In a recent essay at First Things, Carl Trueman recounts the saga of Bradley Nassif, formerly a professor at North Park University in Chicago, a college affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Nassif is an Orthodox theologian who has played a significant role in ecumenical conversations between Orthodoxy and evangelicalism and was, reports Trueman, the “only tenured Orthodox faculty member in the Bible department of an American evangelical institution.”
“Was” being the key word in that sentence, for Nassif is no longer tenured or even employed at North Park, and the story, as summarized by Trueman, is a discouraging one—especially because it represents a broader trend of Christian institutions moving away from doctrinal teachings on sexuality, and in so doing, breaking faith.
In 2021, the university closed down its Christian Studies Department, supposedly because of low enrollments, although the reasons and procedures for closing the department are in dispute. Nassif’s attorney has sworn statements from a former administrator and a faculty member indicating the closing of the department was not financially necessary and violated normal university procedures. (I have read these documents.) As those who have worked at universities know, tenure serves as a stubborn defense for faculty but provides no defense if entire departments or programs are shut down; and, indeed, there can be good reasons for closing departments, which often results in the dismissal of tenured faculty.
What is not in dispute, however, is the following: when North Park discontinued the Christian Studies Department, all four of that department’s tenured faculty were dismissed. Oddly, some months later, three of those same faculty were hired again, with adjuncts taking over the teaching load of the solitary faculty member who was not rehired.
The sole professor left out in the Chicago cold? Bradley Nassif.
Nassif’s offenses, says Trueman, resulting in the machinations of his removal, were that he “expressed his reasoned, orthodox views on marriage and human sexuality, . . . went on record in support of the [denomination’s] views, . . . and held that they should be included in the curriculum.” If all this is correct, Nassif was treated with profound injustice, including the violation of his academic freedom; if correct, he deserves justice, and litigation is underway.
I read Trueman’s essay with much interest. My first teaching position was at North Park, where I was assistant professor of philosophy for five years in the early 2000s, before moving to another position to be nearer to family. It was a good first job, and I remain grateful for the time I spent there, the colleagues who helped me in my teaching and scholarship, and the fantastic students. My years there also taught me that universities have their fair share of politics and animosities, and that the (proverbial) faculty lounge was nothing like the extended conversation about books and ideas that I naively imagined it to be. We worried a lot about money, enrollments, and whatever schemes administrators would contrive to keep a small college afloat. I knew Nassif only slightly, although we have spoken in recent weeks.
North Park and the affiliated denomination (the Evangelical Covenant Church) were also interesting in their theological heritage, which is Pietism, historically Swedish Pietism. It would be fair to describe this as broadly evangelical, but the school and denomination were somewhat unique in not having been fundamentalist and so they avoided a modernist crisis. The Covenant was relatively conservative on doctrine but supple and mostly equanimous about biblical criticism, evolution, ecumenism, and higher education itself, unlike some evangelical institutions of higher learning. As someone educated within fundamentalism, these Pietists seemed to me intellectually flexible and unafraid of modernity and its challenges to faith. I spent some time studying the history of Pietism, including some giants of North Park’s own history such as Karl A. Olsson and David Nyvall, finding them helpful in my own development.
On Trueman’s understanding, however, the university wasn’t supple enough to deal with Nassif, who holds what many call the “traditional” views on sexuality and marriage—just as the university’s own denomination does. Although these views are better termed Christianity’s doctrines on marriage and sexuality, and obviously many non-Christians share those judgments.
These teachings are not just old, but, rather, fundamental to any understanding of the inner logic of Christianity itself. There are no ecclesial communities that reject these teachings and maintain any coherence about the faith; these aren’t claims about morals solely but rather about what it is to be a human and what it is for humans to be in communion with each other and with God.
Of course, North Park isn’t the only Christian university with inner turmoil about human sexuality. Calvin University and its affiliated denomination are working through similar issues, as are other schools in their own ways. Of course, many Catholic colleges and universities appear well past these disputes, with the “traditional” view hardly deemed normative. These schools demonstrate the ongoing relevance of Neuhaus’s Law: “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”
Not just colleges and administrations, but denominations and pastors as well—how many pastors have we seen collapse and cave on the teachings about marriage and sexuality in recent years and decades? And how often are the reasons for doing so, even those given by the best and brightest, cringe-worthy in their shallow feebleness?
Some of this is a lack of courage, a failure of spine in the face of cultural disdain; some of this is personal, an experience of a child or friend whose sexual appetites do not easily fit doctrine, and so doctrine must change; and a good deal is a puddle-minded understanding of “love” or “charity” that is more sentiment than intelligence, more niceness than kindness.
It is always a loss of faith.
Some, perhaps, will read this last statement as overly harsh, as if I’m declaring those who have faltered on the sexual teachings to have lost their salvation, especially those who think I’m saying something like “by faith are we saved; but you’ve lost your faith; therefore you’ve lost salvation.” I make no such claim and would not dare to do so. It’s not mine to know, let alone pronounce. By “faith” here I mean a particular virtue, a particular intellectual excellence which allows the human being to thrive and function well.
Faith, claims Peter Geach in The Virtues, is “assent to dogma given by an authority.” It is not, he suggests, simply trust in the testimony of others, and neither does he accept the false distinction between faith in God as opposed to “believing that something is true,” for there is not really any sense in believing in God unless we also hold certain truths about God and his activity. Faith accepts truth claims. It is not a strangely warmed heart, relationality, trust, optimism for a good result, or any other such thing, even if those sometimes follow along with faith in an ancillary way. Faith judges certain claims to be true, and there is thus no exercise of faith for beings such as us—rational and intellectual—that is not also an intellectual activity and commitment.
Faith is the perfection of intellect, resides in the intellect, and has as its object the First Truth, in the words of Aquinas. Certainly, says Geach, “faith may be needed to hang on to belief in God’s existence when one is too ill or tired, or too bemused by the arguments of unbelievers, to be able to reproduce the argument,” or, more aptly, faith hangs “on to the truth once received, in spite of all temptations” or “by contingencies of life that make his creed appear too good or too bad to be true.”
In the matter of the Christian claim about sexual ethics, too many have let go of what was clearly taught and handed on; too many have refused to hang on to the truth when they are confused, or experience the temptation of acceptance; far too many have concluded their creed is “too bad” to be true, and have altered the creed to suit themselves rather than admitting they no longer have faith. And they have done so while congratulating themselves, renaming their loss of faith as “enlightenment” or “accompaniment” or “progress.” But it isn’t any of those things—it is a loss of faith, pure and simple.
Faith assents to dogma given by authority. Such dogma has been given, by due authority, and faith hangs on to truth even when others do not.
Brad Nassif is a man of faith, a man who has maintained his intellectual excellence even while a university has lost its own. I commend him.
Image credit: By © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5132019