Stemming the drift

Trying to identify why the magnetic tug is always in one direction

Issue: "Louisiana's Buy-You-Election," May 17, 1997

What is it about higher academia that seems to make it such a hard and fast rule: Given enough time, any institution, no matter how rooted in orthodoxy, will sooner or later slip away from its anchors. Why?

Some public wrestling with that perplexing issue came last week from an unlikely source. Gaylen Byker, the relatively new president of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a seminar at the annual convention of the Evangelical Press Association, traced the painfully familiar pattern. He called it a classic example of the principle of unintended consequences, saying that what starts as a gradual process too often becomes &quota mad rush."

Most institutions of higher learning in North America, Dr. Byker said, got their start as centers of training for ministers. (All this, of course, was well before the current dominance of state schools). To produce well-rounded ministers, the schools began adding teachers in other subject areas-areas that soon became important in and of themselves. Securing faculty for such programs became competitive, and natural questions arose, like: Is it really important that a math professor hold to this school's theological position?

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Such questions wouldn't have come up, Dr. Byker suggested, if along the way the main decision-makers at these institutions had taken more seriously the need to integrate biblical truth with the supposedly secular subjects their institutions were offering. Instead, such administrators were content to relegate such subjects to experts who professed fewer and fewer of the doctrinal and theological distinctives of the schools they served. &quotIt's hard to justify hiring a third-rate Christian when you can get a first-rate non-Christian," the Calvin president said, criticizing the mindset that lets the drift go on and on.

It was an insightful discussion, and I hope Dr. Byker puts his thoughts in written form so that others concerned with drift at schools they love can sharpen their understanding of the forces they face. Not the least of those is the traditional practice of tenure at so many institutions. &quotIt's very difficult to go back once you've hired someone who might well be there for 30 years," Dr. Byker lamented.

I'd also suggest, however, that colleges and universities wanting to put the brakes on a drift toward liberalism need to look with care at another crucial factor: What's the position of the school, and perhaps of its supporting denomination or constituency, on the doctrine of Scripture? Not just its position on paper, mind you, but the day-to-day practice of its faculty, administration, and board with reference to the authority of the Bible. My sense is that every other kind of heterodoxy starts with unfaithfulness on the subject of Scripture; every other kind of mischief finds its root in a mischievous hermeneutic of the Bible.

That, of course, is why WORLD has put such an emphasis in recent weeks on the need for the highest kind of confidence in the Bible's authority-and on preserving a Bible so faithful in its text and translation that such confidence is never betrayed.

Some Calvin College alumni I know are upset because a faculty member there seemed last week to come down way too permissively on the issue of homosexual practice. Biology professor Hessel Bouma III was quoted in the local daily paper as being distressed because an area Christian high school had fired a veteran teacher who defends the homosexual relationship of his son. Calling the dismissal a &quotterrible injustice," Calvin's professor Bouma added, &quotIt certainly is a very black mark on the Christian community, both the school community and the denomination." Meanwhile, a current issue of The Banner, the weekly magazine of the Christian Reformed Church that sponsors Calvin College, carries a display ad for a gay and lesbian alumni group from Calvin.

But the issue didn't start with bitter disagreements about homosexuality. The debate really got under way when professors at Calvin and other folks in its sponsoring denomination got wobbly on the doctrine of Scripture. That's when the underpinnings got knocked loose.

It probably always starts off much in the manner described by Dr. Byker-not in the Bible and theology courses, but in academic departments that superficially, at least, seem most distantly removed from biblical truth and values. Yet that's precisely the trap. If the Bible's authority is diminished on scientific issues like creation, who can ultimately be surprised when its historic authority is also then weakened on practical issues like feminism, or moral issues like homosexuality?

Two fascinating questions emerge: How far from orthodoxy can an educational institution go and still get turned around? And are there factors that can be employed to nudge schools (and perhaps publications as well) not just from orthodoxy to unbelief but the other direction as well? Maybe Gaylen Byker will have more to say on the subject.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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