It would appear that I have been around Westminster Theological Seminary as long as anyone else here. It might, therefore, be useful to note what such a person sees of temporal contrast in the activity of an institution and a faculty that still, I think, considers its purpose to carry on the work of Princeton Theological Seminar as it existed before 1929.
Vision of a Christian Nation
American religious history really begins with the Puritans. Their keynote was not repression, as most people appear to think, but was, instead, the relating of everything to the purpose of God. They intended to build a Christian commonwealth. To a great extent, they succeeded, and England became something of a pattern to the world.
A century later, Jonathan Edwards saw America as the primary scene of a millennial kingdom that would spread its glory over all the earth. His prominent disciple, Samuel Hopkins, reinforced the vision, and the idea that America would become a great, powerful, and glorious Christian nation, a pattern for the whole world, spread throughout the colonies.
That vision survived the Revolution and took on new life with independence. A great Protestant republic with Christian principles penetrating its every action was to evolve.
No less a person that George Washington informed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1790 that “it is rationally to be expected from [all men within our territories] ... that they will all be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the benevolence of their actions.” (Minutes of the General Assembly of the PresbyterianChurch in the U.S.A., 1790).
In 1802, the General Assembly adopted a report which said, among other things: “Though vice and immorality still too much abound ... yet in general, appearances are more favorable than usual; the influence of Christianity, during the last year, appears to have been progressive... The aspect of an extensive country has been changed from levity to seriousness; scoffers have been silenced, and thousands convinced ‘of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment’ to come... The prospect of the speedy conversion of the Indian tribes appears to be increasing; and the Assembly cannot but hope that the time is not far distant, when the wilderness on our borders, shall bud and blossom as the rose; when the cottage of the pagan shall be gladdened by the reception of the gospel, and the wandering and warlike savage shall lay the implements of his cruilty at the feet of Jesus. Delightful period! When sinners shall flock to the Saviour as clouds and as doves to their windows! When an innumerable multitude, gathered from among all nations, shall sing redeeming love, triumph in the hope of a happy immortality! When the church shall ‘look forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners!’ ...” (Minutes, GeneralAssembly, 1802)
To accomplish this end men joined together in stalwart voluntary societies to circulate the Bible, found Sunday schools and churches, lay down a saturation barrage of tracts, to uproot the evils of slavery, of prostitution, of secret societies, to build a wall against Rome. Human bondage would be done away. Demon Rum would dry up. Sex prejudice would be eliminated.
The results were favorable enough to give some substance to the dream. After the war of 1861–1865, slavery was ended. Northerners poured into the South to make freedom a reality.
The moral fervor of Americans seems to have been impressive. Francis Grund, a native of Germany, is quoted as saying: “Change the domestic habits of the Americans, their religious devotion, and their high respect for morality, and it will not be necessary to change a single letter of the Constitution in order to vary the whole form of their government.” (Francis Grund, The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations, in Commager, America in Perspective, 75; see also G. L. Hunt, Calvinism and the Political Order, 99).
Building the Kingdom of God
But for the present, work began on the next stage of the realization of the vision: the elimination of the saloon and the intoxicating beverage. In these excitements weariness overcame the task force that was performing the more important task of working for black education in the South, and racial relationships began to return to an approximation of their former state.
In addition to this dedication of the church to the cause of prohibition, there was the growing emphasis on interdenominational mass evangelism. Biblical doctrine was being eaten away by radical literary criticism, but few paid any attention.
As prosperity mounted after the 1870s, the great dream resumed its sway over the American Protestant imagination. We were building the kingdom of God. State and county prohibition covered more territory, evangelistic meetings drew more people, the impact of Christian principles on social evils began to be noticed. Interdenominational efforts became more comprehensive. The W.C.T.U., the Prohibition Part, the Anti-Saloon League were founded. A little later came the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, then the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. The individual and the social gospels were making America a Christian nation in a finer sense than ever before, thought many unsuspecting men and women in the pew.
