Honest Scholarship May Not Be Possible at a Christian School

Honest Scholarship May Not Be Possible at a Christian School December 1, 2011

Mickey Maudlin, the capable and well-connected managing editor at HarperOne (think Rob Bell), has an interesting thought in his latest newsletter.  He is promoting the latest book by NT Wright, and proposing the Wright breaks the mold of biblical scholarship by writing from a confessional posture, but still producing popular books.

But I’m most intrigued by his intro:

FF Bruce

The late great Bible scholar F. F. Bruce once remarked that he would not have been able to do his work if he had taught within a confessional institution, such as a seminary or Christian college. What I found odd about his comment was that he was, at the time, often listed as one of the top evangelical New Testament Bible scholars of the day. Why would his work change if the results of his scholarship aligned with the faith commitments of those schools?

I think the answer helps explain why conservative Bible scholars rarely write books that break out into the wider market. What many admired about Bruce’s work was the sense that his conclusions were based on where his arguments led him and not on where he needed to land. One did not perceive that he was steering his readers to the “evangelical” position; instead, readers sensed his curiosity and delight in solving the puzzles he posed. (via Surprised by Bishop Wright by Mickey Maudlin | News and Pews from HarperOne)

Let me ask — and be honest — Do you think that a scholar at a confessional school truly has the freedom to come to whatever conclusions her/his scholarship leads to?

I don’t.  Not if they don’t want to be fired.  And I can affirm this by the emails I’ve received from evangelical college professors who affirm gay relations and rights based on their own academic work, but are unable to publicly state that because they’d be fired.

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  • Carla

    See the Dan Harlow/John Schneider/Calvin College mess as well.

    • As a Calvin College grad and also knowing the history of the school, it is difficult for good scholarly work to be done within a Christian institution when it pushes against long held assumptions regarding issues directly related to faith.

      Yet, to entirely throw out Christian institutions in this regard seems about as crazy as the politics of America today.

  • Alan K

    Ask Peter Enns.

    • peteenns


      • Peter, I suppose you are the single most informed person on this topic. Good to see you here.

  • Patrick

    See earlier thread about research at any institution (esp. conservative viewpoints). Academic freedom is a very rare thing – esp in science. Too bad because the whole idea of science would seem to be to challenge assumptions. But today, as long as you don’t challenge long-held and/or liberal views, you are free to do what you will.

  • I think being employed in an institution that would not allow you to state your honest beliefs isn’t a job worth keeping. If you believe in something enough, you should be willing to lose a job over it. I know I have.

    That being said, I do believe that there are institutions and churches that aren’t scared of asking hard questions and muddling through difficult answers and embracing leaders and teachers that do so. They may be few and far between, but I don’t it’s impossible for someone in a confessional institution to be intellectually honest.

    • In an ideal world it’d be worth losing a job over. Here, even academicians have to eat.

  • Bo Eberle

    I think this is the upshot of being somewhere like Union, where there isn’t necessarily any set of “confessions,” giving what I think is total academic freedom, yet well suppurted and documented confessional readings are never discouraged. It seems, in my experience, to be the best of both worlds of secular and religious institutions.

  • Tad

    Ive been shocked by how seldom profs here at Fuller will admit to believing in evolution- at least in master’s classes. Friends in the PhD program have mentioned profs being more open about beliefs in doctoral seminars (which i suppose says something about the intellectual rigor we expect out of masters students). And of course, the faculty debate on the gay issue is kept under wraps as well, probably for the reasons you list

  • Thanks for raising this, Tony. As one who teaches theology at a confessional institution, I think about this issue frequently.

    I think there is some truth to the claim that those who teach at confessionally-oriented institutions often choose not to be completely honest about their ideas. And there’s some truth that this lack of honesty can be debilitating.

    However, many in such institutions usually also say that these confessional ties can keep them from veering off into odd ideological directions that they later regret. And there’s some truth in that response.

    Your post prompts me toward two conclusions:

    1> As important as honesty is, it isn’t always the most important virtue. We married men know this truth when our wives ask, “Is my butt getting fatter?”

    2> At their best, scholars in confessional institutions push others in their communities to think afresh. But these scholars attempt to be wise enough to know just how far to push. And confessional institutions and their leadership, at their best, know they need to allow scholars to do some honest pushing.

    I don’t want to give impressions this process is neat and clean. More often, its messy and dirty. People get hurt. I know I have been. Some of the names mentioned in the other responses to your posts are friends of mine who have, in my view, been treated unfairly.

    But I also think there are good arguments to be made that some scholars can remain in confessional institutions and be honest enough to push the boundaries to a certain degree, all the while knowing there are limits to the extent such boundaries can be pushed.

