A Repeating Story

A Repeating Story June 19, 2012

Pete Enns recently posted about evangelical professors dying at their institutions because their ideas are unwelcome and, which is more likely, if their ideas were to become public they’d lose their jobs.

After reading Pete’s observations, what would you recommend professor/the institutions to do?

Here is a clip or two from Pete’s post:

I’ve had far too many conversations over the last few years with trained, experienced, and practicing biblical scholars, young, middle aged, and near retirement, working in Evangelical institutions, trying to follow Jesus and use their brains and training to help students navigate the challenging world of biblical interpretation.

And they are dying inside.

Just two weeks ago I the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not….

Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world.

This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Sooner or later  these professors find out is that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but expose us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new to their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same  intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity–which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.

This is what happens to the “best and brightest” Evangelicals.


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  • Rick

    My initial thoughts are:

    Does it not depend on the issue(s) there are differing over? Is it essential, or secondary?

    Should some institutions be more lenient over secondary issues? Let those institutions be a “safe place” for such research and conversations. If they then begin to draw enough of these “best and brightest”, will it not be a wake-up call to the more strict institutions.

    Finally, it would be wonderful if some would work at “secular” schools, and have an impact there. Again, such a development would hopefully get the attention of certain, stricter, institutions.


  • Alan K

    I would suggest that the professor and institution ask themselves the question “what does God want?” I agree with everything Peter says in his article but God is quite absent from the conversation. One would think that God would not want these schools plagued by fear–fear of job loss by scholars on the one hand and fear of missional drift and falling donation levels by institutions on the other. One wonder if for both sides faith rests somewhere else instead of resting with Jesus Christ.

  • Tom

    I think it is important for both professors and institutions to be very clear about what they are and what they believe. If an institution says it is open to new understandings of scripture then it would be a good place for someone who has those aspirations to work and serve. If however an institution wants to train students in a particular way or path….and the goal is reproduction of a type of graduate (I could see a reformed seminary wanting to graduate reformed students, and/or a Restoration Movement seminary wanting to graduate students who would preaching and teach in agreement with those doctrinal stances)

    It seems to me that the place trouble begins in when either the seminary or the professor is not clear with their beliefs or intentions up front. This might keep people from employment but will be a lot less painful in the long run. Those who would go to a place to change it get what they deserve, and seminaries with unwritten rules will soon end up with substandard professors because all the good ones will leave.

  • Randy Barnhart

    Many a professor/administrator/trustee has remained at an evangelical seminary or college long after he/she was no longer able to affirm (with any integrity) the fundamental beliefs of the institution. That, I would offer Enns, is the far greater tragedy. Much of the history of American academic institutions played out, sadly, just like this. I understand it when so-called “gatekeepers” behave as they do — even if they inevitably overreact.

    I must ask, how many times can one sentence miss the boat? “…Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand.” Wow.

  • As one who is not a professor but is currently pursuing a PhD at an evangelical institution (With a BA and Masters from a research institution), I can’t help but wonder if this “intellectual gatekeeper” problem is one that will plague evangelicals wherever they go. It is not as though secular, research universities are altogether value-free–they simply have a different set of values, to which they expect faculty to conform in some measure. Perhaps there is a great deal more freedom of thought in secular universities when it comes to matters of religion (I honestly don’t know), but I would be interested to hear more on that before assuming that evangelical institutions are uniquely limited.

  • Larry Barber

    The problem isn’t really with the institutions, or their administrators. The problem is with the donors that keep these institutions financially viable. Depart from, or just be perceived as departing from, historic orthodoxy and you will find that you will have less money to get by on. The real solution is for evangelicals as a whole, meaning those who just sit in the pews, needs to get over their fear. Fear of the the new, fear of the unknown, fear of the merely different, fear that you may have been living in a falsehood. For a people who claim to love the Truth, most evangelicals sure are afraid of truth.

