Academic Freedom and Evangelical Seminaries

Here is a very interesting post by Larry Hurtado. My own view is that Christian institutions which have statements of faith that faculty are expected to sign or affirm in order to teach there have every right to hold their faculty accountable for what they say and do, though this should be done in a fair and compassionate manner. The problem is, that too many institutions leave it up entirely to the administration to decide whether a faculty person should be let go or not, though some have faculty review committees as well.

The danger of course is there will be an administrator or administration that: 1) misreads the statement of faith and interprets it too narrowly, or worse, 2) assumes that his or her own take on what counts as orthodoxy and what amounts to adequate affirmation of the faith statement is the correct one, and in line with the original intent of the original framers of the faith statement, when in various cases it is not.

I think that the idea of academic freedom has to be balanced with the idea of academic responsibility, if one is serving in a confessional institution. Honesty and integrity would suggest that if a teacher finds he or she can no longer comply with some aspect of the faith statement, then there should be a discussion with a senior faculty and administration committee about how to move forward. If the differences are significant, then integrity and honesty suggests the person should voluntarily resign, though this seldom happens for obvious financial reasons.

The life of the believing scholar’s mind can be fragile, and more to the point a scholar needs to be able to pursue the evidence wherever it leads. If it leads somewhere that leaves him in a quandry, then things should be discussed. If it leads somewhere where the person thinks the faith statement is not well grounded in the Bible in some respect, then that should be discussed. But it is important that a scholar be allowed to explore various ideas and interpretations of things as he or she seeks to understand God’s Word better. Often some avenues of interpretation that at first look promising, are not. For the believing scholar in any case the search should be for what is true, not what is new, and when I say true I mean historically true, theologically true, ethically true. etc.

Here’s Larry’s post… see what you think. BW3

Academic Injustice and Shameful Cowardice
by larry hurtado

Over the last few months I had more reports of academics being let go by Christian-aligned academic institutions, and for what seem to be very minor differences of view on any one of a variety of relatively minor matters. These are degree-granting institutions, supposedly committed to academic excellence (or so says their publicity), yet behaving in a paranoid manner toward their own academic staff, because on some matter arising from their scholarly work they say or write something that bothers some high administrator.

These are all also putatively Christian institutions (making as much of this in their publicity as well), which, if anything, actually makes this behavior even more troubling. Typically, no due process, no hearing, no opportunity to explain or give warrants for the offending action, or to correct allegations made, no fair consideration of matters at all: Just a dismissal.

And, as I’ve stated, in all the instances I’ve in mind (all of which concern biblical scholars), the offending matter was truly trivial: Maybe the supposed date of a given biblical writing, maybe some judgement about the genre of a writing or passage, maybe the exegesis of a particular passage or set of passages. No major doctrine called into question, no denial of any item of historic Christian faith, no moral lapse, no criticism of teaching effectiveness, just a charge of having stepped out of the party line on any one of a number of matters undifferentiated as to importance.

What kind of “academic” institution handles matters in such a disgracefully unfair, unreasonable and unreasoning, and dictatorial manner? What kind of “Christian” institution is so narrow, so ungracious, so unkind, so Stalinesque as to handle things this way? What does it say about the “faith” held, how nervous, uncertain, jittery, and reactionary it must be? (As someone once said about such matters, “With ‘friends’ like these, Jesus doesn’t need enemies!”)

Often, of course, the institution will justify the action by saying that a constituency might be offended and put off from supporting the institution. Or the administrator might have to answer their questions. So, “Nothing personal, you understand; it’s just necessary for the institution/cause.” So, this sort of cowardly behavior is defended by such a spurious justification. As a confessing Christian myself, I’m deeply ashamed of such actions, and share the hurt and frustration of those affected by them.

I’m fortunate, I know, that the two main institutions in which my scholarly career has been spent (University of Manitoba and University of Edinburgh) are both places in which I’ve been free to pursue my research, write my conclusions, and not fear for my job from simply doing academic work. I say that this sort of “academic freedom” (as it’s called in the trade) actually gives most working academics an accompanying sense of responsibility too. Trust does that, you know.

So, why do some Christian educational institutions treat their academic staff so harshly, in such a paranoidal manner, so much contrary to the sort of room for differences and diversity that the NT both reflects and in some places specifically summons. E.g., has anyone in these institutions carefully pondered Ephesians 4:1-16? The text calls for “patience and forebearing in love” to be exercised toward one another, maintaining “the unity of the Spirit” now (vv. 2-3), while awaiting the “unity of the faith” (v. 13), which is presented here as an eschatological event, not something that can be devised and enforced here and now.

