Peter Enns and the Crisis of Evangelical Higher Education

At the theology conferences in the UK which I occasionally attend, the sizeable cohort of American evangelical expats, postragraduates scattered amongst the universities of (mostly) northern Britain, can usually be found gathered in tight-knit coteries, deep in cynical though light-hearted conversation.  And, along with the inevitable complaints about the bleakness of the British weather and the awfulness of the conference papers, one subject of conversation can usually be counted on to dominate: the grim prospect of the academic job market.  This should surprise no one, of course, but on listening closer, you would hear grumblings not merely about the quantity of the jobs available, but their quality, especially when it came to those on offer within the fortresses of American evangelicalism.  Beggars can’t be choosers, but many of these graduate students seem to look more kindly on the prospect of janitorial work than a job interview at an evangelical or Reformed college or seminary.  Why this hostility to the alma maters that taught them, nourished them and dispatched them to the hallowed halls of Old World learning, waiting expectantly for their return as Dr. Evangelical?  Is it mere snobbery, an infection with British academia’s contempt for American “fundamentalism”?  Is it ambition, a desire for employment in a context with more scope for upward mobility?  Occasionally, perhaps, but these would be unfair accusations to lodge at most members of this very down-to-earth cohort.

Evangelical black sheep Peter Enns has done a lot of ruminating (some might say ranting) on the subject over the past year, and one post, “If They Only Knew What I Thought,” is particularly illuminating (see also here and here).  Of course, many within the evangelical and Reformed world may be indisposed to take seriously any words of complaint from Enns, given his dizzyingly fast trajectory out of evangelical orthodoxy and into the fuzzy theological no-mans land of the Church of the Disgruntled, and the self-fulfilling martyr complex he has cultivated.  At first, it seems as if Enns’s complaint is merely against the restriction of academic freedom within evangelical institutions, the fact that professors must walk a fine and tortuous line between “institutional expectations” and “academic integrity.”  We may at first be inclined to dismiss this lament, and that of restless evangelical graduate students, as “so 1960s”—the self-righteous tirades of the misunderstood rebel, longing for freedom of expression, against the repressive constraints of established institutions.

After all, regrettable though it may be, tension between academic integrity and institutional expectations is nothing new, and hardly unique to evangelicalism.  Institutions have traditions and missions to uphold and must police certain boundaries in order to safeguard the integrity of those traditions, which means limiting to some extent the bounds of acceptable teaching within the institution.  This is true no less at Harvard than at Fuller Seminary, and it was equally true at Princeton in the 19th century, Saumur in the 17th, Padua in the 14th, or the Athenian Academy in the 4th century BC.  This is not to deny that such policing is often motivated by, or at least tainted by, petty factionalism, arrogance, envy, narrow dogmatism, or a host of other sins.  But in life under the sun, the freedom of expression which an individual scholar longs for will always exceed the freedom which an academic institution, with a tradition and a common good to safeguard, can grant.  There will always be tensions, and we who undertake the vocation of scholarship must bear them as manfully as we can.

Of course, one might go further and complain that while such tensions are unavoidable, many evangelical and Reformed institutions make them unbearable by their sheer narrow-mindedness and wilful contrarianism.  And certainly it is true that the gates to many of our higher ed institutions are obstructed by thickets of shibboleths and sacred cows, from six-day creationism to certain construals of inerrancy to confessional clauses from a bygone age that few even understand the significance of anymore.  Moreover, as Enns trenchantly observes, the whole posture of evangelical higher education, its whole raison d’etre, is defensive.  So many of our institutions were founded in the wake of the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy,” as bulwarks to defend the faith against the seemingly inexorable tide of unbelief.  The result is that we have little in the way of a positive vision to offer the culture but a very long list of epistemological “Thou shalt nots.”  All this could and should be said; narratives of how we got into this rut and suggestions as to how we might get out are urgently needed.  But complaints about intellectual failings of American evangelicalism, it must be said, are as clichéd as complaints about institutional repression, even if this is a conversation that remains urgently important.  What interested me particularly about Enns’s post was the charges of moral failings that it laid at the door of evangelical institutions.

