Soma Review has a fascinating examination of former President Duane Liftin’s tenure at Wheaton, which many people regard as the flagship of evangelicalism (a mantle, I sometimes provocatively argue, that has been passed on to other schools).

The story is interesting not only is the piece a thoughtful examination of the tensions of a confessional university, but it was rejected at the last second by Books and Culture.

I have to say up front:  I have no dog in this hunt except as an interested observer of all things evangelical.  But even on that front, I suspect the story is less significant now than it would be twenty years ago.  The proliferation of evangelical intellectuals the last twenty years has significantly narrowed–if not eliminated outright–the gap between Wheaton and the other evangelical institutions.

I’m biased toward my own alma mater, of course, but I would also name Union and Houston Baptist as upstart universities with vigorous academic cultures (albeit with their own respective disadvantages).  So while Wheaton might still be the flagship, the fleet has grown reducing–to put an end to the analogy–its stature within evangelicalism.

That said, I’ll reserve my comments to Chignell’s piece itself, as I don’t have much interest in pursuing the problem of censorship.  As a distant observer with nothing to go on regarding the reasons for the decision, postulation would be nothing but pure speculation.  And that’s just a risky game that I don’t much like playing.  Chalk it up to my Biola style-evidentialist heavy heritage, which comes in handy at a time like this.

Or wimpiness.  It might just be that.  Whatever.

At any rate, the central critique of Liftin’s tenure that Chignell raises is that he was too magisterial in his approach to interpreting Wheaton’s doctrinal commitments.  He writes:

The systemic model, however, seems consistent with a wide range of administrative approaches. At the far end is what might be called the magisterial approach: here a select group of academic administrators specifies which interpretations of the core doctrines and codes are to be propagated throughout the system, and then requires that everyone signs on to those specific interpretations. At the other end is what might be called (for lack of a better term) the wiggle-room approach. Here a certain amount of space is allowed for differing—albeit still reasonable—interpretations of the propositions constituting the systemic core. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” or that the core is ever significantly or casually altered. But administrators who adopt the wiggle-room approach will tend to be more modest and consultative in interpreting that core, and will often “agree to disagree” on issues that can reasonably be deemed ambiguous or adiaphorous.

Chignell’s piece recounts the lack of wiggle room during Liftin’s tenure, and functions as an apologia for more faculty involvement in decisions and a less rigid interpretation of Wheaton’s doctrinal core.  At the same time, he is unequivocal in his insistence that he wants Wheaton to avoid becoming Oberlin (a byword, apparently, among the CCCU).

But Chignell’s conclusion leaves me wanting a little more argumentation for his position.   He contends that the results of Liftin’s magesterially-oriented tenure are “decidedly mixed.”  But to those who don’t adopt the “wiggle-room” argument, decisions not to retain professors who become Roman Catholic or are unsettled about a Biblical understanding of homosexuality wouldn’t be viewed as “decidedly mixed” at all.  What’s needed is something outside the framework of “wiggle room” to demonstrate that, in fact, Liftin’s decisions had an adverse effect on Wheaton.

But on this front, Chignell’s argument is weak.  It might be sad that they didn’t get an Ivy league Ph.D. to teach, but to the non-wiggle folks (if I may), academic credentials take a second level of importance.   And what of the faculty they did hire during Liftin’s tenure?  Did scholarship fall off precipitously during Liftin’s tenure?  Did major faculty leave, or did they have a difficult time retaining top faculty?  (The only such move mentioned was Noll’s, who he mentions had more to do about pursuing opportunities elsewhere than Wheaton itself.)

Outside of stories of disgruntled faculty members who want some wiggle room, the closest Chignell gets to describing the negative fruits of Liftin’s magesterium is its financial impact.  But his argument here strikes me as problematic.  He quotes a professor who suggests that the Trustees are captive to the “wealthy older alumni.”  Yet in the next paragraph, he suggests that Wheaton is missing out on even more money due to its conservative captivities.  Chignell suggests that this increased source of funds is a “vast group of younger and increasingly wealthy alumni that feel alienated by the current administration.”

