Monday, March 20, 2006

Plymouth Brethren and a Faith-Based Scholarship

I wrote a few days ago about the different approaches to a university education that are found within the Plymouth Brethren. I was trying to recall whether I had any sense of a faith-based scholarship when I was young.

The degree to which the Brethren engaged in tertiary education was determined by certain principles. The first of these was separation from the world. This was a corrolary of the premillenialist position. The world was not going to get better, the true church would be taken out of the world at the rapture and it was the duty of the church to long for this event.

A consequence of a strict adherence to this teaching would be withdrawal from the human enterprise. Faithful Brethren would rather study the time of Christ's return than discover a new medicine, or plan an improved sanitary system. They did not see themselves called to improve social conditions. This distinguished them from men like Wilbourforce and Shaftesbury, and women like Nightingale and Booth. Many Brethren did, however, engage in charitable missions and helped the poor. Compassion was an honourable motivation for action.

However, the Brethren did not, in fact, live completely separate from the world. The Brethren believed that they were 'in the world but not of the world.' Unlike the Amish and Hutterites, we lived in the city, among the general population. We blended in and were not visible in our difference. But at school, we stood silent during the Lord's Prayer, because it was taught to the disciples before God sent the indwelling Spirit. The Lord's Prayer was for those times, not for the church.

Some Brethren were pacifists and did not vote. Engagement in the state was on a pragmatic level. Those who did attend university studied business or a profession. If we were not going to cure the world of some dread disease at least we could acknowledge the need for dentists and lawyers.

Among a certain class of Brethren there was an intense drive to study and participate in scholarship. They were not anti-intellectual. They believed in studying God's two books, the Bible and Nature.

Historically Brethren scholars were not only interested in the study of languages, above all the Biblical languages, but they were also deeply involved in the study of botany and geology. They committed themselves to learning about God from nature. For some this extended into the study of physics. Many Christian traditions today support and encourage this kind of intellectual commitment. The American Scientific Affiliation is a product of this.

What is more difficult is to engage in the study of philosophy and literature. Some girls did study these subjects. However, I remember hearing teaching that steered us away from this engagement in the university, in studying human knowledge and literature. One of our friends was not even allowed to read novels. It may have been a small minority who held such narrow beliefs but it seemed to me to represent a strict adherence to a certain ideological position which many Brethren gave lip service to.

There was no place at a university level for Exclusive Brethren to engage in Christian scholarship. A variety of accomodations were made and knowledge was integrated by the individual.

Our own family had a deep commitment to education for several generations and there were many families with this same attitude. However, there was a strain of anti-academic teaching that recurred at different times, and it presented a real conflict for some. On the whole I would say that there was little concept of a contemporary faith-based scholarship on the original texts of the Bible for Exclusive Brethren young people.

This post is intended to present a more reflective analysis of the Brethren position on education than my last post on this topic. Many exclusive Brethren did not live in a manner that was significantly different from their neighbours, but there was nontheless a core set of teaching that kept the Brethren from more extensive engagement in Christian scholarship.

This post refers to a particular group of Exclusive Brethren. There are some well-known Brethren scholars in Biblical Studies today. I would like to learn more about them.


Danny Zacharias said...

being a wannabe scholar (i.e. studying towards the goal of a PhD) I can chime in my own experience in a brethren church and wanting to go to a bible college. I was emphatically told that it was the wrong thing to do. Although the premillenial aspects were inherent in their distaste for Christian higher education, another facet was their strong (militant) belief that the local church ought to be the center of all ministry. They extremely disliked any parachurch organizations (of which they considered bible colleges to be) unless they were brethren and specifically tied to the building up of the local (brethren) church. When I told leaders I was going to bible college, they told me that if I wanted bible education that I could go into a special intense study under the guidance of the local church elders. This is another key to their dislike of bible colleges- if they are 'church', why aren't they lead according to biblical prescription?

Unfortunately, sometimes it seemed that their biblical convictions amounted to a power-trip - the (male) elders are the authorities, and the authority is given by God, not by degrees awarded to you.

Just thought I'd share a bit of my experience :)

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Danny, for sharing that. It seems to me that there was an intense desire to study but no realistic approach as to how to go about it.

Matthew Celestine said...

Good post.

I think a lot of other Christians have become to accepting of higher education and are in danger of devoting to many resources into this area, taking energy away from the local church.

Every Blessing in Christ