Wheaton College and Liberalism

Answering Aaron Griffith on Wheaton's history and the Larycia Hawkins controversy.

It has been endlessly frustrating to see my beloved alma mater embroiled in a controversy over a linguistic confusion. To definitively affirm or deny that Muslims and Christians worship the same God one would lead one into completely unverifiable theological waters. To say they don’t, one would need to hold either that Muslims do not worship any God at all, and only think they do; or rather that they worship some other demiurge or demon. To say that they do is equally impossible to determine. What can be said for certain is that Muslims and Christians think irreconcilably different things about God while still professing to worship him and that either one group or the other is hopelessly wrong and probably damned. All this makes Wheaton College’s handwringing about Hawkins’s particular views on an essentially unanswerable question more than a little mysterious, and at the same time casts at least some doubt on what solidarity between Christians and Muslims really means with so little square footage of common ground between the two religions. But is it really theology that is at issue here or attitudes informed by history?

Aaron Griffith, a Wheaton grad and doctoral student in American Religion at Duke (and, full disclosure, one of my closest friends) wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post casting Hawkins’s facebook comments as an act consistent with Wheaton College’s earliest evangelical commitments. He cites founder Jonathan Blanchard’s abolitionist views on slavery as a parallel to Hawkins’s facebook post. Wheaton, so the story goes, used to be a place where faith and social action went hand in hand, but things went bad when the fundamentalists were born and Jonathan’s son Charles led the college away from that rich tradition to double down on all the “bad” things evangelicals have pursued: “stressing individual purity instead of social justice” concerning itself with “dancing, card playing, and theater attendance.”

But Charles Blanchard and his fundamentalist contemporaries were not circling the wagons for no reason. What’s almost always lost in these sorts of historical narratives is that fundamentalism did not arise of its own accord but was responding to a rising tide of non-dogmatic religion; the “modernists” as denounced by Pope Pius X or theological liberalism as defined by J. Gresham Machen in his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism. Machen’s book ought to be a good starting place for anyone wondering about why a college like Wheaton might make such a big deal out of a professor with a penchant for social justice. Theological liberals, according to Machen, were those who held that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” This sentiment is still expressed in many various slogans today among liberal believers, including talk of “Jesus movements” and “practical faith” of social action as the only real essential marker of the Christian faith, supplanting confessional belief, doctrine, and teaching.

Any talk of Wheaton College leaving behind its past commitments to social justice without reference to the massive influence of Walter Rauschenbusch’s writings and the Social Gospel movement in Chicago, ignores how religiously motivated social action had become, by Charles Blanchard’s day, a theological minefield. Charles Blanchard–and I would hold, confessing Christians today–had to deal with developments that were in his father’s time only nascent and unthreatening. By the early twentieth century, theological liberalism had hit its high water mark, not only in seminaries but in Sunday school classrooms and urban pulpits, not least in Chicago. Suddenly, to join the efforts of mainline denominations’ work to alleviate the suffering of immigrants, the urban poor, and working class meant putting oneself under the tutelage of ministers like congregational minister Graham Taylor of the Chicago Commons settlement house, a man who shared many of his fellow ministers’ belief that sociology would ultimately replace religion as the path to human happiness, and saw things like inter-faith marriages as encouraging signs of progress toward a brighter future in which the need for “statements of faith” would be erased in favor of the brotherhood of all humanity. If Jesus was Lord, then he may as well go by many names, so long as moral action was pursued.

It is also important to note that these shifts in doctrine happened quite suddenly in the space of only a few decades. The sense that theology needed to line up with “science” (narrowly understood) and the rush of machinery as the old century looked forward to the new, caused seminary theology departments like the Chicago Theological Seminary to hastily set up chairs of “Christian Sociology” and accept and fund more or less whatever came out of those departments. A recent parallel is the country’s lightning-paced acceptance of same-sex marriage and gay rights. Historical shifts do not always happen slowly, and theological liberalism appeared on the scene in America quite suddenly. These were the sorts of developments that Charles Blanchard had to work hard to distinguish his own institution from. Thus, matters of personal conduct, while not necessary for salvation, came to be a kind of litmus test to see where one’s own self stood in relation to the gospel. Saying that you held the Bible to be “inerrant” was really to say that you believed in miracles, and weren’t going to let any professor hopped up on high criticism persuade you otherwise.

