Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

+1 864-378-5416

Reclaiming Theological Education

In 1943 Christian apologetics was still a required course at Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1944 apologetics was no longer offered even as an elective. Except for sporadic references to it, apologetics ceased to be part of the seminary curriculum. Princeton was not alone in abandoning apologetics. Indeed, a person would be hard-pressed to find a denominational seminary that includes it today. For post-Enlightenment liberalism the very idea of rational argument on behalf of the Christian faith is offensive.

And yet, throughout Scripture, Christians are enjoined to defend the faith through rational argument. Thus Peter urged, “Always be ready to make your defense [apologia] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). Paul understood his own ministry as constituting a “defense [apologia] and confirmation [bebaiosis] of the gospel” (Phil 1:7). The Greek apologia denotes a legal defense, and bebaiosis means “verification” or “proof.”

The Demise of Apologetics

Rational argument used to be regarded as an ally of the Christian faith, but this changed 200 years ago during the Enlightenment. The father of liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, epitomized this change when he remarked, “We entirely renounce all attempts to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that all Christians … have already the inward certainty that their religion cannot take any other form than this.” Karl Barth continued this negative attitude toward apologetics into our own day (cf. his Church Dogmatics 1/1).

Are Schleiermacher and Barth right? Throughout the book of Acts we find that Paul does not merely proclaim the gospel, hoping to score a conversion here and there. Instead he actively persuades people of the truth of the gospel, striving to convince both the hearts and the minds of his listeners. Indeed, it is instructive to trace the Greek peitho, the verb that means to persuade, through the book of Acts. Active persuasion, and not bald assertion, characterize Paul’s ministry.

The failure of the mainline denominations to take Christian apologetics seriously is at least in part responsible for the steady decline of these denominations, not only in size but also in vision. At stake in apologetics is the question whether Christianity is true—objectively true. “Objective truth” is a dirty word these days. It is chic to relativize, contextualize, and politicize the truth of the gospel. On the other hand, it is terribly gauche to cramp our free-swinging academic style by giving credence to objective truths, which by their nature are obligatory across the board and thus not subject to our control.

Lay people with the good fortune not to have been educated out of their good senses want to know whether the fundamental claims of Christianity are objectively true. A Christ who is merely a social or political or ethical construction does not interest them—and rightly so. Miguel de Unamuno’s definition of belief in God is too thin a soup on which to nourish a vibrant Christian faith: “To believe in God is to long for His existence, and, further, it is to act as if He existed.” To desire that God exists and to act as though God existed express but a vague hope. Does God actually exist? And more to the point, who is this God? And how can we know anything about this God? These are questions people need answered if their faith is to be sustained and strengthened.

By jettisoning apologetics from their seminary curricula, the mainline denominations have undermined the training of their ministers. Errors and confusions taught at seminary propagate not only up the denominational hierarchy but also down to the grassroots. Lay people these days scratch their heads at the theological disarray of their denominations. They are amazed because what was unthinkable only a few years back is now considered normal. What with Union Seminary in New York holding a voodoo chapel service, Harvard Divinity School offering a theology class in which students are taught that the Virgin Mary was raped by God, and Princeton Theological Seminary’s gay-lesbian caucus stuffing the campus mailboxes with a flier showing two men in the Garden of Eden and with a caption reading “God created Adam and Steve,” it is hardly surprising when today’s pastors are more confused than their congregations.

In response to this theological malaise, a group of students at Princeton Theological Seminary, organized as the Charles Hodge Society, decided to offer a weekly seminar on Christian apologetics known as the Princeton Apologetics Seminar. These seminars began in the spring of 1995 and continued through 2011. Semester themes for the seminar included the authority of Scripture, Christian missions, and Christianity’s cultured despisers. The essays in the book Unapologetic Apologetics (IVP, 2001) are largely taken from that seminar. The book includes those essays for two reasons: (1) to strengthen the faith of seminarians and other Christians who struggle with the theological disarray of our times, and (2) to provide an example of what a student group can do on a seminary campus to combat false and destructive ideas.

