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Former Old Testament Professor Claims Literal Translation is Liberalism

A video from Conversations that Matter sponsored by Enemies Within the Church features host Jon Harris interviewing Russell T. Fuller, former professor of Old Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Fuller complains his colleagues overlooked worries with Professor Dominick S. Hernández’s dissertation as well as objections to a paper presented by Hernández at the Society of Biblical Literature. In addition to the aforementioned concerns, Fuller charges Hernández with believing in a separate Satan in the book of Job, an apparent liberal trope. The video interview is part of a series set in the broader context of recent layoffs at Southern Seminary and suspicions of creeping liberalism at the seminary and in the Southern Baptist Convention.

At 13:49 in the video, Fuller relates an account of a student who submitted a paper pertaining to the book of Job with ‘the Satan’ written in italics. According to Fuller, the student said he believes in one Satan, but claimed that Hernández wanted the student to write ‘the Satan’ instead of ‘Satan.’ The video can be viewed below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMfiRWgobOU?start=825]

Based on the student’s report, Fuller infers Hernández wants the student to write ‘the Satan’ because Hernández believes in more than one Satan. Fuller says, “He doesn’t necessarily want to see the Satan of the book of Job as the Satan of the New Testament.” Harris responds, “Oh my goodness,” then calls this explanation a “frightening prospect” and “old line liberalism,” to which Fuller responds, “Right.” Harris suggests the account provided by Fuller was what J. Gresham Machen was talking about, after which Fuller exclaims, “Oh yeah!” Fuller links the view to higher criticism.

But in the video, nothing is provided by Fuller, whether in terms of the dissertation from Hernández, the SBL paper, or the student’s words, that seems to warrant Fuller’s inference. Unless Fuller has some other evidence that he doesn’t disclose in this interview, his inference from the literal translation to liberalism appears unjustified. In Fuller’s account of the incident, the student says he agrees with Fuller about there being one Satan but does not tell Fuller that Hernández believes in two different Satans. That claim comes about through an inference on the part of Fuller. (Of course, even if the student did tell Fuller that Hernández believes in two Satans, that doesn’t mean it’s true.)

The Hebrew in the book of Job speaks of הַשָּׂטָ֖ן (haś-śā-ṭān) with the definite article (‘the’), yielding the literal translation, ‘the Satan.’ At 10:03 in a video of an interview hosted by SBTS Professor James Hamilton, Hernández explains that he encourages his Hebrew students to use wooden, literal, one-to-one translation in all instances, a practice that’s familiar to most who have studied the language. The video can be viewed below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yx10NOTO8uw?start=603]

Hernández addresses the translation of הַשָּׂטָ֖ן in particular.

Here’s what we see in this case. We see, הַשָּׂטָ֖ן, written just that way. ה is the definite article, translated as ‘the,’ and שָּׂטָ֖ן is ‘Satan’ or ‘Adversary.’ הַשָּׂטָ֖ן can mean ‘the Satan,’ ‘the Adversary.’ That word שָּׂטָ֖ן functions as a noun and also functions as a proper name, as a proper noun, as a name. When my students translate, they translate all of that woodenly, so if the definite article shows up, they’ll translate the definite article. Then, we make sense out of it. We go back and look at what the text is actually saying in its context. And we utilize the skills, the reading skills that we have in order to understand what’s going on in the passage.

Hamilton asks, “So you think that there’s a real literal Satan?” Hernández answers emphatically, “Yes!” Hamilton repeats, “Yes?” And Hernández again responds, “Yes.” Fuller himself refers to “the Satan of the New Testament” in his criticism of Hernandez’s perceived position. One is left to wonder how a literal translation of what the inspired text of Job says, ‘the Satan,’ can be discerned from old school liberalism, in Fuller’s view.

Fuller is an exemplary scholar and Hebrew professor who is known for his vigilance in guarding against liberalism. Obviously, the accusations of liberalism are very serious. Some may complain that SBTS is wrong to focus on responding to such minutiae while ignoring much more significant concerns raised elsewhere. But SBTS is simply addressing the charges that were made against one of its professors. Thus the first Fuller video, and the response from SBTS, could be a bad omen for those who still sense trouble in the theological trajectory of the SBC. The video, which focuses on interdepartmental disagreements, seems to distract from larger concerns. The response video implies that SBTS stands at the ready to address similar charges in the future.

In the meantime, we should pray for our professors (both those who were let go and those who continue to teach), our seminaries, and our Southern Baptist Convention.

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