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Was Wheaton Wrong?

Wheaton College is getting beat up pretty badly over its decision to fire tenured professor Larycia Hawkins for having stated that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. Here is Hawkins’s public statement about the matter. [1]Excerpt:

Wheaton College cannot hold me to a different standard, a higher standard, than they hold every other employees to.

Wheaton College cannot scare me into walking away from the truth that all humans, Muslims, the vulnerable, the oppressed, are all my sisters and brothers.

Wheaton College cannot intimidate me into cowering in fear of the enemy of the month as defined by real estate moguls, Senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots, and fundamentalists of all stripes.

Wheaton College will never induce me to kowtow to their doublespeak concerning the Statement of Faith, so as to appease an imaginary constituency that clearly knows little about what academic freedom or Christian love mean; or to placate platinum donors to their coffers.

Wheaton College will never hear me disavow my religious family tree—that would be the height of academic dishonesty; the nadir of historical revisionism, and a repudiation of the Christian narrative where the central figure is a Hebrew from Nazareth who was despised and rejected, from Podunk Nazareth, who nevertheless set captives free and is still doing so today.

Wheaton College cannot place me in a theological corner or a trumped up Statement of Faith Corner. The last time I was put in the corner was the 4th grade and that was undeserved. I won’t ever be put in such a corner again.

Naturally the usual liberal Evangelical suspects are taking great pleasure [2] in the lashing that the conservative troglodytes at Wheaton are receiving. I want to put in a conditional vote of support for Wheaton.

Let me make a couple of things clear.

First, I am not passing judgment on the theological claim that Hawkins made, and whether or not it is acceptable within Evangelical theology. There is no such thing as a Magisterium for Evangelicals, a final court of theological appeal at which such questions can be decided. Matthew Arildsen, writing in the Washington Post, has a very good piece [3] about why it is important for the trustees of Wheaton College, which is a standard-bearing institution for American Evangelicalism, to take a stand here. Whichever way Wheaton went on the Hawkins affair, it was bound to be consequential for Evangelicalism.

Second, I am not passing judgment on the procedural fairness of what Wheaton has done here. I don’t follow the ins and outs of American Evangelicalism closely. I’ve heard it speculated — but only speculated — among Evangelical friends that Wheaton may be applying a double standard to Hawkins. This may be true, and if so, shame on them. I am not impressed by Hawkins’s tying her situation to the plight of the wretched of the earth. It’s cheap, sentimental, liberal grandstanding. That said, she may well have been treated unfairly by Wheaton, by Wheaton’s own standards (see Miroslav Volf’s short essay [4] defending Hawkins, saying that her real sin is political, not theological).

With those provisions made, I am standing up for Wheaton in principle because I think it is important for religious institutions to police their theological boundaries. Most Catholic universities in the US haven’t done so, and the result in many, many cases is this kind of embarrassment [5], and a radical degradation in what it means to be educated in a Catholic institution of higher learning.

Wheaton does police its margins carefully. Catholics are not allowed to teach there, not because Wheaton’s leadership think Catholics are bad people, but because they do not believe a faithful Catholic can affirm the institution’s standards. If I were a professor, as an Orthodox Christian, I couldn’t teach there either. Do I think that is excessive? Probably. But I admire Wheaton’s willingness to take a hard stand, even when they are mocked by outsiders. It requires the kind of courage and confidence that one doesn’t often see among Christian churches and institutions these days, and that will be desperately needed in the years to come, by all of us.