 

Enns’s complaint boiled down to charges of hypocrisy and cowardice.  First, hypocrisy:

“Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world.

This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Sooner or later, these professors find out that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same  intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.”

In other words, these institutions want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want the prestige that comes from having Cambridge and Yale-educated faculty, but with the uniformity and predictability of Westminster-educated faculty.  They don’t want those faculty to have actually learned anything from their experiences in “the mainstream academy.”  They send them away, expecting them to keep their eyes and ears closed for a few years and come back unchanged, but with a sexy diploma.  Mr. Littlejohn becomes Dr. Littlejohn, but otherwise, save for the dark circles under his eyes, no worse for the wear.  Or perhaps, they hope that along with this education will come a capacity to offer bigger, better, stronger arguments for their predetermined conclusions; but bigger, better, stronger arguments don’t happen without a willingness to ask big questions, and asking questions implies a willingness to hear new answers.  In short, evangelical and Reformed institutions need to work out what they really want.  Either they need to embrace their inner caveman with gusto, be consistent fundamentalists, and say, “To heck with a degree from a respectable grad school,” or else they need to recognize that part of the reason that the degree has respectability, is because some very high-caliber thinking goes on at that grad school—thinking which should shape its students, and lead them to critically re-assess what they have been taught before.

Now don’t think I’m asking for some carte blanche, a Rob-Bell-ian freedom to ask whatever questions we want without being too picky about what answers we might dream up.  I’m all for boundaries of orthodoxy.  Heck, my own inner caveman is alive and well.  But critical re-assessment doesn’t mean abandonment.  If they’ve really taught their students well, and are confident that they’ve been teaching the truth, these evangelical institutions should have confidence that these students will be able to learn from mainstream scholarship, and critique their traditions on certain points, without abandoning those traditions.  That they do not have such confidence betrays, it seems to me, a lack of confidence in the truth and strength of those traditions, a deep-seated insecurity.  This is the second problem that Enns identifies—cowardice:

“They [evangelical graduate students] often feel–and I’ve heard this many times–that they have been lied to by their teachers. I’d like to relay one anecdote. In one seminary I know a former student, now professor, felt ill-prepared by his seminary at the initial stages of his doctoral work. He had gotten straight As in seminary and done stellar work in his language classes. But he was lost in negotiating the new ideas he was encountering and had to do a lot of catching up.

He asked his former professor, now colleague, why he was sent to graduate school with so many gaps in his learning. The answer: ‘Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.’

I would replace ‘your faith’ with ‘our system’ and then I think we are closer to the truth.”

“Our job was to protect you from this information.”  Whatever happened to the faith in the power of truth?  If the evangelical understanding of the faith is genuinely true and strong and anchored in Scripture, then it shouldn’t need to protect people from exposure to dissenting ideas.  Children, maybe, but grad students?  See, I’m old-fashioned.  I have so much faith in the power of truth, the power of orthodoxy, that I believe that strong, well-nourished, well-grounded faith, that clings to Jesus Christ and knows how to think critically, will not go far astray for long.  Arm your students with the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, and then give them a long leash.  They might charge off for a bit in some scary directions, but you should rest assured that whatever they bring back from their intellectual adventures will be fruitful new insights that nourish and strengthen the faith, rather than destroying it.

The cowardice that we find instead suggests that evangelical institutions don’t, deep down, think their teachings are rationally defensible.  The only way they can be maintained is by hiding all alternative teachings from view.  Again, this is a real problem.  Usually, it’s not as self-conscious and up-front as it was with that one professor, but it is pervasive.  Many evangelical institutions don’t bother to teach their students about many of the most significant rival viewpoints, and when they do, they only present a grotesquely distorted straw man, that looks self-evidently nonsensical.  When we teach students in this cowardly way, we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy that “they’ll go off to a mainstream university and lose their faith.”  Of course they’ll lose their faith, because they will realize that they were being coddled and deceived, and will assume that there must be no intellectual robustness in a tradition that was so fearful of engagement.

