If I walk up to my office window at Crossway Books and look across the railroad tracks to the west, I can see the campus of Wheaton College, including the distinctive white spire above the center named after its most famous alumnus, Billy Graham. Founded by evangelical abolitionists in 1860 “for Christ and his kingdom,” the school has garnered a reputation over the years as the Evangelical Harvard, seeking to show that a liberal arts college can combine rigorous academic training and faithful piety.

As many readers will know, Wheaton was embroiled in controversy from December 2015 to February 2016, centered around statements by political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Announcing on Facebook her plan to wear the hijab during Advent, she explained: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

A firestorm of controversy ensued, fanned into flame by forces both inside and outside of the school. Though it was in the same town in which I work, I mainly followed the developments at a distance (that is to say, online), even offering my own modest proposal on the same-God debate.

We have not heard, however, from many faculty members inside Wheaton regarding their perspective on what happened or what we can learn from this difficult season for Wheaton. I am grateful, therefore, to share the following essay by Daniel J. Treier, Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. Suggesting that this may be a ”‘teachable moment,’ not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education,” Dr. Treier calls the Christian community to consider how “four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.”

More could be said here, but not less. For anyone who watched or commented on this tragedy—both from within and from outside—this is a wise essay worth carefully considering.

Justin Taylor

The Wheaton Tragedy

Daniel J. Treier
March 9, 2016

Wheaton College (IL), where I have taught theology for fifteen years, recently endured a two-month media firestorm. Generally reliable details of the narrative are available via that bastion of truth, the Internet. In miniature: A tenured political science professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on administrative leave after asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This assertion appeared in a Facebook post explaining her decision to wear a hijab during Advent, expressing “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women prominently facing discrimination. As controversy ensued, Wheaton’s provost Stanton Jones believed that Dr. Hawkins did not provide adequate theological clarification of how her statements were consistent with the college’s evangelical statement of faith.

Subsequent conversations reached a stalemate while media coverage escalated. Dr. Jones initiated formal termination procedures that would commence with a review by the Faculty Personnel Committee. Already an overwhelming majority of the faculty opposed Dr. Hawkins’s termination, especially after she posted online a statement of theological clarification. Wheaton’s Faculty Council unanimously formalized a recommendation for Dr. Hawkins’s reinstatement, grounded in critique of administrative procedures. Supporters of Dr. Hawkins intensified various private and public campaigns. Additional faculty members, who previously shared some of the administration’s theological concerns or were undecided, came to support Dr. Hawkins’s immediate reinstatement, believing that her clarifying statement precluded any violation of a particular tenet of the statement of faith.

Advocacy on both sides reached a fever pitch of Facebook and Twitter salvos from professors, alumni, and pundits. Media stories proliferated internationally, partly because three Wheaton alumnae report on religion for national outlets. One of them publicized multiple confidential materials leaked by faculty members. Few cultural elites or Wheaton professors sympathized publicly with the administration’s concerns. Younger and more progressive alumni joined the administration’s critics in vocal support for Dr. Hawkins.

The Faculty Diversity Committee issued a private report that raised significant concerns about administrative procedures as well as racial and gender inequity affecting the case. Shortly thereafter Dr. Jones sent a detailed written apology to Dr. Hawkins. He revoked the termination proceedings and left the decision about reinstating Dr. Hawkins in the hands of Wheaton’s president, Philip Ryken. The Diversity Committee’s report leaked while Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken were addressing the possibility of her reinstatement. Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken reached a confidential agreement to end her employment at the college, at which point Dr. Jones’s apology was made public. A joint worship service and a joint press conference ensued.

Of course the controversy is not really over, regardless of whether media interest waxes or wanes. Months, even years, of rebuilding lie ahead. The college is left sifting through the rubble of its latest firestorm while grieving the loss of a treasured professor, and Dr. Hawkins was left to find a new place of service. (By the way, Dr. Hawkins is a valued colleague and family friend, but in this essay I use her academic title rather than operating on a first-name basis. She deserves every indication of the respect that chummy students sometimes deny to female professors in my conservative circles.) Rebuilding requires time for lament and space for grief, even expressions of anger. Early commentary requires restraint, recognizing the risk of damaging relationships we hope to heal.

