Two Cheers for Prexy Ryken

Since I opined on the process before, I'm now going to indulge in the self-flattering exercise of imagining that anyone at all cares what I think of the news that Dr. Philip Graham Ryken will be the eighth president of Wheaton College:


Two Cheers

The two things that Wheaton most needs in a president is an intimate familiarity with and commitment to the college's identity and heritage and an irenic spirit for relating to the varied constituencies of the college. Ryken is an excellent choice on both counts. I am confident that he will serve the college well.

In his teaching ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Dr. Ryken encouraged his congregants to think Christianly about the whole of life, as demonstrated in his long-running Window on the World feature. This thoughtful engagement with current news and culture exemplifies a commitment to the "integration of faith and learning" that is Wheaton's hallmark.

While I find his claim to be evaluating the various phenomena addressed in these brief monologues from "THE Biblical perspective" -- as though there were only one -- somewhat rankling, I appreciate the charitable interpretative stance he employs. In a reflection on the Emerging/ent Church from 2006, for example, he voices serious misgivings about the movement, but without the kind of defensive dismissiveness that characterizes many mainstream evangelical critics of emergent. This temperament is going to be a tremendous asset in his new job.

More of the Same

In selecting Ryken, the Trustees of Wheaton College have clearly indicated their desire to stay the course charted under the Litfin administration. Again, we have a scholar with an Oxford D.Phil., but whose immediate previous experience is pastoring a church, named to lead the college. Indeed, Ryken has significantly less professional experience in higher education than Litfin did when he assumed the post (unless you count growing up in a professor's household as experience, which I actually sort of do). Again, we have a new president whose personal convictions represent the right wing of the evangelical spectrum that Wheaton serves.

Those of us who were hoping that a new administration might adopt a somewhat broader perspective on who is included in Wheaton-brand evangelicalism, and thereby not deprive the next generation of Wheaton students of the wisdom of fine faculty members like Alex Bolyanatz and Joshua Hochschild, are almost certain to be disappointed. Wheaton students will still be able to get a fine education with a solid Christian foundation, and Wheaton professors will still be able to carry out their work of mentoring and scholarship (although some of them may end up doing so with anxiety and self-censorship), but they will have to look outside the walls of the college for some of the richness of the wider Christian tradition.

Things About Which I am Not Particularly Worried

In the day or so that this has been public, I've witnessed some predictable internet grumbling about the pick. Obviously, there's no such thing as a perfect presidential candidate, and I have sympathy with many of the concerns of my friends who are uneasy about this choice. But I think some of the main worries I have encountered are probably not going to be as big a deal as some of us think they will be.

1. The Demographics of Privilege. I signed the petition urging the committee to make every effort to recruit a woman and/or a member of an ethnic minority to the post. But I knew last year that there was really no way they weren't going to hire a white guy. And it's not because the committee is blatantly racist. It's not Ryken's fault that he's a white guy. It is quite arguably the fault of American society and the evangelical subculture that there was a lack of non-white-guy candidates for the position, but that doesn't make Ryken an unfit leader.

2. Nepotism. Actually, the traits that are causing some to raise eyebrows on this count are things I would count as strengths. The Wheaton trustees selected one of their own, an alumnus, and the child of a celebrated career professor. So yes, that does look like institutional inbreeding. But as much as Wheaton needs the "fresh blood" of faculty that come to it from other institutional backgrounds, I believe that a president who was an outsider would be facing this challenging job with a pronounced handicap. Not only does a long personal history with the institution generate an understanding of and sympathy with the mission of the college, a leader with a multigenerational connection with the school is uniquely positioned to lead it forward in innovative ways because of the inherent bond of trust that comes when other stakeholders know that he really knows the school.

3. Women's Leadership and Evolution. These subjects in particular have been raised by some who worry that Ryken's opinions do not bode well for Wheaton's future capacity to prepare women students for leadership in the church and the world or to effectively teach biology. The thing is, as far as I can tell, Ryken's convictions on these matters are identical to Litfin's, which means that the college has already endured 17 years of of such leadership without disaster. Those of us with more liberal views on these things may have hoped for a new president who would move the college a few steps to the left, but since we didn't get that person, I don't think we need to assume that the new president will necessarily move the college further to the right. Ryken is certainly aware of Litfin's ill-fated attempt to impose greater discipline on the faculty with regard to the range of acceptable interpretations of the historical Adam and Eve, and is unlikely to repeat the mistake. (Granted, the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo is hardly optimal, but at least it seems sustainable.) He is also certainly aware that arguments like those of Gilbert Bilezikian for an egalitarian perspective on the sexes are as much a part of Wheaton's theological tradition as his own complementarian conclusions. Unless and until he proves otherwise, I choose to trust that Ryken will exhibit graciousness in leading a community of inquiry that includes a variety of evangelical perspectives, not all of which must match his own.

... And the One Thing I am a Little Nervous About

That said, I must confess that Ryken's conservative Calvinist bona fides give me pause. Of all the multifarious groups that make up the coalition that is Billy Graham-style evangelicalism, it's the Reformed conservatives that seem most inclined to inflate the range of convictions considered "essential" to the faith. This is a product of the tradition's admirable commitment to the application of reason to their faith -- it's just that when their reasoning brings them to certain conclusions, it also tends to bring them to the conclusion that their conclusions are the only ones that faithful Christians can legitimately hold. The result is a remarkably coherent system of doctrine and an impression that the entire gospel stands or falls with every point. And when you honestly believe that the entire gospel stands or falls with any number of points in your doctrinal system, how can you not strive to enforce conformity with that system?

My limited exposure to Ryken does not suggest that he is of the only-conservative-Calvinists-can-be-true-evangelicals camp, but it wouldn't be out of line with his position in the Reformed subculture to draw such a conclusion, and if he did, and imposed it on the college, Wheaton would be the poorer for it. I remain hopeful, however, that he will demonstrate that a bigger theological tent is appropriate for the governance of a nondenominational college than the leadership of a denominationally-affiliated church. The tent probably won't get bigger than it already is under the next administration, but I hope that it won't get smaller.

Godspeed Wheaton College and its new president.

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