Carl Trueman and Clifford Humphrey on Christian Higher-Ed
Clifford Humphrey and Carl Trueman are having an exciting and overdue debate on the quality and character of Christian colleges necessary unto their longevity and faithfulness.
I count both men as friends. Both are learned and charitable. And, for the life of me, I cannot determine why they have disagreed on the topic at hand. You can read the initial volleys here and here at First Things. Humphrey has since further qualified his position at American Reformer where he thinks Trueman misunderstood his central point and intent. Grove City College, where Trueman teaches, was one of several examples of merely Christian—explicit and mere are not synonyms here—schools that Humphrey identified. Of course, the original piece is not occupied with trashing Grove, but given Grove’s prominence it’s only natural to use it as a class representative. Humphrey’s only real point is that a merely Christian identity is insufficient to sustain Christian institutions, especially now. The moment calls for a more robust, confessional and denominational ethos.
Again, I struggle to understand how the positions of both interlocutors do not coincide. As I read him, Humphrey is raising questions and concerns flagged by Trueman over a decade ago. But first, let’s situate Grove City College in its proper context.
Positive College, Negative World
Grove identifies as a “Christian liberal arts college… Grounded in permanent ideas and traditional values and committed to the foundations of free society” to develop leaders “ready to advance the common good.”
The college endeavors to “Promote spiritual and moral development” according to “Christian precepts,” but makes no indication of who’s Christianity and which precepts. It pledges fealty to Scripture even unto its integration into “all fields of learning,” a noble pledge indeed. We could colloquially label it an evangelical college, which is to say, nondescript Protestant, and generally “small-c” conservative. That it is explicitly and implicitly both things is undeniable even if mission drift is foreseen by certain observers. What is equally undeniable, however, is that Grove was planted in the Positive World and forged its identity in and through the Neutral World, to borrow once again Aaron Renn’s now ubiquitous periodization.
Grove’s catalog for this academic year recalls that when the college was founded in 1876, a time when “a broad, Christian-based cultural consensus prevailed in America.” The confidence instilled by that Positive World environment led the college to require no specific religious test or belief from their students, even as it remained loosely tied to the Presbyterian Church USA until the mid-twentieth century—the timing of that detachment is to Grove’s credit, by the way. The founders of the school avoided “narrow sectarianism” as a nod to “a vision of Christian society transcending denomination, creeds, and confessions.” It is this “religious heritage” that Grove “recognizes.”
In other words, the nonsectarian, nondenominational, evangelical, or merely Christian ethos fostered from the college’s first days is one that assumes the Positive World, and one that proved resilient throughout the Neutral World.
But the signs that Grove is stuck in the neutral world are evident from its claims to remain “true to the vision of its founders. Rejecting relativism and secularism… [via] a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom.” This is quintessential neutral world talk. Back then such Christian institutions—Grove, perhaps, foremost among them—recognized creeping ideological competition, but otherwise and in general continued to enjoy the salutary neglect of their enemies. Granted, Grove’s pursuit of genuine independence from direct governmental interference is commendable and a model places like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have wisely mimicked. Foresight and prudence are evident there.
That said, Grove’s bland—which is not to say disingenuous—appeals to Christian values introduce little, if any, connection to a particular instantiation of historic Christian orthodoxy and, therefore, provides minimal enforcement mechanisms for institutional accountability and longevity. At least now, such liberality cannot sustain a Christian college amidst the gathering storm because Christian truth, morals, and freedom are devoid of agreed-upon ethical content, even within evangelical micro-cultures it would seem. These things can no longer be taken for granted and, indeed, are actively opposed by countervailing forces, not always directly, but by a continual process of dilution—some of which has been self-inflicted by Christians themselves.
Neutral World conditions, a big tent, nonsectarian, generically Christian identity, culture, and doctrinal standard may suffice as institutional glue and compass. The socio-political environment in the Neutral World is, on balance, neither favorable nor unfavorable, at least on its face—though Neutral World is never a permanent space because it always and already signals the coming Negative World. And with a rich, long history like Grove’s the background conditioning of the Positive World has an extended residual effect. As I see it, this is what has kept Grove on course thus far.
The question being raised by Humphrey is not whether Grove is Christian or pagan, good or bad, but whether merely Christian—which I take to mean non-denominational and non-confessional and usually evangelical—institutions can emerge from the Negative World unscathed. Grove is just one case study and not one that I intend to bludgeon to death. On balance can obviously claim a net positive performance.
But assuming arguendo that an institution like Grove is, in fact, drifting, I would say that the problem is not that Grove has lost its mind, but that Grove does not exist.
The Real Scandal of Grove City
When I say that Grove does not exist, I am borrowing from Trueman’s The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a response to and play on Mark Noll’s most famous book. After his introduction to Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, this was the first thing I read from Trueman. It convinced me to attend Westminster Theological Seminary not only because Trueman was there at the time but because his analysis of evangelical ills convinced me that a seminary with strong confessional commitments, and at least loose denominational ties, was the only way to go.
For Noll, the scandal of the evangelical mind was that it lacked serious intellectual chops; there was no mind. Trueman understood the problem “in the exact opposite way.” “It is not that there is no mind, but rather that there is no evangelical… It doesn’t exist.”
In this context, “evangelical” or ecumenical “Christian” is a sociological, not doctrinal category. The former is infinitely malleable, unstable, and weak against external threats.
“Lacking a strong doctrinal center, evangelicalism’s coherence as a collation of institutions and organizations is about to come under huge strain—strain that I believe will render the coalition unsustainable in days ahead.”
