Monday, May 14, 2018

Freedom in Christian Academia

How should academic freedom work within a Christian university? Numerous Christian institutions have wrestled with this question. A useful survey is provided by historian Dr. William Ringenberg in his recent book "The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom" (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

He recounts how the limits of academic freedom at Christian institutions have been tested over the last decades, particularly on matters regarding origins and sexuality.

Dr. Ringenberg's own view is that a Christian college should be a community bound only by a "mutual commitment to the central idea that God has come to us in Christ to redeem us to himself" (p.231). He believes that a set of secondary convictions is not necessary to be a Christian college, "and may be counter-productive to Christian unity, academic collegiality, and an unfettered search for truth" (p.232).

The Need to Limit Freedom
Such advice is rather surprising, given that Dr. Ringenberg himself documented how, in the 20th century, Christian colleges became secular primarily due to their acceptance of higher criticism of the Bible, relativism, and, most damaging, Darwinian evolution (see W.C Ringenberg, "The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America", 2nd ed. 2006, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, pp.115-117).

In his earlier book Ringenberg described how the first scholars to embrace Darwinism attempted to reconcile it with the Christian faith. They believed they were saving Christianity. Yet their campaign to save Christianity by liberalizing it only helped to establish an atmosphere congenial to secularism and relativism. Acceptance of evolution inevitably led to a decline in the belief that the Bible was divinely inspired.

The factors of evolution, relativism, and Bible criticism are still very much with us today. Are we now to believe that they  are no longer detrimental to the well-being of Christian universities?

Moreover, as Dr. Ringenberg well knows, there is no such thing as "an unfettered search for truth", supposedly following the evidence wherever it leads. The evidence, by itself, leads nowhere, unless interpreted within some pre-supposed worldview framework. The question is not whether or not scholarship should be bounded, but, rather, whose worldview sets the boundary.

One might thus think that a Christian university should be a community united by a common commitment to a comprehensive, and clearly articulated, Christian worldview, fully grounded in Biblical truth.

Indeed, for a Christian university to remain Christian it is surely essential that it stand absolutely firm on its allegiance to the Bible as God's inerrant and authoritative Word.

The Need to be Explicit
However, a viable Statement of Faith for a Christian university needs more than mere affirmation of Biblical authority.

For example, the full trustworthiness and authority of the Bible are professed by Christian institutions such as Calvin College, Wheaton College, Westmont College, Trinity Western University, and Regent College (Vancouver). Yet all of these have at least some faculty that actively support Biologos, an organization dedicated to promoting evolution within Christian institutions. Likewise, Bible-affirming Christian universities have faculty that question traditional Biblical norms regarding sexuality.

Evidently, a Christian scholar might profess to uphold Biblical authority, but render this virtually meaningless simply by re-interpreting the Bible so as to make it conform to his own scholarly agenda. Soren Kierkegaard, in his day (1855), already deplored such world-appeasing Christian scholarship:
In vain does the Bible command with authority. In vain does it admonish and implore. We do not hear it – that is, we hear its voice only through the interference of Christian scholarship, the experts who have been properly trained. Just as a foreigner protests his rights in a foreign language and passionately dares to say bold words when facing state authorities – but see, the interpreter who is to translate it to the authorities does not dare do so but substitutes something else – just so the Bible sounds forth through Christian scholarship. ["Kill the Commentators!" in Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis, 2003, p.202)].
The deeper problem is that many Christian scholars have embraced the secular academic community as their actual reference point, over against that of the Christian community. Many factors contribute to this: most Christian academics have inadequate preparation in how to apply a Christian worldview to their discipline; rather, they get their professional training (e.g., Ph.D.) at secular institutions, are pressured to publish in "respectable" (i.e., secular) journals, aim to get research grants from secular funding sources, and so on.

Hence, although most Christian universities pay lip service to the integration of Christianity and scholarship, in actual practice such integration may consist more in accommodating Christianity to one's discipline than vice versa. All too often, the Bible ends up being modified to satisfy worldly norms and values.

In short, to foster historic orthodox Christianity, a judicious Statement of Faith should spell out explicitly (1) how the Bible is to function as the foundation for Christian scholarship (e.g., regarding epistemology and hermeneutics), and (2) what the Bible states about important basic issues, particularly current hot topics such as origins and sexuality. This should form the basis, and the boundary, of academic freedom for the faculty.

The Need to be Consistent
Once a clear and explicit Statement of Faith is adopted, and publicized, the university governance must ensure that this does in fact honestly accord with what is actually taught in the classroom and promoted in research.

In practice, for many Christian universities, this is not always the case. Sometimes it is not possible to find qualified faculty who fully agree with the Statement; so various exceptions may be allowed. Sometimes the Statement is re-interpreted in elastic ways. Or simply ignored.

This is unfortunate, since prospective Christian students, parents, and donors should be able to trust that a particular Christian university is indeed what it advertises itself to be.

In sum, I question Dr. Ringenberg's recommended minimal bound for Christian academia. Rather, I believe that, for Christian institutions to remain genuinely Christian, academic freedom must be constrained by an explicit Statement of Faith. That Statement must affirm an inerrant and fully authoritative Bible, clearly outline how the Bible is to function as the basis for scholarship, and explicitly spell out what the Bible teaches regarding various important issues. Further, the university governance must ensure that its faculty zealously promote the views enshrined in the Statement.

Christian universities lacking such essential safeguards are in danger of plunging towards the same secular fate as their predecessors of the previous century.


Annie Kate said...

Wisely analyzed! Thank you.

JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:
We can at least hold them to their own standards.

For example, in reference to the paper you reported on in an earlier blog, The Epistemic Status of Evolutionary Theory:

According to the judgment of the three respected professors from UV Amsterdam who authored this report, evolutionary theory is not certain. Neither is it the case that science has made it certain. There is an open and emphatic admission that the evidences fall short of certainty. The graph they provide is quite clear on this.

So it logically follows that evolutionary theory is neither general revelation nor established scientific fact. Enjoying consensus has never been proof in the field of science.

General revelation is God’s revelation of Himself in nature, by His creation, governance, and preservation of it. It is not what man has revealed about God in nature, but what God has revealed about Himself in nature. In other words, just like Sola Scriptura, it about only the divinely established facts. Or, just like the discipline of science, only the objective facts.

If we’re going to discuss the theory of evolution in the context of theology, then, let it be resolved that: evolutionary theory is not general revelation. And, let it resolved that: evolutionary theory only enjoys consensus, not establishment by proof. Evolutionary theory is not certain.

So it has no place as normative over the Bible. Theory has no deciding influence for interpreting the Bible.

And if you think about it a minute, you’ll see that theory has no deciding influence in the discipline of science. Scientists work with theories all the time, but its the facts that have the deciding influence, and not the theories. Theories only provide ideas to work on so that facts might be discovered.

Honesty and integrity should reign in the halls of higher learning; how much more in the classrooms; how much all the more in the academic papers they put out. The UV Amsterdam should be honest: evolutionary theory has no normative power over either theology or science.