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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 73–83 

Faith and Faithfulness in Scholarly Pursuits

V. George Shillington

Permit me to state up front my gratitude to the editors of Direction for their invitation to write this essay about my spiritual and intellectual quest for truth and meaning in life and career. Had they not requested, I may not have engaged in such a soul-searching activity. I trust the ensuing product will energize others on their journey.

Does advancement in academic understanding find a corresponding advancement in faith understanding? The answer is not a simple yes or no.

The career I had in mind as a young man, and eventually practiced institutionally until recently, would involve research, teaching, and publishing in the area of early Jewish and Christian literature and history. In hindsight, I believe it was my early experience in a very religious environment in Ireland that piqued my interest in the subject of religious life and thought. My father was a registered lay preacher in the Methodist Church in Northern Ireland. His education was basic elementary school, but he read the Bible daily and diligently, and talked of his findings during the evenings after he came in from his work on the farm. I used to accompany him on his preaching assignments. I would listen intently to {74} what he said to the people. Then on the way home I would quiz him about some of the points he made.

Beyond that I attended Sunday school and worship services regularly in First Presbyterian Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland. That was my spiritual home alongside my Christian family home for the first twenty-one years of my life. The minister of First Presbyterian, Reverend Lundie, exemplified an unblemished life in the community, and preached clear and challenging sermons. He visited members in their homes regularly. On one such visit in our home, when I was approaching nineteen, he addressed me concerning my need to become a member of the church. To do so I would have to attend a communicant’s class for five evenings. I signed up right away. During one of the discussions in the class the minister prefaced his question to me with this remark, “George, you’re the theologian of the group. . . .”

I had a vague notion what the label implied and wondered why the minister would describe me thus. Then it occurred to me that he probably sensed something of the kind when he visited in our home. On those occasions I made a point of being present in the parlor to listen in on the scintillating conversations, and to add some comments of my own. The minister’s thoughtful conversations with our family intrigued me. I would ask him questions about various matters pertaining to the Christian faith. On one occasion, having read a book by Leslie Weatherhead (1893–1976), Psychology in Service of the Soul, 1 I asked the minister a couple of questions that arose in my mind from my reading of that book. I suspect it was that line of inquiry in our home that inclined the minister to address me, not sarcastically, as “the theologian of the group.” It amazes me how a poignant remark from a significant other can set a person on course that remains in focus for the rest of life. I believe that was so in my case.


At twenty-one, I immigrated to Canada in hope of carving out a career there. Obliged to work on the home farm in Ireland for six years, my schooling upon arrival in Toronto was minimal. I had only one year of secondary school. I got a job in a large department store in Toronto and enrolled at the same time in upper-level high school courses two evenings per week in preparation for university. Eventually I was able to resign from my job to engage full-time in post-secondary education.

I started out by enrolling in a four-year undergraduate program at Central Baptist Seminary (CBS) in Toronto towards a bachelor of theology degree. Instruction in that setting was solid, but less than challenging. I don’t recall going home any evening after classes wondering about my faith commitment. I learned Greek and Hebrew there, for which I am {75} grateful to this day. Otherwise, the professors at CBS raised few really critical issues that I can recall. Looking back, I realize that CBS at that time kept well within the bounds of conservative Christianity with which I was rather well acquainted. That said, I was grateful then, as I am still, for the discipline I learned at CBS in reading primary and secondary sources on various aspects of Christianity, and of writing about discoveries made in the process. The professors at CBS would guide the students in their reading. So-called liberal theologians were identified, and their publications treated with caution and often with criticism. So my homegrown faith was not in serious jeopardy in that academic setting, which probably served well at that juncture in my quest for advanced education. But I longed for more. I knew in my heart and head that there was much more to learn, and also a fair amount to unlearn. The unlearning became more challenging than the learning. I shall illustrate the latter in due course.


No sooner had I graduated from CBS with a BTh, than I wanted to move beyond the constraints of religious studies specifically. In any case, I needed a broader degree if I hoped to reach my career goal of teaching at college or university. I promptly registered in a BA program at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario. The first year was an eye-opener. And the process continued, leading up to the degree. Even though I declared my major in English literature, I wanted to explore other subjects seriously. So, in addition to the required five courses for the English major, I registered for two courses in anthropology, one in philosophical logic, two in psychology, one in ethics, another in archaeology, one in economics, another in geology, and one in religious studies, among others, to make up the fifteen full-course credits required for the bachelor’s degree.

