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In (Partial) Defense of Confessional Schools

Brandon Withrow tells the story of How Westminster Theological Seminary Came to Define Fundamentalism for [Him]. It is a story that is repeated over and over again, and in this case a professor was removed from Westminster for saying much the same thing as I would about the study of the Old Testament:

Green says that the Bible — and books in it like Genesis, for example — should be read in two ways: Firstly, read “Genesis on its own terms,” as an “unfolding story,” meaning, “as an Israelite book, and not (yet) a Christian book!” The second way means letting “the Jesus-ending of Israel’s story reshape the way you interpret” Genesis, which “is the way you read Genesis as a Christian book.”

I’ll usually tell classes to listen for my terminology. If I say “Hebrew scriptures” I’m referring to that literature in its purely historical sense. What did it mean to those who first read it? If I say “Old Testament” I’m referring to the same literature as the first part of the Christian Bible. I refer to this as reading through Jesus-colored glasses. I consider both readings perfectly valid and related, but they are not the same thing.

I must confess, of course, that I am neither Reformed nor a fundamentalist. I did, however, attend a confessional school. I got my MA degree (Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages) at Andrews University, and the degree was offered in cooperation with the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. For those who think I was brainwashed into accepting evolutionary theory while being educated by liberals, I should note that as an SDA school, the official position was that the world was created in six literal days, followed by a seventh day of rest (Seventh-day, you see), and that this happened around 6,000 years ago.

My problem with all these stories is simply this: Why should someone remain a professor at a seminary if he or she does not support the confession that seminary is established to support? When I discovered that my beliefs were no longer in accord with those of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, I left. I didn’t have any position, much less a tenured one. I understand the investment. I understand the hardship. I also believe I understand the attachment to an organization that one thought would be supportive but happens not to be. But I’m not sure that in the nature of what a seminary is, it’s possible not to have boundaries on what a professor may believe. I’m certain, for example, that I would not belong in a Reformed seminary. I don’t want to minimize the pain of such a separation, but I think it might be necessary nonetheless.

It’s a bit touchier for schools that are not seminaries, for example, liberal arts colleges. Those schools, however, are established by religious organizations to educate members of their faith, and often others whom they hope to attract to their faith. It seems to me that the supporters of a school should have some say in what is taught there. The alternative would be for there to be no religiously connected schools at all.

I happen to deplore the narrow testing of doctrinal beliefs amongst professors. There needs to be an exchange of ideas on a faculty. There is, in addition, a matter of integrity. Recent stories about Bryan College claim a change in the doctrinal statement along the way. That adds another layer to the issue. But not every school can or should represent everything.

Does someone get a good education at a confessional school? I think that’s an excellent question. I suspect that the answer will be generally ‘yes.’ There may be elements lacking. Debates have occurred around Seventh-day Adventist schools regarding whether the theory of evolution is adequately taught on the one hand, and whether it should be taught at all on the other. Accreditation organizations think it should be. Denominational leaders would prefer not.

Accreditation organizations are generally a good thing. I certainly want to thank the team that visited Andrews University a short time before I arrived there as a student and told them that they couldn’t offer a concentration in Church History at the graduate level without offering patristic Latin. That resulted in the addition of a readings course in the Latin church fathers, which I was able to take. I don’t believe, however, that accreditation should be based on a school giving up on its confession. The assumption is that academic freedom is impaired by the confession. Doubtless it is. But how much?

Academic freedom is impaired by many things. Sometimes it is impaired when it should be, such as when a school denies tenure to a crackpot. Sometimes it is impaired when it should not be, as when tenure is denied to someone unorthodox but visionary. The problem is to tell the difference between the crackpot and the visionary.

It is in discerning that difference that I think it is more important to have a variety of educational institutions, not all run according to the same vision and standards. You will, of course, have students who are not informed about certain views, or who do not hear them from a real advocate. But no matter what you do, students are going to miss some things. Students at Westminster will not hear from Peter Enns, someone I consider well worth hearing. But students at Eastern University will. I think Westminster is the poorer for not having Peter Enns on their faculty. But I’m not Reformed.

My question is this: How many secular universities or mainline seminaries are looking for very conservative or fundamentalist scholars to balance their departments?

I was educated in rather conservative schools. I grew up hating the way in which new and more liberal ideas were suppressed. (I would note that quite a number of my professors were not narrow at all and made sure I was introduced to other ideas, even ones they disapproved. But the denominational atmosphere was not friendly.) Thus I am very aware of the way conservatives can suppress liberal ideas. I’m writing this article contrary to my personal feelings but in accordance, I think, with logic.

