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Wheaton College and the Preservation of Theological Clarity

Wheaton College, my alma mater, is in the midst of a firestorm over its response to Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ controversial comments seeking solidarity with Muslims and her argument that Christians “worship the same God.”

By Russ Vought

Wheaton recently commenced termination proceedings with Dr. Hawkins, finding her reaffirmations of the Statement of Faith unsatisfactory. While many faculty, alumni, and outside observers are typically outraged and embarrassed by this “assault on academic freedom,” I am proud of the school and hope they stand their ground. Here’s why:

First, the theological issue at stake is very important, as it pertains to what we believe about our savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God who is fully divine (and became fully human). This matters immensely for our salvation. If Christ is not God, he cannot be the necessary substitute on our behalf for the divine retribution that we deserve. Now Dr. Hawkins affirms that this is indeed an important theological issue, that Jesus Christ is a co-equal member of the Trinity, and why it matters for our salvation. In her responsive letter to the school seeking clarification for her comments, she writes:

I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection, but my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety. When I say that “we worship the same God,” I am saying … that ‘when pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply God.

In other words, Dr. Hawkins is saying that she does not mean to comment on how an individual becomes saved by God, but rather the validity of their faith. But such a distinction leads to serious theological confusion because of what it means to be in relationship with or know the one, true God. For instance, she quotes extensively Dr. John Stackhouse:

If we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn’t know God*, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as paradigms of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ. (bold added)*

Stackhouse implies that someone could really “know God” without a focus on Jesus. He explains, “Having a deficient (e.g., nontrinitarian) theology of God … does not mean you are not in actual prayerful and faithful relationship with God. (Having wrong ideas about a person … doesn’t mean that you do not have a relationship with that person.)” This is the fundamental problem. Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned. In John 8:19, “Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” In Luke 10:16, Jesus says, “The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” And in John 3:18, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Stackhouse argues that Abraham and the Old Testament saints had robust faiths and yet lacked a full understanding of the eventual Messiah and the Trinity. True. However, they did not reject what God had revealed to them up until that point. God’s revelation has unfolded over time. 1 Peter 1:10-12 gives us a picture of how these Old Testament saints would have affirmed what had been revealed and yet looked forward to further understanding. Peter writes:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

Christians now are blessed to be on the other side of Christ’s work on the cross, equipped with a wider angle lens of His purpose and the “things that have now been announced.” This passage also reminds us that Old Testament believers were placing their faith in the promise of a future Messiah. Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Why downplay the primacy of Jesus Christ in having a relationship with God? Does Dr. Hawkins really want to send a confusing (albeit highly nuanced) message to the world (and many of her own Christian students) in which the quick takeaway for many people will be that they do not need to know this Jesus Christ who claims to be their God and King? How does that lead to more brothers and sisters in Christ? It doesn’t.

Second, as others have written, Wheaton College has every right to insist that academic freedom be enjoyed within the broad parameters of their Statement of Faith. It also gets to insist on individuals within its community adhering to the Statement, what it means by the various affirmations, and the relative importance of each. Dr. Hawkins does not get to give her signature but elaborate her own meaning and interpretation for what she is signing. Furthermore, Wheaton’s administrators have a Biblical responsibility to ensure that students are not being taught error. According to James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This warning would seem to apply not just to Dr. Hawkins, but to the administrators responsible for her teaching in the classroom.

Third, the manner and rhetoric of Dr. Hawkins’s response to Wheaton is simply not becoming of an employee at a Christian institution. Dr. Hawkins is in complete activist mode. (And I should say that my day job is to train activists so I have a high view of activism in appropriate settings.) She is holding press conferences with Jesse Jackson. Her website is designed to rally people to her cause and put pressure on the school to stand down. Most offensive is her rhetoric. She accused the school of “placat[ing] platinum donors.” She accused the school of “appeas[ing] an imaginary constituency that clearly knows little about what academic freedom or Christian love mean.” And she accused the school of trying to “intimidate [her] into cowering in fear of the enemy of the month as defined by real estate moguls, Senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots, and fundamentalists of all stripes.”

Given all of this, Wheaton is wise to end Dr. Hawkins’ employment at the school. They have begun that process, and I hope they stay the course. They deserve credit for their courage. It is not easy to make decisions that run so counter to the prevailing cultural currents, and yet this is what is required to remain Wheaton College.

In the weeks ahead, I hope the school’s administrators might find encouragement in God’s exhortation to the prophet Jeremiah:

Say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, it priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you. (Jeremiah 1:18-19)


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