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Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology (Reformed Exegetical Doctrinal Studies series)

By Robert W. Yarbrough
July 2020 | Review by Robert Strivens
  • Publisher: Christian Focus Publications
  • ISBN: 1527103919
  • Pages: 128
  • Price: £11.99
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Book Review

Robert Yarbrough wrote Clash of Visions in support of what he calls a ‘populist’ approach to the understanding of the New Testament, over against the ‘elitist’ approach which dominates much academic study of the Bible today.

The elite, on Yarbrough’s definition, approach the Bible like any other book: they do not accept that it is divinely inspired and they have a strong tendency to regard the supernatural as impossible. While they do not generally affirm fundamental truths of the Christian faith, it is they who establish the ground rules for what is acceptable in the academic study of the New Testament.

In contrast, Yarbrough argues, the populist approach holds to the fundamental evangelical truths of the faith and has resulted, in recent times, in huge growth in the church worldwide. Populist does not mean uneducated: ‘Populists range from illiterate to highly trained’. The term indicates an evangelical doctrinal position which holds to the Bible as God’s inspired Word.

Yarbrough illustrates the clash between populist and elitist from an exchange of views in an obscure Swedish theological journal. His analysis exposes the self-serving assumptions of the elite academy, which surrounds itself with unassailable presuppositions about the superiority of its moral and philosophical views. The elite consensus on, for example, the non-Pauline authorship of Ephesians or the historical unreliability of the Gospel accounts, may not be questioned. Under the guise of academic objectivity, the elitists effectively close down an evangelical populist understanding of Scripture as unworthy even of consideration.

Yarbrough does not write from a position of ignorance: he is an academic at a US seminary who has studied the elite authors whom he critiques and is familiar with the academic literature on them. Nor is he pessimistic: the final chapter of his book provides grounds for hope that the populist approach to the Bible is making headway even in elitist-dominated academia, due to the work of evangelical scholars. Moreover, it is the populist view of the Bible which informs and undergirds the vast majority of Christian witness today, as it has always done, giving backbone to that witness and supplying weighty answers to life’s big questions.

This short book should be read by students and teachers of the New Testament at evangelical seminaries, and will be of interest to anyone concerned about the hold that non-evangelical views of Scripture currently exercise over biblical scholarship.

Robert Strivens


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