The Christian College and the Crisis of Faith–and why that might be a good thing

The Christian College and the Crisis of Faith–and why that might be a good thing October 14, 2013

Today’s post is by Andrew KnappKnapp holds a Ph.D. (2012) in Hebrew Bible from the Johns Hopkins University. He has recently taught courses on the Bible and theology at Loyola University Maryland, Notre Dame of Maryland University, and Hood College. He specializes in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible within its historical context, and has published most recently on the genre of the David narrative in light of ancient Near Eastern analogues. He currently serves as acquisitions editor for Eisenbrauns, a publisher in the ancient Near East and biblical studies. He lives in Indiana with his wife, Kandace, and daughter, Evangeline, with a second child coming any day now. 

Originally, Knapp emailed me these thoughts provoked by my post on a similar themeAs a father of three 20-somethings and a Christian college professor myself, I resonated with Knapp’s experiences, and I thought what he had to say would be helpful to many of you. I asked his permission to post it and he graciously gave it. 

I am now familiar with at least a dozen situations where Bible professors at Christian colleges and universities have been fired, or in some way forced out of their position, for the content of their teaching. I have known several of these professors personally; all of them are devout people of faith who dedicated their lives to teaching the Bible because they want to better understand and to help others better understand the word of God.

In every instance, one of the primary accusations against them as they stood trial at their institution was that they caused in several students a “crisis of faith.” Which leads me to ask: why is this a problem?

It seems reasonable, even inevitable, that 18-year-olds leaving home to educate themselves will encounter new ideas that challenge their preexisting beliefs and compel a reevaluation of the evidence. Young men and women who take their faith seriously and are honest with themselves will recognize that some of their beliefs are not tenable—they do not need to be defended with better arguments but modified or even discarded entirely.

This can be difficult—we do not like to part ways with cherished ideas upon which we have built a worldview. But this is why students get educated. And this is why students have crises of faith.

Many Christian colleges include something in their mission statement about seeking to strengthen their students’ faith. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind this, I fear it can have bad effects. Many young people have an immature faith. Schools do not do them a service by helping them embrace this faith via dubious apologetics. Examination should always precede entrenchment.

Allow me to offer myself as an example. I was raised as a good sola scriptura evangelical; during my youth I read Scripture constantly. (According to my father, my first crisis of faith came at the age of seven, when I discovered that I wasn’t a Jew, as Jesus was. However, I resolved this crisis later, on my own, when I read Romans 10:12: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile; the same Lord is Lord of all and generously blesses all who call on him.”)

I believed that since the Bible was the word of God to humanity, there was nothing more important to devote myself to. So when I arrived at Seattle Pacific University—a Methodist institution—I eagerly enrolled in a variety of Bible classes. Here I encountered historical criticism and my paradigm shift began.

Careful study of God’s word did not affirm my beliefs about the sacred text; it undermined them. I could not reconcile what I discovered about the biblical text with my assumptions about the nature of Scripture. My faith and my intellect no longer cohered, and I found the latter more compelling.

Like so many others from an evangelical background who hear the siren song of critical biblical study, I experienced the dreaded crisis of faith.

But my story does not end there. The Bible faculty at Seattle Pacific encouraged my questioning. They did not attempt to indoctrinate me. Instead, they shared how they answered the questions that I struggled with. Most importantly, they provided examples of god-fearing men and women who took both faith and scholarship seriously. And I have no doubt that all this helped me remain a believer today.

I consider myself blessed that all of this occurred at Seattle Pacific, an institution where a crisis of faith is not something to be avoided at all costs. I am not bitter with my Bible teachers for provoking a crisis of faith; I am grateful to them for helping me through it.

This is why I am crushed whenever I hear that an institution has invoked the fact that “Bible Professor X caused some students to have faith crises” as grounds for dismissal. This is what good Bible teachers do!

What if we extended this to other disciplines—if physicists had to fear for their jobs whenever they caused students to understand nature in a new way, or if philosophers came under fire whenever they encouraged students to question reality in a new way?