Both Tragedy and Wisdom: A Neglected Perspective

Yet I offer this essay to commend a neglected perspective, worth considering before views harden so thoroughly that our rebuilding efforts cannot incorporate any alternatives. Thus far public commentary from my Wheaton colleagues has been overwhelmingly one-sided, for understandable reasons. If, however, those who grieve over Dr. Hawkins’s departure but sympathize with our administration’s theological concerns remain entirely silent, then rebuilding efforts will produce lopsided results.

Indeed, perhaps we face a “teachable moment,” not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education. Wheaton is far from the only school navigating the challenges of a social media age, the dramas of faculty advocacy, the limits of academic freedom, or perceived tensions between genuine diversity and confessional identity. Moreover, Wheaton’s treatment as an icon—by the media, the broader academy, and various stakeholders from both left and right—could mean that the recent controversy has larger consequences for the accreditation, finances, and politics of Christian higher education.

Most pundits have taken clear sides dominated by political, theological, or academic agendas—not to mention suspicion and sheer speculation. To state my alternative succinctly: What if the dominant categories for assessing this controversy should be the pair of “tragedy” and “wisdom”? What if we tried to imagine how each major stakeholder in the controversy could act in reasonably good faith yet contribute to a tragic outcome? And what if we tried to learn our lessons for the future from both the fragmentary wisdom and the limitations displayed by each?

I have been pondering how biblical wisdom addresses our communal life because of James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV). These verses confronted my own slowness to listen (to certain people anyway), my speed in speaking (without adequate information), and my fiery self-righteousness. As a Christian liberal arts professor, I find it painful to be so unwise.

What if we listen—really listen, seeking the peaceable and teachable wisdom of James 3:17-18—to the perspectives of all the relevant stakeholders? Despite our differences, and the other relevant questions this essay brackets out, these stakeholders claim a shared commitment to Scripture’s authority. Thus four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.

1. Listening and Speaking

Wisdom’s emphasis on the character of our listening and speaking especially helps us to examine Dr. Hawkins’s perspective. How many critics listened carefully to understand sympathetically what she sought to do? James, the New Testament’s Wisdom literature, prohibits self-righteous slander (4:11-12). Catechesis from the Ninth Commandment enjoins thinking and speaking as well of others as possible, even refraining from expressing justifiable criticism if we can. Dr. Hawkins’s critics frequently failed to honor God’s law in this way.

James 2 and 5 also apply, for they demonstrate that enduring wisdom and prophetic action are not automatically opposed. Hoping to demonstrate solidarity with a verbally, politically, and sometimes physically abused group, Dr. Hawkins championed marginalized persons that James prophetically defends. Unfortunately that solidarity resulted in verbal abuse of Dr. Hawkins, as some critics violated James 3 with particularly vile responses. If some of the concern was primarily political, then James 4:1-10 further applies: Were such critics really concerned for evangelical truth, or instead committing spiritual adultery with a cultural agenda?

Of course Dr. Hawkins was making a public statement in the first place, and she responded to the critics’ and administration’s publicity with more of her own. As the controversy ensued, some of her rhetoric about “Wheaton College,” while commendably avoiding personal attack by name, risked going beyond prophetic confrontation into casting many of the institution’s stakeholders in the worst possible light. Yet neither side backed down, each blaming the other for turning up the temperature. And it is important for those who cannot imagine responding as Dr. Hawkins did to attempt—however inadequately—to put ourselves in her shoes: a single, black female living in downtown Chicago, teaching at a white male-dominated suburban evangelical institution, confronting a post-Ferguson world. Before dismissing the rhetoric of “prophetic” response—about which I will express concerns below—we first should listen to the cries of the side James takes. Among reactions to Dr. Hawkins the partisan anger of worldly wisdom frequently trumped the listening ears, teachable heart, and peaceable spirit of Christian wisdom.

2. Prudence and Courage

Biblical wisdom prioritizes not only listening and speaking but also prudence and courage, helping us to examine the perspective of Wheaton’s administration. How many critics listened carefully to their concerns and imagined alternatives to their course of action? The challenges they faced highlight the necessity and limitations of prudence as well as its complex relation to courage.

