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For the Sake of Theology, Reinstate Dr. Hawkins

While it is essential for Wheaton College to possess various requirements in order to preserve its identity as an evangelical institution, it is evident that if any of Wheaton’s criteria exclude rather than include genuine evangelical Christians from the community, the criteria have either been misemployed, or were unfounded in the first place. Based off of the currently known information concerning the comments Dr. Hawkins made, the only reasonably probable conclusion is that Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith has been misemployed. [1] This analysis will be in two parts: firstly, claiming that the college’s theological interpretation and application of the Statement of Faith is not reasonable nor clear; and secondly, showing how it excludes genuine evangelical Christians and evangelical role-models from the community.

Poor Interpretation

First, let us consider the college’s interpretative weaknesses. The faculty and employee handbook states “Failure to accept and model the Statement of Faith of the College,” as a reason for termination, which is clearly what they are advancing here. So the question asked (at least purportedly) by the college is: has Dr. Hawkins accepted and modelled the Statement of Faith? The College would clearly claim “no,” at least tentatively based on their movement towards their termination of Dr. Hawkins. But why?

Anecdotally, a large number of supporters of the college seem to be motivated by the idea that Dr. Hawkins is wrong, and wrong to such an extent as to be outright heretical. Ignoring the theological ignorance and merely gut-level response of many of these supporters, we need only observe that these supporters of the college clearly miss the point. The question is not the truth-value of her claim, for of course on a college campus full of academic disagreement, there will be a large majority of people who are wrong. But, being wrong at a college does not merit being fired. For someone to be fired as a tenured professor from Wheaton, one must rather be wrong in some essential way. This is why we have a Statement of Faith, to clarify what is essential, and therefore where one cannot be “wrong.” Dr. Hawkins has stated time and time again that she believes that she is within the bounds of the Statement of Faith, and this leads us to ask again the question, “Where did Dr. Hawkins contradict the SOF, thereby meriting the College’s actions against her?”

Considering such serious action in moving to terminate Dr. Hawkins, what should we reasonably expect? Nothing less than a clear or reasonably probable violation of the Statement of Faith, which the college could clearly articulate. However, at this time, we still have no charges laid out as to how, theologically, Dr. Hawkins contradicted the Statement of Faith. It states on Dec. 16, “she has not yet reconciled her beliefs with the College’s theological position,” but it does not explicate where exactly her beliefs need to be reconciled. I think that the closest thing we have to a statement is the following from the FAQ:

“Is it true that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer. As an institution of distinctively evangelical Christian identity, the core of our faith, as expressed in our Statement of Faith, is our belief that “the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice, triumphing over all evil; and that all who believe in Him are justified by His shed blood and forgiven of all their sins.” We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.”

So, it appears that Wheaton College somehow claims that the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” seriously undermines its soteriological standpoint. However, it is difficult to see how Wheaton College can rationally hold that this is the case; it seems instead as if it is being willfully ignorant of a great deal of argument, which makes it evidently clear that this is not the case.

So where does Dr. Hawkins’ claim contradict the Statement of Faith? I do not perceive a contradiction here. Consider the following: suppose that you notice a baldheaded man, and you think he is your Uncle, George. You approach the man, exclaiming, “Hi Uncle George! How’s work been . . .” and stop when you realize that it is not your Uncle George you are speaking to, but rather a stranger. Though you thought you were addressing George, you were addressing a stranger. Suppose that your friend knows this stranger, and approaches him, saying, “Hello Alastair! How are you doing?” Have you addressed the same person, even though you were mistaken concerning the person’s identity? Of course! And, as it turns out, Alastair was recently terminated from his position, leaving him unemployed. You asking about work reminded him of this, leading him to feel down. So it turns out that in this case, you unintentionally hurt Alastair by speaking to him, even though you had been intending to address someone essentially different. This occurred even though you and your friend addressed the same person, because you were fundamentally mistaken concerning his identity. In fact, no matter how fundamentally mistaken you are about Alastair’s nature or identity, he would still be the same referent.

It might be held to be a similar case with God. A Muslim and a Christian may address the same God in worship, though they both consider God to have a different Nature. And it is possible from this account that God’s identity may be so mistaken for one of those addressing God to do so in a way which is blasphemous and thus outside of the kind of right addressing of God—outside of the faith (for stronger versions of this argument, I would recommend checking out these philosophical explorations of the subject: here and here). As the Statement of Faith has no account of a theory of reference which a person is to hold to, the existence of the account is enough to vindicate Dr. Hawkins’ statements and cast into serious doubt the College’s.

