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).

Latest Issue of Southeastern Theological Review Now Available

remthologizingSummer 2013 issue of Southeastern Theological Review (STR) is now available. STR is a refereed journal of evangelical scholarship sponsored by the faculty of Southeastern Seminary. The journal’s editor is Heath Thomas, who directs the Ph.D. program and teaches Old Testament at SEBTS. This issue of STR is dedicated to interacting with Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Many readers will know that Vanhoozer is arguably the most influential evangelical theologian in North America. The guest editor for this volume of STR is Mark Bowald of Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. The table of contents is as follows:

Introduction to the Volume – Heath Thomas (pp. 1-2)

A Generous Reformer: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Place in Evangelicalism – Mark Bowald (pp. 3-9)

A Critical Appreciation of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology – Stephen J. Wellum (pp. 11-29)

Remythologizing, Projection, and Belief: A Reply to Vanhoozer – Oliver D. Crisp (pp. 31-40)

God, Plurality, and Theological Method: A Response to Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology – John R. Franke (pp. 41-51)

Honest to God, a Voice from Heaven? Communicative Theism in Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology – Fred Sanders (pp. 53-65)

Vanhoozer Responds to the Four Horsemen of an Apocalyptic Panel Discussion on Remythologizing Theology – Kevin J. Vanhoozer (pp. 67-82)

In addition to the essays, the journal contains numerous book reviews from SEBTS faculty members and other scholars including John Wilsey, Christoph Stenschke, Allen Gehring, Mark Gignilliat, Kevin Chen, Jason T. LeCureux, Marc Pugliese, Ian Rottenberg, Mark Bowald, and Randy McKinion.

We hope you’ll consider subscribing to Southeastern Theological Review.



Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (15): Christian theology aims for wisdom.

In the last installment, we noted that Christian theology strives for truth. In our Western intellectual context, we tend to equate “truth” with science-oriented knowledge. But Christian theology provides more than that sort of knowledge. It also leads one to wisdom. In fact, for two millennia, theologians have debated about what type of intellectual activity characterizes the task of theology. Should it be construed upon a scientific model (Latin, scientia) or upon a wisdom model (Latin, sapientia)? Augustine preferred sapientia to scientia, but later medieval theologians preferred scientia to sapientia. This chapter will argue that theology is indeed science, but more ultimately it is wisdom. We agree with Vanhoozer that, “Doctrine has a cognitive component . . . but the thrust of Christian doctrine is not mere knowledge, but rather wisdom.”[1] In our opinion, wisdom is the ultimate goal of theology because it includes not only the scientific aspect of knowing, but also the prudential aspect of living wisely in light of what we know. In order to flesh out this view of theology as science and wisdom, we will address both aspects of theological knowledge.

On the one hand, theology is scientific, if by scientific we mean that it is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating.[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that theology is a science because it has a defined sphere of investigation, an internal coherence, a purposive attempt to describe external reality, and a public sphere of justification.[3] Likewise, Millard Erickson writes, “(1) Theology has a definite subject matter to investigate, primarily that which God has revealed about himself. (2) Theology deals with objective matters. It does not merely give expression to the subjective feelings of the theologian or of the Christian. (3) It has a definite methodology for investigating its subject matter. (4) It has a method for verifying its propositions. (5) There is coherence among the propositions of its subject matter.”[4] Pannenberg and Erickson both argue that theology must be subject to verification, and in Pannenberg’s criteria, public justification. We agree with Pannenberg and Erickson that theology is a bona fide discipline oriented to a legitimate object and possessing appropriate methods of investigating, and in that manner science-oriented.

On the other hand, theology is wisdom-oriented. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; Ps. 111:10). As Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd have argued, the wisdom theme pervades the biblical witness.[5] Although theology is science-oriented, it is more ultimately wisdom-oriented for two reasons. First, theology is more than science because it involves a personal relationship between the knower and the known.[6] True knowledge is rooted in commitment to God. Gerhard von Rad writes, “The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity. . . . Israel attributes to the fear of God, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge. She was, in all her seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception.”[7] Indeed, theology goes beyond correct information, extending ultimately to right relationship with God. Second, theology is more than science because it seeks to equip the church to live wisely in light of its knowledge. Theology is wisdom in that it involves both true theory and right practice. David Ford writes, “[theology] asks not only about meaning, interpretation and truth but also, inextricably, about living life before God now and about how lives and communities are shaped in line with who God is and with God’s purposes for the future. In short, it is about lived meaning directed toward the kingdom of God.”[8] If one focuses on theology’s science-orientation to the exclusion of its wisdom-orientation, one warps and distorts the task of theology and hinders the mission of the church.[9]

In summary, theology is more than science because theology is missional by its very nature. Theology is centered on knowing and loving God, on being transformed by Him, and on being a light to the nations so that they also can know and love God. David Bosch writes, “Just as the church ceases to be church if it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character.”[10] God’s biblical self-revelation is the true story of the whole world, but he does not reveal this account merely for us to step back and be wowed by its elegance and power. He has given us the Bible so that we can live within its pages, allowing its missional story to shape our identities so that we can in turn take this story to the nations.

[1] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 88.

[2] This sense of the word “scientific” stems from the earliest medieval universities. I have adapted this definition from David Clark’s definition. Clark, To Know and Love God, 213.

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 326-345.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 36.

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 231-260.

[6] Ellen Charry writes, “Sapience [English, “wisdom”] includes correct information about God, but emphasizes attachment to that knowledge. Sapience is engaged knowledge that emotionally connects the knower to the known.” Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.

[7] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin (London: SCM, 1970), 67-68.

[8] David Ford, “Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (1),” in David Ford and Graham Stanton, Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (London: SCM, 2003), 4-5.

[9] David Clark notes that overly cognitive approaches to theology (1) obscure the transformational aspect of theology, which is its true purpose; (2) give the false impression that one must have a seminary degree in order to read the Bible; and therefore (3) intimidate Christians who have not formally studied theology. Clark, To Know and Love God, 240-241.

[10] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 494.