  • I wonder if it would help for such professors to speak to a trusted department chair or dean to see what the ramifications would or wouldn’t be for gently coming out with their views. I’ve seen this happen fairly successfully at an evangelical institution with which I was affiliated for some time.

  • TJJ

    If Enns is right then I think such professor are cowardly and dishonest (not to mention faithless) and not worthy of the title and position they hold. It is shameful when it just comes down to a cost benefit analysis involving pensions and income and position.

  • Larry Barber

    TJJ, just ask Peter Enns how that worked out for him. I’m sure you never consider the financial repercussions on you and your family when you make work related decisions, but most people aren’t so fool-hardy (or independently wealthy).

  • John M.

    How old are you TJJ? Your comment sounds like what I would have said 30 or 40 years ago.

  • Robin

    I agree with TJJ, If there is a clear expectation that professors will hold to a statement of faith, and they can no longer hold to it, then it is time to move on. Same goes for pastors. Same goes for anyone who is asked to sign such a statement.

    When my wife and I were considering church we looked at those statements. If they included things we couldn’t sign, we moved on.

    If you don’t like that proposition, pick a school that doesn’t have such standards.

    I think people here feel bad for Enns because he was teaching at a mean old reformed school that decided he was out of line with the Westminster standards, but it would be the same anywhere. If I was teaching at a Quaker school or Mennonite school, and once I saw what happened on 9/11 decided Just War Theory was preferable to pacifism, I would need to own it and move on. If I’m at an evangelical school and decide I believe in papal infallibility and the core doctrine of Trent…time to swim the Tiber. It is unethical to do otherwise.

  • RJS


    “Mean old reformed” has nothing to do with it – because there are examples from many other denominations and groups, Nazarene, Weslyan, Baptist (non-calvinist baptist) …

    Schools have a right, as Enns agrees, to hold to a confession or doctrine.

    We have a problem though, when a substantial number of believing scholars, find it prudent to avoid talking about their subject of expertise … not because they have left the faith, but because those with no expertise declare what the truth must be.

  • Larry Barber

    Institutions might have a right to hold to a confession or doctrine, but that doesn’t mean they should. Further, when they call themselves a “school” or “college” or “university” that implies that there must be some room for pursuing what is true. If you can’t do that there then these institutions should just rename themselves “Indoctrination Centers” and get it over with. If you claim to have the truth, as must churches do, then you need to allow others to pursue truth, and don’t just assume your own eternal rightness, and if your statement of faith can’t survive an encounter with reality, as many can’t, then so much the worse for your statement of faith.

  • This happens in churches as well. The problem isn’t having the courage to agree or disagree, but with the dialogue itself. Use the wrong word or phrase in an article or use a word with a different emphasis and you will bring down all kinds of shouts of condemnation. If these professors walked forward, they would be shouted down before anyone ever heard what they were trying to say. Fear, not love, drives these attacks. No one will listen to each other. No one seeks to understand. No one will correct the brother who’s in error (if they are). We’ll simply fire them, wipe our hands of them and say to each other the heretic deserves what he/she gets.

  • DRT

    All of this partisanship and distrust in the evangelical schools leads to only one conclusion, the government should be running them.

  • Chris

    @ 15 DRT – LOL. Snark attack!

  • Fish

    But if you are interested in a life of intellectual inquiry, what are you doing at an evangelical ‘university’ anyway? The existence of a confession that is the ultimate boundary to inquiry and position ought to be a huge red flag.

  • Anon.

    “But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.”

    I’ve found this at more conservative institutions. I really do think when it comes down to it, it’s indoctrination. Often you don’t know that until you are hired and have been working for a bit. If controversial subjects are discussed and ideas listened to (not necessarily embraced) it makes people nervous–donors, trustees, parents etc. Certain buzz words do put professors at odds with trustees or administrators. There is tight control. It is a sad state of affairs and not a true education in the best sense of the word. It is possible to think oneself out of a job.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I want to agree with Larry (13) – don’t call yourself a university if you are not willing to have faculty seriously consider the universe of ideas , and with Fish (17) – consider any SoF a red flag, if you want to seriously consider the universe of ideas. But life has to be more practical than that. The donors issue is also huge, and intractable, as we also see in politics. Maybe DRT (15) is right, state supported indoctrination schools – oh, I forgot, we already have those.

