Academic Freedom: At What Expense?

The academic blogosphere has been abuzz since the dismissal of Anthony Le Donne, Professor of New Testament at Lincoln Christian University, a few short weeks ago. The majority of the blogs, if not all, have been crying foul, claiming that one of the most cherished virtues of scholarship, namely, academic freedom, has been transgressed. One blog carried the title “When Ideology and Indoctrination are More Important than Education: The Bizarre Firing of Anthony Le Donne.”[1] From the title, the obvious indictment is that Lincoln fired Le Donne because of its ideology and indoctrination—certainly a killer of academic freedom. Another blog was “Appalled and Angry”[2], while one was calling for a boycott of a conference that was originally to be held at Lincoln, but has subsequently been canceled (and will be moving to another location).[3] One blog, in its title, asks the poignant question, “Where is the Invisible Line? (And How did Anthony Le Donne Cross Over It?).”[4] This is certainly a good question. Why was Anthony Le Donne dismissed from Lincoln and what does this say about academic freedom? This question has not been answered from any of these blogs, so I aim to answer what I believe to be the most plausible reason for his dismissal, although no formal statement has been forthcoming from Lincoln.

Interestingly, Anthony Le Donne made a public statement why he was dismissed. In his own words,

I am writing with disappointing news. After over a year of pressure from Lincoln Christian University donors, concerned citizens, and certain employees, the president of the university has decided to terminate my employment. I have been told that this decision is in direct response to the publication of my popular-level book, Historical Jesus (Eerdmans, 2011). I have no doubt that the LCU administration made a staunch effort on my behalf, but eventually needed to assuage the fears of (what I am told) is a largely anti-intellectual constituency.

Many of you have emailed with sympathies. Thank you for your concern. I can honestly say that I am quite well. I hold no animosity toward the administration of LCU and I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many kindred spirits here in central Illinois. My deepest feeling at this point is concern for the colleagues I leave behind at LCU. The phrases “scapegoat”, “akademische Freiheit,” and “the state of evangelical higher education” have been frequent refrains in the many supportive emails I’ve received in the last week. I feel no need to make any statements at this point about these topics. I will only say that I remain proud of my work and stand behind it.

anthony le donne [5]

Le Donne, then, was dismissed because of concerns regarding his book Historical Jesus. As indicated from Le Donne’s words, he believes that Lincoln did its best to “assuage the fears” of “anti-intellectual” donors to the school. Although such ad hominem comments are unworthy of scholarship, it brings to the forefront the question of whether Lincoln’s constituency has legitimate concerns about Le Donne’s Historical Jesus. After reading the book in just about 5 short hours, I believe Lincoln’s constituency has some legitimate concerns; these concerns I believe indeed called for the dismissal of Le Donne.

The title of Le Donne’s book leaves the impression that it is about historical Jesus studies. But there could be nothing further from the truth. It is, in fact, primarily a book about philosophy. It is especially a treatise on epistemology, the study of knowledge—what we know and how we know things—with a focus on how and what we know about history. Le Donne acknowledges that his work is about philosophy, but he appears unaware of the fact that it’s about epistemology. For example, he clearly states that his book deals with “philosophical questions that guide the postmodern historian,” and he goes on to say without any reference to epistemology that it will discuss the questions “to what extent do we perceive what we expect to perceive? And how much creativity is required to remember what we’ve perceived?”[6] This is perhaps what gets Le Donne into trouble in the first place: his expertise is not in epistemology (or philosophy for that matter), but New Testament studies, and he does not appear to be aware of exactly what kind of epistemology he accepts and argues for in his book. If he is aware, he does not explicitly say what it is and does not use the precision that is necessary in such a philosophical discussion. He does, however, explain his epistemology. And it’s his epistemology that is the cause of concern.

Succinctly stated, Le Donnne’s work is (epistemologically) postmodern skepticism applied to Scripture. To put this more clearly, it is a work that argues that we cannot know past events (i.e., history) with certainty; history is nothing more than subjective interpretations of subjective interpretations. As such, Scripture is simply the subjective interpretations of subjective interpretations of Jesus and his life. There is no objective past that can be known about Jesus by reading the Bible.

How does Le Donne argue for this? He begins essentially by accepting a Kantian epistemology, which Le Donne fails to recognize in the book. Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher who argued that we cannot know the world as it really is; there is a “chasm” between our thoughts and the real world. Rather than seeing the world for what it really is, Kant argued that our minds use “categories” that impose themselves onto the world so we can get around in life. In other words, our minds impose an interpretation on the world. What we take as the real world, then, is merely our biased interpretation.