Ernest L. Tubeson quotes the late Senator Albert J. Beveridge, about the beginning of this century, as saying:
"God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this, the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.” (Redeemer Nation, p. vii).
The Dream Begins to Wilt
The first world war and its aftermath began to open the eyes of the Christians in the nation. Peace was not secured. The League of Nations was not joined by the United States. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association reminded all Christians that doctrine was still the heart of the Christian faith. The dream of inevitable advance began to wilt with the deaths of Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan. J. Gresham Machen sounded a call to remember that Christianity was a religion that did not exist without its historical foundations.
It was in this period that Westminster Theological Seminary was founded. Many convictions undergirded its structure. Some of them came from the experience of Princeton Seminary before 1929. Others were developed by the founders. Among them was the intention to develop and train men for the parish ministry; the conviction that life flows from belief, from doctrine; the assurance that the basis of the Christian faith is the inerrant Word interpreted as a group of historical documents; that this basis is indispensable to the continuance of the Christian church; that truth can best be understood by contrasting it sharply with error; that teaching and library facilities are more important than luxurious or grandiose buildings; that knowledge is an indispensable foundation for the sound practical application and accomplishment; that standards of learning must be maintained at high levels; that the Christian church was founded upon and has always continued to maintain the necessity of a biblical system of truth; that honesty and frankness are of great value in the church.
Decades of Radical Change
In the more than forty years since the founding of Westminster, it is likely that the world of the mind has changed more radically than in any previous forty-year period in its known history since the creation. The church and theology have not been exempt from this change. Its beginnings were earlier. C. G. Jung is quoted as saying: "Long before the Hitler era, in fact before the first World War, ... the medieval picture of the world was breaking up and the metaphysical authority which was set above this world was fast disappearing.” (C. G. Jung, Essayings in Contemporary Events [Eng. tr. 1947], 69; in E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, 4).
It has now been alleged that God has died. The Father is no longer needed. Parently authority has gone. The Son is but a human example who was mistaken about the future. The Holy Spirit is reduced to attempting to communicate in meaningless gibberish.
For more learned people, religion has ceased to be relevant to the task at hand. It is to be discarded as possibly formerly helpful but now misleading at best and deleterious at worst. Such people see nothing in their world to lead them to believe in God. The shape of the future will be outlined by natural science of human inspiration. Ethical questions are to be solved by mechanical study of procedures and their results in the world of nature. N. H. G. Robinsons says, “There is certainly no factor left in man’s world that is plainly and unambiguously identifiable with God or his will” (F. G. Healey, ed., What Theologians Do, 276).
The outcome of these trends is not entirely to be deplored. The dream that America is to be the great crown of Christian civilization and a pattern for the rest of the world is now very difficult to sustain, and rightly so.
The present upsurge of interdenominational evangelism may be temporarily refreshing but its permanent value depends upon how effectively it is accompanied and followed by more penetrating biblical instruction.
The overwhelming, tyrannical ecumenical combines and “trusts” of the ecclesiastical world have lost a little of their self-confidence. It has even come to the point where a few of their supporters have thought that it might show a profit, in the long run, to offer some charity and attention to the evangelicals of the world. Thomas Carlyle said that the French aristocracy thought little of Rousseau’s ideas, but the second edition of The Social Contract was bounded in their skins. Perhaps something like that might inadvertently happen to the ecumenical aristocracy.
A Future on Scriptural Principles
Woodrow Wilson once said that “education puts men in a position for progress, but religion determines the line of [that] progress.” (Journal of Presbyterian History, v. 49, 330). Westminster Seminary is both an educational and a religious institution. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to consider the prospect for the future for a bit on the basis of what we have indicated about the past. This does not mean that I am about to assume the role of a prophet. An historian is not a prophet, though he is constantly mistaken for one. An historian uses the past as a guide for action rather than for an attempt to read an inevitable future from it. He urges people to action rather than telling them what is sure to happen.