 

If we leave it here, though, we could find ourselves back at the 1960s critique of “the establishment,” “the institution,” laying all the blame at the door of university deans and gatekeeper bureaucrats.  Bureaucrats are favorite scapegoats, but more often than not, they, like their faculty, are well-intentioned people trying to do their best in a difficult situation.  They have their hands tied.  Why?  Because they have a lot of people to answer to, people with money without whom there wouldn’t be an institution to fight over.  And the two main sources of money for these institutions—alumni and parents (who often are also alumni)—are notoriously conservative constituencies.  Name almost any Reformed or evangelical institution of higher education, and I can bet you that most of its supporters and most of the parents who send their kids there are more prone to be reactionary than either its faculty or administration.  Of course, to the extent that they find their hands tied by narrow-minded alumni, perhaps these institutions bear some of the blame themselves, and are reaping the fruits of poor teaching in years past.  But in the case of parents, one can’t tread too carefully.  To be a parent, as I can attest from personal experience, is to be instinctively defensive wherever one’s child is concerned, and such defensiveness does not often lend itself to an ability to carefully distinguish between “encouraging critical thinking” and “undermining my child’s faith.”  Christian colleges are forever fielding angry calls and letters from alarmed parents about the crazy new ideas their children are being introduced to—I recall one time, when I was responsible for leading our school’s daily morning prayer using the BCP, and I had begun acknowledging saints’ days on the liturgical calendar, being called before the administration to answer charges from agitated parents that I was teaching students to pray to Mary.

But of course, if we want to move the burden of blame to parents, we will have to lay part of it on pastors, who ought to be working against the belligerent culture-war mentality in their flocks, and training them in the virtue of humility even while attempting to instill in them a firm confidence in the truths of their faith.  What we have among so many Christians today is an unstable blend of insecurity and arrogance—on the one hand, sure that we have all the answers, and don’t need to ask hard questions, but on the other hands, a lack of confidence, deep down, that our faith can withstand such hard questions.  But along with instilling such virtues of humility and courage, churches need to be actively educating their congregants in the actual complexities of many of the questions that we face—Christian faith and science, Christian faith and philosophy, Christian faith and biblical criticism, Christian faith and ethics.

 

In short, then, there is plenty of blame to go around, and trying to apportion it strictly is probably not too productive.  After all, I would suggest that much of our problem is systemic, rooted in the rift between church and academy.  Where Enns seems to worry that the problem with our evangelical higher ed institutions is that they remain too tied to the church’s apron-strings and are unable to step boldly forward into the academy proper, I suspect that the problem is the opposite.  Having cooperated with the gradual exodus of theology from its proper ecclesial setting, evangelical institutions have been unable to exorcise the deep-seated suspicion of “the academy” to be found in most of our pews, which has hardened in many quarters into a settled posture of anti-intellectualism.  So long as our young theologians are spending more time publishing abstruse articles in prestigious journals than teaching Sunday school classes in their local congregation, suspicion of learning and hostility to open-minded inquiry are likely to predominate in many of our churches.  (It is worth noting in passing that the new generation of Rob-Bell-ian evangelicals, forever questioning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth, is only superficially different from their parents in this respect despite its pretensions to sophistication; both generations harbor an anti-intellectualist bias that is wary of sustained critical reflection.)  And as long as that is the case, our colleges and seminaries will remain pulled in two directions, and their faculty members condemned to a schizophrenic and hunted existence.

The problems evangelical education faces are manifold, then, and the solutions are likely to be as well.  But I would like to propose, at the top of the list, a concerted attempt to break down barriers between church and academy, by providing ecclesial homes for serious theological work, and by marshalling the ranks of our graduate students for the much-needed task of lay theological education in our churches.  Pastors, students, and college/seminary administrators all need to take the initiative in making such programs possible, with creative determination to put the gifts of each member at the service of the whole body.

(If I may be permitted a plug, I would commend to your attention the early efforts in this direction of the “Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh” which I’ve helped launch over the past year, as a fledgling example of what such church-academy engagement might look like.)

