Evangelical Confessionalism and Academic Freedom

Evangelical Confessionalism and Academic Freedom May 4, 2012

Earlier in the week I heard the news about the dismissal of Dr. Anthony Le Donne from Lincoln Christian University. I was gob smacked because I had just finished reading Le Donne’s very fine book The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, which I thought was a very solid thesis, well-argued, and certainly not controversial or even “liberal” in its orientation. It looked like a good and learned Gospel Ph.D thesis by a scholar who, as it happens, belongs to the evangelical tradition. The controversial book in question is Le Donne’s latest offering Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know it? which is sitting on my desk and I’ve had a quick browse over it, and it has some excellent stuff, esp. refuting the “telephone game” as an analogy for the transmission of the Jesus tradition. Now as I sit here with these two books in front of me, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what heresy Le Donne has committed or what doctrine he has denied that warrants his dismissal. I’d like to hear the precise details from his accusers as to what theological error he has purportedly advocated. I tell you why. If Le Donne is one of the bad guys, then somebody’s heresy targeting system really, really needs to be recalibrated. 

My suspicion, and it is no more than that, is that there are some folks around who just don’t get historical Jesus studies, because they have a preconceived view that the Gospels are basically the script from four independent documentaries, where journalists followed Jesus around, taking notes on what they saw, and the Gospels are the end product. Sensing pressure from this constituency, uninformed as it is, the LCU administrators capitulated to calls for the removal of Le Donne from his post. I cannot emphasize how much of a travesty this is. It is a disaster that a young up-and-coming evangelical biblical scholar could  have this happen to him and it is equally tragic that a respected Christian institution would do such a thing to one of their own.

Universities generally promote academic freedom (note the qualification “generally,” absolute academic freedom is a myth in every institution). Some Christian Universities also have a confessional standard whereby administrators, faculty, and staff volunteer to operate under a statement of faith and a code of conduct. That is fine, acceptable, and quite normal. But if in one of these institutions a faculty member is dismissed on doctrinal grounds, but without denying an article in an approved document like the Nicene Creed,  the UCCF statement of faith, or engaging in misconduct, then there was no real reason for him or her to be dismissed. Just because a few old ladies out in the sticks don’t get the synoptic problem, or believe in John’s tweaking with chronology, or gel with Luke’s redaction of Mark, and are threatening not to send the proceeds of their bake sale to the university scholarship fund, is no reason to dismiss a scholar from a university … without forfeiting your reputation for being a Christian University.

Now it is no surprise to regular Euangelion readers that I (and my co-blogger Joel) believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels on the terms of ancient historiography and in light of the purpose, genre, theological substance, and literary designs of the Evangelist. See my book written in dialogue with James Crossley How Did Christianity Begin? Or even my short post on the possible use of notebooks to preserve and transmit the Jesus tradition. I shall also be writing on the origins of the Gospels in a forthcoming book The Gospels of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, forthcoming). However, the Gospels are not an objective history – all history is interpreted history, remembered history – they are written from the vantage point of faith, through the lens of the theology of the Evangelists. As I’ve argued on several occasions, “The Gospels contain a mixture of fact and faith, history and hermeneutic, authenticity and artistry.” In sum, I think we need to do a much better job of communicating to students and lay people how the Gospels are both historical, theological, rhetorical, and pastoral documents. Not just the fodder for apologetic arguments that the Jesus-thing really happened.

Larry Hurtado chimes in with some comments on “Academic Injustice and Shameful Cowardice” where he obliquely criticizes the university adminstrators for this action.

There are also reports that a conference on the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus research, scheduled to be held at LCU, is going to be moved. From Brian Le Port: “Chris Keith, a colleague of Le Donne at LCU, announced on Joel Watts blog that he is aiming to relocate a conference that was to be held at LCU discussing the issues raised in Le Donne’s work. See here.” Huzzah.

In the meantime, keep Le Donne and his family in your prayers, teach a course in Gospels in your Sunday school, and buy his book on the historical Jesus and decide for yourself.

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