Besides starting an apologetics seminar, the Charles Hodge Society also reinstituted the Princeton Theological Review, a journal founded by Charles Hodge but disbanded by the seminary in the 1920s. The Princeton Theological Review has published many of the papers presented at the Princeton Apologetics Seminar.

In adopting Charles Hodge’s name, the Charles Hodge Society wished to recognize his towering presence in the early history of Princeton Theological Seminary. Charles Hodge was the premier American theologian in the nineteenth century. Unlike today, when theology is considered a second-class discipline readily ignored by statesmen alike eagerly awaited Hodge’s wisdom on everything from slavery to Darwinism. The Charles Hodge Society wished to recognize his outstanding role in stimulating the intellectual and spiritual life of the seminary and of our nation.

Fundamentalism and Accommodationism

Martin Luther once noted that “we can get along without burgomasters, princes, and noblemen, but we can’t do without schools, for they must rule the world.” If we take seriously that Christianity embodies humanity’s chief truth—that God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself—then the most important school of all is the seminary. The seminaries teach our ministers who in turn teach their congregations about Jesus Christ. Whether they do so faithfully and truthfully depends on the training they receive at seminary.

The Roman statesman Seneca observed, “If you want a man to keep his head when crisis comes, you must give him some training before it comes.” Seminary breeds many a crisis of faith. It is common for young men and women who are enthusiastic about serving God to go to seminary, lose their heads, and turn away from the truth of Christianity. Since Christian symbols are easily reinterpreted within secular categories, often a form of Christianity remains. But once seminarians come to view orthodox Christianity as simplistic, biblicist, or morally deficient—as is regularly taught at the mainline seminaries—loss of faith is inevitable. Students need to be equipped to handle the assaults on heart and mind that they encounter at seminary. For this reason apologetics is indispensable in the education of Christian ministers and in turn must be taught to members and youth in local congregations.

What will it take to reinvigorate Christian apologetics and thereby help reclaim theological education? We need to cultivate a certain attitude. Our work as Christian apologists must be of the highest quality and rigor to deserve the respect of the secular academic community. Yet at the same time we must view any respect we actually receive from this community as inconsequential. Our attitude must combine two competing ideas: the desire to produce work worthy of respect and a repudiation of any desire for actual acceptance or respectability.

Why is this attitude so important? To transform mainline seminaries in particular and the secular academic world in general, the Christian apologist must steer clear of two obstacles. One obstacle is fundamentalism, which assumes all conceptual problems facing Christianity are easily resolved. The other obstacle is accommodation to the prevailing secular ideologies, which gives up so much ground as to lose any robust Christian witness. Fundamentalism prevents us from doing the quality work that’s needed to deserve the respect of the secular world. On the other hand, accommodationism is so caught up in gaining the respect of the secular academic world that it loses its integrity as a Christian witness.

Consider an analogy. In earlier centuries actors were classified with thieves, prostitutes, and pimps—the scum of society. Actors, and entertainers generally, make their living by pleasing an audience. As a result they are easily tempted to prostitute their art to the all-too-often debased tastes of their audiences. This temptation is so strong that many entertainers succumb, with the result that the profession has traditionally been viewed as scandalous.

The temptation to prostitute ourselves, which is so evident in the entertainment industry, is equally a danger to Christian scholars. There is only one way for Christians to resist this temptation and that is to accept fully the offense of the gospel. Christian apologetics must never be divorced from the offense of the gospel. The secular academy sets ground rules that doom Christianity from the start. For Christian apologists to play by these rules, whether in the name of ecumenism or pluralism, is to capitulate the faith.

That said, our response as Christian apologists must not be to stick our heads in the sand and mechanically repeat a creed. We are to engage the secular world, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting it, pointing to the truth of Christianity and producing strong arguments and valid criticisms that show where secularism has missed the mark.