Le Donne argues the same thing as Kant, at least initially. Le Donne asks the epistemological question, “How does perception function?,” i.e., how do we perceive things in the world? According to Le Donne, we cannot know our thoughts directly; they must be interpreted (Historical Jesus, 16-17). He goes on to argue that all our thoughts is nothing but interpretation: “there is no thought, no feeling, no conception of mental content that presents itself to the person without interpretation” (HJ, 18). As far as this goes, there doesn’t appear to be much problem. Certainly there must be some kind of judgment as to what something is when we perceive it.

But the question that is relevant here when it comes to epistemology is, “Is our perception merely subjective interpretations or are they objective interpretations?” If the former, then we have relativism; if the latter, then we have a way to know the world as it really is (i.e., objectivism), at least to some extent. Unfortunately, Le Donne takes the former approach. Taking a cue from Kant, he argues that when we perceive something in the world, our mind imposes interpretations upon it according to “categories” in our minds which are culturally conditioned. As Le Donne puts it, perception of things in the world is not “a simple act of data-input” (HJ, 23). Rather, “perception is interpretation. Your environment, family, culture, emotional state, and prejudices color everything. The human mind perceives according to its continually shifting thought-categories” (HJ, 105). In fact, according to Le Donne, perceptions are basically illusions (see p.100ff for his examples). He states, “Perception can be thought of as a continuous cycle of impressions and projections, projections and impressions. We project onto the world what we expect to perceive. Yet with every new perception, our thought-categories are slightly altered. The more impressive the perception, the more it will alter our categories” (HJ, 100).

Le Donne’s epistemology is not just Kantian; it goes beyond Kant to a rank postmodern skepticism. For Kant, everyone has the same judgments of the world in what they see because everyone has the same thought “categories” (what is known as the “transcendental ego”). Kant believed, therefore, that he escaped skepticism and relativism: everyone sees the world the same way because everyone has the same categories of the mind by which they perceive the world. But Le Donne denies this as we saw in the previous paragraph. For Le Donne, everyone has different categories of the mind by which they project meaning onto the world. They are colored by the culture, family, and prejudices. At the end of the day, this is a thorough-bred relativism. We do not perceive the world as it really is, and we cannot. As Le Donne says it, “Because we are always refining our understanding of the world, every perception is (however slightly) a misunderstanding” (HJ, 101).

Le Donne moves on to apply this epistemological relativism to the idea of history and how people remember history. History, for Le Donne, is not about retrieving “facts” from the past; no “facts” can be retrieved because “bare facts” cannot be separated from subjective interpretations (HJ, 80). History, as he puts it, “is not about what happened in the past, it is an accounting of how the past was remembered and why” (HJ, 35). Following postmodern skepticism/relativism, he adds, “The postmodern mind doesn’t attempt to peel away interpretation in order to find facts. The postmodern mind knows that no facts are available for analysis that have not been preceded, followed, and mediated by interpretation” (78). All that exists in history are subjective interpretations of interpretations, and since this is the case, all the historian can attempt to do is figure out why such interpretations exist. Because this is the case, Le Donne supports the idea of revisionist history: “As the interests of society change, the stories we tell of our past change also. . . . We have revised our memories to perceive our history more correctly. I emphasize the conception of revision to show the affinity of this example with what many would call ‘revisionist history’” (HJ, 36).

For Le Donne, we must understand that history itself is subjective interpretations of the world because it is based upon people’s memory of past events that is also subjective. Memory is not simply the mind’s retrieval of past events; it’s a reinterpretation of past events that serve present needs. In other words, memory is also interpretation (HJ, 25). Interestingly, Le Donne offers no argument here to support this claim and does not engage any works in the philosophy of mind. He just says that this is what memory is: “Because memory is interpretation from the start, historians are interpreters of previous interpretations” (HJ, 4).

To summarize Le Donne’s epistemology as it relates to history thus far, we see that the mind projects meaning onto the world through culturally and environmentally conditioned prejudices and biases (what he calls “categories”). As such, our perceptions of the world are nothing but subjective interpretations. It logically follows that people’s memories are merely subjective interpretations—yea, re-interpretations—of the world. Since this is the case, history (since it is memory of past events) is nothing but subjective interpretations of subjective interpretations. Such an epistemology is fraught with problems, but one can imagine the outcome when it is applied to Scripture.

