41 Fundamentalism v Integrity. Edward Carnell

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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “41 Fundamentalism v Integrity. Edward Carnell

  1. “I beg you in the bowels of Christ, think that you may be mistaken”. Indeed. Most people don’t think most of the time, basically. What they do on Sunday does not spill over into the rest of the week.

  2. Judging from my recent adventures into online debate, it seems that there are increasing numbers of people for whom it is axiomatic that to be a Christian at all is to live automatically in a morally culpable state of dissonance, lacking in any intellectual integrity. At the same time, I’ve just watched a mainstream TV programme that was depressingly twisted and distorting in its account of the challenges posed by 19th century biblical scholarship and finds of early manuscripts to Christianity. I feel it’s not enough to challenge fundamentalism, and help to free people from its authoritarian grip, important though that is. It’s important to continue every step of the way in offering and exploring what is actually vital and life-giving in our allegiance to Christ. Otherwise the baby disappears with the bathwater, as seems to be true now for large swathes of the population.

  3. haikusinenomine. It may not be enough to challenge fundamentalism but one of the problems of today is that hardly anyone is either challenging them or helping to free people from the authoritarian grip. From where I stand it is as though large numbers of ‘educated’ ‘respectable’ Christian look at the fundamentalist issue as though it was taking place in another universe. They simply do not engage with it. To take one example. There is a network of University Anglican chaplains up and down the country. As far as I know not one of them has put pen to paper and talked about the issue of Christian Unions. They may be doing worthy things in this area but none of them has written about this set of challenges as far as I know. On my very limited experience of the harm from Christian Unions, there are widespread issues and misteaching about sex which leads to all kinds of pastoral problems. This is in addition to all the problems of enforced dependency and immaturity that crops up in these circles. Of course we need to explore what it means to live the Christian life outside this orbit but not if it means treating it all as though it was ‘out there’. I have to confess that my passion for this blog comes from a sense that the wider Church does not engage with this problem and that, whether it is true or not, I feel totally isolated in my passion for this cause.

    1. Thanks for your helpful response. I think you’re probably right about people looking the other way. I wasn’t trying to suggest we ignore fundamentalism because it doesn’t matter. I agree it matters enormously, and is doing an incredible amount of damage, not just to those directly involved, but in distorting the whole wider intellectual and spiritual climate. I suppose I was trying to say that we need to find a middle way that doesn’t play straight into the hands of the vocal group who condemn all Christianity per se, and who often don’t appear to understand that fundamentalism is a distortion of Christianity, not the only Christianity that exists.

      I feel for the needs of people who have been psychologically battered by fundamentalism. Maybe some of them need to leave behind all allegiance to Christ as the only way to feel they have escaped from what they’ve been subjected to. No-one can blame them for that. On the other hand, there are some who are looking for a more nourishing engagement with the gospel, and it’s important to try to be available for that.

      It seems to me that many Christians in the pews have become very insecure about the Bible because it seems to be so discredited from so many angles. There is a lot that is repulsive or weird in it, and how do you deal with that? The familiarity with the Bible is no longer there, nor the confidence to interpret it. They are not fundamentalists, but have not been given easy enough access to learning to read the Bible in more productive ways. Some don’t want to make the effort of course and have no motivation. Others find the endlessly receding levels of complexity daunting. They need to be given some effective keys to help them unlock the Bible for themselves, as well as some encouragement that they will find something of real value there.

      At any rate, in our church we have identified this situation as a priority for us at the moment. We do not want to hand the Bible over to fundamentalists, we want to claim it for ourselves, and open it up for teaching, discussion, questioning, criticising and celebration. We don’t want people to be afraid of this book or bullied in their reading of it; but to be confident in their own insights while being open to having them challenged and changed by new depths of information and awareness. We believe it is a core part of our spiritual inheritance, and that without engaging with it seriously, including its difficulties and the ways it has been misused, we will not progress in our Christian journey. So that does mean challenging fundamentalism – and also asking what the Bible really offers us. My recent preaching on why we are reading the Old Testament this year included discussing these questions. And we have put a lot of work in recent months into planning new and ongoing Bible study groups which we hope will give our people genuinely useful spaces in which to explore and grow. How this will work out in practice remains to be seen.

