I have been pondering on the question of why individuals believe certain things in the Bible as true when they defy rationality and common sense. Or perhaps I should put it another way – that they feel they have to believe in such things as the great fish of Jonah or accept the tale of the Tower of Babel as explaining the origin of language diversity. I do not, in fact, have a problem in recognising that ordinary people who belong to large churches, which have these ideas as part of their belief systems, will also believe them. They believe them because it is an act of obedience and loyalty to their leaders whom they trust. They want to follow them because they believe them reliable guides in finding their way to God. So the decision they have made is not necessarily anything to do with the Bible; it is rather to follow a preacher or teacher who has touched them with persuasive rhetoric. They do not feel it necessary to agonise about this belief system because it is just the way it is and part of belonging to a particular church. Trust overcomes puzzlement or the temptation to doubt.
Those of us who do not belong to such authoritarian systems of belief and practice may find this kind of acquiescence strange and far from the way that we may think about religious faith. We might rightly question whether this trust in leaders to do the thinking on behalf of others is an appropriate or even valid way of practising the Christian faith. But whether or not it is right, we still have to ask ourselves how the ability to believe extremely difficult things works out for those leaders who have been to college and studied the Bible at depth. How do people who know that there are two accounts of creation and two accounts of the Noah story in the early chapters of Genesis manage? It is, we might think, one thing to harmonise these accounts by using a conservative commentary. It is however quite another thing to study the passages at depth in the original Hebrew and not feel a tug of acute dissonance.
My readers may well have sat at the feet of prominent fundamentalist preachers and wonder, like me, how they are able to sustain a consistent conservative interpretation over a lifetime. When I was an undergraduate, Dr Jim Packer was a regular preacher at Christian Union meetings. I would sometimes go to listen, fascinated by his rhetoric combined with his unwillingness to concede a single point to those who disagreed with him on a matter of Bible interpretation. I challenged a member of the Christian Union on this complete certainty. I asked whether Jim Packer would ever concede even one critical point in Bible interpretation put forward by someone involved in so-called’ higher criticism. No, I was told, the conservative interpretation is always right.
I have asked myself over the years whether a refusal to concede a single point in Bible understanding did not create some kind of inner tension or stress. I came across some words of Oliver Cromwell who said (I quote from memory) ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to consider whether you may be mistaken’. The leaders of conservative interpretation seemed to have no doubts whatsoever.
About 15 years ago I did come across a book which describes the inner tension of an individual who does his conservative thinking and teaching against the background of constant challenge and even ridicule. The book called The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The case of Edward Carnell by Rudolph Nelson is a description of the devastating dissonance inside a conservative scholar. No one else has written on the topic of what goes on inside the psyche of a conservative teacher who faces professional ridicule and constant challenge for teaching and writing ideas which go against the mainstream of Biblical scholarship and of society. Carnell born in 1917 was one of the handful of scholars who emerged in the 40s and 50s who wished to place fundamentalist doctrine and Biblical interpretation at the centre of theological discussion and give the revived evangelical movement some intellectual respectability. He wanted to do this by studying at depth both in conservative colleges as well as at Harvard Divinity School. Harvard was in no sense a natural home for a young fundamentalist theologian but there was the sense that unless you did face up to the ‘Beast’ of critical scholarship, you could never challenge it.
Carnell entered Harvard in 1944 for his doctorate studies. Harvard was to be generous to this bright dedicated student. The institution cared nothing for the belief systems of its students as long as the work submitted fulfilled the rules of intellectual rigour and detail. His doctorate studies concerned the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and these focussed on the area of philosophy rather than biblical studies. He then in 1948 accepted a teaching post in the newly founded Fuller seminary. For the next 11 years, first as Lecturer and then as President of Fuller, Carnell continued his task of combining rigorous scholarship with fundamentalist beliefs. The dissonance between these two was not easy to maintain, and his biographer speaks of the enormous personal cost in holding these two sides, the philosopher and the conservative theologian, together. As President of a notable conservative institution with a reputation for learning, he was expected to participate in many of the issues and debates of the day. It is not hard to understand his breakdown in 1959 as a failure to sustain a structure of belief which allows no questions to be considered by someone with a lively trained mind. Perhaps Carnell’s predicament shows that a refusal to engage with questions is impossible. In the last resort something had to give and it was his mental health.
Carnell’s death in 1967 from an overdose of sleeping pills was either an accident or suicide. There was no definite verdict on the matter but the biographer shows him to have been a broken man. As a member of the theological elite in the States he was always under scrutiny from the academic fraternity for putting conservative theological ideas before the demands of scholarship. At the same time there were vicious conservative groupings always ready to try and catch him out when he strayed from the dictates of strict conservative teaching. The place he occupied was clearly an impossible one, not dissimilar to that of our own Archbishop of Canterbury. Everyone wants to hear statements that coincide with their own beliefs. They fail to understand that an individual needs to integrate a large number of positions within themselves. Some will come from personal belief and others from institutional loyalties.
The word ‘dissonance’ is one that sums up the life of Edward Carnell and no doubt it also affects many of those who use their intellectual gifts to hold to the idea that the conservative narrative is the only correct one to sum up the Christian faith. Although the inner mental workings and motives of these individuals is not open to us, we have to be grateful for this biography which gives some account of a single individual who lived with this dilemma. Edward Carnell is perhaps a prophet for our time. Conservative beliefs about the Bible and an intellectual Western education will almost inevitably create dissonance and inner disharmony. The Christian leaders who live with this dissonance need to be challenged. Their ability to persuade large numbers of others to believe the same things who do not have their advantages of education and knowledge is a huge responsibility. It also means that they have created something, which because of its inner contradictions, may well fail. Chris has described the sense of betrayal when he found that the edifice of ‘Bible truth’ had feet of clay. Perhaps Edward Carnell knew that his failure as well as inability to teach with total integrity meant that he had let his students down. In recognising this his life ended in despair.