Can Evangelicalism Survive in the Context of Free Inquiry?

by Lloyd J. Averill.

Dr. Averill is an independent consultant to colleges and universities. He resides in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 22, 1975. pp. 924-928. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There appears to be an inherent incompatibility between Christian evangelicalism and the idea of a university, for only an “open” style of Christian commitment can affirm a university’s commitment to free inquiry.

There appears to be an inherent incompatibility between Christian evangelicalism and the idea of a university, for only an "open" style of Christian commitment can affirm a university's commitment to free inquiry.


Despite the fact that a Christian university, built along evangelical lines, has been an announced part of the program of the neoevangelical movement, such a university has not yet appeared in the quarter-century of neoevangelical resurgence.

This is not to say that there has been any lack of recent activity, or of relative success, among evangelicals in higher education. But Oral Roberts University and Bob Jones University -- to name only two of the more notoriously successful -- are essentially the lengthened shadows of individuals, not the institutional forms a historical movement takes. Neither school has yet achieved the accepted standard of a university, in the sense of providing broad intellectual leadership and contributing to the growth of knowledge and culture; and neither has won sufficient recognition among evangelicals themselves to be said to typify the movement’s university aspirations. Nor, indeed, has any other evangelical institution done better. Why not?

The scarcity of students and of operating funds is a relatively recent phenomenon in private higher education, and it has followed upon a decade when there were burgeoning enrollments and high prosperity, presumably good times for institutional initiative. Oral Roberts University has apparently thrived since its founding in the mid-1960s. And even if Rex Humbard’s attempt four years ago to establish a college on Mackinac Island failed, despite the television exposure he was able to give it, the present seems relatively favorable for evangelical aspiration. There is still plenty of wealth (Pew and Jarman, to cite only two of the more obvious evangelical fortunes) to bankroll such an operation. In any case, my own observation is that where private colleges are in fact prospering in enrollments these days, two things are likely to be true about them: (1) they still have a strong base in a religious constituency (and most often an evangelical constituency at that), and (2) they have retained a conservative campus life style. So for evangelicals in higher education, at least, times are not all that bad.

Then why no evangelical Christian university? The possibility I want to propose is that there is an inherent incompatibility between Christian evangelicalism and the idea of a university; that evangelical commitments may, indeed, foreclose the very terms which have traditionally defined a university; and that only what might be called an "open" style of Christian commitment can assume university form.

When Dogma Becomes Dogmatism

Consider commitment to intellectual freedom -- surely part of the foundation upon which all university life must be built. The test of its adequacy for university purposes is whether or not there is freedom enough to call into critical question the very nature and authority (magisterial as well as intellectual) of the university itself.

Paul Tillich enunciated the "open Christian" commitment to freedom in that "Protestant principle" which, as he wrote, "contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself ‘Protestant.’" Inquiry which takes place under "open Christian" auspices must resist and reject all claims to absolutism or finality, whether made in behalf of intellectual, moral or religious systems, methods or institutions. Believing that undivided truth belongs only to God, it affirms the relativity of all human apprehensions and expressions of truth, including those which claim the authority of revelation. Nothing is revealed until it is received, and the reception is always humanly problematic, whatever the source. So men and women must be left free to criticize and construct without restraint by any official dogmatism. This "open Christian" view of freedom, as H. R. Niebuhr saw so clearly, implies a kind of seemly intellectual modesty rather than total subjectivity or skepticism. The person who confesses "that his view is conditioned by the standpoint he occupies" is not required to "doubt the reality of what he sees," wrote Niebuhr; and the person who knows that "his concepts are not universal" is not required to doubt that they are, nevertheless, "concepts of the universal."

The "Protestant principle" warns us that danger arises for intellectual freedom, not when a university becomes identified with a doctrinal tradition (there is always some doctrinal center, secular or otherwise, which holds a university together), but rather when it becomes captive to a doctrinaire position. Then dogma becomes dogmatism, which is a very different thing. The self-righteousness of supposedly correct belief produces claims for the self-evident rightness of ideas and behaviors which that belief presumably guarantees. Dogmatism is precisely what gives people a good conscience about performing some of the world’s worst actions for what appear to be the world’s best reasons.

