Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Navigating the TWU controversy

I've been engaged in some interesting discussions regarding the controversy over Trinity Western University, the Canadian Christian college blacklisted by CAUT for limiting academic freedom. Since TWU requires its faculty to assent to a fairly rigorous Statement of Faith, the charge (at least my main concern) is that its professors are hindered in free academic inquiry. Some major questions (eg the inerrancy and authority of the Bible) are settled in advance, and therefore they are forbidden from reaching conclusions outside the university's narrow scope.

Dr Todd Pettigrew at Maclean's Blogs is more concerned with the effect on students. How does the Statement of Faith affect assessment of students' work? How does it influence the content of teaching in the classroom?

My latest discussion turned sour very quickly, unfortunately. It can be found in the comments thread here. In the first response to my contribution, I was accused of a litany of offenses, including a "brutally literalist reading of the concept of inerrancy," being wilfully ignorant of basic comprehension and interpretation and denying the historical existence of Jesus, among other nonsense.

I am more than aware of the range of views on inerrancy within evangelical scholarship. I wrote 25,000 words on the subject for my degree. I don't for a minute ascribe to TWU a "scientific textbook" approach to the Scriptures, or any of the other things I was intemperately caricatured as saying.

But even within a very flexible, nuanced evangelical view of inerrancy, the actual historicity of key events cannot be avoided. For example, at the very least, the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus must be treated as historical events. For most inerrantists, even those with a very broad definition of inerrancy, other events such as the existence of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Noahic Flood and the Exodus, are also historical. The bottom line is that if the Bible treats something as a historical event, it should be accepted as historical truth.

Some of these are directly required in the TWU Statement of Faith:
We believe that God created Adam and Eve in His image, but they sinned when tempted by Satan.

We believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully God and fully man, one Person in two natures. Jesus—Israel's promised Messiah—was conceived through the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, arose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father as our High Priest and Advocate.
That is not to say (and I made this clear in the discussion, but in vain!) there isn't room for maneouvre in the details. On Adam and Eve, for example, the broadest definitions of inerrancy can accept the interpretation that Adam and Eve were simply the first hominids to bear the image of God, thus squaring with evolution. Details such as talking snakes and forbidden fruit would usually be taken as allegorical. But this doesn't detract from the basic historical assertion: there was a couple called Adam and Eve; they sinned; sin was brought into the human race.

In this I was accused of attributing "the wackier literalist beliefs to the entire institution in order to discredit TWU."

How far can the TWU Statement of Faith be stretched?

In response to TWU's position on Adam and Eve, Theresa (who appears to be connected to the college in some way) wrote the following:
I would say that even this insistence on an historical Adam and Eve (far removed in the distant past… even if it were a couple hundred thousand years ago…) is still building a straw man. The point, again, of this symbolic passage in the Bible (yes, Symbolic – not strictly historical) has primarily to do with morality and faith and not empirical history. Whether or not Adam and Eve were the first “sinners” is not so important as the very obvious fact that no human being since “then” is free of sin or error. If there is historical truth to the Fall narrative, you need not look any further in the past than a moment ago to see the truth of the matter.
I am not sure how this matches up to the TWU Statement of Faith. The main reason is that even I can agree with this. How is the Statement of Faith evangelical in any meaningful way if it can be interpreted so loosely as to accommodate even a liberal agnostic? I am very doubtful if Trinity Western would accept a purely symbolic interpretation of Adam and Eve. And in retrospect, it seems Theresa still wants to insist that the story is of a historical event, just that the historical aspect is not its primary meaning.

I am eager to (and perhaps will, soon) talk to someone from Trinity Western about how broadly the Statement of Faith can be interpreted. There is no doubt it requires inerrancy, and that, in its broadest form, requires at least that the Bible is historically true when it intends to be taken as historical truth.

The basic issue remains: Under the TWU Statement of Faith, a scholar is forbidden from reaching certain conclusions. If the Bible makes a truth claim, it must be accepted as truth. Sometimes it is truth about history, occasionally about science, often about morality, and frequently about God, and at various times it is allegorical, symbolic or metaphorical truth. But it remains the truth. And it seems no TWU scholar is free to challenge that.


  1. One wonders what century this institution is situated in--perhaps the 19th/

    In 2010 how can this institution possibly be called a university---meaning universal in the widest and deepest possible senses.

    Especially as all of the Sacred Texts of the entire Great Tradition of humankind are now freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

    Plus every possible philosophical point of view too.

    The logical extension of their dogmatism is that only they know and possess the truth- every body else is therefore wrong and living in darkness.

    Hence all other Faith Traditions and their numberless cultural expressions are therefore the work of "satan".

  2. Concerned Citizen25 March 2011 at 20:24

    I am currently a law student at the University of Alberta. Our recently elected President (Law Students Association) is a graduate of TWU. The President is supposed to represent myself and my fellow students at our school. I am deeply saddened that someone who subscribes to the belief that all other faiths and sexual orientations are condemned to hell is now our newly elected representative.

    Overall, it is promising to know that people are abandoning these irrational teachings in greater numbers as days pass. It is also promising to view statistics which show that religious bigotry is inversely correlated with intelligence and education. But at times like these, I really start to question the direction of our society. It's astonishing that TWU attempts to reconcile (and in fact integrate) the close-minded, arrogant claim to truth with science and the advancement of knowledge.

    For those of you who are interested, these are the principles that every TWU student and faculty member must subscribe to:


    I will finish with this quote:

    To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with the natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot. But I am persuaded that such behaviour on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress.

    - Albert Einstein, Science and Religion (1941)