A deeper problem for Wheaton, though, the problem of which the rejection is ultimately a symbol, is that in rejecting a Catholic in accordance with Evangelical principles, it has passively endorsed the continued tenure and influence of its liberalizing Evangelicals whose anti-Christianity Litfin and Wheaton, along with almost every major Evangelical institution, have admitted as fully Evangelical. The path to secularism–of which egalitarianism is the principal gate and adornment in our time, and successful resistance to which is our own day’s peculiar test of fidelity to the Christian faith in this part of the world–is being kept wide open by the more respectable sections of the Evangelical academy. Wheaton may be devoted to the Bible, but its interpretation is, among Evangelicals, falling into much worse hands than those of the Catholics. In valiant, Protestant resistance to the authority of the pope, Wheaton, with high principle and courage, is solemnly submitting to that of the devil. ~S.M. Hutchens, Touchstone Magazine/Mere Comments
Since Wheaton College is literally just down the road from where I go to church, this was an interesting local story but not one that I thought was really worth following. An evangelical college fired a faculty member upon the latter’s conversion to Catholicism. As I understand it, in the judgement of the administration the professor, as a Catholic, could no longer fully subscribe without significant qualification to the statement of faith that the school requires its faculty to believe. It is a question of institutional character and the purpose of the college. Shockingly, I found myself in almost perfect agreement with none other than Joseph Bottum on this:
But the general response of serious religious believers, Protestant and Catholic alike, is likely to be: “Good for Wheaton.” Or, rather, “Good for Wheaton—given that the evil of Christian disunity exists.”
Duane Litfin, the president of the school, insists that a Catholic “cannot faithfully affirm” the twelve-point Wheaton faith statement required of faculty members, though Hochschild says he was willing to sign it, and, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the statement “doesn’t explicitly exclude Catholics.”
Maybe Hochschild would have to affirm the statement in a special sense as a Catholic. Indeed, he was doing that even while he was an Episcopalian: At his hiring interview, the Wall Street Journal reports, Hochschild told the school’s president that he agreed with the faith statement’s assertion that the Bible is “of supreme and final authority,” though, he added, that Bible should be read according to “authoritative traditions.”
Via The New Pantagruel.
No matter how much ecumenists would like to downplay or ignore the still-vast confessional differences among Christians, the attribution of authority to interpretive traditions of the Fathers and the acceptance of such a thing as Church Tradition at all are the near-permanent barriers between Protestants and the other Christian confessions. The role of episcopal hierarchy in non-Protestant churches is, of course, also a tremendous stumblingblock from the Protestant perspective. These things, like so many other practises of non-Protestants, are routinely rejected because they supposedly find no warrant in Scripture. It is not my purpose today to argue why this is a bewilderingly mistaken understanding of revelation and of Scripture in particular. This is the substance of the divisions in question.
A Protestant may be a strict literalist who eschews much of the “high criticism” or he may be fully open to the findings of that criticism, or he may be somewhere between the two, but he finds nothing binding or authoritative in the writings of those whom Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches variously regard as inspired interpreters: whatever teaching authority he does accept, if he accepts any, it really is only from Scripture. A liberal Protestant might find “authoritative traditions” just as troubling as a “fundamentalist” might, though perhaps for very different reasons. In their common aversion to Tradition, all Protestants, however liberal, find a kind of odd common ground that unites them and marks them off from all others.
On this point of the authority of Tradition Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, recognises the incompatibility of faculty who must accept it and a Protestant faith that can never accept it:
It appears obvious that one cannot faithfully affirm both of these dissenting affirmations. One can be a faithful member of the Catholic Church and thereby dissent from the Protestant claim of sola Scriptura so important to Wheaton College; or one can faithfully affirm Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and thereby dissent from the Magisterial claims of the Catholic hierarchy. But one cannot faithfully affirm both. To try to affirm both is to become, as Jesus said, “a house divided against itself.” It is the position of Wheaton College that such a house cannot stand.
Case closed, right?
Well, for those involved the matter seems closed, but the episode is still generating reaction. It never occurred to me that principled adherence to their own doctrine would put the evangelicals in league the devil, as Mr. Hutchens suggests, or on the road to secularisation. From the perspective of the College, there is nothing else the administration could have done if Wheaton College was not to go rapidly from being a committed evangelical school that confesses and teaches a particular set of doctrines to a multi-confessional school that expressed vague platitudes about “faith” and “tradition.” Once a precedent is set to hire those who cannot honestly affirm their statement of faith, the character of the school would gradually melt away. If evangelical parents and students wanted vague platitudes and teachers from various Christian confessions, they wouldn’t have chosen Wheaton, but some formerly church-affiliated, conservatively inclined liberal arts school.
Mr. Hutchens’ criticism assumes that, as far as theologically conservative Protestants are concerned, Catholics must be preferrable to liberal Protestants as teachers, especially when it comes to interpretation of the Bible. If I understand these folks at all (and I admit that I have never been to Wheaton in all the time I have been in the Chicago area), I would guess that they would prefer not to have liberal Protestants teaching their children about the Bible, either, but that in the final analysis they would rather have liberal Protestants with all their flaws than those who must confess doctrines that they, as Protestants, find ludicrous, superstitious or irrational. That may indeed seem foolish to Catholics and Orthodox who are observing the episode, but that view would make perfect sense on their own terms. Finally, the College’s right and indeed obligation to maintain its specific confessional character is something that I think should be defended and applauded.
On a final note, I would also observe that Wheaton’s ecclesiology is one that I think a serious Catholic would have trouble affirming without serious qualification: “WE BELIEVE that the one, holy, universal Church is the body of Christ and is composed of the communities of Christ’s people.” “The communities of Christ’s people”? That is exceedingly vague, and there is no reference to the Church’s marks of catholicity or apostolicity (universal being the word used to dodge any reference to the word catholic) as stated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which strikes me as odd even for a Protestant confession–surely Protestants accept that there were Apostles and that the church is apostolic? This is the sort of wobbly ecclesiology Protestants have had to accept because of the endless fragmentation and ‘denominationalisation’ of Protestantism, and it is an ecclesiology an ecumenist could adopt in a heartbeat. A committed Catholic could not.