Scholarly ‘populism’ provides a way forward in New Testament theology, says Yarbrough at SBTS Gheens Lectures
A confessional interpretation of the Bible can flourish in the 21st century church, said New Testament scholar Robert W. Yarbrough in a series of three Gheens Lectures, delivered on Feb. 27-28 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He set this argument over against the dominant critical interpretation of the Bible in the secular academy.
Yarbrough divided contemporary New Testament theology into two camps: elitist and populist. The elitist camp is marked by a skeptical scholarship of the Bible that is mostly interested in constantly updating its methodologies, while the populist camp is marked by a desire to affirm the authority and reliability of the Scriptures. Yarbrough listed a series of convictions that populist Christians believe — a transcendent Creator God, the divinity of Christ, new birth through renewal by the Holy Spirit, and an inspired and authoritative Scripture. These doctrines offer a fertile soil for thoughtful interpretation of the New Testament and the growth of the Christian church, he said.
“It is my contention that a set of convictions like these is a plausible representation of true assertions found in the Bible and valuable for ongoing synthetic analysis of the New Testament. Populist conviction affirms the positive connection between salvation and history that the New Testament claims,” Yarbrough said. “Populism, as these lectures define it, is a promising framework for theologically rich exegesis and exposition of the Bible.”
Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and the author of numerous books, including a commentary on 1-3 John in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series. The lecture series he gave at Southern was titled “Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology.”
Yarbrough defined populism, dating back to the first century, as groups that affirm the Bible’s portrayal of God, the world, and the church’s identity and mission. Southern Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention are part of this populist ideology. It has been the viewpoint of the confessional Christian church for millenia.
Elitism, dating back only a few centuries to Germann scholars, he explained, does not necessarily take the Bible at face value and views the Bible from “a superior vantage point,” often dismissing or reinterpreting claims of Scripture. It is the viewpoint of the academy, Yarbrough said, and is marked by a critical study of the Bible that rejects a doctrinal interpretation of it.
“Undergirding graduate-level study of Scripture is what we may call ‘the guild.’ In the guild’s view, they establish the rules and they set the tone,” Yarbrough said. “These are the world’s elite biblical study authorities.”
While scholars who reject Christianity can still produce valuable scholarship for true believers, their work can be unhelpful. Much scholarship written by elites — such as German lexicographer Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, which argued that confessional heresy existed prior to orthodoxy in the church — only confuses or hinders the development of orthodox scholars.
“A book like that is a reminder of the unhelpful and erroneous claims often advanced by post-confessional scholars,” Yarbrough said. “It cannot be helpful either that dealing with erroneous claims must so often consume the classroom and research time of students in theological training where the Bible is believed … not all emerge with their faith and healthy reason intact.”
Yet the Christian church is growing without the help of New Testament theology elitism, Yarbrough said, noting the growth of the number of Christians in Latin America and Africa in recent years. In 2018, 41 percent of the world Protestants are in Africa, and merely 11 percent are in North America. This expansion, he said, is a movement widely ignored by Western elite. And the church growth here represents a populist reading of the Bible, a reading regarding the Bible to be true. But churches led and trained by elite New Testament theologians have declined, he explained.
Despite the poor returns of the elitist mindset, it seems to be making a comeback, according to Yarbrough. The work of two German theological elites of the 19th and 20th centuries — F.C. Baur and Rudolf Bultmann — has garnered an uptick in scholarly attention in the last decade.
Baur believed the New Testament was written much later than the church has historically believed, which renders impossible the writers’ witness to the life of Jesus and undercuts the historical reliability of the Christian scriptures, and denied Jesus’ resurrection. Bultmann, one of the most important post-Enlightenment theologians, thought the New Testament needed its more supernatural elements “demythologized.”
Yarbrough called these approaches “neo-allegory,” and some scholars are returning to their methods. A book of Baur’s New Testament theology lectures was published in 2016, and former Wheaton College student David W. Congdon has written three books on Bultmann in the last three years.
Yet the populist movement is still well-equipped to respond to the challenge, Yarbrough said. While elitists often make it seem like no one thought critically about the Bible until the Enlightenment and consider an “inerrantists scholar” to be an oxymoron, the presence of evangelicals of conviction in the academy is increasing, according to Yarbrough. The church flourishes when it does so with the help of excellent exegetes and theologians, and a new generation of world-class evangelical scholars in elitist circles is emerging — in the spirit of the late Carl F.H. Henry.
The revival of the populist interpretation and application of the Bible is not limited to scholarship. While churches who have adopted the elitist interpretation have seen their pews empty and their moral testimony grow compromised as they embrace abortion and sexual immorality, hundreds of millions of people all over the world are becoming Christians — and they want to defend the Bible and historical Christianity.
“It is my hope and contention that we are on the verge of a time when the populist harvest that has seen hundreds of millions added to the church will result in fruit in the form of the reclamation of biblical hermeneutics — for Christ and his kingdom — in parts of the world where elitist interpretation has gained undue sway,” Yarbrough said.
These believers not only believe in the saving power of the gospel message and the doctrine of inerrancy — along with the vast majority of Christians. More Christian martyrs die annually than the number of elitist scholars existing in universities and graduate schools, according to Yarbrough.
“The martyred church is not asking scholars’ permission to assert that Paul wrote Ephesians or that the Gospel words of Jesus are authentic,” he said. “And people who are willing to die for their belief in the Bible’s truth are not a subgroup shrinking, but rather a communion continuing to grow at a remarkable rate — both on earth and at the altar in heaven, where they cry out, ‘Oh Lord, how long?’”
The Gheens lectures were established in 1958 as part of an effort to bring noted scholars to the campus of Southern Seminary. Previous lecturers have included David F. Wells, Leon Morris, Russell D. Moore, and N.T. Wright.