I remember one professor at Dallas Seminary telling me that Evangelicals had learned more from liberal scholars about biblical interpretation over the past century than they had from the most conservative scholars. I also remember Charles Ryrie’s famous (infamous?) assertion, “There is nothing more sought after by an evangelical professor than to be called a scholar by a liberal.”

When I entered seminary, I was confused by the respect for liberal scholarship, especially in the New Testament and Old Testament departments. Liberal! In my dictionary, a liberal scholar was one who did not believe the Scriptures, misinterpreted the text, and, therefore, denied the Christian faith. It’s that simple. This was enough for me to shelf their “expositions” of the Scripture right next to the space reserved for the Flat Earth Society. How can they understand the Scriptures?

I remember when my first exegetical was due, I was ready to create a masterpiece of Evangelical orthodoxy. An exegetical is a paper which embodies a critical examination of a particular text, focusing on translation, wrestling with textual critical problems, and validation of any significant interpretive issues. This requires extensive interaction with outside sources of contemporary critical scholarship. We received a library list of suggested sources with which we were to interact. When I recieved this list, I was confused. Many of these sources were liberal. They were written by those who at best did not believe in inerrancy and at worst those who did not even believe in inspiration. Why would we have had such resources recommended to us at a conservative Christian seminary? 

During my studies, I came to find the answer: Liberals often handle the text of Scripture with more integrity than conservatives.

There are several reasons for this:

1. Liberals can often look at the text more objectively. They don’t have their theological turf that they are trying to protect. Therefore, they are not as prone to interpret the text through a presupposed theological grid. While their grid of disbelief might be a costly one, it does not necessitate a misrepresentation of the human author’s intent as often as it might for one who is passionately committed to a theological tradition. Obviously, the liberals I am referring to do not include those with a theological agenda of their own like many of those on the Jesus Seminar. Most of these are not even recognized as legitimate scholars by their own community.

2. They are willing to explore other options of interpretation that are out of bounds to most traditionalists. For example, redaction criticism was popularized by liberals. This interpretive method assumes the possibility that the authors changed, altered, or edited (redacted) the historic events for the benefit of the community to which they were writing. While this was rejected out of hand by most conservatives in the early 20th century, most are beginning to concede some redaction did take place and that this method is not necessarily outside of the bounds of conservative scholarship–even such that holds to inerrancy.

3. Integrity with issues of Text Criticism. Once again, liberals are not bent on protecting a particular doctrine that issues of the text might affect. That is why liberals often make very good text critics. They can choose among the variants, examining the data without prejudice.

4. Historical-grammatical hermeneutics is their only option. Liberals are not searching for a theology. Therefore, all they have to work with is authorial original intent found in the historical situation of the day. They only presuppose one author–the human author. Therefore they must concentrate on issues of history, grammar, personality, style, mood, literature, and culture to discover the purpose of the writing.

As evangelicals, the four issues above often take a back seat to a preset agenda of establishing and giving an apologetic for an assumed theological system. Once this happens, we resort to out-of-context proof-texting, unintentionally relegating the author’s intent to a place near irrelevance. The problem with this is that without interpreting the text from the standpoint of the original author, we can never arrive with any assurance at the intentions of the divine author.

I am not saying that Evangelicals cannot or don’t interpret the text with integrity. In fact, I agree with the previous statement that Evangelicals have learned much from liberal commentators who forced us to interact more honestly with the text. I think that there are many good resources that take a critical approach to scholarship. The Word Biblical Commentary series is a good example. The Baker Exegetical Commentary Series is another example. IVP has a series of background resources which include the Dictionary of New Testament Background, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, and the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Even Roman Catholics have a series of critical commentaries called Sacra Pagina that takes a critical approach. This type of critical approach normally does not find much support from the Vatican since Roman Catholic scholarship has preset answers that they must arrive at regardless of the data. Nevertheless, these commentaries often deal with issues with integrity, often bringing into  question some of the traditional interpretations of Rome.

What have Evangelicals (and other conservatives) learned from liberals about Bible interpretation? The importance of dealing with the text on its own terms before we make it fit our terms. Liberals have caused us to rediscover that while the Bible is divine in nature, it is also human. In the end, the problem with liberals is not that they do not understand the Scriptures, but that they do not accept the Scriptures.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    14 replies to "Why I am Grateful to Liberal Scholars"

    • Sean

      In the end, the problem with liberals is not that they do not understand the Scriptures, but that they do not accept the Scriptures.
      My, how gracious of you. “Liberals” are not a monolith. The evangelical of a liberal as “anyone who does inerrancy” leaves a lot to be desired.

