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 http://www.laidlaw.ac.nz/en/college-information/our-statement-of-faith. 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.