Reflections on Robert Louis Wilken at Wheaton

This past weekend, I took a quick jaunt up to Chicagoland to hear Robert Louis Wilken give the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of Wilken’s work. A friend of mine is a grad student in biblical exegesis at Wheaton, and we often spar over various “methods” of scriptural interpretation, that is, “critical exegesis” vs. “theological interpretation” (both of which travel under myriad other names), which I’ve also written about before. To top it off, the title of Wilken’s lecture was “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.” My friend had invited me to stay with him and his wife, so I thought it would be fun to drive up there and have a full-out theological smackdown weekend, and it did not disappoint (except that the weekend was too short). The lecture was great (though, disappointingly, no Q&A session), we had lots of good conversation, and I got to visit IVP and see our old stomping grounds of, well, two months ago.

But this is not just a “newsy” post (the kind my mom covets so much). I want to write about a dynamic I perceived that I think is emblematic of the American theological/Christian scene and evangelicals’ place in it. A bit of biography on Wilken is in order here. While not quite in his winter years, Wilken is at the tail end of a prolific and accomplished career. He is a former president of the American Academy of Religion, an institution not historically amenable to traditional and confessional forms of Christianity, and until recently even somewhat hostile to them. One of his earliest books, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (now a classic), aims pretty hard at debunking idealized notions of the early church by sympathetically exploring the logic of Roman criticisms of Christianity. He’s taught at both Notre Dame and Fordham, both Catholic institutions, but not ones where faculty necessarily have to adhere to the strictest forms of orthodoxy. He’s spent the better part of his late career at the University of Virginia. All this is to say, as you’ve probably guessed, that Wilken has always had at least one foot firmly planted in the secular academic world. One could interpret his career in one of two ways, I think. Either, you could say, he intentionally built his intellectual and academic reputation on works that would gain respect not just in seminaries but in the secular academic realm of religious studies in order to later articulate a more positive and robust faith in works like The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, a wonderful exploration of the patristic theological heritage. Or, you could say, he actually did shift throughout his career from a more liberal to a more conservative position, marked in the middle by his conversion from his Lutheran faith to Roman Catholicism. This latter scenario is what I think is more likely.

Okay. If you’re still with me, I applaud you. For here finally is my observation. Wilken’s lecture at Wheaton consisted basically of the lineaments of patristic scriptural interpretation, buttressed by weighty examples from the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Now for those familiar with these kinds of discussions, there was nothing surprising; it was pretty basic, full of all the classic mistakes that my Bible professors warned me that the church fathers make. Prooftexting! Eisegesis! Allegory! Platonism! (Though it takes some fancy interpretive footwork for them to legitimate the fact that the authors of the New Testament are guilty of all the same “heresies.”) My friend had pointed out to me beforehand his biblical exegesis professors sitting in the audience, who evidently spend a good deal of time meticulously constructing these patristic straw men in order to knock them down with a wave of their historical-critical finger. But here is where the night came to its full ironic climax, and where I realized yet again why—as caustic, dismissive, and cynical as I have often been—I so often prefer the semi-educated, nonacademic “exegesis” in the local evangelical churches I have attended over the years. Here I am, sitting at Wheaton College, a school dripping with evangelical heritage—Billy Graham was president here for goodness’ sake—arguably the center of “thinking” evangelicalism, a school that supposedly defines itself by its fidelity to a broadly confessional evangelical milieu, and I can almost hear the pedantically dismissive demurrals from the exegesis professors when Wilken tells us that Scripture is alive, and that when we read it we encounter God in the words, and that proper interpretation of Scripture is intimately connected to doctrine and to the individual’s spiritual comportment. I can almost hear them say, “But what does that have to do with the ancient Near Eastern background!” And the kicker was when Wilken said, referring to our interpretation of Scripture—and he repeated it two or three times—”It’s not in the head, it’s in the heart.” At this point, though, the biblical exegesis professors had probably already stopped listening.

Evangelicalism in the academy is in such a weird place right now. Does it really take somebody from entirely outside the scope of evangelicalism, and a papist for that matter, to tell us that our Bibles can teach us something useful for our lives? That we don’t have to have a Ph.D. in ancient Semitic languages, or even a preacher who does, to understand the text? The Bible belongs to the church, not the professors.

Two things. First, Wilken knew what he was doing. He knew his audience, and while it was a thoroughly academic delivery, not short on the language of the church fathers, when it came down to it, he could have dwelled at length on phrases such as fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), but he didn’t. He said, “it’s not in the head, it’s in the heart,” a distinctly evangelical locution.

