For the Common Good 2 (RJS)

For the Common Good 2 (RJS) November 1, 2011

I started a discussion last week on the topic of academic freedom – a concept that is seriously misunderstood by both those who defend it and those who call for reform and control. The topic came up in the context of a book I read recently, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom by Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post. This book provides a historical description of the development of the ideals of academic freedom in the US, including the forces that have pushed for and against academic freedom.

Academic freedom is not the freedom of the individual to do and say whatever he or she may wish. It is not a first amendment right to freedom of speech applied to academic employment and conduct in the classroom. Rather academic freedom is derived from a belief that, for the common good, professionals must be allowed to govern the practice of their own discipline.

The concept of academic freedom at some level is assumed by many these days although it is, more or less, a voluntary agreement within the academic community.  The idea of academic freedom is much more controversial within Christian higher education. This is true not only in fundamentalism, but also in evangelicalism broadly defined. External constituencies, from pastors to donors, from boards to administrators, can play a significant  role in limiting academic freedom, trying to control the institution and constrain it to their current view on many questions. We’ve seen this play out over the last several years in a number of cases, most recently John Schneider at Calvin College. In this context, the question I would like to consider today is the application of the idea of academic freedom to Christian colleges, universities, and graduate schools (seminaries).

Does the concept of academic freedom have a place in Christian colleges and universities?

What kinds of constraints on academic freedom are appropriate?

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure starts with a statement of purpose. The page numbers below refer to the excerpts of the statement in Appendix 2 of Finkin and Post’s book.

The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. (p. 183)

The 1940 statement also contains a specific exception for denominational schools.

Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment. (p. 184)

Interpretive comments added in 1970 removed this exception religious institutions.

Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.

Many who read this post will feel intuitively that there does need to be a restriction on academic freedom at a Christian institution. After all a scholar who strays so far from Christian orthodoxy that he or she teaches and proclaims that Jesus never existed or that Christian faith is an ancient superstition to be shed as we grow has no place at an institution like Wheaton.  A Christian institution should be able to maintain a requirement for Christian faculty. A limitation, clearly stated at the time of appointment is not unreasonable.

But where to draw the line? My contention is that for the common good of the church we need academic freedom at Christian colleges and universities.

Again, academic freedom is not a license to say or do anything. It is an opportunity to explore important potentially controversial questions free from meddling and  the threat of loss of livelihood.  This freedom is not for the convenience or personal gain of the scholar but for the common good. In the case of Christian scholars it is, or should be, for the common good of the church. We should not fear the truth – after all, God is the author of all truth. For the good of the church we need Christian scholars addressing and wrestling with the hard questions raised in the context of each new age. We cannot be content with the understanding of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, or Benjamin Warfield.

Without a culture of academic freedom any kind of serious engagement with the questions raised as a consequence of changes in our understanding of the world is a gamble. If the study leads naturally to “traditional” answers, all is well. But if the study leads naturally to the need for some readjustment and refinement of understanding? Well then all bets are off and livelihood is placed on the line.

Recent cases demonstrating the need. There have been a number of rather high profile cases of professors at Christian educational institutions under fire for practicing their discipline and exploring concepts relevant to the Christian faith in ways that have resulted in controversy and dismissal – usually negotiated in some fashion rather than outright dismissal. We can consider three specific cases to help direct some of the conversation.

1. John Schneider, formerly a professor of religion at Calvin College in Grand Rapids MI. John Schneider published an article in the theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science entitled Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An “Aesthetic Supralapsarianism”.  I posted on this article in two parts, The Fall and Sin After Darwin 4 and Did God Create Us Sinful? Dr. Schneider went through channels at Calvin before publishing his article but still ran afoul of the college president after the fact. An article published on provides some limited information on the circumstances of Dr. Schnieder’s subsequent retirement from Calvin. It is also discussed in an article by Michael Ruse in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in an NPR story Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve. I posted on the latter in the post A Search for Acceptance? a couple of months ago.

2. Peter Enns, formerly a professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. He published Inspiration and Incarnation in2005 and, after a great deal of turmoil and conflict left Westminster in 2008.  Inspiration and incarnation presents a useful approach to understanding the Scripture that we have as the Word of God. Dr. Enns suggests the use of an incarnational model or parallel. As Christ is fully human and fully divine – so also scripture is fully human and fully divine.

3. Richard G. Colling, formerly a professor of biology at Olivet Nazarene in Illinois. Dr. Colling published a book, Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator as he wrestled with the issues of teaching biology to Christian students. His book was published in 2005, he was banned from teaching general biology in 2007 and resigned by mutual agreement in 2009. He is interviewed heavily in the upcoming film A Leap of Truth. The second clip in this post at BioLogos includes a brief look at randomness from A Leap of Truth with Richard Colling, Ard Louis, and John Polkinghorne.

Each of these cases involved a Christian professor at a Christian institution looking for ways to connect and integrate his discipline and the current state of knowledge with historic and orthodox Christian faith. Each ran afoul of powerful external influences, and each was compelled to retire or resign. This kind of external pressure is exactly the kind of issue the concept of academic freedom was developed to counter. Yet academic freedom at a Christian institution is a dicey issue. Fear of the slippery slope looms large.

Not limited to Questions of Science and Faith. When an external cacophony of donors and pastors can control or influence the security of employment at a Christian college or university any time a pet position or doctrine is challenged or explored, we as a church are weakened and damaged. This is not limited to science and faith questions, although these loom large in many instances. Several incidents in the 1990’s involving theology damaged my alma mater when a well known pastor demanded that the theology taught conform to theology at least marginally acceptable to him.

Roger Olson comments on this in at least two posts Defining Fundamentalism and later in Division in the Evangelical House (paragraphs 13 and 14). One comment Olson makes in his post on Defining Fundamentalism is particularly appropriate to our topic today.

During the long and protracted and very nasty battle over open theism in the Baptist General Conference and at Bethel College and Seminary one leading anti-open theism pastor told me to my face that he would get me fired if I did not stand with him against my colleague Greg Boyd and help him get Boyd fired.  Unfortunately, at that time, Bethel did not have real tenure (it had five year contracts called “tenure”) and I felt very vulnerable.  This pastor told me our face-to-face conversation was “not an inquisition” but later reported on it to the group of anti-open theism pastors of which he was a part.

Not an open theist, but also not willing to call open theism heresy, Olson felt his livelihood has threatened – and outside interests felt free to make such a threat. This is exactly the kind of situation that academic freedom was developed to address. Olson, by the way, has since moved to Baylor University.

Without tenure, and without a culture of academic freedom, Christian higher education borders on indoctrination. For the good of the church we need Christian scholars and thinkers free to address pressing questions without the threats raised by those who find even the asking of questions troublesome and to be avoided. For the good of the church we need Old Testament scholars who can wrestle with the nature of the scripture given our current understanding of the languages, culture, and history of the ancient near east. For the good of the church we need Christian scientists, philosophers, and theologians who can wrestle with the consequences and ramifications of evolutionary biology. For the good of the church we need Christian theologians in dialog over the various continuing questions of theology. Without a culture of academic freedom we have, at least on occasion, Christian institutions of higher education fearful of and catering to people who often can only be accurately described as bullies.

Do you think that academic freedom should have a place in Christian institutions of higher education?

If so what limits would you place on this freedom?

If not, why not?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • “Moruti” Lutz

    It seems that some want to have it both ways. If one calls an institution “college”, “univeristy” or the like one implies that it is academic in character (and part and parcel of that would be academic freedom).
    Now there is no problem with resticting academic freedom by requiring adherence to certain creedal statements – but then one should have the honesty to stand by ones departure from academic culture and call the thing somehing else (say “bible school” or someting of that sort).
    I think it is for good reason that in certain parts of the world (I come from Germany), titles like “University” or “college” require cetification, to maintain academic standard.

  • A. Nono Muss

    I once read that you cannot hide from your college’s alumni association. Personally, I have three different degrees from three different institutions. My masters and my doctorate are from religious oriented institutions. The alumni association at all three institutions have kept track of me. Two of those institutions I continue to support–not because of HOW they taught me, but because of WHAT they taught me. In other words, I agree with their mission. As a donor, providing unrestricted donations, one way or another, a portion of my donations goes toward salaries. As a donor, I would be very concerned if the institution has become lax in ensuring the message of the institution’s mission is being compromised in the name of academic freedom.

  • Tim

    A. Nono Muss,

    Am I reading you correctly in that, for universities you support, you would prefer them to teach their students what to think rather than how to think? Because quite honestly, I don’t know how any institute of “higher learning” can teach students how to think if they don’t allow their own professors to advocate academically respectable arguments they find convincing when it may contradict the dominant perspective of the university.

  • DRT

    I have a very minor league view on this, but I think it is relevant.

    I went to primary school in the 60’s and 70’s, taught be nuns in the RCC. We learned evolution, discussed hypotheses for the extinction of the dino’s, fascinated about continental drift (as it was called then), but also had religion classes where we learned about god, Jesus, the bible and such.

    While i am sure that many would chafe at the idea of not having god present everywhere, he was. The nuns always started us with prayers. Always praised god for his creation and asked for enlightenment to understand it better.

    I have grown to be very appreciative of my Christian education because it was on par with the secular schools in every area but also added Religion classes and thanks be to God in our science.

    I believe the scientists, sociologists, marketing people, etc in Christian colleges do not need, and should not change their approach because it is a religious school.

    I draw the line at open atheism, not anything else.

  • rjs


    Some schools do reasonably well drawing the line against disparaging Christianity. Faculty members may be of other faiths or no faith, but they may not create an environment antagonistic to Christian faith and must take the Christian perspective seriously.

    In other schools an affirmation of belief may be appropriate. I think there is a useful, even necessary place, for Christian institutions where Christian faculty interact with their disciplines in the context of Christianity.

    But when constraints are tight and there is no real latitude to even lay out the issues and consider all sides of a question it is hard to take the school seriously.

    One of the questions I always ask – at least internally – when listening to a Christian teacher is “how free is this person to think deeply about the issue?” It is not always clear when a position is the result of careful deep thought and when it is simply the required position. I would have a lot more confidence in the conclusions of many Christian scholars if I actually thought they were defending the conclusions from a position of freedom.

  • Robert

    I’d agree with that. I learnt about the Synoptic Problem when I was 11, and it was a great help when it came to avoiding fundamantalism later. Maybe that’s what they’re scared of? Later on I studied New Testament under Michael Goulder, a professing atheist, and again it’s been extremely useful. Truth can never be against God, so why are these people so frightened of honest enquiry?

  • DRT

    rjs said “It is not always clear when a position is the result of careful deep thought and when it is simply the required position.”

    Yes, that is the problem for me. Let the innocent hear without having to learn the ways of the non-innocent.

  • AHH

    Given the first of your examples, it is interesting that the previous president of Calvin College, Anthony Diekema, wrote a book called Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship. I have not read it, but from a book review I read at the time, part of the book tells how and why Diekema strongly stood up for the academic freedom of a couple of his faculty who came under fundamentalist fire (in one case [Prof. Howard Van Till] for writings in the science/faith area).

  • Bill Caulfield

    Waaa, Waaa, Waaa – stop being a cry baby. Almost everyone in this country works with limitations on what they can say and do.

  • rjs


    That’s a rather stupid comment (pointless).

    No where in this post did I say there would or should be no limitations at all. I posed a question that asked if, for the good of the church, we need Christian thinkers with the freedom to wrestle through tough questions.

    This cannot happen when “powers” feel that they can bully people into silence or submission.

  • Earl Morton

    I believe that it is appropriate and necessary for Christian schools at all levels to clearly establish and define their doctrinal and theological boundaries–just as a church should. And if an academic employee of the institution moves outside those boundaries for whatever reason, that individual and the institution should peacefully agree to part company. Threats and bullying are never appropriate and should not be tolerated in any situation.

    However, before the differing parties agree to separate, they should discuss in good faith whether the currently established doctrinal and theological boundaries should be reconsidered. Perhaps the individual has discovered that the traditional wording of the boundaries needs to be updated: that the difference isn’t so much in the ideas, but in the statement of the ideas. Or perhaps the ideas themselves do need to be reviewed and refined. Where would we be if Martin Luther had not expressed his differences with the established boundaries?

    We must all remember that none of us has the final word on truth. We must all be open to discussion and refinement of our beliefs. If the institution and the individual cannot come to agreement through open, honest, peaceful, and prayerful discussion, then they should agree to a peaceful separation.

    As for external pressures from pastors, churches, donors, and supporters of the institution, the same rules apply. Opinions that are expressed in anger should be politely declined admission to the discussion, as not representing the mind of Christ.

  • Taylor

    As a moderate biblical conservative, I’m in favor of a fairly broad application of academic freedom. To use the creation example, not all of us who believe in a literal 7 days etc. believe it because we must. Many of us study and think long and carefully as well.

    I don’t say this to suggest that you are denying that truth. Quite the reverse. I’ve seen those on the conservative side shut down progressive thought and exploration rather disagreeing with the end conclusion. I’ve also seen a progressive faction that simply shuts down more clasical explorations as if they were all illinformed and could only produce ignorant conclusions.

    To paraphrase Niemoller, without academic freedom I dread the day that as a conscientous (biblical)conservative no one will remain to speak for me.

  • Taylor

    * second paragraph should have said ‘rather than disagreeing’

  • rjs


    It is most certainly not just the conservative faction that shuts down conversation. It can and does happen on the more progressive side as well (on issues where they become “conservative” (i.e. conserving their assumed conclusion)).

    There are always consequences for bucking the status quo as well. There is a limit in opportunity, advancement, resources, raises etc. Academic freedom isn’t a blank check to do whatever what one wants.

    It does require (not always successfully) that we engage with each other’s ideas rather than asserting and then forcing the other out and away. Of course, people being human (i.e. fallen) it doesn’t always go smoothly.

  • AHH

    Earl #11:

    I think a key phrase in what you wrote is
    clearly establish and define their doctrinal and theological boundaries

    In I believe all 3 cases RJS mentioned, there were not any “clear” boundaries transgressed. I know for example Colling was within acceptable beliefs about creation as officially set by the Nazarene denomination. And in the other 2 cases, the people certainly thought they were operating within the faith commitments they had signed onto.
    Part of the problem comes when boundaries are not clear, and scholars exploring something in good faith suddenly find themselves targets because they have crossed some “unwritten” boundary — not official boundaries of the school but maybe some that powerful alumni hold dear. It is in such cases that we particularly need university leadership to stand up for academic freedom.

  • rjs


    This is the issue in these three cases, especially in Collings’s case – there were not defined boundaries crossed but powerful influencers crossed.

    I am torn here because I think we as a church need Christian higher education – but I don’t see any workable future that escapes the pitfalls of agendas (conservative or liberal).

  • Rich

    I’ve seen these kinds of problems in both churches and universities. For subjects like Theology I think the take-home message is that if you want to freely study Theology be sure to get a day job outside of a University where matters of Theology are of no concern.

    However, these problems exist in other fields as well where even that unpalatable solution doesn’t exist. If one wants to study cold fusion it isn’t like you can do it in your basement.

    I can see how people don’t want to pay people who disagree with them, but if all the important issues in Theology were decided 100 years ago, one has to really question why one would waste their time studying the Bible – a Catechism is far less subject to interpretation. If only God had had the foresight to just write one of those instead of giving us scraps of letters and poetry.

  • C Michael Patton

    Very good peice. At the very least these type of discussions should be happening. If the are not, I imagine that the freedom to grow into truth is not present (at least when reform is on the table).

    One thing we must allow for is the tightening and loosening of doctrinal statements due to acute issues that arise.

    Question: would you suggest this to cut both ways? In other words should academic freedom extend to a proponent of ID in a secular university?

  • rjs


    Dr. Behe is still employed by Lehigh University. The biology web site has a disclaimer … “While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

    This is a key ideal of academic freedom. I expect that it is hard at times for Dr. Behe – but he has his job and his opportunity to make his case.

    And Dr. Behe is trying to demonstrate his position. For Intelligent Design to gain a foothold its proponents would have to actually mount a credible positive program. So far Dr. Behe is the closest the whole ID endeavor comes to that “something”. The burden is on him to make the case and there are many weaknesses in his position, so it seems to me.

    Everything else in the whole endeavor is mostly if not entirely rhetoric and philosophical anti-evolutionism.