I interviewed Dr. Mark Olson, president of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Falls Church, Va.
To listen to the interview, click here.
Gayle: This is Gayle Trotter, and I’m sitting in the offices with Mark Olson, president of the John Leland Theological Seminary. Thank you, Mark, for taking time to talk with us.
Mark: Glad to be here, Gayle.
Gayle: We’re going to move into the second part of this discussion. Can you just give us a little background about your educational studies?
Mark: Sure, at Wake Forest University I did a bachelor’s in history, actually a focus on 20th century history. Then I did a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that’s a standard seminary degree that requires you take a wide range of courses about Bible and faith and Scripture. And then I did a Ph.D. in New Testament Early Christianity at your alma mater, the University of Virginia.
Gayle: Love a fellow Wahoo. Said it before, I’ll say it again.
Gayle: We’re just talking today about the development of the canon, and in part one of this discussion we talked about the development of the canon and how, unlike some other religions, the Bible did not really come down out of heaven between the leather covers. It was a process. It was an inspired process as we discussed. The early Christians really circulated these texts, and there were other texts as you mentioned – Luke talks about in his gospel – that were perhaps circulating at the same time, but the Christians at the time recognized the particular books in the New Testament, what we call the New Testament now, as being in the canon.
Gayle: And being accepted as authoritative and trust-worthy. And inspired.
Mark: And inspired by God. All those things are true. So I believe God directed the process, but there’s certainly a human element to it. God never sent down a magic list with 27 New Testament books on the list to distribute to all the churches. The Christians discovered this through a period of decades, and really even a couple of centuries. If we want to even include the periphery of the canon – say for example 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Hebrews and Revelation and Jude – those books, there’s some debate about. The bulk of the canon though – the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the book of Acts and Paul’s 13 letters – those are decided on by the mid-second century. The great majority of Christians accept all those as Scripture.
Gayle: So you’re serving now as the president of a theological seminary in Falls Church, Virginia, and you’ve been to seminary yourself, and you’ve also been a pastor, so you understand what the demands are on a pastor. And what kind of intellectual background, education, training you need.
Gayle: And the ability to communicate that to your congregation.
Mark: And in an area like Washington, D.C., where so many people are so well-educated, it’s even more important that ministers in churches be well-educated. And not just have the practical understanding of how their church operates, though that’s crucial, but if you’re going to be effective in ministry in the D.C. area you really need to have some sort of theological education.
Gayle: So what kind of people come to your seminary?
Mark: A wide range of people. We have a tremendous ethnic diversity. Thirty percent of our students are African American, probably another 10 or 12 percent are Hispanic or Asian American or internationals, and just a little bit over 50 percent are Anglos. We have people of a wide range of ages. We have some, say Betsy Rice right out of Dartmouth, finished her undergrad and came to us and is a very young student. And then we have other students in their 50s and 60s. The most typical Leland student is in their 30s or 40s, but many of them have families – wives, husbands, children.
Gayle: So they have a little bit of demand on their time, I would say.
Mark: Lots. As you would understand Gayle quite well.
Gayle: That is right.
Mark: A lot of demand. And Leland was started in 1998 for these kinds of students especially. We’re not set up as a residential seminary; we have no dormitories. We are set up for non-traditional students, so most of our classes are at night – Monday nights, Tuesday nights, Thursday nights. Most of our students have full-time jobs. Some are stay-at-home moms, but their free time is in the evening, not during the day for the most part.
Mark: So most of our classes are in the evenings.
Gayle: So what’s involved for someone who wants to go to seminary?
Mark: Well, they’d certainly have to apply, just as you would do at a law school, a medical school; you would have to apply. If you want to do masters work with us, you would have to have an accredited undergraduate degree. We also offer diploma classes – religion classes – at the undergraduate level, and those are more appropriate for some folks who don’t have a college degree or people who want more study, but they don’t want it quite as tough as a masters class might be.
Gayle: So someone has made the decision to start going to seminary to pursue a degree, to pursue knowledge. What do you think some of the spiritual challenges are of going to seminary, from your personal experience, and also as being president of the seminary?
Mark: Well because we’re an institution of higher learning, and though we’re certainly an evangelical institution – we believe Scripture – we are an institution that believes in exposing our students to the widest range of literature – all the different opinions – and that can be unsettling in any academic context, certainly for faith. So if you’ve grown up, and maybe you’ve been in a Baptist church your whole life, and you have certain ways you think, you’re going to not only read Baptist authors who agree with you, but you’re going to read a wide range of other authors, and sometimes they’ll agree with you and sometimes their views are going to challenge your faith. And some of these people are very bright, and so a student may first find him or herself saying “oh my gosh,” what I believed all this time, here’s an author who disagrees with me. And they seem pretty bright, and they’ve got a good case to make. That’s unsettling, that’s challenging.
Gayle: And how did you resolve that? Did you struggle with that issue when you were in seminary?
Mark: And even before seminary, because I took some religious classes at Wake Forest. I walked into Charles Talbert’s New Testament class when I was 18 years old, and Charles exposed us right off the bat to all sorts of radical ideas as well as orthodox ideas, but both of them. And you’d read authors from both sides, so yeah, right off the bat you begin. You realize in a vague way maybe before seminary that there are people out there that don’t agree with you.