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  • Kevin Davis

    Great observations and subtle critique! And I say that as someone who has long tired of Enns’, yes, ranting. I have the unique position as someone who has switched from an evangelical Reformed seminary to a mainline PCUSA seminary, and in both instances I’ve encountered the same protectionism. There are sacred cows either way. My previous seminary did little real engagement with science, happy to dismiss it under the dubious banner of “worldview”; whereas my current seminary does little engagement with anything that may challenge the models of liberation/feminist theology or the “consensus” of liberal higher criticism at every point. It is discouraging either way.

    As I look at the academic landscape, it is the “moderate” or “moderate conservative” evangelical seminaries and institutions that look the most hopeful: Wheaton, Fuller, Trinity Evangelical, Beeson Divinity School, and so forth, with scholars like John Walton (Wheaton), Oliver Crisp (Fuller), and Kevin Vanhoozer (Trinity). I also appreciate Horton’s academic work at Westminster California. I doubt that any of these scholars would rail against the “genocidal” God of Joshua/Judges like Enns encourages, which puts him well outside of evangelical orthodoxy. Enns has gone too far afield, and I see little that distinguishes his “insights” from any run-of-the-mill mainline seminary. At some point, an evangelical needs to discern when he or she has actually abandoned the distinguishing marks and hermeneutics of the evangelical movement. I’ll freely admit that there is quite a lot of gray area in-between, but it is silly (if not self-serving) to cling to the evangelical moniker, for perhaps cultural or sentimental reasons.

    • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

      Completely agreed with you about Enns. I wish folks like he and Rachel Held Evans would just be honest and decide to carve out a new name for themselves, rather than continuing to try to stretch the term “evangelical” beyond breaking point.

      And I agree that the institutions you mention, though they certainly wouldn’t satisfy the likes of Enns, and though they each have some unnecessary hang-ups of their own, are steering a promising course in the current environment.

  • James M.

    The tension is certainly real, but I believe the underrepresented perspective here is the non-caricatured every man who either sends his children off to these schools or supports one (I fit both categories) and who actually has a mind open to possibilities beyond his own parochialism. While I very much agree that ignorance sometimes has deep roots among the rank and file, I find that there are nonetheless many folk who actually approach life with a fairly humble attitude with respect to those things they don’t know, and are willing to have cherished notions inspected and tweaked. However, it is simply a bridge too far to have Johnny go off to such and so “Christian” college and in a short span of time to be confronted with notions such as that his appetite for McDonald’s hamburgers leads to the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest (something for which he and all who imbibe should feel guilty, btw); that to have any sort of question as to the legitimacy of same sex union makes one suspect of being a bigot; that profit motive is necessarily classified as bougeois greed; and so on. As I see it, these and many other issues ought be considered in institutions of learning with a high degree of academic freedom. But at some point, one has to ask: Where does the deconstructionist line begin actually detract from real education (another discussion to be sure), and is it worth it? As you state, the lines are rightly drawn somewhere. But, and maybe I’m being nit-picky here, it seems overblown to place such blame on the guy who actually invests so much to see that Johnny gets to sit at the table of learning in the first place. As one who teaches in a school where these issues are alive and well, it strikes me as being a bit of a low blow to characterize friends, alumni, and family, warts and all, with the less than flattering handle “close-minded”.
    As to your suggestion of breaking down barriers between the church and academy, I couldn’t agree more. And the public intellectual in this equation might bear in mind that every man, while needing patient persuasion, may at times weary of being told that his closed mind must be re-cast, especially when it comes to more peripheral issues. Sorry if this push-back seems a bit hard, but I do think the truth of our dilemma lies somewhere between, and that there may be more receptive minds out there than you think.

    • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

      James, you’re quite right, of course, and looking back, I see that some of my language there came across as overly harsh (I’ll try to get it edited, but as I don’t have editing privileges, it might take a bit). I certainly don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush; it only takes a few strongly opinionated parents to make an educator feel like his hands are completely tied, even if the vast majority of parents out there are happy for their children to be challenged with hard questions and new perspectives. And although I think many parents in the evangelical world these days are too paranoid or defensive, I don’t want to be too hasty to judge them for that. As I say in the post, being militantly defensive about one’s child simply goes with the territory of being a parent. My oldest is only four, and precocious as I think he is, won’t be going off to college anytime soon, but I already know what it feels like to be very protective and concerned about exposing him to what I take to be harmful influences. Plus, as I say, a lot of the defensiveness is the theological academy’s fault, for failing to bridge the gap between the classroom and the pew.

      So, the point of this post was not to go pin all the blame on parents, but as I said toward the end, to say that “there’s plenty of blame to go around”—parents, professors, administrators, students, and pastors all have things they could be doing better.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ward.howard.39 Ward Howard

        I just want to put in a plug for Dr. Gregory A. Thornbury’s new book “Recovering Classic Evangelicalism” as far as setting a positive evangelical vision goes. And there are plenty of other folks at Union University who are interested in these matters of faith and learning.

  • Luke W

    I’ve personally been reevaluating my Christian college experience and this article touches on issues I’m wrestling. My school vilified liberal secularists that asked those out-of-bounds questions concerning our beliefs, impugning their motives as deconstructionist. I was told that these critics have an agenda, that their work was biased, that they were only willing to see “truth” when it confirmed their pre-determined ideas. Despite their claims to the contrary, we knew these so-called scholars spent their careers concocting ridiculous frameworks to exclude the need for God in our understanding of the world. At that time, I didn’t doubt a word of it.

    But in the years since, I see that we have no problem taking a blatantly deconstructionist approach identical to the one we criticized. I took classes like “Creation Science” in which the instructor built up evolutionist straw men and taught us how to mock them. We were told that archeologists and biologists and especially those carbon-dating guys were conniving conspirators out to destroy Christianity. Of course, if these same people presented evidence that appeared to confirm a young earth, we celebrated the science and added it to our arsenal of proof. When the other side does this, we took this as damning evidence of their bias. Why is it ok for us to do?

    If we have “faith in the power of truth” as stated in the article, then we should welcome any and all inquiries, even those “biased scholars” and know that truth will, by definition, hold up. No tenet – inerrancy, a six-day creation, the virgin birth – should be out of bounds. If these tenets are truly true, in the same way that gravity or the composition of water is, then questioning from every angle, even (and especially) by avowed deconstructionists will only sharpen the reality of truth.

    But taking the higher road than all those “biased secularists” means that we must be open to new answers to ANY question. We can’t just ignore the answers we don’t like and trumpet the ones we do. If we want to participate in rational discourse, it takes humility and vulnerability to answers we may not like.

    I fear that while I’ve come to see those “evil scientists” as largely honest in their pursuit of truth (with some exceptions to be sure), that the academic approach on our side is more inclined to bias and selective inquiry.

    Are there secular institutions who must maintain an anti-religious slant because of pressure from atheist alumni? Could be. But I don’t think it’s as pervasive as conservative alumni steering our own institutions away from rational, open debate about their sacred cows.

    • Luke W

      I fear my post strayed too far from the article’s topic. Let me come full circle and say the reason I believe evangelical schools are suspicious of their graduates who return with degrees from non-evangelical institutions is not really about concern of liberal subversion of the graduate’s beliefs. I believe it’s a fear that the deconstructionist framework they worked so hard to instill at the undergraduate level may have been spoiled. A legitimate fear: your straw men may not hold up if your student encounters the real thing.

      • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

        Luke, I think you’re exactly right about this diagnosis. It is much easy to sit there and poke holes at the weak points in your opponent’s paradigm, much more difficult to train students to actually grasp that paradigm in its totality and discern what challenges it may pose for their own doctrine, and how these challenges may be met.

