Modern American Protestantism has now become so wonderfully open to so many different points of view that there may even be hope that its leaders will pay a little attention to the evangelicals in their midst. Along these lines, I would like to suggest that in every denomination control of at least one seminary be turned over to the evangelicals. For years evangelicals have contributed to denominational causes they have failed to understand, have suspected, or have even loathed. Wouldn’t it be nice for once to give them a cause they liked? Just think how many people could be made happy and generous again merely by being given an ecclesiastical institution (such as a seminary) that they could love and support without embarrassment!
It is of course true that many denominational leaders feel ill at ease with evangelicals, but as these leaders have been saying for years in other contexts, it is the mark of a Christian to love the unlovable. They should also be pleased at the prospect of being open to yet another point of view. Moreover, rising to the support of another significant but oppressed minority would nurture their sense of justice and fair play. Finally, they have more seminaries than they can afford or fill anyway.
From the evangelical side, there is some urgency about the request in view of all the talk about quotas for seminary admission. Perhaps God will now have to take quota systems into account as he calls people into the ministry. At any rate, in the future it may be far more difficult for evangelicals to be accepted. Liberal and ecumenical schools want to relate to the real world. Since so much of the real world today is Chinese and Indian one could reasonably argue that 50 per cent of Protestant seminary enrollment (as well as teachers, trustees, and administrators) should be from these two countries. After all, you really can’t learn in a vacuum! In a Methodist seminary, for instance, very few Methodists (if any) should be admitted because there are so few Methodists in the real world. They are even outnumbered by Shintoists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Marxists, although there is some overlapping.
In our own country, on the other hand, there are many groups that have been shamefully abused and persecuted in the past. Would it not be sporting to compensate for past wrongs by admitting these people to Protestant seminaries in far larger numbers than their percentage of the population or their interest in Protestantism would indicate? Under these conditions (if you could convince such people to enroll), it might be rather difficult for evangelicals to be accepted in some of our great centers of religious learning. Of course, these places may not survive anyway, and even if they did, it is not clear why an evangelical would want to go there to prepare for the Christian ministry. One usually goes to the mission field after one is trained.
In order to survive evangelicals do need places where Christianity is taught as a living religion. These schools would have the advantage of being comparatively inexpensive to operate in that they would not have to offer countless courses to satisfy students who had no interest in Christianity anyway; such students would not be likely to enroll, or at least they would not be allowed to dominate the curriculum and change it monthly in accordance with the latest nonchristian developments in the counterculture. Nor would one need to retain professors with no particular interest in or commitment to Christianity. These people could find happy homes in many non-evangelical seminaries, in the church-related colleges that are ashamed of their heritage, or in the campus ministry. Evangelicals would still be able to have dialogue with nonchristians in the university, in many Protestant churches, and in the world. But they would not need to allow nonchristians to dominate their Christian seminary.
An evangelical seminary would also have the advantage of enormous savings in the publicity budget, for unlike other schools, it would not have the difficulty of trying to decide and to explain to its constituency and the world at large just what it was trying to do. It is highly likely that a denominational evangelical seminary would know, and it would therefore not have to spend enormous sums of money on slick publicity brochures trying to explain what is almost unexplainable.
Obviously, past and current experience gives evangelicals little reason to find hope in seminaries other than their own. Evangelicals have learned that most Protestants are fully capable of selling out everything (including God) to almost any aspect of the culture or counterculture. (The code words for this, I believe, are “being relevant, issue oriented, and fully ecumenical.”) For instance, now that America has become fascinated by the occult, one can only assume that Protestantism will want to relate to this in an open and positive way. (Note recent Roman Catholic attempts at appropriation of the occult and Zen Buddhism!) Although there are difficulties for many Protestants in relating to any religion, soon, no doubt, there will be more courses offered on Satanism and witchcraft than on the New Testament. Evangelicals, of course, will continue to have problems with Satan, but liberal and ecumenical Protestants are so open and fair-minded that they will surely want to continue to give the Devil his due.
If you think this is farfetched, consider this: who would ever have dreamed that beginning in the nineteenth century Reformed churches would embrace the Gothic Revival? But they did! Even Baptists built medieval cathedrals and seminaries! Calvin would surely have several well-chosen words for his spiritual descendants who prance about in outlandish costumes while facing empty coffin altars with their equally empty theology. I suppose that honoring heroes of the Reformed Church in a Gothic stained-glass atmosphere is something like honoring Moses with a golden calf.
