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This letter is in response to: Mike McCurry on Faith and Politics

I appreciate McMurray's statement and agree with a good bit of it. We progressives have let the religious right claim too much that is not theirs alone. The difference, of course, is in modes of interpretation of Scripture and tradition. The current "religious right" so horrifies many of us that we do not want in any sense to identify with their position, but in doing so have we given up too much?

The SBL was founded in 1880 by Prof Philip Schaff at Union Seminary, New York, in large part to counter the kinds of Christian fundamentalism that were growing at the time to oppose Darwin's theories, and evolution in general. Schaff's intention was to provide a "safe place" for biblical historical/literary criticism to grow in this country and contribute to theological education, and it worked. The SBL is thriving.

But as Ernie Saunders said in his centenary history of the SBL (Scholars Press, 1982), the minutes of the SBL in the 1890s say not a word about the controversies raging in Union Seminary itself when in 1893 the Presbytery of New York condemned Charles Augustus Briggs in as a heretic for teaching at Union what the SBL sponsored. The assumption was that the SBL wanted to be and remain insular and "irrelevant."

When in 2004 the SBL submitted a resolution criticizing the abuses of the Bible in the political arena of today, 44% of the members expressed opposition to the resolution. The tally shocked me. Was it simply because the Society wanted still to be "irrelevant," or was it something else?

I suspect that it involved something else. Only thirty years after Briggs was condemned for teaching the historical/critical method, every Presbyterian seminary in the country taught some form of what Briggs had sponsored. And after the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton TN, and after Harry Emerson Fosdick's famous sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" that form of fundamentalism became dormant, to be revived in other forms only in the late 1970s.

What we have witnessed in the SBL in recent years is a dramatic increase in membership of those who acquire graduate degrees from secular universities by working in Enlightenment methods of study of Bible and tradition, but then become faculty in Bible colleges and seminaries where what they studied is condemned. I have lectured at such institutions where in private sessions with faculty we have vigorous discussions of critical issues of the day, but then am quietly urged in my lectures to "stick with the Dead Sea Scrolls," or some such admonition. The faculty feared both the students and the trustees. Their boards of trustees insist that faculty have reputable degrees, but also insist that the same faculty teach non-critical views of Bible and tradition. Because of this, I sense that a good number of our members live split lives in this regard but when a resolution is submitted such as the one of 2004 they mark their secret ballots in accord with their true beliefs.

Many of our members, if not most, started life in the sorts of churches that support the seminaries where our colleagues teach, but have long since come to terms with the tension by taking a fresh theological, or philosophical if you will, stance that permits them to live professional lives of integrity and teach in institutions where free inquiry is supported without constraint.

Is this a problem for us as a society? How should we address the issue of granting membership and Enlightenment respectability to those who are expected by their institutions to teach non-critical and un-critical theories about the Bible, its origins and development? I would be loathe to have litmus tests of any sort, but would it not be appropriate for the SBL, in terms of its charter, origins, and corporate integrity, to state clearly for all the public to know that we are an enlightenment society sponsoring critical methods of study of the Bible for those who openly subscribe to our mission and to the purposes for which it was founded?

All who know me know that I am not one "to rock the boat," but it does seem to me that a society like ours needs to have clear standards of integrity as a condition of membership.

James A. Sanders, Former president of the SBL, Professor emeritus, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University, President emeritus, Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center.

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Citation: James A. Sanders, " In Response to McMurry," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2007]. Online:


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