        Of course, we can overthink the causes of this deconstructionism. In part, I think it’s simply a result of the fact that many of our teachers are themselves seriously undertaught. I think we may now moving in the right direction, but the fact is that for quite awhile in the middle of the 20th century, evangelicalism lacked intellectual institutions, and much of an intellectual drive. Accordingly, we have all these evangelical institutions trying to train zillions of students in the next generation, but the teaching generation hasn’t received anything like as robust an education in liberal arts, theology, and philosophy as would’ve once been expected in Christian universities. That being the case, they are likely to resort to superficial modes of engagement when trying to expose their students to the vast array of scientific and philosophical challenges they will face.

        I do want to push back a bit on your statement that “But taking the higher road than all those “biased secularists” means that we must be open to new answers to ANY question. We can’t just ignore the answers we don’t like and trumpet the ones we do. If we want to participate in rational discourse, it takes humility and vulnerability to answers we may not like.” Well yes, BUT.
        We must not fall prey to the idea of thinking of Christian theology as a set of unrelated propositions and assertions, each one of which needs to be subjected to independent rational scrutiny. The loci of Christian theology—the really important ones, at any rate—are connected together, and depend on one another. Orthodoxy is the set of rules we observe regarding the structure of the whole edifice, to keep us from carelessly pulling out a pillar that will bring down the whole edifice. A commitment to orthodoxy means that we will ask hard questions about our beliefs, but if we come up with an answer (say, the resurrection didn’t actually happen) that, when logically related to the rest of our theology, would require an abandonment of the heart of the Christian gospel, then we must say, “No, wait a minute, that answer is *not* acceptable; we must’ve made a mistake in the argument somewhere.” To the unbelieving world, that unwillingness to abandon certain core principles will be taken as confirmation that we are fideists, unwilling to engage in any rational enquiry, but I would insist instead that it is a recognition that in any system of belief, there are certain non-negotiables, the compromise of which would require the abandonment of the system as a whole.

        • Luke W

          Your description of the intellectual catching-up of evangelical institutions is well-said. And as far as questioning the fundamentals of the faith, you make a sound argument. But historically, Christians have made poor choices about which beliefs are “fundamental” to the whole system. Luther and Calvin famously defended a geocentric solar system where the earth did not spin on its axis, claiming it was a crucial defense of Scriptural integrity. A more modern example: I heard a chapel speaker declare, “To deny a literal six-day creation is to deny the cross of Christ.” Is the heart of the gospel at stake equally on these two points? I don’t think so, but I think I’m out of step with the current evangelical stance.

          • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

            Agreed. And I think that getting an accurate sense of what’s fundamental, and what’s peripheral, requires that one be really historically-grounded in the Christian tradition, which very few are today. As far as Luther and Calvin, while they may have defended geocentrism, I’ve never come across anything in their writings that suggests they saw it as terribly fundamental. Such defense was never a central plank of their theological agenda (even if both of them did occasionally latch onto hobby-horses—consubstantiation for Luther, presbyterianism for Calvin—which from the standpoint of their larger theological system, should not have been considered essential).

  • Brian Williams

    My only contribution to this well-reasoned discussion is to offer one example from my own experience that might serve to foster the church-academy relationship. From 2012 to 2013 I was basically offered a sabbatical position as “theologian-in-residence” at a church that offered me the opportunity to work on my own research (Karl Barth’s political theology, at the time) while also asking me to contribute to the overall life of the church through teaching and whatever else I wanted to get up to. And they paid me and gave me an office for this (along with my own coffee maker). So I held monthly theology seminars (“theologizing with the theologian”), organized an arts conference and various art exhibitions within the church, taught theology and church history to a committed discipleship group, and designed a one year overview of the Bible that formed the basis for the Sunday sermon and adult ed. classes. And I showed up at staff meeting, heard about the week’s hospital visits, and prayed with people. Besides being a fantastic experience for me, I think the church benefited, as well. Imagine if more of our evangelical churches offered such short term sabbatical positions to professors, who could offer the church the kinds of teaching they regularly do in the academy. Or what if our churches made funds available for their parishioners to take theology courses, either in person or through “distance ed”? My experience with three different churches leads me to think that there would be no shortage of people interested in signing up. But to make either of these suggestions a reality, I realize, requires a people who already see the value of education and are willing to budget for it. I don’t know if other churches offer similar positions or run similar programs, but it might be one small step for some churches toward diminishing the anti-intellectual / fearful bias(?) against academic theology and its fruits.