We no longer need prophets in the way in which God’s people needed them in Old Testament times. Revelation is complete. There are few chairs of prophecy in educational institutions, even in Christian ones. Most professional prophets work in “think tanks,” and their work is usually not trumpeted abroad. But if America is to have a future of promise under God, it must be upon the basis of the eternal principles of the Word and quite different from the rosy dreams of the earlier centuries.
So it seems useful to ask how Westminster Seminary should fit into that future and how it should help to prepare for it. My aim is to be specific and forthright.
Independence and True Knowledge
Basic to the Seminary’s work is its independence from external control. This is partly a matter of the promotion of intellectual honesty. The institution must itself determine what the application of the Bible and the secondary standards to the problems of the day brings forth. It may not leave this decision to any church, any philanthropic agency, or any regulatory commission. The Seminary alone must determine what the Bible says in any given area. And it must be free to say what its findings are.
There is a further reason why it may not be under church control. A school does not exist for the purpose of developing the spiritual lives of its students. That may be and probably everyone here, including the speaker, hopes that it will be a concomitant of the years in school. But it is the formal responsibility of the church with which the student affiliates himself. Every Seminary course provides material that can be used by the church to that end. That is the objective of the church, of every church that is doing its job. So the Seminary is primarily making the acquisition of knowledge possible, and if it is true knowledge, it will bear fruit in spiritual growth.
In presenting true knowledge, the Seminary contrasts it with error. The observer sometimes confuses this with intolerance. Not at all. The search for truth is open to all, and the presentation of honest results is the responsibility of every man making the search. The contrast with error makes the truth stand out; black type on white paper is sharper than gray type on pink paper. Let us continue to make the contrast vivid. It is important.
The basis of the Christian faith as it has been understood through the centuries is a series of supernatural events which have occurred at definite times and places in the past. They include events such as the creation of the world, the incarnation of our Lord, his death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascension. Christian doctrine is teaching about these events and their meaning. The Seminary must know how to understand the occurrence of these events, what actually happened, and what is the meaning for modern Christians of what happened. In other words, the Seminary must know securely certain events of the past and know what they mean for people living today.
True Knowledge for Christian Living
What they mean includes the outline of the patterns of Christian living. Christianity is not just a deed complete with a title search to a plot of ground and a house in heaven. It is also a set of directions, a series of indications, for living today.
Early in this century, a Cambridge University professor said, “America....for a century past... has repelled the sensitive, the contemplative, and the devout.” (G. L. Dickinson, Letters from a Chinese Official, viii.). Professor Dickinson’s sad words are still true nearly three-quarters of a century on.
I cannot outline here the details of every truly Christian life. What can be done is to state the basic objectives which are given us by the Word. They seem to me to suffer from neglect rather than overemphasis. There is no aristocracy of inheritance to be found in Christianity. Christ imposes an obligation and it is the obligation of tenderness and respect for every person, tenderness and a genuine concern which is not imperious. It learns humbly, and it gradually builds an aristocracy of love and humility.
This is an aristocracy of knowledge, but knowledge which arises from experience in its application as well as from the authority of its sources in the Word. Such an aristocracy should be the product of Westminster. It is not a finished product. If its coming into being is understood, it will grow throughout the individual’s life. A Westminster alumnus of thirty years’ standing should be superior in this type of knowledge to the members of the class that graduates today. But that should be true just because of what he learned here and has applied in experience. It certainly will not be due to the mere passage of time.
This course of life sometimes demands a considerable degree of self-sacrifice. That does not mean that the resulting life will be poorer. It will not be. What it does mean is that the attainment of the brightest happiness, the pure service of God, has to be accompanied by two things; a different catalogue of values from that of the world, and a proper sequence in the order of these values. That is hard to accomplish because unconscious selfishness is the most universal spiritual characteristic of man. But it can be attained by the use of the laser beam of the Word of God.
