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Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Cool-Shame and the Envy of the Theologians

Some friends have been circulating this old article from Dr. Trueman. In it, he writes a typically biting and insightful commentary on the sad state of wannabe academics in the Christian, and especially Evangelical, world. Dr. Trueman’s descriptions of the liturgy are painfully familiar. Having attended a sort of Matins at an ETS gathering not too long ago, I can only imagine what an even more enlightened assembly would prove capable of. More than all that, however, what is most interesting is his description of academic envy:

First, I have always been amazed at the infatuation of so many orthodox academics with their reputation in the secular universities and liberal departments.   A few years back, I edited a book with Paul Helm on the doctrine of scripture.  At the time I was on faculty at the University of Aberdeen.  One colleague – a friend but one of distinctly liberal leanings -referred matter-of-factly in a public lecture to the upcoming book as representing the tradition of Warfield, of which he himself did not approve; but the comment was not a sneer; rather it was a simple statement of his impression of the book.  Within a couple of days I received an email from one of the contributors, asking if this was the case and saying that, if so, he wanted to withdraw from participation.  Now, it was not actually the case: the book addressed the issue of scripture from a different direction to the concerns of Warfield; but what puzzled me – no, what disappointed me, for I understood exactly what was going on – was that this person was so terrified of being associated with Warfield. I wonder to this day if he would have been so concerned if he had been invited to contribute to a collection of essays that someone said pointed in a Barthian or Bultmannian direction.  Probably not – because those options would not be so embarrassing to mention to friends at cocktail parties in the Senior Common Room or at the next meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Now I worked in secular universities long enough to know that liberal colleagues are bright enough to spot a conservative at five hundred feet.  Just because you avoid contributing to certain volumes or using certain words, or because you choose to laugh when certain people to the right of you are mocked, does not win you respect from the secular academy.  It is a sad fact but, as far as biblical studies and theology go, only giving up all that is distinctive about the Christian faith will ultimately do that for you.  The individual to whom I referred above no doubt liked to think he was taken seriously by mainstream colleagues, but I sat as a junior faculty in enough coffee room discussions to know the real thoughts of liberal colleagues about conservatives who try to fly under the radar.  They despise them for their theology; and they despise them for the fact they try to hide or minimize it.  A double whammy.  Given the choice – and there is always a choice — I’d rather just be despised for being a brazen conservative with looney theology, than a duplicitous conservative with looney theology.  That way one can still be of use to the church and still look in the mirror with some degree of self-respect.

This is exactly right, and the same thing goes on in regards to Protestants interested in “catholicity.” More often than not, “catholicity” is code for “sophistication” or a sense of cultural and social advancement. Retrieving the early or medieval church is a way to appear traditional while also smart and non-parochial, the very big tent we all aspire towards. But the establishment really doesn’t like any traditional mindset, no matter the region or time period. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy might get a sort of pass insofar as they are exotic, and also because, much like with the case of Islam (let’s be honest), there is a powerful sort of desire to not appear bigoted on the part of Western elites. Still, once the conversations are had long enough, the truth will be seen that “catholicity” is attractive only insofar as it is non-threatening. As long as you don’t care much about Biblical inerrancy, theological historicity, or conservative morality in the public square, you can wear any costume you like. But take a stand on an unfashionable principle, and the jig will soon be up.

What’s curious though is that often a certain sort of “comfortable conservative,” unashamed by his outdatedness but also willing to meet the various professional standards of the academy, will be afforded a place in the conversation, even if only as a token or a foil. Still, there’s something about a principled stand that is attractive all on its own. And so instead of longing for acceptance and never getting it, perhaps our theologians might do best to return to that really old-fashioned virtue of being yourself. That’s something that the cool kids always manage to notice.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.