Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context

August 06, 2008

Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context

Carl R Trueman
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)

Seminaries and Orthodoxy: The Historical Pattern

As a historian, the one thing I always try to avoid is making definitive statements about recent events: while eyewitness and participant accounts of historical happenings can make very exciting reading, they often lack the more dispassionate perspective which time and emotional distance bring in their wake.  Thus, they are frequently less satisfying as historical interpretations than they are as what English schoolboys of yesteryear might have called `ripping yarns.’  Nevertheless, it seems apposite at this point, even as an eyewitness and participant in recent events at Westminster, to offer a few simple thoughts for the lay observer on the historical context and significance of our struggles.

It has become something of a proverb in evangelical circles that most conservative or confessional theological institutions have about seventy-five years of life in them before they evidence significant changes in theological direction.  One might add to that another oft-repeated observation, that such change does not occur slowly by a kind of gradual evolution; rather such change tends to take place almost overnight.  A third comment, perhaps just as frequently heard in such circles, is that theological institutions always become broader theologically, and the clock can never be turned back in a more orthodox direction.

Where do these ideas originate?  And why is it that they do seem to many, at least at the level of a gut reaction, to be true?  Well, the answer, of course is, that there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that they do in fact reflect reality, even if the generalized timeline is somewhat negotiable.  Think of Princeton Theological Seminary.  It was founded in 1812, enjoyed a heyday of orthodoxy, and then, in 1929, it was reorganized and the old theology of the Westminster Standards vanished from its lecture theatres almost overnight.  Think of Fuller Seminary.  Founded after World War II to spearhead the development of an evangelical scholarship which was both orthodox and academically rigorous, it boasted a stellar evangelical faculty; yet its commitment to inerrancy vanished within two generations.  In both cases, the change happened swiftly and, up until this point anyway, there appears to have been no significant return within these institutions to anything resembling the older theological paths.

Generational Shifts

There are good reasons why these kind of things can happen.  Don Carson once commented that the first generation fights for orthodoxy, the second generation assumes orthodoxy, and the third generation abandons orthodoxy.  That, of course, gives you roughly seventy-five years before problems start to become evident.  We might flesh that out a little.  In the case of institutions founded out of times of crisis, members of the first generation were often bound together by common struggles, perhaps within a denomination or within a specific institution.  Thus, they knew who they were and what they believed; they had made a clear stand on points of principle, and some had even made huge personal sacrifices so to do.  The second generation lived in the intellectual and cultural space carved out for them by the first generation but lacked the controversial context which bound their fathers together.  The third generation has little or no contact with the struggles of the first, and, in almost Freudian fashion, can actually find the behaviour of their institutional founding fathers to be somewhat embarrassing.  Like the anecdotes told by the boring great uncle who always starts a conversation with the phrase, `During the war….,’ the antics of their forefathers, and those who harp on about them, are just so much eye-roll inducing tedium.

The Harlequin Problem

Yet the context of the modern seminary is even more complicated than the typical generational psychology would suggest.  Such an institution faces further pressures beyond the growing distance, emotional and otherwise, from the theological and ecclesiastical fights of earlier generations.  The modern seminary faces the need to produce thoughtful scholars who engage the academy as well as train young people for the church, and this is not as easy a task to accomplish as it was for earlier generations.  In the seventeenth century, theology was a single discipline and a teacher of theology was expected to have a mastery of all relevant fields: biblical languages, exegesis, theology, and ecclesiology.  This model persisted for a long time: even in the early twentieth century, a man like B. B. Warfield was able to contribute competently at a scholarly level to New Testament studies, systematic theology, and church history, while also writing helpfully for the layperson.  

Nowadays, however, with the veritable deluge of information and the increasing specializations which are part and parcel of the proliferation of subdisciplines, the typical professor has enough trouble keeping up-to-date with his chosen field let alone being competent to contribute outside of his narrow specialization.   This generates almost intolerable problems for those who, like Harlequin, have to serve two masters, academy and church, when the demands of those two masters are not necessarily or frequently compatible.  When they conflict, to whom are we accountable?  And when our subdisciplines collide with those of others, who, if anyone, gives way?  Do we simply allow the cacophony of our various specializations to lead us to abandon any notion of the unity of truth, or of articulating a coherent theology?  And, before those outside are too quick to rush to judgment on either side, how many of you have ever said a prayer that those of us who negotiate these issues every day might be given wisdom as to how to do so?

