Yesterday, Today, and Forever

Yesterday, Today, and Forever

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.

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.

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