Overview:

William Lane Craig dismisses bias as unimportant since everyone has it. I disagree. But his argument allows me to make a clarification about how we evaluate a scholarly argument.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Physicists and sociologists don’t use the same tools, but they don’t need to be kept in separate universities with incompatible ideas about academic freedom. What does that say about Christianity that many Christian colleges have faith requirements for students and faculty?

This is the third and final article in a series responding to William Lane Craig’s response to my attack on faith statements (part 1).

Bias? That’s not a problem. We’re all biased!

Dr. Craig (WLC) has an interesting response to the problem of bias.

Finally, and most importantly, the allegation of bias is ultimately irrelevant…. Every historian approaches a topic with his biases and point of view…. As the history is supported by the weight of the evidence, the historian’s personal biases become irrelevant.

This is the “So what if I’m biased? Everyone’s biased!” argument. I guess I’m old-fashioned on this subject because I’d like to think that bias isn’t binary (you’re biased or you’re not) but is measured on a scale, and we can and should strive to be as unbiased as possible.

The point can be generalized. We all have our biases, including atheists. (If Christian scholars need to attach a disclaimer to their work, so do atheists!)

When I subordinate myself to an unchanging statement, I’ll do just that. Until then, I’m free to reach any conclusion the evidence leads me to, and I only have fear of embarrassment keeping me from changing my mind. No job rides on this. The situation for the professional Christian scholar is quite different.

[WLC] is part of a church in which a perfect God made a clear statement of his unchanging rules that unaccountably is so ambiguous that new Christian denominations are splintering off at a rate of two per day.

I agree with WLC on a point

WLC does make one important point, so let me take the opportunity to clarify my position. He said:

But our work is to be judged by the soundness of our arguments, not by our biases. So you’ll never find me dismissing the work of an atheist philosopher on the grounds that he is biased, even though it may be blatantly obvious. Rather I seek to expose the fallacy in his reasoning or the false or unjustified premiss in his argument.

So the answer to your question, How do we know if the work of a Christian scholar is to be trusted? is easy: you assess it by the arguments and evidence he offers in support of his conclusions. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

Yes, it would be an ad hominem fallacy to reject the work out of hand solely because it came from a Christian scholar. “That article came from a Christian scholar bound by a doctrinal statement; therefore, it’s garbage” would be an example of this error.

Here’s what I’m saying.

1. Christian institutions hurt themselves with doctrinal statements because those statements put a cloud of doubt over their scholars’ work. Signing such a statement binds the scholars to never reach a contrary conclusion on any of its points of dogma. They can never agree with one of those points without our dismissing the work as an inevitable conclusion rather than the result of honest research. It’s a disservice to the scholars, and it’s a disservice to their work.

2. WLC is right that I can analyze the arguments in an article and judge for myself, but this is my only option. I can’t accept or reject the conclusion without that analysis because the doctrinal statement means the author and their institution have no inherent reputation.

I can’t say, “Well, this article comes from MIT, and their physics department has a great reputation, so I’ll initially assume that it’s reliable.” Instead, I’ll be thinking, “This Christian author is has no initial reputation. He is bound by his doctrinal statement to come to this conclusion, so he has an uphill climb to show me that his conclusion is well founded.”

3. Nonexpert readers will often be unable to do the analysis. Let me illustrate with an example. A few years ago, I had lunch with three Christians from the local Reasons to Believe chapter (RTB is an old-earth Creationist group). We were talking about whether Daniel accurately prophesied Jesus (it didn’t). I summarized the evidence that Daniel was written in the 160s BCE. One of my antagonists replied that that was impossible since the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) was written around 300 BCE. How could Daniel have been written in the 160s if it was included in the Septuagint? The answer, which I had to research afterwards to find out, is that only the Pentateuch (the first five books) were included in the original Septuagint, so that 300 BCE date of authorship doesn’t apply to Daniel.

Expert readers might be able to provide the devil’s advocate challenges to test the work, as WLC suggests, but not all readers are experts. WLC’s response becomes, “So you think that their conclusion is flawed? Prove it!” but that’s an unreasonable burden on the reader and a handicap to the author’s reputation.

4. This option isn’t available beyond a single paper. Take this actual headline as an example: “12 Historical Facts About The Resurrection Of Jesus Most Scholars Agree Upon.” If these “scholars” are bound by doctrinal statements, WLC’s solution would be to just read their work and evaluate it. But that’s not available to us when there’s an appeal to the consensus of an entire discipline as in this case. If these scholars are constrained in their work, this appeal is meaningless.

Academic freedom at a Christian college

WLC brings up Ivy League schools as exemplars but never addresses the elephant in the room: that they don’t use doctrinal statements. Indeed, they are world class institutions in part because they don’t use them. Doctrinal statements are incompatible with free inquiry.

WLC is a professor at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, and Talbot gets its accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). This makes Talbot answerable to the ATS policy guidelines on “Academic Freedom and Tenure.” While this policy accepts doctrinal statements (“specific confessional adherence”), it also demands, “No confessional standard obviates the requirement for responsible liberty of conscience in the Jewish or the Christian community or the practice of the highest ideals of academic freedom.”

It also provides for tenure to protect scholars: “The provision for appointment on indefinite tenure is one way in which institutions safeguard their faculties’ freedom to teach, to inquire, and to organize their academic programs.”

Given that this is an accreditation association for theology schools, there are presumably interpretations or loopholes that allow binding doctrinal statements. Nevertheless, this is a lot more respect for academic freedom than WLC seemed interested in defending or even acknowledging.

Conclusion

Freedom to change one’s mind is an essential right in any institution. It’s a foundational concept in the academic freedom that reigns within the Ivy League colleges that WLC says he admires.

WLC’s unhelpful response is to say that it doesn’t bother him that there are constraints. They don’t get in his way. He doesn’t need to change his mind. But if they hobble your life … well, then it sucks to be you.

I can perhaps see WLC’s position. He is part of a church in which a perfect God made a clear statement of his unchanging rules that unaccountably are so ambiguous that new Christian denominations are splintering off at a rate of two per day. The doctrinal statement could be his finger in the dike, though that’s a futile gesture when he wants to simultaneously carve out a safe space for Christian thought while polishing the image of Christianity as a field able to hold its own in the marketplace of ideas.

He can’t have both.

The Bible:
The Goatherder’s Guide to the Universe
— Seth Andrews, Thinking Atheist podcast

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...