Truth, Related to Today’s People
In an interesting recent book, entitled What Theologians Do, Gordon Rupp suggests that it is important not to be like the French army, always ready for the last war. He is right. Alistair Kee, in his new book The Way of Transcendence, says that man does not experience the traditional God any longer. The “traditional God” presumably has some relationship to the God of the Bible and, Alistair Kee to the contrary notwithstanding, it is important for their soul’s health that men have a relationship to him. One of the major reasons that they do not is their misconception of God. They thought him to be someone who interfered with, and made irregular, the relationships of his own creation. They misunderstood both God and his creation.
This is easy to say, but how shall God be presented properly to such people? Perhaps they will find that order, love, and beauty cannot be discovered apart from dependence upon God. Perhaps they will find that the universe is not mechanical after all. But dependence upon God comes only from God’s own gracious election and renewal. They will only begin to understand what God is about as they experience his regeneration and are converted.
How is Westminster to contribute to that end? This is no longer 1929 but 1972. When Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism, he argued that there was a sharp definition of Christianity which was always true. Christianity was dogmatic because it was a message about things that happened. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again. “A Body of facts lies at the basis of Christian religion,” said Machen (46). But those facts have to be related to us. That is where the grace of God comes in. He graciously saves us on the ground of what our lord Jesus Christ has done for us.
This is what Westminster Seminary must continue to say as long as it exists. How is it going to say it?
Well, first, as I have already said, the Bible must continue to be the very center of Westminster’s work. Knowledge of the Bible begins with the knowledge that it is a record of creation and redemption.
Man, the Darwinian Animal
Many people are distressed today because of the rapid cultural change we are experience, a change which promotes violence, personal violence and corporate and governmental violence. The violence is not new. The penetrating French Protestant scholar, Jacques Ellul, says that “a tradition of violence is discernible throughout United States history” (Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, 89), and he adds, “Violence begets violence—nothing else” (100).
The entire cultural change, however, appears to many to be surprising because we do not understand its origin. Most fundamentally it goes back to the lesson taught by the work of Charles Darwin. Darwin was the person who opened the way for a belief which has now become almost universal, the belief that man is not a special creation of God but is simply an animal among others. In many ways, he is the most advanced, the most complicated animal, but he is nothing other than an animal.
It has taken a century for the basic implications of this belief to be realized but now they have been. A time lag of that sort is always to be expected. So now man is under no special moral laws. He is not now, and never will be, accountable to a God for his conduct. If there is a God he has nothing to do with human behavior. Every human person is free to calculate for himself what will bring him the greatest happiness and satisfaction. He should plan his life accordingly, without any regard to what past generations considered moral obligation. There is none. There is not future accountability. My own selfish interests are the only thing that matters.
Blame for America’s moral decline is laid at various doors, but the nub of the matter is right here. Man is an animal, he should act like one, and he will never be accountable to any higher power. A dog with a big piece of meat in his possession will defend it with violence against another dog who is using violence to take it away. A master may be able to end the dispute, but if there is no master, it will be decided by brute force. That this is the present state of the American human community.
The disorder of our society is the result of this state of affairs. Our schools acquaint us with natural science. Science has done wonderful things for us within the last century. We have the telephone, radio and television; we use washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners; above all we have the automobile and the jet plane to move us about the earth.
Scientists who bring us these things do not have to reckon with God, it is believed. They too can build on Darwin’s disregard of God. The scientist is the modern God. He brings results and we do not need God to get them. We can get along very well without God.
We are, then, higher animals who may and should act as animals. We are dependent only upon the smooth development of national scientific advance. This is sufficient to ensure our comfort and our progress.
Man, the Responsible Individual
Westminster Seminary is compelled to oppose such conclusions. It moves, in doing so, against the spirit of the age. But it insists, first, that on the basis of biblical revelation, we know that every man is born with a basic consciousness of God. Our culture today is covering up that consciousness as thoroughly as it can. But it will not completely succeed. It will still be there, and some people will continue to hear it. But we must expect that it will be more difficult to hear than it used to be, and it will also be easier to disregard than it was. The Seminary will continue to remind men of this inner consciousness.
