Christopher Rollston and Martin Luther: On Christian Academic Freedom

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
October 2012

David Friedrich Strauss famously lost his job at the University of Zurich because his views were, shall we say, out of step with the community. Gerd Lüdemann, in more recent times, also struggled for what academics call 'academic freedom.' Peter Enns was shown the door at his school for, again, being 'out of step' with various segments of the public.

Enter Christopher Rollston. Aside from being nothing like any of the aforementioned (in terms of any sort of 'radical' viewpoints) he nonetheless finds himself in the bitter struggle for academic freedom.

In my opinion (and this is an op-ed so I am well within my rights to share my opinion just as Mr Blowers and TM Law and Robert Cargill are free to share theirs), Rollston is as justifiably an object of attack as a puppy or a kitten. The man is the most peaceable academic I have ever met and as controversial as a white sheet of paper. So why has Mr Blowers seen fit to – apparently – try his dead level best to rid Emmanuel Christian Seminary of him? Is there a clue in his newly posted essay at Bible and Interpretation, where he writes:

For us, historical-critical scholarship (and the biblical languages that we still require of most of our students) serve the church first, the academy second. Take it or leave it, that's our stated understanding of things, and we expect students not only to "manage" their new-found learning in an ecclesial context, but to find constructive ways to use it for edifying purposes. Simply put, most of them will not be devoting large amounts of time to guiding their parishioners through form criticism or biblical-critical Forschungsgeschichte, but will have to help them pastorally with making sense of Job's outcries or the outrageous death of Jephthah's daughter. Our assumption at Emmanuel, certainly, is that students will need the engagement of historical criticism to help perform pastoral tasks, but this is only one component, of course, in their formation for ministry in churches, chaplaincies, campus ministries, overseas mission, teaching, non-profit organizations, or wherever they serve.

Is he suggesting that Rollston's work isn't edifying or that it isn't 'useful' to parish folk who, if Blowers is to be believed, have no interest at all in anything beyond the bare bones basics of the Bible? Or is it really because Rollston wrote a piece in the Huffington Post? And if so, so what. Because he has written controversial things? Not in the least. Christopher Rollston is to controversial statements what Hector Avalos is to devout Christianity.

So what is Mr. Blowers' motive? Who knows. He may tell us, as he has now on several occasions, that we just don't know the whole story and if we did, we wouldn't be so quick to speak out about things we know nothing of' but that's not a motive or an explanation, it's a dodge, an evasion. Or, he may suggest, as he has recently, here in B&I, that Christian scholars don't answer to the academy, they answer to the Church.[1]

Personally my own sense of the situation (which is, admittedly, neither here nor there) is that Mr Blowers is envious or acrimonious or just one of those people with whom others find it hard to get along. I am certain, though, that the cause doesn't really, authentically, or honestly lie with Chris Rollston's scholarship. That is to say, in other words, the HuffPo essay is just the apparent cause, not the actual cause of Mr Blowers' vindictiveness (or perhaps 'witch hunt').

(The fact- or rather the notion- that Prof. Rollston is obliged only to the Church and not to the wider academic community is a false dichotomy which Mr Blowers calls to his aid in an attempt to mitigate the sub-Christian treatment Prof. Rollston has endured.)

Whatever the curious and unjustifiable underlying reason for Mr Blowers' bloviations, the situation thereby raised is as old as academic scholarship: it is the issue of the freedom of the Christian. And since that is the core of the issue (let's leave aside what the secularists and the angry atheists think about academic freedom because in the matter at hand, their views are moot), perhaps a reminder from Luther is what Mr Blowers and his cohort need most of all. Luther wrote

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul's own statements, who says in I Cor. 9[:19], "For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all," and in Rom. 13[:8], "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was "born of woman, born under the law" [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, "in the form of God" and "of a servant" [Phil. 2:6 – 7].[2]

It should be well known to Mr Blowers that Luther then goes on, in this wonderful essay, to describe how it is in fact the case that Christians are free, and servants. Free to be whomsoever Christ calls them to be and servants of God, and then, and only secondarily, man (or perhaps these days, mankind so that the women-folk don't feel unnecessarily excluded).

