Beliefnet
The Bible and Culture

“I found the quote from one Ben Witherington to be quite amusing. In the first place, I have never met this gentleman nor have I read anything that he has written. My assumption is that his work is not read outside of evangelical circles. In the second place, I have never debated with this gentleman. So he appears to live in a fantasyland of his own imagination. He is self-described on his website as “a leading evangelical scholar.” An “evangelical” is by definition a propagandist not a scholar. A propagandist is one who possesses conclusions that he or she seeks to defend. A scholar is one who searches for truth without the boundaries of preconceptions. He might well be learned about his evangelical authority claims, but scholarship is something possessed only by those who are engaged in a search for truth and who are willing to follow their discoveries no matter where they lead.

When I looked Mr. Witherington up I discovered that he attended a fundamentalist seminary, that he teaches in a fundamentalist seminary and that his books are published by evangelical publishing houses. His resume lists a PhD. from the University of Durham. That is an impressive institution. I have been there on a number of occasions. I am, however, suspicious of the meaning of that degree. It may be quite substantial, but I am aware of the way English Universities work. Frequently they have evangelical colleges attached to them and though the degree says the University of Durham, it actually comes from one more evangelical school, so I will withhold judgment until I learn the facts. Evangelicals seem to have tremendous needs to claim academic credibility so they tend to collect degrees that look good on paper but have little substance. It is certainly not difficult to be proficient in the defense of your evangelical subject matter, but as I suggested effective propaganda does not add up to impressive scholarship. Seeking truth is not possible if you begin with the conviction that truth is already possessed in the “word of God” or in the papacy.

The fact is, Bo, that no one can properly define himself or herself as a scholar. That is for someone else to determine. I suspect that very few of us are original scholars or thinkers. Most of us are popularizers of other people’s work. It is, thus, also quite impossible to defend oneself against the kind of things this man has said about me in the press, nor am I eager to do so. All one can do is to provide the data for what, to some at least, might look like adequate scholarly credentials and let others make whatever judgments they wish. So for the benefit of anyone who cares, here are my academic achievements:

I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina, which has also presented to me an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree so that my university has affirmed my scholarly path. I have published with a major commercial publisher (Harper Collins) 21 books, which have been translated into 14 languages and have sold well over a million copies. Six institutions of higher learning in the United States have conferred honorary doctorates on me. Cambridge University in the United Kingdom elected me to be the Quatercentenary Scholar of that University and a Fellow at Emmanuel College, where I studied, lectured and wrote in 1991. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, appointed me to the position of being the William Belden Noble Lecturer in 2000 and those lectures were published, as was required by that lectureship, by Harper Collins under the title A New Christianity for a New World. I have also taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Harvard Divinity School. On two occasions I have been a visiting scholar at Oxford University (Magdalen College and Christchurch College) and have also lectured there. I have been the invited, week long religion lecturer in the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institute in New York at least six times, with attendance topping 1000 people a day. I have been on the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, five times. I have taught at the University of the Pacific and at the Theological School of Drew University. I have been invited to give lectures in English at over 100 institutions of higher learning in the English speaking countries of the United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I have also lectured though translators at the University of Ghent in Belgium, the University of Helsinki in Finland, Upsala University in Sweden and at other universities in Thailand, Norway and Indonesia. Does that make me a scholar? No, I would never make that claim, but it also does not give Mr. Witherington, who appears to think highly of his own abilities, a basis for his amusing diatribe. Perhaps he knows about me, but in fact he knows me no better than I know him.

I do not do debates with evangelicals because we live in two different worlds and do not agree even on the shape of reality. I have done that kind of thing in the past, but never with Mr. Witherington. I stopped because I could no longer find any value in that and I do not like to waste time. Evangelicals tend to want to debate things that in my mind are settled. I do not debate with members of the flat earth society, with “creation scientists” or with homophobic people either, and for the same reason.

I have on several occasions found great dishonesty among evangelicals. Mr. Witherington’s claims about what happened when he was “debating with me” appear to be of the same genre. Evangelicals frequently appear to me to have a tenuous relationship with both truth and honesty. I did a debate with the leading English evangelical, John Stott, some years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia. We agreed that the debate could be published by an evangelical school, Regency College at the University of British Columbia. When the publication came out I discovered that John Stott had edited his part of the debate sometime after the debate, but prior to its publication to cover his obvious weaknesses. When I confronted him with that fact he justified this dishonest behavior by saying said that I had brought up some new ideas in my closing statement to which he did not have a chance to respond. That was a strange argument because we had both been told to prepare a closing statement. John Stott had made no such preparation and so he meandered all over the place in his closing statement and looked rather foolish. It was all recorded for anyone to hear, but he decided to rewrite his closing statement before publication in violation of the agreed on rules for the debate.

On another occasion I had a debate with Central Florida’s evangelical Episcopal bishop, John Howe, at the Virginia Theological Seminary on the subject of homosexuality. The same thing happened there. It was as if there were an evangelical play book. John Howe had tried to make jokes during the debate about some of my book titles. Not only did most people not know what he was talking about, but his comments came across as petty and revealed considerable ignorance on his part about both homosexuality and the Bible. We had agreed that the debate could be recorded and distributed, but when I received a copy of the recording I discovered that his part of the debate had been edited so that all of his less than edifying comments had been removed. The recording had been done by his former church, which is today trying to separate itself from the Episcopal Church. Once again I confronted him with his dishonesty and the distribution of the recording was halted, or at least that is what I was told. It has been my experience that evangelicals are willing to do dishonest things if it serves their agenda. I find that behavior more to be pitied than to be condemned, but in any case it is not revelatory of character. I’m delighted that Ben Witherington thinks he knows me well enough to have such firm opinions. I think it is interesting to have someone say in public print what he has said that he does when he has debates with me, since I
have no knowledge of ever debating with him anywhere, nor would I be interested in doing so.”