I commend to everyone’s attention this 2006 First Things essay by my friend and TAC contributor Alan Jacobs [6], who wrote it while he was on the faculty at Wheaton (he’s now at Baylor). In it, Alan takes up the case of Prof. Joshua Hochschild, who was dismissed by Wheaton when he announced his intention to convert to Catholicism. Hochschild said at the time that he, as a Catholic, could affirm the provision in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith saying that Scripture is the “supreme and final authority” for Christians — and Hochschild quoted magisterial documents supporting his position. Wheaton’s president Duane Litfin responded that the original intent of the drafters of that statement excludes the possibility that a Roman Catholic could affirm it. Alan Jacobs says that both Hochschild and Litfin are right. Excerpts:

Certainly Wheaton’s Statement of Faith is instantly identifiable to any reasonably informed person as an evangelical Protestant document: No Catholic would ever think it a sufficient formulation of core Christian belief. It arises from the disputes of twentieth-century American Protestantism and is meant to stake out Wheaton’s territory in those disputes. If the statement is meant to exclude anyone, that would be liberal Protestants or half-hearted evangelicals. I do not believe there has been any point in Wheaton’s history—until now—when the college’s board of trustees has looked at the Statement of Faith with Catholics in mind.

To a large extent this is because, throughout much of American history and late into the twentieth century, evangelicals and Catholics had little to do with one another. They came, by and large, from different ethnic groups; they lived in different neighborhoods and even in different regions of the country; they went to different schools—in short, they were socialized into American culture in dramatically different ways. Throughout much of its history Wheaton College’s leaders would have reacted with horror at the thought of Catholics on the faculty—but they would have been highly unlikely to entertain that thought in the first place. Catholic scholars would have been equally unlikely to think of teaching at Wheaton. Duane Litfin is right to say that Wheaton is getting hammered for taking a position that, as recently as thirty years ago, scarcely anyone on either side of the Reformational divide would have questioned.

But times have changed. And here is where the correctness of Hochschild’s position comes in. He is not the only Catholic to look at Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and think, “Yes, that suits me very well.” Having served on hiring committees a number of times in Wheaton’s English department, I have seen dozens of applications from Catholic scholars who see nothing in Wheaton’s self-description that would rule them out.

Now, in some cases these Catholic applicants fail to understand what kind of school they are applying to: They think Wheaton is a Christian college in the way that Notre Dame is a Catholic university—that, to borrow terms favored by President Litfin in his book Conceiving the Christian College, Wheaton is an “umbrella” institution rather than a “systemic” one. Umbrella institutions welcome all sorts of people, with all sorts of beliefs, onto their faculty, as long as those people can support the principles on which the institution is founded. (Thus Notre Dame in no way compromised its mission as a Catholic university when, some years ago, it hired Nathan Hatch—an evangelical Protestant who both graduated from Wheaton and served on its board of trustees—as its provost.) But Wheaton is in fact a systemic institution which asks all of its faculty—and indeed its other employees—to affirm, not merely to support, its core beliefs.

Still, in any given year several Catholic scholars apply for jobs at Wheaton, not because they are ignorant of Catholic doctrine or of Wheaton’s institutional purpose but precisely because they do understand the systemic nature of Wheaton’s faith commitments and are genuinely enthusiastic about teaching in such an environment. If such problems did not arise thirty years ago, they are certainly arising now and will do so for the foreseeable future—unless Wheaton’s board of trustees revises the Statement of Faith to render unmistakable its commitment to a specifically Protestant and non-Catholic theological stance. Certainly either clarification or change is called for. The current situation creates a great deal of unnecessary friction, confusion, and pain in the hiring process.

But what principles or concerns should guide Wheaton’s leaders as they reflect on the options before them? It is easier perhaps to say what should not guide them. First on that list would be the all-too-common assumption that religious particularity is always a bad thing, that it amounts to “sectarianism” or violates the gospel of “diversity.”

Jacobs, an Anglican Evangelical, goes on to explain why, if Wheaton’s trustees enlarged the institution’s understanding of its Statement of Faith to include Roman Catholics, it would unavoidably “change the DNA” of the college. The concern is completely reasonable, especially, as Jacobs points out, that compromising on orthodoxy has never worked out well for the orthodox within Christian higher education:

What happened at Harvard, and then happened at Oberlin, is now being completed at Davidson: The history of American higher education indicates that such sequences of events run one way only. So any school that has a distinctively Christian character and wishes to retain it had better take great care before “opening up” the institution to the previously excluded.