    Thanks for the post, Brad, and good to meet at that UK theology conference last week.

    • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks for this, Brian. All I can say to this is that (a) that’s my dream job, and (b) it seems to me that this is exactly the sort of model that we need to be encouraging more churches to emulate and develop. Indeed, it seems so obvious that we ought to do this sort of thing, that it’s hard to understand why it has been so rare for so long.

      It is my hope that this is one good thing that will come out of the current apocalyptic job situation, in which many of us who are getting our Theology Ph.Ds are discovering that there are not jobs anymore in traditional higher ed institutions for most of us. Hopefully many of these homeless Ph.Ds will be able to find the creativity and persistence to lobby for arrangements like this, and carve out more ecclesial niches in which for them to exercise their gifts.

  • Toby Prine

    If the consuming of theological thought could be diagramed, and people like Mr. Littlejohn, R.C. Sproul, B.B. Warfield, Karl Barth et. al. were on the top of the diagram, my deserved place would be one rung from the bottom, with my children just below me. My calling in life is to pass on the faith to my children and to love my wife as Christ loved the church. As an everyday Joe, my place near the bottom of the chain forces me to wade through the tsunami of theological minutia trying to find answers to my children’s questions (and mine). I have to be honest, it’s exhausting. I belong to a denomination that claims to be Reformed, but annually debates issues like ordaining homosexuals, same sex marriage, boycotting Isreal and Caterpiller, Inc., etc., etc., etc. But its the only game in town, so I’m forced to defend my faith even within the confines of my church. Those being educated by the folks at the top are the pastors that come to us on the bottom. So what they believe is of vital importance for us bottom feeders. You folks at the top need to realize the second and third order effects of what you put into the minds of budding pastors. I don’t give two-hoots-in-Hell where a pastor was educated. What I do care is that they believe and live by the Gospel of Christ and rely on the Holy Spirit for sanctification, making them more and more like Christ, and that they glofiy God and enjoy him forever. For my conscience, this is accomplished through the Reformed tradition. I apologize for the ranting. I confess to not being as cerebral as the good folks I read on this blog. I’m just a man struggling through this life, relying on God’s grace and glorifying Him as best I can.

  • http://twitter.com/Frank_Turk Frank Turk

    Brad —

    This essay runs around a lot, so before I comment on it I want to make sure I understand your core complaint. Are you saying that Evangelical seminaries ought to better prepare students for confronting secular objections to orthodoxy? Or are you saying that Evangelical seminaries ought to do a better job of establishing their own credibility as a source of academic achievement and credibility? Or, while these may be mutually exclusive, that they don’t have to be — that the Evangelical seminaries ought to be doing both without compromising either orthodoxy or integrity?

    • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

      Frank—
      Well, I don’t think the “core complaint” is either of those, though both of those would be, from the standpoint of this essay, desirable things. The core complaint is that evangelical colleges and seminaries need to realize that they can’t have their cake and eat it too—they can’t attempt to be part of the larger academic world and conversation without being willing to ask and answer hard questions about their commitments. But, if they’re really confident of the truth of those commitments, they shouldn’t be afraid of that engagement, or instinctively suspicious of anyone who does. But I’m also saying that this suspicion is understandable, given the social and financial pressures such institutions face.

      • http://twitter.com/Frank_Turk Frank Turk

        Brad — that’s actually a great answer, and I see the sense of it.

        Let me reason by analogy for a second: a young fellow in Business School is majoring in Accounting. Do his Accounting instructors owe him an instruction on any methods of accounting outside of GAAP, or do they owe him an education in GAAP so that he can be an entirely-orthodox and legally-responsible CPA and (someday) CFO?

        The analogy is exactly to the point that education is not about experiments in heterodoxy. It is about learning and mastering the matter in question.