Wanting to spare students from having faith crises implies that the students arrive at university with a perfect understanding of the nature of the Bible, in which case, we do not need to teach Bible classes at all.

I’m now a decade and a few Bible degrees removed from my crisis of faith, and I have had the opportunity to experience things from the other side, teaching Bible at various colleges, both confessional and non-confessional. I try to challenge my students, encouraging them to read Scripture with a fresh set of eyes and refusing to accept simplistic explanations of complex issues.

I do not try to provoke crises of faith, but neither do I shy away when I see them coming. In one of my first semesters of teaching, during a discussion of the historical contexts of certain Old Testament prophecies that the gospel writers applied to Jesus, I saw one of my students visibly struggling. I eventually asked her if everything was okay and she replied, “I feel like I have been lied to my whole life.”

I understood her struggle all too well, and I sympathized. (Moreover, I acknowledged my responsibility, and though I do not consider myself a fundamentalist, James 3:1 makes me nervous.) But at the same time, I was pleased to see her grasp the material and appreciate its implications for her faith. I felt like I was succeeding at my task of teaching the Bible.

Of course, at that point I had only done half my job. Far more gratifying was helping her pour a new foundation for faith, based upon a more sophisticated understanding of God’s word.

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  • Chip

    I’ve long believed that Christian colleges err in trying to be the church to their students without being a church. A college is not a church. And a church is not a college. When each tries to be the other, problems are inevitable.

  • GPFR

    So I am curious. I would like to ask the Mr. Knapp, what is his faith now and how has it changed? If you could write a creed saying what you believe right now, what would be in it?

    • Andrew Knapp

      Those are fair questions. I have no intention of writing my own creed, but I certainly have no issues subscribing to the Nicene Creed. I’m not sure how to answer the question of what my faith is now, at least not succinctly. It has changed in a variety of ways. I am no longer confident that I fully understand God and have all aspects of dogma pegged. As regards the Bible, if I may quote the insightful comment of Scott Lencke above, “my faith is ultimately in God through Christ, not in God through Scripture.” And, perhaps ironically, I think this is biblically sound: in the anecdote I described at the end of post above, one of the points I was arguing for in class was that the earliest followers of Christ realized he was the Christ not first through combing the Scriptures and finding prophecies that pointed to him, but first through experiencing him firsthand (and only then understanding the Scriptures).

      • GPFR

        Thanks for answering the question. I share your faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. I also see God through Scripture. As a serious lay student of the Bible, I’ve discovered that just as I can’t put God in a box, I can’t put the Bible in a box either, because often it doesn’t say what I think it should. But who am I to judge? And I mean that quite seriously. And the more I read it, the more I understand why it says what it does.

        In order to really understand the Bible, I think you have to read it in its entirety, all the way through–many, many times. Because the Bible consists of many, many parts that together form a consistent whole–but if you have not read the whole thing, the parts can be distorted. If you really know the Bible you can read a passage and pull up your own cross references in your head, which makes it easier to understand the passage you are reading. (I am not there yet, but it is my goal to understand the Bible that well.)

        One thing that I think is a stumbling block for many people of our generation is that a serious student of the Bible will see a God of judgement as well as a God of love. But understanding the judgement only gives the cross of Christ more meaning and also shows the depth of God’s love.

        I would like to suggest to you three different projects that have made me a Bibliophile.

        1. Get to know Paul.

        2. Get to know David.

        3. Figure out how people actually prayed in the Bible.

        1. Get to know Paul. Read about Paul in Acts and get his life and the three missionary journeys firmly established in your head. Know where he went, with whom he went and what happened each place so (if possible) you don’t have to look back at Acts when you are studying the letters. Then study his letters in the context of the missionary journeys. When you read Philippians try to picture him writing to Lydia and the Philippian jailer, etc.

        2. Get to know David through reading l Samuel, ll Samuel, I Chronicles and Psalms. I know that many scholars say that David did not write some psalms that were attributed to him, but it sure seems like he did to me. David was a shepherd, a musician, a warrior, and a king and you sure see that perspective in his psalms.