      I lost my belief in inerrancy during my postgraduate studies, through intensive study of the Bible. I found too many problems that could not be reconciled away with intellectual integrity. “Inerrancy” as defined by the Chicago Statement and so forth has to be qualified so much that it loses all meaning. I also read many of those German scholars who I had been told were dangerous unbelievers, only to find that many of them reveal a warm, vibrant faith in Christ in their writings. (Some also contained a bunch of silly nonsense.) Losing inerrancy shook up my theological method and made me lose some of my certainty, but not my faith in God, love for Christ, or gifts of the Spirit.

      Evangelicalism has put off a lot of fellow Christians by how they classify others into “sheep” and “goats” on the basis of their doctrine of Scripture and whether or not they accept definitions of inspiration of very recent origin. I feel too often (say, whenever I read back issues of JETS) that Christ has been lost sight of in favor of the Book. Additionally, not a small number have lost their faith entirely when the definition fails them; I know Ruth has written on this and I believe you have too. This issue needs serious, open revisiting by the broader evangelical community.

      Oh, and by the way, there’s also lots of good, solid evidence for evolution and not old earth creationism, which is bad exegesis. Cheerio!

    • C Michael Patton

      Good point Sean. My primary use of the word Liberal here has to do with those who do not necessarily study the Scriptures for the acquisition of a theology or any religious purposes, positive or negative.

    • C Michael Patton

      BTW Sean: Here are some of my thoughts on inerrancy in the context of your situation…you might have already read them though.

    • Vance

      Michael, I agree entirely with your post and it basically says what I was getting at in another thread.

      Sean, while I have a bit tighter view of Scripture than you (I can still see Scripture as “inerrant” even with those inconsistencies and even “errors” often mentioned, but that is another thread), I agree entirely that it is the rigid fundamentalist approach to what Scripture is meant to be that causes SO many to lose faith. They are taught too many “either/ors” EITHER this particular text must be literal historical narrative OR you can’t trust Scripture at all, etc. I mentioned Bart Ehrman’s loss of faith for this very reason in a recent post.

    • Sean

      My third line makes no sense. It should read, “The evangelical definition of a liberal as “anyone who denies inerrancy” leaves a lot to be desired.”

      Michael, that old post of your was the one that turned me on to this blog. The position you describe there is fairly close to my own. I hold a basically neo-orthodox view of Scripture, which I view as more nuanced and viable than the Old Princeton standard.

      I don’t teach inerrancy, but neither do I teach errancy. I have my own private list of “problem passages,” but I mostly keep them private as discussing them edifies no one. And, I will also contend that none of them are serious problems that in any way endanger Christian belief. But I still couldn’t join the ETS in good conscience.

    • […] Michael Patton writes about why he is grateful to liberal scholars. Posted by: Michael Spencer @ 8:15 am | Trackback | […]

    • Josh

      Thanks for the post Michael,

      Would you or Dr. Wallace mind posting some of the reputable liberal scholars that you found the most helpful? Or that you would recommend reading along side some of the more conservative commentaries? Thanks.

      Your brother in Christ,


    • rumblebelly

      I second Josh’s comment!


    • Vance

      Josh and rumblebelly, one source I have found invaluable for keeping up with my passion for history, archeology, etc, is The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar. These companies provide university-level lecture series in video and audio from some of the top secular thinkers of the day (and one notable Christian, Luke Timothy Johnson, who is a Catholic). Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, these professors usually do a great job analyzing the material at hand (although Ehrman can cause you to pull your hair out at times since he DOES overstate his case, having become a zealot in the other direction). Of course, from our perspective, they are missing out on the great insight of the truth of Christian faith, but they do pretty good with this handicap! 🙂 You just have to approach it as “here is what the best scholarship would conclude ABSENT the foundation of faith that we have.”

      Warning, the courses are kind of pricey, but if you are interested, and want recommendations, just let me know.

    • ChadS


      You wrote: “Even Roman Catholics have a series of critical commentaries called Sacra Pagina that takes a critical approach. This type of critical approach normally does not find much support from the Vatican since Roman Catholic scholarship has preset answers that they must arrive at regardless of the data. Nevertheless, these commentaries often deal with issues with integrity, often bringing into question some of the traditional interpretations of Rome.”

