09/19/2013 11:32 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Why Tenure Matters

The dramatic countryside of Northeastern Scotland along the craggy banks of the Don River, a wild stream that tumbles from the Highlands to the North Sea, may account to some degree for the flinty character of this region's famous son, William Robertson Smith. The warmth of the family hearth in the village of Keig, Aberdeenshire, may account for his sweetness of spirit, even amid the trials he eventually endured. But nothing accounts for his genius.

A linguistic prodigy, Smith learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as a child. After studying at New College, Edinburgh, Smith traveled to Germany, learning from legendary scholars such as the great Albrecht Ritschl. It was in Germany that Smith became acquainted with the newly emerging approaches to biblical criticism. This was the mid-nineteenth century, and biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, was exploding. Scholars were eagerly tracing out the implications of applying scientific, historical, and literary methods to the study of biblical texts.

By the age of 24, Smith was named Professor of Oriental Languages and Old Testament Exegesis at the Free Church Theological College (subsequently known as Christ College) in Aberdeen. Smith's inaugural lecture was on "what history teaches us to seek for in the Bible."

Smith's reputation as a scholar and his writing ability attracted the attention of the editors of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They asked him to write several articles, including one on the Bible, in which he introduced to a British audience the fruits of historical criticism of the biblical text. The Free Church of Scotland, in which Smith was ordained, took considerable exception to Smith's scholarship. The article on the Bible was published in 1875. In 1877, Smith was suspended from teaching. In 1880, he was formally tried for heresy. And in 1881, he was removed from his professorship by the church.

Were you or I to read his article on the Bible today we would hardly find its conclusions surprising. What Smith and others were discovering then has become commonplace now. But "The Bible" and other articles such as his respected essay on "Sacrifice" (which represents one of the first ever forays into the field we have come to call "comparative religion," an approach to the study of religions now taught in many seminaries) were revolutionary in Smith's time, and the ideas he explored were considered dangerous to the faith and tranquility of the church.

After being dismissed from his teaching post in Aberdeen, Smith was hired by the University of Cambridge where he taught and served as librarian. He also went on to serve as the Editor of The Encyclopedia Britannica. Though his trial for heresy and dismissal from his professorship were traumatic to him and his family, I would argue that these actions were even more costly to the church, which retreated even deeper into pious timidity on one hand and on the other hand a posture of threat against its next generation of scholars (including Marcus Dods and A.B. Bruce).

Scholarship sometimes moves us along with little friction, one discovery following upon another to the applause of all concerned. But sometimes scholarship shocks us, turns our assumptions upside down, makes us question cherished beliefs and reorganize our ways of viewing the world -- and God. Both scholarly paths can lead to truth. Both can lead to errors. Many the time when people have applauded hoary scholarship that foundered on its own pious clichés. Many the time too when rebels without a clue published their radical ideas which, when the dust finally settled, turned out to be worthless. But scholarship that is fettered has little chance to move anyone forward. And scholarship that is told it must not question its subject because its subject is sacred, ultimately is unlikely to edify.

The reason theological schools came in time to value academic tenure was to ensure that the research of our William Robertson Smiths would flourish. Tenure exists to protect academic freedom and to encourage vigorous and adventurous scholarship. It is intended to promote a spirit of exploration and discovery. It is meant to guarantee that scholars and teachers cannot be dismissed just because their research uncovers uncomfortable ideas.

By extension, however, there is an assumption in the granting of tenure that it will be used for the advancement of knowledge. Tenure is not a blanket guarantee of life-long employment, but it is a guarantee of due process. This guarantee is intended to protect academic freedom so that scholars can produce their scholarship without being cowed by threats to job security should their scholarship go in a direction that challenges norms. Of course, a scholar need not produce shocking scholarship to deserve tenure. But tenure does assume that the scholar will be productive.

Several years ago I dropped by the office of a friend who served on the faculty of a theological school then in the throes of ecclesiastical controversy. Some professors at the school had already paid the ultimate professional price for their scholarship's transgressing the boundaries of a rigidly enforced "orthodoxy." I had just bought a copy of my friend's newest book. Handing it to him to sign, I asked, "So, tell me about your new book!" He took the book from my hands, signed it, and shrugged as he returned it to me. "It's safe."

Tenure exists so you and I will never have to read a "safe" book. We should have this guarantee that any work of original scholarship -- whether we believe it gets it wrong or right, whether it leads to a real breakthrough or a dead end -- gives you an author's best judgment, unsafe as that may be.

That's why tenure matters.