Yet Jacobs goes on to say that times have changed so much, and so quickly, for Christians, that Wheaton would do well to open itself to fellow travelers from Rome (and presumably Orthodoxy):

At this juncture in the history of Christianity in the West—when it is besieged in so many ways by so many opponents—I am not sure that a school like Wheaton can afford to go it alone much longer. Even if we could, would it be wise and charitable to do so?

Jacobs concludes that it would not. Read the whole thing.  [6]It serves as a model on how to think through things like the Hawkins case, no matter which side you come down on — this, much more than the “Yoicks! Bigotry!” caterwauling from progressive Evangelicals.

An Orthodox Jewish university that excluded Gentiles from its faculty has good reason for doing so, though the day may come when those reasons no longer outweigh other concerns. Similarly, it is by no means wrong for Al Azhar [7], the most prestigious university in the Islamic world, to restrict its faculty to believing Sunni Muslims (if it does so; I don’t know). Doctrine matters, and doctrinal identity matters. To recap: none of this means that Dr. Larycia Hawkins was treated fairly by Wheaton in this case. I am not in a position to say. But the issue of doctrine and doctrinal identity is not clear cut. It matters very much who we say God is.

One way or another, this is a very important moment for the future of American Evangelicalism.



116 Comments (Open | Close)

116 Comments To "Was Wheaton Wrong?"

#1 Comment By JonF On January 10, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

Re: it reduces to the remarkably stupid proposition that 1 1.

Sorry about that confusing tidbit. Apparently something on the site drops the signs “” when they are used together. Consider that to have said “one is not equal to one”.

#2 Comment By JonF On January 10, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

Re: most authors seem to get a bit senile in the later components of a long series.

Perhaps we are fortunate then that Mr. Martin cannot get his act together enough to write any more “Game of Thrones” books.

#3 Comment By KD On January 10, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

1. Why doesn’t Wheaton have a right to be wrong?

2. If God doesn’t exist (as “we” all know) or true knowledge of God is impossible (as “we” all know), on what basis can anyone say Wheaton is not entitled to its own beliefs? If knowledge of God is possible, then why isn’t that knowledge taught in public schools? It would seem important if there was a God, and God was in some way knowable.

#4 Comment By cken On January 10, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

I think Wheaton represents many narrow minded, intolerant, content and comfortable, we want you to join us if you are just like us Christians. To that extent they were exactly right in doing what they did. It certainly makes me as a Christian want to distance myself from organized religions. Does anybody know where the SBNRs hold their meetings.

[NFR: Oh, come off it. You have no interest in Christianity anyway. Nobody is fooled. — RD]

#5 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 11, 2016 @ 3:06 am


Or are Jews and Muslims worshipping a “God” who simply does not exist, albeit neither worship graven images?

It’s possible they’re worshipping nothing at all. It’s also possible they’re worshipping some lesser spiritual being, good or ill. This is more or less what I’d say about Hindus, for that matter. What I do feel confident in saying is that I don’t think that the being described in Genesis and the Quran is congruent with the true God. I don’t see why you find it confusing.

Again, I don’t really think that the Old Testament describes a consistent deity. Some of the later books are fairly consistent with the Christian picture of God (they’re also the ones from which most of the prophetic material is drawn). The early books of the Old Testament, not so much.

What is unsound is not that some opportunistic Calormene cynics would try to conflate “Tashlan.” What was truly abominable, if well intended, was to introduce that an idol, a work made by men’s hands, might really be an actual Manichaean Bad God, albeit subordinate in power to the Emperor Over The Sea.