Machen’s definition of theological liberalism, as far as I know, has never been meaningfully challenged. Instead it has been ignored, and historical attention turned onto the follies and foibles of the fundamentalists. Meanwhile radical theological innovations, which in Machen’s time included the denial of whatever in the Bible seemed unscientific–like Jesus’s Virgin Birth and the Resurrection–and in our time the changing of Christian sexual ethic to bless homosexual unions, are tacitly treated in so many mainline quarters as entirely expected and un-problematic developments of doctrine. Here theological liberals enjoy the cover of tacking with the Whiggish winds that have always enjoyed a privileged place in American ideas and politics. The masterstroke of liberal religion is that it convinced itself that it was not making a revolution at all, but simply keeping in step with the times as it clipped along toward some vaguely defined Hegelian utopia.

Theological liberals still enjoy the cover of rarely being treated in academia or the popular media as a distinct movement. To do so would require a theologically orthodox or conservative perspective (which maintains a basic disposition of respect for tradition) to see the contrast. I do not blame theological liberals themselves for failing to notice the water they swim in. But I expect more from the academy and the informed pundits that comment on these matters. Ordinary Christians too ought to be made acutely aware of the history of modernism’s impact on American Christianity, its colonization of the nation’s universities, and how it drives a spurious wedge between faith and reason and between belief and practice.

Wheaton College’s rare identity as an evangelical liberal arts college, has not been a product of enthusiastically following wherever the term “evangelical” may go. It has been the product of many generations of careful gardening, fencing the college in with revisions to and further clarifications of its statement of faith against the attempts, insidious and innocent, of theological liberalism to split it open.

So how does understanding theological liberalism relate to the deteriorating situation of Professor Hawkins and the college? It may not. But this from the Chicago Tribune (whose continuing coverage of the incident is stellar) is worth considering:

Hawkins has been asked to affirm the college’s statement of faith four times since she started teaching at Wheaton nearly nine years ago. She was first admonished for writing an academic paper about what Christians could learn from black liberation theology, which relates the Bible with the often-troubled history of race relations in America. Jones said Hawkins’ article seemed to endorse a kind of Marxism.

She was called in a year later to defend a photograph someone posted on Facebook showing her at a party inside a home on Halsted Street the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade. Last spring she was asked to affirm the statement again after suggesting that diversifying the college curriculum should include diplomatic vocabulary for conversations around sexuality.

Last month she faced questions a fourth time over her Facebook post that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She said she was simply reiterating that there is common ground among the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, which many theologians have said for centuries.

Perhaps Griffith is right and Larycia Hawkins is in fact inspired by an antebellum era in which strictly orthodox faith and political radicalism went happily hand in hand. But as long as we’re going to be examining the deep historical roots of Wheaton’s behavior and rhetoric, we might do the same with Hawkins’s. We might ask why Hawkins’s many media statements always include her talking about “embodied solidarity” and just what that means ontologically. We may ask what Hawkins means by “praxis” over and against “theory” or “living in our minds.” We may note that Hawkins frequently appeals to a “broader narrative” of universal solidarity with humankind and we may ask where that stands in relation to the narrative of the gospel, particularly Christ’s mandate to love others for his sake.

Now, political liberalism is not the same thing as theological liberalism, and it could very well be that Professor Hawkins is actually deeply orthodox and the college has confused her political affiliations for her theological ones. But then again, the College could have a point, and Hawkins is a closeted theological liberal who signed onto her own interpretation of the statement of faith. The true story is likely not so clear cut. But if we are comfortable reducing the college’s actions to a fundamentalist script then we could just as easily draw a line from Hawkins’s statements to Walter Rauschenbusch’s writings, and the old liberal slogan that Christianity is a “life, not a doctrine,” that bigotry and intolerance rather than rival faiths and unforgiven sins are the true sources of human divisions, and that political action (like protesting in Ferguson) is the truest evidence of one’s faith in action, not prayer, public professions of faith, or traditional charity.

