This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig:
I’m an atheist, and I’m concerned about faith statements. Their downside seems to be ignored, and I’d like to at least see any paper, book, or lecture from a scholar bound by a faith statement to have that statement made clear.
I see how faith statements help donors. There are lots of competing religious organizations, and donors may want to make sure that they’re donating to one that matches their Christian values. But they’re bad for the institutions that have them. A faith statement is a commitment to a conclusion. By accepting the conclusion beforehand, institutions governed by them forfeit their ability to defend or even comment on the points in those statements.
Let me give an example. Here’s a fragment of the faith statement of Houston Baptist University: “[Those connected with HBU must believe] that man was directly created by God, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, as the Son of God, [and] that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave.”
When a scholar from HBU concludes that the virgin birth is history rather than mythology, why believe it? That’s just the faith statement talking. By signing that statement, a professor has publicly stated (among other things), “I promise to never conclude that the virgin birth was just a myth.”
The same problem exists when the Discovery Institute reports that intelligent design beats evolution or Answers in Genesis argues for a 6000-year-old earth.
Might the scholar simply have come to an unbiased conclusion? That’s possible, but how would we know? Mike Licona is a Christian scholar who found out the hard way that faith statements have teeth. In 2011, he lost two jobs because, in a 700-page book, he questioned the inerrancy of a single Bible verse.
There is a stick raised above these Christian scholars that demands that they toe the line or else. With some conclusions predetermined to be correct and others incorrect, how do we know that their work is an honest search for the truth? We don’t, and indeed the work of every Christian scholar constrained by a faith statement is suspect. By committing to the faith statement, they are ruling out certain conclusions before they’ve done any research.
Conflicts of interest are both understood and addressed in other areas. Many medical and science journals demand that authors disclose conflicts of interest. The American Historical Association calls for historians to disclose any research assistance that could bias their conclusions. Journalists are careful to avoid not only conflicts of interest but even the appearance of such conflicts. In judicial, legal, or governmental fields, this is called recusal—abstaining from participation in an issue that would cause a conflict of interest.
Does it matter when research about smoking is funded by the Tobacco Institute rather than the National Institutes of Health? Just because research is funded by an organization with an interest in the result doesn’t mean that the research is flawed. The point is simply that that all potential biases should be made public.
Carry this thinking into Christian scholarship. Every blog post, journal article, book, or lecture from a Christian scholar constrained by a faith statement should have that faith statement clearly disclosed. Anyone hearing or reading their conclusions needs to know any potential conflicts of interest.
What do you think about faith statements?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
I’ve heard this complaint before from other unbelievers, and sometimes it is, frankly, just an excuse to ignore the work of Christian scholars who teach at institutions which have doctrinal statements.
Notice that I speak of “doctrinal statements,” not “faith statements,” as you do. Characterizing such doctrinal statements as “faith statements” carries the connotation that such doctrinal affirmations are made by faith alone, without a reasoned basis. But that is not at all the case. Good professors typically have reasons for what they believe and have thought through these issues carefully.
I think that your complaint is based upon a misunderstanding of the way in which such doctrinal statements function. The primary purpose of such statements is to help build a community of scholars that has a certain ethos founded on a common worldview. Those of us who teach at such institutions value a Christian community in which problems can be explored from within a shared worldview and in which students can be provided an education which reflects a Christian worldview.
Doctrinal statements are especially important in maintaining such an ethos intergenerationally. We all know that universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded as Christian institutions dedicated to training men for the ministry or for missionary service. But as they have drifted over the generations far from their Christian moorings, they have become secularized and lost their Christian identity. By contrast, by taking seriously its doctrinal commitments, a college like my alma mater Wheaton College has been able to preserve its evangelical identity since its inception in 1860 while offering a first rate education in the liberal arts.
Institutional doctrinal statements typically do not serve, as you suggest, to determine a professor’s conclusions in advance. On the contrary, professors will typically have already formed views about these various doctrines prior to applying for a job at such an institution and will be guided by such statements as to which institutions are a good fit for their theological views. They will seek out positions at institutions at which they feel theologically comfortable and ignore openings at institutions which stand for doctrines they do not hold.