Mark: But it’s very different when you actually start; you’re required to read an author, and read all his or her arguments – and some of them are pretty powerful – that challenge your views. Certainly it’s challenging, and I was challenged at Wake. I mean I read Nietzsche, who thought Christianity was a horrible, foul thing perpetuated on the earth, and wished it was gone.
Mark: And so you read people that completely disagree, and then you read other people who are Christians, but their views of certain issues completely disagree with mine. For me, a challenge was reading very skeptical Christians who really didn’t have that much confidence in the authority of the New Testament, say for example.
Mark: And Rudolf Bultmann, in particular, was very influential in the middle 20th century, and a lot of my professors have been influenced by him. And so you read Bultmann, who doesn’t believe in any of the miracles at all, and yet still wants to claim to be a Christian, and that’s very unsettling to me.
Mark: So sure, I was certainly challenged.
Gayle: So how did you come to the place where you could kind of resolve that dissonance that you were feeling?
Mark: For me it was a combination of academic study and prayer and talking to God. Talking to other Christians who’ve been through the challenges; how do you resolve these things? But for me it was important to resolve it, because I am not the kind of person that can say “well, I’m gonna believe this even though I probably have no argument that could stand up to somebody else.” That doesn’t sit well with me. I want to go after the truth.
Mark: If somebody else has a perspective that’s different and they’ve got some evidence, I need to deal with it. I need to understand it, think it through. I need to be able to say, “if I need to modify my idea, then I need to modify my idea,” but let’s see what the evidence leads to.
Gayle: And did you find yourself modifying some of your ideas through seminary?
Mark: Well sure, and there’s also lots of things you hadn’t even thought of before, like I never had really any thought about what the canon process was, I just thought, “well here’s these books in the Bible, and that’s it.”
Gayle: Right, right.
Mark: And if somebody said, “well, how did it all come about?” I would have said, “you know, I’ve never thought about that.” So you have issues that come up.
Mark: And in some ways it might have been easier if God had just sent down the list of 27 books and “here’s your New Testament.” But history tends to be a messy process anyway.
Gayle: So what is the benefit of going through that struggle?
Mark: Well, I think you end up with a much stronger and deeper faith, and certainly a faith that could stand up in an area like Washington, D.C. There’s still parts of the Bible Belt where you might, in certain circles, be able to run around and not have any critical ideas at least openly expressed, and so your sort of “unthoughtful” faith might prosper quite well and not be disturbed. But in the D.C. area, or in any major metropolitan area, you’ve got people from all over the world, many of whom don’t have a Christian background. They’re not going to automatically just assume because it’s in our Scripture that it’s automatically true. If you want to have a faith that can stand up in this situation, you’ve got to be able to have a faith that can withstand some challenges.
Gayle: So you think it’s important to develop your intellect in pursuit of the relationship, your faith relationship, your faith commitment.
Mark: “Faith seeking understanding” is an old phrase that Christians have used, and I think that’s a very good way to put it. We have to have faith. It’s not just purely academic study. No academic study can take the place of a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, but I think in our context, the most effective ministry is ministry done by people who have reflected on their faith, who’ve read other perspectives, who seek an intellectual understanding of that faith. That’s a much more effective way to communicate with other people, especially in the D.C. area.
Gayle: And if you were not a Christian in the D.C. area, or somewhere else, who was listening to this interview, and you wanted to know how you could engage your intellect with the Christian faith to understand about it, how would you approach that?
Mark: That’s a great question. There would be several ways to engage your faith. One would certainly be to seek out a church that was accepting of people who are not yet believers, and willing to take you where you are. And talk to you and not be afraid of your perspective but honestly talk with you. Many pastors would be willing to do that. There’s some Christian authors. My personal favorite is C.S. Lewis.
Gayle: Of course.
Mark: But there are many others as well, N.T. Wright.
Gayle: What’s your favorite C.S. Lewis book? I have to ask.
Mark: Mere Christianity is my absolute favorite book of any Christian author, which is a book written not necessarily for Christians.
Mark: “Mere” Christianity – what’s the essence of Christianity? Let’s not worry about all the denominational labels. Lewis is not worried in that book about if you’re a Baptist or Episcopalian or Catholic or Presbyterian. But just what is “mere,” the essence of Christianity. And that’s a great way for someone that’s not yet sure about the Christian faith to start and read a book like that, say “what is it that is at the heart of Christianity?” And that would be a great way to engage.
Gayle: Well, thank you so much, Mark. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. And does your seminary have a website?
Mark: Yes: leland.edu.
Gayle: And so anybody who wants more information about the seminary, or your particular seminary, can go on that website and find out particular information?
Mark: Anything they want. And they could e-mail me at email@example.com, and I’d answer anybody’s e-mail directly.
Gayle: Well thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll let us talk to you again about maybe some topics that will come up from this conversation.
Mark: Gayle, I look forward to it very much. Thank you so much.
First published on First Things in October 2010