That consciousness is an individual phenomenon, and Westminster Seminary will continue to emphasize, in an age of collectivism, the importance of the individual. We shall come to the collectivities later. First, we need to remember that men are responsible as individuals. The gospel is presented to Nicodemus as an individual. Salvation is not conferred upon a group. The Spirit moves in the individual.
The Reformation is the primary source for the emphasis on the individual. It reminded people that salvation was an individual matter. No longer could everyone be assumed to be a Christian. The Puritan party in England was especially responsible for the emphasis on reaching the individual with the gospel and its implications. Preaching was stressed for this purpose. In the Puritan churches of Massachusetts Bay, communicant membership was conditioned upon a describable individual experience of conversion.
The converted man was ethically responsible. If a merchant, there was a fair price for his goods. If a husband, his wife, and children must hear and be urged to accept the gospel. If a farmer, he must use his land efficiently and care for its produce. Every person was valuable to the progress of the whole. It appears that Puritan influence in England was of importance in developing the freedom of the jury from judicial coercion and in regularizing the habeas corpus procedure.
This emphasis on the individual, his duties, and his rights is biblical, even though the Puritans at times carried it to extremes. Westminster Seminary will continue it. A human person, by whatever process science may in the future bring him into existence, needs the solicitude of the church, and Westminster will continue to prepare men for that purpose.
God’s Kingdom under Attack
Our Lord came to proclaim the salvation of the individual but also the establishment, in a new and broader manifestation, of the kingdom of God. That kingdom is still subject to enemy attack. These attacks are becoming much sharper as time goes on. It is less respectable to be a Christian now than it was fifty years ago, much less respectable than it was a century ago.
It is the business of the Seminary to recognize these facts, to deal amply with their causes, and to prepare its students to deal with the world and its people who feel the impact of this situation in cultural and intellectual history. It would be an egregious mistake to promise that this situation will soon be changed and that the visible advance of the kingdom of God will be apparent.
There are, to be sure, encouraging signs. Mass evangelism is still popular; the “Jesus people” are numerous; a few churches show advances in their membership statistics. Religious journalism is reviving in some instances. Modern media are being used for the spreading of the gospel.
But these are superficial manifestations. The evidence in depth is to the contrary. The great mass of the churches no longer teaches the system of doctrine contained in the Bible. They no longer have any system of doctrine. Their leaders are superficial enough to be content with a moral system whose foundation is unclear. Some think it should be the Bible; some think it is just the New Testament. Some think it is only Jesus; some consider it to be the early church; some think it is love in abstract form.
With such uncertainty as to the source and greater uncertainty as to the interpretation of the source, it is no wonder then that ethical standards are no longer even an approximation of the Christian ones. It might be more correct to say that for a large section of the educated population of the country, there are no ethical standards in the usual sense. They have been replaced by the standard of self-advantage: the thing to do is whatever will benefit me at the moment.
The Loss of Moral Standards
The visible result is apparent in the various areas of life. Merchandise is often not what it is represented as being; the promises of people are not reliable in much of the commercial world. The same phenomenon is visible in government. Confidence in officials has disappeared. Public statements may not be trusted. The government even hastens the decline of moral standards by official prevarication and by promoting state lotteries. The evil effects of lotteries were tested and confirmed a century and a half ago in this country. We have moved back that distance in one area of public morality.
One of the clearest signs of the change in the public atmosphere is the increasing public ridicule of God to be found in the press and in learned gatherings and publications. A century ago, in a center of learning like Cambridge in Britain or Cambridge in this country, an evangelical Christian was respected. He might not find agreement among his peers, but it was admitted that he might be an intelligent man and that he could hold both his evangelical opinions and the respect of the community. This is no longer the case. In the most respected communities of learning today, belief in God is not a live option. Anyone who holds to a Christian view of God is suspect. He is believed to be either a hypocrite for personal advantage or a second-rate mind.
This attitude is rapidly being reflected in the magazines and newspapers of general circulation. So far, the impact is a subtle one, but it becomes bolder constantly. The vocabulary of public speech on the radio and television is another indication.