Furthermore, and just as importantly, Christian scholars cannot, and should not operate in isolation – as though they were monastics writing and teaching only for other monastics within a closed community. Christian scholars are obligated by the very nature of their calling to speak to the wider world and thus to be, in that sense, responsible to the wider world. No, the very suggestion that 'Christian academics are only responsible to the Church' is an attitude which has far too long prevailed in Fundamentalist circles and which has only led to the complete ignoring of that scholarship by the very world which Christians are commanded to 'go into.' 'Go into all the world and make disciples….' commanded the risen Lord. Going into all the world doesn't mean sitting in classrooms gazing at one another without any concern as to how what happens in that classroom, or church, has no obligation to those outside.

If, then, Luther is right (and he is), then it is the duty of the Christian to pursue the calling God has called him (or her) to with all due vigor, might, and integrity: whether that calling be to assume the office of Pastor or Church Historian or Epigrapher. We are, as Christians, free to do our work freely, without fear that the Holy Inquisition will descend on us because we dare to call into question ideas it holds dear.

Given, then, that Luther is correct, the only grounds for this charge by Mr Blowers and the administration of Emmanuel Christian Seminary would be if Christopher Rollston somehow violated the prime directive of love. If Mr Blowers, et al, can show that Prof. Rollston has acted outside the boundary of Christian charity than they are well within their rights, as Christians themselves and as members of a Christian faculty at a Christian institution of Higher Learning, to excoriate and discipline him.

But if they cannot demonstrate that his actions, and in particular his publications, are outside the boundaries of Christian charity, they owe Dr Rollston a public apology for calling into question both a fellow Christian and a fellow member of the faculty.

At the end of the day the only question that really matters is whether Rollston has pursued his calling as best he can, acted in obedience to the commandment of love, and served God thereby; and whether ECS can say that it has done the same. Every other question is irrelevant and every other issue a mere red-herring. Every other attempt to place Chris on some sort of 'Index' only shames not only an institution of Higher Education (which Emmanuel purportedly is and which it surely must be striving to be, otherwise what's the point of its existence?) but the Church which supports and funds it and the world which that Church is charged, by her Lord, to serve.[3]



[2] Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 31: Luther's works, vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (344). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[3] For a newly published collection of essays precisely about the issue of academic freedom, though more widely focused than just on biblical studies, see

Comments (21)

Jim, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you the guy who applauded what happened to Pete Enns?

If so, you are a curious choice to write about academic freedom.

I would find it disgraceful for a university to discipline a professor for having a different opinion on a matter of scholarship, but what exactly is happening here? There seems to be a lot of bluster, but what are the facts? Has Rollston been fired or disciplined in any way? Is he facing a hearing? Does he work under a contract?

#1 - Nash - 10/10/2012 - 13:47

What are the statutes of the institution and what is its contract with Rollston? If they make it clear that members of the college are required to defend a certain theological position which R has in fact abandoned then his opponents are acting within their rights, though it's deeply disappointing that these rights are still claimed and exercised. The effect is less to excommunicate R from the college than to excommunicate the college from normal scholarly discussion.
If the statutes etc. promise normal academic freedom then I hope R takes devastating legal action.

#2 - Martin - 10/10/2012 - 21:20

AS I commented in a response to Blowers' defense, this is not about theological positions, except if you are against women having anything to say in the church. It seems much more like a personal vendetta with a very thin reasoning. Read the HuffPo article and tell me what is offensive iéven to conservative Christiains? Except from those few already mentioned.

#3 - Niels Peter lemche - 10/11/2012 - 10:15

Nash and Martin, from other posts and comments I gather that Rollston is a tenured professor, so he has established rights not to be fired without cause. Blowers has publicly threatened him with disciplinary action. ECS does not have a doctrinal statement that professors must profess. Blowers has most recently said nothing but it is an internal matter so buzz off.