The chief challenge identified by Trueman was homosexuality, but we must now include the entire sexual revolution apparatus, whatever wave of feminism we are now on, and the ever-expanding range of obsessions covered by the cult of “equity” and “diversity.” What’s Trueman’s prescribed antidote?
“It is likely that the coming cultural storms will be best weathered by evangelical organizations and institutions with more precisely defined doctrinal statements, particularly statements that are close to, or identical with, historic creeds and confessions. The last one hundred years of evangelicalism has shown that minimal doctrinal bases do not provide real resistance to heterodoxy and the downgrading of doctrine. Of course, no creed can safeguard orthodoxy alone; fidelity and integrity on the part of leaders and gatekeepers are also required. But without a strong and complete doctrinal confession, gatekeeping becomes nearly impossible, even for well-intentioned and faithful leaders.”
This is exactly what Humphrey is getting at. At many evangelical colleges, parents, students, and faculty alike perceive deviation from doctrinal fidelity; they see good-intentioned but weak leadership; they see capitulation to the spirit of the age, the fads of the day, the demands of the culture. Not all of this is true about Grove but complaints raised about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives or “woke” curriculum cannot be ignored as hysteria. There is obviously something to the complaints in substance but, maybe more importantly, the episode speaks to diminished confidence in the institution itself.
The solution, per Trueman and Humphrey alike, is a more particularized ethos. Some kind of doctrinal and traditional mooring; a smaller tent. Stability, confidence, and accountability are the byproducts.
The Need for Creed
In 2012, Trueman bolstered his position with the more ecclesial-centric The Creedal Imperative, cutting down “no creed but the Bible” style fundamentalism; indeed, the Bible seems to infer credal formulations, summaries of doctrine. Certainly, the Protestant tradition got down to confessionalization almost immediately, with the codification process reaching full tilt in the seventeenth century.
Again, mere evangelicalism—which is to say post Awakening(s) American Protestantism—will not do. Creeds and confessions not only tether Christians to the deposit of truth once delivered to the church by revelation, but also establish continuity and stability—the rules of the game—for the sake of doctrinal debate and, yes, development. Confessions also enable exclusion, as Real Scandal noted, and thereby the defense and maintenance of orthodoxy. This seems to me indispensable if we’d like to make our escape from negative world pressures or, indeed, would like our world to change. How else but by reestablishing standards and institutional controls that facilitated the positive world?
There is no silver bullet against mission drift, obviously, and no golden streets in our quads this side of glory. Look at the typical Ivy examples and all that. But why not try our best to extend the half-life of our campuses? And the prevailing lackadaisical approach in our best Christian institutions of higher learning is not cutting it. The policeability of merely Christian or evangelical institutions is an emerging challenge to anyone paying attention, of which Trueman has been one:
“[E]vangelicalism’s lack of definition makes the drawing of boundary lines very difficult, if not impossible… the lack of a clear theological identity for evangelicalism means that, whatever boundaries are drawn, they are probably not typical of historic Christianity.”
And a few paragraphs later in Real Scandal,
“No wonder some evangelicals have thrown up their hands in despair and returned to Rome. Evangelicalism today simply does not provide the authority and identity of the Roman Catholic Church, and the situation looks to become worse ahead.”
The act of line drawing itself is counter-cultural in the modern west, as Trueman says, and counterintuitively, minimalist line drawing is harder, not easier, to enforce, and invites equivocation on the big issues. “If evangelicalism has no boundaries, then no boundaries [can be] transgressed.” The instability of the merely Christian or simply evangelical college either encourages in-house doctrinal transgression or instigates mass Tiber swimming.
This is unsustainable but self-induced; and at least partially because key evangelical institutions won’t get on with it and enter a room off the merely Christian corridor. Wayward, hungry, and cold Christians are the inevitable result. Not to get cliché, but evangelical students want something real, something that exists, especially as the negative world starts banging on their doors.
Know What World It Is
Training students for the “real world” is another admirable ambition of Grove City College, even if it has been used by some as cover for questionable initiatives there. It embraces what it identifies as its in loco parentis responsibility, a self-conscious duty to formation. Of course, this is what colleges should do. This does not subvert the church’s role but appropriately complements it. Trueman rightly predicted in Real Scandal that “As evangelicalism loses even the minimal doctrinal content it once possessed, so too, churches that identify with it will be further diminished doctrinally.”
To reiterate, the question is whether a merely Christian, non-sectarian, “religious liberty”–which has a different meaning in the Negative World than it did in its Positive precursor—committed institution self-professedly established in its very ethos and orientation for the Positive World, and that continued to thrive in the negative world by distancing itself from overbearing federal influence, can actually deliver on its promise.
The Real Scandal suggests that failure, at this juncture at least, is baked into the cake. People on the so-called new right often recite the phrase, “know what time it is.” In the same vein, we might add, “know what world it is.” Adjust fortifications and tactics accordingly.
The debate—at the root of which, I contend, lies violent agreement—between Trueman and Humphrey is essential and timely. Higher education reform is all the rage right now in conservative circles. It may be premature, wasted energy if we cannot settle the question in view above. By analogy, I’ll quote once more from the closing lines of Real Scandal:
“The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed-upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case—until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel—all talk about evangelism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors.”
Already alluded to earlier was C.S. Lewis’ analogy in Mere Christianity of the hallway (Christianity) and various rooms (denominations and traditions). The bottom line of Humphrey’s and Trueman’s arguments is that fellowship, nourishment, and protection exist in the rooms, not the hallway. Lewis concurs: “The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose, the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”
*Photo Credit: Cappex.com, accessed 4/3/23