Briefly Noted: On Keith Campbell and The Academy as a Mission Field

September 9, 2013 by Bruce Ashford

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In a recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus Keith Campbell challenges evangelicals to take a missional approach to the academy in general, and to international universities in particular. He argues that such an approach is good in-and-of-itself, and that it is particularly helpful during a time now because of the glut of scholars who hold terminal degrees biblical and theological studies compared with the relative dearth of openings (338). The traditional education path for American scholars, which involves earning successive degrees at the Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral level and the being hired immediately for a teaching position, is increasingly difficult to follow (342).

One solution to this problem, according to Campbell, is for evangelical scholars to take a broader view of the geographical scope of their calling (341). He looks for advancement of global evangelical scholarship on two fronts.

First, denominations should begin to promote higher education as a core missions strategy. He cites the relative lack of denominational promotion of higher education as mission as a problem, seeing the denominationally unaffiliated International Institute for Christian Studies (IICS) as a model for denominational mission boards to pursue (343–47).

Second, Campbell calls on individual scholars to thoroughly evaluate their own calling. He articulates four important points for consideration: (1) What is the individual’s ability level? Campbell argues that only the best scholars should compete for academic positions and writing contracts in the U.S., while the capable, but perhaps less academically gifted scholars can perhaps best serve the Kingdom by educating others overseas. (2) Where can the individual make the most significant Kingdom impact? Campbell calls for scholars to question whether their academic contribution in the U.S. will be comparable to their potential evangelistic impact overseas. (3) What are the individual’s motives for seeking a position in the U.S.? With the market in the U.S. overwhelmed with applicants, Campbell asserts, it is important for scholars to evaluate whether they are seeking to maximize their impact or to find the most comfortable career. (4) What are the individual’s social and economic circumstances? This is a question that is best considered early in the academic progression, according to Campbell, since marriage, property ownership, debt and course of study can all impact an individual’s ability to teach overseas. There may be some who are unable to serve overseas because of these factors (347–50).

While Campbell recognizes the difficulty of making contributions to the cutting edge of evangelical scholarship in some international circumstances, he argues that there may be unique opportunities for scholarly contributions from individuals serving in less conventional academic settings. Research may be more difficult in some settings because the latest scholarly publications are not readily available and daily activities like shopping may consume more precious research time. Yet Campbell recognizes that some of the historical difficulties in pursuing scholarship while overseas are being overcome through advances in electronic publications. Additionally, he offers that pursuing scholarship in a context outside of the U.S. may significantly enhance an individual’s contributions by helping them to consider alternative view points, engage in cultural experiences that enhance understanding of some biblical texts, and wrestle with questions that would go unasked in a conventional U.S. classroom (350–52).

Response

In the big picture of things, I could not agree more with Campbell. One place I differ is in his first point when he mentions that the better scholars might want to stay in the West, while those with lesser ability may want to go abroad. I’d modify that to say that the best and the brightest might very well find a better ROI by going to teach in the Global South and East.

With that said, I’ll add that the 20th century evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent. If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe.

Practical Steps

Consonant with Campbell’s approach, I wish to mention three practical steps we may take toward building a missiology for the academy.  But first, allow me to say that we should continue to do the one thing that evangelicals have not neglected: campus evangelism through student ministries. We should throw our support behind local church college ministries such as Generation Link and Campus Outreach, and behind campus ministries such as Campus Crusade or Baptist Campus Ministries. However, in addition to this aspect of campus ministry (on which evangelicals have focused), we must take at least three other practical steps (which we have often neglected):

First, our churches should preach and teach in such a way that they assign significance to the life of the mind, and to the realms of life represented by the academic disciplines. We must rid Christianity of the sub-Christian belief that our physical, material, and intellectual life doesn’t matter to God. It does matter, because Christ is Lord. Every station of life—whether it is biology, philosophy, literary criticism, or business marketing—matters to Christ and should be undertaken in a Christian manner. In taking these stations of life seriously, we are able to leverage them for Christ and his gospel. We proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives.

Second, our churches should encourage people with PhDs to take their credentials and their vocation overseas. There are hundreds of major universities in Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East who are eager to hire Americans who hold a PhD. Many of them are willing even to hire an evangelical whose PhD is from a seminary and whose expertise is in New Testament or Theology. Most American students who graduate with a PhD will never find a full-time teaching job here in the United States, but they might easily find one overseas in a country where their gospel influence would be significant.

Third, our churches should encourage some of their most gifted young people to take their PhDs from Ivy League schools or well-respected state universities, so that they might find themselves in tenure-track positions in those same types of institutions. The whole world is sending their best and brightest children to study in American universities. Those children are shaped by our American professors, and then are launched into influential positions here in the USA or elsewhere. Why not send them on their way after having been shaped by several robustly Christian professors who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn a position teaching in a major university?

Concluding Thought

Missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to shape it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.” The academy, both in the US and abroad, is ripe for professors whose vocation is motivated and shaped by the hope they find in Christ Jesus.

 

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