At any rate, it is easy enough to see that anything is possible within American Protestantism. In the future, then, instead of going to Germany to study with great Protestant theologians, seminarians will probably take psychic tours to England on astrologically favorable days to visit haunted houses, Druid centers and evidences of early Anglican worship at Stonehenge and Oxford. Small-group sessions will become covens, and ecclesiastical buildings will receive new names such as The Satanic Presbyterian Church, The Cloven Hoof Baptist Temple, and Orgies By The Sea Episcopal Parish. (This may mean that contemporary Protestant worship will have to become somewhat less bizarre than it is now.)
As evangelicals have noted, Protestantism’s great and heroic attempt to encounter the culture and shape it can be summarized as follows: The world won. Not only that, the world counterattacked and captured most of the seminaries. It may be time for some seminaries to withdraw a bit in accordance with the biblical model. Besides avoiding many dangers in this way, we might also discover a positive advantage, an advantage so radical that I hesitate to mention it, but will.
Perhaps by withdrawing some from the world and stressing the Christian heritage, evangelicals might be able to develop within Protestant denominational theological education a sense of Christian community. You will surely think now that I have gone too far. Of course, in fairness it should be pointed out that there are brief moments when liberal and ecumenical seminaries coalesce around some issue. Unfortunately, there are not as many of these as in the past. In another era, liberal seminarians could always unite in hysterical hatred of Roman Catholicism, for instance. But now Roman Catholics are even more confused than liberal Protestants, presumably because they have so much more to be confused about.
Liberal seminarians can, however, still join together in hostility toward committed Protestant Christians and the Church. Moreover, they can rally around fleeting ethical issues. Conceivably a school could close in protest for several days upon receiving word that some yaks had been treated in an unchristian manner in Nepal. And messianic visions always return every time a radical Democrat runs for the presidency. Then you see him riding on the symbol of his party to the New Jerusalem, now known as Camelot. (This political reference leads me to point out that in Protestant theological circles those least sure of God’s existence are most certain of his will for every situation. I cannot attempt to explain this amazing fact. Perhaps the implication is that Protestant seminaries should give degrees only in political science.) But mere hatred of Christianity and the constant and intense listening to a diverse and continually changing counterculture cannot really be expected to provide the proper context for the development of Christian community.
And if I pulled
The red and crimson threads of sin
Out of the fabric of my life,
Would what was left
Be dull as winter rain
And fog at sea?
Be limp like faded flags
And seaweed beached?
O Lord, I should have known!
The red and crimson added to thy robe,
My tapestry revealed in green and gold
The boughs of Eden, and the songs
Of birds of paradise.
Christian community is dependent upon some common identity, some common memory that has something to do with Christian faith. This the evangelicals can provide. Unlike many others, evangelicals believe that Christianity has a subject matter, and they would require seminary students to take courses that would give them competence in the Bible and the Christian heritage. They would see no point in encouraging students to express their theological illiteracy by choosing all their own courses or, as students do in many instances, by designing and teaching them. Rather, a great deal of exegesis would be demanded of everyone. And this requirement could not be fully satisfied by courses on such interesting topics as What Jesus and I Think of the World Situation, Why I Hate the Resurrection, or How Process Theology Judges the Bible.
Moreover, before students would be allowed to reject the Protestant heritage totally, they would have to find out what it is. Thus they would all have something in common and would actually be able to talk with one another. Indeed, they could even celebrate a common heritage. Since the seminary would be openly Christian, the entire community would actually want to worship together, and students would want to be taught how to preach and lead worship. One could then dispense with the time-consuming, expensive, and usually fruitless efforts to encourage attendance by performing rites so eccentric and esoteric that no one could participate in them even if he wanted to.
Finally, evangelical seminaries could revitalize the Church. They could, for instance, provide help in dealing with the question of what to do with the pathetic and dying Protestant Sunday school. It is difficult to know what to teach Sunday-school children if you don’t know what you believe or what Protestantism is. Some churches have tried to resolve the issue through busing. They seem to think that if the only identity modern Protestantism has is openness, Protestant children should be bused every Sunday to other churches, synagogues, temples, museums, parks, or zoos. This is easier than finding something of one’s own to teach, and maybe in this way Protestant children will be able to find a living faith in some other religion or in nature. One could also argue for the busing of helpless little children on the grounds of achieving religious balance. But interesting as other religions and zoos are, evangelical seminaries would teach their students how to run Sunday schools in which the Gospel would be stressed. Think what this radical new approach could do for the churches!
It is surely not too much to ask Protestant denominational leaders, who have tried so hard to be open to practically everything under the sun, to be open now to something really different: the Christian faith. There are “acres of diamonds” buried in our own backyard that an evangelical seminary could bring to light and life again. The results could be radical, exciting, and, if I dare use the word, relevant.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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