Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Laidlaw College “Liberal”?

Sometimes I hear the criticism that Laidlaw College is a liberal college; or, that it is betraying its evangelical heritage. This perception, so I hear, has led some to prefer other colleges which are considered more evangelical. All of this is anecdotal of course, but it led me to blog on this issue, to question whether this perception fair. Is Laidlaw College “liberal?” This is a very important question to me, as I consider myself an evangelical through and through. I invite your response.

First of all it should be noted that the staff of Laidlaw College is made up of a range of theological scholars with a wide range of ideas. So, to define Laidlaw College as liberal or evangelical is problematic. We do not have one view. We are a conglomerate of diverse views. So, what would make us liberal or evangelical when we are not one thing? I am not sure. Further, would we want a college that presents one narrow “evangelical” view—surely, it is a great thing that there is diversity on the faculty—as long as we are united in some way around the authentic gospel and faith. And this we most definitely are. 

Secondly, what unites us is our statement of faith, which as far as I can see, is thoroughly evangelical in a broad inclusive sense. You can read it at Our statement of faith is carefully written to be evangelical, but broad and inclusive; so that the range of evangelical views that are out there can be accommodated. Every lecturer has substantially agreed to this statement.

Thirdly, we have the problem of defining liberal vs. evangelical. If evangelical is related to certain theological absolutes such as seven-day or old earth creationism, the importance of the modern state of Israel, a particular mode of baptism, the rapture and pre-millennialism, inerrancy, then we are probably not evangelical. Rather, we are diverse, with a range of different views on these things across our faculty. However, if evangelical means a commitment to Scripture as inspired, authoritative, and the primary source for theological thinking, then we are thoroughly evangelical—I do not know of one lecturer who has or is working at Laidlaw that does not come from this place in their theological work. If evangelical means that our lecturers are full-on for Jesus Christ as Lord, then we are evangelical. If evangelical means we are committed to the church, to mission, and to God’s vision for the Kingdom of God, then we are evangelical through and through. If evangelical means “committed to the euangelion, the gospel,” then we are evangelical to the core. 

Fourthly, If being evangelical demands that we read Scripture in a certain way (e.g. biblical literalism) as is common in some circles, we are likely not evangelical. Many of us recognise that there are diverse ways of reading the same book leading in some cases to differing theological conclusions—especially on non-essentials of the faith. Many of us read Scripture narratively and in what might be called Biblical Theology, seeing Scripture as one story flowing from Creation to New (Renewed) Creation, with Christ at the centre. Many of us read Scripture Christologically, seeing Christ as Lord and seeking to read Scripture, church, and life through the lens of a God who has come upon us and shown us both what true divinity and true humanity look like. This sometimes leads to differing conclusions from those reached by those tend to read Scripture more atomistically. Many of us read the Scriptures through a Trinitarian lens, finding the story of a Triune God reflected in the story of the world.

Many of us diverge from privileging certain verses in Scripture over others, as is not uncommon in some traditions. For example, where “women in ministry” is concerned, some universalise and privilege texts like 1 Tim 2:9–15; 1 Cor 14:32–34 over other texts in Paul concerning women. Others privilege Jesus’ teaching , such texts as Gal 3:28, and texts where Paul and Luke mention women active in work for the gospel (e.g. Acts 18:26; Rom 16:3–5, 6, 7, 12; Phil 4:2–3; Col 4:15, etc). This is not then a liberal vs. evangelical question; this is an interpretative question that leads to different conclusions depending on reading method. Many of us at Laidlaw College read the bible in a very detailed way, searching word meanings, historical and social contexts, and analysing in great depth the Scriptures searching for God’s truth. Many of our PhDs are now published around the world. A good number of us have or are writing books and commentaries among the world’s elite biblical scholars. I would argue that Laidlaw is hardly non-evangelical in regards to interpretation of Scripture, it is thoroughly evangelical. We lecturers are always grappling with Scripture seeking the answer to today’s questions from it. Our conclusions may challenge some traditional ideas, but isn’t that the principle of the Reformation—to be ever reforming?

Finally, being an evangelical academic organisation means that we exist not to promote one or other theological view, but to question, to challenge, to affirm, to think, to consider. The Christian faith involves a huge level of diversity. The world is always changing. Our context is bi-cultural and increasingly multi-cultural. A new “normal” is emerging in our social context. Non-western Christianity continues to grow and indigenous theological writing is exploding. Science is opening up questions galore. Ethics is a melting pot. The church is being increasingly challenged from without and within. Evangelicalism itself is fragmenting facing huge questions that are not easily answered in this scientific, technological, and socially liberal world. New questions are always being raised. Surely, we must give our best thinking in such an environment. This is what we seek to do.

