuine public comments have been focused totally on the Huff Post article and not at all on Dr. Rollston's reputation within his guild, which is deservedly excellent as he is one of the finest scholars of NE epigraphy in the world.

There is no "heresy" trial whatsoever operative and you have way spoken in ignorance if you think there is. The issue discussed publicly is not at all one of posting biblical evidence on the marginalization of women per se. The issue in public discussion has been the identification of it as a "biblical value" pure and simple, without any really substantive, balanced consideration of the countervailing evidence even within the Bible (esp. the NT). Certainly there is no "heresy" (the word that you have chosen) in airing concerns about the historic marginalization and subordination of women, which we will all agree is a wretched reality past and present in many cultural contexts.

Meanwhile, you are certainly free to air your opinion about what has happened here, but we are not likely at all to agree on the issue of the responsibilities of faculty within "confessional" institutions (as opposed to secular ones) on holding the Bible in "public" account. Were you yourself responsible for the integrity of a seminary and its ecclesial constituency, you'd probably have a very different perspective on things. As it stands, your location is a secular university, where many faculty are "primed" for anything that remotely smacks of censorship, and where the canons of academic freedom differ greatly from confessional institutions.

#4 - Paul Blowers - 10/03/2012 - 16:27

Mr. Blowers,

You seem to be responding in an unsurprisingly apologetic manner to the claim made by Mr. Verenna.

First you stated:

"I would like to encourage you to try to search out all the evidence before you make such judgments. (It is quite clear here that you have lifted most of your information from the blog of Mr. Thom Stark, I assume, and this is scarcely an objective or fully informed source)."

You then stated (somewhat incoherently, which I assume is the result of a typo of some sort):

"There is no "heresy" trial whatsoever operative and you have way spoken in ignorance if you think there is."

Thus, you are quite carefully implying that Mr. Verenna's facts are incorrect.

So allow me to set the record straight and ask you straight up:

1. Is there presently a disciplinary action underway against Dr. Rollston at Emmanuel?

2. If so, is that disciplinary action IN ANY WAY related to Dr. Rollston's HuffPo article AND/OR your response to it?

3. If so, is Emmanuel SERIOUSLY considering taking disciplinary action against a TENURED professor because of the manner in which he interpreted a biblical text?

4. Do faculty members at Emmanuel Christian Seminary regularly turn their colleagues in to the administration and encourage "for cause" disciplinary actions against them? (in Christian love, of course.)

The answers to these four questions will greatly illuminate the claims made by you and Mr. Verenna, as will your silence.

Bob Cargill

#5 - robert r. cargill - 10/03/2012 - 17:38

Dr. Blowers,

I feel that there is now a game of semantics afoot. You say that there is no "heresy" involved, but then go on to describe Dr. Rollston's article and how it does not adhere to certain specific theological requirements concerning "biblical values," and admit privately (in relation to this) that he is going to be subject to disciplinary action -- for which I assume there will be meetings with the administration or a vote from the faculty, etc., which are all more than standard for such actions… Can you see where I'm going with this?

In short, it appears to be 6 in one hand and a half dozen in the other.

The two are the same.

What Dr. Rollston stated in his article isn't new, it isn't controversial, nor does it make the theological statement that you seem to insist it does (in fact, you at least claim to agree with its premise, or so you stated freely above). As such, your problems with this rather poor situation are without a doubt, theological in nature, not academic.

No one who holds an academic position (no matter where that may be) should be subject to disciplinary action for someone else's poor exegesis of their arguments in reference to their theology made in a popular media outlet aimed at laymen.

If you're responsible for "the *integrity* of a seminary and its ecclesial constituency" (emphasis mine) I wonder how the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist students that Emmanuel accepts would feel about this particular course of action. Would they be subject to disciplinary action themselves for discussing their own respective theologies with other students or faculty of different confessions? For disagreeing publicly with their professor? Where do you draw the line?

This provokes a chilling effect in a house of learning.

-Steve Caruso, MLIS

#6 - Steve Caruso - 10/03/2012 - 17:47

Dear Bob,

I'm sorry for my typos in my last post, as I was squeezing for time before I had to go to a class.

Again, I am very sorry (and have taken responsibility for) my statement that went public rather than remaining private on Facebook.

