On Fresh Air, Terri Gross recently interviewed Michael Farris of Patrick Henry College. PHC make each of their faculty sign a faith statement. I don’t have a lot of problem with that faith statement in general. I do wish they would add “inerrant in all its teaching.” No one does, though. I just have a problem with faith statements in general. I was unable to volunteer with Prison Fellowship in MS because I couldn’t sign one, over the inerrancy issue.
I believe the Bible is the only infallible guide to faith and life, and I believe it is inerrant in all it teaches. However, I can’t accept that the mustard seed is the smallest seed, for example, because others have been found since that are smaller. Does it change Jesus’s teaching? Not one bit. Inerrancy isn’t a very useful word. Of course God is right, but do I understand his meaning?
Likewise they focus exclusively on only one of the four established doctrines of the Atonement, substitutionary. I agree with that view, but I don’t think it’s all there is too it. It was much to wonderful to be contained by that vessel alone. I would need a faith statement that developed Atonement more fully.
In general, I think faith statements are problematic for several reasons. First, those without integrity and those who view them as just a hoop to jump through or a formality or expediency would sign one any way to get the job, regardless of whether or not they even bothered to read it. It wouldn’t even slow down someone who wanted the job to subvert the institution. The only people who might not sign one are principled people who disagree in some small way with something not essential. These might be the very people one needs to be hiring, especially at an institution of higher learning.
I do think Christian organizations, institutions and churches need to ensure that sound doctrine and Biblical principles are upheld and maintained, but creedal orthodoxy should be sufficient. Making the holes in the sieve too small is reactionary, and this is my second problem with faith statements. They are often a reaction to societies which no longer reflect their once Christian roots, and I think we can’t be reactionary.
The first century church was founded in a hostile environment, amongst people who had just had Jesus killed and who were not receptive to His teachings, teachings which both the Jewish and Roman governments feared were subversive. God never promised us a Christian government or a moral society. If we are defined in reaction to what’s not Christian we are being defined by the world and not by our mission in it. Our commission is not to create Heaven on earth.
You can’t close Pandora’s Box, and if the 21st Century church is to survive we have to learn how to live amidst radically different worldviews and with less sure foundations. I don’t mean the Church’s One Foundation, that never changes; rather, I am talking about the philosophical and historical foundations that have been used to secure Christianity’s primacy in the West.
In his essay “The Uncertainty of Science,” Feynman writes about how uncertainty and doubt are essential to science. I think it is as true for religion. One has to be willing to extrapolate into the unknown. He writes that “to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to admit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right.” This is my point about inerrancy. God has it exactly right, but do I? John Robinson, Puritan minister and pastor to the Pilgrim Fathers, said “the Lord had more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word” and I agree.
The freedoms that Patrick Henry College want to preserve include the freedom to doubt, which is essential in the process of “faith seeking understanding,” as Anselm put it, and to education. Faith statements that are too precise and inflexible, that go way beyond the clear, agreed upon core truths essential to Christianity (triune nature of God, bodily resurrection of Christ, need for Atonement, etc), and that don’t allow for Christians of good will to disagree are not productive, in my opinion.
I can’t help but wonder which comes first at PHC, a Biblical worldview or fidelity to the American founding? What happens when they conflict? I think the college is probably an excellent one, and I admire and share many of their goals, and it’s excellent that such a first rate center of learning was created specifically for home schooled Christian children, but I doubt I could sign their faith statement.