One full-year course in religious studies, titled “Jesus, Judaism and Christianity,” opened up a world of thought I had not encountered in the same way to that point. The professor was rigorous in urging honest inquiry from the students. Here’s an example. I had left CBS thinking the Apostle Paul wrote all thirteen letters under his name, and maybe also Hebrews, which is otherwise anonymous. Suddenly in the university course, I had to become “critical” of my “assured” position about the authorship of the thirteen letters under Paul’s name. Prior to that course I simply accepted the stated authorship of all thirteen without question, internal evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Otherwise the post-Paul writer would be deceitful by daring to write under the name of the earlier Paul. That line of thinking challenged me for a while, but I gradually engaged in unconstrained research into the matter. {76}

To my surprise, I discovered I was judging the “false” writers of the time inappropriately. The practice of writing letters of instruction to congregations in a later period in history under the assumed name of a celebrated leader from an earlier situation was quite common in both Jewish and Christian culture, though it is not today. But some of my teachers had previously taught me to view the Scripture as “inerrant” in all matters of faith and history, including the historical authorship question. I found it difficult in my undergraduate university religious studies course to adjust my seasoned paradigm about biblical inerrancy, particularly concerning the historical authorship of the biblical texts as given.

I simply had to adjust, given the evidence previously obscured by a predisposed conviction about the Bible. The alternative was to give up on my hope of becoming a professor of biblical studies and theology in a reputable institution of higher learning in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. And adjust I did eventually, and I hope authentically, grateful in the end to be free from traditional and doctrinal mores in the pursuit of truth and righteousness in relation to Jesus Christ. The adjustment allowed me to read with different inner eyes, and thereby discover wisdom that would otherwise have remained behind a veil of unknowing. New insights gained from research opened up a new world to me. No longer was I prepared to pigeonhole my faith, isolated from the ever-widening horizon of truth and justice and love that enlivened my understanding. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures were no longer holy relics to be read selectively in church services in support of doctrinal points hammered out through the centuries. The biblical writings are a treasured record of the past, written by people in quest of God and goodness, of faith and faithfulness, for people of all ages prepared to follow suit in their new time zone and new horizon of meaning.

If I should dare to reduce the whole dynamic of learning and living to a single construct, it would be this: faith and scholarship demand integration to be authentic. Otherwise the one is sacrificed on the altar of the other, and that simply will not do. The former without the latter renders the profession of faith inauthentic. Education enriches faith and also faithfulness. By faithfulness I mean the outworking of faith in Jesus and God in terms of ethical/moral behavior in relationships. As one of my valued mentors put it, “Authenticity lies in the coherence between word and deed.” 2


Perhaps I should not call the substance of this section an “excursus.” I trust the following will confirm why I chose to do so. {77}

Without equivocation, I submit that the practice of faith-and-education in Christian community is imperative. Otherwise the currency of community conscience withers on the vine. The community of the faithful should hold leaders like myself responsible. That I accept. But if the well-educated leaders are muzzled in what they can and cannot teach, the community becomes authoritarian, and by that token departs from the very idea of dynamic faith-community. Truth is at stake. True community of faith dissolves authoritarianism and elitism in the service of truth and justice and love in human relationships. The responsible integration of faith and learning is honorable and life-giving. Truly educated leaders enrich faithful congregants. Of course, educated members of the congregation likewise enrich the whole body, including the leader(s).

Congregations of faithful people of God need to keep current with the shape of the society in which they live in order to bear witness. Otherwise the one-time faithful congregation becomes effete: unable to interact authentically with people where they live and work and think in a postmodern scientific culture. Or worse, the faith community isolates itself from the place where people conduct their lives. The effect is one of truncation: separating aspects of faith from avenues of commerce and trade and households, but especially from academic verification and the practice of science.

Over the years I have tried, perhaps not hard enough, to bring my discoveries to congregations through my preaching behind pulpits, or by engaging participants in an adult class in church settings. Education is in essence discovery, ongoing discovery. And discovery could mean revising former conclusions in light of new evidence. This happens as much in biblical studies as anywhere else. Sometimes English translations falter and so blur the thrust of a text under investigation. Here is a case in point.

