Tag Archives: Bible study

Re-Thinking Bible “Study”: William Rainey Harper’s “Biblical” University

This is the first post in a multi-post series reflecting on the practice of “Bible study” as it is commonly practiced in its diverging forms  among biblical scholars and students at universities.

In 1899, the Old Testament scholar and founding president of the University of Chicago – William Rainey Harper – invited the age’s most famous revivalist and lay evangelist – Dwight L. Moody – to speak on campus, citing that

I do not understand, of course, that you, as a matter of fact, represent any other position than that which is actually maintained here at the University. The differences between us are merely differences of detail. [1]

To those of us more familiar with the very differing directions that the University of Chicago and Moody Bible College have taken since, this is a  statement that requires some unpacking. But for all the differences between William Rainey Harper and Dwight L. Moody, one thing underlay both their visions: the centrality of the Bible.

This might be a bit unexpected for those of us used to hearing narratives of secularization in which the development of research universities went hand in hand with decreasing religiosity. It also certainly doesn’t help that Chicago is now famous for its history-of-religions approach towards the faith that both invented and defined the departments of “Religious Studies” whose historical-critical approaches to the Bible are often alternatively lamented and criticized by evangelical campus ministries. In retrospect, the differences of detail Harper pointed out might have been quite a bit larger than he had anticipated.

More people today, however, are familiar with Moody’s winsome, practical approach to Christianity than Harper’s academic version, but both have had an incalculable impact on our approach towards Scripture today. William Rainey Harper was one of the first Old Testament scholars in the Americas to adopt the historical-critical method and to promote the reading of the Scriptures in the original languages. Much of the contemporary seminary curriculum today was innovated by his reform of Chicago’s affiliated seminary (now the Divinity School) – requiring practical field education, the study of the Bible in its original languages and contexts, a class on the English Bible, and (unfortunately) expecting seminarians to pay their own way through as training in financial management.

Harper’s skill as an administrator and educator were unparalleled. During his days as an Old Testament professor at Yale (the first full time professor of “Semitic Languages and Literature”), he was  running a correspondence Hebrew course that managed to draw tens of thousands of subscribers and simultaneously serving as one of the primary organizers of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Society at Chautauqua Lake, New York which would give birth to the entire idea of “continuing education”. Harper’s experience at Chautauqua would lead him to innovate with the idea of transferrable credits, laying the foundation for the system of institutions we today know as the “community college”. At the University of Chicago, Harper made the individual researcher more respectable than ever before (and also attracted all the best talent) by setting a new standard for professorial salaries that elevated the status of faculty above that of the schoolteacher. Harper’s deep involvement in so many things meant that, at some point, his correspondence alone constituted half of all letters processed at the New Haven post office!

Institutional accomplishments aside, what was perhaps most important about Harper was his singular vision for the birth of Biblical universities that would serve as the linchpin of a new American society grounded on the worldview and world of the Bible. Historian James P. Winds recounts in his book on Harper’s life and accomplishments how Harper’s commitment to building the University of Chicago can be seen as a basic working out of his commitment to the historical-critical method [2]. George Marsden, in his Soul of the American University, characterizes the University of Chicago as essentially the working out of the ideals of a “low-church” university, a Baptist university in all but name [3].

We in the 21st century dwell in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in which questions of biblical inerrancy have skewed our perspective on how religiously driven and conservative the original rise of Biblical criticism in America was. Early advocates such as Charles A. Briggs saw themselves as continuing the work of the Reformation in letting the tools of Biblical criticism help contemporary Christians recover the words of the Bible itself by clearing away the “dead wood, dry and brittle stubble, and noxious weeds” of “dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all merely formal morality, all those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are the barriers of Church Unity” [4]. “It will ere long become clear to the Christian people,” Briggs would insist,

that the Higher Criticism has rendered an inestimable service to this generation and to the generations to come. What has been destroyed has been the fallacies and conceits of theologians; the obstructions that have barred the way of literary men from the Bible. Higher Criticism has forced its way into the Bible itself and brought us face to face with the holy contents, so that we may see and know whether they are divine or not. Higher Criticism has not contravened any decision of any Christian council, or any creed of any Church, or any statement of Scripture itself. It has rather brought the long-neglected statement of the Westminster Confession into prominence: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependenth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” [5]