And as we ask these questions, we need to be open to look at alternative views from the many traditions within Christianity, including the so-called “liberal.” To not do so is arrogant and assumptive, believing we have always had the answers and nothing changes. Whatever “evangelical” is, it must be in conversation with other traditions. We sometimes find that others have ideas that we need to rethink and cause us adjust our understanding. Similarly, we need to be in conversation with the huge non-Christian world of thought.

I suggest that in this complex environment of the early 21st century, our evangelical diversity is a great strength and not a weakness. What sort of academic organisation would we be if we existed to promote one view of the faith, evangelical or otherwise? What would it look like if we shut down one or other voice on a particular issue and didn’t allow the Church the privilege of hearing alternative views on controversial subjects? You will find at Laidlaw people who are asking the hard questions that desperately need asking. However, they are asking these things from lives of faith, minds being renewed, and from Scripture first, Christian history and theology, and contemporary thinking. Rather than this meaning we are liberal, this is one of our greatest evangelical strengths. If we want to be challenged and tested to think deeply and well about your faith from a diversity of evangelical perspectives, this we are the sort of place that does this. We know we don’t always get it right, but no-one does. We are always growing and re-thinking. Knowing this, we believe in dialogue that is based on love and openness. We want to be a community in which people can ask the hard questions and make a few mistakes in the quest for God’s truth for today.

So, if you choose to come to Laidlaw you won’t get a party-line evangelicalism, a denominational evangelicalism, a literalist evangelicalism, a dispensational evangelicalism, or a reformed evangelicalism. You will get a safe broad evangelical context where you can explore the hard questions of our age. You will meet lecturers who ask challenging questions which are raised by our age. But every lecturer you meet is a person of authentic faith, of the gospel, of the church, of mission, of the Triune God, of Christ at the centre of all things, and of the Scriptures. Isn’t that evangelical?

I am not sure why this perception or liberalism persists. Perhaps it is our own fault for our failure to communicate the fullness of what goes on at Laidlaw? Perhaps it is a misunderstanding? Perhaps it derives from the old liberal-evangelical paradigm or from people locked into a tight way of thinking about what it means to be evangelical or liberal? Perhaps it is because some believe evangelicalism is defined by certain doctrines, which in reality are matters of dispute and have been for millennia. I would suggest to you that it is simply a false perception and encourage all students with an evangelical heart to find out for themselves. You can study from level 4 intro-level through to Doctorates in the Theology or Ministry. Most that do love it. So come and see.


PeteontheShore said...

Mark we get problems when we assume that the only differences in theology are liberal vs evangelical. There are churches with a strong evangelical thought-base who are thoroughly liturgical in their expression, and yet I've heard people try to fit them into the libevang dichotomy. The same with people who come from a sacramentalist perspective who have a strongly orthodox, trinitarian faith that reeks of the work of the Holy Spirit. So we really have to get over the need to brand everything that's unfamiliar in expression or disturbing in it's taste to us with one of those judgemental epithets like "liberal" or "new age". I remember being judged as liberal in one parish because in one service I went with responses as a key part of worship.
Good thinking Mark and thanks. I think the clear and creative thinking at Laidlaw deserves our continuing support and prayer.
Pete B

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark,

Helpful stuff. Can you help me by explaining what this means: "Every lecturer has substantially agreed to this statement." Is substantially a qualifier, or do they agree with the full substance, or how is the phrase being used?

Sam Hight said...

I visited Laidlaw for an open day about 7 years ago - around the time the rebranding/name-change occurred. I left feeling like Laidlaw was pretty weak on the core of the gospel.

I'm not certain that it's a fair dichotomy to group as either liberal or evangelical. I'm not sure that evangelical is really evangelical any more. Even holding to an authoritative and inspired view of scripture doesn't mean much these days. Guys like Rob Bell, who are clearly on the "liberal" end of the spectrum, hold to these same affirmations.

Something that has begun to concern me more and more is the over-emphasis on biblical theology and the taking of non-biblical sources of context as authoritative. These combine to bring substantially different interpretations than what has been considered orthodox among evangelical circles for a long time. Frankly, it seems to me that the Spirit is not in many of these interpretations because these people often have a warped view of the glory of God. We must be wary of the latest fads and interpretations which better match the shifting form of popular culture.

