Theologian Condemns Suspension of InterVarsity Press From Biblical Convention Over Gay Marriage Policy

PixabayThe Society of Biblical Literature has banned Intervaristy Press from hosting a bookstall at its 2017 convention. New Testament scholar Michael Bird has written an open letter expressing deep concern about the move.

The suspension of InterVarsity Press from a biblical convention over controversy surrounding a gay marriage policy has been criticised by a prominent theologian.

Rev Dr Michael Bird wrote on his Patheos blog that the executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), John Kutsko, had informed IVP that they would not be allowed to host a bookstall at SBL's 2017 convention.

The suspension comes in response to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's (IVCF) recent controversial change to their employee policy. IVCF now requires subscription by their employees to a document called "Theological Summary of Human Sexuality," which espouses traditional church teaching about marriage and sexuality.

SBL is an non-confessional international academic society which describes itself on its website as being "devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines." Bird says that SBL's move, though made in the spirit of supporting "free inquiry", is in fact "not safeguarding academic freedom, it is censorship, and turning SBL into a confessional organization."

Bird posted an open letter to Kutsko on his blog. He insisted it was important to "distinguish the IVF campus ministry from the IVP publishing arm, while the two belong within the same umbrella, it would be unfair to impute the activities of every IVF chapter to the publisher."

The move by IVCF applies to its employees but not to authors who are published by IVP. Thus, Bird says: "no author of IVP books is required to affirm any statement of faith, as a result, there is no restriction on the freedom of expression of IVP authors in this regard." He added: "if you disagree with the IVF, fine, put out a press release; but I humbly ask that you don't penalize IVP and its authors because of it."

Bird also described the original Time article on IVCF as "woefully inaccurate" – agreeing with others including IVCF who felt the article misrepresented their position. He also asked if the ban would apply to IVP-UK, which is independent but "umbilically linked" with IVP-USA. Were the ban to include IVP-UK, it could also then extend to SPCK, which is now embedded within IVP-UK.

Bird then turned to the letter Kutsko had sent to IVP. He wrote: "You said that SBL was committed to: "a variety of critical perspectives...diversity of participation and unhindered critical inquiry and expression." John, mate, I don't want to be confrontational, but can you explain to me how does banning a publisher from the annual conference increase the diversity, free inquiry and expression of SBL? It does the opposite, it cabines diversity, it censures certain elements of belief, and inhibits free expression." Bird said that SBL's ban resulted not in securing academic freedom, but censorship.

Lastly, Bird pointed out that many publishing houses connected with SBL are confessional, and that the ban set a "dangerous precedent" for confessional groups whose views may not align with those of SBL's executive. He emphasised the importance of SBL being a "professional society" which exhibits "a variety of perspectives".

Bird concluded: "I'm not interested in being part of a professional society that is a shill for social progressives or a proxy for conservatives. SBL is a society that deals with the study of religious texts by people of all faiths and none, where there is no doctrinal Taliban at the door checking which publishers I've bought books from. I think I speak for many when I say that I rather we kept it that way."