This is the transcript of Tim Laurence’s address at the inaugural conference of the Association of Christian Postgraduate Groups within IFES Europe’s Postgraduate Initiative, ‘Good News for the University’, delivered from Cambridge by Zoom on Saturday 22 May 2021.
II. Practical Outworkings (continued)
Outworking 3: Our Common Confession
We now turn to our third and final foundational outworking of our big vision. So let’s recap.
Summary so far
In a secular European university context which has rejected Christianity we are seeking after all, to recognise Christ as the ‘chief cornerstone’ for our intellectual vision. From Colossians 1 we have seen the supremacy of his glory in creation and redemption, while Augustine’s City of God has helped us to understand the way that this has implications for two alternative visions for human culture - the earthly city and the heavenly city.
We’ve then seen how from this cornerstone we can derive some foundational outworkings in a university context - contrasting with the offering of contemporary secularism. First, we have seen a secularist tendency to turn academic freedom into absolute intellectual autonomy, resulting in significant fragmentation. But as we reintroduce Christ we also reintroduce the reality of our wider context within creation and redemption. The result is a significant and unifying clarification of our twofold common purpose, or mission, as Christians within the university.
Second, we’ve noted contemporary ‘cancel culture’ in which disagreements and competing visions are handled bluntly and dishonourably by cancelling one another based on some sort of prevailing collective political correctness. Against this, through a clarification of some basic principles of Christian epistemology and ethics, Christ’s glory provides an alternative common ethos for our postgraduate groups - promoting intellectual humility and a generous love which honours one another as valuable persons and co-worshippers - even in disagreement.
But as we compare these two foundations summarised above, I wonder if you have noticed the paradoxical tension within the secular account? How does its doctrine of individualist academic freedom co-exist with its collectivist doctrine of political correctness? They are pointing contemporary academics in two different, and inconsistent, directions. Yet they are both now widely assumed and accepted doctrines for the life of the modern university!
Doctrines for the university
This highlights something very significant. Each of the earthly city and the heavenly city operate on the basis of a respective set of fundamental principles. These can be expressed not merely in terms of their ultimate ends - whether they glory in themselves or glory in the Lord - but also in terms of their different doctrinal, or confessional, starting points.
In other words, all human endeavour takes place on the basis of some basic assumptions. One assumption of secular humanism is that the public work of the university can and should operate independently from our religious beliefs. But this itself is a secular assumption, or doctrine.
The question is not whether we work from starting principles, but what starting principles we work with. Some will be false and some will be true. Some will yield a starkly incoherent doctrinal vision - such as the tension between individual intellectual autonomy and a collective cancel culture. Others - such as a Christian confession - of which Christ himself is the chief cornerstone - have the coherence, strength, and generative fruitfulness to inspire the original European foundation of what has now become a global university movement.
Here we follow the maxim of an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm. His motto - ‘faith seeking understanding’ - popularised an Augustinian theological principle. On the relationship between faith and reason, it is not that our faith is to be replaced by understanding, or that faith takes the place of understanding, but that we begin with our trust in God, and then we have the basis to start understanding more and more of his world and his promises to us. As King Solomon himself put it: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’ (Prov. 9:10)
Our common confession
So our third and final foundation for our IFES Europe Postgraduate Initiative - ‘Good News for the University’ - is that we are deeply privileged to share a common doctrinal confession. As we sit within the global IFES movement we already have a particular doctrinal basis from which to work - the IFES statement of faith (see our website). This has served very successfully to celebrate the unity of Christian university students across the world for generations. It lists eleven brief confessional points sitting within the classical, Protestant, and evangelical theological tradition.
As it is classical it sits within the apostolic teaching summarised in the ecumenical creeds of the early church.
As it is Protestant, it stands in line with the teaching of the Reformation. This has been summarised by some as the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church. More helpfully it has also been summarised by five solas: (1) that Scripture is the only entirely trustworthy source of the church’s teaching, telling us that (2) justification is not by works but by faith alone (3) in Christ who alone is the mediator between God and humanity such that (4) salvation is only by God’s grace, so that (5) God alone is glorified through it.
As it is evangelical, it does not add to the doctrinal inheritance of the Reformation but it was articulated to help inter-denominational co-operation based on the primary matters of the gospel, and in contrast with a theologically liberal Protestantism whose naturalistic focus on this life had eroded a confidence in spiritual realities and our eternal horizon.
In our secular age it is decidedly unfashionable to work on a religious confessional basis - and some of those concerns might play on our own minds at times. As we inherit the IFES statement of faith, some might ask whether or not this is really appropriate for something like our Postgraduate Initiative, which is not only concerned with evangelism, but also with the pursuit of an intellectual vision.
Unfortunately we don’t have time for an adequate review of all possible objections, which themselves will arise from a variety of assumptions. But we can perhaps summarise five brief observations, which include clarifications as to what our doctrinal basis is and is not intended to achieve. They could perhaps end up being re-worked as a list of “FAQs”.
1. Our doctrinal statement is not intended to be our mission statement or an outline of a Christian intellectual vision. We derive these from our first foundation - ‘common purpose’ (above) - with its biblical review of the wider context of reality, including: the doctrine of creation, the role of humanity, the coming of Christ, the age of the church, and our local role in relation to our colleagues.
