The harvard divinity school of a generation ago would not have openly courted evangelical support for its activities. But today it wants not only to take evangelicals seriously, but would welcome a professorship that will institutionalize this commitment permanently.

Consider Harvard’s past: Though given birth by a small group of seventeenth-century English Puritan ministers, the university had become by the next century a liberal institution hardly remembering its Puritan heritage. This liberalism carried over to the divinity school, which was established in 1816 as a separate department. By midcentury, it had become de facto a Unitarian school. Evangelicals, if they attended mainline seminaries, usually went to places like Yale or Princeton where theological conservatism was taken seriously.

Harvard, on the other hand, was considered by most evangelicals to be a wasteland—a Sodom and Gomorrah of theological scholarship. This label was perhaps unfair since its faculty included many important religious thinkers during the last century. But the fact remains that there were no evangelicals at Harvard during this early period and the faculty was decidedly liberal theologically. Even the suggestion that the divinity school enlist evangelical students or, worse, invite an evangelical to join the faculty, would have been received with scorn and unbelief.

Harvard’s current interest in evangelicalism must be traced to two events that happened in the last century. First of all, after 60 years of Unitarian domination, it was decided in 1880 to bring the divinity school more in line with its original interdenominational charter and appoint non-Unitarians to the faculty.

Second, at the turn of the century, Harvard Divinity School merged with Andover Seminary. The Andover faculty was largely Congregational and more conservative than Harvard’s. The merger reinforced the decision in 1880 to make Harvard into a theologically and denominationally diverse community of scholars and students. The merger fell apart, largely for legal reasons, and Andover left Cambridge in the 1920s to join the Baptist seminary in Newton, producing today’s Andover-Newton Theological School. But by that time, Harvard Divinity School itself had changed decisively.

Ironically, if one asks most evangelicals (and indeed, many liberals who should know better) what they think Harvard Divinity School is today, they will still say that it is a Unitarian seminary of students and faculty who subscribe to a liberal theology—if indeed they subscribe to any theology at all. But they are out of date. Following the Andover affair, Harvard Divinity School evolved until it is today a complex institution that defies old stereotypes.

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For one thing, even though the divinity school is proud of its long association with Unitarians, Harvard is no longer a “Unitarian stronghold.” Unitarian/Universalist students still attend the divinity school in significant numbers (28 in a student body of 380), but so do members of many mainline denominations and religious groups, including Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.

More to the point, at least since the turn of the century Harvard has not been monolithically liberal. It is true that many members of the divinity school faculty have identified with liberal causes. But today a wide range of theological belief is voiced in the classroom.

Nor can the student body any longer be classified as exclusively “liberal.” Significantly, in a student body of 380 men and women, over 50 can be identified as evangelical. And contrary to a popular notion held even by members of our own community that this evangelical presence is a recent phenomenon, evangelicals have attended the divinity school in relatively large numbers at least since the 1920s. Today, evangelical alumni can be found on the faculties of many leading evangelical seminaries, most notably at Fuller and Gordon-Conwell. Many leading pastors from evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention hold advanced degrees from Harvard Divinity School or, more recently, have spent a sabbatical semester there as Merrill Fellows. Other prominent evangelical leaders, including Kenneth Kantzer, the recent editor of CT, did their doctoral work in religion at Harvard.

One can only speculate why a larger percentage of Harvard Divinity School students over the past 50 years has been evangelical, compared with Harvard’s mainline competitors. One alumnus, an evangelical Presbyterian pastoring a church in North Carolina, told me that during the 1940s when he attended the divinity school it was well known in evangelical circles that a solid education, especially in Bible, could be had at Harvard without feeling pressured to conform to a liberal theological point of view. In other words, evangelicals could enter and leave Harvard with their evangelical beliefs still intact—challenged, perhaps, but intact. I believe it is the school’s long-standing commitment to toleration and freedom of thought that has been behind this. It is still a tradition here that while students and faculty freely engage in theological discussion and defend their particular point of view, individual conviction is respected.

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So harvard’s interest in (or at least, experience with) evangelicals is not altogether new. What is new, I think, is a desire on the part of many to foster more than just a casual interest in evangelicalism—to take evangelicalism seriously and somehow to incorporate it more fully into the life of the school.

There are at least two reasons for this desire. The first has already been alluded to: evangelicals represent the largest group of Protestants in this country. Many have attended Harvard Divinity School. And yet, evangelicalism is at the least underrepresented on the faculty. This is an unfortunate omission.

Second, many members of the faculty think the time is propitious for evangelical and nonevangelical scholars to engage in serious dialogue. Furthermore, they believe that evangelical scholarship should be taken seriously. I can perhaps convey this feeling best by describing my own development as a “liberal” church historian who takes evangelicalism seriously.

I am not an evangelical—at least not in the eyes of my evangelical friends (although some of my liberal friends are convinced otherwise). Brought up a United Methodist, I now belong to the Society of Friends. Yet my contact with evangelicals over the past 12 years—much of it as a seminarian and graduate student—has been an important force in my own spiritual and intellectual development and, indeed, in the way I teach.

