Issues in Current Theological Education

An address given by the president of Union Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Christian Advocate, November, 1956.1 APRIL, 1957

HENRY P. VAN DUSEN, President, Union Theological Seminary, New York City

[This presentation sets before the Christian church a real challenge. Dr. Van Dusen speaks as an authority in the field of religious education, for he is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. This address was delivered to the faculty and students of Westminster Theological Seminary in Maryland a few months ago, and contains a real challenging message for ministers of all faiths.

This forthright leader is an influential voice in the ecumenical movement, and was one of the chairmen in the World Council of Churches at Evanston. He recognizes that there are some real spiritual problems that cannot be solved within the framework of that movement, however, some of which he touches in this presentation.

We are indebted to the editors of the New Chris­tian Advocate for permission to reprint this address. This splendid journal has replaced the Christian Advocate, which for more than sixty years has been a strong voice for Methodism in the religious world.

In our back-page editorial comment in the February issue of THE MINISTRY we quoted from Dr. Van Dusen's address. We are happy to publish it here in full.—Editors.]


Our age is dominated by both the concept and the reality of tension. To us in the theological seminaries this is no unfamiliar predicament. It is, rather, our accustomed state. The theological school which is alive to its true situ­ation and task therefore stands always at the heart of a veritable network of tension.

There are four in particular:

One is the tension between the past and the present. Another is the tension be­tween the command of the Gospel and the demand of churches. Again, we are in ten­sion between the reality of Christ's true church and the actualities of our churches.

Lastly, most of the lesser stresses are caught up in, or are overshadowed by, the one inescapable tension which sets the very conditions of existence not only for the seminaries or even for the churches, but for every Christian worthy of the name—the tension between the faith and the world. 11re are committed, absolutely com­mitted by conviction and pledged alle­giance, to truth as it is in Christ Jesus.

Life habituated to tension—that is the standard equipment of the theological school to wrestle with the distinctive is­sues of today. Within that framework we must examine the features of the cur­rent scene which set the special condition for theological education at this hour.

Clearly, the most striking feature of our "present situation" is what a popular journal of wide circulation recently cap­tioned "The Current Boom in Religion." Discounting the appropriateness of the fig­ure, drawn of course from the world of finance, no one will challenge the fact.

As the author of the article, Eugene Car­son Blake, summarizes the evidence, "Yes, the boom is upon us. Call it what you will —a religious resurgence, a move back to God, a reawakening—it's here."

There are at least three aspects of this current boom in religion with direct and commanding bearing upon the task and program of our theological seminaries.

The first, requiring a qualification on self-congratulation and self-confidence, has been voiced over and over again in re­cent months by trusted spokesmen for the many churches. For example, the article of which mention has been made was sub­titled, "Is the Religious Boom a Spiritual Bust?"

The implication of this query for us is: We must equip men to guide the churches within this state of spiritual flood-tide, yet be prepared to adjust, at a moment's notice if need be, to a sudden and drastic spiritual ebb and recession.

The second aspect, which has not been so widely noted, may suggest an answer to the previous question. The "revival of re­ligion" has been, thus far, paralleled by no corresponding resurgence or recovery of morality.

 Despite all the heartening signs—in­creased church memberships and attend­ance and giving, religious or pseudo-re­ligious books at the top of every list of best-sellers, an obvious upsurge of spir­itual longing, even unprecedented num­bers and quality of candidates for the min­istry—in the larger view, the Christian church is not gaining ground; we are not even holding our own.

Religion and morality are, by their very natures, too intimately involved to con­tinue to move indefinitely in opposite direc­tions. Either there will be ethical renewal to match the current spiritual reawaken­ing—moral revival flowering from religious revival—or the latter will fritter out into futility like water seeping into desert sand; and our final state will be worse than our first—religious sterility to match moral an­archy.

Here, then, is an urgent challenge to theological education. The call comes, first, to a more realistic recognition of where we stand in this whole matter of the cur­rent return to religion.

Next, to a real clarification and crystal­lization of conviction as to what the re­lations of religion and morals should be and must become.

Then, to a deliberate and resolute striv­ing to bring not only conviction of mind but manner of life into conformity with Christian principle, illumined, sustained and confirmed by authentic Christian faith.

There is one other aspect of the current "renaissance of religion." It is burgeoning most powerfully beyond the territories of what we may designate respectable, con­ventional, ecumenical Protestantism, cer­tainly largely outside the sanctuaries of our churches. All over the world it is to be discovered in extraordinary fecundity and arresting strength, especially, though not exclusively, among groups whom we re­spectable, conventional ecumenical Protes­tants are tempted to deride and dismiss by a term which was originally coined by critics, but which is of noble historic mean­ing—the Sects.

Many of these groups bear in their own self-designations such titles as Ad­ventist, Holiness, Pentecostal, or merely (with noble precedent) Church of Christ or Church of God.

The most relevant, imperative questions for us to ask with respect to this move­ment are not: What can we find wrong with it? Where does it fall short in its comprehension of Christian faith and its interpretation of Christian obligation? What dangers lurk in it? It is child's play to expose its inadequacies!

Unfortunately, we are in no position to cast stones. The question we are called to answer is: What, positively, and specifically, has it to teach us? \That omissions, distor­tions in our message and our work are, in its spotlight, exposed?