Once discussions of the “same God” question moved beyond one-line sound bites, credible answers functionally involved both “yes” and “no” elements. Emphases varied to one side or the other, and some scholars tried to champion a simple “yes,” but then definitions of “worship” or “same” qualified even their claims. The confusion created among Wheaton’s constituency by the “yes” of Dr. Hawkins’s initial statement did not always stem from bigoted politics. In some contexts the statement could suggest a form of religious solidarity stemming from pluralism rather than evangelical clarity—although again it is important to account for context: Brother/sister language would have less freighted implications outside of white, Midwestern, evangelicalism. Eventually we need to address this pedagogical and contextual dimension of the controversy, but here we need to ponder the prudential dimension.

To begin with, the necessity and limitations of prudence: Dr. Jones’s apology indicated specific mistakes made in the process of dealing with his theological concerns. We should honor his courage and humility by acknowledging these mistakes, yet it remains illuminating to understand them as well-intentioned if naïve. For instance, given a complicated prior history with Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones initially approached her indirectly, through a faculty intermediary, which might have seemed like deft treatment but ended up seeming differential. Sometimes we fall victim to unexpected responses or unintended consequences.

Biblical wisdom, beginning with fear of the Lord, is moral and spiritual. For all its borrowing from other cultures, Proverbs transcends mere skills. Disregarding its speech ethics, for example, generally counts as folly—living as if there were no God and thereby fracturing the covenant community. It is frequently appropriate to seek forgiveness for failures to act wisely.

Nevertheless, the Bible also acknowledges the necessity and complexities of mundane prudence, which cannot always obtain desired results. Job 28 underscores the difficulty of finding wisdom, and Ecclesiastes underscores the difficulty of applying any wisdom we apparently have. Given the fallen way of the world from Genesis 3 on, not to mention our finitude, we cannot always anticipate the consequences of our actions. Perhaps we can rarely even make predictions with much reliability. How many of us would have done better in the provost’s shoes, facing a brave new social media world? Ill-informed character assassins simultaneously championed “reconciliation” yet felt free to allege bigotry, impute motives, and question opponents’ intelligence, whereas Dr. Hawkins rightly denounced demonizing Dr. Jones.

In hindsight, the administration might have created the necessary public distance from Dr. Hawkins’s statement by indicating concern and asking for patient trust without instantly imposing administrative leave. To those of us acquainted with institutions where Dr. Hawkins would have been summarily fired, administrative leave could appear moderate, making space for restorative outcomes; yet to many it was decidedly irregular, and to Dr. Hawkins it was understandably drastic. Even if administrative leave were the best course of action, it could have been handled better.

Not just the necessity and limitations of prudence are apparent, though; so is its complex relation to courage. Many, both inside and outside of the college, viewed its response pragmatically: Dr. Jones had to respond to an angry constituency, but he imprudently overreached, backing himself and Dr. Hawkins into a corner. More and more people took this line after Dr. Hawkins released her theological affirmation of the statement of faith.

Yet the obvious element of truth in this view should not eclipse the vital question of whether the theological concerns were merely pragmatic or potentially legitimate. Personally knowing Wheaton’s leaders to be driven primarily by conscience rather than consequences, I take seriously their signal that the concerns were not primarily pragmatic. Nor were they primarily technical, concerning some line item of the statement of faith or a monolithic institutional answer to the same-God question. By contrast, relatively few people have acknowledged that the concerns could be pedagogical, concerning—in our president’s prominent words—whether Dr. Hawkins adequately “affirmed and modeled” the evangelical heritage reflected in the statement of faith. This pedagogical concern further introduces the need for discerning courage among leaders in Christian higher education.

At first our administration apparently felt that courage required holding fast. They likely found it difficult to imagine a future in which tenured faculty members could essentially refuse to acknowledge the administration’s responsibility for shaping the institution’s theological identity. They likely found it difficult to imagine reinstating Dr. Hawkins without offering their constituency—parents in particular—a ringing theological endorsement. In the end, they apparently felt that courage required backing down to a degree. At minimum, the provost demonstrated courage in making his apology; as the saga continues, the administration has demonstrated courage in taking further public flak for the outcome, including continued suspicion from people who refuse to take either the president or the provost at their word.

