Crisis of Faith Statements
Less than a year after Cedarville University hired theologian Michael Pahl, administrators relieved the associate professor of his teaching duties.
The issue at stake? A historical Adam and Eve, a debate that dates back to Augustine and has recently cropped up at evangelical schools such as Calvin College and Reformed Theological Seminary. But what appears new in Cedarville's situation is the trustees' requirement that faculty hold particular beliefs for particular reasons.
Pahl affirms the Ohio school's doctrinal statement (recently augmented by trustees via theological white papers) regarding human origins, but his beliefs are based on a literary reading of Genesis 1 and 2.
"I hold to a historical Adam and Eve, though not on exegetical grounds," Pahl wrote in his defense to trustees, which CT obtained. "My reasons are more theological in nature…." Later, when explaining his take on Paul's use of Adam and Genesis, Pahl stated, "Once again we are in an area of academic freedom as the doctrinal statement does not mandate specific exegesis of specific biblical passages."
Yet Cedarville administrators concluded that the theologian "is unable to concur fully with each and every position" of its doctrinal stance, according to an official statement they released with Pahl.
"It doesn't make sense," said Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. "It does damage to a college atmosphere to pretend there's no sensible diversity of opinion among Christians."
Last year, Calvin College experienced similar debate when its board of trustees investigated tenured professors of religion Daniel Harlow and John Schneider after they published controversial articles that questioned the existence of a historical Adam. Both professors were accused of violating the confession of the affiliated Christian Reformed Church; the professors countered that their deans and provost had approved plans to publish their work.
Schneider retired to pursue his research, and Harlow's employment was not terminated. But questions of confessional adherence and scholarly research linger, said David Hoekema, chair of the philosophy department at Calvin. "Those are hard issues," he said. "We are working [to] clarify what for us are things we can explore freely and things that are not open for challenge."
Many Christian schools now expect their faculty scholars to produce original research in much greater quantities than in the past, said Indiana Wesleyan University's Todd Ream, editor of Beyond Integration: Interdisciplinary Possibilities for the Future of Christian Higher Education.
"By virtue of sheer volume," he said, "these kinds of questions concerning faith statements and academic freedom are likely to emerge with greater frequency than in previous generations."
Yet based on university bylaws, trustees likely are not obligated to consult with faculty when trying to clarify doctrinal tenets, said Hoekema, who coauthored a 2009 American Association of University Professors report regarding Cedarville's 2007 firing of tenured Bible professor David Hoffeditz. He recalls previous instances in which trustees imposed "documents of ambiguous force" upon faculty, though none as formal as Cedarville's recent white papers.
Cedarville faculty were to understand the white papers simply as part of the doctrinal statement, according to academic vice president Tom Cornman. "We're not attempting to say these define orthodoxy," he said. "These define our identity within orthodoxy."
Christian historian George Marsden says this type of situation is perennial. In cases where two or more parties both affirm a statement and still have different interpretations of what that statement really intends, trustees may try to "rein the faculty in," he said.
But Joe Ricke, professor of English at Taylor University and author of an essay published inThe Christian College Phenomenonentited "The Hesitants Among Us: The Tightrope Act of Christian Scholarship," says it does not work to say that white papers simply restate positions implied in a doctrinal statement.
"If that's really true, you don't need a white paper," he said.
However, times may arise when faith statements actually need clarification or revision, Ream says. Just as important as the content of any revisions, he says, is the manner in which they are generated.
"In essence, they should arise initially from significant stakeholders in the community and then be brought to relevant members of the larger community for their input and approval," he said.
Hoekema agrees. "These are questions of interpretation," he said. "Whether you're in a Lutheran or Catholic institution, or a Baptist or Pentecostal college," he said, "people whose academic specialty bears on these questions should not just be permitted, but should be encouraged to raise questions to keep the debate going."
Editor's note: This article has been updated and expanded.