Andrew Chignell, a graduate of Wheaton College and son of a former Wheaton professor, created a minor kerfuffle with a piece about the outgoing college president, A. Duane Litfin, and Wheatonâ€™s search for his successor. Chignell argues that Wheaton, the flagship institution of American evangelicalism, is at a crossroads. He also seems to try relatively benignly to settle scores for those faculty (and their progeny) who were bitterly disappointed by the 1992 appointment of Litfin when Nathan Hatch, now president of Wake Forest University, was the odds on favorite to be Wheatonâ€™s president. The hope was that Hatch, then provost of Notre Dame, an accomplished historian, and graduate of Wheaton, would lead Wheaton into the promised land of elite, private, liberal arts colleges, with of course the evangelical convictions and piety still in place. Some of that disappointment was evident in Mark Nollâ€™s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book whose polemical edge appealed to Wheaton faculty who wanted a true academic like Hatch as their CEO. (Full disclosure: I taught at Wheaton from 1989 to 1993 and my wife is a 1976 graduate.)
This is a minor flap for Wheaton, despite the creation of a website dedicated to Chignellâ€™s article, because very few Wheaties, as alums are known, have bothered to write. In fact, if not for the poor performance by the owners and editors of Books and Culture, where Chignellâ€™s article was supposed to be published â€“ the â€œback storyâ€ is also at Whither Wheaton â€“ the piece may well have floated away to the Internetâ€™s kazigabties of unused archives, except for Chignellâ€™s own website.
To his credit Chignell does not perform a hatchet job on Wheaton, though it was too edgy for the folks at Wheatonâ€™s neighbor, Books & Culture. He credits Litfin with growing the collegeâ€™s physical plant and endowment, for shepherding the school through potentially damaging ethos changes such as dropping restrictions against off-campus drinking and dancing, and for overseeing the adoption of a new mascot â€“ from post-9/11 infelicity of Crusaders to the environmentally sensitive but anemic Thunder. Chignell also comments favorably on the decline of religious politics at Wheaton â€“ when he was a student DuPage County, Wheatonâ€™s home, was the most Republican jurisdiction in the United States. Chignell fails to mention that Litfin also oversaw a new statement of faith that dropped the premillennial and dispensationalist laden plank. This was a significant move for many who regarded Litfin, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Bible (before doing doctorates at Purdue and Oxford), as a fundamentalist since dispensationalism was one of fundamentalismâ€™s chief articles of faith. Wheatonâ€™s old statement of faith reflected its affinities to anti-modernist Protestantism.
On the debit side, Chignell faults Litfin for losing good faculty because of the presidentâ€™s enforcement of doctrinaire convictions. The most celebrated was the dismissal of a philosophy professor, Josh Hochshield after he converted to Roman Catholicism. But one prospective professor got away when her conjecture that the Bible did not forbid gay marriage ended her candidacy. (On the upside her admission did not prevent an appointment at Calvin College.) Also glaring for Chignell were Litfinâ€™s views on creation, and the apparent irony of raising funds for a science center with all the bells and whistles for first-rate science when the college is committed apparently to doctrines that undermine such research and learning.
The problem for Chignell comes down to Litfinâ€™s own understanding of maintaining a collegeâ€™s Christian identity. Chignell writes:
In his 2004 book â€œConceiving the Christian College,â€ President Litfin characterizes Wheaton as operating on a â€œsystemicâ€ model, whereby â€œall of the professors are to be scholars who embody the Christian commitments of the institution, with the expected result that genuinely Christian thinking will permeate the schoolâ€™s academic and student life programs.â€
Chignell agrees that schools operating according to this model are of â€œimmense value.â€ But he also thinks that the systemic model can take a number of different forms.
At the far end is what might be called the magisterial approach: here a select group of academic administrators specifies which interpretations of the core doctrines and codes are to be propagated throughout the system, and then requires that everyone signs on to those specific interpretations. At the other end is what might be called (for lack of a better term) the wiggle-room approach. Here a certain amount of space is allowed for differingâ€”albeit still reasonableâ€”interpretations of the propositions constituting the systemic core. That doesnâ€™t mean that â€œanything goesâ€ or that the core is ever significantly or casually altered. But administrators who adopt the wiggle-room approach will tend to be more modest and consultative in interpreting that core, and will often â€œagree to disagreeâ€ on issues that can reasonably be deemed ambiguous or adiaphorous.
Litfinâ€™s fault, then, was in following the magisterial approach, especially on creation, when Wheaton needed and still needs the wiggle-room touch.
A few problems follow from this analysis. First, although I may not agree with the particulars of Litfinâ€™s ideas about creation, Chignell fails to recognize that the faculty who got away from Wheaton were not victims of creationist tyranny. (The collegeâ€™s statement on creation is hardly polemical â€“ â€œWE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.â€) The issues in the cases he mentions were Roman Catholicism and gay marriage. In which case, the contrast between a fundamentalist view of creation and a new science center is a red herring. For that matter, plenty of creationists approve of all kinds of science outside the field of biology.