In contrast with the college, Dr. Hawkins holds that her claim did not contradict the Statement of Faith, as she said in her Dec. 17 theological statement:

However, let me address what I take to be the core of your concern, and affirm that it is on the basis of this creedal understanding, and out of my deep conviction and formative affection for historic Christianity that I made my statement(s). This is not, to borrow Timothy George’s [note that Timothy George is a member of the Trustees of Wheaton College] expression, “an easygoing ecumenism that would amalgamate all faiths into a homogenized whole,” for that would be both a distortion and a sign of disrespect. On the contrary, because I am a deeply committed Christian who stands firm in the historic faith of the Church that I speak with more nuanced confidence of the God whom we all seek in worship.

. . . I acknowledge that the statement “we worship the same God” is a simultaneous “yes” and “no” to the question of whether Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) turn to the same object of worship, namely, the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).

On the “yes” side, both Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) confess that God is One (Deut. 6:4). So, yes, Christians and Muslims (and Jews) affirm fully that “that God is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” but –borrowing from Stackhouse–“if we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn’t know God, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ.”

But I also fully understand that on the simultaneous “no” side, as George notes, while “Christians, like Muslims, affirm the oneness of God…[Christians] understand that oneness not in mathematical terms (as a unit)” but as a tri-Personal, perichoretic unity. I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection, but my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety. When I say that “we worship the same God,” I am saying what Stackhouse points out, namely that “when pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.”

It would have been a contradiction if Dr. Hawkins had said, “I affirm that salvation is not through Christ alone.” But she has not said that, and she has never said that. Instead she simply claims that when Muslims and Christians say Allah or God (depending on language), we are referring to the same Object. This does not mean that there are no differences in Muslim or Christian understandings of God, or even that there are fundamental distinctions in their views of God. It is not even saying that Muslims are right in their understanding of God’s nature. Dr. Hawkins did not say that the objects of worship are identically conceived, but the same. The difference is key. Again, as Dr. Hawkins states above, “I acknowledge that the statement “we worship the same God” is a simultaneous “yes” and “no” to the question of whether Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) turn to the same object of worship, namely, the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).” In other words, when she states “same” she is not claiming a sort of identity to the extent that Muslims worship God with a true conception of God, nor that there is no difference. A reasonable and charitable interpretation of Dr. Hawkins’ statements thus show that her statements were not in contradiction with the SOF, to the extent that wonder why Wheaton College took action against Dr. Hawkins on this matter in the first place.

It seems to me that opponents of Dr. Hawkins have too frequently ignored or misrepresented this interpretation. For instance, Lydia McGrew asserts: “No theories in philosophy of language get around the need to decide how important the differences are between the Muslim and Christian concept of God. And if they are sufficiently crucial, then we should not say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” However, disagreement implies disagreement over a common subject matter. To say that there are differences between the Muslim and Christian conceptions of God already always assume an intentional sameness: both Muslims and Christians intend to worship the same object. And in order to be able to express these differences, we always must already assume that there is sameness enough to make a coherent articulation of differences. Regardless of how important those differences are, those differences imply a degree of sameness with which to be able to identify said differences. For instance, Ptolemy and contemporary physicists have both studied the same cosmos, though they have had very different conceptions of it. Furthermore, McGrew (ironically) does not provide a sufficient account of how to know when something is “sufficiently critical.” As I will show below, there are a number of significant evangelicals and sources of inspiration to evangelicalism, which implies that these differences could be reasonably held to not be “sufficiently critical” while remaining within orthodoxy. It would also do us well to recall that these “sufficiently critical” differences between Islam and Christianity also exist between Judaism and Christianity.

To put it simply, Dr. Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” unless read extremely uncharitably and out of context, does not necessarily imply any contradiction with the Statement of Faith. The claim is fully compatible with the recognition that salvation is through Christ, the Trinitarian nature of God, and even the claim that Muslims are wrong in how they conceive of God. In this area at least, Dr. Hawkins is fully consistent with the statement of faith on the abstract theological level.