The awkward intersection of prudence and courage especially confronts schools like Wheaton as they genuinely and deeply desire to have faculty and student diversity reflect the fullness of Christ’s global body. Yet their institutional histories and cultures impose perceived constraints on making professors and students from previously marginalized backgrounds feel truly at home. Administrators will need the prudence and courage to maintain their schools’ confessional integrity despite the occasional costs—refusing to concede that perceived tensions between authentic diversity and theological fidelity create a zero-sum game. Administrators will also need the prudence and courage to navigate legitimate, even essential, theological and cultural change despite internal and external opposition. They cannot amend statements of faith, or create supplemental do’s and don’ts, with every new potential controversy. Yet they must provide for apparent change precisely in order to perpetuate living rather than dead traditions, to maintain narrative continuity with the best of their past while helping students to encounter the fullness of global Christianity.

3. Tradition and Inquiry

Biblical wisdom further involves a pedagogical dialectic of tradition and inquiry, which helps us to examine the perspective of parents and other stakeholders. How many parents thought carefully about what is necessary to form wise students? How many of Wheaton’s critics thought holistically about this concern, rather than thinking that real education would leave students rather unfettered by the evangelical heritage?

Parents are legitimately interested in having Christian colleges teach their stated tradition(s) with integrity. So do other stakeholders such as alumni and additional donors. Thus Dr. Jones’s worries over theological confusion were not cravenly caving to donors but keeping a pedagogical covenant. Professors understandably worry about losing academic freedom, but focusing on publicly representing a statement of faith actually protects us. Our private belief-states vary frequently and wildly. If we fulfill our public responsibility to represent the institutional heritage embodied in our statement of faith, then administrators cannot properly act on speculation to the contrary. In the present case, a professor might have made a similarly controversial statement in a classroom or office without creating such public complications. In other cases, our administration routinely defends us from comparatively private student, parent, or donor complaints.

In return, however, such protection requires faculty stewardship—to relate academic freedom to Christian liberty, to pursue teaching and scholarship that represents a school’s heritage rather than taking license to reject its stated faith or despise its historic constituency. Since administrators have few tools—short of termination proceedings—for engaging tenured professors’ theological pedagogy, restraint and trust become essential on all sides. If professors want the freedom to be prophetic without being fired, in rare cases administrators may need the freedom either to seek clarification privately or else to support alternatives publicly.

If parents are legitimately interested in a school’s faithful teaching of its tradition(s), they are also responsible—in their students’ best interest—to foster robust inquiry. It is a dangerous myth of the late modern West that every student must undergo a collegiate crisis in order to “own” faith for themselves. Nevertheless, biblical wisdom makes ample space for inquiry that challenges tradition, fostering stronger adherents and deeper understanding of the faith. Some parents and students are more willing for schools to offer such space than others; indeed, Christian higher education offers an ecology of institutions with different amounts and kinds of space for inquiry. Administrators and professors must educate parents, students, and other stakeholders regarding both the need for inquiry and appreciation for the school’s tradition(s).

4. Prophecy and Pedagogy

Given this pedagogical dimension of the controversy, a final aspect of biblical wisdom helps us to examine the perspective of the faculty. How many of us pondered not only all the various perspectives highlighted above but also the long-term educational health of our institution? Or how substantial are our internal disagreements about what comprises educational health?

Some faculty members increasingly sounded like they were criticizing not just the administration’s actions or underlying concerns, but even the school’s heritage itself—as if by implication evangelicalism is so tainted by racism and sexism as to be unredeemable. Moreover, some faculty members were so convinced of their cause that they leaked confidential documents or implied a lack of good faith and intelligence on the part of anyone sharing the administration’s concerns. A colleague’s silence rather than advocacy became subject to curiosity, then speculation, and ultimately peer pressure.

