Academic Freedom and the Bible: Different Views in the Churches of Christ
As a professor in a Christian University, I am committed to the right of every individual to study the Bible for himself/herself—not be slaves of the opinions of others. We are obligated to listen to God, through studying the Bible, praying for His help in understanding what it says, and drawing only such conclusions as are warranted by adequate and relevant evidence.
Although I do not subscribe to the claim for absolute academic freedom in Christian universities, I do believe there is room for a responsible academic freedom. The pluralism that prevails in our society demands that public education exercise academic freedom that reflects the variety in the society that supports public education. This should be done by allowing a fair and balanced presentation of leading ideas and not favoring some while denying others the right of expression. Teachers should never be free to state godless ideas while Christians are denied equal right to also state their ideas. Neither should they be free to force Christian (atheistic, Islamic, Buddhist, etc.) beliefs upon others. But, the pluralism of ideologies held by those who support public education in a democracy demands that all should have equal representation.
Since the constituency from which Christian institutions get their students and their financial support are committed to basic Judeo-Christian ideology, the pluralism among them is not so broad as within society in general. Therefore, the academic freedom should not be as broad as in public education. However, for the reasons I shall state below, there is an undeniable and unavoidable pluralism among the supporters of Christian education and among and within churches of Christ. This pluralism must be acknowledged and a certain level of academic or ideological freedom must be permitted among us, in educational institutions and churches.
Likewise, for the reasons given below, the church must recognize the appropriateness and the inevitability of some pluralism of views among its members. We can be non-denominational only if we avoid demanding conformity to a particular set of conclusions or traditional views. Such is no less than forcing distinguishing doctrines and articles of faith—i.e., denominationalism. We have historically advocated going back to the “Bible only” for our beliefs and practices, not to any particular person or group’s view of what the Bible teaches. This is the only way we can be non-denominational. To require conformity to what any person or group concludes is nothing short of the traditionalism and denominationalism common to both Catholicism and Protestantism. To demand conformity to predetermined conclusions or traditional views, rather than to encourage an unfettered study of the Bible, strikes a deathblow to efforts to restore New Testament Christianity and to non-denominational Christianity. No one generation has the right to bind its conclusions on subsequent generations, and no one and no group within any generation has the right to bind their conclusions on others within their generation.
For the following reasons, diversity in understanding—even among people who use the Bible as our only guide–not what others conclude or traditional views about the Bible–is inevitable and unavoidable. 1) We are people with finite minds seeking to understand the infinite mind of God as it is revealed in the Bible. For this reason, it is unlikely that even the most honest and objective among us will ever be certain that we understand everything perfectly, and that all of our conclusions are absolutely right. This is true in spite of the fact that biblical truth is absolute and objective–and is subject to being understood. 2) We are endowed with different levels of intellectual ability to understand or interpret what we investigate. Consequently, we shall always differ in our conclusions. 3) We come from varied cultural and religious traditions. Even when we try feverishly to be objective, we are never able to divorce ourselves completely from the feelings and assumptions that affect our critical and interpretive powers. 4) Christians represent infinite levels of spiritual maturity. Some are babes; others are relatively mature; yet others are at various levels in between. Therefore, since our level of spiritual maturity affects our conclusions, we draw a variety of conclusions.
A good method of Bible study and adherence to sound principles of Bible study, can strain out cultural biases and honest misunderstandings. However, false concepts are resistant to change, so previous feelings and assumptions affect both what the evidence seems to support and our reasoning upon the evidence toward conclusions based on the evidence. Thus, diversity in conclusions results.
This is not to say that truth is relative, but that our understanding of absolute truth is relative to the influences of our learning history, culture, feelings, present circumstances, associates, etc. This does not mean that we cannot know truth. It means that we must always use a sound method of Bible study and sound principles of interpretation in our search for truth. It means that, just as the grace of Christ alone makes us acceptable to God, our practical demonstration of God’s grace is the only way we can accept each other.
The very nature of the process of critical thinking, problem solving, and drawing conclusions produces pluralism in thinking about many issues and problems dealt with in the Bible. Conclusions are based on available evidence. When we have abundant evidence, it is still possible that some crucial evidence is missing. Often, even what we view as evidence and what we ignore or dismiss as non-evidence is determined by our unconscious biases. Both the absence of relevant evidence that was ignored or the presence of irrelevant evidence that was noted lead to unwarranted conclusions and false views. Even if we have all of the evidence, we must interpret the evidence. Intellect, academic background, culture, level of spiritual maturity, our religious traditions, and the level of our commitment to our culture and religious traditions all affect our powers of reasoning and interpretation. The level of our commitment to truth also largely affects how we treat evidence. Consequently, we have no promise that our reasoning on the evidence will not be faulty.
Because of the above reasons, and perhaps others, there is no way to avoid pluralism or variety in thinking, even among Christians who are committed to Christ and His word exclusively. It was because God foreknew the imperfection of man (i.e., imperfect understanding, imperfect will, and imperfect moral action) that He prepared a perfect Son as a sacrifice for our sins. Only through this one and only plan for forgiveness could He be both just and merciful—forgive our sins and have fellowship with us and still be true to His nature.
Both Christianity and the process of education demand that this pluralism be recognized and an adequate amount of academic freedom allowed to accommodate it. Both education and Christianity are committed to the pursuit of truth. Truth can only be discovered by seeking and interpreting evidence and by screening conclusions through the crucible of prayerful analysis and critical evaluation. Thus, the statement of varying views and the evidence for these views and an honest attempt to consider opposing views are essential to the both education and Christianity. Those who state views with which we may not always agree, and prod us into reevaluating our conclusions and actions, render a great service to the church and Christian education. They help to keep us from becoming tradition-bound as others are. If we are to restore or duplicate the Christianity of the New Testament, we must continually look critically at our ideas and actions to see where we are. After discovering where we are, we must study the Bible to see where we ought to be—comparing what we think and practice with what the Bible teaches. Then we must face the issue of what we must change to be true to Christ and His word.
No generation has a right to bind its conclusions on any subsequent generation, and no one in any generation has a right to bind his conclusions on any one else of his generation. We must grant all people the freedom to go back to the Bible and base their beliefs on the evidence discovered by direct and independent Bible study.
There is an understandable fear that without strict controls over what teachers and students believe we will fall victim to all kinds of extreme views. I believe that there are some controls that must be implemented to avoid extreme departures from truth. (1) Truly care what the Bible says. (2) Be committed to the Bible as the Word of God and read it to do it. (3) Believe that there is absolute truth and that what the Bible says is the ultimate in absolute truth. (4) Be committed to the search for truth. 5. Believe that truth is attainable. (6) Be willing to draw only such conclusions as are supported by adequate relevant evidence, whether we like such necessary conclusions or not. 7. Accept the fact that truth is objective—i.e., recognize that our personal history, feelings, needs, and thinking do not affect or change truth.
There are some issues discussed among members of the churches of Christ on which there are a variety of honest and good-faith views. On such issues, there is pluralism in the thinking of the constituency of our Christian colleges and universities—and within congregations of the church. Therefore, we must allow academic freedom that reflects this pluralism. The only other alternative is to give up our call for people to go back to the Bible and let it be their only guide, and rather demand conformity to traditional or official views; give up our claim to being non-denominational and admit that we are as bound to our tradition as Catholics and Protestants are to theirs; give up our efforts to restore New Testament Christianity and accept the traditional religion of our fathers.
William T. (Bill) Lambert, EdD
11 June 1992 (rev. Dec., 2013)