Be Careful How You Oppose Gay Marriage

By Denny Burk

August 28, 2003

The Episcopal Church’s decision to allow local churches to “explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions” has drawn ire and refutations from conservative critics of gay marriage.[1] For example, Maggie Gallagher’s recent article in The Weekly Standard contends that same-sex marriage only exacerbates the “crisis” that has occurred in the institution of marriage in the United States.[2] Citing a Child Trends research brief, she demonstrates that the “family structure” of monogamous married couples is crucial for raising healthy children. Moreover, she grounds her definition of marriage in a sociological observation concerning what children need, “The marriage idea is that children need mothers and fathers, that societies need babies, and that adults have an obligation to shape their sexual behavior so as to give their children stable families in which to grow up” (p. 23). The bottom line of Gallagher’s opposition to gay marriage is that it is tantamount to leaving children in a lurch.

Conservative Evangelicals have reason to be thankful for such co-belligerent voices in secular media. The rising tide of homosexual activism presents a menacing challenge to all who value the sanctity of marriage. However, we conservative Christians who are submitted to the biblical witness run the risk of abdicating biblical authority in our stated opposition to homosexual marriage. If we adopt wholesale the Bible-free arguments set forth by co-belligerents such as Maggie Gallagher, we lose our distinct Christian witness to a dying culture.

In Gallagher’s article, an underlying pragmatism drives the entire argument. Marriage derives its value and its definition from “Research” that “clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children” (p. 22). Perhaps there is no reason to doubt the conclusions of such research. But is this socio-scientific procedure really what drives the Christian’s testimony to the culture at large? Are Christians committed to the ideal of traditional marriage because of the pragmatic benefit of raising well-adjusted children (whatever that means)? If we are going to be servants of Christ, we must answer these questions with a resounding “no.”

As evangelicals celebrate the co-belligerency of our allies in the national media, it is crucial that we maintain our distinct Christian voice in the larger debate. All too often, Christians who profess a conservative bibliology in principle have a very liberal bibliology in practice. In other words, we believe that the Bible is true, we just don’t believe that it’s sufficient. Yes, we believe Paul, Moses, and others speaking as the mouthpiece of God in their clear message that homosexuality constitutes grave sin. But do we believe that the biblical witness is sufficient for our engagement of the culture on this issue? If we oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it contributes to this or that ill in society and if our public opposition ends there, we endorse an implicit denial of the Bible’s sufficiency for our witness to the world.

In fact, our witness to the culture is compromised when we neglect to communicate the clear biblical teaching that marriage receives its definition and value from God. Both Jesus and Paul grounded their public statements about the meaning of marriage in their understanding of God’s written word penned by Moses (Matt 19:5-6; Eph 5:31-32; cf. Gen 2:24). Paul went so far as to suggest that the “mystery” of marriage finds its definition in the gospel itself. When Paul speaks of marriage, he speaks “with reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Thus, any compromise of the definition of marriage constitutes a compromise in the way the church sees herself related to Christ.

The kind of family-friendly research that is being done around the country must never become a substitute for biblical authority. At best, we can use such research as a corroboration of what we already know to be true on the basis of God’s word. Indeed, we would expect to find that God’s ideal for marriage is better for children, as Gallagher argues. But though we may be thankful for the supporting witness, we don’t need a Child Trends research brief in order to formulate our message to the culture on marriage. This is especially true for those of us called to the ministry of the Word. We dare not put our fingers to the scientific wind to see what new sociological findings are blowing our way. Though these winds sometimes gust in the direction of truth, all too often they will move us off of a biblical course. We confess that the One who searches the secret places of the human heart, the One who made the world and all that is in it has written the textbook on the meaning and purpose for His creation. Unless we can turn people to the message of this book, not only will marriage be lost, but so will souls.

[1]Resolution C051 adopted at the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church U. S. A.
[2]Maggie Gallagher, “What Marriage Is For: Children Need Mothers and Fathers,” The Weekly Standard 8/45 (2003): 22-25. See also Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage : Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, New York: Doubleday, 2000.


Review: George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 462pp. $35.00.