      This comment makes it sound like you believe that it is only recently that Catholics have chosen to engage Scripture with a critical and scholarly eye. According to the editor of the series the title is borrowed from Medieval sources where Sacra Pagina meant the”study of Scripture to which the interpreter brought the tools of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy.” This sounds a little like old fashioned words
      to describe what modern scholars are doing now. If I may be so bold I would suggest that Evangelicals may have just as much to learn about Scripture from Catholics as they do from liberals.

      You say that “these commentaries often deal with issues with integrity.” Do these scholars have integrity because they disagree with official Church teaching or is it because they agree with Evangelical presuppositions about what the Scriptures say?

      One does not have to give up membeship in the Catholic Church to have integrity and to deal with Scripture fully and honestly. Also one does not have to relinquish scholarly rigor to accept Church teachings. To have integrity and to deal with Scripture it does not necessarily follow that a person will come to the conclusions that Evangelicals or any other Protestant would accept.

      I know Evangelicals have their own sacred cows they have no desire to see slaughtered by Biblical scholars. For examply how would many react if an Evangelical said that the Bible really does say Peter was the first Pope and that Evangelicals really do need the Papacy or that Jesus never did have any physical brothers or sisters? These are distinctly Catholic characteristics. Would you think that this hypothetical Evangelical could remain an evangelical or did he overstep some boundary in his scholarship? Would others still see him as Evangelical even with no formal separation or would he be chastised for falling in with papists? Would his integrity as a scholar be questioned?

      My response is based upon what I see that paragraph in your post as saying. I think I’ve probably mis-read it and have done disservice to your actual thoughts on the subject as opposed to what I think you think. If this has come over as a little harsh I apologize and it wasn’t meant in that tone.

      Having said that I agree with what the rest of the post is about. Liberal scholars aren’t necessarily hindered by a faith tradition or theological presuppositions that other more explicitly faith driven scholars may be. Unfortunately, as your last paragraph says, they understand the scriptures but don’t accept them. I suspect that for some of them reading the Gospel of John or Luke or any other Scripture is no different than reading one of Aesop’s fables or Plato’s “Cave” — that is a historical document that is more a curiosity and interesting and no more morally compelling than the daily paper.


    • JV

      This article makes it sound like “traditional” scholars are colored with an agenda while liberals are neutral. But Krentz, Eddy & Boyd, Baird, Colin Brown, and Geisler have all proven historical-critical methodologies are rooted in Enlightenment, deistic, anti-supernatural presuppositions. These liberals’ methodologies not only seek to undermine Scripture but will and do undermine them. The fruit of research cannot advance beyond its presuppositions. But HC has one advantage to all natural men, it places you as the arbiter of truth – something each of us wants!

    • Roy

      I was raised Evangelical and still am. I was raised Conservative, but am not. At the undergrad level I was introduced to “Liberal” scholarship. Initially it was at times troubling, but over time I found both an intellectual and a spiritual peace thanks to Liberal scholarship. At the grad level I was exposed to Liberal thinkers and eventually as Pastor I have extensively used and continue to use their work in an African-American setting primarily. I am saved, I am Liberal. Finally as Bart Eartman mentions in “Jesus Interrupted” he became an agnostic (which doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of faith) based upon the problem of theodicy. I trust you appreciate that the Conservative penchant for being “locked in” to a theological construct always keeps them behind the learning curve. That’s unfortunate. SHALOM

    • Brother Stumblefoot

      “Our parents wore work shoes, but our generation wears loafers.” There is something worrisome about the relative wealth and leisure of this generation that allows the luxury of secondary issues. Mom and Dad worked and saved, so that Jr. could attend the best schools, or at least taht’s what they thought they were paying good money for. When Jr. finished his degrees at Dallas, he began checking out the more prestigious halls of learning elsewhere. After all, more study certainly can’t hurt anything, right? And Mom and Dad still have plenty of money so why not?

      Without question, there is an infatuation among Evangelicals today with the “stuff” Liberals must know that Conservatives
      don’t. And I’m sure they do know things Jr. didn’t learn at Dallas, but so do Oprah and Justin Beiber, (Beiver?) for that matter.

      Don’t get me wrong please, I think advanced learning is great, I encourage scholarship. But it must be a sanctified
      scholarship; the intent of theological learning is not simply learning itself, it is not the accolades of academia, but rather to further the student’s true calling, which is to somehow minister the gospel to starving souls.

      I am absolutely convinced these lines have become blurred in these past few decades. Is it mere coincidence that Evangelical leadership is better educated now than ever before, yet at the same time we are discussing the collapse of Evangelicalism? Thanks for listening.
      Brother Stumblefoot

    • Thomas Hocker

      John 5:39 FF Some will not believe MY WORDS =Jesus

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