We have to remember also that Christianity presents answers to a hurting world and not just questions, questions, and more questions in an endless "conversation".

Hopefully this "sneaky liberalism" isn't present at Laidlaw these days. I do hear lots of positive things about the place from friends who decided to attend, but it's a little like Life FM: when you tune in from time to time you hear worrying things which really make you pray for them.

caleb said...

Very well said.

Some groups within evangelicalism seem to confuse their own particular belief-system with "evangelicalism," therefore anything that opposes or questions those beliefs must be "liberal". Only by (mis-)understanding liberalism in this way could Laidlaw be considered liberal.

But I think this is a mis-diagnosis. Evangelicalism is much more about your other definitions (commitment to scripture, Christ and the gospel etc), than about one particular static belief-system. So there is a lot of diversity within evangelicalism, as there is within any healthy academic movement/perspective.

Laidlaw reflects some of this evangelical diversity. I think one of Laidlaw's strengths is its ability to showcase some of the diversity of legitimate, orthodox views on various issues, and (on some issues) to help provide more nuanced and critical evangelical views, in place of popular understandings often mistaken for the sole evangelical (or Christian!) view.

PS: Sam Hight, in my experience Laidlaw teaches the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (or Pentalateral), with Scripture firmly placed first on the list of authoritative sources. We're taught to take into account 'non-biblical sources' like context precisely so that we can understand the biblical sources better. Moreover, we're taught to engage culture through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around.

Anyway, where do you get your yardstick to measure Laidlaw by? Have you studied somewhere else that you feel is stronger on the gospel or evangelical orthodoxy than Laidlaw is or was?

Mark Keown said...

Thanks all. Yes, Peter, the definitions are problematic, and that is part of the problem.

To Anonymous who writes, '"Every lecturer has substantially agreed to this statement." Is substantially a qualifier, or do they agree with the full substance, or how is the phrase being used?' The substance has to be agreed to, although there may be one or two clauses that different lecturers can disagree with. For example, the Statement affirms a renewed earth. If a lecturer believed in a new earth, then I am sure there would be no problem. A few are evolutionary theists, and so would want to define "death" a little differently. So, there is some room for differences on matters of detail.

Thanks Sam. The "core of the gospel" is a difficult term. I think we would all affirm the gospel as usually understood, but the faculty would vary in its commitment to various dimensions of the gospel depending on their interests and specialty areas. We may have failed to articulate clearly our commitment to core elements and this we are working on at present. We really want people to know we are committed to the gospel, to salvation in Christ, to the cross, to life in Christ, to the church, to the Spirit, to wholehearted discipleship, to reconciliation, to social justice, to evangelism, to the Trinity, to love, and to a whole gospel with Christ at the center. Thanks for your comments because it reminds us to emphasize the core of what God is up to.

Thanks for your helpful comments Caleb. For me, evangelicalism supremely refers to a theological method that derives the centre of all theology and life from Scripture. This leads us to place Christ, his life, death, and resurrection at the centre. It leads us to place the Spirit, Church, and mission at the centre of ongoing life. Because Scripture can be read differently, and no-one can claim the ultimate reading, there will be great diversity. I celebrate that. And, yes, the Wesleyan quadrilateral is very helpful.

Thanks all.

Phil & Sue said...

Thanks Mark, all these things express exactly why I loved my time at Laidlaw. I felt challenged daily, I found myself understanding my faith and my commitment to following Jesus in new and and evermore challenging ways and exciting ways.

Albert Squires said...

I don't usually rub shoulders with liberal types (except once when I stood alongside former US President Bill Clinton at a certain function, but that is another story...). So when I attended the annual conference of The Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools (ANZATS) at Laidlaw College earlier this month, I was shocked to be so unequally yoked over the dinner table with one so-called scholar who did not believe that Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians(!) and a second lady scholar who believed there were LESBIAN SO-CALLED CHRISTIANS in the New Testament(!?!!)

That said, these so-called scholars hailed from the Secular Universities, and they were - I understand - only attending due to the conference being held at Laidlaw College. It is just a shame that the conference organisers could not have rooted out these types before they influenced weaker minds with their slippery liberalism. Don't you think?

One more point. While you are entitled to your (rather loose and all-encompassing) definition of evangelicalism, for me it is better to define the ideal, and to classify all those who fall short of this ideal as such, rather than beating about the bush. I have my own definition, and while some may say it is not so "tolerant" as yours, I would ask those who espouse "tolerance" this question: what kind of "tolerance" is it that would rule out, in advance, my own definition of a true evangelical Christian? And so we find that the so-called "tolerant liberals" are not so "tolerant" after all.