George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University traces the development of American universities “from Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.” Marsden demonstrates this advance by presenting a concise history of ideas and events that have driven the philosophy of higher education in America. Writing as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, Marsden brings his own Christian religious perspective to his interpretation of this history. The following review will summarize Marden’s argument and critically evaluate a few of his outstanding points.

Marsden’s purpose in this book is to set forth how “established non-belief” emerged out of Universities that were founded upon explicit religious commitments. Marsden traces three distinct movements in this history of the American university. In part one he briefly outlines the “Establishment of Protestant Nonsectariansism” (29-96). In this period, the early colonial universities were largely shaped by a certain kind of Protestantism. The Protestantism that was advocated in the universities was mainly orthodox, though increasingly nonsectarian. In part two, Marsden observes the defining role that naturalistic science had in shaping the American University (97-262). In this period, “nonsectarian” became more and more defined as “non-doctrinal.” The scientific age and the ideals of democracy had reduced Protestantism to a broad set of ethical and moral ideals that could be discovered through science. It was believed that this “universal” religion could ground the new nation in a common set of democratic values. In part three, Marsden explores the driving forces behind the disestablishment of all religious perspectives from American higher education (263-444). As the premises of Enlightenment science gave way to Skepticism and Postmodernisim, the nonsectarian Protestant ideal also ceased to be a defining force in American Higher education. The onset of the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century severed the ties that bound American higher education to religion. The “evaluative question” that Marsden wants to bring to his analysis is why religious perspectives are still excluded from higher education when the original reasons for excluding them no longer exist (7-8)?

Evaluation & Critique
One does well to take note of Marsden’s account of how the field of knowledge became fragmented with the rise of the American university. He connects this fragmentation to the loss of theology from the university curriculum. Marsden summarizes what John Henry Newman said of the removal of theology from higher education.

“The banishment of theology, [Newman] argued, was symptomatic of losing a unified vision of knowledge as all part of one integrated whole. In place of unity . . . each of the special sciences would emerge with its particular angle of vision for which it would claim universality. Each science, having declared theoretical sovereignty, would demand total autonomy. Under Protestant auspices universities were likely to emerge as a conglomeration of special sciences, united most by their common resolve to be free from each other and any external authority” (143).

What is important to note here is that the “banishment” of theology did not cause the loss of “a unified vision of knowledge.” In fact, it was the loss of “a unified vision of knowledge” that caused the “banishment” of theology from the university. The Enlightenment and Modern Science had already set the stage for an increasing specialization of knowledge and had dethroned Theology from its privileged position in higher education. This Scientific Naturalism had caused the “Queen of the Sciences” to lose ground as an integrating influence and had pushed Theology more and more to the periphery of university life. The result was a “methodological secularization” that “almost inevitably meant that there would be vast realms [of knowledge] separated from direct religious influences” (156). Thus one of the hallmarks of “modern societies arises from the principle that many tasks are done most efficiently by isolating and objectifying them” (156). By the twentieth century American universities had become, “conglomerations of loosely related practical concerns without any particular center. They were ‘a collection of disparate interests held together by a common plumbing system’” (339-340). In this respect, Marsden keenly observes one of the major secularizing forces that led to the “established non-belief” of modern universities across America.

Another important development that Marsden notes emerges from the democratic notion of being “non-sectarian” with respect to religion. Marsden astutely observes how democratic non-sectarianism along with Enlightenment moral philosophy[1] effectively reduced Christianity to a set of moral ideals.[2] The result was that non-sectarianism became not a synonym for non-denominational, but for non-doctrinal. The theological distinctives of the various churches of Protestantism increasingly gave way to the idea that morality was the essence of universal religion. Therefore, it was not a great leap for educators like Daniel Coit Gilman to claim that “Religion has nothing to fear from science” (157). For Gilman, the aim of Christianity and the aim of science were one, “[the] truths [of science and religion] are immutable, eternal, and never in conflict” (157). Moreover, “the ultimate end of all educational and scientific effort, as well as of all legislation and statesmanship—is identical with that at which Christianity aims . . . , ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’” (157). Such assumptions about the ultimate compatibility of science and religion cleared the way for the methodological secularism of the emerging sciences to take root in the culture of the American university.[3] This too is another key development in the secularization of American higher education.

