For biblical Protestants, the history of theological education in America must often look like a depressing series of hopeful beginnings followed by a cooling of ardor, a weakening of conviction, and an eventual slide into a kind of theological liberalism or rationalistic theologizing hardly distinguishable from the secular study called comparative religion.

Harvard College, America’s oldest institution of higher learning, was founded in 1636—half a generation after the arrival of the first colonists in New England—to train a new generation of godly ministers as replacements for those older shepherds who had accompanied the colonists from England. Despite that admirable intent, Harvard shifted its emphasis sufficiently so that the founding of Yale in New Haven in 1701 was based, at least in part, on the desire to provide better theology than the Connecticut colonists felt they could obtain on the Charles River.

That was almost three Centuries ago, and since then, the fortunes and commitments of both Harvard and Yale, and of other major theological centers also, have shifted back and forth. When Harvard began to go Unitarian from 1805 onward, Yale remained—together with Andover and Hartford—a bastion of conservative Congregationalism for several decades longer. Yale too changed, it is true, and the center of Reformed or Calvinist orthodoxy in North America came to be Princeton, or rather the Presbyterian denominational seminary founded there in 1811 and not directly connected with the university bearing the same name. But in some ways the old relationship persisted, and although not one of the three schools would today be considered committed to orthodoxy, Yale is thought to be closer to it than Harvard, and Princeton than either. (Those seeking a consensus resembling biblical Protestant orthodoxy will search for it in vain at most or all of the famous “main line” American theological institutions. For an evangelical seeking a theological doctorate, the question to ask is not whether his prospective university or seminary endorses evangelical theology, for among the ancient and famous not one will be found that does. But some are hospitable and open to evangelical students and will tolerate their views, provided that they are capably presented. And some do have teachers who identify with conservative evangelicalism.)

We have spoken of Harvard’s slide from trinitarian Congregationalism into Unitarianism, beginning in 1805. Andover Theological Seminary was founded three years later, with a rigid requirement that faculty members subscribe to the Westminster Confession in order to guarantee the school’s perseverance in orthodoxy. From mid-century onward, numerous Andover faculty members became so disaffected in spirit from the documents to which they had formally committed themselves that a number of court cases were opened in an effort to force the seminary to rid itself of the liberal elements that had come to predominate on the faculty. The cause was lost: the Massachusetts courts ruled that the confessional commitment was not binding. But the triumph of liberalism was hollow, for Andover went into a precipitous decline, moving eventually to Cambridge in a short-lived liaison with Harvard Divinity School, and ultimately to Newton, where it joined the already existing Baptist seminary to form Andover Newton.

Article continues below

No other institution in the New World shares the distinction of Princeton Seminary for theological excellence in the orthodox Calvinist tradition. Theologians such as Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, W. H. Green, Robert Dick Wilson, and J. Gresham Machen elevated Princeton to the first rank of the theological world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Princeton too “defected,” and in a complicated struggle involving both theological and church-polity questions, Wilson and Machen withdrew in 1929 to found Westminster Seminary.

So yet a fourth major institution, founded with a zeal for biblical orthodoxy, appeared to lose its first love. Two decades after Westminster, in part inspired by the revival and new respectability of mass evangelism, Fuller Theological Seminary was established in Pasadena with a firm commitment to biblical infallibility. But Fuller too has undergone a shift in emphasis, and the early history of the seminary was marked by the exasperated departure of several of its best-known conservatives.

Times change, schools change, and people change. It cannot be said that no institution, having slidden into liberalism, has ever reversed the direction. Princeton, Yale, and even Harvard may each be claimed, mutatis mutandis, to be more “conservative” today than twenty years ago. Yet what evidently happened at Harvard and Yale, and was made abundantly clear by a bitter court struggle at Andover, remains as a potential danger for any theological institution—or, for that matter, other Christian organization—committed to biblical orthodoxy in an age when all of the pressures of secular culture and throughout much of the Church are in opposition to fundamental biblical doctrines. A strict confession of faith, while desirable, is evidently not enough to ensure continuance in the faith, as the history of Andover and other schools with a stringent doctrinal statement shows. Without changing their formal statement, professors may wander far beyond the limits it purports to set. And statements can be changed when the situation has sufficiently matured.

Article continues below

There is certainly no reliable technique or instrument to guarantee that a school will continue to support the ideals that inspired its foundation. In the last analysis, the only valid advice for institutional perseverance in the faith may be the same as that given by I. Howard Marshall in his admirable book on individual perseverance, Kept by the Power of God: Keep on persevering! We must recognize that the battle for the authority of the Word of God and for the validity of the great ecumenical creeds and their elaborations in the Reformation confessions of faith is a continuing battle. Perhaps it was enough a century ago to rejoin it every new generation, every thirty years or so. But now it must be refought with virtually every new seminary generation, i.e., every three years. Knowing that the battle is continual, and recognizing the need for meeting challenges to institutional faithfulness as soon as they arise rather than continually postponing conflict in the hope of avoiding it altogether, is an essential preliminary to keeping the faith.