Second, it didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears, as I have made it appear. This was, after all, the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies, whose mere existence is a late indicator of a shift in the world of evangelicals’ relationship to Scripture and their opening up to the intellectual and cultural ferment of the first six or seven centuries of the church (though I would like to see us open up to the tradition as a whole; there’s still about, oh, a thousand years we all skip between the end of the patristic age and the Reformation). I slaved over the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at InterVarsity Press for the last two and a half years, for pete’s sake. But I was there with my modern biblical exegete friend (who, I must say, is not entirely unsympathetic to my views), and taking it all in through his eyes and the eyes of his professors, one of whom we overheard after the lecture declaiming in smug tones to a gaggle of students that if Wilken wanted to go on speculating about whatever he thought the text meant, why then, by all means, it’s a free country (or some such dreck). I don’t think the biblical exegesis profs at Wheaton are talking much to their historical and systematic theology colleagues, the latter of whom are even writing books about this stuff. Which is a shame really. My friend put a few questions to Wilken after the lecture, some about what biblical exegesis profs think about this kind of stuff, and Wilken was a tad prickly about the whole thing, and even tersely advised my friend to stay away from biblical studies! I would say Wilken was dismissive, but I got the impression that he had tried many times to have discussions with those ensconced in the world of biblical studies, and had finally decided to wash his hands of them. And while I used to say that there was an equal amount of mud slinging from one side to the other, I have come to think that it tends to be a bit one sided, especially among evangelical academics. Theologians who want to interpret Scripture “theologically” generally don’t dismiss historical-critical endeavors but try to put it in its place, while those in biblical studies tend to dismiss theological interpretation as wrongheaded.

And here at the end I reiterate the weird thing about the academic evangelical moment. While more and more evangelical biblical scholars are embracing the spiraled heights of critical exegesis, theological interpretation, that is, interpretation according to the church’s tradition, is all the rage in the larger academy. And then these evangelical scholars accuse them of faulty interpretation! Pot, meet kettle.


14 comments so far

  1. Ryan on

    Great thoughts, friend. I haven’t, yet, taken quite the interest in this topic as you and some of our other pals have, but I see it coming off in the horizon and I look forward to arriving there so we can talk about it together.

  2. derekryanbrown on

    Good stuff, Jeff. Of course, I disagree with much you have to say—esp. your (Wilken’s?) application of the cliché, “It’s not in the head, it’s in the heart,” to biblical exegetes—but I’ve already given you my basic position in my comments to your second linked post.

    Related to your present post, I have two questions:

    1) What is the function of the canon for “theological interpretation?”

    2) What role, if any, does the historical understanding of the biblical texts play in “theological interpretation?”

  3. theologian on

    What was striking to me is how many of Wheaton’s biblical studies faculty took the trouble to show up for this evening event. I think the vast majority of them were there – OT and NT. This was a very honoring thing to do in our age of ever increasing specialization and ever narrowing interests.

  4. jeffreimer on

    Ryan: I’d like to know what you think about a lot of this stuff. If you’re ever interested, I’d be happy to suggest some good places to start.

    Derek: Yes, we have indeed established our differences, but I would like to make explicit that I respect your positions and I do not in any way lump you in with what I tend to characterize as the “worst” instances of the evil historical-critical method. It seems that to answer your questions, we’d have to hash out all kinds of preliminary issues before we could talk about them. What is the reader’s aim? What does it mean for the reader to “know” what the text “means”? What is “history” and what is our place in it? I feel like I could make a stab at some answers, but it would only exacerbate the abyss between the two schools of thought. So without trying to solve everything at once, I’ll try to at least give the bare essence of not just the principles but the hermeneutics: (1) The function of the canon is to serve as a living witness to what God has done and is doing in the world through Christ, specifically among his chosen people; it witnesses to the “divine economy” (per Tertullian and Irenaeus). (2) The historical understanding in theological interpretation, I think, functions in much the same way as it does in contemporary exegesis, except that, first, history is not primarily understood simply as “what actually happened,” as if events could be explained apart from the supernatural (we have Descartes and Kant to thank for that, not the authors of Scripture), and second, what the text means is not strictly bound to its historical contingencies; that is, there is a spiritual component to the meaning that can maintain fidelity to the way the words run and the Christian story without recourse to purely modern notions of history separate from participation in a tradition. These are issues that are being dealt with pretty thoroughly by people like R.R. Reno, Matthew Levering, and Lewis Ayres if you have a yen to read more.

    “Theologian”: I was plum impressed that somebody like Robert Louis Wilken could generat a crowd that large at all, most of them students, which I think says something commendable about the atmosphere at Wheaton (my own alma mater, another Christian liberal arts school, would have maybe generated a couple dozen students and the friends they dragged with them, along with a handful of faculty). And you’re right. It’s nice to see biblical scholars showing up for something like this. My friend in the biblical studies program, however, informed me that it was business as usual the next day in class, which is to say, it didn’t generate much discussion, except, as I said, to say something along the lines of, “Well see, this is what I’ve been warning you about.” I guess I’m just an idealist.

  5. Ryan on

    I do not, yet, know what I think about this. But, what I appreciate about what I have been hearing (your post included) is that we need to take seriously that the same Spirit that inspired Scripture is the same Spirit that is alive in the church as a whole, and alive in individual believers who come to the Word of God in faith.

