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Peter Enns and the Crisis of Evangelical Higher Education

April 19th, 2013 | 10 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

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.)

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.