The real-life model for the Calormenes appears to be various Phoenician and Assyrian deities. And you’re way underestimating the role that Christianity (of both orthodox and heterodox flavours) gives to the devil here. There may not be a lot of people who purport to worship Satan, but there have certainly plenty of civilizations that worshipped deities that Christians (and before them, the Jews) considered to be demonic. Start with the Canaanites and Moloch.

I think the devil is a very, very powerful being indeed, and it’s well within his power to talk to Muhammad and convince him to start a religion. In my more pessimistic moments I’m tempted to think that most humans who think they’ve been speaking to God are actually describing the devil. The Calvinist picture of God, for example, is one that I find just about as alien as the Islamic one. (Not coincidentally, The Last Battle is one of my favourite C. S. Lewis writings).

#6 Comment By ADCWonk On January 11, 2016 @ 8:39 am

“An Orthodox Jewish university that excluded Gentiles from its faculty has good reason for doing so”

Do they? Just to clarify: no Orthodox Jewish university that I am aware of has a restriction like that for faculty that teach secular subjects.

Just correcting the record.

Granted, here, the faculty member in question was indeed making a theological statement.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 11, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

For the record, I do find The Last Battle worth re-reading, like all the Narnia stories. Right now A Horse and His Boy is my favorite, but as with many authors, there is no beating the first story written (which is not the first story in the final ordering of the series).

We are never going to agree — which is the foundation of the First Amendment — but my conception remains, there is one God, who created all that is seen and unseen. Evil is the absence of the presence of that God, not a positive, willful force for itself. People have had various conceptions of that God, and various fanciful notions (some quite malevolent) that don’t even contemplate such a God. We can sort out certain notions as quite likely to be True, others as plausible, others as unlikely, but we’ll never know for sure until we reach the other side.

I doubt that there is a being who delights in human sacrifice, but human beings without God have developed complex mythologies that do require it, and I have no hesitation about suppressing such cults. I don’t know if Muhammad had real revelations from God or one of his Holy Angels, but I think Muhammad sincerely believed that he had.

I agree that the later Old Testament prophets are more appealing, but I attribute that to the fact the God was speaking to a more mature culture, more ready to receive a more advanced revelation. That means I feel free to discount the literal, empirical, content of a good deal of Deuteronomy and Leviticus as applicable to life today.

To say that the Jewish god and the Christian god are two different beings… requires rejecting a good deal of Jesus, as well as Paul. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, and described the God of the Jews, of the Old Testament, as his Father. Paul said that gentiles and Jews were joint heirs of the promise because of Jesus, not that Christians (of whatever ancestry) had a different promise.

#8 Comment By HenryC On January 11, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

Whether Wheaton is holding Hawkins to a double standard is entirely up to her contract, which I have not read.

#9 Comment By Robert Levine On January 11, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

To recap: none of this means that Dr. Larycia Hawkins was treated fairly by Wheaton in this case. I am not in a position to say.

Then how could you possibly be in a position to say whether or not Wheaton was “wrong”? For a Christian institution, how can the issue of fairness (perhaps “justice” would be a better word) not be the most important consideration?

Was Wheaton wrong legally? It depends on facts not in evidence; no one questions that Wheaton has a conditional right to consider questions of belief when hiring and firing, but the issues of due process and whether or not race or gender played a role are important as well. (The question of whether there was donor pressure to fire her, as has been alleged, could matter, as animus on the basis of race or gender is far more likely there than in the adminstration that hired her in the first place.)And, of course, any contractual language will matter as well.

Was Wheaton wrong theologically? It appears a question hotly contested by very knowledgeable people.

Was Wheaton wrong in terms of institutional self-interest? It all depends on how the benefits of firing her balance the costs of doing so. I suspect the reputational costs will be large, depending on the constituency involved, but just how valuable those are to Wheaton is likely hard even for Wheaton to judge at this point. I’m sure there are many people who, like me, find Wheaton’s actions repellent and who will not forget. But Wheaton will only find out whether or not that matters down the road.