        3. Figure out how people prayed in the Bible. As you read through the Bible, note the prayers. There are Psalms, of course, and Jesus’ prayers, but also Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 8:22-53, Hannah’s prayer in1 Samuel chapter 1; Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 18:20-33; Hezekiah’s prayer in Isaiah 37:9-20;
        Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 14:7-9; Job’s prayers throughout the book of Job as he talks to God in the midst of his responses to his three friends; Habakkuk’s prayers in Habakkuk1:1-4; and of course Paul’s Epehsians 3 and Philippians 1 and many, many, other places. Try to get the big picture of prayer in the Bible.

        Doing these things really hooked me on the Bible. I know that God speaks to people in different ways, so this way may not work for you, but it did for me.

  • Bill Norton

    A few months into my teaching stint at Bethel University in St. Paul, I could feel cracks I my eight-year-long life as an evangelical. (I had returned/turned to Christ after 40 years away from church.) What I saw, heard and experienced was not the faith practiced at my home church in Kansas City. I am not suggesting Bethel’s atmosphere was wrong or out of touch; in fact, in mnay ways it was liberating.

    That first semester I was a visiting professor. As I looked around for people to guide me through my own mini-crisis, I discovered that I wasn’t asking the right questions of the right people. By and large, I concluded that the biblical and theological scholars I met, with one or two exceptions, were not terribly pastoral. To me, at least, their scholarship mattered more than resolving faith issues of personal faith.

    One philosophy prof groused that he did not want to be involved in teaching what he believed students should have learned in Sunday School. The question of what would a faculty member do if his or her teaching led to someone having a crisis is one I carried the 4.5 years I was at Bethel. I never really asked it because I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer.

    • Bryan Hodge

      That’s likely because there are two types of scholarship. There is scholarship that is nothing but the pursuit of self. This type pursues scholarship to be intellectually acknowledged and affirmed by those who are viewed as the intellectually elite. That’s why the Bible gets thrown under the bus in order for scholars to come up with something new and exciting, even if it’s not really called for.

      Then there is the scholarship that pursues a love of God and others through the truth. It seeks truth to exalt God and serve others, rather than the self. This is a rarer breed, and will likely not be acknowledged and affirmed by the academy as often (if at all).

      So that is probably why you see the pastoral/academic divide among them. They are just members of different religions, one pursuing a love of God and one pursuing self. Those pursuing self aren’t interested in you for any other reason that creating disciples to affirm their intellectual superiority (which ironically is an emotional pursuit in the end–the greatest form of flattery is emulation and we feel worthy and accomplished when others agree with us). Conversely, those scholars who are interested in their students’ spiritual and mental health as they seek to worship and exalt God and His truth through their scholarship are very pastoral. These are looking to increase disciples of Christ as their own band of followers decrease.

      I have known both throughout my academic career, but sadly, the scholars who seek to exalt themselves are far more numerous. And the attraction of the religion of the self is alluring to all of us in our fallen state, so many Christian scholars may struggle with becoming one rather than the other.

  • Brian P.

    I think there’s a deep difference in belief here. There’s one style of beliefs that’s hope, in many ways, is to bypass–to bypass trial, to bypass struggle, to bypass death itself. Jesus took upon such in substitution, that we might not have to. The richness of proclamation is that “Jesus died for you” or that “Jesus died for your sins.” There’s a different kind of faith that perhaps includes all that but also more strongly continues to co-identify with Jesus in his death. That we die with Him and He with us. And from there, the stronger proclamation is in the Hope of the Resurrection. Death is certain and Resurrection is Hope. In the former kind of faith, the biggest trial to be avoided is that of faith itself. In the latter kind of faith, the biggest trial representative of one’s cross, which in many ways, is the crucial matter and crux of the faith. Personally, I prefer the latter. The former seems cross-less and frankly a denial of the Resurrection of the Body.

    • One hurts less, requires less, and is more comfortable. Whichever way that is, Jesus and Paul called us to choose the other way. 🙂 Romans 8:17, anyone? Now this is all complicated by people viewing objection to their interpretation of the Bible as the persecution that Jesus said would come. There’s a lot of self-reinforcing here that can produce cult-like confidence and isolation.