The incidents that moved me to write this are shameful. Maybe the administrators responsible will try to reassure themselves that they’ve avoided any questions from their boards or constituencies, or pacified such. But Christians also profess that there is a higher judge to whom we will answer, and, to judge from the biblical testimony, I rather suspect that this judge is not so likely to approve the sort of actions I refer to here. So, if these people ever ponder their actions, in the wee hours of the morning or in times of any honest prayer and reflection, I wonder how they justify their actions to that judge. How do they account for their cowardice in ducking their responsibilities as academic leaders to help institutional boards and religious constituencies appreciate the work of academics, develop the confidence in their faith to allow a healthy investigation of matters, distinguish between central and peripheral matters, and above all to behave in a manner that reflects the Christ whom they profess?

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  • Robert

    Hi Ben3,
    How do you reconcile your sincere goal for objective scholarship with the ideological constraints that statements of faith place on scholars in seminaries, such as yourself?
    Kind regards,

  • ben Witherington

    Hi Robert: Honestly it’s not very different than when a major secular university puts restraints on what a faculty person can say or do in the name of political correctness. For example, some kinds of comments or views have been classified as forbidden in such institutions if you want promotion. That’s hardly what I would call academic freedom. The real issue however is honesty it seems to me. If a person like myself can no longer in good conscience support a particular policy or view of the institution they work for, the disagree is significant enough, then the teacher ought to just resign, if that is they cannot convince the institution to change its views. BW3

  • Adam Shields

    I would like to think that one of the ways to solve this problem is for schools (or some foundation) to set aside some money to cover a year’s salary for professors that honestly feel they can’t continue to work at the school because of the direction of their research.

    This would allow more harmonious separation and be a better witness to the non-Christian academic world. As Christ said, we should be known for how well we treat one another and not how cut throat we are. Even when we disagree, we should be able to still treat one another lovingly.

    And for a few hundred thousand a year or less, that would do a lot in my mind to help show the non-Christian academic world that we really are committed to both harmony and love and academic freedom. I know of no equivalent in the secular university world.

  • ben Witherington

    Adam that’s an excellent idea, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. BW3

  • Doug Hibbard

    I see one of the big issues connected to this as the fear of a “rush to judgment.” My own tradition is quite conservative and has made several decisions in recent years that have been of that nature: terminate on the first question, rather than allowing the matter to take its own course. In turn, there is a fear that is communicated to students and professors that certain things are just not to be considered at all, and that’s not a good thing.

    Perhaps Adam has a good solution: allow a professor a paid time, not unlike a sabbatical, to continue pursuing that research or asking those questions, but have a time limit at which the professor needs to answer: “Can you continue in agreement with this statement?” and then allow the professor to have the integrity to say no and move on. Too often, it has looked like administration and constituencies have acted like the professors at these schools just cannot be trusted. In reality, if we cannot trust someone as a professor (or a pastor) to be honest and to reason out whether or not they can honor the guideline of a faith statement, should that person be hired in the first place? We trusted that professor last month when we needed a statement about a different issue, so can we not extend a little grace?

    Good thoughts.

  • David Rogers

    Another complicating matter is that trustees of some institutions are chosen not for their ability to evaluate academic instruction but merely by their friendship with those making the appointments or association with certain theo-political stances within the denomination. The trustees ability to even understand what academic research is may be tainted by their own experience with academia.

  • Adam Shields

    Another issue that was clearly brought to mind as I was discussing another issue last week is that there are a number of people who not only don’t have any institutional memory but believe that is a bad thing.

    So I had a pastor tell me that it doesn’t matter what you have preached in the past, only the last sermon you preach. He said that proudly. I find that type of thinking quite limited. It does not allow for anyone to vary your focus. I understand why a business world might believe that (although I think most do not), but in a Christian and academic world that is the opposite of Christian love.

  • Bill C

    I love it when elites complain about lose of “freedom”!

  • Lewis

    As an undergraduate I studied in a Christian theological school and for my MA I am currently in a secular London university. Having just read Dr.Witherington’s book ‘Is there a doctor in this house?’ (really helpful – thanks!) I really resonated with your comments about academic scepticism, and biases against evangelical publishing. I have no doubts that Christian institutions at times make terrible decisions over those seen to ‘deviate’. But I can equally imagine someone getting rough treatment at my university if they came out as openly evangelical and conservative.

  • ScottT

    I love it when the plebs complain about “elites”!

  • waylon

    I just found out that a situation similar to the one described by Dr. Hurtado happened at my alma mater (an independent church university). At least within the movement with which I am currently affiliated, this doesn’t surprise me because 1) there is an anti-intellectual streak a mile wide in most of our congregants and 2) the movement has always made pragmatism one of its core values (so if uncle moneybags is offended and you need uncle moneybags’ money, you find an excuse to appease him).

    While I think it is an unfortunate state of affairs, I think it is also a good reason for us younger pastors and theologians to reconsider being affiliated with these particular movements who have such fundamentalist leanings and no magisterium to give guidance on such issues. Independence and pragmatism may have been great guiding principles back in the days of Daniel Boone, but not so much so in the 21st century!

  • Eric Sawyer