Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Does "mere Christianity" mean the rest consists in only "mere squabbles"?: More on the D'Souza hiring

On August 24, 2010, Christianity Today published an informative story on the hiring of Dinesh D'Souza as president of The King's College in New York City. I was interviewed for that story, and was quoted in it. I had not read the D'Souza quotes found in the article until the story was published online. Prior to the story's release, I was under the impression that D'Souza was a practicing Catholic who also attends church with his wife, Dixie, at Calvary Chapel. Apparently, I was mistaken. D'Souza, it seems, does not want to commit himself to any one Christian tradition. The story reads:
"I do not describe myself as Catholic today. But I don't want to renounce it either because it's an important part of my background. I'm an American citizen, but I wouldn't reject the Indian label because it's part of my heritage," D'Souza said. "I say I have a Catholic origin or background. I say I'm a nondenominational Christian, and I'm comfortable with born-again."
He said that his views align with the Apostle's Creed and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
"A lot of times, Christians spend a lot of time in intramural type debates and squabbles: Are you a Catholic or Protestant; if you are Protestant, what type are you; are you pre-millennial or post-millennial; what position do you take on Genesis 1?" D'Souza said. "I would comfortably describe myself as a born-again Christian, but I don't feel it is necessary to renounce anything. I am not doing Catholic apologetics, that's for sure."...  
From an institutional perspective, D'Souza said that he has not seen anything in the literature at King's that says "Protestant."  
"Being a Protestant is a term defined in opposition to Catholicism and refers to a set of historical battles over denominational issues," he said. "As far as I can tell, those denominational issues are not the center of what's being argued today. I do think evangelicals and Christians generally need to be more competitive in the secular marketplace of ideas." 

There is a sense in which D'Souza is right. Yes, Christians from a variety of traditions can agree on much, and often work together in advancing the common good in a variety of causes both inside and outside their respective communities.  And he is indeed correct that Christians, as well as other theists, should make a winsome and intelligent case against the philosophical materialism on which the most pernicious affects of secularism rely. D'Souza has made important contributions to advancing such a case, and even has been wisely circumspect in distancing himself, though respectfully, from those Christians who believe that intelligent design should play an integral role in the project of the Christian philosophy of nature.  (My own pilgrimage on this matter may be found on the BioLogos website)

But there is a sense in which D'Souza is wrong.  Although it is certainly true that the Apostle's Creed and Lewis' Mere Christianity reflect the barest one may believe in order to count as a "Christian," it does not follow that they are the basis by which one may define what counts as a "mere squabble." After all, if, let's say, a Unitarian were to tell D'Souza that he considers himself a Christian but cannot accept either the Creed or Lewis's "mere Christianity," D'Souza would say that the Unitarian is not a Christian based on the Creed/Lewis standard D'Souza embraces. But what if the Unitarian were to respond, "A lot of times, Christians spend a lot of time in intramural type debates and squabbles. Are you a Trinitarian or Unitarian; if you are a Unitarian, what type are: are you a humanist or theist; what position do you take on the resurrection of Christ?"  Why is D'Souza's "mere Christianity" not just another position in a different squabble, at least according to the Unitarian? 

In the first five chapters of Mere Christianity, Lewis offers a moral argument for God's existence, a version of which I employ in chapter 5 of my most recent book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010). But, as some of us know, not everyone who calls himself a Christian finds Lewis' natural law argument to be compelling, or even biblical.  Two giants in Evangelical theology, Alister McGrath and Carl F. H. Henry, have been sharply critical of the natural law approach. No one doubts their Christian credentials. Is their dispute with the Lewis standard a "mere squabble" or are they outside the pale of orthodoxy because they don't embrace the Lewis standard?  

Lewis, himself, ironically does not think of Christian differences as "mere squabbles," as apparently D'Souza reads Lewis' project. Rather, Lewis is far more modest, and thus, unlike D' Souza, issues no judgments on what should count as important or unimportant in the differences between Christians. He writes:
I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.
It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. 
You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.
In plain language, the question should never be: "Do I like that kind of service?" but "Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?"
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those Who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.
According to the Christianity Today article, "D'Souza said that he has not seen anything in the literature at King's that says `Protestant.'"  If one just looks at The King's College's statement of faith--something the school requires its faculty members, and president, to agree to "without mental reservation"--D'Souza is correct that the word "Protestant" does not appear in that document. But a word does not have to appear in a document in order to communicate a clear concept. For example, the word "slavery" does not appear in the original U. S. Constitution, but any informed person would know that that is precisely what the document is talking about when it asserts the following: "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person....No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."