Will we be appreciated? Hardly. The Pharisees of our day—those who know themselves to occupy the moral high ground—reside preeminently in the academic world. The Pharisees killed Jesus and are just as ready to destroy our Christian witness if we permit it. Nevertheless, this is our calling as Christian apologists, to bear witness to the truth, even to the point of death (be it the death of our bodies or the death of our careers). The church has a name for this—martyrdom. The early church considered martyrdom the highest Christian calling. Martyrdom was counted an honor and privilege, a way of sharing in Christ’s sufferings and living out the Christian life in its most logical and complete form.

Christian apologetics that’s worthy of the name is a call to martyrdom—perhaps not a martyrdom where we spill our blood but a martyrdom where we witness to the truth without being concerned about our careers, political correctness, the current fashion, or toeing the party line. We are not called to please the world; we are called to proclaim the truth within whatever context and conventions we find ourselves.

Quietism, Imperialism, and Engagement

There is another set of twin obstacles that the Christian apologist must avoid—quietism and imperialism. Quietism is the view that the proper response of the Christian toward the world is to wait things out. According to quietism this world is a bad place, in fact so bad a place that our best strategy is to sidestep the world as much as possible. Quietism tries to make it through life unscathed. This approach to the Christian life is a great temptation in our day. Feeling beleaguered by so many hostile forces in our society, we like nothing better than to retreat into a fortress. But this is precisely what the Christian may not do. Christian scholarship has no place in a ghetto.

We have Jesus’ own example in this matter. Consider how Jesus began his ministry: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news’” (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus insists that people change the way they think and act. To a generation that regards religion as a harmless backwater having no real cognitive claims, this is the height of presumption. Jesus, never slow to place demands on people, enunciates here his two primary demands: repentance and faith.

It is important that we understand precisely what Jesus is demanding here. The repentance of which Jesus speaks denotes a fundamental reorientation of the human person and contains a strong cognitive element. Indeed the very word for repentance in the Greek New Testament refers primarily to cognition and has embedded in it the Greek word for mind. Repentance signifies a thoroughgoing change in mental outlook or perspective. Now there is only one way to change one’s perspective and that is to move to a new vantage from which to see previously hidden things. The changed perspective that Jesus requires comes from believing the good news—the gospel. Through faith in the good news we reorient ourselves to see things as God means us to see them. This is the good news that God has loved the world and sent Christ to redeem it. The repentance and faith of which Jesus speaks are thus inseparable.

But what gave Jesus the right to demand of his listeners repentance and faith? Even if we grant that quietism is not a valid Christian attitude, imperialism certainly does not fare any better. How can Jesus command us to repent and believe? Isn’t this the height of presumption? Religion is, after all, a personal and private affair, isn’t it? What business then does Jesus have imposing his views on others? How can Jesus be so insensitive? How dare he be so judgmental as to find fault with how other people are living their lives?

Of course, these criticisms are utterly bogus. Jesus had every right to express his views forthrightly, to find fault where there was fault, and to demand change where justice was flouted. Unlike the crusaders of the Middle Ages, Jesus was not putting the sword to anyone’s neck. He was straightforwardly speaking the truth. It is disingenuous to call this imperialism. Imperialism is always a matter of coercion, not a matter of discomfort. The deeper a lie is entrenched, the greater the discomfort when the truth finally unmasks it. The Pharisees did not like it when Jesus unmasked their hypocrisy. They did not like it when he showed them that God’s purposes for humanity were greater than their narrow, self-righteous parochialism.

Our proper response in approaching the world is therefore neither quietism nor imperialism but engagement. This was Jesus’ own attitude. God is reconciling the world to himself through Christ. As Christians we are the body of Christ and thus the instruments through which God reconciles the world. We have a unique calling. Insofar as Christ is reconciling the world today, it is through the lives of his people, the Christians who constitute his church. Our proper response therefore is one of engagement, to engage the world with the truth of Christ.

As we engage the world, we need to recognize how very high are the stakes. Not only does Christianity claim to possess humanity’s ultimate truth, but it also claims that this truth is so urgent that a person ignores it at his or her peril. At the heart of Christianity is the overwhelming truth that in Christ God has invaded space and time, making it possible for humanity to take part in the divine life. The opportunity to take part in the divine life is regarded by Scripture and the church tradition as good news—indeed, the best there is. But Christianity also has a dark side: those who refuse to embrace this truth face separation from that divine life.

