Larry Hurtado on “Academic Injustice and Shameful Cowardice” in Christian Academia

Larry Hurtado on “Academic Injustice and Shameful Cowardice” in Christian Academia April 27, 2012

Larry Hurtado (internationally recognized scholar of New Testament and Christians origins and recently retired from the University of Edinburgh) posted today a hard-hitting commentary on the current state of Christian academic institutions, where administrators shoot their faculty first and ask questions later, or not at all.

Hurtado has become quite exasperated at the unreasonable and dictatorial manner in which good scholars are dismissed from their academic posts for holding positions deemed outside of the bounds without due process and a genuine academic exchange of ideas.

Hurtado does not mention any particular instance, which is completely understandable, but anyone living in the Christian scholarly world knows exactly what he is talking about. I can attest personally to Hurtado’s observations; hardly a month goes by without me hearing directly or indirectly of a professor who was precipitously dismissed or forced to resign with little warning and without given an appropriate and fair venue (i.e., consistent with Christian morality) for adjudicating grievances. The situation is reaching epidemic proportions.

Hurtado asks:

What kind of “academic” institution handles matters in such a disgracefully unfair, unreasonable and unreasoning, and dictatorial manner?  What kind of “Christian” institution is so narrow, so ungracious, so unkind, so Stalinesque as to handle things this way?  What does it say about the “faith” held, how nervous, uncertain, jittery, and reactionary it must be?  (As someone once said about such matters, “With ‘friends’ like these, Jesus doesn’t need enemies!”)

My one word answer: fear.

Fear of criticism from donors and others deemed influential or significant.

Fear of facing that possibility that one’s tradition may need to change.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of man rather than God.

Hurtado ends on an apocalyptic note:

The incidents that moved me to write this are shameful.  Maybe the administrators responsible will try to reassure themselves that they’ve avoided any questions from their boards or constituencies, or pacified such.  But Christians also profess that there is a higher judge to whom we will answer, and, to judge from the biblical testimony, I rather suspect that this judge is not so likely to approve the sort of actions I refer to here.  So, if these people ever ponder their actions, in the wee hours of the morning or in times of any honest prayer and reflection, I wonder how they justify their actions to that judge.  How do they account for their cowardice in ducking their responsibilities as academic leaders to help institutional boards and religious constituencies appreciate the work of academics, develop the confidence in their faith to allow a healthy investigation of matters, distinguish between central and peripheral matters, and above all to behave in a manner that reflects the Christ whom they profess?

It is good to see such seasoned and respected members of the academic community taking a stand against such behavior. One reason it continues is because, to borrow a familiar phrase, “good men (and women) do nothing.” Hurtado is a good man doing something.

You can read the entire post here.

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  • Agreed. Though I note that Hurtado makes an important qualification. As he notes, he is talking about instance where:

    “No major doctrine called into question, no denial of any item of historic Christian faith, no moral lapse, no criticism of teaching effectiveness, just a charge of having stepped out of the party line on any one of a number of matters undifferentiated as to importance.”

    I take it that he–and you?–would think it’s a different matter is someone IS calling major doctrines or “items of historic Christian faith” into question?

    • peteenns

      Correct. What struck me most is the failure to follow the most fair process. Any institution is well within its right to define and maintain its parameters.

  • It’s apparent that this is an issue and I am thankful that Hurtado and others are speaking up. But I don’t think criticism will bring change. In my experience it only serves as confirmation. Until we create sustainable alternatives to these established institutions, there is no vision for something different. And until there is a competing vision, these institutions have no reason to change, especially because they sincerely believe that such a heavy-handed response is necessary for the survival of the Christian faith.

    I am hopeful in the possibility of more “broadly defined” institutions that are starting to crop up. I just hope they do not fall prey to the same authoritarianism that can easily creep up on an establishment. But in my experience, transitioning an older institution into one with a more broadly-defined doctrinal statement is a monumental task, often ending in a retreat to the old model with the scapegoating of faculty and administration to appease the gods (read: donors who will only support under the old model).

  • This is why some of the more illuminating investigations of the scriptures are achieved outside of academia period. We all know that getting to the bottom of scriptural issues should be the domain of our best and most educated and trained scholars but when they have to work under the auspices of the less informed who pay the bills you get what you expect. Generally about 50 cents on the dollar.

    Well-read laymen can actually perform a lot of the leg work that gets ignored because they don’t get fired. They may get ostracized somewhat by their faith community if not careful but generally they can continue to feed their families. Without complete investigative freedom Biblical scholarship will always be owned by the current generation of traditionalist. Even when scholars seem more open minded than typical it’s easy to notice that they always have to give lip service to certain key religious doctrines of their faith group.

    The wheels grind slowly regarding change even when recognized it’s sorely needed.