#4 - Mark Erickson - 10/11/2012 - 12:24

Jim, you yourself are guilty "I'm an insider so buzz off" mentality. You just draw the circle a tiny bit wider. Secularists have entirely legitimate things to say about academic freedom, as you yourself admit in your last footnote. Academic freedom isn't subject matter dependent.

What I would like to see is Verenna's original issue addressed: the tension between academic freedom and confessional institutions. Ignoring the conflict will not make it go away. No, ignoring it will just allow you to defend academic freedom up until the point that it criticizes your own confession of faith.

Or to go back even further, to Blower's charge that things are only biblical values after you analyze and interpret the entire bible to come to a weight of evidence conclusion. That's ridiculous. Misogyny was a value quite clearly expressed in some OT texts. To say that it is wrong to call it a biblical value is the worst pedantry. And insulting to all people to say the general public can't handle such an issue without a Sunday school teacher by your side.

And I hope everyone knows that "angry atheist" is ad hominem. Luther was an incredibly angry Christian at times, but that doesn't disqualify what he said. (The content of his anger, such as his virulent anti-semitism, often does however)

#5 - Mark Erickson - 10/11/2012 - 14:00

Here is the headline in Jim's blog in March about Pete Enns, whose situation seems parallel:

"Peter Enns Has Proven that Westminster Was Right to Sack Him."

Given that sentiment, Jim West is the absolutely worst choice to write an article of this type. In fact, I think it disqualifies West from commenting on just about anything serious at all. If Westminster was right to "sack" a fabulous scholar and gentleman in Enns, why is Emmanuel not free to do the same?

Now, I think Rollston's HuffPost article was spot on, and given what Mark Erickson says, disciplining him would be an outrageous move.

But there is a serious problem in how these issues are debated in this allegedly scholarly world. It seems that opinions are based less on principles and more on which clique you belong to.

#6 - Nash - 10/11/2012 - 14:10

'Nash' - Enns moved away from the position of his institution. Knowing the consequences. Rollston has done no such thing, so you're just trying to compare apples to lean ground turkey.

'Mark', nothing you've written adds to the discussion one bit. So your remarks are irrelevant.

#7 - Jim West - 10/11/2012 - 15:02


YOU brought up Enns in your article. The obvious context was that what happened to Rollston was similar to what happened to Enns.

Otherwise, what would be the point in naming him as an example? And after raising Enns as an example, why didn't you tell readers why you believe the two situations are different? Indeed, unless I recalled your unfortunate blog post, I would have concluded that you thought Enns was treated unfairly.

Maybe you can explain now what exactly is this bright line? What is your criteria for "moving away" from an institution?

I think scholars should have absolute freedom, except in an exceptional circumstance. Enns' rather mild crtique of inerrency -- and the polite tone of his book -- was nowhere close to that line, IMO.

But the larger point is that your unnecessarily bombastic and loudly public defense of the "sacking" of an extrordinarily gifted and gentlemanly academic should disqualify you from writing an article such as this.

You have the right to write anything on your own blog, but if I edited Bible & Interpretation, I would have sought another author to defend Rollston.

#8 - Nash - 10/11/2012 - 17:35

Jim, someone pointed me to your post here in Rollston and an early post where you commented on my situation at Westminster Seminary. I have to say I too was a bit perplexed as others here are.

What you feel about Rollston's situation and mine is of no concern to me, and people who have interest in such things can form their own opinion, though I would hope they had better things to do. But I do want to say--for the benefit of others--that saying as you do in your comment above that I moved away from the position of my institution knowing the consequences is not a statement that someone knowledgable of the circumstances would make.

Again, feel free to have your opinion, if you feel it is your responsibility to form such opinions, but at least do so knowing that the principle participant that it bears only a superficial resemblance to the facts.

#9 - Peter Enns - 10/11/2012 - 18:15

Well, 'Nash', perhaps you should write something besides comments. Perhaps you should expend some energy in actually contributing to discussions.

