Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on Ryken at Wheaton

On Saturday morning the staff and faculty of Wheaton College met to hear who our next president would be, in anticipation of a public announcement on Sunday at noon. I was surprised to come home from Saturday's meeting and have emails and phone messages from people asking me my thoughts about Ryken, given that the people asking me were not privy to the information at that point. Of course a quick google search revealed that Christianity Today had released the announcement ahead of the timetable established by Wheaton College and Ryken's congregation. This left a lot of folks pretty pissed, and understandably so. It's unfortunate that half of the discussion over the new selection has been about CT's decision to announce the leaked news, but I think those who leaked the information and the CT staff more or less have themselves to thank for that.

Wheaton College has selected Philip Ryken to be their eighth president. The website has a lot of information up about the selection process that will be worth reading, including a timeline, the qualifications that were formulated for the candidate, and the letter presented to the trustees by the selection committee, recommending Ryken for the post.

Because I don't know all that much about Ryken and didn't have a very solidified opinion about the selection, I decided to stick with the original timeline and wait until today to post. This has given me a little bit of time to read up on relevant matters, although I still offer my thoughts with a caveat that I will likely not offer the same sort of depth that other commentaries might. This is one of those times when I realize I don't understand evangelical culture all that well, and I want to be sensitive to this fact.
  • Beginning with the biographical: Ryken is a Wheaton alumnus, and his father has been an English professor at Wheaton since 1968. Ryken is also on the board of trustees at both Wheaton College and Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). He is the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA. Ryken is involved with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and with the Gospel Coalition, two conservative Reformed groups devoted to renewal work in evangelicalism.
  • Ryken as too close to home? One of the major criticisms of this decision that I've heard is that Ryken's ties to Wheaton College make his selection questionable. This criticism has ranged from simply saying that the board didn't really think outside of the box to outright suggestions of nepotism. These concerns strike me as a bit overblown; at the staff meeting when the selection process was discussed, a few of the committee members mentioned that they were at first hesitant about Ryken simply because he was the obvious choice. There was an initial skepticism about Ryken as the "safe" choice, then, and the eventual decision was made in light of a desire to not pick a president simply because he was a well-liked trustee. Perhaps the concern about not thinking outside of the box continues to stick, but I don't think that the selection was made out of an intentional mission to choose "one of us".
  • On Diversity. Whether or not there was an intention on the part of the trustees to choose "one of us", obviously we ended up with that by the end of the process. This has disappointed a number of people who were hoping to break the tendency of putting white males in leadership positions. My advice would be one of caution in offering this sort of critique against Ryken, though. I don't know what other candidates were being considered, but I'm guessing that the list was plenty diverse, and that the selection committee was fully receptive to any candidates who were nominated. That's just my take, though... perhaps my naivete. In saying this, however, I'm not at all intending to say the same thing as Carl Trueman when he rather uncharitably dismisses these diversity concerns as "the typical middle class obsessions of the post-Marcuse left." Unlike Ryken's fellow Reformation21 contributor, I actually do think that these concerns are warranted. I simply doubt that the selection committee was insensitive to them
  • Ryken's conservatism. There certainly was a conscious decision by the selection committee to continue in a similar ideological vein as Litfin, much to the disappointment of those who were recently fired up by Andrew Chignell's article. I'm not immediately concerned by this: a conservative president doesn't make a college conservative any more than a liberal president makes a college liberal. What will be more pertinent is the extent to which Ryken chooses to make Wheaton into his own image, and I think that is more difficult to predict. His affiliations with the Gospel Coalition and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals should be a concern not because they are conservative, but because their renewal efforts are pretty activist. Such activism isn't wrong in itself, but the responsibilities of an administrator at such a diverse school as Wheaton (relatively diverse at least, for evangelicalism) are different from those of a pastor or an administrator of a school with a more specific confessional identity. It will be interesting to see how Ryken works within an institution that, while it is decidedly evangelical, couldn't sign on to the mission of the organizations with which Ryken has been so far involved. He might handle this just fine, so I'm not saying that this is a problem. But it is a point at which I could see problems arising. One particular example, actually brought up at the staff meeting, was that of women in leadership. Wheaton doesn't have many women in executive leadership or trustee positions, but it has more than Westminster Theological Seminary or Tenth Presbyterian. How the demographics of this leadership would change under Ryken might be worth considering.
  • Ryken and the Reformed tradition. One thing that has been striking me as I read blog commentary on the selection is that the choice of Ryken almost says more about the neo-reformed movement than it does about Wheaton. This is being received as a big coup for an already quite aggressive movement within conservative evangelicalism. Folks should probably be watching the "young Calvinists" as this plays out as much as they should be watching the College. Again, this doesn't mean that Wheaton will be transformed into a confessional Reformed institution; for all of the complaints about Litfin, no one could accuse him of enforcing a dispensationalist litmus test for the faculty during his tenure. But there will presumably be implications for the future of conservative reformed evangelicals. This bullet point may be good news for some folks and bad news for others.
  • Ryken's lack of extensive teaching background may be a concern. I think that as long as he listens and includes the faculty during his tenure, there is probably not much to worry about here. But the fact remains that one of the major voiced frustrations of faculty here at Wheaton is that the administration is too overbearing and does not allow the faculty enough of its own say or role in decision making. Ryken's lack of experience on faculty will mean that he is inevitably less personally aware of this issue.
  • The biggest concern. The biggest concern for me in all of this is Ryken's connection to Westminster Theological Seminary as a member of the board of trustees during the Peter Enns controversy. Apparently he was "instrumental in getting Peter Enns off the faculty".* Most of the criticism offered against President Litfin has involved the dismissal of various professors here at Wheaton, and it seems that- more so than his personal conservative stances- the president elect's involvement with the dismissal of Peter Enns should be a matter of significant concern for what might be coming our way. My hope would be that the trustees and administration wouldn't tolerate that sort of thing here, but then, one of our trustees obviously did, and now he of all people has been selected by the rest of the trustees for the presidency. So who knows. There are already comparisons being made between Ryken's Wheaton and Mohler's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I'm not aware enough of Southern Baptist happenings to know all that this would entail, but from what I understand, it would fit the label of "purge" fairly well. Wheaton's lack of specific confessional identity will hopefully make this sort of action an impossibility, but the boundaries of the identity "evangelical" itself have been put forward as reason for the dismissal of various professors in the past, so I think that the concern on some level still remains.
There will be another staff meeting on Tuesday, and Ryken will actually be present to meet the Wheaton community. If any other pertinent points come up at that time, I'll be sure to mention them. I would have liked to have offered a less hedged assessment of the situation, but I really don't know Philip Ryken very well. I look forward to meeting him and finding out more. Please do share your own thoughts on the selection.