I can assure you that I am not going to comment to you or anyone else about the internal workings of Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Frankly, I find it fantastic that you would ask, as you ostensibly have absolutely nothing to do with our seminary.

Let me restate that there is definitely no "heresy trial" operative here, nor has there ever been. We don't operate that way, though we do acknowledge the freedom of all faculty to express their views on a medium like the Huff Post, even (as in my own case) if they be critical of one of our own colleagues.

Finally, I continue to hold my colleague Chris Rollston in the highest respect for his contributions in the field of Near Eastern Studies. I have been on record to this effect in numerous earlier instances in public and within our seminary (and of course I realize that you would have no knowledge whatsoever of this). To my own students and critics of our seminary I have defended Chris on more than one occasion for his rights to carry on his work as he sees fit.

Finally, I find it interesting that so many in the blogosphere are rushing to judgment on all of this on an extremely limited knowledge of what is going on.

Paul Blowers

#7 - Paul Blowers - 10/03/2012 - 18:32

Academic freedom will always be in tension with the goals and identity of the institution where each individual scholar is teaching. Always. No exceptions.

The reason for this is simple: Academic institutions don't exist for the sake of the scholars but for the sake of those the scholars serve. On the one hand this is the student body and on the hand it is the scholarly field as a whole. In the case of seminaries, scholars are also intended to serve the denomination or broader church.

I have studied at four different seminaries and have earned graduate degrees from three of them. What were they like in terms of academic freedom?

1. One strict fundamentalist dispensational school that I attended was quite fine with me being Reformed. It never impacted my grades nor my interactions with any of the Professors (although it did lead to some lively discussions). Yet, the academic freedom extended to me did not extend to the faculty because the school stood for something very specific.

2. A conservative Reformed seminary that I attended was so hyper about its confessional identity (at least when I was there) that it had basically abandoned the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I thought, and continue to think, that this was bad for both the Professors and the students.

3. A squishy evangelical school that I attended was concerned that no one ever rock the boat and preferred that controversial subjects not be openly addressed. This also strikes me as intrinsically a bad approach to education.

4. A liberal seminary that I attended seemed quite eager to oppose anything that would resemble Bible-believing Christianity.

All of these schools were actually good places to be a student so long as the student had intellectual courage and integrity. In different ways they would all be challenging places to be a professor/scholar.

My point is that each of these schools actually stood for something that crimped academic freedom. If you doubt this is true about liberal schools you should ask, "What percentage of the faculty at Harvard Divinity School or Yale Divinity School believe in Biblical infallibility?" Or consider this: Given that the vast majority of Christians both throughout history and to this day belong to churches that oppose the ordination of women, surely we would expect that at least 70% of the faculty at these schools would also limit ordination to men. No, how about 60%? 25%? Good luck with that. It isn't as though these schools would have difficulty finding outstanding Bible scholars and Theologians who hold these views it is that these schools don't want to hire faculty who hold to those views because that doesn't reflect the identity of the current faculty and administrations.

Academic integrity is perhaps a more achievable goal than academic freedom. Academic integrity means that schools should be transparent about what they stand for and how this impacts what the Professors teach. If a Professor comes to the place where she or he no longer believes what the institution stands for she or he should either attempt to change the school's stated position or leave.

