The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



October 2012

On the Firing of Dr. Pahl

by Joshua Steele, on Cedarville, October 2012, Purge

Few would deny that truth and discourse are both essential parts of any academic community in general and Cedarville in particular. Certainly, the purpose of an educational institution is to impart truth; that goal is noble and must not be forgotten. However, a healthy academic environment must also be faithful in promoting discourse and ideological diversity- our range of ideas is what makes us strong. Cedarville needs to keep both in tension: as an institution of higher education, it must ensure that what is taught in its classrooms is accurate; but as an academic community, it must insist that no truth but God's truth be sacred, and encourage a healthy discourse of ideas.

Recent events seem to indicate that Cedarville is drifting away from the discursive end of the spectrum. In August of this year, a few weeks before the beginning of fall classes, the university fired Dr. Michael Pahl for the opinions expressed in his book, The Beginning and The End: Rereading Genesis's Stories and Revelation's Visions. In the book, Dr. Pahl argues that the creation stories of Genesis 1-2 are ancient Israelite cosmogonies, narratives written to tell of the origins of the cosmos and explain why things are the way they are. As ancient cosmogonies, they are not to be interpreted as literal historical accounts in the modern sense, but on their own terms, as bold alternatives to all other origin accounts of their day, "describing the one true God, his work in the world, and his purpose for humanity and the created order" (Pahl 2011, 12). It is important to note that Dr. Pahl fully affirms the accuracy of a literal six-day creation and a historical Adam and Eve, based on other references throughout the narrative of Scripture (from genealogies to theological mentions); he simply doesn't think Genesis 1-2 is the place where that doctrine is best supported.

The official university statement regarding the dismissal states that Dr. Pahl "is unable to concur fully with each and every position of Cedarville University's doctrinal statement." This is problematic, for upon examination, nothing that Dr. Pahl taught seems to contradict the text of the doctrinal statement, which does not even mention the historicity of Adam and Eve. Article 4 of the doctrinal statement (the only point relevant to the Genesis account) indicates that "We believe in the literal 6-day account of creation, that the creation of man lies in the special, immediate, and formative acts of God and not from previously existing forms of life. We believe that man was created perfect in the image of God, that he sinned and thereby incurred not only physical death but also that spiritual and eternal death which is separation from God, and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and we are sinners in thought, word, and deed." After reading the book in question, it's difficult to understand how Dr. Pahl contradicted the doctrinal statement by any stretch of the imagination.

It seems, then, that Cedarville is holding its faculty to an extremely rigid set of theological beliefs, far beyond that which it is willing to outline publicly. This is particularly problematic for an academic institution, which should not reject members for minor theological differences. The guidelines for acceptable doctrine are outlined in the doctrinal statement, and serve their purpose in ensuring that teaching at Cedarville remains orthodox. Cedarville's decision to go beyond those guidelines, without any clear exposition of the logic behind the move, creates a witch-hunt mentality: professors once thought they were free to discuss and debate matters not listed in the doctrinal statement, but this is no longer the case.

Indeed, two of Dr. Pahl's colleagues in the Bible department used the book in question as a required text in their own classes. Should they now fear for their own careers? Can the remaining professors feel free to research and publish when their work might contradict some unstated opinion in the invisible baggage of the doctrinal statement? This atmosphere is poisonous to genuine exploration and discussion of the Scriptures, because there's no longer any understanding of what is okay and what is off-limits. If Dr. Pahl can be fired for his orthodox handling of the biblical text in The Beginning and the End, no faculty members are safe.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the University statement on Dr. Pahl states that his "orthodoxy and commitment to the gospel are not in question, nor is his commitment to Scripture's inspiration, authority and infallibility. He is a promising scholar and a dedicated teacher, and he will be missed by his colleagues and students." Why, then, would Cedarville want to fire a professor worthy of such praise? In spite of the accolades, "the University has determined this decision to be in the best interests of its constituency at this time."

Academic discourse is essential to the health of every institution of higher education. Furthermore, for a purportedly Christ-centered institution such as Cedarville University, commitments to orthodoxy, the gospel, and Scripture are undoubtedly even more valuable, but these things were not enough to save Dr. Michael Pahl. According to the official statement, the administration and trustees have decided not only to silence academic discourse, but to put the University's doctrinal statement and its "constituency" above orthodoxy, Scripture, and the gospel. Unless other unstated and even more nefarious motivations were at play, Dr. Pahl would still be teaching at Cedarville today.

To elevate a doctrinal statement, much less its unstated aspects, over orthodoxy, the gospel, and Scripture is to value the opinions of man more than the Word of God itself. We as a community must demand better of our leaders. For God's Word and Christ's testimony, we need an assurance of core doctrines through adherence to the doctrinal statement, but we must never sacrifice the freedom to explore the wonders of the Scriptures with an open mind, a willing heart, and a firm commitment to our community of fellow believers that overcomes our petty differences with the love of Christ. Instead of relieving men like Dr. Pahl of their teaching duties, we should be affirming them and joining with them in their work for God's kingdom.