    Donald Bloesch has a nice line in his “Theology of Word and Spirit” viz “Our righteousness is law-abiding and conforming; God’s righteousness is creative and liberating.” Now, if those all-important donors could just get all worked up about this insight. 

  • MattR

    Just follow the money. The pressure, from those I talk to in academia, usually comes from the top down… and at the very top is money/donors.

    Of course institutions need finances to run. But at the end of the day it’s up to those on the non-teaching, director side: Presidents, Directors of Development etc., to communicate what a university is for… education, not just indoctrination. My guess would be though, the big money comes from more conservative donors. Those who respond to the Christian buzzwords, and the idea of higher education as ‘keeping students Christian,’ instead of educating students as Christians, preparing them for the larger world of ideas.

  • RJS

    Mike Glenn (#14),

    Excellent point. You’ve hit the real core issue – fear that shuts down dialogue on every level. I think this is our biggest problem.

  • Robin

    From an institutional standpoint…if the institutions would rather increase their emphasis on academic freedom and decrease their role as institutions of their denominations…then the institutions need to own up to it and disassociate from their denominations.

    This is not unheard of. The SBC had tons of schools that it supported. When the conservatives took over and it became apparent that taking money from baptists meant you would have to teach things in-line with the convention, several schools chose academic freedom and weaned themselves off convention money. You just cannot have your cake and eat it too.

  • Robin

    As a follow-up…my answer would change if the church/university/seminary/professor thought he was within the bounds of his confession/statement, but was afraid that others wouldn’t agree with his assessment.

    Two recent cases within the PCA are that of Jason Stellman and Peter Leinart. People started looking at Leinart’s writings and concluded he had left the Westminster standards, his Presbytery heard the issue and Stellman actually presented the “prosecutions” case. Leinart doesn’t agree he is out of sync with Westminster, but everyone else did.

    Stellman, 2-3 years later, starts to realize he believes in baptismal regeneration and doesn’t believe in imputed rigtheousness, he believes the things be prosecuted Leinart for, and he resigns his pastorate voluntarily.

    I think Enns thought his initial writings were within the bounds of the Westminster standards, but from what he has written since parting ways I think it is accurate to say that even if his earlier works should have been accepted, it was only because he was hiding the depth of his disagreement.

  • Dan

    Definition of irony – this blog post containing ads for Liberty University. Just saying…

  • scotmcknight

    Robin, you may have given away the house in the paragraph that begins “As a follow-up…” for in most instances the professor does think the disputed belief fits within the confession.

  • Everybody has a confession, some are just stated. The problem really isn’t the gospel its our disrespect of the law. A confession is by and large a law. And we can’t keep the law. In fact, what the law does is multiply transgression. Goes all the way back to Worms in 1521. Do you recant this stuff? Then you have to look in your gut and answer either yes I recant and receive absolution because you were wrong, or no, here I stand, and deal with the repercussions. If you want a position of influence over the lives and beliefs of many, you owe that to them.

  • Tim Marsh

    For me, the ideal is that a professor should have the freedom to research and write without regard to whether or not those writings or speeches support the faith confession or mission statement of a theological institution.

    With that being said, I believe that there is no place in “introductory courses” or “surveys” for sharing your doctoral thesis, controversial opinions, or your latest research as a part of the lecture. Introductory courses are just that – they are to introduce students to the material so that they will have a frame of reference to have intelligent conversations with professors and classmates in higher level classes and seminars. Maybe this is why most professors, when granted tenure, try to avoid introductory classes all together. Maybe they are not stimulating enough. Nevertheless, I have seen professors try to lecture on their current research and pick on their introductory students. Please remember they are eighteen year olds! Or, they are first year seminary students who have not studied religion in depth.