Best wishes,


#8 - David A Booth - 10/03/2012 - 19:42

Mr. Varenna:
Your claim "It is odd that someone who holds the Bible to be so sacred would flat out deny the words so clearly written in the text!" is utterly fallacious, if you check my responses to Dr. Rollston's essay. Quite the contrary, I acknowledge there are horrific testimonies in the OT to abuse of women, as well as problematic NT texts on the status of women.
Indeed, our Stone-Campbell tradition has had to abide "quasi-Marcionist" attitudes toward the Hebrew Bible. Some in our heritage have ignored the OT as an embarrassing artifact. I fear Dr. Rollston's essay will only encourage such attitudes (and doubtless most of his current and former students, probably also many church members, have read the Huff Post article). My colleagues and I urge students to engage the Hebrew Bible, exploring all its historical contexts, and resisting simplistic doctrinal assimilation to the NT. Nonetheless, in the setting of Christian seminaries, we still read the OT through the lens of the Gospel. Missing from Dr. Rollston's essay is any mention of Jesus Christ and the Synoptic accounts of his interactions with women. Don't you think these need to be factored into a fair-minded consideration of the marginalization of women as a "biblical value"--at least for Christians? Moreover, if this is your one big chance--in a forum as broad as the Huff Post, where you are likely to be heard by an audience larger than in any pulpit, lectern, or scholarly journal will offer--is to say a word on the crisis created by biblical evidence of the marginalization of women, wouldn't you want to have a thoroughly balanced account of that evidence?
The thrust of the Huff Post essay is NOT the evils of the marginalization of women. If it was, it would merely preach to the choir. Since the article targets the marginalization of women as a "biblical value," it seeks to rebuke biblicists or fundamentalists who abuse the language of "biblical values" without nuance or historical responsibility. But if one is going to make the claim that it truly IS a "biblical value", one enters a new interpretive sphere, since it's not just the Bible but its religious audiences (viz. the canonical-ecclesial traditions of appropriating it) that determine "biblical values." Ironically, historical-critical positivists & fundamentalists comparably consider the text "transparent": in the former case, transparent to the forces of history and culture; in the latter, transparent to a Spirit-dictated narrative or a body of propositional truth claims. Their differences on the determination of what constitute "biblical values" are, accordingly, fairly self-evident,.
Mr Varenna has read too many blogs, I think, and spoken without knowledge here. He doesn't know me, Emmanuel Seminary, or anything whatsoever about the internal context of all this controversy.
And by the way, there is absolutely no comparison to be made here with the recent events involving Anthony LeDonne, a very fine NT scholar (whom I know) who did not deserve to be dismissed from his position and who will certainly be hired by some fortunate institution. Mr. Varenna, I entreat you that before you preach about a "pattern" of censorship or "heresy-hunting,” you need to command all the facts on the ground. Thus far, you simply do not have them, in which case you are well advised not to "hold court" or be another loose cannon in the blogosphere. If you are a grad student, I assume you’re quite aware that one needs all the evidence before drawing conclusions. I propose the same, respectfully, to Robert Cargill, an eminent scholar who will want to be fair to all sides, but who does not in this instance have all the information.
As I said in an earlier post, this all pains me because I have many times defended Dr. Rollston to students and critics of Emmanuel. I retain tremendous respect for his work in epigraphy and archaeology. He is deservedly praised in his guild.

Paul Blowers

#9 - Paul Blowers - 10/04/2012 - 04:37

Hmmm ... sounds like someone is facing disciplinary action because someone else doesn't understand how scare quotes work?

#10 - David Meadows - 10/04/2012 - 17:58

Dr. Blowers,

Please spell my name right: 'Verenna'



#11 - Thomas Verenna - 10/05/2012 - 01:16

Thomas, this is further confirmation that I don't even know who you are, but you seem to know everything about me and my relationship to one of my colleagues. Interesting.


#12 - Paul Blowers - 10/05/2012 - 02:28

Part I

Dr. Blowers,

As an alum of, and former adjunct professor at a Restoration school (Pepperdine), and as a colleague of Dr. Rollston's, I have taken an interest in this developing story, one that increasingly looks like an attempt by the administration at Emmanuel Christian Seminary to terminate a tenured professor at the urging of a professor of church history, who just happens to be the son of a wonderful and well-loved regent of both Emmanuel and Milligan College. (That would be you.)

So as one who was raised in the Churches of Christ, and as one who now proudly teaches Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, and who is heavily involved in the Digital Humanities, I have taken additional interest in this story because so much of it has taken place in the form of YOUR public comments in the online realm, such as Facebook and blogs.

HOWEVER, as a member of the academy, and as a scholar and a professor engaged in the academic enterprise, it is every bit my, and ALL scholars' business to know whether or not a supposed institution of higher learning is abiding by fundamental academic principles like tenure.

Do you not realize that your repeated (non-)responses of "it's just our internal business" and "you don't have all the information" makes the recent events at Emmanuel appear all the more scandalous, as these are the typical responses of an organization that is attempting to cover up and distract from something that goes against all rules of professionalism and academic propriety?

