Follow-Up on Bryan College–And for All Christian Colleges and Schools

Posted on May 22, 2014 by

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It looks like Bryan College is in the news again, this time in an article of May 20 in the New York Times.  Congratulations Bryan.  You now have equaled Cedarville University for the number of times you have been in the “Gray Lady.”  But to the serious issues raised.  Again, the hubub centers on the clarification (or, as the opponents call it, the addition) to the college’s doctrinal statement concerning creation. The Times quotes the entire section, then mentions the clarification to the effect that Adam and Eve were historical figures.  The objections have certainly arisen, as they usually do when this kind of issue comes up.  The usual complaints include “violation of academic freedom” and “unscientific.”  These are I think the crux of the matter.  

Let’s take academic freedom first.  Unfortunately the term has become a buzzword used against anyone in an academic setting who might dare to suggest that something ought not to be taught as truth.  At least it is used unless the “violator” happens to be a theological or a political conservative.  But aside from that, notice I said it was used against anyone who would suggest that some idea is being put forth as truth.  I know of no one (though I am sure there are a few) who would try to forbid teaching of “all sides” of an issue.  It is whether all sides have an equal claim to be true that is the real issue here.  Do all sides of a given issue have an equal claim to truth?  One might say, yes, in some situations, for example, when we really don’t know much about some particular or don’t have enough information.  Perhaps we can give equal credibility to the question of whether World War II was shortened by the dropping of the atomic bomb.  But if we raise the stakes a bit, we run into trouble.  Let us say my Christian college believes that that Jesus Christ is God.  Either that proposition is true or it is not.  We could argue about it and allow not only teaching of the various historical views, but also teaching that Jesus was not God as true.  But why would any college that defines itself as Christian allow that view to be taught as true?  To allow complete academic freedom actually undermines and destroys the nature of the college as Christian.  Of course that is a pragmatic argument.

But more than that, there is a basic epistemological argument.  The truth of a proposition can be endlessly debated, amounting to a sort of infinite regress or a simple dialectic (“back and forth”).  Debates like that usually appeal to empirical reason–evidence.  But evidence cannot offer a necessary foundation, which one has to have to avoid infinite regress or skepticism.  A foundation, a criterion, has to be found.  Christians have asserted special revelation, Scripture, as their foundation, and for good reasons.  It can be shown that any other foundation cannot coherently explain the world (the term is used broadly).  All other possible epistemological foundations then are to be rejected–though not all epistemological methods, as we shall see–as they cannot answer any of the basic worldview questions without self-contradiction (or infinite regress).  Now one can choose a foundational starting point other than Scripture, and live with the contradictions.  But contradictions ought to be acknowledged.  Moreover, special revelation then also has to be respected, at least from a logical standpoint, unless one is willing simply to give in to emotional arguments.  It is simply not true then that a Christian college ought to accept what is incoherent by its own standards.  If others wish to allow an intellectual free for all, then that is their prerogative, but they have no rational grounds for criticizing the college resting its intellectual superstructure on the foundation of special revelation.

One may at this point object that even if Scripture is the foundation, it must still be interpreted, and that reasonable minds may reach differing conclusions on any given text.  I concede that to a point, but not infinitely.  Meaning first of all is not infinitely varied. Moreover, a text does not even have more than one meaning, objectively speaking, except either where the writer tells us so or where we can show that the text was intended to have a dual meaning.  Nor can dual meanings be contradictory as that would be irrational. So if two interpreters come to contradictory conclusions on meaning, one must be wrong.  Then it is objected that we just cannot know which is the correct meaning.  In some cases that is true.  But in most cases it is not and we have been enabled by the equipping of God Himself to discover almost all of those meanings.  And so it seems a bit irrational to say we ought to be open to any possible, plausible, or even implausible meanings on grounds of freedom.  Again, they can be taught as alternatives, but in the end, one must make a choice as to the best meaning and not hold all possible knowledge in skeptical suspension–which, by the way only harms students.

My aim has been to address those who believe academic freedom has to be absolute.  It cannot be or we will be forced to adopt a Pyrrhonian skeptical approach to everything, holding all knowledge as indeterminate.  Suspension of belief is antithetical to a Christian mindset.  

To end, I will clarify that I do not reject empirical approaches to knowledge.  They are valuable, even indispensable.  It would be absurd to argue that Scripture gives answers literally to every question–What is 2 + 2?  How do atoms work?  What do genes do?  And on and on.  However, once one has postulated a particular proposition to be called “knowledge” and tested it, then that supposed knowledge must be brought under the light of the principles of special revelation to assess its consistency with Scripture itself.  Empiricism cannot actually judge Scripture at the metaphysical level.  Nor can rationalism.  Nor can intuition.  All conclusions derived from any of those epistemological approaches must be understood (or rejected) within the parameters of Scripture.

Finally, of course there is a difference between those elements of a doctrinal statement which have to be taken as core beliefs and those that are debatable.  But let’s be careful in setting ourselves up as judges of those distinctions.  On the issue of the historical existence of Adam and Eve, I think it is pretty clear that that is an implication of the Genesis narrative.  Therefore, it is a non-negotiable.  I ask that those who react to a Christian college actually enforcing its doctrinal statement to be careful.  They might be cutting the ground from beneath their own beliefs.  

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