Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is That So, Cedarville?

Posted by Jack

In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of news surrounding Cedarville University, my alma mater. Dismissal of faculty, the resignation of the President, the distribution of certain "white papers" to clarify doctrinal positions, and various other matters. 

As juicy as this situation may be to the hearers, I cannot speak to those issues. Despite apparent evidence, and the personal experience of friends and colleagues, I cannot definitively say that these incidents are related, connected, or otherwise part of some larger happening at the university. So, I won't discuss those matters.

(Note: I admire our friends over at Fiat Lux for committing to asking questions and having dialogue on these matters in a responsible, mature fashion. I look forward to resulting conversations.)

I can't comment on things I do not know about... but those white papers? Yeah, I read those. What was that about?

Although they have not been made public, the white papers were presented to faculty at Cedarville back in September in an apparent effort to clarify or otherwise magnify certain sections of the university doctrinal statement. They can be read here.

These papers serve to further narrow already existing doctrinal commitments. Whoever authored these papers seems to be suggesting that the one specific interpretation presented in the release is the only approved interpretation for faculty and staff to embrace. This seems like a concerted effort to silence all dissenting opinions and attach a concrete definition to some rather complicated issues. This action seems to shut out a rich history of scholarly debate and dictate against diversity of thought.

I must ask: Is that so, Cedarville?

The real threat is not diversity of opinion. The real threat is division.  

Unity does not come in the form of a sterilized, uniform society in which everyone holds the same opinion. That is not unity; it is conformity. Conformity is the enemy of a thriving community.

Also, it should be argued that when we silence or exclude dissenting voices, we do not achieve unity at all; we create division. Those with the acceptable view are in, others are out. We are building walls between each other while "unity" demands that we tear walls down.

Furthermore, in an academic setting, there must be some degree of freedom to explore ideas, consider varying interpretations, and allow room for growth, maturation, and often, adaptation of our previously-held notions.

I know it makes some people uncomfortable when I say this, but there is not one universally accepted “Biblical” interpretation of any one issue. Throughout church history, faithful, righteous, intelligent believers have approached Scripture with all the right intentions… and throughout church history, these faithful, righteous, intelligent believers have come to different conclusions on some issues.

Here are two basic approaches to unity:
1) Maintain fellowship in the midst of differing opinions, navigating those differences in love for one another and faithfulness to the Word, and coming out on the other side of those differences with a fuller understanding of God and His truth
2) Simply eliminate every dissenting opinion until the only ones left are those who agree

Differing interpretations are vital for flourishing community.  

Sometimes, God reveals Himself in the midst of dissent. Maybe two interpretations that seem to be at odds with one another really serve to balance one another out. Maybe the truth is broader than one interpretation has captured and a differing interpretation can round things out.

The issue here is not absolute truth (or absolute certainty). God’s truth is unchanging and cannot be swayed by discourse.

The issue here is the manner in which we seek that truth. Are we faithfully seeking after truth? Are we, to the best of our ability, studying Scripture with an open mind and open heart, asking God to reveal the truth to us? If so, the interpretation we come to, in the very least, qualifies for the discussion.

And many others may have that same faithful approach, yet come to differing conclusions.

When looking at a particular interpretation, perhaps it is more fruitful to ask, “Is it faithful?” rather than, “Is it correct?”

Frankly, we may not be able to tell if an interpretation is correct in every sense. But, in community, we should be able to identify whether or not an interpretation was gleaned faithfully.

Perhaps we need an epistemology (a system for truth) that is like a grain silo. It must be sturdy, strong, and unmoved by the wind. But it also must be broad, spacious, and capable of holding many similar, yet diverse grains.   

The white papers, and documents like them, seem to preclude such an option.

Strict adherence to a narrow doctrinal statement may create the illusion of unity in some settings, and it may provide comfort and familiarity in the face of tangled and complicated issues. But an “all or nothing” approach to doctrinal issues invites the danger of closing off dialogue with others in the universal Christian community. It sends the message that our view of the truth is complete and definitive, and that we have nothing more to learn from the contributions of others. It assumes that tacit agreement is the chief Christian virtue, that consistency in the minutia is more important than cohesion of the Body. Such an approach also limits our ability to gain new insight, gather new knowledge, or round out a particularly one-sided viewpoint.

