The latest news regarding the recent wrangling at Wheaton College, where tenured professor Larycia Hawkins was placed on leave for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, is that the college is moving to fire Hawkins. This follows from the college’s position that Hawkins’s statement was not in line with evangelical teaching.

Some have put the controversy in even starker terms, tracking with Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler’s claim that “the cost of getting this question wrong is the loss of the Gospel.” At the core of the issue is whether her statement undercuts a theology that Christians worship a Trinitarian God, one where God is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Theological responses backing Hawkins (or at least defending her as within the bounds of orthodoxy) have come from Catholics, mainline Protestants and from other evangelicals, bolstering petitions and a #reinstateDocHawk Twitter campaign.

But Wheaton’s move to terminate Hawkins is most problematic because it ignores the truly evangelical character of Hawkins’s actions.

Many now see Wheaton as part of the “neo-evangelical” stream, a nod to the theologically nuanced and culturally savvy approach of figures like Billy Graham who emerged in the 1950s. The rhetoric from evangelicals criticizing Hawkins, placing her outside of evangelicalism or even the Christian faith itself, hearkens back to the theological hair-splitting and boundary policing of early American fundamentalism.

Even if one can find theological imprecision in some of Hawkins’s comments (though this is disputed, even on Wheaton’s home turf), to make this a debate about fine points of doctrine that puts Hawkins outside the evangelical fold is to miss how varied the emphases of that very fold have been throughout America’s and Wheaton’s history.

Policing evangelical boundaries is hard, because there is no single, monolithic evangelicalism. There is no evangelical pope, or formalized confession of beliefs. David Bebbington’s famed description of evangelical identity as a unique combination of biblicism, conversionism, activism and crucentrism is frustratingly, if purposely, vague.

Wheaton represents a diversity of theological perspectives on issues as varied as gender roles, charismatic spiritual gifts, war and peace, sexuality and belief about the end times. Nearly all of these people consider themselves, and their positions, to be evangelical.

To solve a larger definitional problem, some scholars have turned to historical landmarks to refine what they mean by “evangelical.” Douglas Sweeney, for example, has defined evangelicalism as “orthodox Protestantism with an 18th century twist,” an allusion to the transatlantic revivals that crystallized the affective “heart religion” of colonial Christianity. Evangelicals themselves have made a similar move, staking their claim on various folksy, historically-derived squares of the evangelical “patchwork quilt.”

Reformed evangelicals such as John Piper claim the legacy of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards while charismatics look to the spiritual awakenings at Azusa Street.

Wheaton’s brand of evangelicalism cannot be understood without considering its history. Wheaton was founded in 1860 by its first president, Jonathan Blanchard who was active in causes like abolition of slavery and the defense of Indian rights. Blanchard stressed the Christian call to social justice, the need to bring the blessings of the kingdom of God to earth.

The college framed itself along these lines as well. As historian Donald Dayton has shown, Wheaton’s motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom,” is best understood as a social statement flowing out of this evangelical reform impulse: “what ‘John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the ‘kingdom of God’ was ‘a perfect state of society.’ ” Though Blanchard said we should never shut out “the influences and motives of eternity,” he meant to cultivate God’s kingdom here and now.

Wheaton moved in a different direction in the early 20th century. The school tracked with the broader fundamentalist movement that emerged at this time as a reaction to various modernist threats, like liberal theology.

President Charles Blanchard (Jonathan’s son) was instrumental in engineering this shift. Charles was very active in fundamentalist consolidation efforts, even drafting the doctrinal statement of the 1919 World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. He also helped bring a new ethical ethos to Wheaton, stressing individual purity instead of social justice.

In the early 20th century, dancing, card playing, and theater attendance replaced slavery and mistreatment of Indians as Wheaton’s moral bugaboos. Focus on the fundamentals unfortunately meant that social concerns were often swept aside, and, as religion scholar John Schmalzbauer has shown, fundamentalists tied to Wheaton propounded their own brands of Christian bigotry (in this case anti-Semitism).

With this history in mind, Hawkins’s activism on behalf of Muslims begins to look a lot less like an aberration and more in keeping with the original vision of the college. The antebellum evangelical tradition Hawkins drew upon was one primarily concerned with upholding human dignity and advocating for those on the margins. Muslims facing discrimination and threats of violence in present-day American life surely fit that description.

In 1842, Jonathan Blanchard preached a sermon on slavery before a church synod in Cincinnati. Over eight pages, he presented forceful arguments against slaveholding Christians, pointing out flaws in their Biblical exegesis and showing how “the property-holding of men is the worst conceivable form, and the last possible degree of oppression.”

During his sermon, Blanchard spent two short paragraphs in the sermon talking about the doctrine of God, where he argued that “Whatever leads men to regard Jehovah as something different from what he is, prevents their acting towards him as they ought.” It was clear from these few lines that Blanchard saw theological precision as an important good.

But Blanchard was not especially worried about muddled theology in and of itself. Instead he argued that slavery corrupted “true religion.” Failure to love one’s neighbor or denounce oppression was the real theological problem.

Hawkins, with her stress on “embodied solidarity” with her Muslim neighbors, would have found herself in good company in 1842. She drew not on liberal theology, secularized notions of human rights or shared American identity, but on a robust evangelical tradition of the biblical call to advocate on behalf of people made in the image of God.

The debate then is not so much about the boundaries of orthodoxy, or even evangelicalism. Instead it is primarily a debate about history, and the parts of Wheaton’s past the school has chosen to carry into the future.

Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School and a graduate of Wheaton College. Reach him on Twitter @AaronLGriffith

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