This week we’re continuing a list of 10 commandments to guide Christian scholarship, both in private and in public. Like the Decalogue of Exodus 20, the first four (or, at least, 31/2) commandments concern our relationship with God and the last six, our relationships with others. (See part 1 for commandments 1–5.)
6. Never “murder” the character or intellect of another scholar.
It can be tempting to attack the character of a person you’re debating, rather than responding to his or her ideas. It could be an unbeliever whose book or blog stirs up your anger or proves difficult to answer. It could even be a fellow Christian scholar you don’t particularly like or agree with and about whom you’ve discovered some “juicy” secret. How often have Christians spread such secrets around instead of dealing with the theological controversy at hand?
When confronted by temptation or an opportunity to slander another believer’s character, we need to remember three important points. First, any juicy secret may very well be a rumor, not fact, and to spread such rumors about anyone is gossip and, hence, sinful. Second, even if the secret is based on fact, the person may have already dealt with the sin via confession, repentance, and church discipline—and unless you belong to that person’s local church, it is not your place to judge how discipline is handled in that particular community. Third, even if the person in question has not repented of the sin, it actually has nothing to do with the quality of that person’s arguments and/or conclusions. And so, Christian scholars are to never “hit below the belt,” but should always keep their analysis focused on the issue at hand.
Likewise, when debating an unbeliever, give that person the courtesy of assuming that he or she is intelligent (maybe even more intelligent than yourself) and treating his or her position with respect, even if it’s wrong. When you come across an inconsistency in the person’s argument, do your best to help your opponent remove it, thereby setting up his or her position in the best light possible. Then address the improved position with rational argumentation. Anyone can construct and then deconstruct a straw man, but it takes a good scholar to understand truly where an intellectual opponent is coming from, and then offer criticisms of what the opponent is actually saying. This rule of thumb should go a long way in accomplishing a central goal in Christian apologetics—to win the person, not the debate.
7. Never commit spiritual adultery.
It should go without saying that Christian scholars should never endorse a doctrine they know is unbiblical in order to gain scholarly notoriety. Never compromise your position in order to gain recognition. Never commit apostasy. And never speak out of both sides of your mouth. There are some Christian scholars who will endorse clearly liberal positions when writing for a “high end” academic publisher, but then portray themselves as conservatives when writing for an evangelical publishing house. That is spiritual adultery and, moreover, it is deceptive.
8. Never plagiarize the work of another scholar.
This is the rule that every student learns. Never present the ideas of another as your own. Avoid plagiarism by correctly citing (via footnotes or endnotes) every idea or quotation that did not originate in your own head and/or is not considered common knowledge.
9. Never lie for the sake of the kingdom.
Believers should never offer false evidence for the Christian faith. This means that Christian scholars need to research thoroughly any purported evidence before presenting it to a friend or an audience. This rule also means that it is unacceptable for scholars to, even in an attempt to win a convert, use an argument that they themselves do not actually believe.
For example, I’ve encountered young-earth creationists who will use big bang cosmology as a means of convincing unbelievers that God exists, even though the big bang runs contrary to the young-earth position. While big bang cosmology is a perfectly legitimate apologetics tool for old-earth creationists or evolutionary creationists, it should be off limits to young-earth proponents, no matter how attractive such an argument may be. Presenting an argument you don’t believe in as evidence for what you do believe is a form of lying, it’s a form of bearing false witness to your neighbor, and it has all the marks of searing your own conscience. Instead, develop in a consistent and comprehensive worldview of your own and present only arguments and evidences that you sincerely believe are good and sound. It is better for the unbelieving world to see us as honest fools than dishonest geniuses.
10. Never covet the notoriety other scholars have received.
When other scholars gain recognition and renown, it can be a source of jealousy for those still laboring in obscurity. But instead of harboring bitterness, Christian scholars need to rejoice when the gospel is furthered by the witness of any scholar or apologist—even those with whom you may not particularly agree or even respect. Always respect any scholar who is willing to lay his or her reputation down on the front lines of academia and take a hit for the kingdom. Such a person deserves your prayers and support, not your jealousy and spite!
In summary, I apply philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s advice for fellow Christian philosophers to Christian scholars as a whole:
We who are Christians and propose to be [scholars] must not rest content with being [scholars] who happen, incidentally, to be Christians; we must strive to be Christian [scholars]. We must therefore pursue our projects with integrity, independence, and Christian boldness. (emphasis added)1
As I reflect on these principles I can see that, in many respects, I have failed to live up to them fully. Now, at the dawn of the New Year, my hope and prayer is that God the Holy Spirit imprints these “commandments” on my heart and mind so that I may live in accordance with them as long as He gives me breath.
- Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 315.
Dr. Travis Campbell
Dr. Travis James Campbell received his PhD in philosophical theology from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) in 2004, and currently serves as a history teacher at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, GA.