Peter, you've taken the same line as Mr Blowers; i.e., 'if you knew the whole story...' etc. But just exactly what more needs to be known in either your situation or Rollston's? Are there secrets that remain hidden underneath the veneer of academic respectability that neither you nor your former employer wish to divulge? Why not, if not?

And if the facts as they are known are the 'whole story' exactly how have I mis-understood them in your case? You knew what Westminster was before you went there, signed an accord, and then changed your position, which you are of course free to do. Why were you, or anyone else, surprised when you were asked to depart, given your breaking of an agreement?

And again, in Rollston's situation none of that is the case. I.e., he didn't sign any confession of belief nor did he change his position vis a vis central beliefs. So his case and yours are completely different, resulting in differing assessments.

If I'm missing something or have been misinformed, I'm eager to learn.

#10 - Jim West - 10/11/2012 - 19:06


I'm a little puzzed by your suggestion. How exactly do I contribute to discussions other than commenting on articles? I'm not part of your industry.

I know academics complain a lot about the press, but at least the media has established standards about what it reports.

What would be appropriate here would be some on-the-record facts about the situation. Even if you are 100% correct about your facts, without sources the facts are meaningless.

Right or wrong, this article is filled with unsourced assertions and opinions. You say: "If I'm missing something or have been misinformed, I'm eager to learn." Those are things that someone in the media has to ask BEFORE something is printed.

Again, you can say what you will on a blog, but if this site represents an institution, there should be somebody at the institution checking to ensure that the content meets some minimum standard before it is published.

#11 - Nash - 10/11/2012 - 21:40


What exactly do you want me to write? Is commmenting here not contributing to discussions?

Don't get me wrong, I'd like to help, but I have no connection with your industry.

#12 - Nash - 10/12/2012 - 15:57


Jim is, it appears, pointing out the dissimilarity between the case of Rollston on the one hand and Strauss, Enns, and Ludemann on the other.

Radically departing from the stated and contractually obligated standards of an organization has obvious consequences. I have to tell my students all the time that the syllabus is a contract and deviating from it is disastrous. Rollston, as Jim has pointed out, did not deviate.

I find Peter Enns writings compelling and I have not desire to take Jim's side of Peter's in their discussion, but it seems obvious to me that Jim is using three examples to create a contrast with the present case.

I have no terminal degree, but I do know how to read and feel that this skill qualifies me to add to this discussion.

But, what do I know?


#13 - Geoff Smith - 10/12/2012 - 16:54


1) Jim brought up Enns in the article and never mentioned him again, although there is a lot about Martin Luther. I don't see how that points out dissimilarity.

Besides, the standard Jim endorses in the article is not strictly contractual. This is the article's conclusion: "At the end of the day the only question that really matters is whether Rollston has pursued his calling as best he can, acted in obedience to the commandment of love, and served God thereby; and whether ECS can say that it has done the same. Every other question is irrelevant and every other issue a mere red-herring."

Can you point to something in the article that says his examples all point to different conclusions? That he needs to clarify his meaning in the comments demonstrates the lack of clarity in the article.

2) With all this talk about violating contracts and standards, it would be helpful to actually read some of the contractual language. An assertion that someone did or did not violate a contract is rather meaningless without knowing the language of the contract.

3) A syllabus might be "like" a contract but it is not. Contracts can be enforced by the judicial system. I don't think the same is true of a syllabus, although what this has to do with anything I'm not sure.

4) Why are you asking me what you know? We are not acquainted.

#14 - Nash - 10/12/2012 - 18:10


It would seem you are not a professor. The Course Syllabus is a uniquely important item, and is very much like a contract.

But, Nash (and moderator, I thought the full name was to be provided), have you responded to Dr. West's article, or are you merely attempting to divert attention?

#15 - Joel Watts - 10/12/2012 - 21:39

Should we not return to the problem: Why ECS wants to get rid of Rollston? It cannot be his HuffPo contribution. There is absolutely nothing offensive here. So it may be personal matters or a new trend at ECS (increasing fundamentalism?). I do not know but it would be interesting to get better informed. Until then Dr Bowers' attack on him must be counted "insane".

