Is the Devil Really in the Details?

Article by   April 2006

A simple, isolated statement about belief in scriptural authority is not enough on its own to distinguish Protestants from Catholics.

Some months ago, Wheaton College was thrust into the limelight in circumstances which caused what can only be described as a nightmare for those in charge of the college's public image. An assistant professor in philosophy, Joshua Hochschild, converted to Catholicism and the college authorities consequently refused to renew his contract on the grounds that his new religious allegiance was incompatible with the doctrinal commitment which every member of faculty is required to make in order to hold a full-time position at the institution.

The situation once again thrusts into the limelight not only the perennial issue of theological subscription at religious institutions, but also the problematic relationship which exists between Catholicism and evangelicalism in the current climate of practical, often grass-roots, ecumenism, an ecumenism which has been fostered by the prevailing moral ethos of the political and cultural tide at the present time. As the West goes to hell in a handbag, those who hold morally conservative or `traditional' positions on issues such as abortion and homosexuality have increasingly found themselves engaged in social activism which transcends - perhaps we might even say `transgresses' - time-honoured religious boundaries; as a result, such boundaries have been slowly but surely eroded.

In an extremely helpful essay on the whole situation in the Catholic magazine First Things (, Alan Jacobs provides a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the situation. As professor of English at Wheaton, and a personal friend of Hochschild, he offers a true insider's perspective on the unhappy tale which is particularly impressive for the way he offers a careful and not wholly unsympathetic critique of Duane Litfin, Wheaton's president, who was, of course the man where the buck in this particular case had to stop.

What is interesting about Jacobs' argument is his treatment of Wheaton's doctrinal statement. As he points out, this statement must be not merely supported by Faculty (as would be the case in an umbrella institution - he cites Notre Dame University as an example) but actually affirmed by them; and the point where President Litfin saw Hochschild as falling foul of this was the need for him to affirm scripture's absolute authority. Litfin argued that this affirmation should be understood against the backdrop of Reformation and the evangelical movement, a reasonable point, given the authorial intention behind the original formulation; and Hochschild, as a good Catholic, regarded affirmation of the supreme authority of scripture as entirely consistent with the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In this context, Jacobs also makes the obvious but important point that many Protestants, liberal Protestants, cannot affirm this and are thereby excluded from teaching at Wheaton.

In sum, what Jacobs argues with both charity and clarity is that Wheaton's doctrinal affirmations, taken at face value, are insufficient to exclude Catholics from serving on faculty. This is indeed the key point of his argument; the further arguments such as his claim that the Catholic tradition could well enrich Wheaton, while quite possibly true, seem more like appeals to academic or cultural emotions than the kind of argument to which a lawyer - or an institutional President concerned about his donor base - might listen.

In reflecting on Jacobs article, it seems to me that he has put his finger on two important points: first, evangelicalism has traditionally operated with fairly minimal doctrinal bases; and the meaning and significance of such doctrinal bases is necessarily unstable precisely because they are so minimal. Hochschild and Litfin can both affirm the supreme authority of scripture; yet the isolation of the statement from a wider doctrinal matrix renders it a formula which is, if not contentless, at least vague and ill-defined.

I was alerted to this phenomenon a year or so back when I was privileged to debate face-to-face the then-Wheaton professor, Mark Noll, on whether or not there was such a thing as a Christian approach to history. I will not bore the readers with all the ins and outs of our discussion, but one point for which Mark argued very vigorously was that the Chalcedonian understanding of Incarnation, as a point upon which all orthodox Christians agreed, could be a model for understanding how the divine and the human connect in history. I saw numerous problems with this idea, not least the fact that the Chalcedonian formula is made necessary by the very uniqueness of the Incarnation as an instance of divine-human action in history. Yet I also raised the point that no Christian ever `just believes' in the Incarnation. Yes, Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox all hold to the Chalcedonian formula, but they never do so in isolation or in a vacuum. Each and every Christian not only believes in the Incarnation; they also believe that the Incarnation connects positively in specific ways to other doctrinal issues, from salvation to sacraments to church. In other words, the universal Christian belief in Incarnation only ever actually exists in particular doctrinal systems or matrices. Whether one infers the person of Christ from his work, or his work from his person, belief in the Incarnation as a metaphysical idea (that God assumed human nature into the one person) cannot be isolated in reality from related beliefs in a whole host of other theological themes and commitments. One can connect it incorrectly to other doctrines - hence the existence of a variety of systematic theologies; but one must make the connections, either implicitly or explicitly.

