Freedom of Academic Inquiry Drives Authentic Theological Education

By Graves, Thomas H. | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Academic Inquiry Drives Authentic Theological Education


Graves, Thomas H., Baptist History and Heritage


The concept of freedom is the bedrock from which Baptists have been hewn. The cry for religious liberty has been the most characteristic trait of Baptist theology through the years; yet there is an amazing paradox apparent in any discussion of Baptists and freedom.

While conceptions of religious liberty demonstrate the beauty and vitality of Baptist life and thought, the most despicable moments in Baptist life have occurred when the freedom of others has been denied and systematically abused. The saddest chapter in Baptist history has been the conscious violation of the freedom of our African-American sisters and brothers. Baptists have been quick to espouse ideals of freedom but often just as quick to forsake that heritage for small-minded causes. It is right that Baptists have begged for forgiveness for their racist past. However, racism is not the only example of this paradox within Baptist life. It is also true that our denominational history has been filled with examples of the denial of academic freedom as we have acted in ways oblivious to the key Baptist virtue of freedom of conscience. How is this possible, that a people so centered on freedom have so often ignored the call to liberty?

Academic freedom has always been a suspect commodity in Baptist life, particularly in regions of the American South. That is a sad fact, for rightly interpreted the foundations of Baptist thought provide a marvelous support for the freedom of human inquiry. There are identifiable Baptist concepts which foster open academic inquiry--concepts such as the priesthood of all believers, rejection of creedalism, and a realistic view of the nature of human sin. Baptist principles and academic freedom go hand in hand; the erosion of one threatens the other. In addition to its clear foundation in our Baptist heritage, academic freedom is also supported by the pragmatic principles underlying any viable scholarly inquiry. The excellence of scholarship depends in part on the freedom of the scholar.

This essay will attempt to address both these issues: (1) the relation of academic freedom to Baptist ideals, and (2) the necessity of freedom for the full operation of the human intellect. Baptist life best demonstrates the integrity of belief when our Baptist theology is wedded to the practice of free and open inquiry. Baptist thought becomes infused with vitality when expressed in an atmosphere of liberty. For the sake of integrity and vitality, we are called to live in freedom. We can be at our best as Baptists and as scholars when we give heed to the role of freedom in the life of the intellect.

Integrity of Thought: Baptist Ideals and Academic Freedom

In the history of Baptists in the South and on the American frontier, it is tragic to recognize how often attacks have been mounted upon the operation of respectable scholarship and to note how often these debates have been the center of denominational controversy. The litany of academic martyrs in Baptist life is a sad list of shame: Crawford Toy, William Whitsitt, Ralph Elliott; and in the last decade, the number has grown dramatically with seminary faculty members resigning in large numbers.

The roots of this suspicion of scholarship can be traced to the environment in which Baptists flourished in the nineteenth century: the generally low level of education in the rural South and the rugged frontier, the high proportion of uneducated clergy, the parochial and insulated nature of life in much of the American South, and the intensely practical nature of life on the frontier, which left little room for academic reflection. For whatever reasons, anti-intellectualism remains a part of the Baptist story in this nation.

Regardless of our history, what needs to be proclaimed with confidence is the truth that Baptist principles lead us to an appreciation of academic liberty. Respect for scholarly freedom is a natural outgrowth of key Baptist doctrines. …

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