If Emmanuel has terminated a tenured professional, and one that is as respected as Dr. Rollston, for doing his job - offering an interpretation of scripture based upon his expertise, but one which you, as a Professor of Restoration history, happen to disagree with, and for which you have publicly chastised him - then there will be such a professional and public outcry against Emmanuel that whatever is left of their credibility will instantly be flushed away and the only individuals who will support the institution, and the only students who will attend the college are the far-right leaning, bordering-on-fundamentalist conservative Stone-Campbell sectarians who regularly champion anti-intellectual causes and badmouth any form of critical biblical scholarship. Are you TRYING to make Emmanuel look even MORE anti-intellectual than Glenn Beck University?

And do also you not realize that while you may establish yourself as the big fish in the small bowl and as one not to be trifled with at Emmanuel, you will have concomitantly so tarnished your own academic reputation that your only remaining colleagues will be those who will join you in spitting on the concept of tenure and who insist that a college's professors MUST CONFORM to a predetermined dogma of identical thought and conclusions, rather than understanding a college as a place where students can observe highly trained individuals of DIFFERING thoughts and opinions DEBATE and DISAGREE in a PROFESSIONAL and safe environment?

-continued below-

#13 - robert r. cargill - 10/05/2012 - 15:55

Part II

If what is rumored to be happening at Emmanuel is actually happening, you may very well have single-handedly brought about the beginning of the end of Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Do you not think that other faculty who may quietly disagree with you are not already updating their resumes and applying to teach elsewhere - anywhere? Do you think that what will be left of your colleagues will ever feel safe if the results of their research must conform to predetermined conclusions as a condition of employment? What kind of REAL research will that ever produce? Will they ever feel safe if they know there is not only a possibility, but an ESTABLISHED PRECEDENT of one of their own policing their thoughts and research, and handing them over to the administration for disciplinary action whenever you feel they have not spoken 'the truth'?

And do you think any potential donor is going to throw more money after bad money to bail out a college that insists that everyone arrive at the same conclusion? Will students want to attend, and will alums want to financially support a college that so readily discards one of its most beloved professors?


Allow me also to draw attention to the quite skilled apologetic, yet logically fallacious responses you have given recently in the public sphere. For instance, I cannot help but note that you put scare quotes around the term "heresy trial" in your earlier response to me. Now, I acknowledge that we are in a political season, but Mr. Caruso is correct in his comment above: you appear to be engaged in an exercise of semantics, and are repeatedly denying your own straw man argument in a game of apologetic parry and riposte.

I didn't ask you if there was a "heresy trial" going on at Emmanuel. I asked you if an institution of higher learning (Emmanuel) has begun a disciplinary hearing against a tenured professor (Dr. Rollston) based at least in part upon his Huffington Post article, and whether said disciplinary action came about as a result of any referral from you to the Emmanuel administration.

To this, you respond with the answers I'd expect from an organization in the midst of a scandal - answers like, "You don't know all the facts", and "you don't even know us", and "it's none of your business".

In my opinion, your claim that the disciplinary investigation of a tenured professor based upon your interpretation and critique of an article he wrote is "none of my business" is nothing more than a tacit affirmation that there IS, in fact, a disciplinary hearing underway, that you are complicit in it, and that you wish everyone would JUST PLEASE STOP ASKING ABOUT IT, as it makes you look highly unprofessional and makes Emmanuel look like a bunch of fundamentalist religious sectarians suffering in the midst of a moderate-to-severe financial crisis, which has resulted in the recent change of the name of the institution from "Emmanuel School of Religion" to "Emmanuel Christian Seminary" in the hopes of perhaps appealing to more conservative donors, who might not like some of the professional, "critical" scholarship one might expect from a generically named "School of Religion", and who would much prefer the doctrinally conforming apologetics we've come to expect from southern Bible colleges and like-minded "Christian Seminaries".

Perhaps the idea of terminating a tenured professor in an endowed chair looks appealing on paper, as it will save a financially strapped college some money while as a bonus, can rid itself of a scholar who doesn't align with your particular definition of what a traditional Stone-Campbell conservative theology ought to look like.

- continued below -

#14 - robert r. cargill - 10/05/2012 - 15:57

Part III

Of course, I concede that this is just my opinion and sheer speculation. I may be way off, and as you've repeatedly suggested, I appear to know nothing about what's going on there.