My first experience with evangelicalism occurred at New College at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where I spent my middler year. Here I met many American evangelicals—so many, in fact, that I initially wondered whether New College was not a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention! Most of these evangelicals were Ph.D. students studying with scholars whom they, and I, admired—people like Tom Torrance in theology and A. C. Cheyne in church history. It was Cheyne, incidentally, who converted this would-be sociologist of religion into a church historian, and cultivated my current interest in evangelical Presbyterianism of the Scottish variety.

Many years later I collaborated with one of Professor Cheyne’s Ph.D. students, John Akers, who is now a trusted associate of Billy Graham. Dr. Akers and I have worked closely on several projects at Harvard that are relative to the divinity school’s evangelical connection, including a dialogue held last year with members of the Gordon-Conwell faculty on the topic “Evangelical and Liberal—A True Dichotomy?”

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At Oxford University where I did my own Ph.D., I had the good fortune of working with Methodist scholar J. D. Walsh, to whom many evangelical doctoral candidates have gravitated over the years. One of the first pieces of Oxford scholarship I read was that of another Walsh student, John Wesley White, whose research on transatlantic revivalism influenced my own doctoral studies.

My early exposure to evangelicals and their scholarship has had an important impact on my teaching. Increasingly, I see the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century evangelical revival as a positive force within the church and an inspiration for renewal within the church today. I continue to admire the work done in history and contemporary theology by Prof. Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell and many other evangelical historians and scholars.

Other members of the faculty share my interest in evangelicalism. One is former dean Krister Stendahl, the Andrew Mellon Professor of Divinity, and a leading New Testament scholar.

Stendahl, a friend of Billy Graham’s (with whom Stendahl first discussed the possibility of an evangelical chair at Harvard), feels that the presence of an evangelical scholar would be beneficial in at least three ways: (1) The chair would give evangelical scholarship a forum at Harvard in a substantial way; (2) It would open up a real option for its students; and (3) It would challenge scholarly exchange in everyday faculty discussion. In Stendahl’s opinion the divinity school faculty must be protected against “narrowing and labeling,” and for this reason an evangelical professorship is an important priority for Harvard Divinity School.

Another faculty member is John Carman, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Parkman Professor of Divinity. Dr. Carman grew up in a missionary home in India where his academic interest in Indian religions was awakened. He strongly feels that since contemporary evangelicalism is heir to a theological tradition many liberal Christians have rejected, there is a danger that evangelical positions will not receive an adequate hearing.

I asked Professor Stendahl about the role evangelical scholarship might play at an institution like Harvard. This is what he told me: “The time is long past when liberal, mainline, or ecumenical scholars can claim that they are the objective scholars with exclusive rights to academic respectability. Thus, the issue is far deeper than just widening the spectrum in order to be more inclusive—adding another species to the zoo. It is the health and vitality of theological studies for the future that is at stake, and the overcoming of outdated but lingering structures of ‘we and they’.

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“For instance, Carl F. H. Henry’s multivolume work in theology is a major contribution in the field—in many fields—but its impact on us all will depend on breaking down institutionalized patterns where academic institutions become challenged by it from within.”

The interest in evangelicalism by nonevangelical scholars (and by many evangelicals in nonevangelical activities) is part of a trend that has been developing over a good part of the second half of this century.

From the perspective of many evangelical scholars, I suspect a growing willingness today to explore common areas of theological agreement with nonevangelical scholars. I also sense a genuine desire on the part of many evangelicals to have their work taken more seriously by the nonevangelical academic community. This in part explains why evangelical Ph.D. candidates are attending mainline seminaries in record numbers. It also explains why evangelical scholars are publishing in nonevangelical scholarly journals and presses with much more frequency than even 20 years ago. From the nonevangelical side, there is much more of a willingness to reject two unfair stereotypes that have been used over the years to describe evangelicals. The first is that all evangelicals are narrow fundamentalists, and the second, that evangelicalism and good scholarship are mutually exclusive. Also, many nonevangelical seminary professors either consciously or subconciously admire the vitality of evangelicalism and would like to learn more about it from the perspective of ministerial arts.

For example, as chairman last spring of the Billings Prize Committee, which selects the divinity school’s most accomplished student preachers each year, I had the rare experience (for a Quaker) of sitting through 19 student sermons in a period of just over six hours. The strongest sermons in my opinion were preached by students who were either evangelical or came from evangelical backgrounds. It became evident to me that in the area of preaching, we have much to learn from evangelical traditions where student preparation in the ministerial arts appears superior to our own.

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It perhaps becomes clearer now why Harvard is interested in evangelicals. They have been at the divinity school in relatively large numbers for more than 50 years. And there is today a genuine interest in evangelical scholarship on the part of many nonevangelical faculty. The centerpiece of both these developments, however, would be a professorship in evangelical Christianity. It also bears mentioning that the presence of a professor of evangelical Christianity on the Harvard Divinity School faculty does not preclude the appointment of evangelicals to other positions as well.

For the first time in this country, evangelical thought and practice—be it in Bible, ethics, church history, or theology—will be taught and studied in a largely nonevangelical seminary. The incumbent of this professorship will not only be a resource for our own evangelical students, but will be a resource of international importance to all communities of faith. Most important, as far as I am concerned, he or she will, in a constructive and scholarly way, provoke and challenge accepted patterns of belief and practice held by mainliners and evangelicals alike. “Provoking” and “challenging” are part of the Harvard ethos anyway, and I believe our community will be strengthened by the addition of this scholarly and spiritual presence.

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