#10 Comment By MikeA On January 11, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

To ADCWonk — Wheaton requires coursework on the integration of Christian faith with the chosen field of study for each student. In my case, having a science double major, I had to take two of these courses. Might seem like a waste of time, particularly in the sciences, to some, but it was one of the reasons I chose Wheaton. Knowing that you share your faith with all of your professors and classmates (at least the essentials) is remarkably freeing.

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 11, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

Wheaton requires coursework on the integration of Christian faith with the chosen field of study for each student.

Now that would be worth a whole new thread. It is exactly what I would expect of a Christian college — that WHATEVER your field of specialization, it be integrated into your Christian faith. (If your Christian faith was based on a different set of theological premises than the Statement of Faith guiding this particular college, you might well seek a different college).

I would expect that Wheaton has a more complex and sophisticated approach to this than, e.g., teaching biology at the bachelor’s or master’s level, while denying evolutionary biology lock stock and barrel. But I would be interested in how it is done.

#12 Comment By Rich S On January 12, 2016 @ 2:42 am

It’s interesting to note the parallels between this debate, and the one over the meaning of the constitution.

As one is not able to point to God in a tangible sense, we’re reduced to describing and assigning attributes to him. This lack of objective and verifiable precision raises fun questions. If you were to assert that God actually exists in form A, then people who pray to form B are either praying to a God that doesn’t exist, or are praying to a God that does exist, but they’ve got the wrong idea about him. It’s impossible to objectively define what is the correct level of distinction between form A, and form B. The entire process is subjective. You cannot articulate this question without invoking subjective views on the topic. It cannot be settled in an objective manner.

Similarly, people have different views on what the Constitution entails. One group thinks the Constitution says and means A. Another group thinks the Constitution says and means B. Again, there’s no clear line for defining what is the “same” perception of the Constitution.

Ultimately, I’m of the mind that these debates only serve to divide. Did Wheaton gain in this process? … I don’t think so. They could’ve left it as an open question, or a question with a strong slant. Now they’ve established conflict and turmoil on something that doesn’t have a consistent guideline.

I don’t agree that this is analogous to opening it up to Roman Catholics. If there’s a reasonable ongoing debate within the Protestant community on the topic that doesn’t contravene a well established Protestant consensus , then it seems reasonable to give her the benefit of the doubt. Given the history of Protestant belief, it seems unlikely that one could ever square that circle to fit Roman Catholics in.

#13 Comment By Farooq Ali On January 12, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

Certain members of the faculty of Wheaton in recommending the termination of a tenured professor, Dr.Hawkins, display cognitive dissonance and semantic deficits unworthy of a creditable academic institution
Let us disabuse them.
The semitic languages spoken in the Middle East, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic have a shared lexicon and grammar. Jesus spoke Aramaic for the most part.
The word for god with a lower case “g” is “ilah” in all three languages.
The expression “ya ilahi!” is used as an exclamation in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu today, meaning “O my god! ” or in Americanese, “omigosh!”
The definite article is “the” in English, “el” in Hebrew and Aramaic and “al” in Arabic.
The name ascribed to “The one and only god” is God with an upper case G in English, El ilah in Hebrew and Aramaic, and Al ilah in Arabic.
This forms the grammatical contraction “Eloah” in Hebrew and Aramaic and “Allah” in Arabic.
The person purported to be Jesus on the Cross reportedly said “Eloah! Eloah! Lama sabacthani” which is translated as “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).
The word Jesus used for God, Eloah, has the same etymology as Allah.
The cardinal principle in conflict resolution is seeking commonalities rather than differences.
Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
It seems that a few persons on the faculty of Wheaton College are apparently or willfully ignorant of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.
Asymmetric warfare by a group motivated by religious polemic – the IRA – plagued Ireland for three hundred years.
Jesus advocated separation of church and state: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 20-22).
Res ipsa loquitur.