I don’t think true academic freedom is possible in a single system. Variety is necessary, and variety must include ideas of which I disapprove. I think some people are living in the old days (for them) when they were being blocked from new ideas that were more liberal, and so they keep watching just for the suppression of more liberal or progressive ideas. But it’s possible for conservative ideas, or just unorthodox ideas, to be suppressed as well. That’s why I like a variety of schools organized in a variety of ways. Thanks to places like Westminster, conservative Reformed scholars have a place to work, research, and write. Others can reject their ideas, but those ideas are available.

I’d still go to one of the more liberal schools if I was going back to school. But I’m glad the others exist.

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  1. Steve Kindle says:

    Henry [and I’m not bored;)], I’m of the school that says that reading the Hebrew scriptures with “Jesus-colored glasses” promotes many of the excesses that allegory brought. It’s too easy to “find” Jesus where he doesn’t belong (Dan. 3:24-25), and creates interpretations that simply can’t be supported (the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15; the Trinity of Gen. 1:26). This is to say nothing of the prophecy/fulfillment motif that promotes the many end-times scenarios.

    Sensus plenior has been advanced to solve this problem. Raymond E. Brown defines sensus plenior as

    that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation.

    It seems to me that sensus plenior still depends on “Jesus-colored glasses.”

    What do you see as a corrective that allows the Hebrew scriptures to remain Hebrew scriptures? After all, once you move to reading with “Jesus-colored glasses,” the Hebrew scriptures disappear. N. T. Wright advances an overarching biblical story that controls interpretive outcomes, but his is just one (constructed) story among many possibilities.

    BTW, I have no answer, that’s why I’m asking. I do, however, have a reluctance to read the Hebrew scriptures as “the Old Testament” (part of Christian scripture), if that means we must reinterpret its true meaning as Christocentric.

    1. I would tend to think that the problem starts with us seeing everything through “us” colored glasses, and the solution starts with realizing that we’re all wearing glasses as we read.

      If you start with the Pentateuch, for example, you have a series of sources that go through many “Sitzen im Leben” before finally ending up in the final form of the Pentateuch. That, in turn, has been attached canonically to the prophets and then to the writings. Despite giving those works lesser authority than Torah, seeing them as a combined whole has its own impact on meaning. If I read the Torah through the lens of the prophets, I will come up with a different set of answers than if I read the Torah on its own. That’s after the meaning has shifted with the work of the Deuteronomist.

      Then I add the New Testament to the mix. If I consider this sacred scripture, it will impact my understanding, even when I don’t want it to. The question is simply what is my foundational belief. For me, that belief is not in the Bible, but rather in Jesus as a person. So I understand the Bible through Jesus. I believe that the Holy Spirit opens my mind so I can understand the Bible. People complain about how slippery secondary senses of scripture can be, but they are nothing compared to how slippery the notion of “original sense” can get. Think how differently Genesis 1:1-2:4a would read as anti-Babylonian polemic, which, in its original form, it probably was. But combined with the rest of the origin story (Gen. 1-11) it takes on a bit different of a tone. Seen as part of the doctrine of creation in scripture (see the book Creation in Scripture) it takes on another tone.

      I agree with you that sensus plenior suffers from the same problem. Since there is no objective way to get into the mind of God behind the text, the closest thing we can hope for, I think, is that we will discover what the message was for the original audience. But that is within some fairly broad tolerances. In many cases we can’t identify the original audience with any precision. For example, estimates of the date of Joel range from the late 10th century BCE down to the mid-third. Sensus plenior that!

      So my effort is more to identify my glasses of the moment and use that as a control. My Jesus colored glasses should be tested against the New Testament testimony of Jesus, and at the same time I should recognize when those glasses give me a different view than I believe the original author would have had.

      In some cases, such as finding the trinity in Genesis 1:26, people have gotten carried away. The NT doesn’t make such a claim and there is a good basis in the Hebrew scriptures for understanding that text.

      All the same, I’m glad I don’t personally believe that salvation depends on understanding scripture correctly. We’d all be in serious trouble!

  2. Steve Kindle says:

    Henry wrote, “I would tend to think that the problem starts with us seeing everything through “us” colored glasses, and the solution starts with realizing that we’re all wearing glasses as we read.” Just the point I make in my forthcoming book. As for your last comment, I worry for those who think they have the last and final word of interpretation, especially when they insist on agreement at the pain of condemnation.

    I replied originally because I was looking for some clarification of my view. I got it, with thanks.

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