At this point–and this is terrible–I had to laugh.  For one, the point implies that Wheaton stays conservative for the sake of the wealthy older alumni but won’t take even more money to relax the standards.  Additionally, I’d love to meet this vast group of wealthy younger alumni.  There are some, I’m sure, who have done well for themselves.  But as someone who worked as a financial planning, I’ll put this bluntly:  people under 40 have no money.  At all.  Marketers don’t target them because they’re rich:  they target them because they spend every dime they make and marketers want to  build up brand loyalty.

And they certainly don’t have money relative to the older alumni.

This isn’t to say that there should be no “wiggle room” on core doctrinal commitments of universities.  Maybe there should be.  I don’t know, and I am glad that I don’t have to make those decisions.  But what is clear to me is that doctrinal statements originated out of specific historical contexts and need to be understood within the context of those histories.  And once institutional change happens, it is enormously difficult to undo (see:  Baylor).  So while I would disagree based on Chignell’s article with Liftin’s execution, I am sympathetic with his aims.

But I’ll return to the point with which I started:  this issue is less important and significant within evangelicalism than it would have been a decade ago.  Perhaps I am approaching it with a sense of fait accompli, but it’s clear from Chignell’s article that  a President is not enough to preserve the core commitments of an institution.  Those are preserved or rejected in the classroom by professors and students, in the scholarship the university produces, and in the life of the students.

And to that extent, Chignell’s point about a non-magesterial presidency is exactly right:  the presidency must represent the institution as it is if they are going to have a working relationship at all.  That Liftin apparently no longer does suggests that Chignell’s point has already prevailed.  “Wiggle room” already exists within Wheaton’s classrooms and its dormrooms, and even if the next president does not reflect this reality, it is only a matter of time before he (or she) will.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

11 Comments

  1. Christopher Benson January 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Matt: I don’t understand why you think Mr. Chignell’s essay is “less significant now that it would be twenty years ago.” The focus of the essay is not on the production of “evangelical intellectuals” but the leadership of an evangelical college. The context for such leadership is different today than it was twenty years ago.

    In addition, what’s your evidence for “the proliferation of evangelical intellectuals”? What is your criteria for such an intellectual? Does it coincide with Mark Noll’s criteria in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and George Marsden’s criteria in “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship”?

    One criterion for an intellectual is scholarship. I haven’t observed that evangelicals are producing seminal scholarship in fields ranging from psychology to political science. Instead, I observe that evangelicals are writing in an echo chamber. Their books are usually released by Christian publishers, not leading academic publishers (Oxford, Yale, Chicago, Princeton). Their books are seldom referenced by secular scholars. The result: evangelical intellectuals are ghettoized, often by their own choice rather than by external constraints.

    Best regards, Christopher

    Reply

  2. Christopher Benson January 26, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Post script: I don’t know how we’d empirically substantiate if there has been a proliferation of evangelical intellectuals in the the last twenty years. Even if there were more intellectuals, my point is that their impact is not widely felt because of ghettoization. Our mutual friend – Matt Milliner – rightly pointed out that another problem besetting evangelical scholars is assimilation to the methods and ideas of the secular academy. I’m not sure whether ghettoization or assimilation is a greater problem, but both problems are responsible for the light footprint of evangelicals in higher education.

    Reply

  3. Christopher Benson January 28, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Matt: I hope you’ll get an opportunity to respond.

    Reply

  4. Egads! Sorry for not responding sooner. I managed to forget that these comments were outstanding…

    That said, your questions are certainly valid. My point with it being different than 20 years ago is simply that Wheaton’s position as “Evangelical Harvard” isn’t quite as stable as it once was. It’s possible to go to lots of other evangelical schools and get an education that approaches Harvard quality, whereas 20 years ago it was probably Wheaton (and maybe Calvin) or nothing. So the anxieties among evangelicals about Wheaton are overblown.

    I was thinking primarily of evangelicals who are engaged in scholarly activities in university contexts. There’s certainly been an influx of evangelicals going in to philosophy, where the gains have been tremendous the past 50 years. And it’s hard to deny that evangelicals have a strong presence in the social sciences (though those evangelicals are not necessarily at evangelical colleges). Etc.