The little metaphor in Matthew 5:13 about disciples of Jesus being “the salt of the earth []” has come to mean the salt on the table, sodium chloride. That understanding of the saying is so deeply entrenched that any new insight becomes suspect, or worse, dismissed out of hand. The traditional interpretation of the saying spins out the idea that disciples are to add something pleasant to society: make the good life a little better than it is already. Or if not that, then the “salt” (halas) is seen as a preservative to keep meat fresh over a long period. So disciples are to preserve the good already in the world (kosmos). Notice the inappropriate change of term from “earth” to “world.” 3

Once upon a time in a Greek class, I was driven to reevaluate the sense of the English translations, and the corresponding interpretation thereof. The so-called “salt” is “of the earth” (halas tēs gēs), namely for soil or land. And that is explicitly confirmed in the parallel text of Luke 14:34–35. {78} When the “salt” substance loses its effectiveness, “it is fit neither for the soil [] nor for the manure pile; they throw it away” (NRSV). Clearly the substance in this Lukan text is neither preservative nor seasoning. It is for the soil or manure pile, not the table; it is transformative and life-giving, not preservative or enhancing. The issue is not the loss of taste. Table salt never loses its taste regardless of its state. The issue is the loss of potency (mōrainō) that promotes the growth of plants in the soil that gives life to the hungry. No one in their right mind would spread sodium chloride salt on a vegetable garden. It would ruin the soil. The term halas in this case refers to potash or something similar. People ask: Was such fertilizer for land available at the time and place of Jesus? Judging from Luke’s account, among others, it certainly was. To this day the fertilizing substances, especially potash, found in the area of the Dead Sea are available in abundance. 4

When I have given this interpretation in congregations it is usually met with either indifference or outright rejection. But there are some who catch on, and celebrate with me. Genuine scholarship belongs within the discerning community of faith, not in isolation from faith. Faith develops in the presence of knowledge. If it were not so, faith would become little more than lifeless dogma, unfit for genuine human endeavor in the present world.

The reason I called this section of the essay an excursus is because it illustrates, in some measure, a tension that Christian scholars, especially biblical scholars, experience when they move out of the academic classroom into a church setting with their findings. The main thrust of the essay, however, has to do with my personal collaboration between faith and scholarship. And to that theme I now return.


Shortly after I had the two undergraduate degrees in hand, I was able to write a thesis for a master of divinity degree from CBS. No sooner had I that credential to my credit than I received an invitation from the president of Emmanuel Bible College (EBC) in Kitchener, Ontario, to join the faculty of the college as Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies. To say the least, I was overjoyed and surprised by the invitation. Surprised because EBC was supported by the Missionary Church, and I was not a member of that denomination. When my family moved to Kitchener-Waterloo, I had come upon the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church. On our very first visit my wife and I found that congregation welcoming and the preaching engaging. Dr. Frank C. Peters was the pastor at the time. He was also the president of WLU where I was studying. We became members within a year. 5 Imagine my surprise, then, when I was invited to join the faculty of EBC, a school sponsored by a different denomination. {79}

The eight years I spent at EBC energized me, and the faculty affirmed me in going further with my education. Within two years I had earned a master of arts in the graduate program of the Religious Studies Department of WLU. My thesis led me deeper into Jewish literature from the post-temple period. I was interested in finding out how temple symbolism (or mythology) developed over time in the absence of the physical temple of Jerusalem. I discovered that the symbolic development was greater in the temple’s absence than in its physical presence. 6 Fortunately, I had ample resources for research available between WLU and the University of Waterloo. I titled the thesis thus: “The Background and Nature of Temple Mythology in Rabbinic Literature.” 7

I mention this progression particularly because I wondered if a similar pattern of development happened in Christianity. Upon further investigation in the years following, I detected the pattern invariably. Following the death of the historical Jesus at about 30 CE, the new Jesus movement, made up of both Jews and Gentiles initially, sought increasingly to define itself over against the historic, ethnic Judaism that did not accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. Symbols and rituals and stories arose out of the religious experience of the new Christian congregations and were retrojected back into the first third of the first century CE. The pattern was similar to that of the rabbinic literature with respect to the earlier Jewish temple of Jerusalem before its destruction.

Examples of the pattern already in the New Testament include the cosmic hymn of Philippians 2:6–11 that celebrates the origin and self-sacrificial character of Jesus; the two different birth narratives in Matthew and Luke that celebrate respectively the uniquely transcendent character of Jesus; and the lofty Judeo-Hellenistic prologue of John 1:1–18 that celebrates the divine status inherent in the character of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth. These are some instances of later developments in Christian thought within the writings of the New Testament itself, written some twenty to sixty years after the life and death of Jesus, and presented as though the later thought was actual and observable from the beginning to the end of Jesus’s life on earth. As Christian history moved forward beyond the era of the New Testament documents, Christian self-definition became more and more elaborate with respect to the origin of the faith once upon a time transmitted through the historical followers of Jesus.