This is one of the problems with mere Christianity of the increasingly common evangelical variety. Evangelicalism, of course, contains in its very essence powerful impulses towards doctrinal minimalism. Some months ago I argued in this column that the transdenominational, parachurch nature of the movement virtually demanded such; to this parachurch issue, one could also add such things as the emphasis on the experience of the new birth as a primary locus of evangelical identity; the impact of the can-do pragmatism of the American way of life; the cult of evangelical celebrity, particularly powerful in the USA; and the eclecticism of modern consumerist culture. All serve to point away from a churchly, theological identity to something less doctrinally oriented. In saying this, I simply continue to beat yet further a drum familiar to many and point to the obvious fact that, in comparison with Catholicism or Orthodoxy, evangelicalism has a natural tendency to reduce its doctrinal base to a minimum. And that's why colleges such as Wheaton find themselves in a real bind when their doctrinal basis is shown to be inadequate to achieve the purpose for which it was originally intended.

What I have argued so far is that the isolation of a few, allegedly key, doctrines from their place in a more elaborate creedal matrix, serves not simply to simplify the doctrinal system as a whole; it also serves to more or less evacuate the individual doctrines themselves of stable and definite content. A simple, isolated statement about belief in scriptural authority is not enough on its own to distinguish Protestants from Catholics; a simple, isolated statement about belief in divine sovereignty alone is not enough on its own to distinguish Calvinists from Arminians; a simple, isolated statement about salvation by grace is not enough on its own to distinguish Augustinians from Pelagians. So far, so obvious.

Yet the problem can be taken a stage further. If such isolated statements themselves are evacuated of stable content, then it is arguable that they become not so much statements about God and about the way things are, so to speak; they end up as, in reality, little more than statements about human psychology. Belief in divine sovereignty that is not susceptible to elaboration in terms of other issues (providence, predestination, grace etc) becomes less a declaration about who God is in relation to his creation and more the objectification of that warm, fuzzy, and ultimately nebulous, feeling that somehow, in some way, God is in control and everything will be OK in the end - though one cannot then put any flesh on the bones by probing what `in control' might actually mean. And a declaration of belief in the supreme authority of scripture becomes little more than a psychological commitment to the idea that scripture is really rather more important than any other writing, though exactly how and why this should be the case cannot be stated with any clarity.

Psychology as doctrine is nothing new. It was Schleiermacher, the nineteenth century German, who attempted to reconstruct Christianity in face of Kant's critiques and religion's cultured despisers; and he did so by developing in brilliant -- one might even say structurally beautiful -- fashion the idea that Christian doctrinal talk was really talk about human psychology. Schleiermacher is, of course, the great bogeyman of orthodox theology, especially in its evangelical variety. Yet the weakness in the trans-confessional evangelicalism which incidents such as that of Wheaton's removal of Hochschild highlight, would seem to imply that there might be considerable common ground in practice between the liberal theological tradition of Schleiermacher and the theological shibboleths of evangelicalism - certainly more common ground than either would care to admit.

The old saying has it that the devil is in the details. If this is so, then that's bad news for orthodox Christianity. Many church traditions have relatively detailed creeds and confessions; and the very existence of different denominations, so often derided as inherently divisive, frequently bear witness to the fact that doctrines, detailed doctrines are important. This in itself should give pause for thought and, dare I say it?, even thanksgiving. As J Gresham Machen once argued, it was a tragedy that Luther and Zwingli fell out over the Lord's Supper; but it would have been a greater tragedy had they been united because they regarded the doctrinal issue as a matter indifferent. Christianity is elaborate and particular for a reason: doctrine matters; and the Bible teaches a system of doctrine which can -- indeed, which must -- be elaborated. After all, it is only in theology's elaborated, particular manifestations that we can give even the individual doctrines any meaningful and stable content. Roman Catholicism grasped this a long time ago, as did those who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism, the Book of Concord, the Westminster Standards, The Thirty-Nine Articles etc. They all knew that the more we subtract from the system of doctrine taught in scripture, the less we are left with, not only in terms of the number of doctrines but eve in terms of each doctrine's own intrinsic substance. This is one of the many lessons to be gleaned from the Hochschild incident at Wheaton. Both the Catholic professor and the president had a similar psychological attitude to scripture; and the failure of Wheaton's founders to set the statement about scripture in a sufficiently elaborate doctrinal matrix rendered it ultimately more adequate as a psychological description of attitude towards scripture than as a doctrinal statement of what scripture is and how it should function. To the extent that this is true, to that extent evangelicalism is vulnerable of becoming more of a psychological attitude than a true confession of belief in God; and that renders such a forms of Christianity extremely unstable and vulnerable to attack. Indeed, when it comes to Christianity, the Devil is not in the details; on the contrary, I suspect he tends to live in the rather large gaps that mere Christianity's fear of detail tends to leave behind.



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