Evangelical seminaries and colleges generally require their teachers to subscribe to a rather fulsome doctrinal statement. When these institutions are seeking or being reexamined for accreditation, such statements have almost routinely been challenged as possibly restrictive of academic freedom. I have served as professor or visiting professor on half a dozen evangelical campuses and have noted that accreditation inspection teams seldom fail to ask how, in view of such commitments, academic liberty can be preserved.
I well recall the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary. First we were told that no application from the school could be considered until after it had graduated its first class of seniors. Then, in the year following the first commencement ceremonies, Dr. Daniel Williams of Union Theological Seminary, New York, paid a preliminary visit. In a meeting with faculty he asked how Fuller’s official doctrinal commitments could be maintained alongside a regard for professorial freedom. Dr. Edward Carnell asked in turn whether Union Seminary would add to its faculty a professor who did not subscribe at least to some beliefs, say belief that there is a God. Williams conceded that belief in God would probably be an indispensable minimum. Carnell then remarked that the difference lay not in whether any beliefs were required but in which beliefs were required.
I should explain that this conversation occurred at mid-century. More recently, some nonevangelical seminaries seemed to consider the presence of a death-of-God spokesman in their faculty a doctrinal imperative. Others seemed to feel it was imperative not to have any full-time evangelical professor. It is tempting to consider others broadminded only if they are broadminded in the way in which I am broadminded.
Yet we cannot escape the imperative of ongoing intellectual appraisal of our own heritage as well as of rival views and recent innovations. To be sure, gazing at one’s own navel is not an advisable classroom preoccupation. But simply taking for granted that one’s vital positions are properly covered may lead to embarrassing public exposure and charges of nudity. Academic integrity is served neither by censorship of foreign views nor by an authoritarian inculcation of one’s own ideology.
The temptation merely to indoctrinate is not confined to any one school of thought. The fiercest ideology in our times, Communism, does not dispute revelational theism on its own merits. Rather, it has made atheism the advance ideological commitment of national governments and university campuses alike.
Let me speak for a few moments as an evangelical journalist rather than as a professional theologian. In my experience, evangelical campuses—though they reflect the theological commitment of a majority of American churchgoers—on the whole do a fairer job than non-evangelical campuses in examining and presenting the views of opposing scholars, and in giving them personal representation. At Union Seminary’s commemorative convocation for Karl Barth, Geoffrey Bromiley, who translated Barth’s Church Dogmatics, was not even invited, let alone given a place on the program. Only last year a Nashville seminary that professes to represent all points of view in the classroom rejected a request by some of its ablest students that one course be offered based on the writings of twentieth-century evangelicals like Machen, Carnell, Clark, Ladd, Ramm, Schaeffer, and Van Til.
Some years ago, Gerald Beavan was working for a master’s degree in religion on a Texas campus where the only significant classroom reference to evangelical Christianity he can recall was a professor’s passing remark that “the only scholar the fundamentalists have ever had was Machen.” Beavan therefore thought it strange that not even Machen was on any of his reading lists, and from the library he signed out The Origin of Paul’s Religion. Reading it he had a conversion experience. Later he became the ablest promotion specialist that evangelist Billy Graham has ever had (after the Harringay crusade, the Advertising Council of Great Britain gave him—the first time ever to an American—its award of the year). Unofficial censorship of competing views breeds in the present student generation a reaction that outwits a narrowly protective mental custody.
The special protection of theological perspectives is not confined to any one tradition. I took a master’s degree in 1940 in Illinois where Karl Barth then got about the same silent treatment as Gresham Machen in Texas.
Let me pay special tribute to the most genuinely liberal scholar under whom I have studied, Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Brightman championed a finite god and repudiated miraculous theism. After I completed doctoral work in philosophy, we were walking together to the commencement exercises when he said in effect: “It always pleases a professor when his ablest students hold his own views. You don’t share my philosophy, but you have done good work. I know how easy it is simply to parrot a professor’s views, especially on the way to a degree, and you haven’t done that. It’s been a pleasure to have had you as one of my students.” My dissertation, The Influence of Personal Idealism on the Theology of A. H. Strong, was a criticism of the baneful effect on evangelical theology of a philosophy like Brightman’s (that of his predecessor, Bordon P. Bowne). Brightman went the added mile; when the dissertation was published, he wrote a commendatory foreword.
An academic institution that offers publicly recognized degrees should not penalize students for not subscribing to views of the faculty. The student should be expected only to master the course requirements, faithfully reproduce this content, give reasons for accepting or rejecting debatable positions, and demonstrate the ability to use his scholarly tools creatively.
I well recall the days at Northern Baptist Seminary when nonevangelical students began to attend my classes in theology. When some of them finished graduate degree work, we as an evangelically conservative faculty decided that we were not ordaining candidates to the ministry nor putting an imprimatur on the views of graduates but were certifying only that they had fulfilled certain academic requirements.
