Book release causes problems for Cedarville professor

Cedarville University has placed a professor on paid leave after determining a book he authored did not match all of the school’s religious views, which include a belief in the literal six-day account of creation.

The private, Baptist university “relieved” Michael Pahl of his teaching duties, placing him on paid administrative leave until his contract expires next year — a move that has concerned some students. It is not the first time Cedarville has parted way with a faculty member over differing beliefs, said Lorne Scharnburg, chairman of the Board of Trustees. But typically those issues come to light during the interview process, he said.

“We believe in religious freedom, but, on the other hand, we have the right to hire people who line up with our doctrinal statement,” Scharnburg said. He explained that the doctrinal statement is “what we’re all about. It’s like the Constitution is to the United States.”

Cedarville is a 3,300-student “Christ-centered” campus offering an education “grounded in biblical truth,” where every student professes their belief in Jesus Christ during the admission process, everyone attends chapel on campus five days a week and every graduate holds a Bible minor. Its faculty every year sign the university’s doctrinal statement and community covenant, Scharnburg said.

“There have been times in Cedarville’s history when good individuals could not agree on the statement of beliefs, and paths have necessarily separated. Those times – albeit difficult when they occur – reflect an institution that is seeking to operate with integrity as to its core beliefs,” said spokesman Mark Weinstein.

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In Pahl’s case, the trustees found during a review of his book, “The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions,” that he was “unable to concur fully with each and every position of Cedarville University’s doctrinal statement,” according to a mutually agreed upon statement from Pahl and the university. Pahl, who has been an associate professor of theological studies at Cedarville since 2011, published the book in June 2011 and has used it as a text in teaching, he said.

Although Pahl said he could not discuss the situation, except to release the statement, he explained that his book is written for the average Christian with questions about the first and last books of the Bible.

“They’re some of the most debated books in the history of Christianity. I wanted to write this to cut through some of that confusion and persuade especially those Christians who have been scared off from reading Genesis or Revelation to get excited about those books,” said Pahl, who has a Ph.D. in theology and religion from the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

Pahl said his book addresses the issue that many people hear that Genesis holds an anti-evolutionary perspective.

“Genesis is an ancient book written for ancient people,” he said. “They don’t have modern questions about evolution at all. Their questions are, ‘Who is God’ and ‘How does God relate to us.’”

Cedarville’s doctrinal statement says, among many points, “we believe in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writings,” and “believe in the literal six-day account of creation, that the creation of man lies in the special, immediate, and formative acts of God and not from previously existing forms of life.”

In their statement, Pahl and the school said, “Dr. Pahl’s orthodoxy and commitment to the gospel are not in question, nor is his commitment to Scripture’s inspiration, authority and infallibility. He is a promising scholar and a dedicated teacher, and will be missed by his colleagues and students. Nevertheless, the university has determined this decision to be in the best interests of its constituency at this time.”

Scharnburg stressed the action does not mean Pahl was fired, but the university and Pahl parted ways amicably with the knowledge that his contract would not be renewed. Scharnburg explained: “That does not mean we don’t think think he’s a good Christian and a good family man.”

“But we do insist that you should continue your employment only as long as your views line up with our views,” Scharnburg said. “We just don’t want to hire people who don’t believe what we believe.”

Still, a group of about 20 students is seeking an understanding of exactly why Pahl was released and has been meeting with university administrators for more information, said senior Zak Weston.

“Some of our remaining professors are kind of living in an atmosphere of fear,” he said. “It really curtails a lot of academic freedom.”

Weston said Cedarville has the right to have doctrinal standards for employees, but he questions those standards being applied arbitrarily without clear policies and through ad hoc committees. “I just would hope they would keep them enforced on the same level for everybody,” he said.

Cedarville is unique in the area for requiring their students and staff match the university’s beliefs. The University of Dayton and Xavier University in Cincinnati, both Catholic schools, do not require their faculty or students to be Catholic. Wittenberg University, a Lutheran-affiliated institution in Springfield, also has no policies in place requiring professors to hold certain religious beliefs.

“One of the things we try to do is encourage inter-religious dialog,” said Patrick Donnelly, associate provost for faculty and administrative affairs at UD, noting the school does ask its faculty and students to respect the university’s Catholic and Marianst identity. “We look for ways where the different religious traditions can work together to promote the common goals, that might be peace and justice. The inter-religious dialog can enhance the search for common ground among the different religious traditions.”

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