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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Patrick Schreiner

    What did he get dismissed for?

  • jwillitts

    I couldn’t agree more Mike.

  • PS

    Thanks for posting this. As a young student soon to enter the scholarly community through a confessional lens, this is something that constantly worries me. I am in a liberal doctoral program and try hard to wrestle with some really good theories through a confessional lens, but it almost seems like the moment you bring up certain ‘buzz’ words there are people out for your blood.

    I was actually disappointed when I heard that you won’t be at the international SBL, I was going to try to find you and ask about this question … how can you engage the scholarly world while not simultaneously ostracizing yourself from your confessional community? If you are ever in the mood to give good advice via e-mail I would love to receive some.

  • I think your comments are right on, though I find your characterization of his accusers (“a few old ladies out in the sticks . . . threatening not to send the proceeds of their bake sale to the university scholarship fund”) to be a bit (unintentionally) misogynistic. (That’s probably too strong of a word, but something in the ballpark of “unintentionally demeaning toward women.”) Far more likely, it wasn’t uninformed women creating a stir but radically partisan neo-fundementalist literalists, who, incidentally, usually happen to be white males with PhDs!

    • David, I borrowed the phrase ‘old ladies in the sticks’ from Mark Driscoll who was using the phrase to describe John Macarthur’s criticism of him and his church.

      • That explains why it sounded misogynistic! Glad to know you were just parodying someone else. As much as I try to keep up on Driscoll’s gaffs (sigh), this one must have slipped past my radar.

  • Whether the different tribes (denominations – though don’t say so out loud) of the restoration movement are properly ‘evangelical’ is debated with varying degrees of intensity depending on what definition is used.

    Regardless, other groups who come dangerously close to making an idol of orthodoxy shouldn’t surprise us with debacles like this. However, as one whose ministry has been nurtured in the restorationist movement (albeit in a very different context) it’s especially disappointing. Restorationists called their churches Christian churches (ditto with their universities – hence LCU’s name) in order to demonstrate their prior commitment to Christ above other divisive affiliations, such as denominations. They proudly proclaim that because the hold to “no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible” that they are “Christians only, but not the only Christians”. Such clichés are show to be next to meaningless in this episode, where, it seems, that being merely Christian is not sufficient and that though unwritten, there are indeed dogmas beyond the Bible that the magisterium holds to be shibboleths – at least in their academic institutions.

    Those who sloganeer with “in essentials unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” fall well short of the last two claims. For shame.

    • Djlumberjack

      It’s my understanding that LeDonne belongs to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Now, the unforgivable sin among colleges associated with these churches (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) is affiliation with a paedo-baptist communion. The fact that someone with LeDonne’s denominational baggage managed to land a teaching gig at Lincoln in the first place surprises me. I’m no insider, but I’d wager his termination has little to do with the more controversial aspects of historical Jesus criteria–an eye-glazing topic among anti-intellectual restorationists–and much more to do with the insurmountable stigma of infant baptism. Just a hunch from a restorationist preacher in central Illinois.

  • Josh Mann

    “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.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  • John

    Sadly, based on what has happened to others of a similar nature, the problems are caused by alumni, and especially parents, who “hear” that professors at a Christian school are raising and asking too many questions.

    Then they say – we are not going to give you any more money or send our children to your school unless you fire this professor !!

    • Perhaps, but who do they “hear” it from? I would suggest that often it is the educated heresy-seekers who first find the “flaws” in these academic texts. (And I know of some specific examples to back up my suggestion). Otherwise your average parent would never have heard of it in the first place.

  • Daniel Ionson

    There’s nothing new here. Businesses like LCU have never been about seeking the truth. Instead they work to establish/maintain “the truth” and pile up the timber for any would-be Galileos. And now Anthony has been burned by the modern firing. I can only feel sorry for Anthony for buying into the rhetoric of “loving the truth” that is employed by Restorationists/Evangelicals, alike. How Alexander and Thomas would be spinning in their graves.

    And, yet again, shame on those professors at LCU who cravenly bow down to the institution, saying nothing, allowing their brother and fellow to burn so that they can keep their comfy houses in Nowhere, IL. Shame on the whole lot.