One may plausibly criticize Marsden for allowing his own religious commitments to shape his conclusions concerning the place of faith in American higher education. One could reasonably charge that Marsden’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” betrays a religious perspective that undermines his entire analysis. After all, how could one who retains such strong religious obligations be expected to comment dispassionately about the place of religion in university life? Of course, this kind of criticism gets at the heart of the “evaluative question” that Marsden set forth at the beginning of the book: why are religious perspectives still excluded from higher education when the original reasons for excluding them no longer exist (7-8)?

Marsden’s burden in the final pages of this book is to demonstrate that there no longer remains any credible reason for excluding explicitly religious perspectives from the marketplace of ideas. The intellectual crisis of the last century has witnessed the fall of the Enlightenment and the emergence of a Postmodern[4] ethos. If the Postmodernists who dominate higher education were epistemologically consistent, they would have to admit explicitly religious (yea even sectarian!) perspectives into the realm of academic debate. Unfortunately, as Marsden well points out, “The postmodernist intellectual crisis may thus be understood as a crisis within the naturalistic community” (430). In other words, even though postmodernists for the most part reject the dogmatism of the Enlightenment, they nevertheless retain the dogma of excluding supernaturalistic viewpoints. This exclusion is profoundly misplaced. As Marsden so aptly concludes, “exclusivist naturalism is unsubstantiated and unfalsifiable” (431). One is persuaded to agree with Marsden that religious opinions continue to be excluded because Postmodernism continues to be naturalistic.

Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is an impressive survey of the history of the university in America. He has capably brought together an enormous amount of material into one compelling analysis. This book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the development of higher education in America from Colonial times to the present.
[1]“Moral philosophy was now firmly established as the capstone of the program, providing without apparent sectarian bias a moral base for Christian civilization building” (81).
[2]According to Marsden, liberal Protestantism had redefined “Christianity as broad ethical ideals or even as just the highest principles of civilization. In such form explicit Christianity could linger in the curriculum, especially in the humane and social scientific disciplines that were the successors to moral philosophy” (158).
[3]“Thus the emphasis on the broadly Christian uses of science ironically contributed to establishing the sanctity of the scientific method and hence its autonomy” (158).
[4]I realize that this is a slippery term, but for the sake of brevity I resort to this shorthand.

Review: The Idea of a Christian College

Holmes, Arthur F. The Idea of a Christian College. Revised edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 106pp. $10.00.

Arthur F. Holmes’ The Idea of a Christian College offers a proposal for how a liberal, Christian education should be defined and practiced. This revised edition comes more than ten years after the first edition was published in 1975. The revision contains Holmes’ response to the many students and teachers who had read the earlier edition and had urged Holmes’ to clarify and expand his initial ideas (back cover). In this edition, “The author has extensively revised several chapters, has eliminated one-gender language, and has included two new chapters: ‘Liberal Arts as Career Preparation’ and ‘The Marks of an Educated Person’” (back cover). As Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wheaton College, Holmes brings the perspective of an experienced educator to this work. The following review will summarize Holmes’ argument and critically evaluate some of his more salient points.