The history of higher education in this country offers a similar warning. Calvinist and Lutheran dogmatism made it possible, in the 19th century, to attack Roman Catholic institutions since, in view of their alleged "spiritual despotism," it was impossible for them to teach history and philosophy properly; while at the same time Calvinists and Lutherans guarded in their own colleges a rigid curricular orthodoxy of classical disciplines wedded to the most arid forms of theological orthodoxy. Dogmatism made it possible for Protestants to attack the new secular universities because they were allegedly staffed by people of doubtful (because secular) moral credentials, people whose research threatened the fabric of American culture; while Protestant dogmatists protected in their own institutions an educational and behavioral authoritarianism derived from what Walter Metzger has called "the doubtful conclusion that age best imparts its wisdom when youth surrenders its style" -- a conclusion as subtly and profoundly immoral as anything the secular universities were likely to produce.

Because its inclination to claim absolute and exclusive theological truth so regularly, moves evangelical doctrine into dogmatism, it may be unable to establish the intellectual foundation which distinguishes a university from all other social institutions.

Traducing the Quest for Truth

Consider the complex character of truth to which free intellectual inquiry in the university must adapt itself. Truth is assuredly not single, as the common simplistic formula would have it; and it is precisely that formula which, in recent years, has created the intellectual mischief of scientific orthodoxy (surely a self-contradiction) and of historical revisionism, and the cultural mischief of "official" art, music and literature (no less a contradiction) in the Soviet society.

Truth has at least a twofold nature: there is truth about the structures of existence, and there is truth about the meanings of existence. Structural facts (e.g., about genetics or cosmology) do not disclose their own meaning, and no amount of scientific combination of the data in one area of existence will directly yield a vision of the whole by means of which we can begin to make sense out of all existence. On the other hand, meaning does not constrain structure; facts are not derived from meanings. No comprehensive vision of the meaning of life provides us with direct information about the structures of life.

This is to say, then, that a Christian world view does not, except within the broadest limits, dictate any particular understanding of phenomena; indeed, it can properly be said that there is no such thing as a Christian approach to any field of inquiry -- no Christian astronomy or anthropology, for example -- just as there is no such thing as a Marxist, or a democratic humanist, approach to phenomenological inquiry. Therefore, it does not follow that one who is committed to a particular world view -- Christian, Marxist, humanist or some other -- must subject himself or herself only to some univocal understanding of a particular field of intellectual inquiry. Rather, he or she is free to range widely in the understanding and interpretation of the discipline. And the encounter with truth requires that we understand the methods appropriate to its complex character: truth about structures is discerned primarily through the objective methods of the sciences -- natural, social, historical -- and through the rigorous application of critical thought; truth about meanings is learned through the intuition and exercise of faith, hope and love.

Albert Outler has been an advocate of the "open Christian" understanding of these dimensions in his own distinction between "discursive truth" and "evangelical truth." No doctrine of "double truth" is implied, Outler has insisted. Neither dimension can be subordinated to the other; they cannot be posed as rivals or alternatives; and neither must corrupt the other, "as they will if either is contemptuous of the other." In Outler’s view, the Christian university must be a place where "truth is sought in all its ‘fullness’" but never imposed; a place "of rigor and reverence, of inquiry and worship, of competence and compassion, of truth and love."

Because evangelicals tend to subordinate discursive truth to evangelical truth, limiting inquiry by the creation of discursive orthodoxies to match their evangelical ones, dissipating the tension and traducing the complementarity which reside within the fullness of truth, they appear to have disabled themselves for the kind of free university inquiry out of which, historically, has come the growth of knowledge and culture.

Inclusiveness -- or Indoctrination?

Consider the inclusiveness of the university. Its primary mission is the enlargement and enhancement of the human and the humane through the advancement of learning and culture. Nothing which is of importance to persons is foreign to its inquiry. That makes the university one of the most humanly -- perhaps the most humanly -- inclusive of our institutions.