    If most professors would respect that, then I think that there would be more freedom for papers, lectures, and books that stretch the “orthodoxy” of the theological institution. Most professors get in trouble for what they say in class. Rarely will students read a professor’s more technical work.

  • Jeremy

    This situation happens all the time at all levels of Christianity… in local churches, denominations, and in Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries. It’s a simple case of uneducated folks, who happen to have money, forcing their “beliefs” on those who are educated and who seek truth and research no matter where it leads them. Unfortunately for many professors, they have families to think about. They’re forced to make the difficult decision to put their own and their family’s well-being at risk, or capitulate to ignorance in order to keep the paychecks coming.

    The biggest problem is that the “donors” have nothing to lose, while the professors/teachers could possibly lose everything. It’s a perfect storm of unbalanced power and a lack of accountability for those who hold the power.

  • Robin

    I don’t think this is primarily a problem of money, it is primary a problem of mismatched purposes. The purpose of DENOMINATIONAL seminaries is to train people for the pastorate in that denomination. Because of that overriding purpose professors have to adhere to the doctrine of that denomination. If they deviate from that doctrine, due to academic curiosity, because they are “seeking the truth” or whatever reason, then they have reached a point where their personal goal (“truth-seeking”, academic freedom, pure intellectual pursuits) are at odds with the mission of their institution (preparing people for ministry in that denomination, within the doctrinal guidelines of that denomination).

    These seminaries are arms of denominations and heavily subsidized by said denominations. For that reason they should have confidence that the professor’s goals and the institutions goals are aligned with the denominations goals. Whoever is out of alignment with the other two needs to step away from the table financially.

    And all of that discussion is moot at Divinity Schools, secular colleges, universities, or other institutions who are not charged and supported by a denomination for the task of educating ministers according to a set of beliefs and principles.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    Well, one of the profs at Lincoln Christian University, the school I graduated from got fired. And the conference you were supposed to speak at there is evidently not going to be there. I was hoping to go to the conference so do you know where they are moving it or where it is going to be? Church and academic politics, don’t you just love it? 🙁

    Thanks in advance!

  • Jack

    Robin, having been a Pastor, Professor and board member of a conservative Bible college I have to say you hit it right on the head. Those colleges and churches have determined the course of doctrine and truth and have every right to protect the integrity of the institution’s teaching. Those people are not “uneducated” as some have implied or intellectually dishonest. They have come to the conclusions they hold as central tenets of faith. If a professor in his journey comes to an intellectual fork in the road he needs to take a turn and not expect the institution to turn with him. He can pursue his path in another place. This professor does’t have the right to begin teaching his “truth” which is counter to that the institution embraces just because he thinks he has discovered truth. He may be going off the reservation under the guise of “intellectual freedom”.

  • AHH

    Interesting cases occur when faculty take positions that upset some, but are within the school’s defined orthodoxy.

    In the 1980s, Howard Van Till at Calvin College, along with a couple of other faculty there, opposed “creationism” and expressed sympathy for evolution, which made him the target of attacks. But Calvin’s President at the time courageously defended his faculty.
    Contrast that with the case a few years ago of Richard Colling at one of the Nazarene schools, where official denominational policy did not oppose evolution but Colling was thrown under the bus after his teaching and writing about it upset some influential people.

    Of course Peter Enns did not feel that Inspiration and Incarnation was outside the bounds of Westminster, and a faculty group agreed (by some majority vote). But those with more power still forced him out.

  • RJS


    The incident with Richard Colling is more interesting because he taught for decades the same thing, well within bounds. But when he wrote a book about it he raised the ire of a cohort that created a controversy that eventually drove him out. The same is true at many places I believe … what is taught would cause problems if it was known and documented. When it is put in writing it leads to dismissal.