Yale’s Spiritual Slide an Early Signpost of Higher Ed Epidemic

by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery
May 26, 2010

One of contemporary Christianity’s leading apologetics experts, Dr. Montgomery holds eleven earned degrees and has authored more than fifty books in four languages on the issues of human rights and biblical apologetics. Read full bio.

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Recently, I came across Roland Bainton's history of the Yale Divinity School:  Yale and the Ministry.  It recounts the Yale story from the founding of the College in 1701 to l957.  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 defined 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.  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?’"

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 (emphasis added). . . . Faith, therefore, must be emancipated from history." Quoting Macintosh directly:  "It is the systematic thinker's task to lead faith to a sure foundation, independent of the uncertainties of historical investigation."

This reminds one of Paul Tillich, who, a generation later, tried to create an "ontological" foundation for Christian theology -- a foundation which would survive, Tillich insisted, even if the Jesus of history turned out never to have existed. 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?"

Moreover, as the analytical philosophers have shown, all factual knowledge is probabilistic (i.e. the doctrine that probability is a sufficient basis for belief and action), 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.

This commentary originally appeared in Dr. Montgomery’s Global Journal of Classic Theology, available on PHC’s website.

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