By: Dr. Riley Case
In 1929 Abingdon Press published a book, The Religious Beliefs of 700 Ministers by George Betts of Northwestern University. The book was based on a study by Betts in which he surveyed in detail the beliefs of 500 active ministers (mostly from the Chicago area) and 200 seminary students (from 5 mainline seminaries). His purpose was to determine whether the belief systems of ministers indicated a need for radical change in the kind of beliefs being taught to the coming generation. Of all the denominations studied only the Congregational Church ministers were more liberal than the Methodists. For example, the statement: God is three distinct persons in one (the Trinity) was affirmed by 99% of Lutherans, but only 72% of the Methodists and but 36% of the Congregational ministers.
But the difference between the belief systems of the different denominations paled when compared with the belief systems of active ministers contrasted with seminarians. Only 44% of the seminarians believed in the traditional understanding of the Trinity. 66% of the practicing ministers believed the New Testament is the final revelation of God to men, but only 18% of the seminarians. That the Bible is different from other books in the level of its inspiration was affirmed by 70% of the ministers but only 26% of the students. That Jesus death on the cross was the one act that made possible the remission of man’s sin was affirmed by 70% of the ministers but only 29% of the students.
Betts concluded that since the seminarians were going to shape the future of the church, and since their beliefs were so radically different from those of active ministers, there was need for extensive change in what the church said it believed and how it communicated that belief. In short Betts, a modernist, was arguing for a de-construction of the faith.
About the same time as Betts was writing, William Henry Bernhardt (later a professor at Iliff) commenting in 1926 on the influence of Gordon Parker Bowne, proclaimed the triumph of modernism: in the present day. The dogmatic method had been replaced by the philosophical and empirical method, the content of theology was not based on traditional Biblicism but of idealistic philosophy, and the church was moving into the new thought worlds of the 2oth century (unpublished dissertation, U. of Chicago). The “thought worlds of the twentieth century” would exclude forms of Biblicism, fundamentalism, (meaning evangelicalism) revivalism, and other non-scientific ways of thinking.
These examples give us an insight as to the direction of seminary education 80 years ago. Seminaries understood their purpose as setting the direction for the church.
Official Methodist (Ev and U.B. seminaries have a different history) seminaries from the 1920s, standing as independent institutions freed from church constraints and seeing themselves as the vanguard of a New Age, postulated a brave new world which would be realized not by the preaching of Christ crucified, but by economic planning, social restructure, and an optimistic view of the nature of humanity.
Before the modernist seminaries (and their graduates) went to work to redefine the faith, “Methodist ethos” (if that terminology had been used) would have meant Wesleyan doctrine, revivalism, and conservative moral standards (especially in regard to temperance). Through the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, the seminaries led the way in redefining “the Methodist Way,” or “Methodist ethos” to mean freedom of inquiry, freedom from any form of doctrinal creeds or standards, accommodation to the scientific method (applied even to the social sciences), academic excellence freed from any form of emotionalism, and attraction to all things modern. During my seminary years in the 1950s I do not recall a single instance in which there was a discussion of Methodist doctrinal standards. The University Senate today, in seeking to apply a standard identified as “reflecting United Methodist ethos,” still carries over the modernist understanding of the term except they have added understandings about diversity.
The results for the church have been disastrous. In the 1890s the Methodist Episcopal Church (North and South) could claim as adherents 8% of the population; that percentage began a rapid decline in the 1920s and today it is less than 2% (even after mergers).
What is discouraging is that there seems to be no recognition on the part of the seminaries themselves or on the part of church leaders that the seminaries have contributed to the present problems facing the church.
But is the assessment all bad? Are there any encouraging signs at all?
The answer is that there are some encouraging signs. They might be summarized as follows.
1) Perhaps the best sign of hope is the continued success of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE). The January-February issue of Good News magazine carries a six-page spread on the history and accomplishments of AFTE. AFTE grew out of an address by Ed Robb at the 1974 Good News Convocation in which Robb lamented the dismal state of the seminaries and indicated that there were no first-rate Wesleyan scholars left in the land. Albert Outler took offense (since he considered himself a first-rate scholar) and what began as an adversarial relationship developed into a friendship. Robb would later comment that Outler was more pessimistic than he was on the dismal state of Wesleyan theology. Together Robb and Outler started a fund, AFTE, that would train would-be scholars in Wesleyan theology and in disciplines related to evangelical concerns.
Now, nearly 35 years after AFTE was started, the church is beginning to reap some benefits. Some of United Methodism’s most promising leaders, persons like Richard Hayes of Duke, Bishop Scott Jones, Billy Abraham of Perkins, Ben Witherington of Asbury, and Wendy J. Deichmann of United are among the 134 John Wesley Fellows who were supported by AFTE and are now serving the church. Because of persons like the John Wesley Fellows there is now some excitement on the part of evangelicals seeking a good education in such seminaries as Duke, Perkins, United, and Asbury.
2) There is a new interest in Wesleyan theology (related, of course to #1 and AFTE. Modernist, liberal and progressive theologies had no place for Wesley. Except for George Croft Cell’s The Rediscovery of John Wesley in 1935 there were almost no serious American books on John Wesley in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. As a symbol of Wesley’s waning influence the 1935 Methodist hymnal carried only 57 Wesley hymns (compared to 558 in the 1848 hymnals and nearly 70 in the 1988 hymnal). The 1988 doctrinal statement in the Discipline with its excising of the word “pluralism,” its reference to doctrinal standards, and its declaration in the primacy of Scripture, is related to the renewal in doctrine, and particularly Wesleyan doctrine.
3) There is a willingness, at least in several seminaries, to recognize the validity of the evangelical approach to the faith. For years evangelical faith (labeled “fundamentalism” in those days) was seen as a hindrance to the future of Methodism. When some of us wanted to invite Billy Graham to our seminary campus the word back was that Graham would not be invited because “we do not wish to be identified with that kind of Christianity.” I remember discussions that seminaries were committed to freedom of inquiry and “broadening” the perspective of students and if any student graduated as a “fundamentalist” the seminary was not doing its job.
There are still seminaries where the evangelical perspective is misrepresented, if presented at all, and where there is no serious evangelical presence on campus. These, however, are becoming a minority. Reports from many of our seminaries indicate a willingness to recognize the legitimacy of evangelical faith and practice.
4) Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that despite the University Senate’s crusade to de-list other denominational and independent seminaries as approved to train United Methodist students, there are still some excellent seminaries that offer options for students who want to be affirmed in their faith even as they follow rigorous academic preparation for the ministry. Asbury Seminary still prepares more United Methodist students by far than any of the official seminaries. Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the premier seminaries of the land and has on its faculty such persons as Joel Green, a John Wesley Fellow. A new seminary associated with Indiana Wesleyan has its sights on being a center for serious Wesley scholarship. Indiana Wesleyan recruits United Methodist students and presently has about 60 UM students in its ministry program.
There are certainly more positive signs. We at The Confessing Movement would like to hear some reports from students who are having positive experiences at United Methodist and other seminaries.
The Confessing Movement | 7995 East 21st Street | Indianapolis | IN | 46219