A Christian View of Academic Freedom

Christian colleges and universities face the challenge of being, at the same time, both academic institutions and Christian communities. Due to this duality, the necessity arises for a distinctively Christian view of the concept of academic freedom.

Christian colleges and universities face the challenge of being, at the same time, both academic institutions and Christian communities.  Due to this duality, the necessity arises for a distinctively Christian view of the concept of academic freedom.

Academic freedom, as commonly understood in secular institutions can be expressed by the following statement of two primary principles from the AFAF (Academics for Academic Freedom)

“We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom: 

  1. that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and
  2. that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.”

Notice that the stated foundation of academic freedom isn’t really a foundation at all.  A careful reading of the two items shows that there is no real basis given for academic freedom, simply a bare assertion of its existence.

That freedom is understood as a right that the individual academic retains to be the ultimate authority to evaluate (“question and test”) the “received wisdom,” passing judgement on whether this wisdom is truly “wise” or not.  Should he choose to reject that wisdom, he is free to do so, in favor of any other “wisdom claim” that he should choose to adopt.

It is instructive that the statement does not explicitly mention “truth”, and here is where the Christian institution diverges from the secular academic institution.  Within the Christian faith, we believe in absolute truth that is knowable through the revelation that we have received from the Creator.  Furthermore, we believe that this truth is embodied in the One who declared himself to be “The Truth,” our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)

The ultimate authority within the Christian community is not the individual, no matter what his academic qualifications or role, but rather the revealed truth that we have from God in the Bible.  Thus we have a firm foundation for freedom, but not the freedom that is described by the AFAF above.

Christian freedom is not the freedom to believe and teach whatever we want, rather it is the freedom to know Jesus Christ as he is revealed in inspired Scripture.  Jesus himself said in John 8:32,

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

For Christian academics, academic freedom is the freedom that we find in our communal submission to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Word.  Together we commit ourselves to bringing every opinion and every “wisdom claim” or “truth claim” to the bar of Scripture.  We are thus free from the limitations that arise from making each individual an arbiter of absolute truth.  We are free from the tyranny of conventional wisdom or understanding of truth that goes against the authority of God’s Word.  

It was such freedom that allowed, even required, Martin Luther to take his famous stand:  “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen,” even when he was alone in his conviction and labeled a heretic.

But how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction between denying the autonomy that the secular academic takes for himself, and the autonomy that Luther appears to take for himself when taking his stand against the established church?  How do we allow ourselves as Christian academics Luther’s freedom while denying the “unrestricted liberty” that the AFAF proposes?

The answer is that we mutually commit ourselves to submit our ideas and opinions, our instruction and our teaching, to the Word of God.  Luther was forced to take his stand because the community of which he was a part did not grant him the liberty of submission to the Word of God.

To experience this liberty within the Christian institution, there must be a mutual commitment to the Bible’s authority by every individual within the community.  This is a mutual commitment to foundational scriptural truths that are stated in the institution’s statement of faith.  The statement of faith represents the common agreement of the essentials upon which we base our unity.  Hopefully, the statement of faith reflects not only the agreement of those within the institution, but also an agreement with our spiritual fathers, who have gone before us, clarifying for us the  content of the orthodox Christian faith.

When an individual joins the Christian academic community operating under this view of academic freedom, he agrees not to violate the freedom of the community by teaching or espousing any truth claim that violates the common understanding of what is the orthodox Christian faith.  Notice that in this view of academic freedom, any divergence from the statement of faith is a violation of the freedom that the community has found together in mutual submission to the Word of God.

When an individual member of the community finds himself with a view of truth that falls outside the statement of faith, the community grants that individual the freedom to leave his position with the institution in order to pursue a community with like convictions.

Summarizing, the Christian view of academic freedom may be stated like this,

We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of Christian academic freedom: 

  1. that Christian academics find true freedom in a mutual submission to the absolute truth given to us in God’s self-revelation in the Bible.
  2. that Christian academic institutions, as Christian communities, have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by allowing individual members of their faculty to teach in such a manner that mutually agreed upon foundational Christian truths are denied.

Practical steps

Should a Christian academic institution wish to implement fully the preceding understanding of academic freedom, I would suggest the following.

Establishing and maintaining a statement of faith that expresses the community’s understanding of orthodox Christian faith.  This statement of faith should, of course, be open to challenge and revision as individual members bring to the community clear Biblical rationale for such changes.

Defining spiritual authority structures within the institution.  Christian colleges and universities should have not only an academic structure, but also a spiritual structure that is based on the Bible’s clear teachings on elder authority that is given to the church to protect it from error.  There should be a clear definition of where the “elder authority” lies within the Christian institution.  Such authority should meet the Biblical qualifications for spiritual authorities as mutually understood within the community.  This may be defined in various ways, but it is essential that it be defined, so that there are those within the institution with the responsibility to guard and defend the community’s freedom found in its mutual submission to foundational Christian truths.

Clear, community-wide understanding of the differences between a secular view of academic freedom and the Christian view.  Such understanding is the goal of this post, and should be pursued by the institution’s leadership through constant reminder to existing members of the community and clear presentation to new members of the community.

In closing, it should be stated that the freedom I have been describing springs from a mutual commitment to foundational Scriptural truths about Jesus Christ and his Word.  The above is not a warrant to try to bring about uniformity of thought in all areas on the Christian college campus.  In the words of an unknown Christian academic, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

By Bryan Jay

My name is Bryan Jay and I have been teaching the Bible full-time for almost 30 years now. In 1992, I began pastoring a new church in Asheville, North Carolina, and in 1997, I moved with my family to Brazil where we lived and served for many years. Since that time, we have moved on to other places, continuing to teach the Word of God.

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