A Confessional Statement. Having even an excellent statement of faith by no means guarantees the keeping of it, as we have said. And it is true that biblical faith does persist in individuals and even in some institutions that do not tie themselves to a strict formulation in creedal or confessional form. The evidence of history, however, is that a confession of faith, while not a sufficient guarantee of perseverance in the faith, is a virtually necessary condition for an institution such as a seminary.

When adopting a confession, a seminary must observe two things. First, the confession must identify the important doctrinal issues and speak decisively on them. It must deal with the problems that are acute when it is drawn up, being comprehensive without being so all-inclusive that it defies comprehension. It certainly may not be so detailed and elaborate that it invites everyone, even those who generally agree with it, to sign it with mental reservations. Second, it must be repeatedly reexamined and reaffirmed, so that those who have once subscribed are continually reminded of their commitment. If serious problems develop, two courses of action are open: (1) individuals can be called upon to bring themselves into conformity with the confession or to reconsider their relationship to the institution, or (2) the confession can be changed to conform honestly to reality.

Article continues below

Confessional statements may have to be expanded as new areas of conflict appear. Thus the Nicene Creed of 325 (drawn up after the several heresies arose teaching that a lesser power created the base, material world) amplified the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” to read, “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” Certainly for the self-definition of a fellowship of Christian teachers and students, it is more important to have a statement that expresses their commitment than to have a splendid statement to which traditionally a merely symbolic assent is given.

A Principle of Separation. Simply from the social dynamism involved, a movement that has a clearly expressed commitment finds it easier to gather loyal adherents than does one whose views are unfocused. But by having a strong position it may gather popular support, and gradually accumulate well-meaning fellow-travelers who no longer see the necessity for such sharp and arbitrary distinctions from the surrounding intellectual or social milieu. Success thus brings with it the inevitable temptation to compromise, first on non-essentials, but then fatally on essentials as well. Here too it is impossible to devise a program to forestall difficulties. One can, however, be aware of the fact that a Christian institution by its very nature implies separation and distinctiveness vis-a-vis the world, including the amorphous mass of nominal Christendom that is itself largely conformed to the world.

How the principle of separation can be worked out in its various details is something that cannot be prescribed in advance, for the general case. But it is evident that there will be a continuing temptation to smooth out the differences between a confessionally committed institution and the surrounding world, and that this temptation will increase as the institution becomes more “successful” and gains standing and recognition in the eyes of the general public. As a practical point, it is good to look for and maintain at least a few token areas of visible separation, simply to remind oneself—and the surrounding world—that a perfect conformity (or total respectability) is not the goal, and would indeed be the evidence of failure.

Article continues below

A Practice of Discipline. It has frequently been observed that much of medieval Catholicism lost the great truths of the Gospel in a welter of religious details—many of them good enough, or even beneficial, but in their sum causing worshipers to lose sight of fundamental principles. But there can be an opposite and similarly dangerous tendency among Protestants, including evangelicals, to lose all the details, the individual acts, words, and thoughts of which life’s texture is made, in a theoretical contemplation of correct but altogether inaccessible abstract principles. Thus the medieval struggle with sins gives way to the Reformation awareness of the universal principle of sin, which is good; but that in turn may lead to a virtual abandonment of the attempt to gain victory over any particular sin, which is of course bad.

The theological seminary is in many respects a Protestant derivative of the monastery, in which the principle of withdrawal and concentration is not life-long but is applied for a limited time in order to enable the graduates to minister effectively in later life. Of course, as evangelicals we know that it is not necessary to observe times and seasons, fixed hours of prayer, regulated disciplines of spirit and body. But because such things are not necessary or obligatory, are they therefore not useful or salutory? All such forms have an aspect of the arbitrary, regardless of how hallowed the tradition that teaches them. And we evangelicals rightly claim the freedom of the Gospel. Yet freedom may require exercise. Each of us is free, for example, to ski down a steep slope without falling. But without a certain principled exercise and practice, such freedom remains meaningless.

Practically, then, the principle of separation should lead to some freely accepted practices of discipline. Devotional life should be “encouraged” in such a way that it will actually be practiced. Because of the nature of theological studies, it is doubtless good if some of a school’s devotional life is simple, straightforward, and even “ritualistic”—i.e., not requiring a great deal of introspection and inward self-examination of the participants. At the same time, there must be the encouragement to individual self-examination and mutual exhortation that goes beyond mere physical presence at stated hours of worship.

Article continues below

The answer, then, if there is any, to the question of whether a school can persevere in the faith is an imperative: Keep on persevering! Recognize that it is a constant battle, and engage in it consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly. Confession is good, even necessary. But confession alone is not enough; it must be sustained by a real commitment to a principle of separation, involving the recognition of the fact that no evangelical institution of learning can ever be wholly acceptable in the eyes of an apostate world; and the principle must be lived out by a practice of discipline. The details will vary from institution to institution and situation to situation, but it remains evident that it is impossible to think of perseverance, of holding fast to the faith, without the threefold reality of confession, separation, and discipline.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.