After 25 years, Ramsey Michaels is out at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.

“Nowhere is biblical scholarship so polarized as over the question of the historical Jesus,” J. Ramsey Michaels wrote as the opening words of his book Servant and Son. Partly as a result of the polarization caused by his book, Michaels resigned his position as professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a position he had held for 25 years.

Michaels has been a brilliant but controversial professor at this suburban Boston evangelical seminary. In fact, Gordon-Conwell has had a tradition of controversial New Testament scholars. Over the past 15 years, two or more New Testament professors have resigned, at least in part because the trustees, administration, and faculty senate felt their approach to the Bible violated the seminary’s statement of faith.

That statement includes belief in the Bible as “inspired of God, hence free from error” (Article 1) and in Jesus Christ, who “lived a sinless life” and united in one person “divine and human natures” (Article 4).

It is these two articles that the board of trustees and faculty senate felt had been violated by Michaels’s most recent book.

Published in late 1981 by John Knox Press, Servant and Son is a scholarly effort to include in the “new quest for the historical Jesus” something of what Jesus tells us about himself and his beliefs. It attempts to avoid the traps into which nineteenth-century liberalism fell when it turned Jesus into either a religious fanatic (Albert Schweitzer) or someone about whom we know almost nothing (Bultmann). Michaels’s study of the Gospels produces, however, a Jesus in many ways as different from that of traditional Christianity as that of the liberalism he eschews.

The contents of Michaels’s book were already a topic of conversation and concern among Gordon’s trustees early last year. Long before that, however, the question of the relationship between the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible and such methods of interpreting the New Testament as form and redaction criticism had been debated at length. Part of that debate was edited by Michaels and Roger Nicole, senior professor of theology, and published as Inerrancy and Common Sense (Baker, 1980).

That book did not end the internal debate, however. Not much later Nicole published a booklet, Inerrancy at Gordon-Conwell, in which he calls for a “hermeneutic of inerrancy” that puts limits on the use of form and redaction criticism. (Form criticism characteristically speaks of three stages through which the individual stories in the Gospels passed—the setting in the life of Jesus, the setting in the life of the early church, and the adaptations made by the individual Gospel writers. Redaction criticism is the biblical discipline that studies the ways the Gospel writers edited their material.)

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One June 11, 1982, the executive committee of the board of trustees met and directed President Robert E. Cooley to formulate a process that would evaluate Michaels’s hermeneutical method and determine whether it was in harmony with the seminary’s statement of faith.

Numerous sessions with Michaels, other members of the Gordon-Conwell faculty, and the 11-member academic affairs and 13-member executive committees of the board of trustees followed over a period of six months. The board of trustees then turned the information over to the faculty senate on January 14. In addition to Nicole, this body consisted of Royce G. Gruenler (New Testament), Robert E. Fillinger (Christian education), Douglas Stuart (Old Testament), Wesley A. Roberts (church history), David F. Wells (historical and systematic theology), and Stephen Charles Mott (Christian social ethics).

By a 6-to-1 decision, with Mott writing the minority report, the senate decided that Michaels’s book was not consistent with the seminary’s statement of faith. After a two-hour interview with the Harvard-trained author it admitted that he “personally holds fully to the GCTS statement of faith.” Nevertheless, it regretfully reached four conclusions and listed specific passages from Servant and Son to back them up:

• The book contains some statements that violate the doctrine of inerrancy “in that they appear to aver that something asserted in Scripture as historical may not in fact have occurred as represented in the Gospel record.” One of the five passages cited refers to “the discrepancies between the fourth Gospel and the Synoptics” concerning who saw the Holy Spirit descending as a dove—Jesus, John the Baptist, or both. Michaels concluded, “If John the Baptist actually had received such an unmistakable personal revelation, it would likely be reflected in the Gospel tradition more than it is.”

• The book contains other assertions that “state or imply that certain things presented in Scripture in an historical manner are only probably true, and/or merely reflect the attitude of the Gospel writers or their intended audience rather than the original events, conversations, discourses or interpretations they purport to record.” Two of the passages again refer to the account of John’s baptism of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. Michaels says we are not “dealing with a strictly historical assertion” and that it is “precarious” to use John 1:32–34 “as conclusive evidence that John the Baptist saw the sign of the dove and confessed faith in Jesus at his baptism.” Rather, “Jesus and Jesus alone saw the Spirit in the form of a dove at his baptism, and only Jesus heard the voice of God.”