The Task of the Seminary
What is the task of Westminster Seminary in such a situation? It is at least threefold.
First, it must make plain the fact that there have been other periods of great difficulty in the history of the church. In the third century, the church was full of people who, when persecution arose, rushed to deny Christ. Cyprian was disgusted. “They ran ... of their own accord” to submit, said he (De lapsis, 8, 9 ).
In the same century, Christianity faced the brilliant and violent attacks of a great philosophy, Neoplatonism, held by Plotinus and Porphyry. It was faced by the great temptation of a scintillating Christian theologian, Origen, who attempted to be a Christian Neoplatonist and whose theology was a congeries of error. Yet he was acclaimed by Christians far and wide. In spite of Origen, the church survived and rejected his doctrine.
The attack of modern criticism, in the second place, must be met intellectually by a better and sounder, and less speculative theology. The errors of modern critical systems must be exposed and a fundamentally Christian system substituted for them. It will not be an entirely new system, of course, but it will take account of such new facts and methods as are available and use them to the glory of God. It will provide a live option for the vain speculations which have no foundation in the Word of God.
In the third place, Westminster will provide training in the means by which the problems of the Christian in the eighth decade of the twentieth century are to be met. This implies, in the first place, methods which the church can use. There are a great many of them that the average evangelical church has never attempted but should attempt. The Seminary can help to educate the Christian layman who has his college training behind him. He may become a leader devoting all his time to Christian service, or he may be able to relate his job to, more specifically, Christian proclamation. William Wilberforce was a superb pattern of a man who used his political position to advance the application of Christ’s teaching to the problems of the world. He stands far enough away from us to see, in part, how he did it. It took time, but the results remain to the present day. Occasionally we see a Wilberforce today, but they are extremely rare.
The time may even soon come when there will be a need to educate the church in the art of survival during periods of physical persecution. Other parts of the world need it today. America may be there herself within a few years. Preparation is a good substitute for mourning.
We started as Christians under persecution. There has always been a degree of persecution for us in one place or another, and it is highly likely, even in countries where civil liberties are defended, that religious liberty will begin soon to be chiseled away. If the church is forced underground, it must have ready an organization that will avoid the evil of tyranny and dictatorship and yet maintains unity and cooperation.
A system of presbyterian type is probably best calculated to do this. We can observe the evils of leader dictatorship in some of our contemporary cults. In anti-Christian groups, Charles Manson and his power for evil are a mind-searing example. It would appear that in some wings of the “Jesus people,” there is a similar danger. Imperious leaders have been bringing peril to the church ever since the death of the last apostle. Often benefits and dangers are mixed together, and the one hides the other. The Seminary can help its students to distinguish themselves and to avoid the risk of underground tyranny as vigilantly as they can avoid disorder and individualistic disarray.
The World Still Needs Christ
We are, then, facing a challenging future. It does not look easy, and it does not look pleasant. But the world still needs Christ.
As Harold O. J. Brown has pointed out in his able book, Christianity and the Class Struggle, we are faced right now with violent struggles. There is the economic struggle, often conducted in contradiction to Christian principles by labor unions, manufacturers’ associations, and the like. There is the race struggle whose goal is not the abolition of races but justice and opportunity for all races. There is the generation struggle in which the tremendous advantages of learning rapidly and safely from history how to avoid dead ends and jarring potholes are tossed to the winds by shortsighted over-confidence. And finally, there is a sex gap by means of which women are sometimes denied the proper opportunity for their service of God.
There is plenty of work for the Seminary to do to accomplish the tasks which its founders first undertook. It is a hot struggle. But there is also the assurance that the success of the undertaking is not to be measured by the stock market quotations, nor by the applause of the American populace, nor—and this is important—by the dreams of Christians in early America. It is only to be measured by the Lord’s “Well done, good and faithful servant; . . . enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matthew 25:23).
To that end, every effort will need to be made vigorously. But it will always be done under the assurance that, come what may our Lord Jesus Christ will not fail us; for he is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).