  • Russ Kuykendall

    First, it’s my understanding that Lincoln Christian University has virtually no endowment and is, therefore, dependent on the donations of its constituency of private donors and supporting congregations. That alone and irrespective of the merits of the complaints from its constituency meant that the University’s administrators could have put its financial viability in jeopardy had they not acted as they did.

    My cursory read of Le Donne’s “Historical Jesus” suggests the following:

    1. Le Donne ventures outside his area of expertise into philosophy. I find several of his assertions about the origins of modern philosophy problematic, and they betray a less than profound or technical acuity;

    2. Le Donne, however, appears to accept quite uncritically several of the tenets of a modernist world view. He could serve as a poster child for MacIntyre’s “encyclopedia” as portrayed in his Gifford Lectures;

    3. As such, Le Donne’s arguments are illustrative of what is problematic with postmodernism, at bottom. The problem with postmodernism is not so much that it is “post,” but that it accepts the tenets of modernism, seemingly not only uncritically but all too often apparently unself-consciously.

    Worst of all, Le Donne appears to lack even an educated layman’s understanding of epistemology — “how we know what we know.” As the work of the past generation of epistemology suggests, modernism itself oversteps its epistemological truth claims for itself. The tone of Le Donne’s offering suggests that at bottom he accepts modernist epistemological claims for itself, as over and against the epistemological reliability of the biblical and, specifically, the narratives of the synoptic Gospels.

    Pity, that.

    Russ Kuykendall

    • JT
    • Daniel Ionson

      These are the objections to his book that should have been raised in an open forum. Yes- Have these discussion, wrestle with the subject-matter as academics. If he is wrong, then open discussions will iron it out through the years. But, no… instead he was fired for not mindlessly regurgitating Restorationist dogma by same group of men who whine about the PC Movement’s censorship and the liberal media’s marginalization/mockery of conservative opinion.

      If this were an institution of learning and searching, Le Donne’s ideas could have been scrutinized. This verifies, yet again, that LCU is merely there to indoctrinate. Yes, the rhetoric is more polished than it was in the 50’s. They teach the vocabulary of philosophical inquiry. But the clear (explosive) message is: “Tow the party line– Or else!”

      Finally, as to the donors… If a billionaire offers LCU enough cash, will they preach that polygamy is good? Can we force women to sit in the back and cover their heads for $1M? AGAIN– this makes clear exactly what businesses like LCU are.

  • Russ Kuykendall

    A little more in follow-up . . .

    First, I thank “JT” who in reply to my post points us to a LeDonne elaboration of what he means by “postmodernism,” here: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/led368023.shtml. Clearly, for LeDonne, postmodernism IS ultramodernism. On that point, then, LeDonne and I find agreement.

    As to “academic freedom” and the rest, if he has not done so, Bird would do well to look at MacIntyre’s arguments about the basic failing of modernism in his Gifford Lectures. Now, Jeffrey Stout has offered something of a response to MacIntyre’s characterization of modernism as a failed tradition. But for most moderns and their progeny among postmoderns, the world view or tradition of modernism is held uncritically and, even, unself-consciously. This is a fundamental problem with modernism as held by most of its adherents.

    MacIntyre argues for a place for confessional academies, whether as colleges federated with other traditioned colleges inside a larger university or as a free-standing, confessional university. MacIntyre’s vision, then, is of confessional or “traditioned” academies engaging a conversation with other confessional, traditioned academies on the key questions.

    What appears to have gotten Bird’s and others’ proverbial knickers in a knot is that supporters of Lincoln Christian University were insisting that its administrators maintain the school as a confessional, traditioned academy. That Mr. LeDonne appears to hold to another tradition that is diametrically at odds with the historically held tradition of Lincoln Christian University. There is surely no shortage of academies holding confessionally to the tenets of modernism or “ultramodernism,” for that matter, where Dr. LeDonne can find employment and make a career.

    Given Bird’s and others’ criticisms, I think this may be more about the shot across the bow of their adherence to radical individualism, and LeDonne’s pursuing radical individualism inside a traditioned academy. And, lest it go zooming over in sept-quatre-sept style, radical individualism can be counted among the fundamental tenets of the modernist tradition.

    As Mrs. Wilson said in Howard’s End, “Only connect.”