There is no such thing as "an extremely limited knowledge of what is going on" in ANY Restoration school, especially when a college is engaged in bypassing the hard-won academic institution of tenure, for which even professors who disagree with the particular speech being made will rally to defend a professor's right to say it - EVEN AT a private Christian seminary where some actually believe that silly federal laws don't apply.

(Again, please feel free to correct me if I've misstated anything. If you think I have "rushed to judgment" in any way, shape, manner, or form, please disabuse me: where in my initial 4 questions above have I misstated or misspoken?)


One last thing: I admire how you have repeatedly made the distinction that you have praised Dr. Rollston "in public." But is this not also the very definition of duplicity? You keep repeating that you've praised Dr. Rollston in public, while having already apologized for trashing him in public, and for publicly stating that you've encouraged disciplinary action against him in private. In fact, your repeated highlighting of the fact that you've ALSO praised Dr. Rollston in public only underscores your duplicity as a colleague who has handed him over for disciplinary action at an institution where your father served as a regent. You concede your own duplicity.

Your own continued comments in the public realm betray the seemingly scandalous activity at Emmanuel: scare quotes, non sequiturs, red herrings, circular reasoning, admissions and apologies - all of this betrays to the learned that something is going on at Emmanuel. Something ugly. Something academically unprofessional. Perhaps the possible termination of a tenured faculty member because a well-connected colleague didn't like what he wrote.

If this is the case, I can completely understand why you would not want to answer any questions about it. It makes you and Emmanuel look very, very bad.

And let me assure you that members of the academy will not stand idly by and hold the coats of those who wish to academically stone Dr. Rollston along with the concept of academic tenure.


Bob Cargill

#15 - robert r. cargill - 10/05/2012 - 15:58

Thanks for this Tom, and your letter especially Bob. I have been in touch with our friend Chris on this and doing what I can "behind the scenes." Just today I put up a blog post that tries to hone in on the issue in a broad way, but like you stresses the proud and open tradition of the Stone-Campbell movement in which we three were raised. http://jamestabor.com/2012/10/05/can-a-christian-be-a-historian-heretic-hunting-in-2012/

#16 - James Tabor - 10/05/2012 - 16:58

Dear Bob,

Well I guess that you believe you've pretty much figured it all out and tied it up in a ribbon, so what more is there to say?

My favorite part of your 3-part dissertation is the statement, "Of course, I concede that this is just my opinion and sheer speculation. I may be way off, and as you've repeatedly suggested, I appear to know nothing about what's going on there."

Strategically placed in your tirade, that statement undermines the legitimacy of your speculation. I find it unbelievable that a scholar of your stature would (ostensibly) take all your information from the blogosphere and then try to "prosecute a case" having to do with the internal dynamics of another institution respecting discipline, tenure, or anything else. Are you serious?

I'll take the hits on my alleged lack of collegiality, and the framing of me as some sort of "darling" to Milligan and Emmanuel, if that means holding firm on an issue that drastically affects our institutional integrity. I am the senior-most faculty at Emmanuel, and yes, I do feel more freedom to speak my mind, and I did so in the public domain in my criticism of Dr. Rollston's article, also in the public domain.

I have in the past, not only praised (and still praise) Dr. Rollston's work, as you have noted, I have also defended him numerous times in the past when he has come under attack from students, alums, and others within Emmanuel's constituency (including Trustees). I have "had his back" on numerous occasions, as have his other faculty colleagues. I don't expect you or anyone else in the blogosphere to know that, but it is, I assure you, a FACT. Coming out of the Restoration tradition, you know that's a strong term.

Meanwhile, if you possibly think that any one faculty member could create the circumstances under which another faculty member could be called into account for anything (least of all a single blog article), you are gravely mistaken. Emmanuel would never have survived had it allowed such a system to accrue. And by the way, in the 1980s, the Seminary went to bat and put its very reputation on the line for Dr. Rollston's predecessor, Robert Owens, who was battered by a phalanx of Canadian and American churches and pastors doing everything possible to disparage the school and undermine its financial support. Our President at the time, Fred Thompson, put his own personal reputation on the line for Dr. Owens' sake, and the school magnificently weathered a major storm in defense of a faculty member. Thus your threats about the prospective vilifying of us within the larger academic realm (as if you had authorization to make them on everyone's behalf) fall on deaf ears here.