We need to remember that this is a fallen world. This is not the world God originally created. The world of Genesis 1 was, as the author of Genesis puts it, “very good.” But the world that came into being after Adam’s transgression is a different world. To be sure, there is continuity with the original creation. And it is this continuity that ensures God’s love for this present, fallen world. But the present world is a different world from the original one. It is a world in which love and hatred, right and wrong, and good and evil coexist and commingle. It is also a world in which humans must decide their allegiances. There is in the end no straddling of fences. Jesus says that we are either for him or against him. This truth is the dark side of the gospel. For those who receive it, the gospel is the best news imaginable. For those who reject it, the gospel signifies sorrow and loss. The apostle Paul put it this way: “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:15-16).

An urgency attaches to the Christian message. People’s lives are in the balance. Not every story will have a happy ending. Everything is not going to turn out all right in the end. Only where God’s grace is manifested will things turn out all right. But where God’s grace is spurned, things will not turn out all right. There is a move afoot these days in theological circles to embrace a position known as universalism—that in the end everyone will be saved. This is the teaching neither of Scripture nor of church tradition. There is no universal safety net. Our feel-good pop psychologies urge us to think it more befitting of God to save everyone. Reality, however, is not ultimately determined by what we think fitting. Certainly we should be comforted in knowing that the God who decides human destinies is rich in love and mercy. But we must never neglect the holiness and justice of God.

Because the truth of Christ is humanity’s chief truth, the truth of Christ is at once glorious and urgent. It follows that Christians have a mandate to declare the truth of Christ. This mandate consists of bringing every aspect of life under the influence of this truth. In an age of unbridled freedom and licentiousness, this no doubt will smack of elitism and intrusiveness. But in fact, unifying every aspect of life around the truth of Christ is the only hope humanity has to find true freedom and fulfillment. In the epistle to the Colossians, Paul writes that all things were created by and for Christ. To be united with Christ is therefore to fulfill a person’s true purpose, whereas to be separated from Christ is to lose his or her way.

Rooting Out False Ideas

If we now grant that unifying every aspect of life around this truth of Christ is the ideal that ought to guide every Christian scholar, the question remains: How do we get there? Let us begin by acknowledging how far we actually are from attaining this ideal. Consider the words of J. Gresham Machen, a well-known Princeton theologian who was active early in the twentieth century:

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.

These words have come true in our own day with a vengeance. Anything that hints at a Christian worldview is routinely discarded within our secular society.

Indeed, we have permitted the collective thought of the world to be controlled by ideas that prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything but a harmless delusion. It needs to be emphasized that we, the Christians, the church of Jesus Christ, have done this. Christianity has never held any illusions about the extent of evil and deception of which a lost humanity is capable. But if evil and deception prosper, part of the blame must inevitably be laid at the feet of those who can help prevent it.

Christians are called to be salt and light in the world, and in this way to stem and overthrow false ideas. Unfortunately, we have not exercised our power as salt and light nearly enough. Through self-absorption, inattention, and bad theology we have failed to act as salt and light. We have been careless. We have let false ideas prosper without challenge. False ideas have to be rooted out for faith to recover. That is not to say that Christians ought to form vigilante groups, get up an index of proscribed books as in the old days, and condemn everything that strikes them as the least bit threatening. The inquisitorial method cannot fulfill God’s redemptive purposes for the world.

Nonetheless, we are not to leave false ideas unchecked. False ideas must be rooted out, and to do so requires seeing them for what they are. Since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans have known good and evil—the tree delivered what it promised. Indeed, we know good and evil not just abstractly but from experience—all of us have experienced good and evil in our lives. But to understand good and evil, to discern good and not confuse it with evil, this is a different matter entirely. This sort of knowledge eluded our first parents and, but for the grace of God, continues to elude us. Discerning between good and evil is a far different matter from simply having experienced them.