2. Conversely, our doctrinal statement is not superfluous when we do have a separate mission statement. These serve two different purposes, with our doctrinal basis sitting within the tradition of the church’s creeds and confessions - which serve to summarise areas where the church has had to clarify first-order matters in contrast to the sort of false teaching which the New Testament warns against.
3. As an inter-denominational evangelical statement it does not refer to secondary matters such as the shape of church government, or the administration of the Lord’s supper, or baptism. Nonetheless, some might feel that, being ‘evangelical’, it still includes too much: why should it include matters relating to salvation (e.g. Scripture, justification, the atonement) when the work of the university is only concerned with matters of creation? What about just settling with an agreement on the Trinity and creation? However, as we have seen, the Christian intellectual vision, purpose and ethos all arise from the glory of Christ which, per 2 Cor 4:4-6, is seen most clearly through the gospel, or, evangel. In particular:
Our understanding of our shared mission arises from the assumption of the unity and authority of Scripture, and it results in our applying the way the gospel shapes our approach to our work, and how our work helps us point people to the gospel. Clearly a common understanding of that gospel - and a common commitment to Scripture as God’s word - is necessary for a sufficiently clear and sustainable partnership together over a common purpose. As far as our being ‘in Christ’ is concerned, we enjoy a positional union with (and rightful share in) Christ’s vindication through his resurrection and exaltation. This is fundamental to the Protestant doctrine of justification. But also, as we have seen, the same positional union re-establishes our location as royal stewards over creation, within his Lordship. That this justification is by faith alone also clarifies what we mean by evangelism - it must include a verbal holding out of the gospel to be received by faith because our salvation is by union with Christ and Christ is not physically present with us (Rom. 10:1-7).
Similarly, we have seen that our shared ethos depends centrally on the gospel as the context for our community interaction as fellow believers. In our shared appreciation of both general and special revelation, and their asymmetrical interaction together, our mutual understanding depends on a common recognition of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Meanwhile our trust in the gospel - including the ‘foolishness’ of the cross where Christ was punished for our sins - is not anti-intellectual but ‘anti-boasting’ (1 Cor. 1:29-31). So where ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ scandalises the ‘earthly city’ it serves to foster intellectual humility within ‘the heavenly city’ - and we have seen that this is a virtue which is fundamental to a Christian epistemology and which promotes, rather than hinders, fruitful academic endeavour.
Even though it may be the case that at times the evangelical tradition has been weakened by associating a strong investment in the doctrine of creation with theological liberalism, there is no need to recover our doctrine of creation by sitting more loosely toward our doctrine of redemption. These are not mutually exclusive but when they are both understood within the supreme glory of Christ as God’s eternal Son they both reinforce one another.
4. Our post-modern sociological context would assume that any confessional statement is primarily a tool for the exercise of power. So some might feel that in principle any doctrinal basis must be coercive. While the church has of course been guilty of such abuses, sadly this was the work of ‘the earthly city’ within the church. But within the heavenly city the purpose of confessional unity is the loving protection of relationships with God and with one another. In an interdenominational context the last century has shown a remarkable blessing through the use of the IFES doctrinal statement as a means of enabling people to unite together on ‘primary’ matters, and giving them the freedom to disagree on secondary matters. The IFES doctrinal statement contains only 11 points of clarity on matters of vital importance in the history of the church.
5. Clearly a lot depends on what a doctrinal statement is actually used for. For the Postgraduate Initiative it functions as a foundation, flag and fence. As a foundation, it provides the biblical mooring which undergirds and shapes our shared mission and ethos. As a flag it represents a central part of our vision - that we celebrate Christ’s glory being most clearly expressed in the gospel, or evangel, and that our work will therefore contribute to the future of the evangelical mind. As a fence, it serves as protection. Of course, this is not to say that people cannot join our groups if they disagree with it. But since we have seen the way it secures the sustainable clarity of our collective mission and ethos, if our Association is to maintain a meaningful collective identity it is appropriate that we require group leaders to affirm it. This is all the more relevant at the postgraduate level where groups are more independently self-led and are not being shaped with intensive campus ministry staff input in the way we might be familiar with for undergraduate groups.
Against the backdrop of a fragmentary and incoherent contemporary secular university vision, the recovery of the glory of Christ is our ‘chief cornerstone’ and this yields a positive vision with three key foundations for association together as Christian postgraduates:
a shared mission - from Christ to our research, as we in our academic roles pursue creation’s flourishing, working excellently and serving the good of the university under Christ’s Lordship and in the light of Scripture; and from our research to Christ, as we trace the way our field points to God’s glory, we praise him and seek to bring others with us, turning our expertise toward persuasive gospel outreach.
a shared ethos - as we recognise the deep connections between our relationship to God, our relationship to knowledge, and our relationship to one another - pursuing intellectual humility and love, within a shared appreciation of God’s general and special revelation; and
a shared confession - grounding our mission and ethos in our common statement of faith, the IFES doctrinal statement, so that the first order matters of the gospel are the starting point of our unity and Christian service, in line with Anselm of Canterbury’s motto ‘faith seeking understanding’ (which can be traced back to Augustine).
From this threefold foundation around Christ who we rediscover as our chief cornerstone, we pray that each postgraduate group will shine like a city within a city - a city on a hill which cannot be hidden - embodying Christ’s glory in a hope-giving contrast to the contemporary university, celebrating the gospel at the centre in which we see Christ as the one from whom, through whom and for whom our Association, our university studies, and everything else, exist.