      The best answer I can come up with is to ask the question: was Jesus really like this? Is this how he treated people? It’s not a failsafe question because people can get terrible ideas of Jesus into their heads, but I think he’s harder to get wrong than a lot of other bits of the Bible.

      • Brian P.

        The best answer I can come up with is to not engage in any sort of real dialog with believers. As one who has lost faith and is a non-theist, I simply wish those around me had a nicer version of Christian faith. Trying to live a life of service to those who would hate me, if they really knew what I did and didn’t believe, is difficult. I would take the depth of what I have over their faith any and every day.

        • That’s quite the sad statement, given that Christians are the people who ought to be best at providing a safe environment for someone of any faith to come in and share what’s really going on. What you’re saying here is that the Christians around you persecute those who are honest and don’t look like the Christians think they should look like. I hope you can see that Jesus did not do this? I hope you can see that these Christians fall grotesquely short of Jesus’ example, regardless of whether Jesus actually existed or whatnot?

          I’m glad you lost a shallow faith, and I’m glad you’re finding something deeper. I would like to think my faith isn’t shallow, but it’s a weird sort of faith, one which is not afraid of empirical evidence or doubting. I’m glad you’ve found Pete Enns, since he isn’t a shallow thinker, either. But I think it’s good that you don’t get locked into shallowness; that is worse than death to certain personality types.

          • Brian P.

            It’s not sad. And it’s not simplistic and giddy either. There’s a spiritual richness to be found in duty and loneliness.

          • I meant that it is a sad statement about what Christianity is, compared to what I believe Christianity could be. It was not a sad statement about you; I think you did the right thing.

          • Brian P.

            Yes. It is quite sad what Christianity can be. But that said, nearly anything can be reduced to a pitiful shadow of its greatest aspirations and potential.

  • dangjin

    “I am now familiar with at least a dozen situations where Bible
    professors at Christian colleges and universities have been fired, or in
    some way forced out of their position, for the content of their

    Knapp and Enns just DO NOT get it. Of course those professors should be fired, they are not teaching the truth but saying God is wrong and the blind spiritually dead secular world is right.

    Christian schools and churches do not teach lies to their students or congregations. That is not educating but allowing false teaching to destroy Christian faith. Christian churches and schools must teach the truth because they serve GOD not secular academics.

    Advocating that false teaching should be brought into the Christian fold is DISOBEYING GOD and that is sin.Saying that the gospel writers are wrong is placing oneself above God that is even more wrong especially when he lead people away from the truth.

    Jesus said it is better to kill yourself than lead someone away from faith in him. Knapp and Enns are leading people away from faith in Jesus and bring a false gospel. They should be cursed not praised.

    • Surely you believe that sometimes Christians get things wrong, and that some of these things are embedded in church tradition? If you don’t, that’s important to know—I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some Christians who think that church tradition is infallible.

      Assuming you don’t think church tradition is infallible, how would you suggest that professors go about correcting errors? What if some of the errors are areas upon which some Christians have staked their faith? “If this thing is not true, the faith is surely null and void.” Like young earth creationism.

      I’m really interested in how the Bible can tell Christians of various stripes that they’re wrong. I’m also curious about how many Christians can be taught that they’re wrong by nature; the Bible definitely appeals to our observations of nature here and there.

    • herewegokids

      Yeah, it’s probably best to just smile and nod. Jesus questioned, and challenged the establishment spirituality, application and interpretation of scripture….and look where it got Him.

  • Greg

    Dogma overtakes many secular fields too. A scientist who questions Darwinian dogma endangers her own career almost anywhere.

    • Thin-ice

      Darwin’s proposed mechanism to explain the diversity of life on earth is not “dogma”, it’s at the core and foundation of biological science. 99% of ALL peer-reviewed PhD biological scientists accept evolution as fact. Molecular biology (DNA & genetics), paleontology, geology and other sciences all provide a solid consilience which confirm evolution without any doubt. Except among those who are ignorant of the science and wish to buttress their religious faith against all danger from without.