A great deal of attention is now being given to the subject of manipulation. While the discussion focuses upon the use of drugs, electrodes, and hypnosis for mind control, it has widened to include the education of children.
Advocates of self-sovereignty think it is deplorable for parents to impose a value-system and religious beliefs on their children. The charge of manipulation in the home is readily extended to manipulation in the schools. Educational instruction is increasingly scrutinized as an arena of compulsion in which teachers exercise subtle forms of mind and behavior control.
The issue at stake is not presuppositional versus non-presuppositional learning. No learning takes place in a presuppositional vacuum; the speaker who disavows a doctrinal stance merely masks his assumptions. But if students are given a censored or heavily biased view, or if certain positions are reduced to inarticulate manikins, a form of classroom manipulation occurs because the student is not involved at the level of dialogue that his or her intellectual maturity deserves. An academic setting becomes in these circumstances a theater for skillful mind-control. The question that an instructor needs continually to ask is, Would I want my convictions treated as I treat those of others?
The Bible exhorts us: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Need such training be considered manipulation? If training involves no apppeal to self-responsibility and self-formation, it is dehumanizing in that it arbitrarily imposes beliefs and conduct, refuses discussion of the why, and regards the teacher as beyond all answerability to the learner.
If faculty colleagues are to remain colleagues, the bond that holds them together must be more than mutually held salary contracts and a mutually felt burden to impart individual beliefs. Ideally a theological faculty has a spiritual bond. But it would be futile to argue that such a bond is most secure where no doctrinal consensus exists. I know scholars of high excellence serving on ecumenically pluralistic campuses who have confided that they are among the loneliest of men. I also know evangelical campuses where personality differences and rivalries place faculty members at a distance despite common doctrinal loyalties.
A theological institute owes its faculty, students, supportive constituency, and the larger Christian Church an articulate statement of the principles on which it stands. No school can be a distinctive institution without some shared beliefs. Its principles should be in clear view, and should be renewed periodically. An institution committed to nothing articulate is not only intellectually unstable but also vulnerable to forfeiting whatever it considers valuable at any given time.
To many secular scholars today, any and every claim to final truth seems specious. Since the secular campus knows only opinion and not final knowledge, any community that salutes fixed beliefs appears to be restricting liberal learning. To such scholars it makes little sense if we emphasize that great philosophers and early scientists were devout Christians; to be a Christian, as they see it, is not to take seriously either science or philosophy. A faculty generation and a student generation filled with doubts about everything in the name of academic earnestness tend to be knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Neither the classic Greek philosophers nor the great Christian theologians, however, saw in relativism a commitment that poses a threat to enduring truth. What relativism threatens most of all is true freedom and any claim whatever that the relativist himself would care to make about truth or anything else.
Yet doctrinal commitment can be less than intellectually honest if it is blind commitment. The assumption regarding a seminary faculty is, of course, that invited scholars have wrestled the issues for themselves before uniting with that faculty. One lamentable feature of theological education today is that some prospective faculty members assert their intellectual concurrence when seeking a position but, after receiving tenure, disavow those commitments. The practice extends the readiness of some ministerial candidates to be ordained in accord with historic church standards and then to defect from those standards in the pulpit. I know of at least two instances in which scholars gave unqualified assurance to the president and then to faculty colleagues only to reverse those assurances after they became securely entrenched. Academic tenure than is invoked to protect theological vacillation, and administrative protest is deplored as a compromise of academic freedom. Similarly, the Church is frequently accused before the world and through the secular press of intellectual sterility if it insists that its ordained clergy be faithful to their vows.
It is always possible that a scholar may develop sincere doubts about institutional commitments after uniting with a faculty. Such doubts should not be simply deplored; they should be taken seriously by colleagues who profess to be leaders in an academic community. The issues can be discussed and debated objectively in special faculty meetings without placing the scholar in jeopardy. Serious theological discussion is regrettably at a premium, even on many conservative campuses; I was associated with one seminary for five years during which the faculty on no occasion gathered to hear and discuss a theological presentation by one of its members. The extensiveness of an institution’s theological statement ought to coincide with a faculty willingness to evaluate it critically no less than to be critically governed by it.
A faculty member who has doubts about institutional commitments is either right or wrong. If he is wrong, or colleagues are convinced that he is, he should withdraw from the institution, unless his colleagues and those responsible for the institution are persuaded that the issue is no longer as important to the institution as its founders thought. In that event all faculty members should consider themselves free concerning this commitment, and the constituency should be told.
