"In essentials unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Here is one of those sayings—whoever the originating source may be—whose applicational validity is not universal. Of course, charity must be universally manifested, though unfortunately it all too often isn't by those who bear the name of the Christ who loved them despite their unworthiness. The rub comes in the definition of the term "essentials." Some Christians have a minimalistic definition of what constitutes "essential" Christian doctrine, what my old teacher Ed Blum used to call "die-for doctrines." Many others, particularly those who now label themselves as "Confessional Evangelicals"—ironically including those Baptists like Al Mohler whose denominations don't subscribe to a confessional document—have a more maximalist understanding of the concept. In certain contexts, e.g., in determining the suitability of candidates for ministerial office or academic appointment in "confessional" denominations like the PCA or LCMS, this is certainly appropriate. If one seeks employment in such a confessional environment, one should be expected to subscribe ex animo to the denomination's (or school's) confessional commitments. Problems arise, however, when unwritten standards—i.e., a de facto, assumed "oral Torah"—are applied without explicit warrant. And such problems are exacerbated when such implicit "standards" are applied when the standards themselves are open to serious questioning. It is in cases like this that the call for "charity" is most often ignored.
This issue reared its ugly head once again in recent weeks. Last week I discovered, via Larry Hurtado's blog, that New Testament scholar Anthony Le Donne had been removed from his teaching position at Lincoln Christian University because of his views on the historiography of the Jesus tradition articulated in his new book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Needless to say, Le Donne's positions are hardly newsworthy to anyone trained academically in New Testament studies. Nor are they scandalous to even the average Evangelical New Testament scholar. To be sure, the strident footsoldiers of academic neo-fundamentalism will object, not to mention the typical Christian laypersons on college boards whose familiarity with even conservative Gospel criticism is well-nigh nonexistent. The question is, what should Christian universities and seminaries do when issues like this arise? Unfortunately, the typical response of administrators is to take the path of least resistance, cave in to pressure, and remove the "offending party." This is what Hurtado rightly called "shameful cowardice." Today, in his own blog post on the matter, Mike Bird wrote of LeDonne's firing:
My suspicion, and it is no more than that, is that there are some folks around who just don’t get historical Jesus studies, because they have a preconceived view that the Gospels are basically the script from four independent documentaries, where journalists followed Jesus around, taking notes on what they saw, and the Gospels are the end product. Sensing pressure from this constituency, uninformed as it is, the LCU administrators capitulated to calls for the removal of Le Donne from his post. I cannot emphasize how much of a travesty this is. It is a disaster that a young up-and-coming evangelical biblical scholar could have this happen to him and it is equally tragic that a respected Christian institution would do such a thing to one of their own.LeDonne is not alone. The well-publicised dismissals of Pete Enns from Westminster Seminary because of his book Inspiration and Incarnation, and Bruce Waltke from his post at Reformed Seminary in Orlando because of his advocacy of theistic evolution, are two other cases in point (one can argue, as Carl Trueman has, that Enns's subsequent works have proved the wisdom of the decision, but what evidence is there that he held such views when teaching at WTS? is there a possible cause-effect relationship here?). Controversy over the works of N. T. Wright has resulted in the dismissal of many others, myself included, even in schools that are not confessionally Reformed, in which cases there is no justifiable theological warrant for dismissal. Compounding the problem is that the accused professors often have no realistic recourse to defend themselves. They belong to no union, and "conservative" schools often have no tenure system. Due process is often a sham, if not nonexistent. What "system" of appeal and peer review may theoretically be in place is, as one might expect in situations where everyone's job is tied to yearly contracts, usually futile because everyone is in fact dependant on the mercies of the administration for their employment. And the results of such firings can be fatal to the dismissed professor's professional career and financial well-being, particularly in cases when one's youth has passed one by.
How to deal with such inevitable matters is no easy question. One thing of which I am sure, however, is this: capitulation to pressure from one's constituency, though the easiest solution, is, as Hurtado says, the cowardly solution. Indeed, commitment to ecclesiastical confessions and school doctrinal "standards" may become idolatrous. Idolatrous deference to one's constituency is even worse if one fancies oneself a leader of a Christian academic institution. But the bottom line is this: whatever one does, "charity" should be the most important consideration if one calls oneself a Christian. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have been the case in the experience of Professor Le Donne.