As a visiting professor in an African school that taught to the Master’s level I was once confronted with student who plagiarized a paper and failed the class as a result. The academic dean pleaded with me to give him a third chance after the student failed the mandatory remedial session with me. Thus, I permitted the student to take an oral examination, but he gave the most absurd answers to the most rudimentary questions of biblical history, such as he could not tell me the order of the empires, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Later, I was told that this student was a womanizer who spent as much time in the local neighborhood chasing skirt as he spent in class. It was hardly any surprise that he couldn’t pass his course with me. But to my chagrin, this student went on to defend his master’s thesis and graduated, while the course he had with me was pre-requisite to entering the final year at the master’s level–a course he never passed. Now this man is apparently a Bible professor in the capital city of his country.
I present this anecdote only to say that sometimes the diploma from a school is a meaningless paper, inflated like so much fiat money that is printed endlessly to the point of being worth nothing. Perhaps this story is a no-brainer. What should we do with an incompetent womanizer? Fail him of course. He has no business having a theological degree.
But what if it is the case of an extremely brilliant but wrong-headed student? I have become somewhat of a nemesis to PoserorProphet, a self-stylized biblical scholar who is finishing his Master’s degree at Regent College. And yet he has serious problems in biblical interpretation. But he is able to defend his point, albeit with subtle and specious arguments, with such brilliance that he could easily pass any academic program at a secular university. So now it puts theological educators in an awkward position: are we to serve the church and the Kingdom of God, or are we to serve secular academic standards? If the student can put together a specious heretical argument for a position, does that mean he deserves to pass so that he can then serve his heresy to the world, but now bearing the recognition of a theological degree from a once reputable institution? Or should the school risk legal sanction for failing a student who is brilliant, academically gifted and yet theological off-the-wall? There is a great deal at stake here. I don’t see that there is simple answer. But as a teacher of exegesis and biblical interpretation I have some serious problems with what I see.
We have had lengthy discussions with this student, PoserorProphet, who though attending an evangelical school has openly advocated full equal rights to practicing homosexuals in the church; the acrobatics that it takes to get around the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is already reason to have grave concerns. But this student, in his embrace of liberation theology, has also taken passages like “Thou shalt not steal” to mean something like, “Thou shalt not not share”, thus twisting the plain sense of the text. But then he also has recently advocated vandalism, such as done by anarchist demonstrators, through the texts recounting Jesus’ cleansing the temple, Jesus’ allowing the demons called “Legion” to enter into and kill a herd of swines and Jesus’ tacit approval of the the digging up of the roof to lower the paralytic, thus doing property damage to the house. The main difficulty is that the Bible isn’t teaching that it is ok for us to go out and vandalize to support a higher cause, i.e., the poor and marginalized. It has another agenda about which PoserorProphet seems quite unconcerned. Through his exegesis, the Bible serves his liberation agenda. In a discussion over at the City of God, I said that his “exegesis” is like that of the Marxist in the Fiddler on the Roof: He recounts how Laban cheated Jacob, causing him to marry Leah while the original contract gave Jacob the right to marry Rachel. Now, Laban required Jacob to work another seven years to pay for Rachel. The Marxist’s conclusion: The Bible teaches us that you can never trust an employer! See the clip at 1:07:
Even the milkman’s daughter can see through this Marxist interpretation. It is a moment of light humor. But PoserorProphet is not joking. He’s serious. And yet his interpretations are hardly less ridiculous.
As an undergraduate in Dr. Pecota’s Principles of Interpretation course, I was required to read James Sire’s Scripture Twisting: 20 ways cults misread the Bible (see this summary). Part of the art of biblical interpretation is knowing how not to do it. So Sire’s book is a lesson in good interpretation by avoiding pitfalls. PoserorProphet actually commits a fair number of these 20 ways of twisting Scripture: I would mention: 11. Selective citing; 12. Inadequate evidence; 14. Ignoring alternate explanations; 18. Supplementing biblical authority (with such writers as Michel Foucault!); 19. Rejecting biblical authority; and 20. World-view confusion (confusing his anarchist views with the Bible). Thus, a basic undergraduate course in theology already would provide the ability to see how PoserorProphet is twisting the Bible, and yet today, it is apparently ok for him to defend a Master’s thesis in biblical studies. There is no questioning his brilliance. It is his judgment that I challenge. But is it the task of theological education to produce brilliant heretics? Or are we rather to produce graduates who will serve the church and the Kingdom of God. If we knowingly pass even one such student, does that not call into question the whole enterprise?
The recognition that a theological diploma establishes should not be considered lightly. Since the early church, Christian heretics have sought recognition from authorities who stood in apostolic succession. For example, according to Irenaeus, Marcion once approached Polycarp and made a request: “Recognize me.” Polycarp responded in a manner which I think was appropriate, “I recognize you; I recognize the first-born of Satan.” Polycarp was following the example that Paul laid down (Tit. 3.10-11):
As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.