It is highly important that students not simply parrot an inherited tradition but rather win the Christian heritage for themselves. Objections to the great doctrines of the faith must be earnestly wrestled in theological college and seminary, and not merely glossed over. The very existence of God, the fact and nature of divine revelation, the precise significance of Jesus Christ, the unity and triunity of God, indeed the whole gamut of religious beliefs, is to be fully debated. A commitment based on unexamined assumptions is always weak in the next generation.
Yet not every professor has a chair whose duties center in challenging all Christian positions. The prime responsibility of the faculty is to clarify Christian claims and consistently set forth their implications. A faculty that is dominated by critical professors and that fails to communicate the content of the Christian heritage fails to fulfill the mission of theological education. Criticism has its rights, but so does the criticism of criticism; on balance, the latter has been more widely neglected in modern theology than the former. In my student days one divinity school in the Midwest was notorious for its circuitous handling of the Bible. Professors would indicate that their courses were not the ones in which the content of the Bible was taught; that would be gotten elsewhere in the curriculum. But graduates complained that they never found the course in which the content of Scripture was actually taught. Patrick Henry said: “This book [the Bible] is worth all the books which were ever printed.” It is a supreme tragedy when the Bible does not appear on a seminary’s required reading list and books about the Bible usurp its place.
In critically evaluating one’s own heritage, it is easy in our day to challenge historic commitments in the name of current deviations. One may dispute some or all ecclesiastical positions out of professed love for the Church or out of a desire to preserve respect in an academic environment gripped by secular presuppositions; but Jesus reminded theologians of an earlier generation that it is more important to honor God than to honor man and that only if God’s Word abides in us can we be preserved from deceptive loyalties to our religious communities (John 5:38, 44). Freedom to be a school respected among its peers does not require theologians to repudiate the distinctive way of knowing that is appropriate to the science of God. What it does require is the presentation of rational supports for a truth that neither empirical science nor conjectural philosophy can attain, a truth that has its basis in God’s intelligible initiative and act and Word.
A theological seminary has the high duty of justifying all its doctrinal commitments in view of divine revelation. Holding the Word of God as the central referent for all theological discussion keeps doctrinal affirmation from deteriorating into a mere salute to tradition and keeps theological commitments perpetually open not to human divergence but to the Word of God. Gamaliel’s counsel is not an adequate platform for theological education: even if Christianity won its way in the ancient world, the synagogues were steadily sealed against the Gospel of Christ, and those who delayed decision forfeited redemptive truth and grace. Pragmatism involves a kind of detente between the claims of God and of the devil more appropriate to political ecumenism than to theological lucidity.
The justification of theological commitments by the scriptural Word will also best preserve the vitality of theological education. Those who hold that academic excitement depends upon a diversity of viewpoints forfeit a transcendently valid norm. The intellectual force of divergent contemporary views can be preserved by other means than a theologically divided faculty. One is by required reading and critical evaluation of competitive viewpoints in courses on current religious thought. A scholar’s books often present his position in a more orderly and disciplined way than do his classroom lectures. Additionally, the guest-lecture circuit, which does not involve the question of faculty tenure, can provide live contact and discussion opportunity with scholars of other viewpoints. On occasion I have invited one of the scholars whose work we have studied in a course in contemporary theological perspectives to dinner and an evening’s informal dialogue with members of the seminar.
The notion that no seminary can give a fair hearing to dissenting scholars except by according them faculty status is more agreeable in principle to those committed to theological pluralism than to those adhering to revealed theology. In practice, however, nonevangelical seminaries tend to make little more room on their faculties for competent evangelical scholars than do evangelical institutions for nonevangelical scholars.
I see no prospect of transcending the divisions within Christendom by a misguided emphasis on the intellectual propriety of pluralistic and contradictory theologies and the consequent severance of divine revelation from truth. To be sure, our perceptions of divine revelation are vulnerable to the abuse of skewed perspectives. But to admit that is quite different from resigning ourselves to skewed perspectives as a victory for faith. If our traditions are answerable to no superior criterion, if they are to be viewed as fallible testimony to some inexpressible truth, to truth that depends ultimately upon individual decision, then we had better give public notice that theological truth is not openly identifiable and that truth in religion is whatever one commits himself to. We would not need to learn from each other if we already had a theology of glory, if we were sons of God wholly conformed to Christ’s image, if our theological truth-claims were unscarred by evident theological contrariety and even contradiction. The designation of the Pope as antichrist by the Lutheran confessions and the Roman Catholic confession of him as Christ’s unique vicegerent on earth cannot both be true; you may even excuse a Baptist for suggesting that both are wrong.
What could be real gain for the Christian witness in the modern world would be not simply to wrestle our differences but to emphasize also what we affirm in common in view of the scripturally revealed truth of God. The real issue is not whether theological commitment is compatible with academic freedom to believe whatever one prefers. It is whether, in the absence of commitment and more particularly of commitment to the intelligible revealed truth of God, we educators can long preserve sense for either freedom or academia.
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