The King's College statement of faith, which one can find here, includes the following clauses, each of which is followed by my comments in brackets:
The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, God’s infallible written Word, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe that it was uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that it was written without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts. It is the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks. [This is the Protestant view of Scripture. Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold to a 73-book canon and believe that the Holy Spirit works through the apostles' successors on matters of theology, morality, and ecclesiology, including what constitutes the scope of the canon] 
We accept those areas of doctrinal teaching on which, historically, there has been general agreement among all true Christians. [Since most Christians on Earth are Catholic or Orthodox, and virtually the only Christians on Earth prior to the 16th century, does this mean that the first doctrinal teaching--sola scriptura with only 66 books--is not held by "true Christians"?] 
The salvation of man is wholly a work of God’s free grace and is not the work, in whole or in part, of human works or goodness or religious ceremony. God imputes His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, and thereby justified them in His sight. [This is a distinctly Protestant presentation of justification, especially the use of the odd phrase "religious ceremony," which apparently does not include altar calls, reciting the sinner's prayer, or "rededicating" your life to Christ. However, there is a Catholic understanding of these concepts--grace, works, and sacrament--that are consistent with believing that salvation is wholly a work of God's free grace, though Catholicism does not believe that a believer's grace-infused cooperation detracts from or adds to God's free grace.  Just as the cooperation of the human writers of Scripture does not make the Bible only half the Word of God, our grace-infused cooperation with God's work in us does not make it less wholly His work.]  
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, His Body, which is composed of all men, living and dead, who have been joined to Him through saving faith. [This is a distinctly Protestant presentation of the nature of the Church. Although a Catholic may agree with this statement in the sense that our separated brethren are "in Christ" and thus united to us as Christians in baptism, we are not in full communion with each other, and thus, sadly, we are not all in full communion with the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church]
God admonishes His people to assemble together regularly for worship, for participation in ordinances, for edification through the Scripture and for mutual encouragement. [Catholicism and Orthodoxy teach that there are sacraments, means of grace, and not merely ordinances, which is a distinctly Protestant understanding, though some Protestants in fact have a sacramental theology.]
Yes, D'Souza is correct that the word "Protestant" does not appear in this document. But just from what I've reproduced above, it is clear that The King's College is committed to Reformed Protestantism, and not as one side in a "mere squabble," but as  an identifiable cluster of doctrines that the institution believes is in fact true.  The college is so committed to it that it requires its faculty to sign it "without mental reservation." It is the sort of ecclesial confession that takes theology seriously, that actually asserts that this community of believers in fact believes that its theology is part of a knowledge tradition for which its members may offer reasons that they find plausible and compelling. You have to respect that, even if you disagree with some of it, as I do. For that reason, I cannot call my differences with my Protestant friends a "mere squabble," though I continue to love and appreciate these brethren, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, so much.


gutenberg'sbible said...

"You have to respect that, even if you disagree with some of it, as I do."

It's true, I am learning to respect the reformed Christians insistence on "truth." Unlike many evangelicals who say "lets major on the majors and minor on the minors" at the very least they won't compromise their interpretation of scripture. Just as non- cafeteria Catholics won't compromise the magisterial teachings one bit either. Were just a little nicer about it ;)

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"For that reason, I cannot call my differences with my Protestant friends a "mere squabble," though I continue to love and appreciate these brethren, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, so much."

Hi Dr. Francis!

I'd like to echo your sentiment above with just one word transposed:

"For that reason, I cannot call my differences with my Catholic friends a "mere squabble," though I continue to love and appreciate these brethren, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, so much."

Pax to my fellow Manhattan Declaration signer and supporter!

My Library said...

I'm a Protestant, and I think this is gold. It's just good sense.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Thank you for your gracious comment, My Library.

lwcroslow said...

As a recent King's graduate, I think it's worth adding this to the debate: though King's supposedly requires faculty members to sign the statement of faith "without mental reservation," faculty members have sometimes been allowed to sign the statement "interactively," striking portions with which they disagree or adding their own clarifications or stipulations to tricky clauses. I am not privy to the exact statement Mr. D'Souza signed; I expect he did sign the document as printed. But that is not the case for every member of the faculty, as Dr. Olasky is aware.

Furthermore, adjunct and visiting professors are not always required to sign the statement of faith. I am not sure whether this is a general rule or whether exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis. My freshman year I took a math course taught by a professed atheist (it was one of my best experiences at King's). Peter Kreeft, a well known Catholic apologist, taught many courses during my four years at King's and continues to do so now. There is at least one full professor who is a practicing Roman Catholic; she was hired by Dr. Olasky and subsequently he appointed her Chair of the largest academic department at the college. Some faculty members are ardent Calvinists, others are strongly opposed to Calvinism.

The reality of Catholic-Protestant relations at King's is more complex than the recent accounts convey. According to the website, "the King’s College is non-denominational, but its roots are in the Protestant evangelical tradition." That wording was carefully chosen, and Dr. Olasky has long advocated a stronger identification of the college with evangelicalism. In preparation for a New York Times profile of the school in 2008, the college's executive committee agreed not to describe King's as "evangelical," a decision Dr. Olasky resisted, and then disregarded when interviewed by the reporter.

My point is that the evangelical and even Protestant identity of King's is far from fixed. It's true, there is far more agreement on economics and politics than there is on theology among students, faculty, and administrators. Though Dr. Olasky consistently describes the college as evangelical, there are many who vehemently contest this, including founder, chancellor, and former president Stan Oakes.

David Neff said...


You can be depended on to ask clarifying questions. I hope Dinesh reads them and spends some time thinking them through.

What bothered me among Dinesh's quotes was this sentence: "Being a Protestant is a term defined in opposition to Catholicism and refers to a set of historical battles over denominational issues."

Protestantism's origins were not about "denominational issues." Early Protestants (like Melanchthon and Luther) were at pains to show that they were indeed Catholic. That line of thought drives the Augsburg Confession. Rome has wandered, they argued. We are truer to both the Scriptures and to the Fathers. Further, the main argument was over salvation. To call that a "denominational issue," is to belittle it.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Dinesh at King's?

The Provost is Olasky, as close to being a Christian Reconstructionist as possible.

The emeritus biology prof. is young-earth creationist and "baraminologist," Wayne Friar.

That reminds me, Dinesh also praised God for earthquakes in a Christianity Today article, because God needs to kill people enmasse whenever the earth sneezes, because that's how God recycles minerals. Nice defense, Dinesh.