PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURAL ADDRESS, MAY 17, 1955    

THE GLORY OF A THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

Edward John Carnell

I am grateful to my superiors for entrusting this sacred office to my care. I promise, God helping me, to preserve and propagate the glory of this seminary with a spirit of humility and joy.

Some people imagine that the glory of a seminary can be measured by such externals as the spread of its physical properties, the wealth of its endowment, and the reputation of its learned personnel. They are decidedly wrong in this viewpoint. Glory is inward and vital. It belongs to the soul of a school, not to its exterior.

Others imagine that a seminary’s glory consists in the sheer fact that it has been entrusted with the eternal gospel. This is a more plausible viewpoint, though it is still wide of the mark. Sheer custody of the eternal gospel is an abstraction. If a seminary is not actively doing something about this trust, possession of the oracles of God brings judgment and ignominy, not glory. Let me enlarge on this.

Abstract spiritual values must be avoided, for they can easily be used as a cover for irresolution and irresponsibleness. They can soothe a seminary into the moral complacency of supposing that, since it handles sacred matters in the course of a day’s routine, its effort to preserve and propagate the eternal gospel is the same as actual fulfillment.

I realize that when the glory of a theological seminary is expressed in concrete terms, such glory will have a dissatisfying plainness about it. I know of no way to avoid this. Those who bask in abstractions are seldom in a position to see and appreciate the fact that, in spiritual and moral matters, the real is the concrete.

Take the substance of love, for example. It is one thing to love humanity in the abstract; it is quite another thing to love one’s next-door neighbor. Yet, love to those who are near is all that counts. Complacent Christians do not see, or they do not want to see, that love has no abstract existence. Love is a series of concrete attitudes and acts. “Love is patient and kind,” says the Apostle Paul, “love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7).

Or, let us take another illustration. Although the eternal gospel plainly teaches that the weightier things of the law are justice and mercy and faith, believers sometimes become so attracted to the needs of the Christian community that they have no time for concrete acts of mercy and justice in the human community. They are able to tithe the mint and dill and cumin of their abstract spiritual devotions, while sensing no particular obligation to participate in mankind’s wider struggles for mercy and justice. Since the handling of spiritual truths is presumed to be vastly more dignified than the giving of a cool glass of water in the name of Christ, indifference to the human community becomes a colorful proof to some that the eternal gospel is being taken seriously. This is one of the ironic, if not tragic, twists to the religious mentality. History convincingly shows that the burden of improving the general lot of mankind is often carried on the shoulders of those who have little interest in the eternal gospel.

When this kind of atmosphere prevails in a theological seminary, the school’s personnel will find it easy to presume that an abstract devotion to the eternal gospel is a sure mark of the seminary’s glory. They err. Glory, like love itself, does not come into existence until the abstract gives way to the concrete.

With these introductory remarks completed, I shall now turn to what I believe is the first evidence of a seminary’s glory: namely, that with spiritual conviction and firmness of moral purpose the seminary strives to preserve and propagate the theological distinctives that inhere in the institution itself. Observe how vapid and uninteresting this sounds when compared with the more emotionally potent, though vastly more abstract suggestion, that a seminary’s glory, consists in its custody of the eternal gospel. Yet, the truth of the matter is this: a seminary family has not yet intelligently come to grips with the eternal gospel until it rises to its feet and concretely assents to its own theology. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord.” The concrete pins the seminary down to something specific while abstractions encourage evasion and irresolution. One mark of infidelity is a refusal to be committed to anything in particular.

To appreciate this, let us reflect for a moment on the genesis of a theological seminary. Where has it come from? Why have people sacrificed their time and money—and in some cases their very lives—to bring such an institution into being? These questions are simple to answer, providing we approach them in terms of the concrete.

Once the Christian Church succeeds in solidifying its convictions, the instinct of self-preservation, not to mention a fear of the divine command, prompts it to take whatever steps will insure the continuity of its faith through time. The communion of the saints is a Christian insight. No man lives or dies to himself. The Christian Church realizes that faith in the gospel remains an empty abstraction unless the content of this faith is intelligently and accurately defined. Concrete creeds and confessions must be devised. This is the only way that the Christian Church can preserve and propagate its convictions.

Even after the gospel has been codified in language, however, the words of the confession will remain mysterious and unpersuasive unless living individuals, warmly attracted to the truth of the system, passionately interpret this truth to each new generation. It is here that the theological seminary comes into view. The seminary serves as a spiritual and rational bridge between the existing Christian community and the generations yet unborn. Unless the confession of the Church is protected by the personnel of a theological seminary, Christian conviction, like the morning mist, will melt and vanish away.