    • GPFR

      My son-in-law wrote his PhD thesis in neuroscience. His supervisor edited his thesis adding the implications of his research for evolution. My son-in-law went back and deleted all of those references to evolution. He defended his thesis and got his PhD.

  • I have a high regard for Scriptures and have been an evangelical pastor/denominational leader for more than sixty years. But in my opinion there are some things recorded in the Bible that are not consistent with the God of grace who Jesus represented to us. This is not the fault of the Holy Spirit who inspired the ‘original’ messages to the original authors, but, rather, the fault of the original authors and, later, by the language translators who, on occasion, interpolated the Word of God based on ancient traditions of the Gentiles, the Law of Moses (some of which predated Moses), and with a good dose of their own personal biases.

    To cite an example: the doctrine of eternal conscious torture in a so-called hell; even for the billions of souls since Adam who never once heard of Jesus Christ so as to establish “a personal relationship with him.” But, of course, students of theology (and their professors) are not encouraged to raise troubling questions like the above that are not consistent with the denominational ‘party-line’ — right?

    As it turns out, time heals all wounds and faulty church doctrines, too. For example, most Christians (even theology students and many of their professors) are not aware that the word “hell” has been completely removed from the latest and best versions of the Old Testament, e.g., NIV, ESV, NASV, etc. WHY? Because the translators have finally been convinced that the word “hell” is inconsistent with the original Hebrew text. (The word “hell” is actually a Middle Ages Teutonic word that wasn’t even in existence until many hundreds of years AFTER the original Scriptures were written.) It’s only a matter of time until the translators get up enough courage to eliminate hell from the New Testament, too.

    • Hello Van I wholeheartedly agree with you.

      I believe that eternal hell and the love of God are LOGICALLY compatible.

      I explain my views on salvation here and I would be very glad to learn what you think about it.

      Lovely greetings from Europe.

      • LotharLorrraine said, “God will propose to everybody to spend eternity with Him. Does that mean that everyone will be in Heaven? Probably not, because at least some humans, like many Pharisees described in the Gospels, are going to reject the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And God will respect their free will. And if there is absolutely no hope of redemption for them, they will eventually cease to exist.”
        RESPONSE: (1) It is not our option to “reject” the love of God. God is sovereign and has not given feeble and fickle humanity the right to micro-manage his love or to determine their eternal destiny. In other words, he loves us whether we like it or not (see Rom 8:37-39). (2) The doctrine of ‘Free Will’ goes against virtually every story in the Bible. For one example: Joseph was beaten and sold as a slave to the Egyptians. He was falsely accused and thrown into prison; all against his so-called free will. Eventually his brothers were forced by famine to go down into Egypt to buy grain against their will. Jacob, their father was eventually (against his will) forced to send his beloved son, Benjamin, down to Egypt. NOTE: Consider almost every scriptural event in the Bible and it will become readily apparent that there is no such thing as human free will. Only God has free will and according to scripture (see Dan 4:35).

        • Okay, are you a universalist or an anihilationist?

          2013/10/17 Disqus

  • Y. A. Warren

    i am so tired of the religious people who want us to forever be “children of God.” it seems to me that many of the rabbis actually argue with their manifestation of “God,” man-to-man. Congratulations on encouraging your students to become grown-ups of “God.”

  • Bryan Hodge

    I’m still waiting for a post when one of these scholars realizes that they have been indoctrinated one way or another, and that is why they read the Bible the way that they do. We are all indoctrinated, and we cannot escape it without buying into another sort of indoctrination. It is not the Bible that brings one to this or that position, but whether we get our presuppositions from one culture or another. In this case, we might ask whether the governing assumptions that were used to teach students historical criticism, theological diversity within the text, etc. were gained from orthodox, heretical, apostate, or pagan cultures/subcultures.

    One of the reasons I think that sola Scriptura here is really solo Scriptura is that there seems to be no acknowledgement of the necessity of the orthodox church giving you the Holy Spirit-led assumptions needed to read the Bible. Instead, we’ve become ecclesiastical atheists, who believe that God has not guided His Church into all truth by providing it a governing assumption concerning how we read it (I’m referring specifically here to reading it in a way that is canonically wholistic and that its parts are ultimately complementary with one another, serving as qualifiers and clarifications rather than ultimate contradictions, even if diverse individually).

