Monday, November 5, 2012

Reflections on the Firing of Michael Pahl from Cedarville University

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.  ~St. Paul (Galatians 5:13-15)
Well, it has happened again. As was the case with Anthony Le Donne last spring at Lincoln Christian University, theologian Michael Pahl has, after only one year of employment, been dismissed from his post at Cedarville University in Ohio. What, you may ask, was Dr. Pahl's offense? Apparently, if the university's public statement is to be believed, because "he is unable to concur fully with each and every position of Cedarville University's doctrinal statement." You see, in his short book, The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis's Stories and Revelation's Visions, Pahl argues, as two of his students have admirably summarized, "that the creation stories of Genesis 1-2 are ancient Israelite cosmogonies, narratives written to tell of the origins of the cosmos and explain why things are the way they are. As ancient cosmogonies, they are not to be interpreted as literal historical accounts in the modern sense, but on their own terms, as bold alternatives to all other origin accounts of their day, 'describing the one true God, his work in the world, and his purpose for humanity and the created order' (Pahl 2011, 12)." 

Well, as I like to say, "of course" (see N. T. Wright's take on the matter here). Pahl makes it clear that he ascribes to the historicity of Adam and Eve, but does so on theological grounds rather than on the basis of the exegesis of Genesis 1-2. Even though, as the university recognizes (!), "Dr. Pahl’s orthodoxy and commitment to the gospel are not in question, nor is his commitment to Scripture’s inspiration, authority and infallibility," his interpretation of the Bible's first two chapters  even though it does not affect his theological views about God, creation, or the Adam-Christ structure of Paul's soteriology  has been deemed injurious to "the best interest's of [the university's] constituency at this time" by "the University Administration and Trustees."

I wish I could say I am surprised by this development, but of course I am not. Recent years have witnessed a veritable flood of controversy at Evangelical institutions regarding such issues as Genesis (protology), the Historical Jesus, and the New Perspective on Paul. And such controversies are not new, as Roger Olson reminded us back in September with a valuable post entitled "Evangelical Inquisitions."  As a young seminary student, I vividly recall a certain professor railing against New Testament scholar Murray Harris for his supposed "denial" of Christ's "physical" resurrection, only to realize later that said professor had tendentiously (mis)read Harris's teaching on that issue in his book, Raised Immortal. My first experience of the Evangelical Theological Society (of which I remain a member) was an annual convention in the early 1980s when Robert Gundry was, for all practical purposes, forced to resign from the society because of his views of the genre and historicity of the Gospel of Matthew. As much as I disagreed (then and now) with Gundry's views on Matthew, even at that early stage in my development I realized the pathetically low level of theological and critical acumen demonstrated by the naysayers bent on removing him from their ranks.

The common thread in most of these controversies is the matter of biblical authority or, as most of the relevant institutions would prefer, "inerrancy." More to the point, the matter is not inerrancy per se (to which I heartily subscribe), but to how "inerrancy" should be articulated and what ramifications a proper view of inerrancy has on the interpretation of individual biblical texts. I would maintain that inerrancy plays a minor, if any, role in such matters. It is at best unfruitful to claim that a commitment to biblical inerrancy likewise commits one to certain interpretations of biblical texts (see Olson's blog post for trenchant examples of such). For to make such a claim is a manifest failure to come to grips with the Bible we actually  have (as opposed to the Bible we assume we have or wish we had) and to impose hermeneutical a prioris on the interpretation of ancient, non-western texts. Hermeneutical naivete may be bliss for the uneducated, but it is an inexcusable standpoint from which a supposed academic institution can impose order on its "unruly" academicians.

Of course, the often-unmentioned complicating factor is the presence of denominational confessions and institutional doctrinal statements, which expressly delimit what may be considered institutionally legitimate theological beliefs. Thus, for instance, an Arminian theologian should not be surprised to find him- or herself removed from teaching responsibilities at Westminster Seminary. Nor should an amillennialist be surprised at being fired from Dallas Seminary. Indeed, part of what got the estimable Bruce Waltke into trouble at Reformed Seminary was his apparent conflict with the Westminster Confession, which expressly affirms that God created everything in the space of six days (IV.1) (as an aside, I always get a kick out of my strictly Reformed friends who, having swallowed the camel of the massive Westminster Confession, effectively strain out the gnat of my alma mater's premillennialism, which they view as a prime example of nit-picking, misplaced priorities).