Second, Wheatonâ€™s statement of faith is hardly the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. It is a useful but meager affirmation of general Protestant verities. By its very nature it reflects the wiggle-room that fundamentalists and evangelicals tried to find to achieve a generic conservative Protestant identity. In other words, Wheatonâ€™s statement of faith is hardly magisterial; Calvinâ€™s is (i.e. the Three Forms of Unity). Wiggle-room enforcement of wiggle-room creeds is another issue.
Third, Chignell is overly optimistic in thinking the wiggle-room touch can keep an institution like Wheaton from turning into Oberlin. The comparison is hardly implausible because when Wheaton started it was in the vein of Wesleyan-Congregationalist perfectionism and post-millennialism running rampant in the mid-West. The affinities between Wheaton and Oberlin were strong, from the kingdom of God to anti-slavery. And yet Wheaton did not become the liberal Protestant institution that Oberlin did despite (or because of?) Finneyâ€™s revivalism. One reason is that Wheaton had a fundamentalist interlude under the presidency of J. Oliver Buswell. During that era, and then the subsequent influence of neo-evangelicalism, Wheatonâ€™s administrators, trustees, faculty, students, and studentsâ€™ parents knew that liberal Protestantism was something that good Christians wanted to avoid. Indeed, one of the important and ignored issues facing schools like Wheaton and sister institutions like Christianity Today is the presence of faculty and editors in important decision-making capacities who belong to such communions as the Episcopal Church USA or the Presbyterian Church USA. If faculty or editors at evangelical institutions reject the writings and appointments of scholars from anti-modernist communions because of views on womenâ€™s ordination or homosexuality, what sort of evangelical identity will result?
In fact, the history of American Presbyterianism shows what happens when Chignellâ€™s wiggle-room approach if followed â€“ you wind up in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with not simply wiggle-room, but lots of room for elbows, heads, feet, and even private parts. In the 1920s the churchâ€™s progressives proposed the Auburn Affirmation for the sake of giving flexibility in the church on such cardinal doctrines as the inerrancy of Scripture and the virgin birth of Christ. The number of essential and necessary doctrines was even fewer than Wheatonâ€™s statement of faith, though the church already had a confession of faith. And that hermeneutic became the basis for the liberal church that the PCUSA is today; it would avoid taking a hard stand against anything except conservatives, favoring breadth over orthodoxy. (I concede that members of Wheaton faculty who are in the PCUSA would not regard their communion as liberal. But I donâ€™t think they can plausibly claim that liberalism is unwelcome in the PCUSA, otherwise why would the Presbyterian Layman and the Confessing Church movement attract the numbers that they do?)
So maybe the reason that Wheaton avoids becoming Oberlin is by having presidents like Litfin who apply a measure of disciplinary pressure on academics who by nature of their scholarly and cosmopolitan impulses are not exactly known to be keepers of the orthodox flame.
And yet, this analysis of Wheatonâ€™s conservatism is unconvincing because what has long struck me about the school is not its doctrinaire evangelicalism but its pietistic ethos. During my tenure at Wheaton I was struck how much the place had the feel of Christian summer camp, where campers (students) took math and history instead of archery and swimming from their professors (counselors). That is not necessarily a knock against Wheaton. Institutions that provide a safe Christian retreat for older adolescents and young adults, on their way to professional lives and parenting, is hardly the worst service a Christian organization can perform. But this impression rang true at a recent alumni event in Philadelphia where those in attendance viewed the promotional materials (posters and film) for the current capital campaign. What was striking was that faculty, books read and written, or graduates like Chignell who go on to excel in higher education, were not evident. Instead, the focus, especially of the film, was on the student experience, as if this were a recruiting film for prospective students. What dawned on me while watching the film was that the student experience is what attracts high schoolers to apply, parents to pay for tuition, and alums to give to the school. That is because the experience of students in all the extra-curricular activities appears to be as important to the making of a Wheatie as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mind you, the students are very smart. They have to be to get in to a very competitive school. But do they need to be smart to stay at Wheaton? Or is what keeps them there the evangelical warmth and fellowship that comes from a personal relationship with Jesus?
Again, this could sound like a real indictment of Wheaton, and it does second from a different angle Nollâ€™s scandal of the evangelical mind and the kind of indifference to intellectual life that has characterized born-again Protestantism. But it need not be read as evidence of anti-intellectualism at Wheaton. It could be a testimony to the institution’s uncanny ability to remain â€œconservativeâ€ on the basis of experience, on the vague and ethereal but in this case vital and vigorous attachment to having â€œJesus in my heart.â€ That piety did not sustain lots of other Protestant liberal arts colleges founded in the wake of the Second Great Awakening like Oberlin. But it has for Wheaton. And perhaps Litfinâ€™s regular speaking in chapel is one of the formal means that sustains Wheatonâ€™s evangelical ethos. If so, Chignellâ€™s assessment of Litfin and Wheaton misses the most important factor that the trustees should be considering in the choice of a new president.