Moving forward involves the obvious challenge of rebuilding faculty-to-administration relationships. Yet we face subtler challenges of rebuilding faculty-to-faculty relationships: restoring governance that incorporates all colleagues; that does not generate a social media circus whenever someone doesn’t get their way; that involves meaningful deliberation without leaked communication; that, indeed, rejects the media claim that no campus event is entitled to any privacy at all. Vocal faculty members have suggested that fear of the administration suppresses academic freedom, but they have not acknowledged the possibility that strident advocacy suppresses freedom and generates fear among their colleagues.

Faculty advocacy in this case signals not just governance challenges but also a larger educational issue. Both sages and prophets may have had “schools” in biblical times; if so, unfortunately, the schools largely fostered false prophets, whereas the true ones were typically isolated and persecuted. Today, as evangelicals in higher education freshly promote social justice, do we risk virtually identifying education with advocacy? To what degree does taking up a prophetic mantle leave us so convinced of our causes that we refuse to engage critique, freely indoctrinating students in our own activism rather than educating them about alternatives or exploring underlying causes? To what degree does the prophetic advocate inherently demonize anyone who disagrees?

Older models of educational detachment were not pervasively neutral but actually reinforced certain powers that be. Yet the current emphasis on prophetic advocacy threatens to reject not only tradition as such but also a considerable degree of what passes for inquiry. My colleagues and I need to face the extent of our differences with each other, not just the administration. While our differences do not affect hiring and firing as overtly, they do so covertly—raising fundamental questions of not just what to teach but even what it means to teach.

Technical definitions aside, “prophets” are sometimes necessary. Evil becomes so entrenched that dramatic confrontation is required. But educational institutions are by definition oriented to wisdom rather than prophecy. Earlier, often ill-informed, evangelical activism exacerbated our movement’s contributions to injustice. So an educational community periodically needs prophetic confrontation. Even so, aside from rather clear and direct divine mandates, “prophets” need wisdom. Perhaps understandably, in this case Dr. Hawkins prioritized prophetic confrontation over pedagogical alternatives for addressing our conservative constituency, thus defining the possibility of “reconciliation” on her terms. In likewise making prophecy their pedagogy, at least some faculty members mirrored the administration in leaving untried any longer path of quiet diplomacy. Other vital considerations, such as missiology, became rhetorical pawns in a war rather than guideposts on a genuine quest for insight. Perhaps controversy was inevitable and confrontation essential; but, tragically, the opportunity to educate our constituency and our ability to reason together have diminished substantially.

Two Final Challenges

Will this Wheaton tragedy foster any newfound wisdom? I have tried to indicate how the actions of all parties could involve good faith and fragmentary wisdom despite the tragic outcome. If so, then our primary focus should not be fighting over the assignment of blame but seeking mutual growth in wisdom. All the same, we must be sober about two final aspects of our challenging circumstances.

First, “Christian liberal arts” education may be more effective at conveying intellectual skills and professional success than fostering wisdom. Extreme right-wing and left-wing rhetoric is not isolated among alumni. It is hard to quantify how many people quietly engaged thoughtful perspectives rather than jumping to conclusions, but a distressing proportion of the visible responses from all Wheaton stakeholders violated James 1:19-21. Four years of education can only do so much, but unfortunately the alumni reaction matches the mixed character of the response from me and my colleagues.

Second, significant aspects of the Wheaton tragedy parallel surrounding controversies throughout higher education. The increasing animosity between boards, administrators, and faculties; the new orthodoxy of advocacy; the resulting chaos when demands for justice clash with established educational protocols; the harshness of our disputes—such realities suggest that Christians are far from immune to surrounding trends.

Our president rightly insists that Wheaton needs the gospel more than anyone. Ultimate hope rests in the resurrection, of which the deaths of two treasured colleagues poignantly reminded our community last November. More proximate hope appears in glimpses of grace and wisdom that peeked through the stormy clouds of recent months. Yet Wheaton offers a very visible case study regarding the challenges of a social media age, which makes it all the harder to overcome systemic brokenness while sustaining an educational tradition of Christian wisdom.

Daniel J. Treier (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

He is the coeditor of nine books and author of four, including Virtue and the Voice of God (Eerdmans, 2006) and Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Baker Academic, 2008).

His most recent work, co-authored with Kevin Vanhoozer, is the inaugural volume in the series Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture: Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (IVP Academic, 2015).