Presumably, Pahl's difficulties stem from a perceived disconnect between his published views and article 4 of Cedarville's Statement of Faith, which affirms "We believe in the literal 6-day account of creation, that the creation of man lies in the special, immediate, and formative acts of God and not from previously existing forms of life. Genesis 1:26,27; 2:7-9,16,17; 3:1-19." (Importantly, the university's doctrinal statement begins, not with the doctrine of God, but with an affirmation of biblical inspiration and inerrancy  foundationalist epistemology at its most transparent). I am in no position to say for sure, but I assume his view of the literary character and purpose of Genesis 1-2 is considered to in be in conflict with a strict reading of at least the first part of the school's doctrinal statement. But what I don't quite understand is how, if that is the case, he was ever hired in the first place. For, you see, his book was in print before he started teaching at Cedarville in 2011. Furthermore, the official reference to the decision of the "trustees and administrators" of the university for the benefit of their "constituency" raises massive red flags in my mind.  As clearly as they could have stated it while remaining at the level of implication, the school has, for all practical purposes, admitted that this firing was a political decision. To be more specific, the transparent motivation for Dr. Pahl's dismissal was to allay suspicions that the school had gone "soft" on "liberalism," and thus to assure the continued financial support of its all-important constituency who have, by virtue of their financial resources, become the de facto arbiters of what is acceptable and unacceptable to be taught at the college. And that, to put it bluntly, is to put the proverbial cart before the horse.

I am what may be called a "creedal Christian." By that I mean that I take seriously the truth claims of the great ecumenical creeds like the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and the Chalcedonian Symbol, and confess them ex animo. I also respect the great Protestant Confessions, such as the Augsburg (Lutheran), the 39 Articles (Anglican), and Westminster (Presbyterian). I have likewise taught at two institutions with rather developed statements of faith. At the same time, however, I am more than a little cognizant of the fact that the more detailed a confession is, and the more theologically partisan its articulated distinctives are, the less likely it is to warrant absolute, let alone blind, loyalty. I am clearly a theologian who operates in the Reformed tradition, but I find it inconceivable that any trained biblical scholar could give whole-hearted consent to the totality of the Westminster Confession, itself a compromise document written before the advent of the modern biblical studies in which I was educated. After all, what may have seemed the obvious interpretation of Paul in light of the struggles of the Reformation could at least potentially be seen, upon further reflection and critical distanciation, to have been only a contextualization of his teaching instead. Even more does this relate to the matter of the interpretation of Genesis 1-2, which certainly is capable of different (though still orthodox) readings in light of subsequent archaeological and scientific discoveries. Even Benjamin Warfield, the great Presbyterian theologian at Princeton a century ago and the de facto articulator of the modern doctrine of biblical inerrancy, was at least open to Darwin's theory of biological evolution. And no one, to my knowledge, has ever accused the great Warfield of unorthodoxy.

What I am trying to say is that confessions are good things, but that difficulties can often surface in regard to demands for strict subscription to them, particularly in relation to matters that few would categorize as "die-for doctrines." Even the Cedarville administration admits that Dr. Pahl's orthodox credentials and commitment to the gospel and to Scripture are impeccable. So I ask, with Mike Bird, "What prey-tell is the flipping problem?" The problem, as I see it, is an "Evangelicalism" that utilizes its confessions (along with "Oral Torah" corollaries) as sociological boundary markers in order to consolidate, exercise, and maintain  power and the financial purse strings that come with such control. Some people, it seems, are simply deemed too dangerous to be allowed a continued platform.

Of course, the powers-that-be will retort that the issue is one of "truth." Certainly, "truth" is to be sought, defended, and maintained. Anyone who has ever listened to one of my lectures can vouch for my concern for truth and the humble (that is the operative word) pursuit of it. But all too often, in my experience, the quest for truth is short-circuited by the powerful as the voices of inconvenient truth-seekers (aka "professors") are silenced at the altars of tradition and money. And this has not only had seriously negative consequences for the careers and lives of the professors involved  many of whom have, for all practical purposes, given up everything to study for the cause of Christ  but also for the public witness of the church. For the method of theological inquisition and undeserved professional exile is hardly the way of 
love enjoined by Jesus and extolled by Paul as the means by which the requirements of God's law are fulfilled. And the rivalries, dissensions, and divisions which inevitably result both manifest the operation of the "flesh" (Gal 5:20) and lead potentially to the community-destroying "devouring" against which Paul warns his Galatian converts. That, one can confidently claim, is not the Christ-honoring life of the Spirit to which we as his people are called (Gal 5:25).


  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Dr. McGahey.

    1. You are very welcome. Events such as these are a bane for the church and often devastating for those on the receiving end (and unnecessarily painful even if they wind up back on their feet).

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