In the first place, we must note that its faith and life are, on balance, markedly closer to those of the earliest church than are ours. Peter and Barnabas and Paul, I fear, might find themselves more at home in a Billy Graham rally or an Adventist service than with us.

Again, this phenomenon is strikingly reminiscent of the beginnings of that branch of the Protestant Reformation which has been proved by history to have been much the most powerful, dynamic, and fruitful of the major expressions of the Reformation impulse—the heritage in which perhaps most of us stand, known to historians as radical or sectarian Protes­tantism. Baptists, Congregationalists, Dis­ciples, Quakers, Methodists are here.

What, then, are its marks (broadly speak­ing no longer present in our "Churchian­ity") which highlight inadequacies in our churches today, and in our preparation of men for the ministry of the churches? Let me suggest four:

  1. Direct approach to people where they are, without benefit of or reliance upon church sanctuaries and services. This has been a feature of a contagious Christian Gospel in dynamic evangelistic outreach ever since Paul challenged the sophisticates of his day on Mars Hill, and Peter the milling street throngs of Jerusalem and Rome.
  2. Shepherding of people into intimate, confidential, and sustaining group fellow­ships. There is nothing novel in this either; rather it is a mark of living Chris­tian experience always. Koinonia was early Christianity's name for it, one of the most revered and often mouthed words and often omitted realities. It was a favorite designation for the earliest churches and for countless recoveries of the true church across the centuries. "Class-meeting" was early Methodism's version of it.
  3. Introducing people into direct, im­mediate, and life-commanding, life-trans­forming communion with the living God, drawing from them, as spontaneous, ir­repressible response, the "first person sin­gular" witness to what they know. Like Bishop Butler with respect to the early Methodists, we may draw back in aloof dis­taste from such intimate, self-revealing, and self-declaring testimony. But its "first per­son singular" echoes familiar scriptural speech: "I know whom I have believed."
  4. However, we cannot rest satisfied un­less we can lay our hands on a truth of faith, of theology, at the heart of all this. It is not far to seek, or difficult to identify. It is the living reality, activity, power of the Holy Spirit! The fate of the Holy Spirit in Christian history is a pathetic, tragic story:Its indubitable, dynamic centrality in the life and message of the early Church; Its regnancy in the faith and thought of Paul; Its capture and imprisonment by Cath­olic ecclesiasticism; Its release and renewal in every epoch of spiritual revival; Its re-imprisonment by the classic Re­formers within the words of Scripture; Its emancipation with power by the so-called "Radical Reformation," the "Refor­mation Sects," and, two centuries later, in the revival of John and Charles Wesley; Its gradual quiescence into innocuous conventionality in their later respectabil­ity; and today, its reappearance in familiar excess and power in the contemporary "sects."

A CAREFUL examination of the "biog­raphy" of the Holy Spirit through the Christian centuries reveals that it has been at the very heart of Christian experi­ence and Christian proclamation whenever they have been vital and dynamic.

The Holy Spirit has always been trouble­some, disturbing, because it has been unruly, unpredictable, radical. It is embar­rassing to ecclesiasticism and baffling to ethically-grounded, responsible, durable Christian faith. And so it has always been carefully taken in hand by church author­ities.

It has been the neglected stepchild of Christian theology. But the Spirit will not long be silenced. When neglected or denied by the prevailing "Churchianity," it unfailingly reappears to reassert its power beyond the bounds of conventional church life, often with excesses and aberrations.

The true "solution" of the problem of the Holy Spirit is never its rejection or excommunication, but rather its glad ac­ceptance, and then its purification and moralization into conformity with Christ's Spirit.

What are the implications of all this for us—this renaissance of religion centering in the recovery of the Holy Spirit?

  1. That we likewise should learn to move out beyond the comforting—and fatal—securities of sanctuary and liturgy, onto the streets and into the market places, where those without the Gospel live and move and have their being.
  2. That we come to know, to under­stand, to respect, and to love those fellow Christians who often stand in such severe judgment upon our innocuous ineffective­ness; to sit at their feet to learn; and so far as it may be to draw them into a larger and more complete understanding of Christ's gospel and the community of Christ's followers.
  3. Above all, that we be alert, expectant, and receptive to discern every fresh move­ment of the living, confounding Spirit of God in his "sovereign unpredictability."

Yes; but can such a recovery of the truth and reality of the Holy Spirit be expected in our seminaries! Can such a "good thing" come out of these modern Nazareths? If not, where else?

Come, it most certainly will—the Spirit's unfailing response to spiritual aridity and spiritual longing, testified times beyond numbering through the long centuries of mankind's spiritual pilgrimage. Come, it already has, even though in distorted, ex­cited, exaggerated manifestation, as it has come countless times before.

Whether this latest "movement of the Spirit" will be brought within the main currents of Protestantism or whether it will continue largely outside their sweep is not yet determined. It could become, what I have elsewhere ventured to forecast as a possibility, "a third major type and branch of Christendom, alongside of and not in­commensurable with Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism."

In any event, is this not at once the most obvious and most arresting, challeng­ing "sign of the times" to us in our task?

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HENRY P. VAN DUSEN, President, Union Theological Seminary, New York City

April 1957

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