Now false ideas become a problem precisely when we lack such discernment. A false idea is harmless enough if we recognize it as such, if we understand its origin and history, if we untangle its partial truths, if we appreciate why the false idea seems plausible to its adherents, if we understand it better than its original proponents. Once we thoroughly understand a false idea, we need no longer be intimidated by it. Only then can we properly assess its place in the grand scheme of things and so bring it under the authority of Christ.

False ideas that undermine the Christian faith need to be exposed for what they are before they can lose their sting. Unfortunately, we have grown sloppy in exposing false ideas. We have refused to expend the necessary effort to bring the false ideas of our age under the authority of Christ. In the history of Christianity this is a recent development. From the sixth century up to the Enlightenment it is safe to say that the West was thoroughly imbued with Christian ideals and that western intellectual elites were overwhelmingly Christian. False ideas that undermined the very foundations of the Christian faith (e.g., denying the resurrection or the Trinity) were swiftly challenged and uprooted. Since the Enlightenment, however, we have not so much lacked the means to combat false ideas as the will and clarity.

The will and clarity to combat false ideas comes from taking Jesus’ promise to his disciples seriously: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Lk 21:15). What is noteworthy about this promise is how perfectly it was fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Jesus was never at a loss for words. He always saw through the traps of his opponents; he had an uncanny ability for avoiding pitfalls. If this promise was fulfilled in Jesus’ life, why should contemporary Christians expect less for themselves? The false ideas that undermine our faith today are no more insidious than the traps and snares that beset Jesus. Why should we not expect the same success in dealing with them that Jesus experienced? The threat that false ideas present is simply too great to be ignored. Jesus did not ignore them but addressed them squarely. How can we demand less of ourselves?

The remedy must be appropriate to the disease. Demons have to be cast out. Infections have to be drained. Cancers have to be surgically removed. And false ideas have to be analyzed, evaluated, and refuted. Just as the word of God’s truth is good seed that generates new life in Christ, so false ideas are bad seeds which, if allowed to grow, yield bitter fruit. The only way to get rid of seeds once planted is to dig them up. Recovery of faith is the art of cultivation. Weeding is as much a part of gardening as are planting and nurturing. False ideas need to be weeded out. This requires work, patience, and diligence. Above all, it requires a willingness to listen and inquire into ideas that oppose the faith. We must grasp what the world is saying even better than it does itself. Only in this way will Christ’s authority over the life of the mind be reestablished and the doors of faith reopened.

What is the goal of all our intellectual exertions as Christian apologists? Certainly our goal is not to make a name for ourselves. Nor is it simply to glorify God with our minds by probing the wonders of God’s creation. The goal is rather to restore a simplicity of faith to a generation that has grown cold and cynical. As Jesus put it, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).

The great fault of secularism—and there’s plenty of secularism at our seminaries—is that it actively hinders us from coming to such a simplicity of faith. By simplicity of faith we mean a belief in the unqualified goodness, wisdom, and trustworthiness of God—that God always has our best interests at heart, that God knows exactly what he is doing, that God is actively involved and interested in our lives and that in spite of circumstances God is always worthy of our praise, gratitude, and adoration.

The goal of Christian apologetics is to clear the way for a simple, child-like faith. Indeed, once our doctrines of God and salvation become so encrusted with qualifications, nuances, and doubts that we can no longer run to God as a loving father, we’re probably better closing up shop. This is not to say that there’s no room for sophistication in theology. But the goal of all such sophistication must again be to restore us to the simplicity of the faith.

Quarantine Versus Inoculation

The tendency among evangelical Christians has been to (1) retreat, not simply from the world but also from those portions of the church that have assimilated “worldly” standards and ideas, and (2) build fortresses. This strategy has its own logic: false ideas tend to corrupt and whoever engages such ideas risks corruption. Ideological purity, however, has its own risks. A quarantine maintains safety only as long as one can prevent exposure. Preventing exposure may be possible when combating physical toxins. But when the toxins are false ideas, isolation is difficult to maintain.