    If the governing assumptions are orthodox, then even accepting historical criticism, theological diversity in the Bible, etc. wouldn’t lead to a “crisis of faith.” Crises of faith are created when other faiths contradict your own, not secondary beliefs that have no bearing on the ultimate beliefs that interpret them within their contexts. So if you see your students having a crisis of faith, it may very well be the assumptions in which you have been indoctrinated, and of which most scholars seem to be completely unaware, that is creating the crisis, not that data itself.

  • Bryan

    Its sad that the other students who either did not have a crisis of faith or perhaps had a crisis of faith but remained in their faith, were not questioned as to “how” they journeyed through this. Why are those students who report a crisis of faith given a place of privilege over those who didn’t or managed to overcome?

    I think that the crisis of faith is the faith which is learned in Sunday school by unreflective non-experts. But, when those who have devoted their lives to a certain expertise challenge this, it is they who are in the wrong. Doesn’t any expert of any field gather the proper training so as to deem them as experts? Why does the Sunday school version of God win out?

  • This is a good post – both offering sound biblical engagement with healthy pastoral care. I think that’s what we need. Sometimes the pendulum can swing one way or the other, and that is needed at times. But a good balance provides both.

    I am one who, in my engagement with critical scholarship (even solid evangelicals offering thoughts on the positive of such scholarship), I am ever-thankful to God that it has actually strengthened my faith in him, rather than destroying it. I’ve learned my faith is ultimately in God through Christ, not in God through Scripture. That maintains some of the healthy “mystery” to our journey as the people of God coming to know our God in Jesus Christ.

  • Thin-ice

    ANY college or university education that does not encourage a student to ruthlessly question ALL presuppositions is not doing it’s job. Any idea, thought or worldview that cannot withstand intense examination, and provide solid evidence for it’s postulated truth, deserves to be flushed down the toilet. Unless, of course, it provides you with some kind of emotional consolation that gives meaning to your life, and doesn’t harm others. Of course, Bible “colleges”, like the one I went to, mostly don’t pretend to challenge students to examine their beliefs, just to make sure the belief is “correct” according to their theology. In any case, after 46 years I finally had the courage to examine my own faith objectively, and it did not pass the test.

    • Bryan Hodge

      Did you examine the presuppositions of what you used examine your faith? And how about the presuppositions of what you used to examine the presuppositions of what you used to examine your faith? There is no objectivity. You always have ultimate beliefs that are believed without evidence and then used as a standard to judge all other things. I would reassess what you’ve done if I were in your shoes. Just a suggestion.

      • Thin-ice

        You’ve got to be joking. “There is no objectivity”. Really? I suppose with regards to the supernatural claims of Christianity (or any other religion) you are correct. But if you try to get away with that by applying it to scientific inquiry, you are woefully ignorant of those processes. Science does not stand without measurable, repeatable objectivity. The fact that you use cars and phones and modern technology every day proves you believe in scientific objectivity. All religion has is conjecture, hope, faith and suppositions. Which is sufficient for some people, but not for me. I prefer solid evidence.

  • george

    i think i’m misunderstanding something. do only fundamentalists read the book of James?

    i also went to a Christian college and i did know a few professors there who got their rocks off ‘challenging’ the young christian students. they loved the fact that they could knock down students’ faith. they did not stay long in their positions, though in both cases in my memory their leaving was a mutual decision. the professors who benefitted me more were those who were more mature in their own faith, and humbly asserted that faith is sufficient for our doubts (it was for faith that all the heros of the past were commended, not for their intellect), and also that we may not be seeing history as clearly as we think we do. these are the professors i want to pay to teach my kids at christian college, not those who seek to destroy their faith. the professors you cite may be wonderful, God-fearing folk, but there are also wolves out there wearing fleece, working out their own issues. i’ve known a few.

  • God is not afraid of any questions anyone has about Him, there is nothing wrong with questioning your christianity,of wanting to understand.He is faithful and will reveal Himself to all who seek.