A Baptist Scholar’s Concern for a Baptist College

A Baptist Scholar’s Concern for a Baptist College

Malcolm Yarnell

January 14, 2003

KANSAS CITY — William Jewell College is an historic Baptist institution that has established itself as a nationally recognized academic powerhouse, and for this, we can be thankful. However, anyone familiar with the substantial research of George Marsden and James Burtchaell on the characteristic movement of Christian colleges and universities in America from religious commitment to established unbelief can detect signs of a creeping institutional apostasy at William Jewell College. In The Dying of the Light, Burtchaell noted that an institution’s disengagement from religious commitment is signaled in numerous ways: the rise of independent funding; the academic marginalization of theology; governance by the college rather than the church; the religious disinterestedness of many faculty members; the smokescreen rhetoric of "freedom;" the replacement of ecclesiastical concern with academic concern and so on.

William Jewell’s slow but apparently sure removal of itself from Baptist life is heartbreaking, not only for those Baptists who established the school, but also for the Christian alumni and faculty who invested their lives and money in this reputable liberal arts school. Scholars tell us the process for William Jewell is evident, and it seems inevitable that the college will lose its Christian moorings within a generation. However, there is still hope for William Jewell, but it will take our prayers on the outside and a divinely ordained revival on the inside.

Since a self-perpetuating board that has no formal responsibility to the churches governs the school, there is little that can be done legally by concerned Baptists. Since only three percent of the school’s funding comes from the Missouri Baptist Convention, it is doubtful that defunding the school will prompt the required changes. Defunding will only enrage the unrepentant, though it may keep good money from following bad. Since a student may apparently earn a deg ree at the school without ever attending a Christian service or taking a class in religion (see pages 15 and 19 of the current catalog), it seems that the academic marginalization of theology is assured. Since the smokescreen rhetoric of "freedom" with its misinterpreted synonyms – "autonomy, soul competency" and "liberty of conscience" — is already being fully utilized by the administration, it almost appears hopeless that Baptists can reclaim William Jewell as a truly Christian school. However, there is hope! I believe the hope for William Jewell College depends on concerted prayer by Missouri Baptists on the outside and by a revival among trustees, administrators, faculty, staff and students on the inside.

For those of us Baptists who have been effectively placed on the outside, perhaps the following could form the content of our prayers:

First, we could pray that God will give to the faculty the personal and intellectual Christian revival that William Jewell professor Patricia Schoenrade experienced, where she discovered that God wanted to be in "all facets of my life," including that of the mind. Our prayer for the faculty could also include that they would vote as a body to require chapel attendance and religion courses and that anointed professors would teach those courses.

Second, we could pray that the administration will be as concerned about the need to establish a "distinctively Christian environment" as they are about "a free exchange of ideas." This, of course, should include str ong statements in support of the primal authority of Scripture over all branches of human reason and, in this particular instance, a formal rebuke of the homosexual agenda apparently being pursued by some on the campus.

Third, we could pray that the impoverished rhetoric of freedom embraced by the trustees and administration will become a sincere search for the biblical understanding of freedom, which is liberty from sin and death and empowerment for obedience to God.

Fourth, we could pray that the trustees will vote to strengthen their ties to Baptists by allowing the Missouri Baptist Convention to appoint trustees rather than effectively excluding Baptist churches from that vita l process called governance. Finally, we could pray that the students of William Jewell would experience a spiritual revival akin to the awakenings that swept American schools in previous centuries. Those of us on the outside can pray, "Oh, Lo rd, please show your glory in our Baptist colleges once again!"

Two reflections may prompt an intellectual Christian revival among those on the inside of the college. First, we heartily applaud you for your carefully worded mission statement. It certainly is possible to offer "a liberal arts education of superior quality" while at the same time remaining "loyal to the ideals of Christ, demonstrating a Christian philosophy for the whole of life." One does not have to choose between scholarship and faith; one does not have to be either a brilliant infidel or a dull-witted adherent of Scripture. One can be both Christian and intellectual; indeed, the best intellectuals are Christian. William Jewell has a worthy mission that intelligent Christians throughout history have affirmed . For instance, the leading Latin father, Augustine of Hippo, wrote in De Doctrina Christiana that the general truths discovered by pagans should be appropriated by the "liberated minds" of Christians, just as during their exodus from slavery the Israelites claim

However, Augustine issued a stringent warning that introduces a second reflection: "Do not venture without due care into any branches of learning." The Christian scholar of integrity must "discriminate carefully between [branches of learning]." The recent comments by the administration of the college that they will maintain "an atmosphere of inclusiveness" which welcomes "diverse belief systems" is troubling. They appear ready to jettison Christian discernment in favor of a full-blown pluralism. "Inclusiveness" is often a subversive religious commitment, a commitment to syncretize the truth of all religions into one, thus creating a new religion. The Old Testament prophets identified such "inclusiveness" with idolatry, and Jerome, another early Christian scholar, said this is a betrayal of Christ. When Jerome once elevated the works of Cicero, an otherwise virtuous pagan, above the writings of the prophets, he went too far and had to repent. Scripture must always trump secular learning. As Augustine concluded, one may learn from pagan works, but it is in Scripture that one finds "in much greater abundance, things which are learnt nowhere else at all." I beg my peers to affirm Scripture and its commands — you will find a truly Christian liberal arts curriculum to be truly superior. We are praying for William Jewell College and all of its constituencies: may God’s glory return to William Jewell and may it’s slide into apostasy be reversed.