    My quick thoughts …

    Thomas Jay Oord

    • Terry Clees

      Tom, I think you are right on about knowing the limits. I have a good friend who is on the front line for equality for women in ministry at an academic institution. He also wants to say he is LGBT affirming, but knows if he does this he will lose his voice for women in ministry.
      I think the boundaries need pushed, but gentle nudges over a long period of time seem to work better than the almighty shove.

      • I wonder, Terry, if we are moving toward the old debates about idealism and realism. You know, ideally we would always speak completely honestly all the time and advocate our views 100% in all situations. But in reality, many of us think we should pick and choose our battles. Those of us who do the latter are always subject to being criticized as “compromisers.” But I wonder if, in the end, realists are more effective change agents.

        Still wondering…

    • Tom, I hear you. But I think your point 1) is both offensive and a bad analogy. Speaking your mind about ethical and moral issues on campus is nothing like a private conversation with your spouse.

      • Yeah, my analogy to #1 isn’t probably very good. And I didn’t mean to offend. I think the principle is correct, however. Complete honesty is a virtue, but not always the highest one in a particular situation. Would you agree, Tony? Or do you think complete honesty — especially in academia — is always the hightest virtue?

  • Two thoughts.
    1) My first gut reaction is that the kind of work they turn out depends more on whether or not the professor themselves adheres to those confessional standards than what the particular institution holds as it’s beliefs.
    2) All institutions have confessional codes, regardless of whether or not they happen to be Christians, Secular, Muslim or Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s something of a false assumption to say that confessional institutions and honest scholarship are mutually exclusive. If you’re working at any institution there are a list of written and unwritten rules/ideas that if you violate them you put yourself in risk of loosing your employment. I mean, how many biology professors that teach Intelligent Design will you find at Harvard or MIT?

    • Scot Miller

      When I taught at a small university affiliated with the Southern Baptists (and Texas Baptists), I was told by the Academic VP that the institution has academic freedom, but individual professors do not have academic freedom. In other words, the institution is free to set any parameters it wants in order to fulfill its mission. That gives the institution permission to fire faculty for teaching something at odds with the institution’s confessional position, and it gives the institution permission to discriminate against students or faculty on the basis of sexual orientation (if, say, homosexuality is against the confession of the institution).

    • There might be other reasons besides intimidation for there being no ID-teaching biology professors in Harvard or MIT.

  • Kim

    It certainly IS a very real challenge. But academic freedom is nearly always at risk and the economic downturn has had a terrible effect on it. Tenure is at risk in most institutions and therefore academic freedom.

    On a related note, the academic freedom of Pentecostal biblical scholars, who want to look at a text in a confessional way ( which should be acceptable in postmodernity!) is also under fire in guilds/clubs like SBL.

  • The more progressive the institution, the more likely the answer would be yes.

  • It is common for conservatives to think that “all institutions have confessional codes” but the truth is that at most secular institutions, there is no restriction on people of faith, other than the restrictions that come with commitment to academic rigor and following the evidence where it leads.

    If I had continued teaching in a conservative Evangelical context, I probably would have lost my faith, since I would have been forced to be less than entirely honest about doubts about the correctness of the conservative stance. That sort of context seems to promote hypocrisy, and conversely, having a statement of faith faculty must sign seems antithetical to the nature of research, which involves pursuing truth, not deciding the outcomes beforehand.

    Several blogs have been touching on related topics today, here on Patheos. I’ve posted something on the topic with links to this post of yours as well as those by Scot McKnight and RJS: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/12/slippery-slopes-all-around.html

    • James, I’m assuming your talking about my comment since you quoted what I said word for word, so I’ll respond directly to you. For the record, I’m not particularly conservative and would agree with Tony and others on a great many issues, including some of the more controversial ones, even ones that put me at odds with my denomination. I even agree with the premise that intellectual freedom to, as you put it, “follow the evidence where it leads” is actually a good thing and that most denominational institutions have a force that limits that to a degree. My main point is that it is intellectually dishonest to say that secular institutions that have no bias whatsoever while confessional ones destroy true academic scholarship. I just haven’t found that to be true in my experience, both of secular institutions and confessional ones.

      It seems telling that your automatic assumption was that my comments came from a conservative standpoint. Maybe we could call that assumption your confession of faith. Maybe not. It just feels as though you made my point for me with your initial assumption.

  • Absolutely not! How’s that for an honest answer?

    This is why I admire guys like you, and Andrew Perriman. I have seen friends struggle with this to the point where many, myself included, just opt out of any form of organized/institutional Christianity just to regain their God-given freedom in Christ.