#16 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/13/2012 - 11:28

Dear Dr. West:

At a description of ECS runs as follows: "Emmanuel Christian Seminary is a Graduate Christian Seminary committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and to the vision of the unity of world Christianity as arising from the work of such thinkers as Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone."

Notice the part about ECS being committed to the authority of Scripture. Contrast this with Dr. Rollston's statements that what Scripture says is not to be valued. You really don't see two different and opposite views being exercised??

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

#17 - James Snapp, Jr. - 10/14/2012 - 04:11

Dear Dr. Lemche:

At the ECS website, ECS is described as an institution that is committed to the authority of Scripture. So it should surprise no one that when a professor at such a school openly tells his readers that what Scripture teaches should not be valued, he might face some sort of consequences from the school's stewards who do not want to appear inconsistent or dishonest.

Yet some people are so shocked by this that they conclude (or appear to conclude) that anyone who attempts to maintain ECS' commitment to the authority of Scripture may as well be a Klansman or a Taliban-member or, in the latest analysis, possibly insane.

If this were to continue indefinitely, people would probably eventually grow weary of such insults, conclude that the insultors' opinions do not matter nearly as much as they think they do, and move on. How much better it will be, though, when such insults are avoided, the gracious aspects of our characters are allowed to shine, and we all contribute to an ambience of kindness.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

#18 - James Snapp, Jr. - 10/14/2012 - 04:38


Emmanuel is committed to the authority of scripture, not the inerrancy or infallibility of scripture. Dr. Rollston did not say, as you claim, that "scripture" is not authoritative. He said that some parts of scripture are problematic while others are liberative. This is perfectly consistent with Emmanuel's position on scripture, and is taught widely among the faculty at Emmanuel. Having spent three years there, I know.

#19 - Thom Stark - 10/15/2012 - 00:06

Dear Thom:

First: can I quote your first sentence?

Second: inasmuch as Dr. Rollston wrote, "The Bible often marginalized women and that's not something anyone should value," and inasmuch as the article's title presented the marginalization of woman as a Biblical value, and inasmuch as he describes statements in the Bible that oppose the marginalization of women as "the exception, not the rule," I conclude that it takes more squinting that I am capable of to see that his Huffington Post article does not challenge and deny the authority of the Bible. Perhaps some additional comments from Dr. Rollston could clarify things, but even when I try to interpret his article optimistically, it still conveys that some doctrinal things that the Bible teaches should be rejected. That constitutes a rejection of the authority of the Bible (regardless of one's view of inerrancy).

While, as you said, he said that some parts of scripture are problematic while others are liberative, it looks to me like he did not make an adequate attempt to invite readers to resolve the problems except by dismissing those texts.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

#20 - James Snapp, Jr. - 10/15/2012 - 17:51

There is a reasonable case for saying that if you claim that scripture promotes false and undesirable values in some important respects you are opposing its authority, not merely its inerrancy.
If you set up an institution where respect for a certain authority is enforced you obtain a reliable stream of defences of the authority in question. I suppose that it is morally permitted to set up institutions of this sort. On the other hand you make the people who work for this institution into people who are paid to take a certain view and punished if they depart from it, meaning that everyone will know that the defences of authority thus obtained do not have the status of impartial judgements.
The Sceptical Fundamentalist Manifesto, just made up by me, says that all holy scripture is written for our learning but that we can make its authority survive only by subjecting to the most searching and relentless criticism, ie absolutely not by silencing and punishing people who raise questions or indeed by refusing to confront questions that occur to us. Some solutions satisfactory to traditional faith will probably be found, but not always and not at once, so that our living with unsolved problems over scripture, both in respect of factual record and of value judgement, is to be expected. There is no faith without scepticism, though there is an unattractive form of authoritarianism.

#21 - Martin - 10/18/2012 - 12:02

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