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• The “general tone and faint assertions” of the book “raise doubts as to Professor Michaels’s own commitment to inerrancy,” in that it makes the Gospel writers appear to have so modified the historical materials that they are remote from the events described. The senate majority cited a dozen passages from the book, one of which says of Matthew’s and Luke’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, “Whether it is a literal account of what happened on one particular occasion in the desert, or whether it is the distillation of a conflict Jesus experienced again and again throughout his ministry, is neither possible, nor necessary for the reader to decide with certainty.”

• The book so emphasizes the humanity of Jesus that it does not sufficiently reflect Michaels’s faith in the deity of Christ. Michaels, for example, argues that Jesus shared the racial exclusivism of his people until the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30) opened his eyes to a universal outlook. The Lord’s Prayer was Jesus’ own prayer originally, including the petition for the forgiveness of sins. “This is possible because he identified himself fully and radically with his people in all their sinfulness.”

In his five-page dissenting opinion, Mott argues that Servant and Son neither asserts that there are errors in Scripture nor denies the deity of Christ.

Cooley then communicated the findings to Michaels and asked for his response. On March 25 Michaels wrote to Cooley accepting the findings of the faculty senate and affirming “without hesitancy or qualification” his belief in “the total inerrancy of Scripture and the full deity, as well as humanity, of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He noted, however, that the senate’s understanding of the seminary’s statement of faith “implies a greater restriction on certain historical and critical methods than I and some of my colleagues had previously thought.” He also observed that though the senate “assumed the guidelines needed for biblical interpretation,” it did not attempt to spell them out positively.

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Cooley then informed Michaels that he would “prepare a letter of dismissal for cause which could result in termination of contract.” On April 2, however, “after much prayer and personal struggle,” Michaels sent Cooley his letter of resignation. He indicated that he had changed his mind about accepting the senate’s decision. “I now realize,” he wrote, “that more is at stake in the issues that divide us than I had first thought—nothing less, in fact, than the true humanity and historicity of Jesus Christ.”

On April 5 Cooley accepted Michaels’s resignation and assured him that according to customary academic procedure, his resignation would not be effective until July 1984, though he would have no further teaching or faculty responsibilities for the 1983–84 academic year. Full salary and fringe benefits were guaranteed, whether or not Michaels accepted another position during that year. Cooley applauded Michaels for “a most outstanding Christian spirit” throughout “extremely difficult days for you, as well as for the faculty and seminary administration.”

News of the resignation spread rapidly among the many Gordon-Conwell alumni. On April 13 Michaels wrote “Why I Resigned,” a one-page explanation that cited “irreconcilable differences with the executive committee of the board of trustees” concerning “the humanity and historicity of Jesus Christ, and the legitimacy of studying the Gospels historically.” The senators, he wrote “in effect prohibit any use of the historical-critical method at Gordon-Conwell in the study of the Gospels.” “The decision,” he added, “commits the faculty essentially to the hermeneutic of Harold Lindsell, the chairman of our board of trustees.” (Lindsell, former editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and author of The Battle for the Bible, is well-known for his defense of inerrancy.)

On April 28 President Cooley wrote to all the alumni of Gordon-Conwell and enclosed a letter from Roger Nicole summarizing the actions of the faculty senate. That letter speaks of Michaels as a close friend and colleague, but criticizes what he calls a “kind of fluttering hermeneutic, by which, under the guise of historical reconstruction, some interpreters take the liberty of second-guessing the psychological motivation of the human authors of Scripture and/or the people whose lives and utterances they report.” He added, “This is a very real threat in the evangelical constituency at large and not simply at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.”

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Jerry B. Jenkins has been named manager of the publishing division of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Jenkins, 33, had been director of Moody Press since 1981. He is a former editor of Moody Monthly magazine and the author of more than 30 books, including biographies of B. J. Thomas, Henry Aaron, and Walter Payton.

Evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of former President Jimmy Carter, has been diagnosed as having cancer of the pancreas. The news of her illness led to a private family reunion last month. Stapleton has rejected conventional medical treatment. She says she will rely on God, a strict diet, and exercise to heal her.

John Alexander MacKay, 94, president emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary and a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.; June 9, at Meadow Lakes Retirement Community in Hights-town, New Jersey, of natural causes.

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