This whole fiasco is fascinating to me, as I have discovered a new culture of bloggers and posters holding court and creating what might be called a "gotchasphere."

Paul Blowers

#17 - Paul Blowers - 10/05/2012 - 17:21

I don't think that all organisations who are committed to producing ideas should be absolutely committed to free speech. Churches and mosques should surely be permitted to part company with people who cannot any longer express the ideas of that community and if these communities set up educational institutions the same principle will apply - where else should it apply more? - provided of course that money is raised and public support solicited in full acknowledgement of what the institution is for and how it works. Even public authorities may be organised without sin into (say) an Islamic Republic with Islamic schools.
That said, I would also say (with St.Paul!) that what is permitted is not necessarily advantageous and I would appeal to people to consider whether removing someone who takes a mistaken view is really a service to truth or even to a religion that proclaims its own truth. That question is one that it is 'everyone's business' to raise.
Moreover, this is an authenticity question: is marginalisation of women not just something that crops up sometimes but part of the authentic core of Biblical teaching? Authenticity questions are extremely difficult and probematic, so solving them by authority rather than debate seems particularly unappealing.

#18 - Martin - 10/05/2012 - 17:41

Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to stay at an academic institution with such colleagues. If I were Chris, I'd be putting out feelers right about now. Some place will be lucky to snap him up and encourage his scholarship. The only question is where -- Harvard? Yale? Michigan? Hopkins? Time to step up to the plate, people...Surely someone somewhere has a Dean or Provost who can smell an "opportunity hire" from a mile away...and it will be Emmanuel's loss. Bob is correct; if Chris leaves, he won't be the only one.

#19 - Eric H. Cline - 10/05/2012 - 18:07

Thank you Bob Cargill for believing in yourself to be so self-important that you can speak for all scholars.

#20 - Jordan Wilson - 10/05/2012 - 18:43

I side with Dr. Blowers on this issue and it should be kept internal at the University. Unbelievers and atheists have no right to interfere in a private University matter especially when they are not employed by that University.

I found Dr. Rollston's piece to be very non-biblical and promoting fallible, sinful man's ideas about women, their role and morality above God's and that is wrong.

A person who claims to be a Christian should know better. This is not about academic freedom but about supposed believers contradicting the very God they to claim believe in and say He is wrong.

That is a problem. Dr. Rollston should be disciplined for his false views of the Biblical record. He cites mistreatment of women in the Biblical pages but ignores those passages that record abuses against men.

Selective argument is no argument at all and Dr. Rollston was NOT participating in academic freedom but composed a very biased and dishonest rant against biblical truths.

Of course he is getting support from unbelievers, he is telling them what they want to hear and not teaching the truth.

Not only does Dr. Rollston need to apologize to the readers of the Huffington post but he needs to apologize to his University for undermining their Christian beliefs.

Christians are not to teach lies or secular ideas and say they are greater than God's. Christians are to teach the truth and the unbelieving world does not have that, they need it.

#21 - Dr. David Tee - 10/05/2012 - 22:19

I would like some clarification: Dr Blowers states 'As it stands, your location is a secular university, where many faculty are "primed" for anything that remotely smacks of censorship, and where the canons of academic freedom differ greatly from confessional institutions.'

What are the canons of academic freedom in confessional institutions? Specifically, what makes them 'academic' and what constitutes the 'freedom'? I can accept that even in secular institutions the value of received knowledge is sometimes over-protected, too, but that knowledge is usually based on academic enquiry, which can be challenged on its own terms, while revealed 'knowledge' and traditional church teaching - it seems to me - are not. I am really puzzled as to why an institutions that already knows the truth about the Bible would bother to entertain critical enquiry. What would be the point?
My request for a definition of 'canons of academic freedom' is not a rhetorical question, and I am ready to hear and be satisfied by an adequate answer.

#22 - philip davies - 10/06/2012 - 07:52

Mr Tee, what is this example of religiously bigotted ctap? What has it to do with the issue of academic freedom which also includes being critical to anything you may call Christian?

I think you should take your standard of fundamentalisticly inspirted discussion to another place, I cannot see that it belongs here.

