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Christopher Rollston and Martin Luther: On Christian Academic Freedom






By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
October 2012


David Friedrich Strauss famously lost his job at the University of Zurich because his views were, shall we say, out of step with the community. Gerd Lüdemann, in more recent times, also struggled for what academics call 'academic freedom.' Peter Enns was shown the door at his school for, again, being 'out of step' with various segments of the public.

Enter Christopher Rollston. Aside from being nothing like any of the aforementioned (in terms of any sort of 'radical' viewpoints) he nonetheless finds himself in the bitter struggle for academic freedom.

In my opinion (and this is an op-ed so I am well within my rights to share my opinion just as Mr Blowers and TM Law and Robert Cargill are free to share theirs), Rollston is as justifiably an object of attack as a puppy or a kitten. The man is the most peaceable academic I have ever met and as controversial as a white sheet of paper. So why has Mr Blowers seen fit to – apparently – try his dead level best to rid Emmanuel Christian Seminary of him? Is there a clue in his newly posted essay at Bible and Interpretation, where he writes:

For us, historical-critical scholarship (and the biblical languages that we still require of most of our students) serve the church first, the academy second. Take it or leave it, that's our stated understanding of things, and we expect students not only to "manage" their new-found learning in an ecclesial context, but to find constructive ways to use it for edifying purposes. Simply put, most of them will not be devoting large amounts of time to guiding their parishioners through form criticism or biblical-critical Forschungsgeschichte, but will have to help them pastorally with making sense of Job's outcries or the outrageous death of Jephthah's daughter. Our assumption at Emmanuel, certainly, is that students will need the engagement of historical criticism to help perform pastoral tasks, but this is only one component, of course, in their formation for ministry in churches, chaplaincies, campus ministries, overseas mission, teaching, non-profit organizations, or wherever they serve.

Is he suggesting that Rollston's work isn't edifying or that it isn't 'useful' to parish folk who, if Blowers is to be believed, have no interest at all in anything beyond the bare bones basics of the Bible? Or is it really because Rollston wrote a piece in the Huffington Post? And if so, so what. Because he has written controversial things? Not in the least. Christopher Rollston is to controversial statements what Hector Avalos is to devout Christianity.

So what is Mr. Blowers' motive? Who knows. He may tell us, as he has now on several occasions, that we just don't know the whole story and if we did, we wouldn't be so quick to speak out about things we know nothing of' but that's not a motive or an explanation, it's a dodge, an evasion. Or, he may suggest, as he has recently, here in B&I, that Christian scholars don't answer to the academy, they answer to the Church.[1]

Personally my own sense of the situation (which is, admittedly, neither here nor there) is that Mr Blowers is envious or acrimonious or just one of those people with whom others find it hard to get along. I am certain, though, that the cause doesn't really, authentically, or honestly lie with Chris Rollston's scholarship. That is to say, in other words, the HuffPo essay is just the apparent cause, not the actual cause of Mr Blowers' vindictiveness (or perhaps 'witch hunt').

(The fact- or rather the notion- that Prof. Rollston is obliged only to the Church and not to the wider academic community is a false dichotomy which Mr Blowers calls to his aid in an attempt to mitigate the sub-Christian treatment Prof. Rollston has endured.)

Whatever the curious and unjustifiable underlying reason for Mr Blowers' bloviations, the situation thereby raised is as old as academic scholarship: it is the issue of the freedom of the Christian. And since that is the core of the issue (let's leave aside what the secularists and the angry atheists think about academic freedom because in the matter at hand, their views are moot), perhaps a reminder from Luther is what Mr Blowers and his cohort need most of all. Luther wrote

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul's own statements, who says in I Cor. 9[:19], "For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all," and in Rom. 13[:8], "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was "born of woman, born under the law" [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, "in the form of God" and "of a servant" [Phil. 2:6 – 7].[2]

It should be well known to Mr Blowers that Luther then goes on, in this wonderful essay, to describe how it is in fact the case that Christians are free, and servants. Free to be whomsoever Christ calls them to be and servants of God, and then, and only secondarily, man (or perhaps these days, mankind so that the women-folk don't feel unnecessarily excluded).

Furthermore, and just as importantly, Christian scholars cannot, and should not operate in isolation – as though they were monastics writing and teaching only for other monastics within a closed community. Christian scholars are obligated by the very nature of their calling to speak to the wider world and thus to be, in that sense, responsible to the wider world. No, the very suggestion that 'Christian academics are only responsible to the Church' is an attitude which has far too long prevailed in Fundamentalist circles and which has only led to the complete ignoring of that scholarship by the very world which Christians are commanded to 'go into.' 'Go into all the world and make disciples….' commanded the risen Lord. Going into all the world doesn't mean sitting in classrooms gazing at one another without any concern as to how what happens in that classroom, or church, has no obligation to those outside.

If, then, Luther is right (and he is), then it is the duty of the Christian to pursue the calling God has called him (or her) to with all due vigor, might, and integrity: whether that calling be to assume the office of Pastor or Church Historian or Epigrapher. We are, as Christians, free to do our work freely, without fear that the Holy Inquisition will descend on us because we dare to call into question ideas it holds dear.

Given, then, that Luther is correct, the only grounds for this charge by Mr Blowers and the administration of Emmanuel Christian Seminary would be if Christopher Rollston somehow violated the prime directive of love. If Mr Blowers, et al, can show that Prof. Rollston has acted outside the boundary of Christian charity than they are well within their rights, as Christians themselves and as members of a Christian faculty at a Christian institution of Higher Learning, to excoriate and discipline him.

But if they cannot demonstrate that his actions, and in particular his publications, are outside the boundaries of Christian charity, they owe Dr Rollston a public apology for calling into question both a fellow Christian and a fellow member of the faculty.

At the end of the day the only question that really matters is whether Rollston has pursued his calling as best he can, acted in obedience to the commandment of love, and served God thereby; and whether ECS can say that it has done the same. Every other question is irrelevant and every other issue a mere red-herring. Every other attempt to place Chris on some sort of 'Index' only shames not only an institution of Higher Education (which Emmanuel purportedly is and which it surely must be striving to be, otherwise what's the point of its existence?) but the Church which supports and funds it and the world which that Church is charged, by her Lord, to serve.[3]


Notes

[2] Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 31: Luther's works, vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (344). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[3] For a newly published collection of essays precisely about the issue of academic freedom, though more widely focused than just on biblical studies, see http://ioc.sagepub.com/content/41/3.toc.