Statements of faith

January 11th, 2016

Statements of faith are common in Christian educational institutions. How they are used speaks more loudly than what they say. Much of what is happening in the Wheaton-Hawkins situation bears this out.

I attended and served an institution that has a statement of faith. I continue to believe that such statements are useful internally and externally in establishing institutional identity. A good statement of faith is a sign that a school has done the work necessary to describe its nature and mission, both to itself and to the wider community.

Within the context of identity, statements of faith should predominantly function to encourage conversation. With respect to prospective faculty, conversations will certainly include an institution’s statement of faith. As a seminary vice president for 12 years, some of my richest moments with prospective faculty came as we talked about the seminary’s statement of faith and how a person’s academic discipline contributed to it.

But a good statement of faith should also encourage conversations with current colleagues. Recurring conversations can keep a statement of faith connected with ongoing and updated interdisciplinary knowledge, thus preserving the “living document” nature of it, rather than relegating it to the status of a document “chisled in stone” and archived for undescribed use at an undetermined time in the future against unknown persons.

The dynamic nature of statements of faith must be viewed with humility because they always exist as incomplete affirmations within the larger reality of Mystery. The can never say it all. Furthermore, they exist within the historic development of faith, which has afforded different groups in the Christian tradition the opportunity to nuance doctrines in more than one way. Consequently, statements of faith should be used primarily to create conversations, not to execute judgment or enact punishment.

This does not mean that “anything goes” in relation to statements of faith. Some things will not pass muster. But that is precisely why conversations are essential. We cannot know in advance of talking with each other all that is going on. When statements of faith are used primarily as juridical documents, they have the potential to do harm because they can legitimize bypassing conversation, serving instead as codifications to immediately identify alleged violators and then justify swift and severe actions against them. Due process is violated when statements of faith are used to level complaints that are made without first speaking (usually in multiple venues over a period of time) with the person in question.

Reports over the weekend from Time and Religion News Service pose significant questions that at the very least raise doubts about the process thus far. I can only pray that there have been substantive and sustained conversations (not merely written/juridical interaction) with Dr. Hawkins. But I know that is not always the case.

In my own experience over the years, I have been erroneously spoken of and written about by people who never spoke with me for a single minute before making and communicating their judgments. They simply assumed that their long-distance and impersonal evaluations of me were100% correct — assessments they formed in their own minds and with no personal contact.

In the academy, where “scholarly credibility” means (among other things) being careful to do your research through engagement with key persons and ideas, the juridical use of statements of faith goes against the very commitments we make as academics to our discipline and to scholarship itself, to say nothing of our Christian commitment to exercise the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships with one another.

In the Wheaton-Hawkins situation, it is likely that, at some point, the accrediting agencies overseeing the school will have to determine if the institution has properly used its statement of faith in relation to Dr. Hawkins. This will be a telling decision with respect to the future meaning of academic freedom in a religious institution. But more than that, it will revisit what it means to practice life together in Christian higher education — whether the environment will be more that of a community or a courtroom.

Until we know more, I will simply state my belief that when statements of faith are used to inspire conversations, edification is possible all around. But when they are used to exact retribution, then only the wielders are safe.

Steve Harper is the author of “For the Sake of the Bride” and “Five Marks of a Methodist.” He blogs at Oboedire.

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