    For Pete’s sake, let’s quit making everyone fit into little doctrinal boxes. One big box seems to be just fine!

  • Matt

    I find the distinction between scholarship and convictions to be interesting. For example how it is assumed being opposed to homosexuality is conviction based whereas being for it is a product of scholarship. Perhaps one’s CONVICTIONS regarding homosexuality cloud their honest scholarship on the matter. I suppose it can be realized that there is no convicttion free truth based starting point but that we all operate out of a convictional starting point. The idea of such scholarly freedom is very modern Tony.

    • Terry Clees

      Matt, where do our convictions come from? I would like to say from thorough academic study, but my gut says convictions come from what we’ve heard in Sunday school classes or from our favorite preachers–some of which probably isn’t even biblical.

  • Tanya

    I think the Catholic church’s treatment of Hans Kung might be interesting in this discussion. I can’t recall the exact specifics, and they don’t sit well with me, but at least they are surfacely honest.

    Essentially, they told him he couldn’t teach what he believed. And were clear about the fact that they didn’t want others to consume what he taught. But they didn’t fully censor or disown him, they simply thought that teaching the party line is required, whatever one’s private thoughts are. They can get away with saying, “we have our academic theologians, and we have our simple people, and there is no need to rile up and confuse our simple people.” At least that’s my sense of what they were up to.

    To my Protestant mind, that sounds horrible. “Think what you think but shut up about it.” But at least it is clear what the rules are.

    • Terry Clees

      Tanya, wasn’t Kung stripped of his missio canonic (license to teach)? I know he wasn’t excommunicated, but I thought they did take away his license to teach as a Catholic professor.

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  • Academic freedom, for all everyone’s talk about it, doesn’t really exist.

    The purpose of a Christian college, particularly a denominational Christian college, regardless of whatever they claim their mission statement to be, is to train up Christians who largely look like them. If one of their professors is not on board with that statement–even if the professor’s goal is to train up Christians who look like Christ, no matter where that may take them–academic freedom be damned; out they go.

    The purpose of other colleges is to make a name for the college. So there’s a lot of leeway for professors to be as controversial as they like–but once it begins to give the college a reputation it doesn’t care for, again academic freedom be damned; out they go.

    The only place you can truly have academic freedom is if you start your own school. But then the purpose of that school is to further yourself; once your employee professors contradict you, out they go. And so forth.

    This is why the idea of corporate freedom of speech is so ridiculous. It doesn’t exist.

    • No. I don’t buy this. I am an academic at a UK University. We do value the pursuit of truth incredibly highly. I think my faculty colleagues would make a clear distinction between unfashionable conclusions and unscientific (in my case) methodology. I think there would be a major scandal if someone were forced out for having unfashionable points of view. I know that there are ways and means of marginalising people and making their continued employment uncomfortable – but we are not naive about those things either.

      Now, I can’t speak for how well other Universities embody these ideals. But I know that at least some American schools have even stronger notions of tenure than we do today. That system exists for precisely this reason: so that truth can be pursued without fear or favour. Tenured academics are exceptionally hard to get rid of. That’s the idea.

      I wouldn’t suggest that these systems are perfect (*), but I see no reason to suppose that academe is beset by numbers of academics biting their tongues for fear of being thrown out.

      (*) For example, in the sciences, it’s not your own continued employment that’s really the issue, it’s getting grant funding to allow you to pursue your research. Unfashionable perspectives have trouble convincing grant reviewers.

  • JoeyS

    Depends on who it is, really. At my alma mater Dr. William Hasker has had a full career while developing and toying with ideas like Open Theism, while at the same institution Dr. John Sanders was, essentially, fired for the same thing. John’s audience was more broad and his writings more accessible which may have been his undoing (he has done quite well since leaving, though).

  • I think it depends upon the research and whether it touches upon “core beliefs.” A historian at a confessional school probably has just as much freedom as a historian at a secular school. Heck, my old man taught at a confessional school for many years and wrote books about doubt and such and never had a problem.

    For what it is worth, I’ve found that the instruction at a confessional university is much more nuanced and thoughtful than at a secular uni. Because professors at a confessional school know their bias (individual and institutional) they were much more likely to talk about the other side. I didn’t find that at secular unis.

  • I can offer another example: William Dembski, the creationism/intelligent-design advocate, who was forced to recant by his employer, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, after publishing a book questioning whether Noah’s flood has to be understood as a historical, global event.

  • Forgive me if I’m repeating something already mentioned, but batteries are low. But wouldn’t Dr. Ellis case at Baylor be a prime example of this – and just shortly after Baylor was beginning to look promising as far as Evangelical schools are concerned?