This is why I forcefully assert that the first part of a seminary’s glory consists in a faithful preservation and propagation of the confessional lines that inhere in the institution itself. A vague spiritual pledge to honor the gospel is not enough. A refusal to deal with the concrete betrays an unstable and inaccurate faith.

It may sound like defeatism to say that we know no more of the gospel than what we are able to express in systematic theologies and Church confessions. But such is a fact of life, and an ocean of tears will not alter it.

Therefore, whenever a theological seminary abandons its own creedal limits in an ostensible effort to get back to the gospel, it is simply announcing, in a very covert way, that it is in the process of devising a new standard of faith. And it may well turn out that its hesitancy to give concrete, creedal expression to this new faith is a sad commentary on the fact that it does not believe the gospel.

Since the personnel of a theological seminary enjoy power to preserve or pervert the Church’s concrete summary of the gospel, I make bold to assert that no man should accept a seminary appointment until he has prayerfully consulted both mind and conscience. When questioned by those who watch over the seminary’s welfare, the candidate must so unbosom his soul that no disparity obtains between what he asserts with his lips and what he believes in his heart. If he resorts to evasion or concealment in an effort to enhance his own security, he is not much of a man, let alone a Christian man.

I do not say, therefore, that it is highly advisable for a seminary to preserve and propagate the concrete confessional lines that belong to the school’s commitments; I assert with vigor that not to follow this line of action is immoral. The founding fathers may bequeath a heritage to the school; the charter faculty may guard it for the space of a generation; but nothing in all the world can perpetuate this heritage except a company of personnel who have the moral integrity and intellectual honesty to see the right and do it.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

            And who shall stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

            who does not lift up his soul to what is false, 

                      and does not swear deceitfully. (Psalm 24:3–4)


And with this brief word, let me turn to what I believe is the second element in the glory of a theological seminary. It is this: that in preserving and propagating its theological distinctives, the seminary make a conscientious effort to acquaint its students with all the relevant evidences—damaging as well as supporting—in order that the students may be given a reasonable opportunity to exercise their God-given right freely to decide for or against claims to truth. Since the seminary is in possession of what it confidently believes is a confessional summary of the gospel, it is easy for it to suppose that its educational job consists in the use of whatever means will guarantee the student’s safe enclosure within the heritage of the school. Rather than presenting alternative positions with fairness and objectivity, the professors may feel that it is their solemn duty to withhold evidences which may possibly disturb the student’s faith.

I call this robbery—and the term is not too strong—because divinely ordained privileges are being removed. Even as the founding fathers came to their own conclusions through free examination of facts, so each generation of young minds must earn its right to belief by an honest appraisal of all of the evidences. Otherwise the students will be academically conditioned, not educated. They will be cast onto life with either the spiritual insecurity of fearing that the faith they hold cannot be defended by an appeal to the whole of reality, or with the ideological pride of believing that evidences strong enough to give plausibility to positions other than their own do not and cannot exist. Never experiencing the sweet release that comes from having submitted to all the evidences, they find themselves prey to either pride, obscurantism, or bigotry. Although they formally assent to the school’s distinctives, they are incapable of giving a reason for the hope that is in them.

If this attitude controls a seminary long enough, it is bound to have an effect upon the caliber of the faculty. Recognizing the serious risks that accompany the gathering of distinguished scholars, Christian educators may feel that more benefit will come to the student, and thus to the Christian community, if the faculty remain docile, manageable, and mediocre. Dire are the results. If a professor has courage to defend the eternal gospel by unconventional methods and untried data, he may be checked by a circumambient fear that his want of campus conformity will be construed by the administration as evidence of disloyalty. Frustrated through maladjustment, and quite out of fellowship with his tame colleagues, he manages to eke out a modicum of happiness by shuttling between the academic self that is free and the social self that is bound. His resources as a scholar are never fully tapped by the institution; his powers as a teacher are never fully felt by the students.

Do not suppose for an instant, however, that the disintegration of a seminary’s educational philosophy invariably begins with irresponsibleness inside the school. Quite the contrary. It can just as frequently be traced to irresponsibleness in the Christian community itself.

To appreciate this, we need only ask who controls a theological seminary. The obvious answer is, of course, that the seminary is controlled by its administrative boards and faculty. This is formally true, though it may at times be materially false. It so happens—and there is precious little that can be done about it—that most seminaries are at the mercy of the Christian community for yearly operating funds. And since money connotes power, a fear of this power may induce an administrator to conform his educational policies to the will of those who control the finances.