*someone has noted that this is merely a comment from an individual in a blog post, and may not be entirely reliable. Whatever the reliability of the characterization of Ryken's role as "instrumental", though, he was on the board of trustees at the time and was not one of the nine signatories of the trustee minority report. Based on this it is my understanding that Ryken supported the dismissal of Enns over the wishes of the majority of the faculty committee, who did not approve the dismissal of Enns. I am happy to be corrected on this, as others know much more than I do about the Enns controversy. I've left the body of this post as is but wanted to make a note of clarification here. G.L.W. Johnson was a fellow WTS student and someone with whom Ryken has apparently had private contact about his role on the board. I don't intend to make any claims of my own about how "instrumental" Ryken was beyond relating the ones that Johnson apparently made on Heidelblog earlier today.


  1. I don't think the Westminister and Southern comparisions are apt, becuase Wheaton is a different type of institution. WTS and SBTS are confessional institutions beholden to specific faith and denominational communities, while Wheaton has always had confessional and denominational diversity within the bounds of its doctrinal statement. It would radically change the institution to enforce a narrow denominational confessionalism on a community that has Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, non-denominational, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, Evangelical Free, and Anglicans, among others, among the administration, faculty, staff, and students. And, of course, doctrinal oversight is nothing new for the faculty and staff. They sign the doctrinal statement every year, and it is strictly enforced (which is part of what the "Whither Wheaton?" essay was all about). Another factor to consider is that the Wheaton trustees directly approve all individual faculty hiring and promotion decisions. As a board member, Ryken has been involved in these decisions, so these already are "his" faculty as much as they are President Litfin's (who isn't known for tolerating doctrinal slippage!).