  • I think a foundational plank of the disease described is the lack or total absence of “balance of power” in Christian academic institutions. Faculty no longer participate in a meaningful way in an institution’s balance of power…administration has absolute power to make decisions without any accountability to faculty. Faculty handbooks are quickly disappearing or are revised by institutional lawyers so faculty power is totally marginalized. It was not always this way, but the corporalization of education (see AAUP site), especially in the USA, has led to a business rather than education model for institutions. Faculty are merely at will employees (tenure is fast fading and usually does not halt administrators from exercising their will) rather than “officers of the institution” (a status established by law in the Yeshiva lawsuit, see AAUP again). A major contributing factor to this problem is the useless accrediting agencies who do not enforce their own criteria for accreditation. They do their reviews, make comments, and kiss the @## of administration as they depart.

  • Wish I could say that this doesn’t ring true to what I’ve seen and heard. But it really does. =(

  • Scott Leonard

    I think honest people will admit that the number of brilliant, godly scholars who line up on the opposite side of many of the arguments championed here is, in fact a massive number. It is interesting to note which fountain is producing the likes of 100 million believers in China and the rapidly growing Church in Iran, Afghanistan and India. While some debate the time-honored traditions of evangelicalism, the others are busy finishing up the work of the Great Commission. So be it.

    • peteenns

      Scott, I’m not sure I can accept either assertion you make. There are scholars on both sides and I’m not quite sure how you can quantify which fountain produces what. You seem to be limiting godliness to evangelicalism.

  • mikeh

    Doesn’t this mirror what is happening in evangelicalism as a whole? Pastors and other church leaders must sometimes walk a narrow path in order to keep their jobs and reputations. The environment is not suitable for any apparent dissent or move away from traditionalist positions. With a particular eye on young students, Carlos Bovell has shown some of this as it relates to inerrancy. I’d say that it’s even more widespread than that. Not stepping up to the party line can be, let’s say, troublesome.

  • Regarding Mike H’s question, “Doesn’t this mirror what is happening in evangelicalism as a whole?”, I suspect the answer is yes. I’ve never been clergy of any kind, but I ran into this kind of hysteria myself when attempting to make an honest inquiry of the conservative Lutheran sect (“Laestadianism”) in which I had spent my whole life thus far. I put together a bunch of quotations in chronological order from preachers writing and speaking over the past century and a half of the sect and offered my own critiques and questions of various issues, plus an honest, non-devotional commentary of what I had come across in my complete reading of the Bible for the first time. I printed out a dozen or so copies of the resulting 200-page book and quietly distributed it to a few friends within the sect, in hopes of obtaining some understanding of my struggles and any wisdom they might care to offer me. Well, that got me “invited” to a meeting of somber church elders. Their consensus: Get all the copies back and stop all this bothersome questioning. These are your doubts; keep them to yourself.

    I was able to stomach that for about another year. Then I finally decided I wasn’t going to go along with the intellectual dishonesty any longer and spent another couple of months refining the book, finally allowing myself the freedom to put my impertinent questions into print. It was terrifying but also exhilarating to click the mouse on the “send” buttons for Amazon, Smashwords, and my own web site (click on my nickname for this comment if you’re interested) and allow the sect’s doctrines, along with the Bible it worships, to be questioned down to its very roots in a very public way that it had never needed to reckon with before. The muzzle came off, and in the three months or so since, over two thousand people (many of them from the sect itself, I would guess) have had occasion to read parts of the book, to read the forbidden questions and their troubling answers.

    For me, there was no loss of any academic or other position. Thankfully, that particular implement in the religious coercion toolbox has no power over me. But there are plenty of other tools in there that I had to reckon with: The threat of hell being primary, along with the disappointment of and separation from many friends within the sect.

    To every one of these scholars, to the many former clergy looking for new employment in a tough job market, to the former believers of many other question-intolerant sects who all had their own painful stories to tell, I nod my head in appreciation and with an at least partial level of “been there, done that” understanding.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lapsed. You are not alone on this journey.

    • Diane

      I have made similar mistakes. May I suggest that perhaps it was less the fact that you questioned than the way that you questioned? Just perhaps. A 200 page tract, distributed selectively, does not give the impression that you invite open discourse. Even if a “coup” was not your motive, that mimics the behavior of a seriously dangerous malcontent.
      We bear some responsibility for the messages sent by our mode as well for that conveyed by our words. I pray that our continued questioning will bring both understanding and wisdom.

  • Crfields

    Dr. Enns,

    I don’t know if this has come up elsewhere in discussion, but my understanding (as a recent seminary graduate who had a class that used your I&I text) is that you yourself experienced controversy based upon the publication of your book during your time at Westminster. In my mind, that makes you a very qualified person to speak on the subject. If you don’t mind sharing (and I totally understand if you don’t) could you share a bit about what you experienced during this time. As I understand it, you were given due process, but I still think you might have some interesting thoughts on the subject.

    Thank you for this post, and your work. I&I was one of the best books I read in seminary.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Crfields. Trust me: don’t make any assumption about what did or did not happen. I will tell the story one of these days, but just not yet.

      • Crfields

        No assumptions made, just repeating what I was told by the professor of the class, though I understand much of what got circulated was probably hearsay. I would have great interest in hearing that story some day, and I suspect it will fall in very similar lines to what Dr. Hurtado is speaking about.