      1. ‘We do not want to hand the Bible over to fundamentalists’. A noble sentiment but the problem is that so many church people do not know that there is an issue and that deeply serious political games are being played out within the church. The task that your church has set itself with the Old Testament sounds very worthy but also very much like hard work. It is a huge task to communicate what the OT is about. It is sometimes easier (not that we should!) to stick at Children’s Bible level – ie lots of stories with heroic characters taking part like Moses, Samson and Gideon. Good luck with all that and let us know how it pans out.

        1. It is hard work! What else though – give up? A church that sticks to the children’s Bible and children’s theology will find that adults drift away in boredom and disgust.

          We are not focusing only on the OT, just hoping to retrieve it slightly from oblivion. Perhaps it has something to tell us about deeply serious political games, too. None of us are experts, and we can only do the little we can, but if that means that some people are excited by new insights and encouraged in their discipleship, then we will have succeeded.

  4. On a hopeful note, some congregations are more sophisticated than clergy think. They preach the children’s sermon because they think that’s all people can understand. A quick straw poll of a congregation of about 100 from three different churches revealed that not one thought John the Baptist ate grasshoppers. They knew to a man and woman that it may very well have been a bean. (Sorry)

  5. I’m sure you know what you’re talking about in re CU Stephen, but I have to say, both my sons were well looked after by the CU. Company, shared meals, and neither are remotely fundamentalist.

  6. Thank you English Athina re the anecdote about your sons. All I can say in my experience and from having tried to study CUs is that they have historically a very conservative agenda and to take office in the organisation you had to sign the most extraordinary document connected with belief and practice. It may be that in some universities the discipline no longer works and they cannot get young people to sign such documents any more. Last I heard the Oxford branch (OICCU) was still going strong with the defences against any compromise intact. There is a overall organisation (I can’t remember its acronym) that holds the discipline to stop student leaders ‘slipping’ from the path of strict orthodoxy. People like me wandered for occasional visits but were not considered members. It is very hard to research these things from the literature.

  7. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
    Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
    The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
    Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.

    This is part of the statement that all office holders have to sign to retain membership. Theologically it could have been written in the 19th century. The UCCF, the central body, holds the Unions together as a pretty tight ship to stop them slipping. My info about these Unions is not bang up to date but I am anxious to have things reasonably accurate as my next post touches on Christian Unions at Universities. If I have got the broad thrust wrong, please let me know. I for one could not sign up to this statement of belief! It is very repressive.

  8. To clarify, neither of my sons were members of their respective CUs, but as I said, they were kindly and hospitally treated. Your info about the inner circle is probably right. Why not contact the chaplain of your local university? Maybe you have!
    Haiku, there was a fair amount of toing and froing on line about the Bristol thing. An atheist poster called BristolBoy who is a lecturer (Professor?) at Bristol got involved, and the meeting was I think closed down. The original document was meant to be guidelines as to what University Student Unions (I think) could do if they had controversial issues to deal with. And as I understand it, since the guidelines were meant to be as comprehensive as possible, they did include thinking about doing as the speaker wanted if it would otherwise cause serious trouble, violence for example. My impression was that the people who issued the guidelines were dismayed at the way they had been (ab)used.

    1. hi – yes I noticed BristolBoy on CiF. And I’ve noticed that you’re very well informed in lots of ways! But I haven’t been able to get my head round quite what you’re saying here. In what way were these guidelines about “what the speaker wanted” – I thought this was about preventing women from being speakers. Is it ok to say no women shall speak in case the male audience riots? Presumably this isn’t really the drift of what you’re saying. But in what way were these guidelines abused?

  9. Sorry, I’m a bit hazy about the details. Something to do with guidelines for people (students) at a university inviting speakers where there may be controversies. So there were a whole range of possibilities listed. What the speaker wanted in this case was that women should be excluded or seated separately? I think. At any rate, the CU decided to apply a very strict rule where it was never intended to be applied, and rather like people blaming the Health and Safety Executive, when actually it was the council and the HSE never said any such thing, people blamed the guidelines. What I do remember was BristolBoy came on and said he had put a stop to the meeting by speaking to the university authorities.

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