    From an alumni perspective, it seems to be a "status quo" decision more than radical course correction. But of course, time will tell.

  2. This seems incredibly naive.

  3. Could you explain what you mean a bit further, Anonymous? Of whom are you speaking... me? Jesse? the selection comittee?

  4. Evan, thanks for this hedged assessment. As you know, many blogging folks aren't willing or able to offer the same. Also as you may know, this hits pretty close to home for me: I live and breath among this crowd, and have worked with Phil through Tabletalk time and again over the years. Yet I only know him as an editor would to a contributor, nothing more.

    All I can say is, he doesn't strike me as the agro-neo-Calvinist type at all. Not only isn't it apt to compare Ryken to Mohler institutionally, but as people they're different creatures altogether, from where I'm standing.

  5. Thanks for the thoughts, Chris. Whatever concerns I've mentioned here, I haven't heard anything to indicate that Ryken is anything but a friendly guy- quite the contrary. The Mohler comparison may not be fair either- I know nothing about Mohler. But I have seen the comparison made by a number of people, so I thought I'd submit it here for consideration by readers.

  6. I'm going to have to agree with Jesse that the comparison to either WTS isn't necessarily an apples to apples comparison. WTS has a different set of organizing principals than Wheaton, and exists to do decidedly different things. Wheaton offers an evangelical Christian liberal arts education. WTS is a seminary designed to train men to bring the word of God.

    And from everything I've heard about the situation in the larger Southern Baptist Convention (to be fair, most of my reading comes from a classically Reformed or neo-Reformed light), the Reformed are often under attack rather than the other way around.

  7. When I first heard he was the son of a longtime Wheaton professor I raised an eyebrow, but then I remembered that Wheaton's second president was the son of Wheaton's first president, so it's not like it hasn't happened before and I think the college survived just fine.

    P.S. This is a different Anonymous from the above Anonymous.

  8. (relatively diverse at least, for evangelicalism)

    As a non-evangelist, I thoroughly congratulate you on realizing the word diverse was being used in an awfully narrow way by most people discussing this story. Well done.

  9. Perhaps I should just take your compliment and run with it, but... defense of other discussions of Wheaton that are going on, I think it's worth pointing out that many blogs are devoted to primarily evangelical audiences. As narrow as their usage of "diverse" might be, then, their readership is also more narrow, and this creates a bit more of a local understanding of what "diversity" entails in such a context.

    I would hazard a guess that my blog is of interest to a wider ideological, philosophical, and denominational spectrum than Christopher Benson's Evangel, though, so it's probably more often incumbent upon me to offer such qualifications to my readers when I speak. I am grateful for your kind words, though, and do hope that I am doing what I can to be fair to the situation.

  10. I think the natural bent of academic institutions is toward the left, so if Dr. Ryken can try to keep them from going down that road, I see the move as a credit to Wheaton (albeit from an outsider's perspective).

    As an insider on the SBC, I can affirm that "Reformed" is unfortunately a bad word in many places, even though the beginnings of the denomination were overtly Calvinistic. No one really goes around saying they're an Arminian or what have you, but they will tell you they're not Reformed. Many of them are 'Calminians,' if you will.

    The situation with SBTS had to do with a confessional institution that is accountable to the churches of the SBC being held accountable by those same churches. The moderate-liberal faculty of SBTS was not representative of the churches that supported it. Was it a 'conservative resurgence' or a 'fundamentalist takeover'? Neither; it was "conservative takeover." It was a completely justified and necessary affair, doubtless tainted by the sin of those involved from both sides. But SBTS is a different animal than Wheaton and its mission and confession are inherently different, too.

    I don't think the Ryken:Mohler comparison is all that apt, not unless the situation at Wheaton is worse than what it looks like.