Harper would combine this hope for a Biblical renewal of religion with optimism in the new research university ideal (before the advent of research universities, American colleges were more focused on developing “gentlemen”) to come up with a new Biblical vision for American democratic society built upon a new “biblical science.” In the words of James P. Wind, Harper transformed “the Holy Land of Palestine” into “God’s great laboratory, devoted to the solution of a single problem: how to live. In this reading, the Old Testament became a scientific notebook kept by a host of ‘laboratory assistants’ who labored in different periods of experimentation'” [6]. Harper would rejoice in

The elevation of the study of biblical history and literature to a level, scientifically considered, with that of other history and literature. We may frankly acknowledge that the methods employed almost universally twenty-five years ago in connection with the study of the Scriptures – methods still in vogue in many quarters – were unworthy, not only of the subject itself, but of any place in an institution of higher learning. [7]

Harper’s insistence on a “scientific” approach to the Scriptures was part and parcel of his vision for a “democratic” society built around the study of the Old Testament because the civilization of the Hebrews represented the most well-kept resources for understanding the laws of human progression and development:

In the course of their long-continued history they [the Hebrews] passed through nearly every form of life, from that of savages to that of highest civilization, and they lived under nearly every form of government, from the patriarchal, through the tribal, the monarchical, and the hierarchical. The history of no other nation furnishes parallels of so varied or so suggestive a character. [8]

This critical and scientific study of the history and literature of the Hebrew people would serve to improve the state of religious education, which, in lieu of such methods, was of a lesser quality. Harper lamented the bifurcation of minds that accompanied many well educated people of his day:

A teacher in the public schools, trained in all the modern methods of pedagogy, will do work of a most modern and scientific character through five days of the week. That same teacher in a Sunday school will give instruction which is of an infinitely lower grade, and will undertake the religious work with a lack of knowledge of her subject which she would regard as disgraceful in connection with her regular work throughout the week. [9]

Harper was deeply driven by an evolutionary progressive vision of the development of society in which the tools of scientific research and study would lay bare before humanity the laws of human life and civilization. In order for these to triumph, however, humans had a duty to transcend the traditions and superstitions that they continued to inherit and spread. Universities were supposed to serve as the “prophets of democracy” that would take the lead in spreading the forces of enlightenment and education across the land [10].

There was, in other words, an inherent elitism in Harper’s vision for a Biblical science. The importance of critical methods is that they are set over and against “uncritical” and traditional approaches characterized by the current state of religious education. For the ultimate rise and triumph of a scientific civilization, these “unscientific” ways of doing things would have to go.

This elitism manifests itself in a number of various ways, i.e. a reconstruction of the canon into various historical strata based on historical reconstruction of the Biblical texts into various “sources”. Instead of working with traditional demarcations such as the Pentateuch, one ends up with an exilic P source, a Josianic D source, a united monarchy J source, and a northern kingdom E source. Confusing sections in the text which would traditionally lead readers to search for intertextual syntheses are now explained as the product of differing theologies. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), for instance, has seen interpretations that actually suggest that, at one strata in its history, the sacrifice actually went through and that the final form of the text is actually a composite mash-up of at least two disparate sources [11].

I do not mean to suggest that all critical scholarship is necessarily elitist – indeed, one can say that the emphasis on plurality in the Bible has done a good job pushing back against false syntheses that have been made – but insofar as the enterprise of Biblical scholarship in the U.S. has been heavily shaped by the visions of individuals like Harper, it is important for any attempt to grapple with the question of how Christians ought to study the Bible to be conscious of the ways in which a good number of scholars have indeed been socialized into a particular way of practicing their craft which reflects a particular vision for society (and its variations). Insofar as the University of Chicago has been one of the preeminent influences on departments of Religious Studies throughout the United States – and indeed, more than just that, based on how often the “Chicago Style” of citation is used – an awareness of this history goes a long way to explain current tensions between biblical scholars and Christian laypersons today [12].

One of the biggest challenges confronting any attempt to reform higher education today comes out of addressing the deeply (heterodox) theological roots underlying today’s system of higher education. This history has tended to be obscured due to the kinds of stories that today’s secular universities like to tell about themselves (usually some variation of some slow evolutionary progression of the powers of reason and free inquiry over the forces of religion and dogmatism). And insofar as the project of the Reformation is tied up with the project of scholarship, Christians today who are serious about Bible study are going to need to be serious about the academy and the ways in which it has and continues to shape our understandings of what it means to study the Bible.