So, biblically speaking, while there are those who hold to some of the necessary tenets of true evangelicalism, they have opened themselves up to the slippery probing of liberalism if they do not hold unreservedly to belief in verbal inerrancy of Scripture, mid-trib pre-millenial eschatology, complementarianism, supralapsarianism, heterosexual relationships as the only natural kind, and justification by faith. And this is no more than what the Early Church held to.

Louisa said...

Thanks Mark, I have a few comments.
Do we really need to keep studying the Bible? Surely we know what it says by now, we just need to continue to live it out. I realise this is hard since most people think we are total fools for believing, and yet isn't that exactly what Paul knew would be required? A willingness to accept the 'foolishness' of the gospel.
It seems to me that academics are compromised because they have to come up with new and different interpretations just to have a job. For this reason, I think Bible College should be preparation for ministry, nothing more. If this was the case, we would do a lot more good for the gospel cause, I believe. Many leave Laidlaw with less of an idea of what the gospel is, and less faith in God, than ever. Others leave just confused. Others leave effectively liberal - a tragedy in my opinion.
Mark, you define yourself repeatedly and proudly as an evangelical so you must have some concerns regarding the influence of liberalism? Do we really need to 'dialogue' with everything? Do we really need to allow every thought and opinion around to 'shape' us? I don't think we do. God will shape those of us who let him and Jesus does not say that this shaping requires study, especially not the critical secular style study we often engage in at Laidlaw. What IS required, however, is the faith of a child.
Laidlaw style study, in my opinion, does not help with that and so is at best an interesting diversion for the academically inclined (I speak for myself here :) ... and at worst, destructive to the very gospel it professes to care so very much about.
Rant over :)

Mark Keown said...

Part One: Thanks for your comments. To Phil and Amp; Sue, thanks for the confirmation.

Thanks Albert. When we run an academic conference at LC, we are part of the wider "Christian" conversation and so there will be papers presented that we disagree with. In terms of Pauline authorship of Ephesians: I agree that Paul wrote Ephesians, but I don't think it makes you a liberal to believe that he didn't. I know a few people who reject Pauline authorship but still see Ephesians as holy scripture and believe in its message. They believe do not see the use of Paul's name negatively, but normative in the ancient context. I disagree, but I don't think it makes you a liberal.

In terms of lesbianism in Phil 4:2-3, if you went to the paper, you would have heard my critique. I think it is nonsense to be honest. Still, a person is able to present that view. That is their prerogative. When we host a conference like this, we cannot rule out people sharing their views. They are not speaking on behalf of Laidlaw. Similarly, when we go to their universities to present, they don't stop us presenting our evangelical views. That is the nature of open academic discourse.

You speak of the "ideal" and that we should classify those who fall short of this ideal. Well, that is problematic. What is the ideal on contentious matters. On some things, e.g. the bodily resurrection of Jesus, no problem. Or, to use the earlier example, that Euodia and Syntyche we lesbians. We can identify that as false and an indication of an overly liberal theology. On other contentious matters like the exact events of the end times, the nature of creation, etc, who decides the ideal. We have our opinions, we argue them, we defend them, but we have to accept that there are uncertainties. It depends on how much subjectivity we allow. Some are very narrow. As you say, I and LC are very accommodating. That is the nature of a broad centrist evangelical college. There has to be a degree of tolerance and openness. That said, you will hear LC lecturers speak out against heretical things too.

With respect, "verbal inerrancy" is a highly disputed doctrine. The early church never used that term. Nor will you find mid-trib pre-mill eschatology in the early church. That is a construct of Darby. Whether my comment is true or not, it is contentious. Calvin did not believe in it, nor Luther. Heterosexual marriage, yes, agree. That should not be contentious. Justification by faith for sure, although there are a range of other metaphors such as sanctification, reconciliation, adoption, etc, I would want to put alongside--all by faith of course.

Mark Keown said...

Part 2: Thanks Louisa, yes we definitely need to continue studying the bible for a range of reasons: 1) To know it and live it; 2) To defend it against false ideas; 3) To bring fresh insights from it. It is amazing how often this still happens even after all these years; 4) To ensure you are a "worker who handles the word of truth" correctly. Heresy comes when people distort it. We need to ensure that we, as preachers and teachers, are being true to the gospel. How else can you do that unless you study it? 5) Because we can show when we do that the Christian message is not stupid and we are not fools. When the bible uses the word "fool" in terms of us, it is not that we are unstudied ignorant people, but that there is a foolishness in the gospel. We need fresh thinking all the time to challenge the false thinking of the world. 6) To answer fresh challenges from the world. E.g. gay marriage. We need to rearticulate in today's language the gospel. We need people all the time, immersing in the Bible, learning it, studying it, communicating it. It is essential.

