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Was Wheaton Wrong?

Doctrine matters. So does doctrinal identity. Some thoughts on the Larycia Hawkins affair

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. 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 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 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 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, 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, 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. 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, 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.