Following a week of protests from students and scholars around the world, the University of Sheffield decided not to close its biblical studies department. While noting the program's international reputation, a committee of university officials and humanities faculty had recommended closing the department founded by F. F. Bruce due to staff departures and variable student demand. The Faculty of Arts and Humanities had hoped to reconfigure the department as a postgraduate research center before facing backlash from students who were not consulted. Faculty have now been asked to develop short-, mid-, and long-term plans for growing the department, including new staff hires.
"The vice chancellor has said that he feels the faculty handled consultation with staff and students so badly that it cannot justify a closure," said Holly Taylor, education officer for the University of Sheffield Students' Union. "This is a great outcome for students who, just a few days ago, believed their department's days were limited. The biblical studies department at Sheffield is unique and held in extremely high regard around the world. The work students have put in over the last week to push the university to reconsider its decision is commendable and I hope the loyalty they have demonstrated to their subject, and their department, will be recognized."
Bruce, the noted author of books such as Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free and The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, founded Sheffield's department of biblical history and literature in 1947. But not all faculty have shared Bruce's conservative convictions. Evangelically minded faculty, including Andrew Lincoln and Loveday Alexander, were not replaced with scholars who held similar views. Other faculty were "bent on the deconstruction of the Bible, and indeed of their students' faith," according to Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary. When five senior lecturers left the faculty in the last two years, the department faced a crisis. The number of new students was capped at eight when the university did not hire new permanent staff. But students contended that interest remained high at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
"I am a Christian, but apart from that I believe that the Bible—as a document that has had immeasurable impact on the world—deserves to be studied," said Benjamin Hurrell, a third-year undergraduate in the biblical studies program who organized the protests. "Sheffield takes a rare areligious (that is, largely unconcerned with religious matters) approach to the discipline, focusing on the Bible's place in the modern world, alongside the literary and historical study. For me, any organization that cultivates innovative approaches to the study of the Bible rather than retreading the same ground as everyone else deserves to be celebrated."
News of the Sheffield program's potential demise was widely reported on blogs that track biblical studies. The Society of Biblical Literature issued a call to action and encouraged scholars to contact Sheffield administrators. Even more conservative scholars, such as Darrell Bock from Dallas Theological Seminary, lamented the closing. Bock said dropping the historic discipline of biblical studies signaled a tendency toward secularization in British universities. Others noted, however, that evangelical scholarship is much stronger today than when Bruce launched the department following World War II.
"Today, evangelical Bible scholars are in universities all over the world as well as in the theological seminaries around the world," said Ward Gasque, president of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies and co-founder of Regent College. "The University of Sheffield is but one of many options where a budding young Bible scholar might choose to do a PhD … .So I would say that it would be sad to see the faculty at Sheffield close, but I am sure it will not have a significant impact on global evangelical scholarship which will continue to thrive, fired by the continued growth of evangelical educational institutions serving a growing Christian community outside of the West."
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The University of Sheffield's site has more information on the program, but not the controversy.