This discovery put my treasured faith to the test. It had not occurred to me in my earlier Christian life in Ireland to distinguish between later composition-time-and-situation of texts and the earlier narrative-time-and-situation depicted in those texts. The later understanding of “the faith,” as in doctrine, became embedded in the narratives that depict the earlier time. 8 This construct is so familiar to me now that I wonder how {80} it could have bothered me so when I first discovered it while engaged in my MA research. But it did bother me then, though not to the point of losing my dynamic faith in God as revealed in Jesus. I see it, rather, as a significant moment in the ever-widening horizon of meaning that comes from ongoing investigation. Faith adjusts, as do other aspects of the human imagination, in the process of investigative discovery.

I am sometimes surprised at myself for keeping faith as strongly as I have, given the discoveries I have made through rereading primary and secondary records that were present but scarcely explored during my earlier confession of faith in Ireland. I owe a great debt to my Mennonite Brethren friends and colleagues for encouraging me in my research and teaching. Academic achievement, I submit, can be carried out authentically, without preordained outcomes, and at the same time the scholar can keep the faith once delivered by Jesus himself and transmitted through the filters of historic Christianity. I like to think I have made that faith my own without living a bifurcated life: a scholar of Judaic and Christian literature outside the church, and a naïve person of faith inside the church. I simply cannot exist in such a double-standard world. Some people have indeed abandoned churchly religion in light of their advanced education in biblical literacy and historical investigation. But the mystery of the universe remains in any case, and as long as the sense of mystery exists, faith should also. It would be the same if I had chosen a science track for my academic career. Scientific research is bound to admit at the end of the day that human understanding is incomplete. Mystery remains, and with mystery, faith.


No sooner had I completed my MA than I sought out a doctoral program. I learned that E. P. Sanders was Professor of Jewish and Christian Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. By the time I applied for the PhD program in the Religious Studies department in 1977, Sanders already had distinguished himself. In the fall of that year his now classic book appeared: Paul and Palestinian Judaism. 9 I visited Sanders in his office in mid-summer 1977, when he was still creating an index for his new book, and laid before him my transcripts together with a passionate plea to confirm my application for the PhD program. He did so without hesitation.

Insofar as my major study would be in Western religious thought and practice, the department required that I take several courses in Eastern religion. I chose the Hindu religious tradition. The idea of pitting my Christian religion against Hinduism was summarily ruled out of order, as it should. Hinduism had to be explored on its own terms without prejudice. I had good teachers, and the experience widened my horizon yet again. {81} If anything, my own faith was enriched by the study of “the other” under the tutelage of highly regarded professors in that field.

But my major had to become my focus. Sanders remained my principal supervisor, for which I will be forever grateful. But the second reader was the late, and highly esteemed, Ben F. Meyer. I took two advanced courses in hermeneutics with Meyer that have guided my career ever since. The seminars with both Meyer and Sanders were richly rewarding. In Sanders’s seminars, the group of us would read various Greek texts together. We were not allowed to have an English translation with us. That practice forced us to prepare well in advance of our meeting, and it pushed us also to explore alternate ways of translating Greek terms into English in accordance with the literary, social, and historical context.

Eventually I had to put forward a proposal for a dissertation. I chose the area of Paul’s undisputed correspondence, within and around which my research would be carried out. I wanted to know how much Paul had picked up about the historical Jesus, and along with that, how he interpreted his Jewish Scriptures in light of his experience of the risen Christ/Messiah. It was the risen Messiah that occupied his thought. I discovered that Paul showed little interest in recovering the Jesus of history, except for his efficacious death by crucifixion. That was the significant turning point in history for Paul. I noticed also that Paul used typology to understand the significance of his Jewish Scripture in relation to the risen Jesus as the end-time Messiah, not only for the Jewish people, but also for all peoples. The thesis committee accepted my proposal, and ultimately approved the finished product, capped by a PhD degree. I titled the work, “The Figure of Jesus in the Typological Thought of Paul.” 10

I think the question that arises out of all of this academic pursuit can be put succinctly. Does advancement in academic understanding find a corresponding advancement in faith understanding? The answer is not a simple yes or no. The experience of some academics known to me is that the faith they once professed they then disowned altogether in light of their education, without pursuing faith-insight further. In short, they became a-theistic: there is no creative intentionality in the universe beyond human imagination and creativity. That appears to me to be an untenable position. There is far too much unknown about the universe to be so assured that no form of intelligence exists beyond human intelligence. It also appears to me to be unseemly arrogant, a posture not otherwise welcome in academic circles. If a scholar’s quest is for clearer and more assured results, whatever the field of inquiry, then why not let that be true of one’s understanding of faith. I think I can say honestly that my faith-understanding grew in harmony with my academic-understanding. Otherwise, I would have to declare myself inauthentic. {82}


Now that I have raised the matter of authenticity again, I need to make one further point before closing this discussion. I hope I have made it clear that genuine education that sharpens insight also puts one’s faith to the test. The appropriate response, it seems to me, is to pass the test, not disown the subject. Faith grows in light of new insights. Imagination is enhanced thereby. But there is one factor in my experience, not mentioned above, that tested my faith almost to a breaking point. That factor was a completely inauthentic profession of faith. Let me explain.

