Within the past few weeks, the Biblical Studies world has been rocked. On the one hand, it’s been rocked by events expected among the contours of life. As I write this, James Dunn died within the past week. Dunn was a giant in the field of New Testament scholarship, casting one of the longest shadows that the guild has ever known. Before him was Patrick Miller, and tonight word comes that Trent Butler passed on as well. Closer to me was the death of David Thompson. Dr. Thompson, who taught both me and my father while we attended Asbury Theological Seminary, is remembered for his humble intelligence and his approachable and caring demeanor. Most impressively, he was a man of paradigmatic faith…and I use that description intentionally.
One the other hand, the field of Biblical Studies was recently rocked by the shocking conviction of Professor Jan Joosten by French authorities. Joosten, similar to Dunn, was one of those “once in a generation” scholars, casting a long shadow across the field of Old Testament scholarship by impacting the intellectual development of people well beyond his immediate sphere of influence. And if there is one description that best explains the influence of this man it is the fact that, until about 2 weeks ago, he held the Regius Professorship in Old Testament at Oxford University (England). This means that he enjoyed a royal appointment to the world’s most famous professorship.
Joosten, who was a pastor in his native Belgium, was convicted of downloading over 27,000 images and 1,000 videos of child pornography over a six-year period, including some images and videos that depict the rape of a minor.
Let that sink in for a second. That’s just shocking, grotesque, disgusting, and any other adjective that you feel applies!
I first saw this story on the website of the Guardian newspaper, and my anger rose with every line I read. In fact, I physically paused after I finished the article, paralyzed by the gravity of the infraction and the height from which Joosten fell. Since the story hit the presses, the academic societies of our guild have issued statements, rescinded pending publications, and removed Joosten from all responsibilities and membership listings. None of this was an overreaction, but what remains to be seen is how the scholarly community will use Joosten’s work moving forward.
I originally enrolled at Indiana Wesleyan University as a Criminal Justice major; I wanted to be a police officer. For several reasons, I found the idea of investigating crimes to be very intriguing. However, after my Freshman year I shifted majors to a Bible degree. Nevertheless, I kept the Criminal Justice minor because, well, I enjoyed the classes. From Corrections to Police Investigation, I took one class a semester, but without a doubt, my Criminology class left the most significant imprint.
As you would expect, that class was devoted to the study of crime and deviant behavior. In one module we studied sexual crimes, and every day during that module I walked back to my dormitory feeling dirty and under the weight of a spiritual burden. I was disgusted and saddened by what I had been hearing, and all these emotions and memories came flooding back to my mind as I read that article in the Guardian. And, truth be told, they were also intensified by the reality that I am now a father of three young girls.
I must confess that it’s hard for me to feel empathy for Joosten. What he engaged for so many years fed the beast of sexual sin, child exploitation and abuse, and many other manifestations of humanity’s depravity. These are atrocious crimes that helped steal from the victims a type of innocence that they will never regain, preventing them from experiencing a proper childhood. Moreover, Joosten’s crimes speak to not only the depths of sin, but also the penalty of hiding sin. Given enough time, sin will come out, and when it does it will be terrible for everyone in your sphere of influence. Joosten is a father of four.
Stepping back from my anger and disgust, I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to end this way for Joosten. While I don’t want to trivialize Joosten’s action by boiling it down to singular cause—clearly there are many things in play here—we must acknowledge that at some point Joosten blocked off the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. He repeatedly indulged an evil inclination until it morphed into a default response fundamental to his daily patterns. Instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to redeem those desires into something pure and glorifying to the Lord, he allowed those desires to drive him deeper into the hands of sin and Satan.
I pray for Joosten. Specifically, I pray for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to take hold of him and redeem him. I also pray for his family, because only the Lord knowns their newly found burdens. And practically, as I have considered this fall from grace over the past few weeks, I realize that we must preach the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We must proclaim that there can be victory over sin and temptation and that our sinful desires and inclination can be redeemed. Perhaps more importantly, we must live lives that demonstrate these realities. We do not need to live as slaves to sin, but as victors in Christ.