Holmes’ basic contention is that a Christian College should endeavor to be both liberal and Christian in its approach to higher education. The burden of the book is to set forth a vision of what a liberal, Christian education is and how it should be realized in Christian institutions of higher learning. Holmes’ writes, “we must explore what ‘liberal education’ means and how it is affected by the Christian’s task” (6). So in Chapter 1, Holmes attempts to ask and answer the question, “Why a Christian College?” (3-12). In Chapter 2, Holmes sets forth what he sees as the “Theological Foundations” (13-22) under girding the idea of a Christian college, “I want in this chapter to unfold the biblical and theological mandate for Christian involvement in higher education in general, as well as for the Christian liberal arts college in particular” (13). In Chapter 3 (23-36), Holmes gives a definition of liberal education, “Liberal learning concerns itself with truth and beauty and goodness, which have intrinsic worth to people considered as persons rather than as workers or in whatever function alone” (28). Thus Holmes asserts, “The question to ask about education, then, is not ‘What can I do with all this stuff anyway?’ . . . but rather ‘What will all this stuff do to me?’” In Chapter 4 (37-44), the author contends that although “purely vocational training” is an insufficient basis for forming an educational philosophy (37), liberal education can provide students excellent training for a career after college (38). In Chapter 5, Holmes expounds how faith and learning should be integrated in the Christian liberal arts college (45-60). In Chapter 6, the author contends that “Academic Freedom” must be preserved even within a confessional context (61-76). In Chapter 7, Holmes asserts the fundamental importance of community in the experience of higher education (77-86). In Chapter 8 (87-98), the author rejects the pragmatism of educational theorist John Dewey and argues that “raw experience is not enough” to produce an educated person (97). And finally in Chapter 9, Holmes describes what he thinks are “The Marks of an Educated Person” (99-104).

Evaluation & Critique
Holmes has produced a work worthy of contemplation by any person wishing to work in Christian Higher education. His section on “Avoiding Pitfalls” in Chapter 1 will be helpful to any person seriously considering the topic of Christian education. In it he disabuses the reader of erroneously held assumptions about the purpose of Christian education (4-7). Separatistic evangelicals will do well to heed Holmes’ call to leave behind the “fortress” mentality of early fundamentalists, “The mistake in cloistering young people to keep them from sin and heresy, as evangelicals—of all people—should realize, is that these things come ultimately not from the environment but out of the heart” (5). Thus Holmes’ is correct to argue that “to offer a good education plus biblical studies in an atmosphere of piety” (5) falls prey to the secular impulse to compartmentalize religion and treat it as “peripheral or even irrelevant to large areas of life and thought” (9). Holmes presents a compelling case that Christian education rightly conceived does not disintegrate into the “heterogeneity” of viewpoints that substitutes a “multiversity” for a “university” (9). For Christians, “the integration of faith and learning remains the distinctive task of the Christian liberal arts college” (10). This argument, which is made in various ways throughout the book, is the most valuable feature of this short work.

Probably the most glaring weakness of the work is the numerous times in which Holmes makes significant assertions without providing biblical, philosophical, or theological warrant. This problem emerges perhaps most clearly in Chapter 7 where Holmes asserts what the basis of community is. In his discussion, he defines Christian love as “a moral virtue, not just, and sometimes not at all, a warm quality to one’s feelings. It is the sort of moral concern for others’ well-being that motivates hard and sacrificial work . . . Love, then, is not community-feeling but an inner moral attitude and commitment” (80). This series of assertions is certainly disputable, but the casual reader may not realize how debatable these statements are when he finds absolutely no biblical and theological support. These lines are set forth as declarations, as if every Christian reader would certainly agree with the anthropological assumptions under girding the statements. These unsupported remarks provide the grounds for Holmes’ point about the basis for community, “It is not feelings of love that create community, but community that creates feelings of love” (80). Holmes supposes that love arises as an act of the will in disjunction from the “emotion” of the heart. This is a philosophical/theological/anthropological construct that could use some support from Scripture before it is set forth as the basis of Christian community.

In Chapter 9 is another example of an unsubstantiated assertion. Holmes writes, “Intense pleasure may be the excellence appropriate to lower animals. But in humans excellence is found by moral and intellectual development that guides my decisions and actions” (101). First of all, it is not at all clear what Holmes means by terms like “pleasure” and “excellence.” Second of all, it looks once again as if Holmes assumes an anthropological disjunction between what Jonathan Edwards called the “affections” and the human will. If the author proposes to set forth “the purpose of education,” then one would hope that the author would not make unsupported anthropological assumptions that may not be shared by his readers.

Overall, this revised edition of The Idea of a Christian College is an excellent book. Although the author at times makes important theological assertions without adequate support, the bulk of the work is carefully argued. The central thesis concerning liberal, Christian education deserves the attention of anyone seeking to work in Christian education.