Saturday, May 5, 2012

Another Unjust Firing: Reflections on Anthony LeDonne's Dismissal from Lincoln Christian University

"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.


  1. And sadly, the very ones that should read and learn these things ARE able to read and learn but absolutely refuse...but as was taught to me... groups reward loyalty to the group... not morality or any other virtue. Such institutions are worthy of death because they are not educational, they are not theological, they are not biblical...they remain as bastions of fundamentalism just like the mainline bastions of modernism/liberalism they were founded to combat.

  2. Very perceptive, Matt. Loyalty to the group and deference to authority are, unfortunately, often deemed more important than seeking after truth.

  3. It seems as though biblical institutions do not trust their students to make up their own minds about issues. What a great educational opportunity for a student to have two professors with opposing views. The student is then forced to use the skills in hermeneutics and seek God on their own to find what sits right with them. Of course, there are core issues that cannot be debated, but those are fewer than the mainstream fundamentalist would have us believe.

  4. Your blog is interesting, but it majors on "ain't it awful," instead on a comparison of the position taken by the guy fired with what the Word of God says. The actual fundamentals are a rather short list. If 2 profs are taking contradictory positions dogmatically, then something is wrong. It is not just a matter of who is right & who is wrong, but of asserting dogmatically something which is not clearly asserted in the Bible -- by someone (or both). It is one matter to have a list of beliefs and another to rate them on a scale of 0-10. Some items are just the best way a man has found to understand the Bible; others are clear as a bell. I imagine that when men sign doctrinal statements (more or less motivated by wanting job), there is much difference in the mind of those who sign. Some are absolutely convinced, others just consider an item their current position as a matter of probability.

    But if the leaders of a college want a certain POV taught & if the stakeholders have paid money to have that POV promulgated, I can't see great sympathy for a faculty member who has a different POV losing his job.

    1. I dare say leDonne didn't deny any fundamental of the faith. And to allow untrained lay(or trained in past generations with no updated education/learning) constituency to determine what is taught at a school is to invite institutional academic suicide. And we had better have sympathy for people fired for no reason other than that the constituency doesn't like what he or she is teaching (if, as in LeDonne's case, he has violated no confessional statement to which he was contractually bound).