        Why should a seminary education be any different?

  • Ian

    Yes, many evangelical institutions have their roots in the fundamentalist-modernist crisis, but many contemporary Christians don’t understand the scope of what was lost in that battle. Almost every school of higher learning founded in America and England prior to the 20th century was founded as a religious school–many explicitly for the advancement of Christianity. Many Christian colleges have become secular institutions, and the trajectory has always been uni-directional. Christians have built the hallowed halls of learning now occupied by those who are explicitly anti-Christian in thought and teaching. It is only natural that those schools that survived the heady decades of the late 19th and early 20th century as Christian institutions and those that have been founded as such since then would want to have defenses in place to prevent another loss of the scale from that period.

    Enns should really see how well he would be received as an evangelical, or outspoken Christian for that matter in the average secular institution around the country before he continues to complain about evangelical institutions. That is the hypocrisy of this all.

  • Peter G.

    Brad, as an Evangelical who must soon decide between Edinburgh and Cambridge, much of this is of interest to me as it was when I first read Enns’s post some time ago. I couldn’t agree more about the need for ecclesiastical homes for young scholars. But I do want to stress that any bridge-building between church and academy needs to be built from both sides. All too often, when academics talk about bridging the gap, they mean something more like getting the constituency on board with our enlightened agenda and leaving behind those who don’t like it. But why shouldn’t the laity have a say in what’s being taught in the colleges and seminaries their dollars are funding? In my mind, any successful bridge building has to start with the academics learning to better listen and better communicate with laity. I’m teaching my second adult Sunday school class at my home church right now, and it’s been fantastic. As an academic, my job is to serve the church and that includes those in the church whose anti-intellectualism is born out of fear (some justified, some not).

    Lastly, I’m reminded of something I once read from Pete Williams of Tyndale House. He said (something like), it’s easier to put good scholarship into someone with good character than it is to put good character into someone with good scholarship. It would be interesting if Pete Enns turned his what would turn up if Pete Enns turned his moral flashlight from the institutions to the faculty. Taking a paycheck from a school whose doctrinal statement you know you disagree with strikes me as a serious problem in itself.

    • http://twitter.com/WBLittlejohn Brad Littlejohn

      Peter, thanks for the comment. What you’re saying in your first paragraph seems to be exactly the sort of thing I was trying to say when I wrote, “So long as our young theologians are spending more time publishing abstruse articles in prestigious journals than teaching Sunday school classes in their local congregation, suspicion of learning and hostility to open-minded inquiry are likely to predominate in many of our churches.” I don’t want to be too harsh, of course—I’m writing a (hopefully not too abstruse) article for a (marginally prestigious) journal right now, and we’re in a ugly rat race right now where if you want any chance of a job, you have to dedicate your time to that sort of thing…teaching Sunday school doesn’t do much for the resumé.

      But no, I quite agree with your concern that “All too often, when academics talk about bridging the gap, they mean something more like getting the constituency on board with our enlightened agenda and leaving behind those who don’t like it.” There was a postgraduate conference here a year and a half ago, sponsored by SST, on “Theologians and the Church” which was supposed to be all about bridging the gap. As it turned out, almost everyone who attended was from the academy side of things, not the church side, and half of the papers were on abstruse academic subjects that would have been incomprehensible to an outsider.

      To your last line, “Taking a paycheck from a school whose doctrinal statement you know you disagree with strikes me as a serious problem in itself,” I would just say that, if that paycheck is what you need to feed your family, it’s hard to just up and resign if you find yourself in disagreement. Of course, if you find yourself in that situation, you have to recognize that you need to restrain your exercise of “academic freedom” and avoid as much as possible teaching in a way that directly undermines the institution.

  • Danny Aguilar

    thoughts on evangelical colleges and race: For Christ and His White Kingdom: An Open Letter to Wheaton College on White Supremacy http://thetatteredrose.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/for-christ-and-his-white-kingdom-an-open-letter-to-the-wheaton-college-community-on-white-supremacy-on-campus/