Robert W. Yarbrough. Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology. Reformed Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies. Fearn: Mentor, 2019. 128 pages. $16.99 (paperback).
In many Western universities and even seminaries today, those who hold to traditional Christian beliefs about the Bible are treated as an ignorant minority in biblical studies and often shunned from academic discussions concerning the text of Scripture itself. In Clash of Visions, Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, notes two kinds of approaches to Scripture that are being promoted today: “elitism” and “populism.” The elitist position approaches the Bible skeptically, choosing to reject many of its theological and miraculous claims on the basis of elitism’s scientific rationalism. The “populist” position approaches the Bible submissively, seeking to bring itself in line with the worldview of the biblical authors. Yarbrough points out that it is the populist view that dominates the global Christian scene today, while the elitist view is held primarily by scholars in North America and Europe. This, Yarbrough argues, should lead elitist scholars to recognize their own position as being in the minority and to admit viewpoints other than their own into academic discussion, while students and scholars holding to historic Christianity should not be intimidated by the overconfident assertions of critical scholarship.
In making his case, Yarbrough strikes a helpful balance between statistical data and individual case studies. For example, he spends much of the first half of chapter one citing several studies documenting the exponential growth of populist Christianity across Africa, Asia, and Latin America; while in the second half, he highlights a debate between two biblical scholars that strikingly displays the contrast between the elitist and populist viewpoints. Yarbrough also effectively turns elitism’s claims against them by exposing the elitist tendency to presuppose outdated views that have long since been disproven, a charge that elitism often ironically levels against populism. Finally, Yarbrough continually reminds his readers that this clash between elitism and populism is not merely an intellectual dispute. He points out that churches and denominations that adopt elitist views have been dying out for decades. In contrast, populist churches around the world are often characterized by both great vibrancy and selflessness, with tens of thousands of adherents willingly giving up their lives for their faith every year.
There are a few weaknesses in Yarbrough’s treatment. His categories are a bit too simplistic; there is no discussion of scholars who hold to a mixture of populist and elitist views and only brief discussion of groups such as Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy that do not fall neatly into either category. He attributes the weaknesses of populism mainly to American evangelicalism (pp. 41–43) without acknowledging the reality of unorthodox teaching in other parts of the globe. His choice of terms is also somewhat questionable. While he does acknowledge the usual negative connotations of the terms “populist” and “elitist,” it may have been preferable to use terms with less baggage, such as “skeptical” and “submissive” or “traditional.” Nevertheless, Yarbrough’s overall argument is worth heeding. Students and pastors pursuing graduate-level education or higher would benefit greatly from his insightful analysis.
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