With such an epistemology in hand, Le Donne effectively makes it impossible to know anything with any certainty about the Jesus of history—the God-man who lived, breathed, died, and was resurrected—and by logical extension denies the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Le Donne argues that since “memory emerges and evolves,” no one can get to the “bare facts” of what Jesus said and did (HJ, 50). All the writers of Scripture are merely writing down their own subjective memories (i.e., reinterpretations of interpretations) of what Jesus said and did. As such, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John (and all the NT books for that matter) are just interpretations adapted to the needs of their authors. So, there are no “original documents” of the NT, or what theologians often refer to as the “autographs.” What exists is simply John’s memory of Jesus, Luke’s memory, Matthew’s memory, etc. As Le Donne says, “When dealing with sources for the life of Jesus, there are no ‘original’ documents to be found; there never were” (70). Only interpretations of Jesus exist.

Le Donne’s perspective concerning the ability to know anything in Scripture about the Jesus who actually lived in history is very lucid when he quotes the modern theologian Rudolph Bultmann affirmatively: “No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. But how far that community preserved an objectively true picture of him and his message is another question” (HJ, 76). The point Le Donne makes with this quote is that there is no objectively true picture of Jesus in the Gospels. Commenting along this line of thinking, Le Donne opines, “The historian who is intent to find ‘an objectively true picture’ of Jesus has simply misunderstood the historian’s task to account for varying and evolving social memories and explain their most plausible relationship” (HJ, 76).

Le Donne’s epistemology effectively makes knowing anything certain about the Jesus of history impossible. At best it is agnosticism and relegates Scripture to the trash heap of irrelevance. In addition, his view has no room for divine authorship of Scripture, i.e., the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. If the Scripture writers (whoever they were; Le Donne expresses skepticism for each of the gospels) were relying upon their own fallible human memory that is merely subjective interpretations of subjective interpretations, then we certainly have no Bible that is without error. And if the Bible contains error, we certainly do not have a Bible that was inspired by God because God cannot err.

It is easy to see, then, why the constituency of Lincoln Christian University would have grave concerns about Le Donne’s book and would request his dismissal. The book at its core is epistemological relativism applied to Scripture, which logically leads to the conclusion that Scripture does not give an objectively true (factual) picture of who Jesus was and what he did. It is merely composed of subjective interpretations of subjective interpretations. Such a view is directly contrary to Lincoln Christian University’s statement of faith on Scripture, which says,

The Old and New Testament Scriptures, is the uniquely inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:16-21). The Bible is the rule of faith and practice for Christians. We affirm that Scripture is the authoritative revelation from God by which we know God’s will and Christ’s authority. We seek to assert what the Scriptures clearly assert and allow freedom in other cases. We seek to understand divine intent, through authorial intent, and we seek to apply its teaching to the contemporary church and culture. [7]

Such a statement is incompatible with Le Donne’s book. His text clearly shows that Scripture is not authoritative divine revelation from God by which we know God’s will and Christ’s authority, and Scripture cannot be the inspired Word of God. The only way to affirm this statement is to redefine the words contained therein and not understand them according to their common theological import (which, by the way, some in fact wrongly do).

Lincoln, therefore, had every right—and duty—to dismiss Le Donne. Academic freedom should not be done at the expense of destroying the epistemological foundation of the Christian faith: divine authoritative Scripture. Sacrificing faithfulness for scholarship should never be an option. Unfortunately, it appears (as indicated in Le Donne’s public statement above) that it took the threat of pulling financial support by Lincoln’s constituency to finally dismiss Le Donne. It would have been much better for Lincoln to dismiss him on grounds of principle, not money. In addition, it will be interesting to see if any more dismissals will be occurring in the future, considering that the same and similar approaches to Jesus historical studies are being done by others and even at some of Lincoln’s sister schools.

With all this being said, I genuinely hope Le Donne finds a place where his type of scholarship will be accepted—an institution that does not hold to authoritative divine Scripture as Lincoln appears to do. Academic freedom is important, but not more important than faithfulness to God’s Word.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Notes:

[1] http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/when-ideology-and-indoctrination-are-more-important-than-education-the-bizarre-firing-of-anthony-le-donne/

[2] http://antiquitopia.blogspot.com/2012/05/appalled-and-angry.html

[3] http://unsettledchristianity.com/2012/04/for-the-firing-of-anthony-le-donne-time-to-boycott-the-jesus-conference-at-lincoln-christian/

[4] http://nearemmaus.com/2012/04/30/the-question-is-where-is-the-invisible-line-and-how-did-anthony-le-donne-cross-over-it/

[5] Taken from here: http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/when-ideology-and-indoctrination-are-more-important-than-education-the-bizarre-firing-of-anthony-le-donne/

[6] Le Donne, Historical Jesus, 4, 7.

[7] Found here http://www.lincolnchristian.edu/GeneralInformation/WhatWeBelieve.asp

 

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