Poison Ivy and the True Vine

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Poison Ivy and the True Vine

FROM the OFFICE of the PRESIDENT of WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

19

December

Poison Ivy and the True Vine

BY

Peter Lillback

“A college in a new Country,” said William Livingston in 1753, will “more or less influence every Individual amongst us, and diffuse its Spirit thro’ all Ranks, Parties, and Denominations.” From colonial times up to recent days, American colleges and universities have quite palpably “diffused their spirit” into the varied and textured cultural life of America. This is likely more evident now than it ever has been. And perhaps no other American institutions, except those of the so-called Ivy League, have a rightful claim to the greatest “diffusion.” After all, they trained generations of presidents, CEOs, and many world-renowned scholars. 

It stands to reason why one would pursue the Ivy League—with their allure of prestige, the mystique of participating in the crème de la crème of society, and the promise of engaging in sustained discourse with the best minds of American intellectual culture. Given the recent leadership failures of several presidents of these institutions, the tides may very well be turning. The longstanding vaunted Ivies more resemble Poison Ivy when no longer tethered to the True Vine. 

On December 5th, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania were questioned during a vexing congressional hearing about student-led protests and events. At these events, clear calls for genocide were made, and made repeatedly. Yet each of these presidents failed to condemn such language when asked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate codes of conduct, yes or no?” One would expect a simple and resounding answer: “Yes!” They replied, however, that this speech is allowable unless and until it “passes into conduct” (i.e., it depends upon “the context”). As R. Albert Mohler Jr. recently remarked in an article published by World Magazine, “the moral rot starts at the top.” 

Suddenly and conveniently, freedom of speech has become their utmost concern. How curious a concern it is, being that chants have recently resounded on these same campuses that “speech is violence.” The failure to call evil evil is perspicuous in those circumstances where the name of the game is carte blanche. As the Scripture says, “They became wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.” Gone are the days when decency and decorum and common sense prevailed. Common sense has been replaced by common nonsense.

But, what should we expect? These institutions are the same academic forums where Critical Race Theory (also known as racist anti-racism) is taught and celebrated. This is where remedial education can be required for one’s failure to use preferred pronouns. It is remarkable to compare the current ethos and curricula at Harvard to its founding. Harvard’s Rules and Precepts (1646) proudly state that it is the task of every student to “be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” There is a new Bildung, a new Paideia, and it is quite hostile to the original Christian interests of colonial education. 

Michael Brendan Dougherty observed in a recent article for National Review, when referring to Westminster’s split from Princeton over a shift towards theological and denominational modernity, that “It is perfectly appropriate that Westminster Seminary…would have statements of faith that applied to students and teachers. These are the very basis of learning.” He continues that the problem is not the existence of speech codes in the Ivy League, but that these codes are “enforced by means of an unwritten, controversial, and idiotic ‘woke’ ideology.” Indeed, there is a new reigning ideology, a mythology of meaning, a new “intersectional” congregation. As Ben Sasse noted in his recent article for The Atlantic, “Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were originally founded as seminaries. They are seminaries once again.” 

In the midst of recent intellectual, political, and cultural shifts, it is no wonder that World Magazine deemed J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work Christianity and Liberalism a 2023 Book of The Year. Consider these prescient words,

The loss of the consciousness of sin…has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years…The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.

This moral decay of society may cause us to think that there is truth in that old adage of Erasmus, Sero sapiunt Phryges, which was said of the Trojans who learned of a siege upon their city when it was too late. Have we become wise too late? The Lord oftentimes does His greatest work in the greatest darkness. Perhaps, the Poison Ivies will return to the True Vine. But even if this is not so, let us all remain faithful, even under fire. 

Westminster Seminary was founded in 1929, not in a new country as Wilkinson observed of the “notable nine,” but in a new landscape, the landscape of theological liberalism. Nearly 100 years later, we find ourselves enmeshed in a new ideology that reigns supreme in the cultural and political sphere. Through it all, we must be faithful and hold “to Christ, despite all,” and in it all, we must carry out our special work to train ministers to preach the gospel. We will hold fast to our “code,” as Dougherty pointed out, for this is the reason for Westminster’s existence.