    I remember my instruction in the historical-critical method in seminary and recall being perplexed and discouraged. When taking Intro to OT and learning about JEDP and wondering how in the world this was going to beneficial to a future congregation to whom I preached. I remember talking to my mom about Scripture after my first year of seminary (arrogant as I was) and telling her all the things she didn’t understand only to have her look at me and say “Ryan, if I have to understand all the things you are talking about in order to read the Bible, then I am without hope that the Bible will ever speak to me.”

    So, I’m not sure what I think about reading Scripture “spiritually” over and against or in conjunction with historical-critical methodology. I’m too ignorant on the topic to have an opinion on whether or not Wilken’s suggestions are beneficial, but what I appreciate is the sentiment that living Spirit of God is active in our reading of the text. That’s something that I welcome.


  6. MJS on

    I love the bathos/anticlimax of the warning against Prooftexting! Eisegesis! Allegory! Platonism!


  7. Carston Wagner on

    It strikes me that “academic evangelicalism” is oxymoronic.

  8. jlgrab1 on

    A late observation, I know, so forgive me for taking a moment to chime in as an ‘evangelical’ (Roman) Catholic, which is near enough how I read your rather positive view of Prof. Wilken–that is, as a Catholic historical theologian and patrologist who happens to have shared his own methods with a truly ‘evangelical’ (Protestant) audience.

    He may indeed have shifted in his career, and certainly a conversion has a role in that. But I think in calling him a papist, a term that I thought had more coin in the late 19th century, not the early 21st, your post may lose some of its otherwise highly credible tone and candor. Why not just allow that Wilken happens to be a Catholic, and a patristics scholar, and to acknowledge that the viewpoints he brings differ perhaps in profound and even true ways from those of other confessional positions and academic field, i.e. Evangelical/Protestant vs. Roman Catholic, biblical studies vs. patristics, historical theology.

    Well, that should be enough for my 3-minutes of intervention… your audience seems to be evangelical Protestants who are well educated; I happen to be a convert like Wilken, from another major Protestant church in the U.S. I like what little I know of Wheaton’s center, and of the evangelical openness to Ancient Christianity, but the label of papist drives more of a wedge that may be best forgotten–we have endured Vatican II after all. The medieval legacy that is in one sense simply “advanced patristics” (to be charitable and perhaps too vague) is after all an enduring treasure of the universal church, and Roman Catholic ecclesiology does not assume the life of the Church was somehow broken between the late patristic era and the 16th century. The ressourcement of the 20th c. and today is a viable solution for the concerns Wilken addresses, and I think he adequately represents the general contours of that pro-Catholic, anti-sectarian if perhaps overly sacramental school.

    My apologies for reopening your long dormant thread; best wishes to you and your readers.


    • jeffreimer on

      Hi jlgrab1: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I haven’t blogged here in over five years, but I thought I’d address your comment anyway. I used the term papist in more of an ironic than straightforward way, mock-adopting the sort of curmudgeonly voice one sometimes runs into in evangelical circles: “What?! Take our cues from the papists?! I’ve got the Bible thank you very much and that’s all I need!” I’d hoped it would be seen as a jab at some of the more antiquated views within evangelicalism than as a term of derision for Roman Catholics. I have much respect for the Catholic tradition. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

      • jlgrab1 on

        Thanks for the follow up, and no disrespect taken. I thought that it may have been a poor choice for your audience, and failed to grasp the full context; so, thanks for clarifying! Otherwise, I would have wondered since it seems the speaker said little or nothing about specific Catholic views on church order or the pope’s office. So maybe the scare-quotes are useful after all—because you never know when an evil “papist” might be watching! In any case thanks again for the reflection; I just read a 1998 article of Wilken’s about allegory in biblical interpretation and happened across the site.

        Best wishes.

  9. jeffreimer on

    Thanks, yeah, reading over it now, scare quotes would have been better. Did you read “Return to Allegory”? That’s a great essay. I also just happen to have finished his book The First Thousand Years, which was marvelous as well.


    • Tanner J Michels on

      Thank you so much for this article! I like Silken am a covert to Roman Catholicism from my former Evangelical Fundamentalist roots. I just want to thank you for writing a positive article on Dr.Wilkens. As a Graduate from Biola University, I totally understand much of the disdain across Protestant professors towards Catholic historians and theologians. I had a class particularly to learn about haw Roman Catholicism was wrong and how ‘horrible’ it was. A few professors would probably even say that Catholics were not Christian. It is so very sad. I just wanted to say thank you and tell you how grateful I am that you wrote such a meaningful and positive article.

      In Christ,
      Tanner J.R. Michels

      • Tanner J Michels on


  10. Ben Eicher on

    As a former Missouri Synod Lutheran (my father was a Sem grad classmate of Dr. Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus), and a friend of Dr. Wilken, I found the blog and comments to it both interesting and edifying. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: