Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?

Believe it or not, I’m not trying to pick a fight or be controversial here. It’s an honest question.

I’ve been thinking about this for several years, and what has brought it back to mind is the recent spate of professors “resigning” (wink, wink) from their positions (see earlier posts here, here, and here).

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Many evangelical colleges and seminaries in America were founded in no small part as centers for defending and propagating earlier traditional positions against forces that coalesced in the 19th century: European higher criticism, biblical archaeology, and Darwin (evolution). The questions that get at the heart of evangelical concerns are: when the Bible was written, by whom, and is it historically accurate?

That defensive posture is quite evident in evangelical intuitions today (though not all, of course, and at times modified), but this raises a question for me: Can an institution claim to be fundamentally academic while at the same time centered on defending certain positions that are largely, if not wholly, out of sync with generations of academic discourse outside of evangelical boundaries?

It is common for evangelical institutions to have as part of their statements of faith clear articulations about biblical inerrancy and how that dogmatic starting point (either implicitly or implicitly) dictates interpretive conclusions. The question, simply put, is whether such a posture can be called “academic” by generally agreed upon standards–which are standards that evangelicals would quickly agree to in areas that do not touch evangelical dogma.

Another way of putting it is whether evangelical institutions can maintain a credible academic reputation when they officially promulgate positions that are only held within those institutions of similar ideology and not the academic discipline of biblical scholarship in general.

Adam as the first man; the essential historical reliability (rather than mythic content) of the creation stories, the Patriarchs, the exodus, and conquest; the fundamentally early authorship of the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and Daniel. These are well-known issues that evangelicalism has defended along traditional lines. By contrast, these issues are either largely settled along very different lines in academic contexts outside of conservative Christian circles, or are at least seen as obvious matters of ongoing dialogue.

I am not suggesting everyone outside of the evangelical world has the same answer to all of these issues. But the diversity of views in academia as a whole does not include the apologetically driven answers we tend to see in evangelicalism.

Here, it is often claimed that the “guild” of biblical scholarship is too blinded by its own presuppositions to handle the word of God well, or there is some conspiracy afoot, or the better scholars reside in the evangelical camp. These are not hypothetical responses. I have heard them for many years, still do, and they are not hard to see through.

At what point does the reasoned exposition of an evangelical theological tradition cross over to an unreasonable–unacademic–rejection of positions that are essentially non-controversial outside of those boundaries? An analogy with mainstream science and creationism is apropos. At what point are creationists just plain as day not “doing science” and making things up to defend views that are by every other measure implausible if not impossible?

Let me put the question differently: At what point, if ever, would it show more integrity for a school to say the following: “Our center of gravity is not academic integrity or engagement but the defense of our theology by either mining the academic discourse of biblical scholarship where useful or condemning it where harmful. We do not see ourselves as primarily an academic body but an ecclesial one.” Should such institutions publicly acknowledge that they are centers of theological apologetics and therefore not places of academic training?

I really meant what I said earlier about not wanting to  pick a fight, but I think the questions I raise here are legitimate, they’ve been nagging me for quite some time, and I am hardly alone.

I have a feeling some of you (I can feel the heat and see the smoke rising from a distance) will be quick to say that people like me have just bowed the knee to the pagan altar of “academic integrity” and the supposed “assured results of academia.” But that criticism only holds if you can truly show others that the academic discipline of biblical studies is fundamentally misguided and that an evangelical model of some sort explains the data better.

Ironically, that case would need to be made in a recognizably academic manner to have any persuasive force.

  • Ron

    Pete, You wrote, “At what point does the reasoned exposition of an evangelical theological tradition cross over to an unreasonable–unacademic–rejection of positions that are essentially non-controversial outside of those boundaries? ” I guess the answers in the eyes of the beholder. When you say “essentially non-controversial outside of those boundaries” I assume you mean the boundaries of the evangelical theological tradition. Pick an issue such as ordination of women. Outside of the evangelical theological tradition this is “essentially non-controversial” yet many evangelicals think it is controversial and are opposed to ordaining women. (My wife is ordained so need to worry about my bias.) I think one can pick other issues and raise similar questions.

  • Daniel Bastian

    Peter, you are simply being polite by posing questions with obvious answers. Of course an institution which adheres strictly to unchallengeable, impermeable, inveterate dogma cannot be described, in any sense, as academic. Dogma is the blunt antithesis of our collective academic ethos, where information is not suppressed, but shared openly and freely, transferring the onus of deconstructing that information to the student, who will use the cognitive faculties “god” supposedly bestowed upon us in the first place.

    The institutions which structure their programs in this way are not just of educational concern but of ethical concern. I have continually been astonished by what some mainline evangelical institutions do *not* teach. (It’s as if they partition from view all information learned after the 18th century.) Any seminary which is more interested in preserving fixed answers than facilitating skeptical inquiry and reasoned conversation is sending a message to their students that they are not respected enough to think for themselves.

    Call it stultification, but don’t call it education, and for Christ’s sake, don’t call it ‘academic’. Socrates is displeased.

  • Steven Danver

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for broaching a topic that, as you mention, is sure to light some fires among those holding particular ideologies. Your point is a good one, and I’ll say it bluntly…there is a fundamental dissonance between the exercise of academic freedom and an Evangelical school’s ideological commitments. The question is, when there is a conflict (or even just a perceived conflict) between the two, which one wins out?

    As a Christian and a historian (and one who grew up in a Evangelical setting), I know well that this is something that all Christian academics must consider in one form or another. Does inquiry end when it causes questions regarding faith to be raised? Historians face this when interpreting the past. What happens when historical investigation leads to provable conclusions that call into question prevalent Evangelical interpretations of the past? That’s difficult enough…I can only imagine the conundrum that scientists who are Christians face in such settings!

    Having taught at a couple of Evangelical universities, I’ve been extremely fortunate. Really, the amount of latitude given completely depends on the administration of the school and the department head. I’ve never felt pressured to present history with any sort of ideological perspective. Of course, that might be different were I a Marxist historian or of some other such unpopular bent.

    In the end, there is no good answer to this question. There are some excellent scholars at Evangelical colleges and universities, and that will continue to be the case. But it is equally certain that cases like those you cited, where scholars are pressured to leave or are outright dismissed, will continue to come up.

  • Bryan E. lewis

    As a graduate student this question nags me too! This is why after obtaining my undergraduate degree at an evangelical college, I applied to only mainstream universities. It is why I ultimately landed at Vanderbilt University. I felt that there, I would be given the academic and theological freedom to develop my own positions. By the way, my assumption was correct.

    Truth is, I do not think that most (not all) evangelical institutions handle the data accurately. For example, to broach the subjects of Historical Criticism, the Historical Jesus, or Ancient Near East at my former evangelical institution was strongly discourage. Additionally, I once tried to discuss issues of inerrancy while in attendance; I was harshly rebuke and told to get my epistemology back in order. My starting point of knowledge was to be the Word of God, no questions asked! Therefore, I do not understand how an apologetically driven seminary can be called academic when it will not even allow the student to honestly deal or learn of the issues.

    • Steven Danver

      “No questions asked” is the operative phrase in your post, Bryan. That’s where any ideologically-based school runs up against academic inquiry. I think Peter might be right…they might be at cross-purposes (pun intended). I don’t even think it’s about handling data accurately…it’s about being able to use the brain that God gave you to analyze the data, letting the data rather than the ideological or epistemological perspective gude your conclusions.

    • TimisKim

      I too went to graduate school at Vanderbilt. I was studying political science. I did not have the same political viewpoint as most of my professors. When I presented information in a seminar from the Federal Register my professor said to me, “We’re not interested in your opinion. We’re interested in the facts.” Of course, I was the one presenting facts which conflicted with my professors opinion. I’m assuming that Peter Enns would have to consider Vanderbilt, at least in political science, to not be a truly academic institution.

      • peteenns

        I’d need to hear your professor’s version of the story first.

        • studentofhistory

          Sorry, Dr. Enns, but that is a poor response. When you post on this blog, we have only your word to go on with regards to experiences you have with the evil Evangelicals that you constantly argue against. Our repsonses aren’t “we need to hear from them first” before taking you at your word.

          I have a bachelors, two masters and a doctorate – all in law and business – and I can tell you for a fact that academic bias is epidemic. Read “Academically Adrift” if you don’t believe it. It is impossible for humans not to have biases and for those biases to inform their “scholarship” and for those biases to inform the culture of a university. If you honestly think that any professor could retain their job at Wesleyan University while simultaneously criticizing Modern Feminist thought, you are truly drinking the Kool-Aid of academia. I think your bitterness over what happened at Westminster is beginning to affect your objectivity with regards to the group think that infects current university cultures.

          • peteenns

            SOH, If you look at my comments throughout, I’ve addressed this issues of academic bias in the abstract, which is not the topic, and I think my post is very clear about that. I am fully aware of biases in research institutions, etc. I have two degrees in Christian institutions and two in a research institution. I get it.

            I am not educated in the world of business, but there must be certain standards there that are considered commonly–nearly universally–agreed upon. If this analogy doesn’t help maybe you provide another one. What if a fringe group of business man and women said the law of supply and demand is completely false, or marxism is a valid model for capitalism. You would likely say they are not part of the academic conversation concerning business because what they say is nonsense. And if this sort of thinking was the operating philosophy of a degree-granting institution, I would say they are not academic.

          • studentofhistory (also Jim V)

            Sorry for posting in various places under different aliases, since there doesn’t seem to be a standard “log in” for the blog (not just yours – the whole Patheos), I was unsure how I should identify myself or how I had in the past. I’ll post under “Jim V” from now on – if you’ll still have me.

            The answer to your question is that there ARE scholars who argue that marixism is a valid model for capitalism, as ridiculous as that may sound (and in my opinion, actually is). Actually, in most research universities and liberal arts colleges, presumably crazy theories are voiced and accepted all the time … as long as they skew towards the left the the political, theological, and economic spectrum. Let’s take an easy and simple example … a report came out recently in the Washington Post that among academic scholars who study child rearing, spanking is thought to be harmful in all situations. One scholar in particular is gathering his colleagues to lobby Congress to make spanking illegal in all cases. Now, another scholar, whom the article idenitified as on the minority end of his colleagues, says that the data they are using does not prove causation, just correlation and that to claim that spanking should be outlaws was going to far. But no, argued the author of the article, the first scholar is in the majority – there is concensus. Now, in the middle of the article, the first scholar tipped his hat a little. He said that in all the cases he had studied, spanking led to aggressive behavior, often violent. He then went to the Maryland legislature (presumably more friendly to his cause than Congress) but was rebuffed by the vast majority of legislaters there who said they had been spanked as a child and didn’t seem worse for wares. Here is the problem, the article proves the second scholar’s point – that there was correlation, not cause – because otherwise the majority of legislaters in the Maryland house of assembly would have to be overly aggressive individuals and some of them would have to be violent. But, oh, no – that scholar and the consensus of scholars could not be wrong or in any way mistake. There was no bias in their research. There was no presonceived outcome. Even if it turns out that the first scholar is right – he doesn’t have the evidence necessary to overthrow a tradition that has worked – and when I say worked, I mean produced people who could run a society and not be “overly aggressive” enough to shoot each other in the streets. Clearly, his own biases produced preconceived “causation.” This is the kind of overt bias that conservatives see coming out of academia all the time. When I studied history, I used to use the term “bubble bursting.” Would be history professors could always gain academic notariety and success (and move up the ladder) if they were willing to burt traditional historical analysis of events – burst bubbles. The defense of such tradition was a sure trip off the tenure track. So, when you say “should Christian seminaries and colleges” be though of as “academic” – you are the one who is putting this at the general, 50,000 foot level – not keeping it specific. My answer based on the example I just gave (and there are NUMEROUS OTHERS), and the answer of others is – what is really different from what other colleges and universities are doing today? Nothing – it’s just a bias and “group think” (or concensus, or whatever …) with which you don’t agree.

          • peteenns

            Spanking? Is that a topic in the academic study of history?

          • Jim V

            No, it isn’t. I was trying to provide an example in a different field where an entire consensus has been built in academia around a preconceived bias. Obviously it didn’t take well. My point, and the point of others, is that your question put forth above – whether an evangelical college could maintain academic credibility when they ascribe to a belief that is not accepted by outside of their institutions – starts with a generalization and begs a general answer: yes, the institution as a whole can maintain credibility because almost every academic institution has strongly held beleifs that are based on bias and not empirical evidence AND they squelch freedom of inquiry to maintain their bias. You are just more disturbed by what you perceive to be more serious and absurd biases than those who are disagreeing with you in these comments. I offer to you again the example of trying to question modern feminist thought at Wesleyan. You will not maintain your job.

            Also, what of all the other academic fields taught at these evangelical institutions? Are they equally tainted by the school’s refusal to accept biblical criticism? The marketing department, economics, art, European history, etc., all have lost their academic credibility? That seems a little extreme.

          • peteenns

            Jim, I’m not really sure on what to say at this point other than to ask you again to go back and read my post not as a statement of alleged neutrality in the academic study of the Bible (to which you persist in responding that, “no, no, all academic institutions have biases” and concerning which I have explained myself several times in this thread), and read my post as a comment on evangelical resistance to accepting widely agreed upon outlines of Israel’s history rooted not in bias but in academic discourse over internal (Bible) and external (archaeology) evidence that has been scrutinized in some case for more than a century. The examples of bias in academia that you to continue to bring forward are interesting, probably true (though I am beginning to wonder whether you are bringing too much of your own experience into this), but irrelevant. It would be like me pointing out feminist bias in history departments and on that basis calling into question any conclusion concerning ancient history (Persians released Israelite captives from Babylon, Greeks conquered Judea before the Romans did, etc.). Your last paragraph is rather disconcerting. Either you truly do not understand what I am saying or you are simply playing an obscurantist role.

            Perhaps to focus your comments you can give us your opinion on whether the Israelites conquered Canaan through a violent overthrow as the Bible describes it or whether some gradual and non-violent process is the better explanation, which is where the material evidence overwhelmingly points us. How you answer that question will tell me a lot about where you aere coming from.

          • Jim V

            I can assure you I am not trying to be obscure or difficult in any way. I’m pretty sure I understand what you are saying – that biblical criticism has produced sound analysis which contradicts Evangelical apologetical views of the historicity of the a good portion of the Bible and that to continue to teach such apologetical views (and require adherence to them) despite the quality, quantity of, and amount of time that, contradicting evidence has been available, cannot be categorized as “academic.” Therefore, one must question whether such colleges and seminars can qualify as “academic institutions.” If I’ve mistated your premise, I’m truly do apologize. However, I think you and I disagree on the purity of academic though and freedom of inquiry as you define it. I don’t think it exists and I don’t think that these Evangelical colleges and seminars are demonstrating any greater refusal to accept the obvious (in this one area that you bring up) than most other academic institutions do in other areas (hence my example of Wesleyan). So, in my opinion, by your standard, I would disqualify almost all academic institutions because they have some area of thought that, despite ongoing evidence to the contrary, cannot be questioned. That is where I think we disagree.

            This does not come from some personal example – if by that you mean I was a professor on a tenure track and got fire from some place. No, I have the credentials that I am often asked to teach in my area of expertise at colleges in my region, but as much as I would enjoy teaching, after my reading of the current state of academia, I can’t in good conscience do it. I have several friends who are professors in mathematics, philosophy, evolutionary biology (and, yes, they are Christians), and physics. They enjoy it and don’t mind the hypocrisy. I’m just one of those people who can’t do it. It would eat at me every day. So, I started a law firm/business consulting practice with five other guys and am enjoying myself “capitally” as they used to say. However, I still stay up in current movements and trends in academia.

            As to my view of the conquest of Cannan – I’m not sure that it matters, but, without being an expert on the subject, I would tend towards your view of a gradual conquest. However, that does not disrupt my faith or cause me to look down on my brothers and sisters in Christ who still hold the more traditional view. As an undergraduate student, I studied European and early American history, but I loved history of all sorts. The one universal constant that I can say I came away with from those years was this – everything is more complicated than presented, even in universities, AND everyone tries to simplify things to justify their positions, even professors. Call me a cynic or real politik or whatever – but whenever I see such judgments on purity rendered (either direction), I have a tendency to roll my eyes. Read George Marsden’s “Soul of the American University” and “Fundamentalism in American Culture.” While I don’t claim George is exempt from my cynical view, he is pretty good at trying to stay out of the muck and he did a good job of informing me where this idea of “academic purity” came from (hint: progressives and fundamentalists – a scary combination). No need to respond to this one. I think we may be ships passing in the night.

  • James Wilder

    Thanks for posting this, Pete. I emailed you not long ago with a similar question about a specific college, and I’ll take this as a reply of sorts.

    I do wonder if other non-evangelical academia doesn’t also have its sacred cows and unchallengable ideas as well — at some extent? I do agree, the very function of Seminaries has always been to study things based on certain propositions — evangelical or otherwise, no? It’s obvious the rigidity in most Evangelical schools (Fundamentalism and all) ups the ante.

  • CarolJean

    Aren’t you presupposing that there is no bias in purely academic universities?

    • peteenns


    • John I.

      The bias at ‘purely academic” universities is multiple (biases), unlike at denominational institutions, and is open to being challenged and is challenged and invites challenge–all unlike denominational institutions.

    • AHH

      Maybe another way to state what John I. said is that, while “academic universities” have various biases in individuals and departments and sometimes for the overall university, there are no “third rail” issues of academic inquiry. Some directions and conclusions might make you much less likely to get tenure (for example, work that seems racist or that denies well-supported consensus in a scientific field), but nothing that will flat-out get you fired (except for misconduct like plagiarism or sexual harassment). In contrast to many Evangelical schools where you can get fired over evolution, or work seen as incompatible with inerrancy, etc.

      As RJS said elsewhere in the comment thread, there is value in institutions with a faith commitment, and it seems OK for such an institution to insist that faculty not deny essentials of the faith. Part of the problem is deciding what is “essential” — unfortunately many places have elevated things like inerrancy or YEC to essential status.

      • gingoro

        In many secular universities even a basic broad Christian position often functions as a third rail.

        • AHH

          I’ve been in and around several secular universities over the past 30+ years (with most contact in science and engineering departments), and this simply isn’t true.
          These universities all have Christians on the faculty, and for the most part that is not a problem. In some departments (especially in the humanities and social sciences) the culture may marginalize and denigrate Christians to some extent. But it is certainly not a “third rail” in the sense I was using the term — something that gets you fired like would happen if you questioned inerrancy at many evangelical institutions.

      • Chuck Mann

        This only goes for some institutions. There have been professors dismissed from secular universites for suggesting there is design in the universe. These professors were not even suggesting that there was a designer or who or what it even could be. So questioning atheistic evolution is a third rail in many universities.

  • Timothy J. Stone

    Pete, why have you chosen to teach at schools with statements of faith and not research universities?

  • Stephen

    To a certain extent this matter is quite simple, especially if you use an analogy for a field unrelated to Bible, Christianity, etc.

    Would anyone consider a School of Mathematics to be a legitimately academic institution if they were committed to 2+2 = 5 as a theological, inspired, presuppositional, revealed, faith, etc. etc. etc. axiom? It seriously doesn’t matter how much philosophical, epistemological, methodological, and so on, waxing eloquent that this institution’s professors and admin engaged in…I don’t think anyone would consider it to a credible or legitimate academic institution.

    How about an Aeronautical Engineering School that holds that the force of gravity is different over the Central Time Zone every second Tuesday of the month? Think anyone outside that institutions (and others that more or less share its “religious” convictions on these matters) would consider it a credible and legitimate training institutions — especially when it comes to hiring its graduates right after graduation for work building airplanes? This institution’s people can talk all they want about how all those bad companies won’t hire their graduates for all manner of “blinding presuppositions,” conspiracies, and the like…but, well, you get the idea.

    IMO, these are apt analogies for how inerrantists, for example, approach the Bible in their institutions — and they are by definition not academically credible. This doesn’t mean that all involved are incapable of producing excellent academic work. It means that to the extent their work/training/etc. is actually dictated by their specific non-academic commitments, to that extent they are being non-academic. In the same way that we don’t want an aeronautical engineer who refuses to submit all his/her work, methods, and theorizing, etc., to critical-communal empirical scrutiny, people in “the academy” will not consider inerrantists to be colleagues when the inerrantists/evangelicals adopt interpretive and historical methods that are constrained by various (at least functionally) un-criticizable theological, faith, presuppositional, religious, etc., commitments.

    Final point, this isn’t about “the pagan alter of academic integrity” and other such marginalizing accusations of evangelical apologists. Such claims fundamentally serve to distract from the issue: we’re talking about (to use theological categories) seeking truth and handling matters in honest ways. That’s essentially what “academic” empirical communally-critical and self-critical inquiry is about. I’m not claiming that “academics” are objective or unbiased…just that the practice of allowing all matters to be potentially up for criticism and re-examination in the light of old and new evidence is a practice that will always be more oriented towards permitting the journey towards truth THAN the practice of deciding ahead of time what conclusions simply must be maintained and a corresponding commitment to refracting all interpretive methods and evidence accordingly.

    Ok…I’ll stop there for now. As you know, Pete, this is a central topic in my research project(s) about contemporary evangelical and inerrantist biblical scholars and theologians.

    • Josh


      I actually think you’re the one using the red herring here. You say that “such claims [rejections of 'the pagan altar (sic) of academic integrity'] fundamentally serve to distract from the issue: we’re talking about seeking truth and handling matters in honest ways.” But, the question that a number of Evangelical academics have about the aims and methods of the Academy is that it purports to seek truth well, but its biases limit what counts as truth to what can be proved by repeatable experimentation. And its history is to value the freedom of Reason over the reality and demands of Truth.

      To use your method of arguing by bad analogies, it would be as though Paul, upon being struck blind on the road to Damascus, decided that he had to travel the same road again and again to determine the validity of Christ’s claim on his life, and then, on never seeing the same vision or hearing the same voice, chose to write a book detailing the dangers of the road on highly religious people and to start a school – The Avoid-Damascus-Road School for Christian-Persecutors – rather than to follow Christ’s call. We are not free before Truth to follow all possible paths down which our Reason takes us. Truth is a person, to whom we owe allegiance and obedience.

      In Christ, Josh

  • Derek

    *Emerges from the heat and smoke*

    These are really tough questions and I don’t think there is an easy answer. Although, if I can contribute my 2 cents, I definitely think we need to look at this spiritually (can I say that?). We know from the Bible that there are born-again children of God enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and then there are children of the world (sin, rebellion, etc.). I think this theological truth must factor into the discussion.

    I may be pushing the panic button prematurely and repeating old arguments, but I honestly think that if we have wrong starting assumptions then our conclusions are going to be adversely affected. If we accept mainstream academic views on certain issues (why not all issues?) then what is stopping us from completely deconstructing the entire Bible? Even if one utilizes the best research and scholarship, if it is from a secular viewpoint, well then, even Jesus Himself simply cannot be regarded as divine because that is ruled out a priori.

    If we don’t highlight presuppositions then on what academic basis can we argue against the secular view of say the historical Jesus? You see, presuppositions matter. Worldviews matter. Even in regards to the scientific issues – Is science capable of examining a possible miracle that happened in the past and concluding that there was in fact a miracle in the past? I don’t think so.

    Now, with that said, I don’t believe Christian’s are called to be reality-deniers either, so we need to examine each issue and all the data that is available, learn from past mistakes, and so forth but we need to choose whether to filter all this information through believing presuppositions or unbelieving presuppositions because I think that will make a world of difference.

    • peteenns

      Derek, I understand where you are coming from, but see Stephen’s response above. That is more what I am getting at.

      I know we all have presuppositions, but the persuasiveness of, let’s call it the “major critical outlines” of where the Bible came from and what is was written to do, are well known, including to evangelicals. It is a common occurrence that evangelicals come to accept, say, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah or the existence of the P source of the Pentateuch, despite having been taught that these things are rooted in unbelieving presuppositions. That journey is rarely–I would say never–taken in the opposite direction, i.e., where a critically trained person later winds up concluding the Pentateuch is essentially a 2nd millennium BC document written by one man (in Hebrew). To reduce that to a matter of right vs. wrong presuppositions strains credulity.

  • David Lee

    Spellcheck: /alter/ -> /altar/.

  • Phil Cary

    The crucial point about presuppositions and worldviews is that they can be tested, questioned and found wanting. Advocates of presuppositionalist apologetics sometimes recognize this point about other folks’ presuppositions but not their own.

    When you recognize it about your own, you get into the ballpark of Alasdair McIntyre’s notion of traditions, where a healthy intellectual tradition involves ongoing self-critical discussion–like, say, the kind of discussion you get in this blog. An intellectual tradition, in McIntyre’s sense, is like an ongoing argument about what actually belongs in the tradition, where the criterion of what belongs is: “is X really true? ”

    It would be convenient if there was a method for answering such questions in advance, but the tough questions aren’t like that. So I am intrigued, Pete, by your repeated phrasing of the question: “At what point. . . ?” There often does come a point where you say: “This just doesn’t work.” But typically you recognize that point only in retrospect, after you’ve already passed it.

    To use a classic example from the history of science: there came a point when Ptolemaic astronomy had to create too many “epicycles,” arbitrary mathematical constructions that worked to cover the phenomena, but offered an increasingly less elegant explanation than the new Copernican astronomy. A few epicycles look like a minor tweak in the theory–you could embrace them with scientific integrity. But there came a point when there were too many. And then there came a point, which was quite some time later, when no serious academic institution would advocate Ptolemaic astronomy.

    My own sense is that some fundamentalist and conservative evangelical institutions are already past that second point, where people of discernment can see that, as academic institutions, they are intellectually dishonest as well as personally stultifying – - counter-educational, really. But I don’t think that’s true of the the whole evangelical world or all its institutions.

    And I’m interested, very interested, in where the other part of the evangelical tradition is going. It may end up becoming quite a different evangelicalism, or shedding the name “evangelical” altogether. My hope is that it will encounter the critical problems of the Bible with more Christian integrity than the old liberal Protestant tradition, which I regard (again in retrospect) as a deep failure.

    But we have to see where the argument about the truth takes us. It takes time–and prayer. And it helps to have a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit to tie in with the notion of tradition. . . .

  • Owen

    Evangelical institutions can as much as any other institution with certain leanings, religious or non-religious, be academic. Harvard has certain leanings and it attempts to be academic, but it academics are bent in certain directions. Excuse the extremeness of the metaphor, but reason and academics are like a prostitute; it will join with any cause that pays it.

    But then again, academia in its entirety has never been the pure discovery of truth as it is often idealized as, but it has been largely influenced by the desire to make a name for oneself by being ‘novel’ and by adhering to the present day accepted canons of correct argument (which often times change so quickly, they are fads). Talk of academic ‘integrity’ fails to realize that the academic process is not purely about truth itself, but it is also often about approval from peers, and in some instances, the larger population.

    This isn’t to say academia isn’t of value; it is of great value because academia idealizes critical thinking. That can pay dividends in moderation, but even critical thinking can be wrong at its extremes.

    Enns envisions academia as if it is automatically the favored position and puts the burden on others to show academia can become an idol. But he can only do that because Western society has been fed a partially illusory narrative that academia can reveal deeper truths. In most other cultures, the burden would be upon him to prove the value of academia.

    But many study of intellectuals reveals that their ‘ideology’ isn’t as good as they think it is. Books like “Intellectuals and Society” by Thomas Sowell and “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb reveal some of the fundamental problems with many academic, intellectual thinkers, particularly those who are focused on the social sciences and disciplines (aka those things that are not the hard sciences). Familiarity with the modern cognitive science (as distinct from a lot of the other fields of study in psychology) would validate that also. Higher biblical criticism is no exception to this criticism, as it lacks any real rigorous way of invalidating its own claims.

    Much of academia suffers from the belief that they are like the harder sciences and that they can simply replicate the certainty that bi0logy (so far as it observes the body itself), physics, mathematics, etc. Darwinism (as it attempts to authoritatively explain the history of organisms), higher biblical criticism, etc. are exercises in history, not pure science. As such, they are grounded in certain ideological precommittments to be able to draw theoretical inferences that they never actually see taking place; biology, physics, and mathematics draw inferences of patterns they do actually observe. While this reality doesn’t automatically invalidate those academic pursuits or their claims, it does mean that they are often times blinded to the ideological committments that they have because they believe their studies have the rigorousness that the harder sciences do. It would really be more appropriate to say that academic [process is more of a tool for ideologies and other precommitments, evangelical or non-evangelical, religious or secular. And that is alright, because honesty allows us to more readily respond to our own biases and correct them.

    And as a matter of disclosure, I say this as a person who loves studying Biblical criticism and psychology, both which can lack great rigorousness in some of its claims.

    • peteenns

      Owen, you may be over reading me a bit or not fully appreciating the dilemma. I am not concerned here in the least about abstractions but concrete issues like: is the Pentateuch written more or less at one time in the 2nd millennium or over a lengthy period of time that includes extensive revision and transformation during the Second Temple period. Answering that question is open to academic argumentation, and those wheels have been turning for hundreds of years by thoughtful people. I grow a bit weary of the notion that higher biblical criticism “lacks any real rigorous way of invalidating its own claims.” When done poorly (when it is done uncritically, one might say), of course this is correct, and being critical of criticism is a top priority of truly critical people. But as in other fields, biblical scholars have been sifting, cogitating, theorizing, etc., and there are certain “pillars” (so to speak) of biblical criticism that can only really be rejected outright on the basis of pure ideological concerns.

      Just to be clear, I am most certainly not saying that the academy is neutral or there is a mass force called “academia” that always gets it right. But neither is academia merely a tool of ideology. It is certainly placed within our own constrictions of time and place,but that is another matter. See also Stephen’s comment above.

    • Steven Danver

      Owen, the point of this whole discussion is less about ideological or theological leanings and biases than freedom of inquiry. We all have biases. Say what you will about postmodernism, but at least it reinforced that much. Freedom of inquiry is the best, most sure way to overcome those biases, no matter what they are, because it lets the evidence lead to the conclusion, not the other way around. Is academia perfect in its implementation of this? Of course not. But a bias that is open to be challenged is very different from an a priori perspective.

      The central question, boiled down is this: can an Evangelical college or university that is committed to a statement of faith that commits it to specific notions about reality in this world really be open to complete freedom of inquiry?

      • jason

        That’s a really good way of stating the issue. I’ve learned the hard way at my educational institution that freedom of inquiry disappears once you start to question anything deemed to be fundamental to the faith expression of the community.

    • John I.

      Since you are obviously using reason, your statement that “reason and academics are like a prostitute; it will join with any cause that pays it” applies to you. It’s unfortunate that you are willing to prostitute yourself. Many other academics, thinkers, and those who use reason are not like that and put the lie to your assertion. If you mean it only hyperbolically, then why use such a crude and inflamatory metaphor and paint it all so blackly?

    • Barry

      Owen: “…and by adhering to the present day accepted canons of correct argument (which often times change so quickly, they are fads). ”

      I’d like to know these ‘fads’.

  • Jack Haas

    Peter: Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?
    This is far to broad a question for simple answers. When I finished grad school in chemistry I was challenged to begin a program in chemistry at a small NE college that was developing a full liberal art program instead of taking a job in industry at twice the starting salary. 50+ years later I can say that I was truly academic-publishing in Chemistry and History of Science Journals unhampered by the institution or my OPC denomination (well, almost). The real problems were time, energy, equipment, facilities, and a general lack of institutional drive for academic scholarship (Faculty were there to teach not do research). Sure, I could have devoted my life to flash-point issues such as the use of embryonic stem cells or any number of origins questions but the challenge to develop a program that started students on the path to MDs and PhDs seemed more important. I have observed that colleagues in industry and non-religious institutions have their own sacred cow flash-points as well and often lamented that I had it easy.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I guess it depends if they view themselves as an academic institution with a evangelical ethos, or if they are a evangelical institution that teaches everything from a specific, unwavering, immutable point of view. As a different sort of example, there are numerous Catholic universities with excellent academic standards – La Salle in PA, for instance, where the religious ethos does impede academic prowess.

    For instance, Patrick Henry College requires students to sign a declaration that they believe in YEC. That sinks the whole enterprise for me.

    As a geologist, I would not hire any student from any institution that requires, or propagates, some sort of pseudo-scientific belief, for any technical/scientific position. They are insufficiently educated.

  • RJS

    Nice post Pete. Irrespective of the reason, any place that requires subsription to a specific position and forbids any real discussion of the ground for the position (with potential for revision) is not in some sense “academic”. A set of evangelical institutions fall into this trap in various degrees. There is a continuum though. I have a no problem with an institution wishing that its faculty be orthodox Christians for example. In one sense this does limit academic freedom – the faculty are not free to renounce Christianity and remain employed by the institution. I have a serious problem however, when the requirement becomes you must believe “x” no matter what the data says on some secondary issue (like the composition of the Pentateuch, the number of Isaiahs, or the age of the earth), no discussion allowed.

    This isn’t limited to religious institutions or philosophical issues of course – The Soviet Union was famously anti-evolution at one point and demanded this.

  • rvs

    Great post! Thanks. –My sense of evangelical Christian higher ed.: there is a fair amount of “don’t ask and don’t tell” going on, and a lot of beautiful linguistic gymnastics (i.e., it depends on what the definition of “is” is–that sort of thing). I don’t see this “complexity” as necessarily bad (?), but it doesn’t address the heart of your question, the answer to which is “sometimes,” haha. If the institution is the people involved, then… “sometimes.” If the institution is a cold pile of bricks, then I feel pity for it–for all who have become brickified.

    I have heard people on search committees say things like “of course s/he’s a Christian, but just not our kind of Christian” (denominations are taste communities, as far as I can tell–”doctrine” is an aesthetic category more so than an ontological one). Indeed, I was given this “you-are-just-not-our-kind-of-Christian” line once by a university in California that took a particularly strong interest in the details of my divorce. I knew immediately that the Mrs. Grundy of the committee (a man, in this case) would not be satisfied with the interview until I said something that was worrying. My reference to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive did the job.

  • Dana Bates

    I think the problem with Evangelicalism runs deeper, and it is not just with Evangelicalism. Any theology that has so strong of a doctrine of original sin and denies natural theology will of course be cultish. It is an apriori given! There are encouraging trends in the other direction in terms of a rehabilitated doctrine of creation (e.g. Moltmann), but it will take a long long time.

  • Karen

    What is the purpose of academic learning? Surely it includes pushing the boundaries, wrestling with the unknown and mysterious. It is far easier to attribute everything to divine intervention than to take on hard work, but yet we seek to uncover the reasoning and mechanisms for everything from biology to economics to sociology to the arts. This search for the explanations and answers to life’s questions is part of what makes us human. We are created in God’s image and therefore are a seeking people – we seek to know and understand God’s creation and its creator (no matter the mechanism). I have to believe this is the plan.
    The Academy has to question to be honest. While institutions certainly have their biases (in many Economics departments it is easier to be a Marxist than pro-free markets), each discipline advances by allowing, even encouraging the orthodoxy. Sometimes idea are wrong-headed, but we learn from errors and move forward.
    If an institution were to limit its offering to the non-controversial, they would be a school of ….Accounting?

    • Barry

      “The Academy has to question to be honest. While institutions certainly have their biases (in many Economics departments it is easier to be a Marxist than pro-free markets), each discipline advances by allowing, even encouraging the orthodoxy. ”

      I’m sorry, but I’d like to know of even *one* Economics department (among the zillions in this country) where that is true.

      • rvs

        It’s much easier to find Marxist English departments; indeed, Marxism is still the opiate of many lit. professors in academia. The comb over, however, has mercifully fallen out of favor.

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  • Craig Vick

    Assuming I want to found a college (I can always dream) why would I want to found a Christian college as opposed to a college without theological commitments and requirements for professors and graduates? How that question is answered might go a long ways in answering the questions you raise.

  • John Hawthorne

    Pete, I’m struck that many of the reactions to your question either worry about bias in research institutions or pick extreme examples as talking points. I’ve spent over 30 years in Christian universities and recognize the struggle you are describing. Look no further than the differences between faculty and staff at the same institution. The faculty are far more likely to be committed to critical thinking, wherever that takes them. Staff members are far more concerned about “protecting” the students. Trustees are most concerned about avoiding controversy and bad publicity (pardon the cynicism).

    I lay much of the source of the defensive posture at the feet of the Christian Worldview argument. If one begins with a metatheoretical perspective that is the only means of safety against the “View of the World” one has to be defensive. If instead one realizes that God approves of our tackling difficult issues (like scripture, medical technology, family structure, origins) we are free to work in a holistic fashion without fear.

    I recently read David McKenna’s recent book on the history of the Christian College Consortium (McKenna served as president of Spring Arbor, Seattle Pacific, and Asbury Seminary). I was struck that he was advocating a positive view of Christian Higher Ed as early as the late 1960a. He imagined that students and faculty would desire to come to our institutions because of the rich blend of academic rigor and Christian commitment. He also maintained a far more robust view of Integration than I’ve seen over my career. (I still have trouble with the dualistic framing of “integration of faith and learning” but haven’t up with a better formulation). Perhaps that breadth of inquiry allows us to carve out a more positive vision.

    I’ve been writing and reflecting on the mission of Christian higher ed for some time now. I’ve really become aware that almost all of our self-definitions are negative comparisons to something else. We aren’t secular universities, we aren’t bible colleges, we aren’t summer camp — but what ARE we?

  • rvs

    Great post! Thanks. –My sense of evangelical Christian higher ed.: there is a fair amount of “don’t ask and don’t tell” going on, and a lot of beautiful linguistic gymnastics (i.e., it depends on what the definition of “is” is–that sort of thing). I don’t see this “complexity” as necessarily bad (?), but it doesn’t address the heart of your question, the answer to which is “sometimes,” haha. If the institution is the people involved, then… “sometimes.” If the institution is a cold pile of bricks, then I feel pity for it–for all who have become brickified.

    I have heard people on search committees say things like “of course s/he’s a Christian, but just not our kind of Christian” (denominations are taste communities, as far as I can tell–”doctrine” is an aesthetic category more so than an ontological one). Indeed, I was given this “you-are-just-not-our-kind-of-Christian” line once by a university in California that took a particularly strong interest in the details of my divorce. I knew immediately that the Mrs. Grundy of the committee (a man, in this case) would not be satisfied with the interview until I said something that was worrying. My reference to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive did the job.

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  • Marta L.

    This is a really important topic and I’m glad you are bringing it up. I’m a philosophy doctoral student (and intro-level instructor at my school) from the Bible Belt, so this is a topic I’ve dealt with a lot in my conversation with family and high school friends. How do I, as a lifelong Christian, question the Bible to the extent my academic work requires? And more to the point, why would I choose to be a part of academia?

    If we’re going with a historical definition of what a university is supposed to be all about, I think there’s a pretty stark divide between scholarship and propaganda. For instance, I basically accept Aristotle’s approach to ethics but in my introductory courses I teach all the major theories developed by philosophers (Mill, Kant, Plato, Aquinas, Nozick, Rawls, etc.) As an individual I have a definite opinion about which name on that list has the best accounts and the various ways that account could be improved. But qua instructor, it’s not my job to make Aristotelians out of my students; it’s my job to introduce them to the theories, make sure they understand them, and help them develop the critical framework necessary to decide which approach, if any, they find convincing. The same thing applies in my role as a researcher. My job isn’t to convince them my thesis is perfect; it’s to work with them to improve on what I am pretty damned sure is imperfect.

    None of this means I can’t have my own opinions, or that I can’t try to convince others that I’m right. But when I am trying to convince rather than improve what I know, I think I’ve crossed out of academia into something else. Just like there’s a difference between a medical researcher studying the human body and a doctor using that knowledge to treat the human body. Both kinds of work are needed, but they are distinct. So if a professor really is trying to defend something she’s already decided is true rather than find the truth, she’s not being a very good academic. She may be a good apologist for her conclusion, and that may be good and necessary. But that doesn’t make her an academic.

    On the larger question about universities… here I’m a bit hesitant, because people use the word “university” in so many different ways. Most parents today send their kid to the state university because they believe it will help him get a job. And many state universities are shifting their focus. I don’t know that State U. loses the right to call itself a university when it slashes its humanities programs to the bone in order to offer more nursing and engineering sections, any more than a Christian college’s focusing on a different practical goal means it’s not a good university any more. But if we’re going to be purists about the university label, I think there does come a point when the Christian school should give up the label. (It’s not alone in this; I don’t think every four-year school needs to be labeled a university in order to be a worthwhile institution.)

  • Paul D.

    The irony is that if Evangelical Christianity is true, these institutions should be the most open and academic of all, since all honest and free inquiry would end up confirming Evangelical beliefs. The only reason to fear inquiry is that you know your religious dogma might not be true, and protecting it is more important than find out what is true.

    • Andy

      Paul, you nailed it. True faith in a real God results in trust rather than a fear that your dogma will be exposed.

  • Forrest Long

    Thank you Peter for raising the issues you have in this post. As a former evangelical pastor who received training in fundamentalist/evangelical institutions, I must confess that they were not in my time- back in the 60′s and early 70′s- centers of academic openness. There were matters not to be discussed and issues not to be raised. There was no sense of academic freedom and regardless of how well you defended your position, if it went against stated doctrine you just wouldn’t make the grade. It was frustrating but I hung by it through my years of training and into ministry, to find more of the same. Today there is high level scholarship going on in some evangelical institutions but there are still parameters you must function within. For myself, it was freeing to step outside those structures and be in a place where I could ask all the questions I want to without fear of reprisal. Anyway, I enjoy reading the responses as much as reading your writing. You have touched a nerve and that’s good.

  • Mike Gantt

    The difference between Evangelical academic institutions and all others is not that the former conform to a particular worldview while the others do not, but rather that the former is willing to put its view in writing and make them public while the latter are not so forthcoming.

    “Academic freedom” in our day is just a euphemism for “politically correct.”

    • peteenns

      I’m not sure “academic freedom” captures this conversation, Mike. That is more a scare phrase, in my experience, and off topic. This post and the comments offered concern those times when institutional theological pre-commitments functionally disqualify them from engaging broader academic conversations. I wonder if you’ve ever been in the position of having to deal with the collision of academics and faith first hand?

  • Stephen


    Thanks for your comment above. Would you mind spelling out for me how cognitive science research supports or contributes to your general point — which, and forgive me if I’m wrong, seems to revolve around standard evangelical apologetics rhetoric about “Liberal” or “anti-supernaturalistic” “academia.”


  • Bryan

    Any institution that inhibits theological creativity is far more concerned with an orthodox ecclesiology than improving or developing better options which have been available in the past.

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  • Joel Webber


    Great post as per usual.

    I am interested in your post as the grateful alumnus of an evangelical liberal arts college and as a lawyer. Both such a college and the legal profession profess dedication to the pursuit of truth. Integrity is a paramount value in both venues.

    What concerns me about evangelical institutions who rid themselves of professors with whose views they disagree is for the integrity of those professors left behind. In the legal system, where a juror learns that a witness has a stake in a particular outcome or will receive a benefit / setback depending upon his / her testimony — that goes directly to the witness’ credibility.

    The fact that professors at evangelical institutions are under threat for their jobs depending on how they answer a particular question or reach conclusion in their field — goes directly to the credibility of those faculty.

    Retaliation against unwanted viewpoints presents an integrity question for such a college or seminary just as it does for legal institutions. Sadly, were I to repeat my classes of decades ago, I would be wondering about the state-of-mind of the middle-aged, kids-on-the-brink-of-college, spouse-requiring-medical-coverage professor.

    Like the juror, the student in an evangelical institution should observe the old-fashioned charge from the judge to seek the truth from what is presented, “without fear or favor or passion or prejudice”. The leadership of such institutions should act with commensurate respect for candid statement.

    Joel Webber

    My own focus

  • Norman

    I think the tone of this post is a little too generalizing. I’m not disagreeing with Pete’s overall thrust but I think it may have less impact on the general academic process at many of these institutions than perhaps we are making out. Having attended a Christian college and sent my two children to two different ones I am thankful for the environment that these schools of education presented. Numerous Doctors, Lawyers, Judges and business men and women proceeded from these institutions and performed well in their next phase of education. If these schools hadn’t prepared them well they would have had to close their doors.

    Everyone was required to take bible classes yet these were basic level instructions that would be informative and helpful. I don’t know of any classes that focused upon teaching Genesis from a YEC perspective at any of these institutions. However when my children were searching out their schools their criteria was to stay away from those that were legalist tending. That pretty well took care of the matter.

  • Cissy

    I’m an adjunct at one of those institutions. I could agree more. My own academic and spiritual integrity is telling me I am near the end of my stint in that world. I found you while searching on Les Mis. I loved your blog and posted link to it on Facebook. Thanks for speaking up.

  • Cissy

    I “couldn’t” agree more!

  • Vance Harwood

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your very interesting post. I’m reminded of the various “schools” that inhabit various academic topics. For example in economics we currently have Austrian and Neo-Keynesian schools of thought, and quantum mechanics has Copenhagen and Multiverse schools. I suspect that in some universities an overly zealous, powerful professor can make the academic atmosphere there less than free and open. The difference with the Evangelical universities is that they formalize their positions so not even death (of their faculty) allows a fresh look at the evidence.

    ‘Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time” Max Planck

  • James

    Atheistic educators wrongly think the academy can be totally objective and values free. This seems to be polar opposite to conservative Christian institutions that appear to be values driven to a high degree. I suppose the rest of academia finds its place somewhere in between. To wonder how evangelical colleges and seminaries can be true academic institutions sounds either simplistic or judgmental. The best we can hope to do academically is maintain a healthy tension between objective study and the values that push it.

    • peteenns

      James, like I’ve told other commenters, as a biblical scholar, I don’t think about “academic” in abstract terms primarily but in terms of specific issues. If in an institution professors have to tip toe around or avoid entirely issues that are fundamentally settled on scholarly (not ideological) grounds outside of evangelicalism, there’s a problem.

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  • Alessandra

    “whether evangelical institutions can maintain a credible academic reputation when they officially promulgate positions that are only held within those institutions of similar ideology ”

    This is exactly what liberal institutions do!! And this means very restricted debate and diversity of viewpoints in the majority of public universities regarding many liberal orthodoxies!

    • peteenns

      Some but by no means all liberal institutions. But my post has a less abstract point, Alessandra. To use an extreme example to explain my point, a fundamentalist Christian college that rules out of court at the outset any view other than a 6000 year old earth or a 2nd millennium BC authorship of Genesis is not doing the same thing that a liberal institution does when it insists that going green is the only responsible option.

  • Andrew J. Marksen

    Having attended BYU and Regent University along with a couple of Community Colleges I can tell you there are extremes on both ends of the philosophical scales. Those of us who have accumulated over 100 hours or credits have experienced an even broader spectrum of philosophies. I have encountered diverse opinions actively expressed at every campus I have been on. There are differences in how those opinions are delivered that makes all the difference in how they are received. Undergraduate work and graduate work is and should be a veritable cornucopia of experiences, however there is a complete lack of decorum and form on many campuses today. The trap is in how we define academics and learning. There has been a focused movement among university elites to limit those who can claim true academia. The removal of all religious ethics or standards is allegedly supposed to unburden the student, and miraculously unblock the brain thereby giving him or her unfettered access to the real truth. Actively disengaging from our Christian foundations and re-writing our rich history through secularism is the single greatest way to produce multiple generations of students and adults that are only capable of thinking one way. We have all had that one Professor that refuses to acknowledge solid facts from credible sources because those sources are allegedly unworthy or deemed a sham. Religion and academics are simply not compatible for these individuals. They view religion as a farce better relegated to the realm of mythology. The real world is very different. Many of us place value judgements on who we associate with professionally and personally. We understand that a person who is unwilling to recognize that their talent and ability may be due in part to a higher power likely could be viewed as a narcissist lacking in humility. We understand that life is about balance and an acknowledgement that there are things greater than self. Ultimately this is a balance I have found in greater supply at religious based universities and colleges. True academics in today’s society seems to foster self aggrandizement and promotes an individuals supposed greatness at the expense of a more rounded view. Religion is not an anchor or a crutch crippling and drowning academic learning. Religion is a wise companion offering balance and introspection as academic knowledge is integrated into a better self.

    • peteenns

      Again, I appreciate the validity of this observation, but many of the commenters on this post are speaking too generally about “academia” or “bias” etc. I’ve also spent considerable time in Christian/confessional and secular research institutions. I get it. I really do.

      If a Christian school contends that the earth is flat and young it is not operating on the same level of bias as a university that says you can’t teach geology here unless you think the world is round and old. That illustration, as hypothetical as it is, is closer to what I am getting at in this post. I understand how all human beings have biases, etc., but there are also things that are very well established in various fields on the basis of lengthy–in some cases generations–of debate and discussion. To dismiss that on ideological/theological grounds is “non-academic.”

    • peteenns

      Oh, I meant to add that there are evangelical institutions that have a far higher ceiling of tolerance than others. Regent U., Eastern U., Messiah College, the list goes on and on. I am directing my attention in this post not at all institutions but only those that disengage from their academic fields for theological reasons.

    • Beau Quilter

      “We understand that a person who is unwilling to recognize that their talent and ability may be due in part to a higher power likely could be viewed as a narcissist lacking in humility.”


      What a convenient way to dismiss academics who don’t believe what you believe.

  • Arnold Williams

    Interesting. And I point out the very large number of academically respectable people who fell for, participated in, and publicized the Jesus Seminar and its follies. That was academically respectable. It was nonsense. At a certain point we have to acknowledge the obvious: part of what you hear depends on the person you are, not the academic markers you attach to your name. And note that the evangelical colleges are precisely addressing this weakness in academia, and academia, true to its prior follies, has stayed in the mud.

  • Jack Cooke

    One of the most unacademic positions taken by the majority of colleges and universities is that this universe and everything in it came from evolutionary processes. Even worse is that they believe it came from essentially nothing. What could be more unacademic, unscientific, and idiotic than to believe that everything came from nothing? Common sense and any third grader could tell you that it is ridiculous that the house they live in is the product of an explosion that happened a long time ago. Yet this nonsense is what our “great” institutions of higher learning are indoctrinating our kids in everyday when they tell them our planet and universe is the product of an explosion that occurred billions and billions of years ago. That isn’t academic–that is propaganda backed by blind faith in a process termed evolution that no one has ever actually observed. I choose to retain my logic and common sense rather than sacrifice both to the god of scientism and “academic respectability.”

  • reverend robbie

    I find it odd when people (presuppositionalists or fundamentalists or anyone clinging to unsupported positions) defend themselves with statements that pretty much add up to, “well you’re just as wrong as I am.” By denying that there is any avenue for coming to reliable conclusions, they seem to feel that they somehow justify their preferred one.

  • Wally

    Diversity in academia? Really? Is that some kind of sick joke? Most of the humanities are stuck in 19th century paradigms developed by pre-Nazi German looneys.

  • Wayne

    You’ve put your finger on the two big weaknesses of evangelical Christendom: avoidance of mainstream Biblical Scholarship and mainstream science. Recently, I made a rather concerted effort to find a PhD in evolutionary biology who was a YEC [after being referred, by an evangelical friend, to various sites which compiled lists of scientists who were opposed to (or seriously questioned) the theory of evolution]. After a few email exchanges on the topic, I concluded the discussion as follows:

    “With regard to the question of origins, my reference to PhDs in evolutionary biology was not meant to belittle the intelligence of those scientists and other scholars that you referred me to (or to magnify the value or authority of a PhD in evolutionary biology). Rather, it was to point out the way in which all the scholars on that list seem to be segregated from the main stream of evolutionary science instead of really entering into the fray– i.e instead of being willing to engage evolutionary biology on its own terms [completing a course of study within one of the scores (if not hundreds) of PhD programs available] and then, from within that larger community of discourse, challenging it from within. There’s nothing wrong with coming to an area of research from the outside or without all the usual credentials — indeed, it is often helpful to see the evidence with a fresh set of eyes! But when (as far as I can tell) all the proponents of Young Earth Creationism are attacking contemporary evolutionary biology from the outside (and when the YEC culture goes to great pains to insulate their children and young people from a fair presentation of opposing points of view), I think even you would agree that it smacks of religious ideology, not science.”

    I went on to say:

    “I am happy to abandoned evolutionary theory if that is where the evidence takes us. And even now, I merely accept it as a provisional, incomplete, and relative truth [i.e. it constitutes our current (limited) understanding of the unfolding of appearances in space and time, but tells us nothing about the more fundamental reality of our relationship to God -- here & now -- that which you sometimes refer to as the vertical aspect of reality (i.e the transcendent or transcendental aspect) in contrast to the horizontal (or empirical) aspect]. As I see it, our biological and cosmological history is a (horizontal/empirical) reflection of the Divine intelligence which is the (vertical/transcendent) source of all that appears in space and time. Indeed, it is our ontological rootedness in the Divine intelligence that makes possible our perception and understanding of these (horizontal) appearances in the first place. As such– insofar as the evidence warrants –we need not feel threatened by the theory of evolution (unless, of course, we are clinging to a very particular conception of scripture as inerrant — inerrant not simply with regard to the spiritual truth which the Spirit of God can communicate to us through it, but with regard to every facet of its multifarious historical, political, cosmological, and prophetic narratives — very ancient narratives, many of which originated in oral traditions — spanning many, many centuries and influenced by a variety of cultures (not to mention human authors and editors) along the way. All I can say is good luck with that…).”

  • Joseph Phillips

    Holding on to my evangelical faith and asking the questions that I had in college was, and is, the most challenging activity of my life. I graduated from a Christian university that allowed things be said in the classroom just so long as they were said quietly and without any fanfare. Having attended both Christian and secular universities, I have to say I’m glad I chose a career in a secular university so that I could investigate the truth wherever it led me. Though I have been very happy with my career choices, I have to say that it seems a bit ironic that I felt I had to go the “secular” route when I know I could have made thoughtful, honest, and Christian contributions to an evangelical university.

  • sdb

    I’m not so sure the situation between evangelical colleges and secular research universities is as asymmetric as you seem to imply. Martin Gaskell certainly stands as one example of a scientist who was passed over for being “possibly evangelical” (as one search committee member put it). The search committee was afraid that his views may not be as clearly anti-creationist as one might hope. Kentucky maintains that they did nothing wrong, and they settled. I think I may agree with Kentucky’s stance here (or would if they were a private institution -setting aside church/state questions). They are a secular institution, and they want to present a united front against folks who might believe God is relevant to science. You can’t have someone who is “possibly evangelical” putting a crack in that united front by giving talks at churches about how science can bolster your christian faith. Is this really so different from what is going on at Evangelical colleges? I guess the difference is that the Evangelical institutions are upfront about this. Their convictions are clearly laid out, and you need to work elsewhere if you can’t abide by those with integrity.

    Commitment to materialist scientific inquiry is an ideological commitment, it isn’t a neutral stance only interested in finding truth. It walls off certain lines of inquiry and limits questions that one can ask. I’m not sure that it is possible to get tenure (or even hired) at most secular research universities without making a commitment to materialist scientific inquiry within one’s profession. I guess one could hold all sorts of strange ideas about lots of things outside of one’s scholarly area and get away with it. Maybe that isn’t true at a confessional institutions where the engineering prof has to proscribe to specific theological beliefs. Stanley Fish had a nice couple of essays on this topic in the Times a few months ago:

    It is fine to point out that evangelical colleges are not committed to the same methodological standards that secular research universities are committed to. But so what? Vive la différence. Does that really make them non-academic?

    • peteenns

      On your last questions, see my post and various comments I’ve made.

    • chris

      Speaking of fine points, did you mean to write ascribe rather than proscribe?

  • MD

    Peter really relevant post, and reflective of a similar question that needs to be asked at a larger scale across evangelical North America. As kids who grow up with evangelical parents, we are taught that we have access to and should relentlessly pursue “truth.” But then we’re left on our own to deal with the shock of later finding out that nearly every piece of scholarship in nearly every field in the past 150 years has built a strong case against the fundamentalist claim to truth.

    The worst part is that by blithely claiming to be academic, these fundamentalist schools extend the cultural bubble that makes it possible to be 2 centuries behind on what we know about the world.

    Transition out of the bubble is harder, or more abrupt, when you are miles out of touch and not not inches. Without these schools evangelicals would quickly notice that everyone… EVERYONE… who went to higher studies wound up abandoning evangelicalism. So they extend the bubble to higher ed, and hide or methodically explain away everything thats uncomfortable.

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  • geoffrey.fulkerson

    How would you respond to Carl Henry’s argument that the tension is not between presuppositions and objectivity (ecclesial and academic, apologetic and critical, as you say), but between supernaturalism and naturalism? Your assumptions seem to correspond exactly to what Henry warned against over 20 years ago. Listen to his lecture that I recently uploaded at (, or just peruse the quotables. On what ground can you claim that the first question to be asked must be the inductive, historical-critical one, rather than the deductive, theological one about God’s supernatural involvement in the world? Moreover, why do secular institutions get to set the agenda for what is constitutive of “academic”? Is not academic or ecclesial a false dichotomy? I grant much of what you say about the silliness of certain Evangelical arguments, but I find Henry’s argument far more convincing: Evangelicals have unwittingly embraced a naturalistic methodology while attempting to continue to affirm the traditional dogmatic positions … as if inerrancy is an empirical phenomenon of the text. A positive (non apologetic) answer thus lies in theology itself, and, I would argue, this is just as academic as its secular counterparts, if by academic one means open to scrutiny of clear thinking and the criticism of errancy, inconsistancy, fallacy, etc. So, I guess my question would be, in short, why can’t evangelical colleges and seminaries be academic (and ecclesial)?

    • peteenns


      I respect Henry, and I say this without any strong emotion, but the type of thinking reflected in your comment is the problem, not the solution; it’s why evangelicalism keeps spinning its wheels to defend its theological agenda despite very reasoned opposition. Supernaturalism vs naturalism is little more than a sound bite, and with respect to hermeneutics is no value, since it still leaves unanswered what exactly to do with biblical interpretation. I posted a few days ago some quote from Moises Silva that reflect where I am.

      • geoffrey.fulkerson


        Thanks for your response.

        If you only allow the text to appear according the EMPIRICAL canons of higher criticism (and if you always and only draw attention to the perceived FACTUAL inconsistencies in the DATA of the texts), then I admit that a theistic cosmology has little value for biblical interpretation (and at worst is used as an irrational trump). But, on the other hand, if you allow the text to appear on its own terms, then it seems to me to be primarily about divine Revelation, about a living God who is active and involved in his creation. When the text appears in such a way, is it not reasonable to perceive the world as supernaturally ordered? And, believing in a supernaturally ordered world with God himself at its head, is it unreasonable to affirm God’s ability to assure the perdurance of his name through the recording of written testimony? So, it seems to me that theism has everything to do with biblical interpretation.

        Also, to admit difficulties in the text (I presume this is the “reasoned opposition” that you appeal to) is not to undue inerrancy, since inerrancy is grounded in God, not Scripture per se. Your counter-argument allows for only one small strand of scripture to determine the meaning of the whole; namely, those texts hat have been shown to be empirically questionable. (I do hope, though, that you are not dismissing belief in God as a mere theological agenda.) Evangelicals have certainly tended to defend inerrancy on empirical grounds, but that is a wrong understanding of the doctrine and implicitly undermines it (as Webster, among others, has criticized and as Henry anticipated several decades ago).

        I would be interested in your thoughts on Henry’s lecture. He shares similar sentiments with your criticism of Evangelical, apologetic exegesis. But he also comes to a radically different position on the doctrine of inerrancy.

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