Truth is Not Necessarily Stranger than Fiction

It is worth noting at this point that there is also one further complication for an accredited seminary with a doctoral program, a complication of some significance relative to Westminster over recent days: the requirement of the accreditation agencies for tenured teaching faculty to possess that most basic academic union card, a PhD degree, a demand which may have been passed over in times past but upon which accreditors are now increasingly bearing down. Indeed, the rules on this are very clear, and Westminster has no choice but to bring itself into conformity with this basic requirement. 

In my opinion, this is an absolute no-brainer for any institution of higher education which makes claims to academic integrity; how much more for one which runs a doctoral program.  My own background is that of the secular university system in Britain.  There one cannot even make a shortlist for a job these days without not only a PhD but also at least a guaranteed contract with a proper scholarly press for a monograph. That seminaries have typically had lower standards on this matter and employed faculty who have spent many fruitless years on doctoral programs has not served them well but has rather compromised their academic integrity. 

In this context, it is always more exciting and glamorous to read certain events at Westminster through the lens of theological or personal differences, to see a particular professor as a martyr to his alleged theological courage; but the rather boring and prosaic truth is that sometimes it is purely a technical matter of lack of  professional qualifications or equivalent in scholarly publications, and nothing more spectacular or conspiratorial.  Contrary to the popular saying, the truth is often far more mundane and straightforward than fiction.

Let me make this point of academic policy crystal clear: while I am Academic Dean, I am determined to make sure that the bar is now raised on this matter of scholarship and academic qualifications; and I am committed to making sure that the relaxed policy of previous years is made a thing of the past and that Westminster brings itself into line with the rules of its accrediting agencies.  Indeed, I look forward to that day when all teachers on the PhD program will actually have PhDs themselves and will thus have proved themselves capable of the level at which they aspire to teach.  This is surely not an unreasonable goal for Westminster, and certainly something which doctoral students are entitled to expect their professors to possess.

The Ever-Broadening Boundaries of Evangelicalism

One final factor, in addition to disciplinary fragmentation and the Harlequinesque demands of serving two masters, church and academy, is the problem of the ever-broadening boundaries of what is acceptable evangelical theology.  Evangelical scholars David Wells and Mark Noll are only two of the more significant thinkers who have drawn attention to this.  In his new book, The Courage to be Protestant, David points to the increasing doctrinal minimalism of evangelicalism.  Where once a raft of doctrines were assumed, now evangelicalism is defined almost by institutions and ethos rather than by theological confession.  If it is taught at a seminary calling itself evangelical, for example, or published by a press which has evangelical roots, then it is within the range of evangelical thought, even if it involves a low view of scripture, rejection of penal substitution, or even a question mark over the Trinity. Further, Mark, in his book, Is the Reformation Over?, points out that many evangelicals, perhaps most, now reject justification by grace through faith as understood by the Reformers, a doctrine which has historically been one of the distinguishing hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism.  Strange times, indeed, when even the basics can no longer be assumed; but we must acknowledge that we stand at a point in history where the purview of evangelical thought is not determined by historic Christianity but is rather a function of the breadth of the beliefs of the faculty who serve at evangelical seminaries, the commissioning editors who work for evangelical presses, and the ministers who fill evangelical pulpits.

Westminster, Professor Peter Enns’ Book, and the Wider Context

Westminster occupies an unenviable position in all this.  A seminary which sees itself as both academic and confessional, yet has no formal ecclesiastical connection, is always going to have to face tough decisions on the direction forward.  In addition, for all the reasons above, it is doubtful that Westminster is the only institution which will go through similar traumas in the coming decade.  The challenges to traditional views of scripture in particular are coming thick and fast at the moment from within the evangelical world itself; and the impatience with the old creeds and confessions is palpable in many quarters.  

The debate over Peter Enns’ book is thus one example of a much wider phenomenon: the struggle to define what responsible evangelical scholarship looks like at the start of the third millennium.  That the divisions over this book cut across disciplinary, ecclesiastical, and scholarly lines is an indication of just how complicated the matter is; and those of us (unlike the many self-appointed internet pundits) who have sat through hundreds of hours of meetings and discussion of the matters involved, who have lost good friends in the fray, who have seen and experienced at first-hand the personal cost on both sides, and for whom the whole matter is anything but glamorous, know that the situation is as complex as it has been painful.   Indeed, so difficult is it that I cannot begin to offer a full analysis of the controversy and the outcome here, but yet I do believe it worthwhile and necessary to offer a moment’s reflection on recent events.

