Briefly Noted: Henry Stob, Academic Freedom, and Christian Colleges

Be careful judging a book by its cover. Especially books published by evangelical presses in the seventies and early eighties. Some wonderfully good thoughts might be wedged betwixt those psychedelic split-pea-green dust jackets. Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections[1] serves to prove my point. Recently, as I was perusing the used books at a store here in Raleigh, I happened upon Stob’s book. Making my way past the front cover, I discovered a fine collection of essays on theology, philosophy, and education. One of the essays, “Academic Freedom at a Christian College,” caught my attention.

In the essay, Stob begins by describing academic institutions. As he sees it, a college or university is tasked with two things: “It is concerned to disclose the truth, and it is concerned to publish the truth. A college must be engaged in research, and it must teach. . . . the two functions belong together and, and they ought to be kept in the closest possible contact.” Both tasks are related to academic freedom, as Stob sees it: “if both are to be real there must be academic freedom: freedom of inquiry for the scholar and freedom of expression for the teacher.” But what is meant by “freedom”?

Stob rightly notes that the biblical Christian view differs from a prevalent popular view. “In the Christian view, freedom is at bottom positive in nature; it is freedom for something––freedom to obey the norms that structure human existence, freedom to do one’s duty, freedom to bow before the imperious claims of God the Lord.” Christianity thus offers––better––proclaims a view of freedom that balances liberty and restraint, freedom and subjection (p. 241).

The prevalent popular view, Stob writes, differs significantly from the biblical conception. “Freedom is generally viewed as freedom from something. This negative view dominates public discussions and is the bond of agreement even between disputants. Most pride themselves on being liberated, liberated especially from the domination of religious faith, the dictations of a sacred book, and the bonds of a dogmatic creed.” (p. 242)

With this distinction presupposed, the question remains: should there be academic freedom at a Christian college? Stob’s answer is sic et non. Professors at Christian colleges do have genuine freedom, but this freedom is conceived differently than the popular view. In a Christian college:

Scholars there are not tempted by the spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to cut themselves loose from their moorings or to remove the ground from under their feet. They claim a liberty that is anchored in the bedrock of the universe, the liberty that sets them free to survey the world sub specie aeternitatis. . . the creaturely freedom that is rooted in obedience . . . . By this freedom they know themselves to have been released from the subjectivism, the relativism, and the nihilism of the age, and set upon the only course in which true humanness can be achieved. (p. 242)

For Stob, this is the normative environment and pattern for Christian scholarship. Yet, as he notes, sometimes colleges depart from this pattern. “It happens more often than it should that fellow Christians impose undue restraints upon the college community and involve it in a spurious heteronomy.” That is, often times the churches that establish and support Christian colleges, and the professors who teach there, seek to govern the search for truth according to the idiosyncrasies of personal (or group) opinion more than the sole authority, Scripture. As Stob argues,

There must be restraint . . . but the restraint of the truth authoritatively disclosed in the sacred Scriptures. By this the scholars and teachers at a Christian college are bound. And they are bound by another thing. They are bound by the law of love, by the obligation to walk humbly with their God and considerately and self-sacrificially with their fellows. But by nothing else are they bound, and with no other yoke should they be burdened. (p. 243)

Academic freedom at the Christian college, therefore, is bounded by the churches that establish and fund them, and these boundaries should arise from an environment marked by biblical fidelity and Christian love.

Stob concludes his thoughts with a “job description” for the professorate. “Christian teachers and scholars have together undertaken a great and delicate task. They have undertaken to construe the world in categories of eternity” (p. 243). That is, Christian education, and thus those who offer this at truly Christian colleges, exists to exclaim the fundamental realities of this world, which exist because of the God who created it and yet is unseen in this world (cf. John 1:14, 18). It is “a terrifyingly responsible task” and so should be prayed for, supported, encouraged, and cultivated in those who seek to carry it out.

In conversation with Stob’s essay, I’ll limit myself to two notes. First, while Stob emphasizes the way in which denominations can create Christian college environments which are too restrictive, we should also note that denominations and boards of trustees can err also by allowing a freedom which is not appropriately bounded by biblical fidelity and confessional parameters. The founders of Harvard College, for example, wrote in 1643, “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” Yet, one notices that today Harvard’s vision and mission is, er, markedly different. Its initial mission—which was God-saturated and Christ-centered—eroded slowly, over time, because its stakeholders forsook their responsibility to guard its confessional parameters.

Second, Stob’s essay and his chosen topic—academic freedom and confessional boundaries—raise the question of whether professors can do constructive and creative work. Especially in the theological and ministerial disciplines, one might wonder if the confessions stifle creativity. In brief response, no, they do not stifle creativity. Creativity always arises within a framework of some sort; creativity of the best sort flourishes within a healthy confessional framework. In the world of evangelical theology, I think of the constructive and creative work of theologians such as Tom Schreiner (The King in His Beauty), Craig Bartholomew (Where Mortals Dwell), and Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine), each of whom composed their work in environments marked by carefully defined confessional parameters.

So be careful judging a book by its cover (I prefer to judge publishers by the covers). Stob’s essay, and his commitment to biblically-conceived academic freedom within confessional parameters, serves as a good reminder for our churches and denominational stakeholders to exercise appropriate oversight over their colleges and seminaries.

 


[1] Henry Stob, Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

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