I do not mean to imply that educators deliberately bow to the shrine of mammon. The yielding of an administrator to public pressure is far more subtle and gradual than this. Here, rather, is what usually happens. When an administrator is faced with the job of getting sufficient money to meet an ever-increasing budget, he soon discovers that he is forced to deal with people who have little appreciation of the immense amount of money needed to run a first-rate school, and less appreciation of the deleterious effects which the decay of such a school would have on the health of the Christian community. A weariness of soul soon abrades his enthusiasm for a philosophy of education which must, at times, defy the public will. Slowly, yet surely, he conforms himself to the expectations of the Christian community. And with this the turn of the wheel is complete.

Once an administrator’s courage has been abraded, he may unconsciously measure the contribution of a professor by the degree to which the resources of the school are promoted or threatened. The disposing of personnel with an eye to institutional security is, I believe, one of the most degraded habits that an administration can fall into. I shall protest with final breath against the use of human beings as a means to ulterior ends. Freedom to teach according to the dictates of one’s conscience is an inalienable right. It cannot be given, nor should it be removed, by man. As long as professors are free from doctrinal defection, moral delinquency, or proved malfeasance, it is the administrator’s sacred duty to create a congenial atmosphere in which teachers may go about their business without fearing that their conduct will endanger either academic liberty or professorial tenure.

Another effective way that the Christian community can bring an administration into conformity, and thus dull its prophetic courage, is by the expedient of ecclesiastical legislation. By simply drawing up a list of seminaries which are, and are not, approved by the church, the relative difference between seminaries is made absolute, and a habit of expectation is created in the mind of the Christian community. Virtue is so clearly present in the approved schools, and so clearly absent in the disapproved, that criticism of the one or praise of the other is tantamount to ecclesiastical disloyalty. Seminaries, let us remember, need students as well as funds.

Rather than dwelling on the pathetic effects which such conformity has on a theological seminary, let me say a brief word about its effects on the Christian community itself. Those who resort to ecclesiastical legislation to solve the problem of ministerial training do not always appreciate the new difficulties they create. Once it is supposed that fitness for the ministry can be decided by so mechanical a matter as the school where the candidate has taken his training, it is all the more likely that the Christian Church will ultimately be controlled by clerics who, in fact, are more concerned with their ecclesiastical security than they are with preservation and propagation of the eternal gospel. Fitness for ordination should be decided by an organic approach to the candidate: call to the ministry, religious experience, purity of life, orthodoxy of theology, assent to denominational distinctives, attitude toward fellow ministers, and the total set of gifts and talents brought to the office. Unless both the theological seminary and the Christian Church learn to hold the unity of their distinctives within the plurality of wider Christian efforts everywhere, Church leadership will pass into the hands of professional holy men. The voice of the prophet will be heard no more; the reformer will be driven from the city; and the madness of daring individuality will be scorned.

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,

            and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, . . .

Therefore they shall now be the first of those

            to go into exile, . . . (Amos 6:1, 7)


And with this we are led to the final element in the glory of a theological seminary. It is this: that the seminary inculcate on its students an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness toward individuals whose doctrinal convictions are at variance with those that inhere in the institution itself. Seminarians are seldom introduced to the presuppositions that undergird a Christian philosophy of tolerance. And yet indifference to this phase of Christian thought may well mirror a truncated grasp of Christianity itself.

The logic of intolerance is so deceptively simple that unwary minds are easily charmed by its claims. It is supposed that since a heretic can communicate the threat of spiritual death to others, while a diseased person can only communicate the threat of physical death, the extermination of errorists is as much an act of mercy as it is a proof of Christian vigilance. Such an argument could not attract the mind or the heart unless it were already blinded to the fact that truth is a gift of God. Once humility yields to arrogance, mind becomes such a willing partner in the defense of self-interest that it falls prey to the error of thinking that sheer possession of truth is an index to the virtue of the person. This error flows from an oversight of the fact that those who know the will of God, but who do it not, will receive double condemnation. Judgment must begin at the house of God.

An act of intolerance does not eventuate until an individual is spiritually convinced that he is qualified to pass final judgment on the heart of another. Provisional judgment is both good and necessary, for without it one could not maintain discipline in the home, purity in the church, and a tolerable order of justice and peace in society. Whoever is indifferent to the task of making provisional judgments is guilty of disregarding the divine order. Provisional judgment differs from final judgment in at least one important respect. Whereas provisional judgment confines itself to something that a person has said or done, final judgment marches right into the heart and judges the sanctity and individuality of the person himself.

Whoever meditates on the mystery of his own life will quickly realize why only God, the searcher of the secrets of the heart, can pass final judgment. We cannot judge what we have no access to. The self is a swirling conflict of fears, impulses, sentiments, interests, allergies, and foibles. It is a metaphysical given for which there is no easy rational explanation. Now, if we cannot unveil the mystery of our own motives and affections, how much less can we unveil the mystery in others? This is our first point.

