Should Non-Liberals be Allowed to Study Bible in Public?

Most people who study the Bible are in some way motivated by their belief in the book. Years ago, the academy was the domain of the liberal positions and those more conservative and literal kept away. Now the conservatives feel free to attend academic conference. In fact, they now make up a good percentage of scholars. Below are two blog posts, one by a liberal Jew and the other by an Evangelical. The first, at Mystical Politics, decries all the Evangelicals and Mormons at the SBL, while the second, at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, welcomes the diversity. Any thoughts?

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?
Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download – I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL…This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website ( describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR’s conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their 1:00 p.m. session on Sunday was a book review of “Filled with the Spirit” by John R. Levinson. Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries. Read the Rest Here and see the comments.

Is SBL an organization dedicated to the propagation of evangelical Christianity?
[M]y experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true?

SBL is an alienating place if you are “out” in a cultural sense rather than “in.” Maybe you don’t mind a liberal Prot ambiance, because you are, without realizing it, a liberal Prot yourself at some level. But this evangelical Prot ambiance is too much.
Oh, for a society for the rest of us. Where people don’t take it for granted that you know about B. B. Warfield and have read the latest volume by N. T. Wright.

It is my second if not my first nature to imagine that it is rather angst-provoking to go to SBL and be surrounded by clean-cut Southern Baptist seminary students who might easily be semper fidelis Marines if they dropped about 20 lbs. As for Mormons, how dare they even show up given that their founder in an obvious fraud? As for Pentecostals, those people who handle snakes and roll in the pews, everyone knows that the only good Pentecostal is a recovering Pentecostal.

Once upon a time, SBL was a society the majority of whose members were liberal Prots who knew how to make liberal Jews and liberal Catholics feel at home. All others, even if they were welcome in theory, were not so welcome in practice. Now, SBL is something else, a better, more representative, but far more contradictory thing. Can’t we all just get along? Read the rest here.

One response to “Should Non-Liberals be Allowed to Study Bible in Public?

  1. Should Non-Liberals be Allowed to Study Bible in Public?

    Rabbi, I just read the two blog posts. This is not at all the question Dr. Lesses is asking. She is, rather, expressing misgivings about what appears to be a hijacking of the SBL by fundamentalist/literalist Christians, and what she (in my opinion, rightly) fears would be the inevitable degradation of scholarship.

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