In fact, understood in "open Christian" terms, the university is broadly soteriological in its definition, and is viewed as a part -- though by no means the whole -- of a humanly redemptive event. Salvation can be understood as the process, both human and divine, by which God confers upon human persons what they need to be fully human. Salvation means healing (salving), and healing is making whole. Human wholeness is the end which God intends in Jesus Christ, for in Christian faith Christ himself is held to be the whole man, personhood completed, the New Adam; and human wholeness is the consuming theme of his ministry. In the university which takes as its mission greater human completeness (integrity, wholeness), "the educational process is at the same time a soteriological process," as Gerhard Spiegler has written in a related context; and while it must guard against the arrogant pretense that it is itself soter, it is nonetheless, as Spiegler noted, a "mediator of human salvation." Thus the university ideal is a religious ideal, as Protestant reformers insisted in attempting to establish its relative autonomy from church authority.

It is therefore a Christian anthropology, rather than the entire corpus of Christian doctrine, which bears direct relevance to teaching and learning in the "open Christian" university. Its members are not bound in common cause by Christology, which is the authenticating mark of the church (it should not be expected that there will be, in the university, a common answer to the question, What think ye of Christ?). Rather, members of the university must bind themselves together in the passion for human wholeness which was at the center of Christ’s message and mission.

So the "open Christian" university is able to welcome into its community of inquiry an invigorating pluralism -- both on the faculty and in the student body, men and women of varying religious commitments, Christian and non-Christian -- without compromise to the integrity of its educational (that is to say, anthropological) mission. The fact that the Christian passion for humanity may resemble other forms of humanism which appear to owe nothing to specific Christian origin or inspiration, and that humanists outside the Christian tradition can make a common commitment with Christians to enlarge and enhance the human and humane, does not mean that these individuals’ differing sources of humanism are to be treated deprecatingly or indifferently; Christians will see in those sources evidence of the radical freedom and the unpredictable activity of the Logos, to which the Fourth Gospel first gave witness.

Furthermore, the university needs that pluralism for the full truthfulness of its inquiry, not only in dealing with structures but also in its witness to meanings. Even within Christian history, there is no single locus from which our meanings derive. If the biblical tradition is our primary source with. Jesus Christ at its center, it is by no means our only -- source. The biblical tradition itself constantly points beyond itself: Israel’s prophets acknowledging God’s revealing activity in the lives of other nations; Paul declaring himself to be debtor to both Jews and Greeks. And if the center of our faith is not simply Jesus but Jesus as the Christ -- not simply a man trapped within the limitations of his own history, but the creative Word that God speaks throughout his creation -- then Christians must be attentive to what God may have to say to them through the general culture and history, regardless of how apparently lacking those may be in credentials for such communication.

Because evangelicals have traditionally placed -- doctrinal, if not dogmatic, tests on scholarly membership in their communities of inquiry, and because of their consequent reluctance to hear the truth wherever and by whomever it is spoken, they may be unable to offer that inclusiveness without which university inquiry becomes mere parochial indoctrination.

Clarifiers of Faith -- or Arbiters?

Consider, finally, that sort of moral learning which ought to characterize a university. With respect to value issues, no institution of higher education can be either officially neutral or unofficially indifferent without falling into self-contradiction, since there can be no community gathered for humane scholarship apart from the institutionalization of certain values; for example, the value attached to truth-seeking, to ideas, to disinterestedness, to empirical, evidential and rational procedures; or convictions about the nonidiosyncratic and nonunivocal character of truth. And undergirding, overarching, and interpenetrating all such values is the root value of the human enterprise: selves in all of their relations. A community of humane scholarship is thus a value construct itself. Institutions which attempt, officially or unofficially, to deny or ignore explicit value questions are engaged in a behavior which is dis-integral, if not actually immoral, since they perpetrate the illusion of neutrality or indifference while actively taking sides.

Moreover, the academic disciplines practiced in a university are not merely subjects for study; they are forms of human behavior. And like all human behavior, they bear inherent moral implicates -- their practice has consequences which are not morally indifferent -- which cannot be ignored without doing intellectual violence to the disciplines themselves. So a university is a moral enterprise, whether all of its members would have it so or not.

