A Note from Our Editor: Yale: Why Christian Institutions Go Secular

When I held a professorship at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois (1964-1974), I organised a conference at which Roland H. Bainton of Yale spoke.  Bainton, a Quaker, was probably best known for his wonderful biography of Luther:  Here I Stand.  But the weekend conference was sheer agony for me, owing to Bainton's somehow learning that I am bilingual.  He insisted on speaking nothing but French with me, and his accent was perfectly terrible.  I thought that I would end up with permanent brain damage.

Recently, in my bibliophilistic (bibliomaniacal?) wanderings, I came across Bainton's history of the Yale Divinity School:  Yale and the Ministry (2d [posthumous] ed.; San Francisco: Harper, 1985).  It recounts the Yale story from the founding of the College in 1701 to l957, when the first edition of Bainton's book was published.  There is a powerful lesson to be learned from this history, though it is hardly the lesson Bainton's commemorative volume presents

In the early 19th century, Yale's theological perspective was concretised by its great President Timothy Dwight, who supported massive revival at the College during the second Great Awakening.  Here is Bainton's accurate description of Dwight's perspective and approach:

"Infidelity was rife. . . . Dwight's method in the College was a head-on attack. . . . In addresses and college sermons he smote the English and the French Deists with whom he had a firsthand acquaintance.  He was not unfair to their arguments and when Tom Paine scoffed that if Satan had shown Jesus all the kingdoms of this world he ought to have discovered America, Dwight replied that the word in Greek used for world comprised only the four tetrarchies of Palestine.  And equally with Hume on miracles" (p. 76).  Dwight's appeals to the College left no ambiguity:  "Will you enthrone a Goddess of Reason before the table of Christ?  Will you burn your Bibles?  Will you crucify anew your Redeemer?  Will you deny your God?" (p. 77).

By the 20th century, the Yale Divinity School was hardly the same place.  One of its leading and most influential systematic theologians was Douglas C. Macintosh. Here are a few of Bainton's comments on his approach:  "He was fully abreast of that radical Biblical criticism in which the humanist science of historiography had issued. . . . Macintosh maintained that Biblical scholars must be absolutely unimpeded, even should they come out with a demonstration that Jesus had never lived at all. . . . Faith, therefore, must be emancipated from history" (p. 228).  Quoting Macintosh directly:  "It is the systematic thinker's task to lead faith to a sure foundation, independent of the uncertainties of historical investigation" (p. 229).

This reminds one of Paul Tillich, who, a generation later, tried to create an "ontological" foundation for Christian theology--a foundation which would survive even if the Jesus of history turned out never to have existed (cf. "Tillich's Philosophy of History," in Montgomery, Where Is History Going?).  Indeed, this sidelining of biblical history is little more than a revival of Enlightenment philosopher Lessing's "ditch": the allegedly impassible gulf between historical knowledge and "the necessary truths of reason."  Paine's 18th century "Age of Reason" déjà vu

But, as I have argued in my Tractatus Logico-Theologicus:  "To assume, on the basis of such a 'ditch,' or by way of the similar, more classical principle, finitum non est capax infiniti, that history cannot reveal eternity, is to make a grandiose, gratuitous and unprovable metaphysical assumption--for how could one know that God is incapable of using history to reveal himself?" (para. 3.1183).  Moreover, as the analytical philosophers have shown, all factual knowledge is probabilistic, and we must rely on it every day to survive in this world; thus we have no legitimate complaint against the use of historical knowledge to reveal God's appearance in human history for our salvation.

So how does a great institution pass from biblical orthodoxy to rationalistic secularism?  One can look at Yale--or at any number of other great and powerful American academic institutions for the answer (e.g., the Princeton Theological Seminary).   Answer:  through indifference or hesitation on the part of the administration to enforce doctrinal fidelity.  Academic administrators, by worshipping the golden calf of notoriety and prestige, become so enamored of the scholarship--or the impressive personalities--of faculty and potential faculty that nothing is done to prevent heresy from replacing orthodoxy. 

We are most fortunate at Patrick Henry College to have an administration well aware of this danger and of the tragic consequences elsewhere of neglecting to maintain "the faith once delivered to the saints."  May this vigilant perspective remain our institution's defining mark.

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The Global Journal unapologetically features apologetics. In our secular age, the defense of the faith is not an option—in spite of the remarkable ability of many evangelical believers and churches to avoid the force of the Petrine command “to be ready always to give an answer [Gk., apologia] for the hope within.” This issue provides relevant examples of how to follow the Apostolic example in contending for the truth of the scriptural gospel.

Dr. Angus Menuge of Concordia University Wisconsin, who seconded the Editor in our recent and successful God debate at University College Dublin, shows how Oxford University’s Socratic Club, under C. S. Lewis’ presidency, offers a model for effective apologetic witness. Then the Editor provides his write-up of the Dublin debate. Finally, Ph.D. student Craig Miles deals a body blow to the strange Mormon notion of the star Kolob—thereby reminding us of the stark difference between historic Christianity, supported by “many infallible proofs,” and the cults and isms of our day, whose beliefs so often fall into the abysm of technical meaninglessness, having no capacity for the proof (or even the disproof) of their claims.

-- John Warwick Montgomery

Opinions expressed in the Global Journal are those of the individual authors.


They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or of Patrick Henry College.