Not too long ago, Messiah College (my alma mater!) tenured professor Eric Seibert posted a few guest blogs on Peter Enns’s Rethinking Biblical Christianity (#1, #2, #3). The subject of the posts was the very difficult and disturbing images of God littered throughout the Old Testament text. These primarily violent portraits of God have proven problematic to believers (and unbelievers, for that matter) for generations. Such “problem texts” are among Dr. Seibert’s central research emphases and are the subject of at least two of his books.
Evidently, Seibert’s views have unsettled a handful of evangelicals in various realms, including Christianity Today, Boyce College, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (And just today, the terms of the argument are being drawn – Owen Strachan sees two sides, Greg Boyd sees three.) All the links are there so you can chase the threads for yourself, if this sort of thing gets your sugars up. But the long and short of it is this: Eric Seibert’s views on the violent images of God in the Old Testament are not identical to those of traditional evangelical Christianity. (This is not to say that other faithful believers have not taken Seibert’s tack. Many have.) Some who hold those traditional views are painting Dr. Seibert as a heretic and coming just short of demanding his removal from his seat as professor of Old Testament at Messiah College.
I attended Messiah from 1998-2002, left for a year, and then returned for two more to work in administration, promoting the school. I love the place, and greatly appreciate the education and myriad experiences provided by the college. Although I studied in the biblical studies department, I never did take a class from Eric Seibert. If I recall correctly, he freshmen year of teaching was my senior year of study. All this to say that I cannot really speak to Seibert’s views or teaching platform and how it may or may not align with Messiah’s statement of faith.
But I can speak to something else I experienced at Messiah for which I am eternally grateful.
I came to the college as an 18 year-old from a relatively conservative evangelical background. My father was a Baptist pastor with (at that time) slight charismatic leanings. That was what I knew. That was all I knew. I arrived on campus and soon had friends from all sorts of Christian backgrounds: Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed, Brethren in Christ, Episcopal.
Suddenly, I was taking classes and eating lunch and worshiping with young men and women who had all sorts of different ways of expressing their common conviction, that through Jesus Christ our Creator was reconciling the world to Himself. Moreover, I was listening to lectures and engaging in dialog with professors who took differing views on aspects of the faith I had believed decided. My eyes were opened to the profound truth that ours is not a monolithic faith, but a multi-faceted one. There was abundant grace for all of us in God’s kingdom.
In 2006, Messiah’s Douglas Jacobsen (church history & theology) and Rodney Sawatsky (college president from 1994 until his untimely death in 2004) published Gracious Christianity: Living the Love We Profess, a brief primer on the kind of practical theology embedded within the college’s ethos. The book’s title accurately described the kind of atmosphere I experienced at many levels as a student and administrator.
It has not been uncommon in recent years for Christian colleges to part ways with professors whose theological research takes them to the fringes of “accepted” doctrine. While such instances are often defended on the basis of protecting a religious institution’s theological identity, they simultaneously hinder academic integrity and, more importantly, demonstrate an institution’s unwillingness to allow for gracious conversation.
In light of all the barking surrounding Eric Seibert, my appeal to my alma mater is simple: Retain your gracious heritage; retain Dr. Seibert.