A good example is slavery. For 1600 years or so Christians did not confront slavery. Over time, as they studied the bible, Wilberforce and others realised that slavery was not God's ideal. They worked out the implications of Gal 3:28; Philemon; Eph 6:9-10. They realised it was wrong. So they stood against it. Believe it or not, the church has misinterpreted the bible in the past, and it was because good Christians studied it that we realised it was wrong. I do a agree there is a danger, and study can have the opposite effect. But that doesn't mean we don't study. We should always be "going deeper" as I like to say.

Some students leave LC less confident in their faith. That is something we are always working on and a risk when you study. But many many more leave LC on fire for Jesus with a much deeper faith. I was one of those and so was my wife. I loved the place. I loved the study. I am glad for it. Remember many are leaving the faith who never went to a college too.

We always have to dialogue with everyone. Why? Because we are called to preach the gospel in today's world. This means talking to people, debating them, discussing with them, challenging their ideas. Take Dawkins for example. Christians have read his book on atheism and written responses. That is a dialogue. We need to counter liberal ideas. That is our call. I do agree that we need faith like a child. Remember that the person who said this was Jesus who was very very educated. So was Luke, who was a brilliant historian. So was Paul, who was a brilliant thinker. The bible was written by people who studied. Why shouldn't we follow their example?


Rupert said...

Hi Mark,

Interesting post and discussion. I just want to pick up on the reference to the issue of so-called "lesbianism in Phil 4:2-3" in regards to the paper at ANZATS. To my recollection, the presenter did not, in fact, argue that these characters were lesbians, for such a classification is anachronistic. Rather, the presenter assessed the various hermeneutical standpoints that give rise to different interpretations. What was argued is that these characters do not fit easily into any categories of modern sexuality, which is what makes them "queer".


Mark Keown said...


In a sense I agree with you. However, anachronistic or not, the implication of the paper and M. D'Angelo's paper is that these partnerships may have been sexual, i.e. what we might call lesbianism.

Using D'Angelo's three couplets. Martha and Mary are sisters. If "sisters" is sexual, then are we to assume that Lazarus their "brother" was a part of a sexual triangle?

Tryphena and Tryphosa feature in the same letter as Rom 1:26-27 which makes it unlikely.

As for Euodia and Syntyche, there is nothing to suggest their relationship was sexual. If they were, sexual immorality would feature in Philippians. However, it doesn't, unlike most of the other undisputed Paulines.

The whole idea is clutching at straws and doesn't help the argument about sexual relationships. Rather, it feels like special pleading and will cause biblically minded people not to take it seriously.

Better to admit Paul repudiated same sex relationships, and then argue on other grounds such as Jesus' attitude, science, and culture.

Cheers, Mark.

Louisa said...

Hi Mark - thanks for that response, it was really helpful. You've convinced me :) Maybe I'm just sad at the lost state of so many these days and get frustrated when Christians themselves appear equally lost. I do hope you are right about Laidlaw.

Louisa said...

Though I ought to mention that you are very strong on things like gay marriage, yet in one of my classes at Laidlaw, we had a gay Christian come in to teach and make us all feel guilty for believing what we do. What's that about? It does bother me that we should be so unclear about these issues at Laidlaw. I can see there is value for students in being aware of all the different views, but surely this kind of thing is just confusing?

Louisa said...

Also, I must stress, I am not against study per se - just the KIND of study that we seem to be engaging in at Laidlaw. A more secular, critical, approach with seems sometimes to put us and our own (subjective, culturally influenced) feelings and values above the Bible and God's own revelation. Even what Jesus has said is allowed to be sifted through this lens. I suppose I am querying the LENS of Laidlaw. Obviously, focusing on the Bible is great.

Chasity said...

This is great!

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The Orwell Project said...

A major problem with this whole conversation, and with Laidlaw more generally, is that 'Evangelical' may no longer have any read and enduring meaning. It is somehow a desirable label that people of many different perspectives want to adopt is it gives legitimacy in a broad section of the church.

Mark Keown said...

Yes Orwell Project. Agree. It is a difficult label. I ponder better options. Blessings. Mark.