  • I went through a program at an evangelical school where courses such as epistemology and “theology and science” were taught alongside the core biblical studies curriculum. The tension was palpable. On the one hand there was encouragement to think and really examine one’s presuppositions, on the other, presuppositions were flatly stated then used deductively throughout the rest of the class. This is why conservative institutions churn out a steady stream of “atheists” alongside the one’s who are able to finish without their shell being cracked.

  • Greg Gorham

    My guess is it depends on the school, but in most cases one probably can’t be honest. I’m currently attended United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities, and given the school’s wide-open ecumenical base (I go to classes with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, witches, and more) I very much doubt there would be any flak for challenging traditional Christian orthodoxy.

    That’s a big reason why I attend United. My guess is all the other seminaries in the area would give their professors less freedom.

  • Tony, I think Mickey is spot on. In any confessional setting, the limits of freedom are set by some combination of the actual confessional statement of the school and the ethos of the school which delineates how that confession is upheld.

    The trick, in my mind, is finding a place where one can freely say what we actually think within the framework of our school’s confession. But that is very difficult to come by.

    I think I’ve landed at such a spot at Fuller where I can say what I think, but having worked my way there from more conservative environs, I know far too many who, frankly, have less of my respect than they would have otherwise because they won’t ‘fess up in public to what they’ll say over a beer.

    This makes it very challenging for evangelicalism to grow in a healthy way, I think. You get scholars who really don’t believe in something like inerrancy (as an example) and people look to them as reasons why they, too, can hold inerrancy–but that’s just because the masses aren’t aware of what goes unsaid in the interest of self-preservation.

    It’s a problem. And it’s just as bad in confessional church situations…

  • David Trigger Steinbrenner

    Personally, I am not so sure that the problem is intrinsically one of coming from a confessional point of view. Everyone has some sort of confession or confessions from which they come, though most people do not actually recognize that they are doing so or do not name them as such. I think the real questions in terms of Christians and scholarship would be what are our confessions and how broad are they. I went to Fuller Seminary and later to Duke Divinity School. Both places are rooted in what could be called “orthodox” Christianity and as institutions would affirm the early creeds of the Church. While, in my experience, Duke probably implicitly allowed or was capable of producing broader academic inquiry, I found that both places did not stifle inquiry and yet they were certainly Christian institutions interested in serving Christ.

    The problem with many of the conservative Christian colleges that many of us may think or read about that reflect what F.F. Bruce’s concern are those schools whose confessions are too provincial and narrow. They do not take into account the breadth and diversity of what has been confessionally said in the Church catholic. They are also not willing to look more closely at how particular confessions came about, developed, and adjusted over time.

    Broadly and generally speaking, confessions are not the person or work of Jesus Christ and the God of Israel, but rather function as imperfect descriptions of them and what they have done and do. In that regard, I would argue that one needs to consider descriptions that come about not just in one particular century, locale, or area, or issue from just a bunch of educated white males from one particular Christian tradition.

    Again, I do not think that starting from some sort of confession or set of confessions, in and of itself is the problem; everyone does this. Of course, I suppose there is a whole other question of what the telos of scholarship even is for Christians as well as the questions of what does “honest scholarship” actually even mean and if you have a meaning for it how do you actually know that that meaning of “honest” is worthwhile. But those are questions for a different blog post I guess.

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  • Depends entirely upon the particular confessional institution, no? Conservative evangelical colleges will ask you to sign a pledge to uphold some kind of conservative party line. Fine. But some other confessional institutions might not. Or their line might be more liberal. Then, of course, if you come out as traditional or conservative in the latter context, you may run into some heat as well. Maybe it’s true to state that all confessional institutions are silos of the theological divisions of our day. Be warned.

  • Given, at the top of the article, that N. T. Wright writes from a “confessional posture,” does that mean that he is therefore incapable of “honest scholarship”?

  • Given where I worked and what I experienced there for 10 years, you are dead on. This was a Christian college who chose not to renew a professor’s contract (read fired) for writing a short novel satirizing Baptists. What a shame.

  • C. Ehrlich

    The degree to which a fair-minded scholar can’t be honest is probably a function of the degree to which the views with which she is expected to comply are at odds with the wider community of scholars. The fair-minded scholar, after all, must interact with such views in an honest way. (This means that the same compliance rules might not have been so restrictive in ages past, even though the rules themselves haven’t changed.)

    Some of these Christian schools might be usefully compared to these think tanks which receive private funds to advance highly marginal views.