And one more thing: when we all find ourselves in the consummated Kingdom of God, we will finally know Him, to the fullest extent possible by our redeemed minds. But I don't think there will be much talk about who was right and who was wrong.  


Josh said...

Well said! I always enjoy your thoughts.

Ed English said...

Having just now become privy to the "goings on" of the last several months at CU, I have recently been led to your commentary through many successive links. As an alumni, I, too, am interested in the recent events and I, too, cannot speak to the relevance or relationship of each happening to every other happening. It is with, what I feel is, the same intent that I focus my expression of opinion to the content of the recently publicized white papers.

While some have argued that the three papers are poorly written, I found them to be clear and concise. I also found them to be consistent with my personal belief regarding the stated subjects, which is why I'm intrigued by your assertion that they are divisive.

I do not claim to have cornered the market on God's truth nor do I claim to have "all the answers". I submit, though, that, aside from the many denominational differences and the plethora of interpretations, suppositions, and extrapolations on many theological issues, there has always been and continues to be a core set of beliefs across what I'll call the evangelical community. That core set of beliefs is the theological glue that not only binds us as a group of believers but also empowers us to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues upon which we disagree. It was those common beliefs which allowed me to attend Cedarville in the first place, as I did not come from a GARBC affiliate, let alone a church of any Baptist variety. But it was the differences that kept me from pursuing employment there after graduation, as I did not agree with some of the minor issues included in Cedarville's doctrinal statement.

The Bible encourages us to "rightly divide the word of truth", which I believe means to look at every passage in context, understanding the author, the audience, and the applicability to living the Christian life under grace. For example, while I fully believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God and that the creation account in Genesis occurred over a literal 6 24-hour days, I believe that there is room within the interpretation of Genesis 1:1 for largely accepted principles of physics that could account for the big bang as the "finger of God" and for an undisclosed period of time to have elapsed prior to, during, or following verse 2, which could allow for any number of possibilities of environments and organisms to have existed in some form or fashion prior to clearing the slate and beginning again in verse 3. Who knows? Perhaps the ice age was how God cleared the slate. But, in no way can I begin to concieve or believe that evolutionary theory had any bearing on how our present existence came to be.

Anyway, I said all that to say this. Christianity is based on faith. Faith is believing that certain things are true, regardless of the fact that we may not have empirical evidence to support that belief. That core set of beliefs, to which I referred earlier, is the foundation upon which Christian faith is based. Those core beliefs are what we, as Christians, must "know" to be true so that our life as Christ-followers has purpose and relevance. If we allow ourselves to believe that even one word in the Bible is not true, then all of the other words become suspect (granting that some translations do a much better job of communicating the original message than others).

I'm quite sure that all of us will be hitting ourselves in the head when we get to heaven and finally are able to comprehend all that we cannot presently understand. But, I felt the need to at least make my opinion known regarding my feelings about the applicability of the "Cedarville white papers" to that core set of beliefs that is the foundation for evangelicalism.

Julie Ayres said...

I also just found out about all this controversy, funny enough because of the email sent to alumni by the Cedarville Alumni President, Jeff Beste. I knew nothing of all the things that have transpired from 2007 until the recent resignation of Carl Ruby. I just finished googling Cedarville Problem and reading only the first 20 sites I found (to date Google brings up 175,000), it has taken me 5 hours to get to your site. I agree with what you say. I am saddened by all that has happened that has maligned and disparaged my alma mater. I hope that bringing in a new President will get the University back on track with bringing back fundamental, conservative bible professors. In my time Jack Riggs was a bastion of the Bible Department, hard to believe he is gone. I like academic freedom, I freely speak my mind often in my own Baptist church Sunday School class. I also regularly accept the loving and well-deserved correction of my fellow believers when I begin to stray down the path of bending scripture to fit my own thoughts. Iron sharpens iron. I did not read the White Papers however, reading what you said about them I can agree that narrowing does lead to division and not unity. I also fully agree that in Heaven no one will care who was right and who was wrong!