Editorial note: This reflection from George Marsden is part of a curated discussion on “Christian Perspectives in Higher Learning.” See David Hoekema’s introduction to that discussion here.
One of the more remarkable American cultural developments of recent decades – and one that has not been widely noticed – has been the burgeoning of Christian scholarship. Particularly remarkable has been the emergence of a vital, sophisticated, and substantial intellectual community among theologically traditionalist – or evangelical – American Protestants. The best evidence of that vitality is the faculties of more than a hundred colleges and universities of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Visit just about any of these and you will find Christian scholars of the most impressive quality. And the thousands of scholars at such schools have their counterparts in thousands more such “evangelicals” who are teaching at non-religious colleges and universities. Such scholars are part of a genuine intellectual community in which they can interact with each other at high levels in the many books, sophisticated journals, as well as online interchanges. This community has British and continental European connections as well as some counterparts who are emerging in other parts of the world.
If you go back half a century or more to when we on this panel were beginning our careers, there was very little like such networks of colleges and scholars. In the early 1950s Calvin College had some outstanding faculty members, but it did not really think of itself as having “peer” institutions, except perhaps Wheaton College – often considered too fundamentalist – or nearby Hope College – often seen as too liberal. In 1965 when I was looking for a job at a Christian college, Calvin and Wheaton were the only sizable possibilities on my horizon. And Wheaton had recently narrowed its statement of faith in a more fundamentalist direction so that it seemed to me not likely a comfortable place to work.
Part of the reason that in that mid-century era Calvin College did not really have peer institutions was that it was not looking for any. Those who were around Calvin at the time will recall what an insular this place was. When I came to Calvin I think there were only two other “outsiders” (meaning non-Dutch) on the faculty. With my non-Dutch name, I was an exotic curiosity.
So what has happened in the past 50 or 60 years to change the larger national and international intellectual-spiritual community in which Calvin is working so dramatically? First of all, people at Calvin began to discover that there was a whole world out there of more or less likeminded people. Charles J. Miller (for whom an annual Christian Scholar’s Review award is named) was one of the non-Dutch Calvin faculty members who preceded me and I well remember riding to his alma mater, Wheaton, for the founding meetings of that journal. I also remember meeting, along with Nick Wolterstorff, Al Plantinga, and a few other Calvin faculty members – I think it was 1966 – with our counterparts at neighboring Aquinas College, just to discover the peculiar things each other believed. At that time we would have been astonished to think that in a few decades two of us would be on the payroll of Notre Dame. Now Catholic scholars are among our closest allies and are an integral part of the larger Christian scholarly community.
But another thing was happening in the later decades of the 20th century that had its own dynamics. That was the burgeoning of the intellectual life of what is now known as the evangelical world. That is something that happened through a combination of spiritual, sociological and other historical forces that made evangelicals – or traditionalist Protestants – the one major American religious community to hold its own numerically and even flourish in the rapidly changing social and cultural atmosphere of the past half century. That flourishing involved growing affluence in such Protestant communities and so large increases in numbers of young people going to colleges. A fair number of such young people went on to graduate education and now make up the cohort of impressive Christian scholars that I have mentioned.
That community has done a good bit of broadening in the last couple of generations, just as Calvin has. Almost all such evangelical groups had some sort of defensive fundamentalist background. A number of the schools in the CCCU were essentially Bible schools around mid-century. Evangelical theological education was in a little better shape in the 1950s but was still struggling with the peculiarities of the fundamentalist heritage. As late as the early 1990s, only 25 years ago, Mark Noll was lamenting “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and could proclaim that there really was “not much of an evangelical mind.” He wrote just as a dramatic intellectual upsurge was taking place and today he would agree that great intellectual advances have been made in that community. Most of it has moved away from fundamentalist sectarianism to embrace the Christian mainstream—what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.”
So what did we who are part of this symposium have to do with all that? Most of what has happened would have happened without any one of us participating in it. Looking at the phenomena historically, we caught a wave that was not of our own making. Yet we also were sometimes good at riding that wave and sometimes succeeded in showing others how it and other waves might be well ridden.
Probably our personal contributions to that enterprise are less important than that we were operating within a larger tradition. We all were shaped by the peculiar Reformed communities in which the Kuyperian tradition was incubating. For those who know the histories of the Dutch Reformed in early twentieth-century America, “incubating” might not seem the best image; they might think of it as more like roosters fighting. But out of the Reformed squabbles of the fundamentalist era – which coincided with Christian Reformed ethnic defensiveness – a more mature outlook of a sort of progressive yet theologically orthodox Kuyperianism emerged. We found ourselves working within a wonderful community within that tradition. Calvin was a terrific place to be because we had so many other wise and impressive likeminded colleagues – honestly too many to mention. Unlike at most places, we did not have to go back to square one in our conversations, but we could start at square three or four and move ahead from there. We just needed to do our homework, hone the tradition we had inherited, and articulate some of its implications.
As it turned out, what we were doing proved to be of considerable interest to some of the emerging scholars in the wider evangelical community. They brought with them some additional traditions and perspectives, so the exchanges have been two-way. But a good many of such emerging scholars came from evangelical traditions that tended toward the anti-intellectualism of populist revivalism and so they were attracted to the more intellectually oriented heritage of the Reformed. The result was that the sorts of things we were trying to articulate here at Calvin found wider audiences and we soon had many more conversation partners. So now the intellectual community that shares these principles is much larger. And we have lots of interactions with Christian scholars of other heritages and points of view, such as Anabaptist, Pietist, Catholic, Orthodox, British evangelical, and mainline Protestants. As a result, I think it is not an exaggeration to say these interconnected networks constitute one of the most vital intellectual communities that can be found today.