The proper model for handling exposure to false ideas is not quarantine but inoculation. Inoculation exposes a person to a disease, but in measured doses so that the destructive effects of the disease are mitigated. The person inoculated against a disease ceases to be at risk, even when exposed to it. The inoculated individual is immune. Similarly, the student who has been inoculated against false ideas is far less likely to succumb to them than the student who has been cloistered from them. Precisely because they have already been exposed to falsehood, inoculated students become convincing critics of falsehood and defenders of truth. For this reason, Christian apologetics needs to stress inoculation.

The mainline and liberal seminaries can be a dangerous place for a student’s faith. Those who surrender their faith at seminary typically lack adequate exposure to the false ideas they encounter, as well as the critical thinking skills for analyzing those ideas. For students who were previously “quarantined,” a liberal seminary education can constitute overexposure and result in infection. Take, for instance, students whose undergraduate education was at a Bible college. Such students will arrive at seminary with extensive knowledge of the Bible’s content, yet may know little about mainstream biblical studies. So when they arrive at seminary and learn of, say, the documentary hypothesis (i.e., that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses but rather are a patchwork of different source traditions closer to the time of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.), they lack the tools for evaluating it.

At a mainline seminary, students will hear neither a thorough defense nor a thorough critique of the documentary hypothesis. In all likelihood professors will present a brief sketch of the hypothesis and thereafter simply presuppose it. This is not necessarily because seminary professors seek to indoctrinate students. In most cases professors teach what they think is correct, and because of time constraints, avoid treating alternative theories. Consequently, students either reflexively reject what they hear without benefit of cogent argument or surrender to it wholesale since everyone around them seems to assume its truth. More insidiously, young seminarians may suspect that their former “fundamentalist” teachers and pastors intentionally kept them in the dark about this “newfound knowledge.” This suspicion can have devastating effects.

What’s the solution? Students must be exposed to the documentary hypothesis so that not only its claims and presuppositions are presented as fairly as possible (e.g., the role of philosophical naturalism in its formation and defense) but also the reasons for and against it. This approach inoculates students against the destructive power of false ideas while at the same time enabling them to appropriate elements of truth that the idea may contain. Ideally, this should be the task of any good Christian education. Thankfully, there are still Christian institutions that aspire to such a balanced and intentional educational philosophy.

Puncturing the Myth of Invincibility

But what about mainline or liberal seminaries where this educational philosophy is lacking? Should students simply avoid such places altogether? Is it better to go to an evangelical seminary than risk spiritual meltdown? Certainly, some seminaries are so hostile to the Christian faith that it is impossible to acquire a sound education there. Nonetheless, to abandon the large, influential, and well-endowed institutions because they are in trouble makes poor strategic sense. The unstated assumption here is that when a seminary’s leadership becomes subverted, all hope is lost—time to pack up and move out. This assumption even comes with its own proof text: “Therefore come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17).

Although this text is important for maintaining the integrity of the church, it remains equally important that the church act as salt and light in difficult situations. Yes, the mainline and liberal seminaries are in a tight spot. But that is hardly a reason for abandoning them. Even if their leadership is corrupt, what is to prevent reform and renewal coming from the bottom up—from the students themselves?

The leftist students and campus agitators of the 1960s have become the tenured faculty, political leaders, and opinion-makers of the 21st century. Similarly, the theological left has successfully employed an incrementalist strategy of gradually displacing orthodox Christianity and replacing it with liberal Christianity. So why isn’t the ideological converse possible? Why should evangelical students be incapable of similar aspirations? Our own experience at Princeton Theological Seminary made it clear that evangelical students are the key to renewing the mainline seminaries and churches.

What we are urging, then, is an intentional activism by evangelical students directed at the mainline seminaries both to renew and to reclaim these institutions. What should evangelical students do? Some activities are obvious and essential: They should seek like-minded students for spiritual and psychological support, maintain a vigilant prayer life, read Scripture, participate in the sacraments, and worship God. But there’s more: Evangelical students need to take up the mantle of public apologist.