  • C. Ehrlich

    As a compromising solution for this problem, how about this:

    (a) Allow initial hiring (and, perhaps to a much lesser extent, tenuring) decisions to enforce fidelity to the institution’s doctrinal commitments, but

    (b) restrict all other employment related evaluations of faculty performance to content-neutral standards. (Just as when we grade a student’s paper on how well she argued, as opposed to what thesis she happened to defend.)

    At tenure reviews, the faculty applicant should be allowed to defend any deviations from the relevant doctrinal positions she held at the time of initial hiring. Such defenses must likewise be evaluated on content-neutral grounds. This would allow institutions to set more of a premium on approaching scholarship in good faith.

  • Rod

    Don’t forget that very secular institutions are also confessional, whether they admit and recognize it or not. You can lose your job at Harvard or OSU for not marching to beat of their drummer.

    • Todd

      This bald assertion is unsupported. Secular schools have tenure policies that are much more robust than conservative confessional ones. Can you cite any examples of tenured scholars at secular schools being fired for their beliefs?

      Ward Churchill is the best example I can think of, but he was a bit of an academic fraud and was ostensibly fired for research misconduct (though the underlying reason for his termination was pretty clearly his calling 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns” in an essay).

  • Nathan Attwood

    When I was at Oral Roberts University in the 90s, profs clearly had to hide their opposition to Word of Faith theology because the Board of Regents didn’t want to have their absurd heresy challenged. One of my profs was fired when a student dug up his master’s thesis, which demonstrated a common historical influence between Kenneth Hagin and Mary Baker Eddy.

  • Scot Miller

    Several people have made claims that secular institutions are just as confessional as church-related institutions. Unless their confession is to secular scholarship (i.e., submitting papers to peer reviewed journals, participation in professional societies and meetings, commitment to academic honesty, etc.), I’m not sure what these claims are about.

    There is ample evidence that professors at church-related schools are under pressure to teach in accordance with the university’s stated religious convictions, mission, and purpose, and that they do not have academic freedom in any meaningful sense. (As my academic VP said to me, only the university has academic freedom to determine what is acceptable or not.) A faculty person can question or challenge the religious beliefs, mission, and purpose of a church-related school only at her peril.

    On the other hand, the only evidence I can find that secular schools put pressure on faculty is on the grounds of productivity and quality of work. The reason, for example, that there are no “intelligent design” faculty at Harvard is because no reputable scientist can publish any peer-reviewed work in the field. (The few advocates for intelligent design employed in secular schools would be found in philosophy or religious studies departments, because their arguments aren’t made from scientific frames of reference that other scientists would recognize.) A lot of faculty are under pressure at secular institutions to be productive (i.e., publish or perish) and credible to the academic community.

    So while it is true that honest scholarship may not be possible at a Christian school, it is not true that secular schools produce the same kind of pressure on their faculty. Secular schools don’t make the same kind of “confessions.”

  • Josh

    I’ve heard profs at my Mennonite university say the same.

  • David

    Heritage Baptist College in Cambridge, Ontario has demonstrated this stifling over the last couple years. Dr. Bill Webb was “laid off” prior to a strengthened relationship with the Fellowship Baptists. Shortly following, a large portion of the staff were also either let go or resigned as the school tightened its standards of teaching to include statements such as that women are ontologically incapable of filling roles of pastor or elder in the church. There was pressure on the staff to teach according to the new strictures which had been imposed just as all this new denomational money started to flow into the school. What a coincidence.

    Anyway, I was humbled by of all the staff who chose to lose their jobs rather than be forced to teach from a coerced and dishonest lectern.

  • I got to this thread way late, but will throw in one thought anyway… after having enjoyed the discussion, which I consider a crucial topic! Thanks for the courage, Tony.

    First, via my attendance at both Biola U. and Talbot Sch of Theology for 3 degrees and much later, 2 years PhD work at Claremont Sch of Theology, only the latter seemed to allow instructors/profs much real freedom (tho even there, it may have had its limits). But my big-picture thought is that the problem extends beyond particular institutions to our entire “system” of academia, both religious and non-religious (or supposedly so). While freedom is proudly spoken of, in virtually every discipline, including the hard sciences, there are definite taboos, blacklisting, “knowledge filters” for both the public and students, etc. The paradigms are tough to overturn, for ego and pragmatic reasons, tho they do get tinkered with around the edges, and eventually the death of a controlling generation can open to real changes (cf. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” the 1969 ed. of which contains some comments on religion in the post script.)

    Because of this dynamic, I often look to and am most grateful for hard-working scholarly people who operate outside “the academy” against the odds, and often do help expand our thinking into critical corrections of old paradigms. Just a couple examples would be Ken Wilber and Michael Cremo (neither theologians, tho Wilber is religiously/spiritually HIGHLY informed).

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