Friday, December 01, 2017

Confessional seminaries

I'd like to discuss some of the moral permutations of confessional seminaries (as well as confessional colleges).

i) Confessional seminaries are justifiable, and even necessary. The purpose of a Christian seminary is to transmit the faith to the next generation. The faculty should be Christian. Moreover, students should know what to expect.

However, that general principle is subject to some caveats and complications.

ii) Suppose an applicant is hired on the basis of the institution's current statement of faith. Suppose, after he gets the job, the institution amends the statement of faith. Should he be fired if he dissents from the policy change? 

That depends. In some situations, that's clearly unfair. He wasn't hired on those terms, so he shouldn't be fired on those terms. He was hired based on a mutual understanding and agreement. To unilaterally changes the rules in the middle of the game may well be unjust. 

iii) On the other hand, because the political and theological climate changes over time, new issues may arise that weren't on the radar when the statement of faith was originally formulated. In some cases, it wouldn't be possible to anticipate those developments. In other cases, it was just understood back then that those were out-of-bounds.

So there are situations in which it's proper and necessary for a confessional institution to revise the statement of faith. I can't say in the abstract if that's good or bad, because it depends on the specifics. Warranted examples include Bryan College and Cedarville on the historical Adam. 

iv) In addition, sometimes the threat comes from the left rather than the right. Robert Gagnon lost his job because he was well to the right of his denomination and its flagship seminary. It was inevitable that this would come to a head. He was out of step with the liberal trajectory of the PC-USA. 

v) Sometimes, though, the ground can shift under faculty, not due to a formal change in the statement of faith, but due to a change in the ecclesiastical climate. Power-brokers in the denomination may exert great influence and pressure, which changes what is tolerated in practice, regardless of what is tolerated on paper. That's an unwritten code which may jeopardize the job security of faculty. 

Likewise, if the board rubber-stamps the college or seminary president, then he's a law unto himself. (But a potential check is the alumni, especially the donor base.) 

By "power-brokers," I have in mind players like Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, and Paige Patterson. 

vi) In situations like that, a professor may find himself in something of a moral bind. He has prior obligations to his dependents. So he may prevaricate about his true position if his family's financial security is threatened by ex post facto changes. 

I think lying is prima facie wrong, but there are situations where that's overridden by a higher obligation. And that distinction can be consistent with deontological ethics, viz. threshold deontology.

I have in mind situations like Dembski found himself mired in vis-a-vis Paige Patterson. 

vii) If a professor ceases to believe the statement of faith in one or more respects, then as a rule he should resign or be fired. I have no sympathy for Christian college or seminary professors who suffer an intellectual crisis of faith. By that point in their intellectual development, they should be familiar with the stock objections to Christianity, and have resolved them to their personal satisfaction.

Sometimes, though, a crisis of faith may be triggered by personal tragedy. That goes to the emotional problem of suffering rather than the intellectual problem of suffering.

In that case, I don't think they should be summarily dismissed. They must continue to teach orthodox theology. They shouldn't air their doubts with students, much less use the classroom as a platform to attack Christianity.

But according to the "church as hospital" model, I think that should be treated as much as possible as a pastoral issue, like nursing a sick patient back to health. I have in mind the situation of Gary Habermas. 


  1. Could you please link to a source regarding Gary Habermas. I was out of the Christian loop for about 11 years and am trying to play catch up.


    2. Thanks. I was thinking that maybe he had a period in his life where he expressed doubts about the resurrection and had what would be called a crisis of faith, almost as if he was a Bart D. Ehrman who found his way back.