But isn’t this presumptuous? How can we expect mere students to defend ideas publicly when their professors, who enjoy more education and experience, are daily dismissing those very ideas? Is this not sending sheep to the slaughter? Not at all. We speak from experience when we say that the heterodoxy of the mainline seminaries is far from invincible. Fashion tends to rule the day and is easily upset by students bold enough to challenge it.

Students at today’s mainline seminaries are more conservative than their faculties (at least at the beginning of their studies). This contrasts with the situation in the 1960s, in which students were much more liberal and radical than their professors. There are now far more students from evangelical congregations than from liberal ones that attend seminary. In contrast, liberal Christianity has great difficulty regenerating itself. Hardly anyone converts from agnosticism to liberal Christianity. Many liberal Christians started out as evangelicals. Indeed, liberal Christianity is parasitic. To survive it must recruit evangelical Christians. What’s more, the key recruiting ground is the theological seminary.

What we are proposing, then, is to exploit the theological disparity between students and faculty at mainline seminaries through focused and intentional student activism. To succeed, such activism requires that a few committed seminary students be willing to risk their status, security, and popularity. Additionally, it requires the help and encouragement from faithful people in the pews—this includes spiritual, emotional, and financial support.
Standing up for Christian orthodoxy at a mainline seminary is a quick way to lose friends and alienate people. Members of the Charles Hodge Society were threatened with two lawsuits for their work on the Princeton Theological Review, threatened with physical violence, accused of racism and sexism, denied funding that other campus groups readily received, had posted signs destroyed and removed, and were explicitly informed by faculty that membership in the Charles Hodge Society jeopardized their academic advancement. Nonetheless, we also met with approval and encouragement from some faculty and administrators, from lay people in the churches who heard of our efforts, and from fellow students who saw us as giving them a voice.

In retrospect our hardships were minor—even trivial—and do not merit comparison with the sufferings of Christians throughout history and in many parts of the world today. Nonetheless, we mention them because students at other institutions who want to take a similar stand need to do so with their eyes open. Although every institution is unique, the response we received at Princeton Theological Seminary is likely to be typical. There is a price to be paid. But there are also rewards to be reaped. The liberal Christianity of the mainline seminaries is not invincible. But it is up to seminary students to puncture that myth of inevitability.

Taken from Unapologetic Apologetics, edited by William A. Dembski and Jay W. Richards.Copyright (c) 2001 by William A. Dembski & Jay Wesley Richards. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA, William A. Dembski is Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Jay W. Richards is Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America.

William A. Dembski
William A. Dembski
William A. Dembski is Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.


Don't miss out on the latest articles and opportunities from Theology Matters.

Related Articles

An Invitation to Combat

This essay is part of the address Dr. Ray delivered on Oct. 6, 2021, at the second conference sponsored by Theology Matters at Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

Jesus Christ is the Truth – Part 1

The real issue is not where we learn more or less about God, but where we learn the one thing necessary, the Truth.

What is Reformed Spirituality?

The Reformation was a reform of spirituality as much as it was a reform of theology. For millions of Christians at the end of...

John Owen on the Beatific Vision – Historic Reformed “Spirituality” in Action

A good number of you might never have heard of John Owen, but for those of you who have, he might well be something...

Lord God and Lord Jesus – Part 2

Dr. James Edwards - Theology Matters 2021 Conference

Read More

No Substitute for the Word

The word proclaimed is central to Reformed worship. If and when it is neglected the body can no longer stand with any real integrity...

The Political Dilemmas of Arab Christianity

The Middle East’s Christian minorities have a painful political history. Not only have they suffered persecution and restrictions at the hands of Muslim majorities,...

Christianity and Liberalism – A Centennial Review

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. It is one of the bestselling religious books ever published in...

Recovering the Office of Elder – The Shepherd Model, Part III

Might it still be possible to recover the former understanding of the office of elder, which is so central to our history, identity, and being as Presbyterians?

Centers and Boundaries

If you’ve ever driven a car around a curve you’re familiar with the physical phenomenon of centrifugal force. It’s the tug you feel as...


Please consider making a tax-free donation to Theology Matters so we can continue our mission to equip the Christian community.