But even if we did have access to another’s heart, sin in the life would render it morally impossible for us to render final judgment without sullying our affections with sentiments of vengeance. Holy Scripture teaches that vengeance belongs to God alone. This is not to signify that God has vindictive sentiments anxiously awaiting expression, but rather that final judgment—which always converts to vengeance when attempted by man—belongs to God alone. A sinful mind is such a compliant tool of self-interest that it is impossible for it to be impartial when judging a neighbor’s heart. Whoever invades the secrets of another’s life is assuming prerogatives to which he is not entitled. Only the divine being, free from the insecurity that sin breeds, can pass final judgment on the hearts of men without vindictiveness.

And if all of this is insufficient to form the foundation for a Christian philosophy of tolerance, let me cap my argument with a reference to the fact that Christ has commanded his followers to abide by his example and leave final judgment to God. Rather than supposing that we must be active in persecuting those who are heterodox in their theology, we are to love them with a measure of the love wherewith Christ first loved us. Although provisional judgment may be made against a person whose theology disrupts the peace and well-being of society, in no case may we make a final judgment against his heart. This is an explicit teaching of Holy Writ.

Some dilute this by building their philosophy of tolerance on what I believe is a disguised species of skepticism. Their argument is that since no one has final truth, no one may pass final judgment on his neighbor. While it is true that perfect truth belongs to God alone, I do not for a moment believe that the denial of final truth is necessarily a mark of Christian virtue. Here is a truth whose finality no Christian is at liberty to deny: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in this one command we have both a final truth and a final reason why we are to be tolerant of others.

Theologians have not always heeded the fact that Christ mentions the self’s love for the self as a criterion in deciding the degree to which God commands us to love one another. It is sometimes supposed that this second greatest of the laws is only a succinct summary of all that is comprehended in the second table of the law—a regulative summary at the most. In this way the humility of not being able to fulfill the law of God converts to the rational confidence that at least one can know the whole law of God. Such optimism is, I suspect, the camel’s nose of self-sufficiency in the tent of faith and repentance. It fails to appreciate the fact that one of the purposes in the giving of law was to provide a final reason why humility must overlay the whole of life.

But rather than dwelling on this, let me return to the relation between Christian tolerance and the second greatest of the laws. Christ commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This short phrase—as yourself—transforms morality into such an infinite assignment that, in the end, a child of righteousness must humbly confess that the content of the law of God can neither be fully probed nor perfectly codified.

The first step toward self-knowledge consists in an admission that the self is a mystery. When the disciples at the Last Supper cried, “Is it I?” they betrayed the fact that they had no absolute access to the nature of their own impulses and affections. As they peered into the mysterious, conflicting sentiments that made up the stuff of their heart, they quickly recognized that the possibility of defection from Christ could not be disproved to the point of demonstration. And they evinced the purity of their own faith by their humble willingness to accept the reality of this possibility.

But at no point does the mystery of the self protrude more conspicuously than when the self makes a rational effort to name the exact extent to which the self loves itself. Self-love has such a firm grip on the totality of consciousness that one is never able to disengage himself from its power. This is one reason, among others, why Christians reverently submit to the fact that righteousness belongs to Christ alone, and that any righteousness they may have is a fruit of their mystical union with Christ through faith. If one is not able to tell precisely how much he is to love others—for he is to love them with the same moral quality and to the same degree of zeal and consistency that he loves himself—how much less is he able to be sure that he has met the conditions of lawful obedience so as to merit righteousness?

Although the essence of the self’s love for the self remains a mystery, certain elements in self-love may be successfully isolated and analyzed. And it is to the most obvious of these elements that I appeal when developing the grounds for a Christian philosophy of tolerance. Such an element is this: that under no conditions will one permit another individual to pass final judgment on his heart. All who enter the circle of nearness must accept the fact that the self is a problem to itself. Its affections are held by a groping desire to gain a set of securities which always seems to outrun present possession. Others must approach the sanctity of the self within the same freedom from calculation and challenge with which the self natively views itself. Whoever dares to pass final judgment is branded an inconsiderate individual. He has no right to invade the sanctity of personality.

But if this is the case, and if the second greatest of all the laws signifies anything, it follows that even as we never allow either ourselves or others to approach the heart apart from a humble, loving acceptance of the mystery of the heart, so we must approach others with an equal sense of mystery and with equal humility and love. If this rule is cordially obeyed, vengeance and intolerance will yield to patience and understanding, for love takes in the sanctity of another life and wishes for it nothing but good.

Thus our Lord commands:

And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. . . . love your enemies, and do good, . . . Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; . . . For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6:31–38)