I have known personally some “Christian” ministers and teachers of the gospel whose profession of faith in Jesus Christ falls far short of the moral character required by such verbal profession. Without going into detail, I became personally disaffected by such a professing Christian minister when I was twenty-one. The denomination that ordained him knew of his double-standard life—from overt prevarication to sexual immorality while performing pastoral ministry—and did nothing about it. I remember asking myself at the time, What’s the point of professing a faith relationship with Jesus Christ if such a professing Christian minister fails to meet the demands of such profession? Discipleship with Jesus is costly. Anyone unwilling to practice the ethical cost should not pretend to be a follower of Jesus, much less a leader in a Christian community.

Hence the two pieces in the title of this essay: faith and faithfulness. Faith in word without faithfulness in corresponding moral practice borders on outright blasphemy. There are in our time too many who fall prey to such an inauthentic profession of faith in Jesus Christ. To quote Meyer again, “authenticity, in fact, is the heart of the matter.” 11 Scholarship is not the bane of faith and faithfulness. Scholarship and faith can be, indeed should be, intimate coordinates. This has been, and still is, my experience as a scholar and as a Christian.

I would be remiss not to mention in closing the privilege and joy it was for me to serve on the faculty of Mennonite Brethren Bible College from 1981 until its close in 1992. When Concord College emerged in Manitoba out of MBBC, I was given a faculty position in that setting as well, until Concord College merged with Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Menno Simons College to become the Canadian Mennonite University that continues today. There again, I was fortunate enough to move into the new environment of CMU, to enjoy fellowship with a cross-section of colleagues from all three academic institutions for seven years, two years full-time and five part-time. I rejoice greatly as I look back over my thirty-seven years of teaching and research and publication. I cannot think of a profession more rewarding, or more challenging. 12 {83}


  1. Leslie D. Weatherhead, Psychology in Service of the Soul (London: Epworth, 1929), reprinted in 1951.
  2. Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979), 252–53.
  3. A good example of the overt shift from “earth” () to “world” (kosmos) appears in the title of the book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker and into the World, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999).
  4. Dead Sea Works, a branch of ICL Fertilizers, is the seventh largest producer and supplier of potash products in the world. See My reinterpretation of Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34–35 was first published in “Salt of the Earth? (Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34f),” Expository Times 112, no. 4 (2001): 120–21.
  5. I was rebaptized as a believer when I enrolled in CBS to accommodate my student-preaching in Baptist churches. I still affirm my earlier baptism as an infant in the Presbyterian Church in honor of my faithful parents.
  6. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 CE and never rebuilt.
  7. V. George Shillington, “The Background and Nature of Temple Mythology in Rabbinic Literature” (master’s thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, 1976). Available online at
  8. For example, a comparison of the rendering of the parable of the great dinner in Luke 14:16–24 with the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:2–14 illustrates the point. The core parable of Jesus is present in both, but the details in Matthew reflect a later context out of which the author writes, which is then embedded into the original parable. Consider especially the burning of the city of the invited guests who did not come to the banquet. The Jewish city of Jerusalem and its temple were burned in 70 CE, some forty years after Jesus’s death. Matthew appears to have allegorized the original parable to indict the Jews who did not accept the salvation offered by God in the person of Jesus.
  9. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
  10. V. George Shillington, “The Figure of Jesus in the Typological Thought of Paul” (PhD diss., McMaster University, 1985). Available online at
  11. Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 1989), 45.
  12. Additional publications include Did Elijah Die? (Winnipeg, MB: Copeland, 1994); editor of Jesus and His Parables (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1997); 2 Corinthians, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1998); Reading the Sacred Text (London: T&T Clark, 2002); Jesus and Paul before Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011); James and Paul: The Politics of Identity at the Turn of the Ages (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015); and a personal memoir, Over the Chestnut Tree (2017).
V. George Shillington, an immigrant from Northern Ireland, is Professor Emeritus of Biblical and Theological Studies, Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg, Manitoba). He earned an MDiv from Central Baptist Seminary (Toronto, Ontario), an MA from Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario), and a doctorate in Religious Studies from McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario). For eight years he taught at Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario), and then spent an additional twenty-nine years teaching at CMU and its predecessor institutions.

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