#14 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 12, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

The word Jesus used for God, Eloah, has the same etymology as Allah.
The cardinal principle in conflict resolution is seeking commonalities rather than differences.

Behold, we have almost a perfect distillation of the intellectual bankruptcy of cultural liberalism.

Who cares about conflict resolution? Since when did conflict resolution have anything to do with the topic at issue here? I thought the argument was first of all to test an intellectual hypothesis, and second of all to preserve the purity of the Christian religion, however we might personally define that. In the first case, the falsificationist approach to knowledge is that if you’re trying to test a hypothesis, you don’t look for evidence of its truth, you look for evidence of its falsity. (I have some problems with Popper, falsification, hypothesis testing as the only valid way to do science, but still, looking for evidence contrary to your hypothesis is at least as important as looking as evidence for it, in order for you to weigh the two). In the second case, if you are concerned about maintaining the integrity and boundaries of whatever your religion is, your first instinct should be to try to look for differences, not similarities. In both cases, we’re led to the conclusion that your approach to weighing the similarities and differences of Christianity and Islam is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Having said that, you then resort to some red herrings about etymology, which are hilariously relevant. All you’ve done is demonstrate that Arabophone Muslims and Arabophone Christians use the same word when referring to their deity, and that it’s cognate with the Syriac and Hebrew words. That should surprise exactly…..no one. It’s almost tautologically true. It doesn’t mean that English-speaking Christians, Wiccans and Hindus are praying to the same entity when they all invoke ‘God’, does it? (They might be, but you certainly can’t prove it from linguistics).

#15 Comment By A. G. Phillbin On January 13, 2016 @ 12:56 am

Two things: first, we can establish the answer to your headline question to be a definitive “YES, Wheaton was wrong,” and wrong because their actions were politically motivated. It also seems that Prof. Hawkins wearing of the hijab was also politically motivated, specifically by the local politics of Wheaton, Illinois, where an Islamic Center has established itself in a former church building. Your colleague, Alan Jacobs, has written the following article
about the fallout from this situation, including a fake website purporting to be from the Islamic Center in Wheaton, and advocating violence,
and apparently even attacking individual Christians seen to be friendly towards Wheaton’s Moslems. [10]
I leave it to you and your readers to make their own judgments after reading for themselves. This fight over theological doctrine apparently has local origins far below the level of theological debate.

Secondly, I didn’t have high hopes for you being correct on this issue, if only because your “conditional defense” of Wheaton’s actions was a misnomer, based upon a logical fallacy. A defense of their actions, conditional or otherwise, would not have been preceded by a statement that you had insufficient information to judge the substance of the decision to fire Hawkins. That is not a defense, but a justification only for reserving judgment. If you defend an action, you defend it’s substance, not the mere right to carry out said action. I think you were too eager to defend the “rights” of a Christian institution to police it’s boundaries to make that distinction.

#16 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 15, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

Yes, Wheaton was wrong.

1) They are arbitrarily firing a tenured professor, and they are doing so in a manner which shows that they don’t give a fig for academic freedom. Doing so without crystal clear evidence of a crystal clear violation of a crystal clear larger policy shows that tenure at Wheaton means nothing. That is going to (deservedly) devastate their academic reputation.

2) Theologically, they are incoherent, and vastly hypocritical, since they’ve taken plenty of money and endowed plenty of buildings and heard plenty of sermons from Protestants advancing the exact same argument about God as Dr. Hawkins.

Since those invocations were Just Peachy but hers is, somehow, a tenure-revoking offense, they just show themselves to be petty and small-minded and vindictive-to-a-fault on behalf of their complaining students.

3) Wheaton’s behavior makes the administrations of Harvard and Yale look like profiles in courage. That’s an absolutely devastating example for a college with pretentions to academic integrity to be offering.

The end result of this is that the Wheaton administration look like petty, vindictive, academically unserious people who flat-out hate the Muslims around them. Because that’s what all the evidence argues that they are.

Heckuva job.