Footnote 9 — Twenty-year-old conversation

Footnote 9 – Richard John Neuhaus, ed. Theological Education and Moral Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), pp. 211-213.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was editor of the conservative journal First Things, as well as the Encounter Series of volumes published by Eerdmans, of which this source is volume 15. Readers of these Foootnotes might also be interested in other volumes in the series, particularly volume 2 (Unsecular America) and volume 5 (The Bible, Politics, and Democracy).Typically, each volume reports a conference in which four to six featured speakers delivered prepared addresses, following which those speakers and perhaps a dozen others join in a panel discussion of the issues raised in the prepared speeches.

This particular volume reports a conference at Duke University and offers some rare insight into the state of the denominational mentality in America, and I offer excerpts from three different sections of the round-table discussion for your amazement.

George Marsden, then Professor of the History of Christianity in America at Duke University Divinity School (later moving to Notre Dame), and author of Fundamentalism in American Culture and Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in America, speaking of the crisis of authority in many American seminaries today:

George Marsden: “What we need to do,” he said, “is to go back to Christianity. We should start talking about God and the authority of the Bible. We should pray and teach the liturgy. But in most Protestant seminaries, if we went back to that kind of Christianity and came out with it as authoritative, we’d get kicked out. You might be able to get away with it at Duke because of its traditionalist ethos.”

“Is Duke really that different than, say, Union in New York?” Neuhaus asked the group.

Geoffrey Wainwright took up the question: “While teaching at Union in New York, I always felt that the assumption was that Christianity was wrong unless it could be shown to be right. At Duke the assumption is that, on the whole, Christianity is the agreed-upon basic, though there are problems here and there that can be debated.”

“At what point would you get kicked out of the University of Chicago Divinity School for authoritatively teaching orthodox Christianity?” Neuhaus asked.

“When you offended the feminists or the relativists or the gay caucus,” Marsden answered.

“How might you offend the relativists at Chicago?” Neuhaus probed.

Marsden replied, “By implying that Christianity is a religion that has some exclusivism. By implying that relativists weren’t Christians. After all, if you’re talking about traditional Christianity, you’re going to have to isolate and argue against ways of believing that are different from traditional Christianity.”

“George, you’re saying that there is a normative Christianity,” Neuhaus observed. “For example, if someone doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, then he or she isn’t a classical Christian.”

“Yes, and if you say certain people aren’t Christians, you’ll get booted out,” Marsden responded.

“Do you really mean you’d get fired from the faculty?” Richard Hays asked with a note of disbelief.

“Well, you’d get hooted down and eventually called a crank,” guessed Marsden.

“I question that,” said Hays. “I think we’ve allowed ourselves to get buffaloed, to be intimidated into thinking that we could never say anything like that.”

Then Neuhaus continued his line of questioning. “How much could be changed if seminary professors taught more confessionally?”

Marsden attempted an answer. “In today’s seminaries you have pluralistic institutions, and you have to be careful about whom you offend. if you go into a seminary classroom and say, ‘Your problem is that you need to be converted,’ what you’re saying is that some people there aren’t Christians. That might not be an appropriate thing to say in a school that isn’t restricted to one denomination.”

Neuhaus wasn’t so sure. “In a theological faculty,” he said, “it should be inescapable that at some point you’re going to be teaching about the idea of conversion. If you make it clear that your understanding of conversion is that it is constitutive of being a Christian, you’re not browbeating the class. You’re simply making clear what your understanding of the Christian life is. And that includes conversion, in the born-again sense and/or in the baptismal-renewal sense. You wouldn’t be a good teacher of the church if you didn’t teach that.”

From Truth Magazine  XXXVI: 17 (September 3, 1992)

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