Today I came across a blog article titled “Why is Bruxy Cavey Teaching at Tyndale?” (Bruxy is a leading figure in progressive Christianity, an author (here’s his latest book) and pastor of one of the largest churches in Canada. Tyndale Seminary is a large evangelical seminary in Toronto.)
The blogger who wrote the article, a fellow named Eric, is concerned that Bruxy deviates from Tyndale’s Statement of Belief (henceforth TSB) on two points: the doctrine of Scripture (in particular, the authority and inerrancy of Scripture) and the vicarious understanding of the atonement. To make his case, Eric provides several quotations in which Bruxy makes statements where he speaks critically of scriptural authority/inerrancy or (penal) substitutionary atonement. Eric assumes that these statements are inconsistent with the confessions of the TSB. And thus, he concludes that Bruxy should not be teaching at Tyndale.
What is at stake?
It’s important to begin with a recognition that raising objections to the orthodoxy or integrity of an individual or institution is serious business. To frame just how serious it is, I want to turn for a moment to the 2008 film Doubt. This critically acclaimed film tells the story of Sister Beauvier (played by Meryl Streep) who begins to raise concerns that the local parish priest, Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), is engaged in a sexual relationship with a young boy in the parish. Sister Beauvier has some middling circumstantial evidence to support her claim, but the evidence is far from determinative.
Not surprisingly, Father Flynn repudiates the charges categorically and is deeply offended at this half-baked assault on his character. He drives the point home in a riveting sermon illustration:
In terms of high drama, this rivals Nathan pointing at David and declaring “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7) It also has relevance for the current case. To be sure, I’m not claiming that the gravity of Eric’s charge against Bruxy and Tyndale parallels Sister Beauvier’s charge against Father Flynn (or Nathan’s charge against David).
Rather, I am simply pointing out that in each case, a serious charge is being raised which could adversely affect the life, livelihood, and reputation of an individual and institution. Given the extremely serious ramifications of rendering a false charge in this circumstance, one had better be sure they have done the requisite work before making that charge.
A Starting Point of Charity
Before we call an inquest, it is important that we begin with the right orientation to investigation, and that is the principle of charity. According to this principle, you seek a favorable (or charitable) interpretation of the beliefs/actions of another person unless you have an overriding reason to do otherwise. Colloquially speaking, it’s called giving people the benefit of the doubt. While there are many reasons to accept the principle of charity, one excellent reason is because it is derivative of the Golden Rule. I presume, for example, that Eric would prefer other people to interpret his statements charitably if possible. So by the Golden Rule, he should likewise extend that charity to others.
How would charity be applied in a case like this? To begin with, in his article Eric cites President of Tyndale, Gary Nelson, who wrote that “All faculty, both full time and part time, must sign the TSB before they can teach at Tyndale.” Thus, it follows that Bruxy has likewise signed this statement.
This is where charity comes in. One begins by assuming the following: Bruxy has signed the TSB in good conscience and Tyndale has accepted his assent to the document.
Statements of Belief are interpreted
But how can this be?
Simple: statements of belief are never simply read; rather, they are interpreted. While this may be a truism, it is one that needs to be rendered explicit in this case. Interpretation occurs within a preexistent semantic range, i.e. a range of acceptable meanings. So we can assume that Bruxy’s interpretation of the TSB is considered to be within the semantic range of interpretations considered to be acceptable by Gary Nelson and Tyndale.
Thus charity brings us back to all the citations that Eric provides. It must be the case that Bruxy is not repudiating biblical authority or inerrancy simpliciter. Rather, he is rejecting one or more interpretations of these doctrines. While those particular interpretations may be consistent with the TSB, they are clearly not required by the TSB. And thus, there is no inconsistency or lapse of integrity in Bruxy signing the document and teaching at Tyndale.
Charity or Tunnel Vision?
Unfortunately, Eric never invests time exploring the semantic range of interpretation for doctrines like biblical authority or inerrancy. On the contrary, so concerned is he to prosecute his case that he tendentiously limits the semantic field to serve his polemical ends. (To be sure, I am not suggesting he does this intentionally. Rather, I suspect it is the unintended byproduct of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.)
Consider, for example, how Eric attempts to tie the TSB to the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (Bruxy explicitly rejects the penal substitutionary theory):
“When we speak of vicarious atonement we are speaking of the fact that Christ took our place in the atonement in some way. The Tyndale Statement of Faith specifically says that they are rooted in the Protestant Reformation. The Reformed view of vicarious atonement is Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
This excerpt is apparently attempting to present an argument. This is my attempt to reconstruct that argument:
(1) The TSB affirms doctrines rooted in the Protestant Reformation.
(2) The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is rooted in the Protestant Reformation.
(3) Therefore, the TSB affirms the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
Unfortunately, this argument is utterly fallacious for at least three reasons. First, (3) does not follow from (1) and (2). The reason is because (1) only states that the TSB affirms doctrines rooted in the Protestant Reformation, not that it affirms every particular doctrine rooted in the Reformation.
Second, (2) implies that the Protestant Reformation has a single view of atonement: penal substitution. But this is false. Other theories of atonement are also “rooted” in the Reformation: for example, Martin Luther is widely considered to be a defender of a Christus Victor view. In addition, Anabaptist perspectives on atonement also differ in important ways from the magisterial perspectives.
Third, the verb “rooted” is inherently ambiguous. Eric seems to assume it entails that current faculty at Tyndale are obliged to accept the same version of doctrines affirmed by key Protestant Reformers. (And which Reformers exactly? Calvin? Luther? Bucer? Melanchthon? Oecolampadius? Simons? Zwingli?) But “rooted” could also be interpreted as meaning that current beliefs trace their organic development to the Reformation. And that latter interpretation allows for all sorts of differences between the Reformation original and the current form. (Just consider how different an acorn is from an oak tree.)
Oh yeah, and by Eric’s standard, N.T. Wright shouldn’t be allowed to teach at Tyndale.
Suffice it to say, there is little by way of charitable interpretation or nuance in Eric’s article. There is no attempt to explore the semantic range of interpretation for the various confessions contained within the TSB. Nor is there an effort to understand the senses in which Bruxy affirms biblical authority, inerrancy, or atonement. Instead, there is a one-sided case leveling serious charges which is followed by a rallying cry to action.
The sad irony is that an institution of higher learning like Tyndale exists at least in part to form students to acquire the measured nuance and background knowledge for the kind of careful and charitable interpretation that is absent from this article.
Please see the featured comment below where I point out that Eric Schneider is preventing his readers from becoming aware of my critique of his article.