Are merely Christian colleges enough? That was the question—the good question—that Clifford Humphrey asked at First Things last week. But his analysis of the issue and his solution to the problem merit a response.
To start, his choice of my own institution, Grove City College (GCC), as an example of the problems created by a practical commitment to “mere Christianity” was odd. The evidence he cites—thirty-six words plucked from our website—would seem a rather weak basis for an assessment of a college’s ethos, sense of mission, and actual practices. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a web article to offer the kinds of rigorous evidence that might confirm his argument—analyses of the curriculum, course syllabi, administrative policies and plans, for example. But if one is going to indict an institution’s claims about its mission with loaded language such as “dodge,” one must do better than cherry-pick a few out-of-context phrases from the college’s website. Further, to speculate that this putative “mere Christianity” is behind the scrutiny GCC came under recently regarding alleged teaching of critical race theory is just that—speculation and not a serious argument. Yes, in 2021 a petition asserted that the college was ignoring the promotion of CRT on campus. But just over a year earlier, another petition circulated claiming that humanities departments at GCC were guilty of racism, white privilege, bigoted conservatism, and the other voguish sins of 2020.
That two such conflicting petitions appeared in such a short period of time might give a disinterested observer some pause for thought. Perhaps online petitions are not always the safest guides to what a college is actually teaching. Maybe they are also driven by the sense of ownership and responsibility that various constituencies feel they have with reference to a college’s mission. And GCC is scarcely unique in that: Is there a college or university anywhere in the world whose identity is not contested, often fiercely, by alumni, donors, parents, students, and even those with no actual connection to the institution? One cannot simply claim (without proof) that GCC promotes “mere Christianity” and then suggest (without argument) that this is the cause of concern over critical race theory.
In fact, even without having a formal statement of faith, GCC has one of the most theologically conservative biblical and religious studies (BARS) departments among non-denominational Christian liberal arts colleges in the U.S. More than that: It is also one of the most confessionally coherent BARS departments, with the vast majority of its faculty being either confessional Presbyterians or confessional Anglicans who teach unabashedly in the magisterial Reformed tradition. That the BARS department teaches both the initial and capstone courses of the liberal arts core should say something about the “mere Christianity” to which all GCC students without exception are exposed in the classroom. This reality is far more significant for understanding what the college considers its vision, ethos, and mission to be than a handful of phrases pulled from the GCC website. This is not “mere Christianity,” nor is it the result of some unforeseen accident or blind fate. It is the result of intentional hiring strategies relative to college ethos and mission.
That brings me to Humphrey’s suggestion as to how colleges might do better: Integrate ecclesial practices (liturgy, hymn singing, etc.) and churchly theology into daily campus life. Here he uses Anglicanism as his example. Given that the concern is to avoid “mere Christianity,” it is legitimate to ask of which Anglicanism he is speaking. That of Jeremy Taylor or Laurence Chaderton? Of George Whitefield or Edward Gibson? Of John Keble or J. C. Ryle? Of James Packer or Rowan Williams? In a month in which the Anglican mother ship has voted to bless gay partnerships and also opened the door to debate whether God’s own preferred pronouns must give way to the preposterous linguistic pieties of our age, Lutherans, Baptists, and Presbyterians might be forgiven for finding Anglicanism a less than compelling source for avoiding theological minimalism and institutional chaos. Now, there are many good, faithful Anglicans—some are my dearest friends and colleagues here at GCC—but Anglicanism as an actual phenomenon rather than a romantic construct has from its inception represented negotiations and compromises that have made it the preeminent Protestant poster child for mere Christianity.
Now, Anglicanism may not be a useful illustration for Humphrey’s point, but in raising the question of ecclesial practices and theology, Humphrey is at least gesturing to the real issue for Christian colleges: church. The church is the place where discipleship and catechesis really take place, where the word is preached and the sacraments administered. It is in church that God is corporately worshiped and loving community realized. The problem is that Christian colleges can be tempted to co-opt or even take over this task of discipleship, despite the fact that they do not have the God-ordained means of doing it. It is tricky: The desire to study in an environment where Christ’s name is honored and his word respected is a good one. And having a chapel program is a useful thing. But college leaders need to make sure that this does not displace the church, functionally or institutionally. Their top pastoral priority in this regard should be encouraging their students to be well-grounded in a local congregation. This should then be the starting point for reflection on the college’s positive task. Happily, this will both limit the college’s role (and one might add, lessen its load) and allow college leadership to think of how to teach the various disciplines. That is too complicated to address here, but dare I say that even a college’s “mere Christianity” may not be such a problem once it has clarified its task in relation to the church, because the catechetical burden will then fall elsewhere? Indeed, it will fall where it should and must: on the God-ordained institution that has the God-ordained means of grace.
Of course, as Humphrey rightly notes, there are no silver bullets for solving the problem of institutional fidelity to the Christian faith. Colleges are complex organisms and the task of leading them often involves delicate negotiation of unpredictable cross-pressures from board, administration, faculty, students, alumni, donors, and the wider culture. I agree with him: We must do better. But for colleges, doing better begins with thinking long and hard about their relationship to the church catholic and to her local congregations. I also agree with Humphrey that we must rebuild, and we cannot do so without robustly ecclesial communities. But we call those communities “churches,” not “liberal arts colleges.”
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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Image by Mark Schellhase licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.