The moral learning which ought to take place in a university does not mean some form of moral imposition or authoritarianism. Indeed, moral imposition and prescription are precisely the opposite of morally serious behavior; for while the arbitrary imposition of authority, whether mental or moral, can create conditioned reflexes, it is powerless to bring about responsible action. Such action is not prescribed; it is chosen. Therefore, one function of a university, whether in teaching or research, in classrooms or dormitories, is to assist all of its members, and indeed all of its constituencies, toward that achievement of moral clarity -- toward the clarification of the moral issues and alternatives which are resident in the university itself and in the disciplines it practices -- which surely is an essential ingredient in all responsible action.

Similarly, the "open Christian" point of view cannot permit a definition of the end of higher education in terms of the acceptance by the student of a Christian ethical view of life. Such a view is not an arbitrary convention; it is, rather, a view aspired to by one who has first confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Paul insisted in I Corinthians that "no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit," and Jesus confirmed that order of things in words recorded in the Fourth Gospel: "No man can come to me, except the Father draw him." Christians do not command the Spirit of God in the university; nor is education -- not even Christian education -- a substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit. At best, our efforts are preparatio evangelium. The late Clarence Tucker Craig was right when he wrote; in essence, that the more effective service we can render to the Christian faith is to state it clearly. Persuasion is the work of God.

The "open Christian" university will not be a self-serving agency intended to provide a theologically and ethically safe and prescriptive environment for the churches’ own young people. Although the analogy of university to hospital is not often enough invoked, it points to a critical dimension of the university’s mission. The test of admission to a Christian hospital is not church membership but the prospective patient’s need for certain healing for which the hospital possesses special competence. Since biblical sanction can be claimed for the view that healing is intrinsically good. the test of a hospital’s Christian adequacy lies in measures of healing, not in conversion rates. Similarly, the test of admission to a Christian university ought not be church membership, but the prospective student’s need for the kind of healing -- wholeness -- for which the university possesses special competence. Since biblical sanction can be claimed for the view that learning is intrinsically good, the test of a university’s Christian adequacy, as well as the justification of its purpose, lies in its standards of learning, not in its conversion rate.

Because evangelicals have traditionally viewed institutions of higher learning as arms of the churches, and because they have required that those institutions serve as the guarantors rather than the clarifiers of the churches’ faith to its young people, evangelicals may be incapable of generating the morally serious learning which is a mark of the university.

A Failure of Will and Nerve

This article began with the observation that the evangelical university has failed to appear in the postwar years of the movement’s resurgence, and asked, Why not? I want to conclude with a question which I hope evangelical readers will ask; namely, where can we go to find the "open Christian" university in action?

That question is as embarrassing to "open Christians" as I hope the earlier one will be to evangelicals. For my own judgment is that the "open Christian" university does not exist in exemplary form either. (I leave unsettled, for the moment the question as to whether or not exemplary "open Christian" colleges can be found.) There are, to be sure, a number of universities that still locate themselves somewhere within the Christian tradition, that do not fall under the strictures which I have applied to evangelicals -- though the number dwindles yearly. But nowhere in my recent acquaintance has there been a successful effort deliberately and committedly to articulate, design and implement an "open Christian" institution of university grade. Why not?

The reason is not, as in the evangelical case, a lack of compatibility. The problem, I am forced to conclude, lies in a failure of "open Christian" will and nerve. We have acquiesced in the popular but mistaken notion that only a secular university can be really first-rate -- as though secular meant uncommitted and therefore fit for scholarship. But surely we ought to have learned, in recent years of intellectual debate, that "open" is not a term which in scholarship can stand by itself without vacuity; it has-significance only as a modifier. There may be "open Christians," or "open democratic humanists," and perhaps by now even "open Marxists." Freedom for scholarship exists only where openness is joined with an honestly (openly!) acknowledged ideological point of view from which scholarship can proceed.

A significant educational and religious breakthrough might occur in the founding of a Christian university, if we could find a way to join the evangelical will and nerve with the university compatibility of the "open Christian."