From time to time, I will post on my blog the stories (testimonies) of former evangelicals. Today, I present the story of Howard Pepper. I have known Howard for several years and highly respect him. Here is his story:
I'm new to this website and was fascinated by your story, Former Fundy, largely because it has so many similarities to mine. I can appreciate virtually everything you related. In the extent of our formal education and involvement in ministry/teaching, most of the other participants might not be able to grasp our experience, but I know many have come a similar path, and experienced the same basic things.
From that talk of "experience" I'll shift to the rational/analytical side of issues of faith. I was always fairly intellectual and very curious. Raised in a conservative Christian family and church, I was "saved" around six, and became a serious Bible student by 15 or so, began witnessing, etc. I went to Biola University here on the "left coast." Then on to Talbot School of Theology for an M.Div., and back to Biola for a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling, which I practiced for 10 years. I was also heavily involved with apologetics, especially under Dr. Walter Martin for 4 years, leading his research and writing department for a year, after seminary. During that period, and after, I encountered nearly every kind of major challenge to Christianity. I thought they all had good answers at the time, and I doled them out.
We (Martin's Christian Research Inst.) were right down the street from Dr. John W. Montgomery, and Josh McDowell, a Talbot grad, came around on occasion. I conversed with Norm Geisler and a few other such notables during those years or prior, and so on. I say this to give you a flavor of my immersion and affiliations--my exposure to top level apologetics.
In retrospect, it's fair to say I became smug. And it would be many more years before I questioned anything at the core of Evangelical theology. You put your finger on what I consider the main reason very few with extensive education and involvement in the Evangelical/Fundamentalist world leave, despite doubts that often crop up--it's too hard to even let oneself question deeply, and too threatening to important relationships, one's own ego, etc., let alone having to deal with possible spiritual fears, which you mentioned--Satan's deception, being damned, etc.
Well, during years of practicing Christian-based counseling, I also went further into apologetics, teaching Francis Schaeffer and the Christian worldview as well as psychology from a Christian perspective. I was also still into biblical and theological studies, and decided I wanted to get a Ph.D., but from a school with a broader perspective. I got into Claremont School of Theology (progressive/Process Theology bastion of Methodism and liberal Protestantism). The program was "Theology and Personality [psychology] with Emphasis in Religious Education." It actually had a good number of conservative students in the Ph.D., as well as other programs, some even more conservative than I. I was there part-time for 4 years, finishing the coursework, but I got derailed and never finished the dissertation and exams.
It wasn't primarily the liberal exposure at Claremont that convinced me Evangelicalism had gotten critical things seriously wrong, but I know the experience helped open me. (It wan't till about a year after leaving that I became convinced, on rational, theological bases, that I needed a new brand of faith. For one, I realized that I had created caricatures (with a lot of help from things Evangelicals wrote and my profs and friends said) of liberals and "liberalism." They hardly resembled, at least at Claremont, what I'd come to expect. Rather, they tended to be consistent in applying "tolerance" (better put as inclusiveness, though with limits), being respectful of me and my views, as well as other conservatives. They were seemingly as devout and spiritually minded as Evangelicals. They liked to pray, worship, etc.
But their theology was clearly very different and they were comfortable in it, and excited. (None of which makes it right, of course--for the still-Evangelicals looking in.)
I'll cut the story short, but share a couple of the key points that finally convinced me I'd been perceiving and interpreting things poorly all those years.
First, it was largely theological. With enough exposure and reading, one does tend to realize the "differing interpretations" point you made is a critical tip-off. It indicates just what you emphasized, that there is little true clarity or "simplicity" in "The Gospel." The "faith once for all delivered..." is wishful thinking--a backwards extrapolation, and not identifiable in the NT. Objectively read, the NT authors are seen to differ significantly, many of them particularly out to defend their brand of orthodoxy, which is actually impossible to fully ascertain without creating a patchwork theology of many authors by "cutting and pasting" (and Jefferson is often ridiculed for an only slightly crasser form of the same).
As you imply, the only viable conclusion is Scripture (the OT as well) is a fascinating, profound, often inspirational human creation, but only that. I also systematically re-examined the supposed evidences for inspiration, Messianic prophecy (and others) being fulfilled, an historical basis for the resurrection, etc., etc., and realized how there was no real substance there, but rather, a strong base of tradition that is tough to see around, partly because it started being built up during and right after the writing of the NT. I came to see that "apostolic authority" in relation to NT books was merely an invention of the proto-orthodox not long after the completion of works that would be eventually canonized.
So a realization of there being no evidence for a Holy Spirit-guided process of recognition of authoritative books--NT or OT--was another key point. There was no reason to take a given book or set of books (e.g., the four Gospels), as uniquely revealed or inspired above other writings of the same periods. There were plenty of other writings, as well, though we have few early-enough copies to clearly establish
dating, just as for most of the NT books. I can't go into specifics here, but I continue to study Christian origins and NT scholarship, and the more I do, the stronger and stronger is the confirmation of the clear insights I began to get about the nature of scripture and the earliest Church, around 11 years ago. (Like you, I have more detail written up, & more yet to come, at www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com.)
There are a lot more aspects of insights, historical and literary data (e.g., literary analysis and comparison of the NT w/ intertestamental Jewish works, Greek hero stories, Cynic philosophy, Philo, etc.), scientific and archeological data, etc. that went into my changing conclusions. It surely helped that knowledge of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and even some theoretical physics and astronomy, made it easier for me than the typical Bible student to see that there were very good (not just get-by type) alternate explanations for all key elements of Christian dogma and related experience. That includes conversion experiences, Christian growth dynamics (not taking out, in my view, all spirit/Spirit elements), Christian origins, etc. I think I made sure every important category was covered before I was willing to conclude there was neither good evidence for nor any real need to hold to an Evangelical or "historic Christian faith" kind of theology.
Anyway, thanks, Former Fundy, for your courage and intellectual honesty in what you did years ago, and in sharing it with us. I know there are more like you "out there," but I encounter very few who share the kind of background with me that you do, and I hope we can collaborate more in the future.