Sunday, 31 January 2010

Trinity Western & academic freedom

There's a storm brewing over a Canadian university union's decision to blacklist Christian college Trinity Western University, BC, for compromising academic freedom.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) takes aim at the university's Statement of Faith, which binds every member of its faculty. This binding document stipulates assent to some very specific conservative evangelical doctrines, including the inerrancy of the Scriptures, for example:
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavour should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.
Dr Todd Pettigrew of Cape Breton University has addressed the concerns at Maclean's blogs here and here. The comments threads have been dominated by TWU students and faculty defending the institution.

I generally side with Pettigrew and CAUT, but I can sympathize with TWU students. I too studied at a conservative college that had a similar statement of faith, and in retrospect I feel I received a very good theological education. After all, it was thanks to my education there that I was able to reach my present position as an agnostic. Although I undoubtedly have not reached the conclusions the college would want me to reach, I wasn't shielded from the full array of Christian and non-Christian views, biblical criticism or critical thinking.

But teaching is just one part of a university. Universities also exist for research. Academics are expected to engage in debates, write papers, attend conferences, argue positions, publish findings and contribute to current research. How can they do this with integrity when they are in an institution that requires them never to reach conclusions outside a very tight doctrinal framework?

And make no mistake, this is about very, very specific dogmas. I find it at best mistaken, at worst disingenuous for TWU to defend itself (as many of its faculty have on the Maclean's website) by appealing to some broad, Christian philosophical foundation. The Statement of Faith prescribes extremely specific doctrines outside which its faculty cannot fall. How can free investigation of ideas take place when such narrow parameters are defined in advance?

My own area of interest, and the subject of my degree, is biblical studies. A true scholar approaches the Bible like any other document: it is a human document, open to critical interpretation, and its truth cannot be taken for granted. There have been evangelical scholars who have engaged in critical scholarship, certainly, and I have even benefited from their work. Craig A Evans, formerly of Trinity Western, is one of them.

But still, under TWU's Statement of Faith, a biblical scholar is only free to reach conclusions that fall within evangelical orthodoxy and do not compromise the belief that the Bible is "without error." In no other discipline would an academic be taken seriously if she declared in advance that she was unwilling to go outside a basic presupposition that documents X, Y and Z were infallible. In scholarship, everything is up for grabs. Nothing is beyond skepticism and criticism.

Frankly, it seems to me that evanglical biblical scholarship takes advantage of the weight of cultural assumptions and tradition when it comes to this. Christian orthodoxy has power on its side. The assumption still holds sway that religious beliefs are entitled to an automatic respect and deference that other beliefs lack.

Christian scholars cannot have their cake and eat it. Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, for instance, wrote last week that "all theological scholarship should be done with the ultimate goal of building up the saints, confounding the opponents of the gospel, and encouraging the brethren." If your main goal is to uphold a religious agenda (and again, a very specific one, in this case very conservative Reformed Calvinism), don't call it scholarship.

Many have quite reasonably pointed out that secular university professors also have their presuppositions. Someone asked me whether I seriously thought that secular academics revisited and changed their presuppositions.

My response is that I am sure there are many professors who never change their presuppositions. But in theory they can return to the very basis of their beliefs to examine, challenge and fundamentally change them. In a secular university that can happen. Surely that possibility is fundamental to scholarship? Unfortunately, it's what an academic forced to fall in line with a tightly defined set of doctrines is forbidden to do.

(Readers may also be interested in my article for Ex-Gay Watch on the current Wheaton College controversy.)


  1. I am somewhat ambivalent about the free church arguments. I recognise the hurt and maliciousness this can cause in people's lives (cf. the Peter Enns case last year wherer jobs have been lost) if you don't agree to the code, don't sign (your reference to Wheaton where the expected standard ostensibly changed is different).

    I certainly don't agree with the Uni (surprise, surprise!) but the idea that theology is a task of the church and not one of unbridled freedom is hardly unique - it was for example a key part of barth's theological engagement of the church AND academy. As such, it seems permissable that there is a degree boundary setting - the Church does (and should) have the concept of heresy.

    Put simply - If Christianity is the recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and a life of discipleship and theology a ministry to the Church then I am not sure 'academic freedom' is the paramount right that is ascribed to it by the wider secular approach.

    Of course, none of this is to defend TWU (I hope you know me well enough to know I'd have been excommunicated ages ago!). There is a related issue of academic respectability and, quite rightly, an establishment that acts in such manner and faculty associated have IMO a presumption of non-respectability - there is a cost to be paid and the lack of de facto scholarly reputation is the cost.

    Make any sense?

  2. "The idea that theology is the task of the Church and not one of unbridled freedom is hardly unique." I agree it's not unique; in fact, it's fairly commonplace. I don't like it much more, though. But the more pertinent issue, as you identified (and as I suggested above) is whether Christian theologians want to have their cake and eat it - be accepted as scholars by secular academic standards and make theology the exclusive domain of believers, and subject to dogma rather than academic freedom.

    Having said that, over the last few days I have discussed this a lot with various folk, including a member of TWU faculty, and it is a more complex issue than I first thought. I am sympathetic in many ways to TWU, but there are also some aspects I really can't get around. I think I'll be reading about this and mulling over the issues for a while yet.

  3. OK, I need to proof read comments before posting. I am in fact abivalent about free speech arguments, not free church ones. My relationship to free church arguments is a lot more complicated, but that's a different matter entirely :-)