I have tried, in this post, to lay out some of the background behind why there might be a kind of “divide” between lay and academic approaches to Bible study in the U.S.: the academic approach to the study of the Scriptures has been heavily shaped by an elitist vision for a scientific society that is grounded in an evolutionary conception of history that sees itself as necessary sublating “tradition” and “superstitions” of the past as part and parcel of a true recovery of a Biblical society. In our next post, we will try to discuss a bit more the conception of study that makes this possible, the conception of scientific “methods” which permit for the isolation and examination of texts in abstraction from one’s one social context, the ideal of scholarly “critical detachment” or “objectivity”.

This allows us then to consider what is probably the most manifest irony in all of this – the ways in which lay bible studies spawned out of a reaction against the elitism of academic Bible studies often share very similar assumptions, but merely flip the values around. If Protestants are to be faithful to their commitment to the Scriptures as the final norm and authority of the church, we are going to have to find ways to transcend the limitations fostered upon us by the modern mindset. Without being able to substantiate my claims here, I want to suggest that the very idea of being “modern” (and thus at a divide from “the ancients”) plays an important role in alienating Christians from approaching the texts of Scripture as living texts, blinding us to the ways in which we continue to be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses with whom we are still contemporaries.

[1] Quoted in James Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), 202.

[2] See James P. Wind, The Bible and the University: The Messianic Vision of William Rainey Harper (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).

[3] Indeed, the reason Rockefeller had wanted to endow a university was so that the Baptists could have a flagship university of their own comparable to the other mainline denominations of the time. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Cf. the inaugural address of Charles A. Briggs, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” upon in-statement as the Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1891. See Briggs, Charles A. The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 66-67.

[5] ibid., 33-34.

[6] Winds, The Bible and the University, 63-64.

[7] Harper, William Rainey. The Trend In Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905), 56.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 61-62.

[10] To expand upon this point would take us far afield, but here are a few quotations to whet one’s appetite. In short, Harper’s ecclesiology replaced the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man in the form of democracy, with the university in place of the church as its privileged torchbearer:

Democracy has been given a mission to the world, and it is of no uncertain character. I wish to show that the university is the prophet of this democracy and, as well, its priest and its philosopher; that, in other words, the university is the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer. (p. 12)

Is democracy a religion? No. Has democracy a religion? Yes; a religion with its god, its altar, and its temple, with its code of ethics and its creed. Its god is mankind, humanity; its altar, home; its temple, country. The one doctrine of democracy’s creed is the brotherhood, and consequently the equality of man; its system of ethics in a single word, righteousness. …it was Jeremiah of olden time who first preached the idea of individualism, the idea that later became the fundamental thought in the teaching of Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest advocate of democracy; while the supplementary idea of solidarity, the corollary of individualism, was first preached by Ezekiel, and likewise later developed into Christianity. (p.21)

He [the priest] is the mediator between the individual and the ideal, whether abstract or concrete, which constitutes his God. For the god of each individual is that individual’s highest conception of man, his ideal man. The priest of democracy’s religion is therefore a mediator between man and man; for man is the constituent element in democracy, and humanity is the ideal of all its aspirations. (p.22)

Now, let the dream of democracy be likewise of that expected one [i.e. the Messiah]; this time an expected agency which, in union with all others, will usher in the dawn of the day when the universal brotherhood of man will be understood and accepted by all men. Meanwhile… the university spirit which, with every decade, dominates the world more fully, will be doing the work of the prophet, the priest, and the philosopher of democracy, and will continue to do that work until it shall be finished, until a purified and exalted democracy shall have become universal. (p.34)

All excerpts are taken from Harper’s essay “The University and Democracy” in The Trend in Higher Education.

[11] What is even more fascinating is the way in which these interpretations are not all unique to the modern era, many finding precedents in Rabbinic midrash and exegesis, suggesting that there may be a Jewish conception of the study of Scripture at play here. For an example of someone who reads the Abraham story as I have mentioned, read this article: “When Abraham Murdered Isaac”.

[12] This, of course, is not the only way in which Biblical scholarship has been practiced in the U.S. Conservative (and fundamentalist) reactions against the rise of higher criticism has promoted an alternative approach towards the study of the Bible that tends to see Bible study as attempting to discover eternal truths (understood in propositional terms) revealed to man by God’s direct inspiration. Interestingly enough, one can also see the influence of a form of scientism (though one that is more benign) on this conception of science, as the original progenitors of such a view (the Old Princeton school of theology) were trying to come up with a way in which they could conceive of theology as a “science” in a way akin to the various “sciences” of their age. Influenced more by Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which saw truths as mostly static and eternal, their dispute with the new Biblical scholars as much reflects the rise of more progressive and evolutionary approaches to the question of truth in the aftermath of Darwin as a matter of theological dispute.