Niels Peter Lemche

#23 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/06/2012 - 08:04

Wow, what a smell of Inquisition! Is this David Tee a real person or just an Internet troll? I'd hire Christopher Rollston expertise and outstanding scholarship even if he were Buddhist, atheist, Muslim or whatever. Are academics evaluated because if their faith?

#24 - Antonio Lombatti - 10/06/2012 - 10:43

What exactly is the rule that Rollston might have broken? Isn't it crucially important that an institution has relevant rules in very clear form?

#25 - Martin - 10/06/2012 - 11:14

Dear Professor/President, while going on line this morning I happened to run across some information regarding theological issues between faculty there and Professor Rollston. As an Israeli archaeologist interested in the Historical Jesus I follow to a great extent what is currently being discussed in that field. In 2009 I first had the opportunity to meet and hear Chris at a Duke special conference on problems dealing with religion and the media. Chris and I both were invited speakers and if you go on-line you will see the stature of the academic community invited there. For a young man that was quite of an achievement. (took me 40 yrs) He was truly impressive as an academic and as a result I began following some of his research. In a sense he stands almost alone in a small community of scholars who have the courage and integrity to take a stand against those high profile individuals in the media who are seeking fame and fortune at the expense of those around us. For me personally, I view him not as a theologian but as a very well respected, articulate and highly educated colleague who is perhaps best represented by the words of Seneca ' academics should be lawyers for the masses' in the sense that Chris speaks not only to the masses out there in America which few theologians do, (outside the churches on Sunday ), but for many of us Jews, Christians and secular academics around the world of To lose this voice of reason is a blow not only to academic freedom, your institution, but religious studies in general. Please think it over as he has hard earned support from those of us in the academic world. To dismiss him and his ideas would be a travesty and bring shame on your institution. . Please reconsider your actions, by doing so, you will do all of us a favor.. as he is truly unique in his field.

Respectfully yours and Shalom this Feast of Succoth from Jerusalem

#26 - Joe Zias - 10/06/2012 - 16:34

Mr./Prof. Blowers, in light of the present discussion I also would very much be interested in a straight answer to Philip Davies' relevant question concerning your definition of academic freedom in a confessional institution. You did not give Robert Cargill a straight answer to his question regarding the existence of disciplinary proceedings related to Rollston's article, and you have not responded to Davies' simple, sincerely expressed question. Your responses that possible disciplinary proceedings brought against Rollston in the aftermath of his article are no one else's business, and that outsiders do not have inside information that you possess, seem highly inadequate in response to what is now in the public domain, e.g. that disciplinary action has been threatened toward one of the most esteemed scholars in epigraphy over what appears to be an expression of views in a public forum. If what you say was your private comment inadvertently made public does not disclose an intent to attack academic freedom as most of Rollston's colleagues here understand the term, why not clarify here in the form of straight answers to Cargill's and Davies' questions?

#27 - Greg Doudna - 10/07/2012 - 18:56

Oh look, alpha males are posturing positioning themselves in power struggles again (this is not an attack on Thomas Verenna, whose scholarship is excellent), but particularly aimed at the religious, who claim a love of humility, but behave entirely differently.

#28 - Sean - 10/11/2012 - 18:02


Dr. Lemche's words only demonstrate the bigotry that permeates his mind. If people who believe God are not allowed to post their thoughts here then this supposed academic freedom he is fighting for does not exist and he is fighting for something where he and others get to dictate what 'academic freedom' entails.

That is not academic freedom at all but censorship.

What Dr. Rollston has done is not criticize God or His word but has, like most scholars, promoted themselves and their thinking above God and made themselves the final authority of God's word.

Watts has written a piece about this on his website, and as wrong as it is, it does expose the elitism and arrogance that comes with the unbelieving academic field.

God's word is not in the domain of the scholar or academic and they have no authority over it.

#29 - Dr. David Tee - 10/16/2012 - 00:15

Dr. Tee, who is the authority of God's word? Because I don't see or hear any clarification from him regarding, shall we say, the more ambiguous moments of it.

As for it being beyond the domain of the scholar, perhaps Judaism's rich history of multiple interpretations would dispute that. As would Origen.

#30 - Sean - 10/16/2012 - 12:12

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.