You seem to be guilty of a funny sort of post hoc, propter hoc fallacy: I teach at a university which requires that professors believe X, therefore I believe X because I teach at such a university. The truth is rather that because I believe X, I (gladly) teach at such a university.
Thus, it is naïve on your part to imagine that HBU’s doctrinal statement, for example, imposes some sort of restraint upon me with respect to belief in the virgin birth or the deity of Christ or the resurrection of Jesus. I held these beliefs long before affiliating with HBU, and I would believe them no matter where I taught.
So to suggest, as you do, that an institutional doctrinal statement actually determines or shapes a professor’s theological views is naïve in excelsis. A mere document has almost no effect on what one believes. Rather it will be the writings of other scholars in one’s field as well as one’s own reflection on the issues that will determine what one believes.
In fact, the real danger posed by institutional doctrinal statements is almost the exact opposite of what you suppose. Because a mere doctrinal statement has so little influence on what a professor believes, it can happen that one’s doctrinal views can change in the course of one’s career, with the result that one can no longer sign the doctrinal statement in good faith. In that case, the professor should seek employment elsewhere. The danger is that because such a move can be so gut-wrenching, the professor may be tempted to continue in his present position, even though he no longer believes the doctrinal statement. In that case, he compromises his own integrity and the integrity of the institution. If the institution does not take the difficult step of dismissing him, the seed of corruption is planted which may derail the institution in coming generations.
It is false, then, as you allege, that by signing a doctrinal statement, “a professor has publicly stated, ‘I promise to never conclude that the virgin birth was just a myth’.” He has made no such promise. Rather he has promised to teach at said institution only so long as he believes that the virgin birth is not a myth. Should he come to believe that it is a myth, integrity requires that he resign his position.
Moreover, you need to understand that these doctrinal statements are usually pretty flexible and have a lot of leeway, being open to various interpretations. For example, I’m actually rather alarmed at how loosey-goosey the HBU statement you quote is! To characterize Christ merely as “our Lord and Savior, . . . the Son of God” is terribly ambiguous unless these terms are defined, to say that “He died for the sins of all men” is utterly opaque with respect to the atonement, and to affirm that he “arose from the grave” is consistent with a spiritual, non-physical resurrection body. So while doctrinal statements set some channel markers, they are usually not too fine-grained.
The case of Mike Licona is a good example. Licona has never denied biblical inerrancy, nor was he fired because of it. Rather what he challenges is imposing modern historiographical standards of what constitutes an error on ancient authors employing the techniques of ancient historiography or apocalyptic imagery. He contends that by the standards of their day, exemplified, for example, by Plutarch, it would not have been considered an error for the evangelists to narrate events out of chronological order or to abbreviate or paraphrase a story. For that reason, Mike remains a member in good standing of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Moreover, at Talbot, where I also teach, a professor is allowed to attach a codicil to the doctrinal statement when he signs it, indicating where he has disagreements with certain details of the statement (e.g., misgivings about dispensational biblical interpretation). So doing enables one to sign the statement without mental reservation.
So I think that the charge of scholarly bias due to an institutional doctrinal statement is naïve and without merit. Doctrinal statements don’t determine what a professor believes, rather they reflect it.
Finally, and most importantly, the allegation of bias is ultimately irrelevant. As I learned through my study of the objectivity of history, every historian approaches a topic with his biases and point of view. What ultimately disqualifies a history is not bias but its lack of accord with the evidence. So long as the history is supported by the weight of the evidence, the historian’s personal biases become irrelevant; if his history is not in accord with the evidence, then his objectivity cannot rescue it.
The point can be generalized. We all have our biases, including atheists. (If Christian scholars need to attach a disclaimer to their work, so do atheists!) But our work is to be judged by the soundness of our arguments, not by our biases. So you’ll never find me dismissing the work of an atheist philosopher on the grounds that he is biased, even though it may be blatantly obvious. Rather I seek to expose the fallacy in his reasoning or the false or unjustified premiss in his argument.
So the answer to your question, How do we know if the work of a Christian scholar is to be trusted? is easy: you assess it by the arguments and evidence he offers in support of his conclusions. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.