Confession and Accountability

So what is the significance of these recent events?  As Academic Dean and as Vice President for Academic Affairs, I believe this lies above all in two specific areas.  First, it is now clear that Westminster is to be committed to a doctrine of scripture that reflects what is taught in the great confessions of the Reformation, and which has nurtured the confessional evangelical church for centuries.   As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level, the leaders at Westminster have decided that that is not the path this institution will go down.  We will not accept that the Reformation creedal heritage is no longer relevant; we will not accede to the indefinite broadening of evangelicalism’s doctrinal horizons; nor will we subscribe to the modifications of the doctrine of scripture which are such a necessary part of that broadening.  Rather, we will stand where we have always stood, on the great solas of the Reformation: Christ, scripture, grace, faith, and, above all, God’s glory.  We are not, and will not be, a seminary which repudiates the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism.

Second, it has been made clear that Westminster professors are to be held accountable to more than just the canons of their chosen academic guild or the current trends of thinking in their various subdisciplines or even their friends and colleagues on Faculty.  Accountability in times of crisis, of course, is always a painful experience. There is a human cost on all sides which press releases, theological statements, and minutes of meetings rarely, if ever, convey.  While theology is indeed a great hobby, it is too often a nightmare of a profession.  Yet those who teach must be held accountable for their teaching, however hard that may be; and, for too long at Westminster, too little attention has been paid to what we as Faculty teach while too much, perhaps, has been paid to what others outside of our church constituencies think of us.

The Future: Counter-Cultural and Counter-Historical Theological Accountability

This move to accountability for our beliefs and teaching is a profoundly counter-cultural, counter-historical move.  As noted, the dynamic within evangelicalism seems always towards doctrinal minimalism; and the history of seminaries, with some notable exceptions such as Concordia and Southern, seems always towards more concessive, liberal positions.  Yet to take the path of an ever-broadening theology would be to betray our heritage and to fail to serve our churches.  This is not in itself, of course, a denial of the faith or the integrity of those with whom we disagree; but it is to say that there is a place – a vital and necessary place – in the evangelical world for those who hold to clear doctrinal standards, who define themselves very much in terms of belief and in relation to those historic confessions they see as most faithfully explicating scripture. 

Does this restrict freedom of speech or academic freedom, as some have claimed? Well, no-one has to take the Faculty Pledge and commit themselves thereby to upholding the teaching of Westminster Standards: the First Amendment guarantees that the Westminster Standards can never be imposed as a condition of American citizenship or civil freedom; and, beyond that, evangelicalism is broad enough to provide plenty of professional opportunities for those gifted scholars who cannot do so. But make no mistake: those who choose to be Faculty at Westminster are voluntarily bound by the Faculty Pledge to non-negotiable standards of doctrine, life, and teaching.   Thus, it is not enough to believe that one sincerely subscribes to the Westminster Standards; it is not sincerity that validates Faculty subscription.  One can, after all, be sincerely mistaken about one’s position; and, in the current crisis, I for one can say that I doubt no-one’s personal sincerity in the matter of the Faculty Pledge.  But, to reiterate, such personal sincerity is not enough.  It is actually believing and embracing and living the teachings of the Standards, as summaries of the system of doctrine taught in scripture, which is required; and the judgment on whether one is doing that lies not with the conscience of the individual or even with one’s colleagues on Faculty, but with the Board of Trustees, as those charged with maintaining the orthodoxy of belief and practice at the Seminary.

In short, I suspect that in years to come the recent conflicts at Westminster will come to be seen as struggles which reflect the tensions of the broader evangelical constituency of which we are, in a sense, a part.  They will be seen as part of the battle of the next decade, over what exactly biblical authority means.  They will be seen as part of the struggle between an evangelicalism which finds truth claims increasingly distasteful and a more historic, confessional evangelicalism which believes and loves the assertions of the great creeds and confessions of the church as things which have fed and inspired Christians throughout the ages – some, even today, to the point of death.  Above all, it is my hope that they will not be seen as anything glamorous or exciting but rather as part of a necessary, if extremely painful, move to make Faculty accountable for their beliefs and as an attempt to bring a once-great seminary back to the integrity of its historic, confessional, evangelical moorings.

Click here for Dr. David B. Garner's article.