Exclusion

Let us move from the point that Wheaton College’s interpretation of the Statement of Faith is poor and unclear to the claim that its actions exclude those who ought not to be excluded. Beyond the illustrious and brilliant evangelicals who have now been obviously slighted by Wheaton College, such as Miroslav Volf and like thinkers, as being too far-gone into some sort of “heresy,” Wheaton College has excluded such a number of significant evangelicals and sources of inspiration to evangelicalism that one wonders how Wheaton College can hope to preserve the title of the flagship evangelical college. I offer just three examples, in the hopes that these figures are significant enough to be found persuasive.

One of the most significant buildings on campus, which houses a collection of texts, Wheaton’s Theology and Communications departments, and a number of classes (among other things), is, of course, the Billy Graham Center. Yet the namesake of this building is among those who would apparently no longer be welcomed at Wheaton College. In fact, he holds an even more “heretical” position than Dr. Hawkins does. Maybe we should not be surprised if Wheaton College shortly unveils its plans to rename the center the “Franklin Graham Center.”

There is a second figure who will probably have just as much impact on our considerations. Practically a Saint to many evangelicals and a huge source of inspiration to contemporary evangelicalism (at least as I have encountered it at Wheaton), C.S. Lewis would also be among those who would not be welcomed as a professor at Wheaton College. In his book, The Last Battle, Lewis told a narrative involving the person, Emeth, who by worshipping Tash (the false god of the book, possibly a stand-in for Satan) turned out to actually be worshipping Aslan in truth (the stand-in for Jesus). Like Billy Graham, this position seems even more “heretical” than Dr. Hawkins’, yet I hardly think that many people at Wheaton would advocate for the exclusion of C.S. Lewis.

Finally, I doubt that the apostle Paul himself would be welcomed by these actions by Wheaton College. In Acts 17.16-34, Paul reasons with Jews and Greeks, and encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They claim, “‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18). Note that, while still holding onto difference, Paul also brings in an element of sameness to his discussion of God: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (v. 22-23, emphasis my own). Furthermore, he states “in Him we live and move and have our being,” which is actually a quotation from Epimenides’ Cretica describing Zeus. [2] Paul essentially claims that they are worshiping, in a certain sense, the same object! Of course, he preserves difference, but it is remarkable he also uses a degree of sameness from within a polytheistic understanding of a god to our God. How much more could there be a degree of sameness with another monotheistic, Abrahamic conception of God? It seems likely to me that on “purely” theological grounds (when abstractly disconnected from praxis) Paul would be one to stand with Dr. Hawkins that there is a degree of sameness along with difference.

Conclusion

In conclusion, based solely off of the reasons offered by Wheaton College to the present, we have no reasons with which to validate Wheaton College’s serious and possibly rash actions. Theologically, her claim that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” reasonably falls within the bounds of orthodoxy prescribed by the Statement of Faith, and excluding her for these statements also leads to the exclusion of prominent evangelicals. And all this we have concluded, without considering the most important point: this statement was made in the context of a decent, exemplifiable statement of embodied solidarity and love. Wheaton College’s actions threaten to remove from the college a professor who has clearly put feet to the gospel, showing love with others in accordance with her discipline—showing how politically one can demonstrate solidarity. There is no theological ambiguity as to her main point: demonstrate embodied solidarity towards the marginalized. In contrast, to this point in time Wheaton College’s administration has been theologically unclear, veiling and blurring its critiques of Dr. Hawkins and never creating a substantive public account of its actions. It has, based off of what information it has made public, acted narrow-mindedly, out of line with how a Christian institution of higher education ought to behave, and out of line with its own history. While Dr. Hawkins has demonstrated how to show embodied Christian virtue, Wheaton College has only succeeded in repeating the scandal of the evangelical mind.

[1] Wheaton has implied that it had additional issues with Dr. Hawkins’ comments, and based on some of her statements, it appears that “religious solidarity” and theology of the Eucharist may be among them. However, without making its reasoning public, there is no possibility of taking these into account in the discussion. As such, this article will only take into account what Wheaton College has given us as reasons for their actions.

[2] I am indebted to Kathryn Combs for this insight.

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About the Author

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Brady is a graduate of Wheaton College, where he studyied philosophy and early Christian thought, with special reference to praxis and contemporary life in global cities. In his spare time, Brady enjoys reading, long hikes outside, and conversing with friends. He also has a deep love for tea.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Why Support Dr. Hawkins? -A Few Resources – Herethical Musings

  2. Thank you for this excellent article.
    Voices of thoughtful reason such as yours give me hope for Dr. Hawkins’ reinstatement.
    (from an Alum and mother of 3rd generation student)

    Like

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