What's Wrong with the White Papers?
Rev. Adam Wirrig, CU Alumnus
Released in the fall of 2011 and allegedly written by current Academic Vice-President Tom Cornman, the Cedarville University “White Papers” have proven a source of significant discussion for both current and former students of the university. Provided as a supplement and refinement to Cedarville’s current doctrinal statement, these papers, intended to aid and reinforce faith, instead show a disturbing departure from previous standards of rigor associated with the university.
At the outset, I want to clarify that I write not to criticize the doctrines or beliefs presented within the White Papers. Admittedly, I do take significant issue with some of these understandings; however, the purpose of this article is not to dispute doctrine with the Cedarville administration. Rather, I want to address something which I think many, regardless of theological inclination, might find disturbing: the troubling lack of scholarship presented within the White Papers.
I attended Cedarville during the twilight of the Dixon administration. There are many things I remember about my time at Cedarville. Perhaps one of the most prominent in my mind is the phrase: “Quality stamped all over it!” It’s a phrase most anyone who was around Cedarville in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s would recognize. It was Dr. Dixon’s mantra of how we should approach our work(s) as ambassadors of Christ. In other words: nothing should be done tritely, nothing should be done in a shabby format. Instead, all things should be done with the excellence and quality which we would wish presented to our Lord. Though the Dixon administration is almost a decade removed from the university, I like to think that such rigorous standards are not. Sadly, I find little reassurance in the recent White Papers.
It would seem, at least to my understanding, that the intent of the White Papers was and is to clarify, refine, and most importantly, underscore several of Cedarville’s doctrinal views. Unfortunately, they seem to approach such serious topics with, at best, glancing blows. From the concept of God’s omniscience to creation and the doctrine of justification, the papers treat their topics with glaring brevity and, in many cases, a lack of scholarship which is disturbing. One does not sum up the concept of divine creation in two pages and two footnotes. Neither does it seem right to summarize the concept of justification in two pages and four footnotes. Consider, if you will, the myriad of arguments in which the church has historically engaged over justification alone in the past 2,000 years. From Pelagius and Augustine, to Calvin and Servetus, this simply isn’t a topic which can nor should be summarized in two pages. Again, I’m not attacking what is said within the White Papers; I’m attacking what is NOT said and what seems to be missing!
Mind you, as one who is engaged both in pastoral ministry and theological education, I’m aware that there are often concessions to make when speaking to what might be termed a “layman’s” audience. There is a constant balancing act in terms of accessibility and specificity when one engages such an audience. Thus, I’d like to offer several brief suggestions to the author(s) of the Papers:
1) If you’re going to use all those Bible references...
At the outset, I want to clarify: I have no beef with using the Bible to prove theological points. I believe in the Bible. I believe in the Bible’s truth and authority. I believe in its relevance to our theological lives. I also believe that each part of the Bible tells a story and holds a story behind it. Thus, when you simply list chapter and verse without providing context, history, and other supports, it only serves to cheapen the actual truth and authority of the Bible to your argument. In essence, it would seem that you have proof-texted, or “cherry-picked” scriptures of your own choosing to support your case. I’m not saying that those texts can’t support your case, but let the texts speak for themselves by telling your readers what they say and, most importantly, why they say what they do.
2) Don’t hold back!
As I said, there’s always a balancing act when addressing a layman’s audience. However, I would argue that the audience at Cedarville is really anything but “layman.” A Cedarville audience attends chapel five days a week (at least in theory). They’re involved with churches. They attend Bible studies. They work in an environment which is saturated with theology. Therefore, I don’t think it’s too much to say that they can handle more depth and insight than a Sunday-school class might. I’m not saying you should expect them to grasp Aquinas’ Summa in its original Latin, but I think they can handle much more than you’ve given them. Additionally, if the purpose of the Papers is to clarify Cedarville’s doctrine to faculty- trained scholars, if not all theologians- they can certainly be expected to grasp more than the theological milk that the White Papers present.
3) Tell the whole story!
I understand that institutions such as Cedarville are, on occasion, loathe to engage opinions which might challenge or disprove their own. To be frank, get over it. Be Christ-like and tell the truth, knowing that if the Holy Spirit makes your argument for you, you have nothing to fear. Engage the rich history of the subjects you’re talking about. Engage Barth on the doctrine of God. Engage Westermann on creation. Engage Tilich or Niebuhr on justification. Heck, if those 20th century theologians seem too much, at least engage the theologians of the Reformation! Engage the history of your church! Mind you, I’m saying “engage,” not “agree;” there’s a large difference. The arguments you are trying to summarize have vexed the church for centuries. If you truly want to educate those to whom you write, don’t just tell them what to believe! Tell them why this is the orthodox belief in comparison to other standards!
*4) About the title: “White Papers” *
I live in the United Kingdom. Over here, we hear of white papers all the time. White papers are meant to be authoritative and exhaustive. In fact, they’re usually issued to high-ranking officials of government to help detail all the pros and cons of a sensitive subject. Hopefully, by now, I’ve detailed how the white papers of Cedarville University fail to live up to the standard set by their peers. As an old friend would say: “If you’re going to call a ‘spade’ a spade, it had darn well better be an actual spade!”
In sum, I think I can say that I understand the original intent of the White Papers. I cannot, however, support the way in which they engage their topics. These papers speak to topics which demand serious and robust engagement, both because of our rich church history and our calling to follow Christ. It is my hope that, in light of such failures, Cedarville will shelve these current White Papers and instead work to clarify their beliefs and ideals in ways which demonstrate that they truly have “quality stamped all over them.”
Editor’s note: Cedarville University posted the White Papers on their website a few days after this article was published. You can read or download the White Papers on Creation, Justification, and Omniscience.