    My main point is to give us time. To simply say that evangelicals are ghettoized because we’re not at the level of publishing everything in OUP doesn’t mean we’re not doing better than we were 20 years ago. I think we are. The footprint will get heavier as more schools (like Biola, HBU, Union, etc) produce more scholars, as it seems they are.

    matt

    Reply

  5. Christopher Benson January 28, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Thanks for responding, Matt. Why should evangelicals want to approximate an education at Harvard when Harvard offers “excellence without a soul,” in the words of Harry Lewis, a Harvard professor and former dean of Harvard College. See his book: http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/publicaffairsbooks-cgi-bin/display?book=9781586483937

    Harvard quality is – to be blunt – junk! Why? Because it has lost its purpose.

    Reply

  6. Christopher,

    I am familiar with Lewis’ critique, and I am sympathetic to it. Really, I was thinking in terms of academic prestige and production. I actually think that in some ways, my education from Torrey was better than a Harvard education. But that’s a discussion for another time, I think.

    matt

    Reply

  7. Christopher Benson January 29, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Here’s what social theorist James Davison Hunter says about why evangelical scholars have little influence in the academic sphere:

    These schools [Baylor, Taylor, Wheaton, Calvin, Gordon, and Biola] draw almost exclusively from the Evangelical community, and as teaching institutions they are embraced by the community and serve its needs well. As scholarly institutions, however, the schools and their faculty are in a tough spot. The schools and faculty operate between the standards of scholarship and career mobility set by the secular academic establishment and the commitments of their faith community. Here they find they are doubly marginalized. Scholars are marginalized from the larger intellectual culture, especially to the extent that they pursue Christian distinctions in their work, yet they are also marginalized within Evangelicalism because of this community’s long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism. It does not help that the teaching loads of most Christian colleges are often twice that of elite secular colleges, not to mention research universities. Many Evangelical scholars are committed to academic excellence, but they work in a community that neither values it highly nor supports it generously.

    Here’s what Hunter says about why evangelicals have little influence in American culture:

    As it is with Catholics and mainline Protestants, individual Evangelicals can be found everywhere – in elite research universities, university presses, think-tanks, and the like – and there they make important contributions. But except for a few areas such as philosophy and American religious history, where they have had a significant presence and influence, their numbers tend to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence. Likewise, in literature, there are some talented novelists, poets, and critics in these communities, but here again their number is few and they too tend to be fairly isolated in their respective fields. Much of the same can be said about the Evangelical presence in architecture, the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) and the performing arts (e.g., theater, film, dance, music, and the like). In all of these arenas and others (such as journalism and advertising), there are individual exceptions – extraordinary, remarkable, talented exceptions – but they are exceptions, rather than a normal occurrence. These individuals are present in these spheres, it would seem, more by accident than by design; certainly more as a statistical aberration than through the deliberate cultivation of the churches.

    These observations, based on empirical data, resonate with my own experience. Of course, what matters with evangelicals in culture is faithfulness – irrespective of influence.

    Reply

  8. Christopher,

    I don’t think there’s anything in the quotes I disagree with, or anything in the quotes that disagrees with what I’ve written above.

    Best,

    Matt

    Reply

  9. Christopher Benson January 29, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Good morning, Matt. Doesn’t Hunter challenge your claim about “the proliferation of evangelical intellectuals in the last twenty years” when he says “their numbers tend to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence”?

    By the way, are you feeling better?

    Grace to you,
    Christopher

    Reply

  10. No, I don’t think he does. Again, there are two issues here: the relationship between evangelicals and the broader academy, and the relationship between Wheaton and the other evangelical schools. Regardless of the impact of evangelicals on the broader academy (your point), my argument had to do with the narrowing of the gap between Wheaton and everyone else. To judge evangelical scholarship from the vantage point that Hunter does is understandable, but also sets him up to miss some of the gains that evangelicals have made and the generally improving quality of evangelical universities as training grounds.

    Even look at the teaching load–evangelical professors teach way more than their secular counterparts. That largely means that they reserve their impact for the next generation.

    But my point wasn’t that evangelicals have arrived, as your questions seem to want to push me to say. It’s that we’ve gotten better. Nothing Hunter says contradicts that.

    matt

    Reply

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