My purpose in commenting here, is not to speculate on what is actually going on at Wheaton. That still seems pretty mysterious to me. I do hope, however to widen the scope of possibilities as alumni look on beyond simply fundamentalist attitudes gaining traction at the expense of nobler pursuits. Fundamentalism has always had its equal and opposite challenger in theological liberalism and if the specter of the former still retains power to move people and institutions, we may reasonably conclude that the latter does also. Perhaps this unhappy episode is another instance of Wheaton College’s ongoing gatekeeping of its peculiar identity over and against an entrenched theological liberalism that has so many times gained footholds in academic departments and changed a Christian institution’s entire mission from within. Or perhaps Wheaton is needlessly oppressing one of its own. Further clarification is needed. As of now, sadly, that’s not on the table.


Alex Wilgus is the pastor of Logan Square Anglican Church and editor-in-chief at The Common Vision.

6 Responses to “Wheaton College and Liberalism”

  1. Brian Howell

    This was really thoughtful, Alex. Thanks for articulating this. In all the noise and heat of the past weeks, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone raise these thoughts, certainly not in such a full and careful way. I’m quite sure Dr. Hawkins is not a closeted liberal, but in looking at this from afar (which is what the vast majority must do), I think your points are well taken.

  2. Ryan

    Sadly, despite no lack of (digital) ink being spilled over Dr. Hawkins, it’s still not clear what the problem is between her and the college. Yesterday, she released a letter apparently clarifying her views on the eucharist and the immaculate conception as well.

    I appreciate yours and Alan Jacobs’ reluctance to assume they know what’s going on.

    What I fear is that neither the college nor Dr. Hawkins really know what the dispute is about either, and the press coverage has ramped everything up to a fever pitch from which nobody can back down.

  3. Brian Howell

    Upon a re-read (and a thoughtful comment from a colleague), one thing that is missing here is that Larycia Hawkins’ references to “embodied solidarity,” “praxis,” and the “broader narrative” should not be understood in reference to Rauschenbusch and the Student Volunteer Movement, but in terms of William Seymour, Lacey Kirk Williams, and Eliza Healy, Black Christian leaders for social justice and Christian reform movements. The college, and many of us, are reading this through a White Christian heritage, and thus misunderstanding what she’s saying and doing. This is part of the struggle with diversity that Wheaton has traditionally had. We are resolutely “monolingual” and we often demand that everyone speak our language to be trusted.

    • Job Henning

      As an alum, I think Brian Howell touches on something really important. It is far more likely that Hawkins is coming from a very different perspective than the one assumed by the author of this post. A perspective the school is congenitally unable to recognize (for a more complicated set of reasons than I think are often discussed, but a subject worthy of extensive discussion). At a higher level, this post asserts that it is not going to engage in speculation about Hawkins and her motives. But that’s all it does. And in the process, it contributes to a smear of the professor, but in a highhanded and cloaked way that is more difficult to see or respond to. This tactic is accompanied by a dog whistle that apparently seeks to divisively summon the ire of conservatives against anything that can be labeled ‘liberal’; that’s actually the definition of ‘circling the wagons’. Look, it is Wheaton College that has taken a fundamentalist approach and set of actions (interestingly, not something the author of this post disputes, but only something the author implies is justified by some greater nebulous danger (with no assumption or even allowance of possible goodfaith or goodwill on the part of the other). Maybe, though, it is healthy to lay out plainly the fundamentalism the underlies this. Wheaton College should defend and explain its fundamentalist actions. And more generally, everyone should think more carefully about what comprises fundamentalism and how that accords with the life of Christ and his commandments. All of which should engender a huge dose of humility all around, I think–something that author happily appears to leave room for. Let’s walk through that door.

  4. Henry Hopkins

    I don’t mean to seem offensive, but I’m troubled by the fact that this article would be written by a member of the ACNA, because it sounds a lot like the double talk and obfuscation characteristic of Episcopal clergy I used to encounter. Do we worship the same God as Muslims? No! There is no debate there among orthodox Christians. As Thomas Aquinas said, if you do not worship the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture than you worship an idol created by the machinations of the sin nature. Romans 1 is also clear on this point, false religion (e.g. Islam) is an idol created by a sin nature as we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1559, 1662, and 1928) are also clear in the Collect for Good Friday both Jews and Muslim are idol worshipers because they have rejected the true God. This is why we pray for them…that God would by His Gospel of pure grace redeem them to Himself. I pray that you are a fellow laborer for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but this is not a debatable issue for orthodox Christians.


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