(This address was given on Nov. 5th, 2016 by The Rev. Dr. John A. D’Elia on the occasion of his installation as the first President of the New Theological Seminary of the West.)
Family and friends, members of our board of trustees; students, faculty and honored guests, thank you so much for being here today. Your presence is a gift not only for me, but also for the New Theological Seminary of the West. As we establish ourselves in this region—as we work to provide practical ministry training that is rooted in deep theological reflection—your presence here affirms our goals and demonstrates your support. On behalf of our seminary, I want to say a very heartfelt thank you.
It is a long-standing tradition at events such as this one to pose a question of some great significance, and then spend 30 minutes or so coming up with some lofty-sounding answers.
The problem is that after a year and a half of this particular election season—of the accusations, recriminations, denunciations and repudiations, here’s the big question that I came up with: After the 18 months we’ve just endured, who would want to be president of anything right now?
Well, I suppose the obvious answer, since I’m standing here we’re all together today, is that I would. In a few minutes a group of men and women made up of people who know more than I do—who believe more deeply than I can muster sometimes—and who have accomplished more in their lives and ministries than I could ever hope for—in a few minutes those good people are going to place their hands on me, and pray for me, and make me the president of their seminary—of our seminary. I am truly honored to be chosen for this role.
Because I still believe in the church of Jesus Christ. As a church historian who specializes in the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I’ll admit that it’s not always easy. Our shared Christian history is one of conflict and division and separation. But as a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, my passion is for the unity and mission of the local church—of these gathered clusters of broken women and men who come together to grow in their faith, and love their communities, and reach out to other people with the gospel. I will say it freely and proudly: I love the church, even when it disappoints.
I learned that love right here at the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank. I was baptized here. I was welcomed into membership here when I was 14 years old. I was ordained as an elder and a few years later was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament—all of those important events happened within about 15 feet from where I’m standing right now.
I even preached my first sermon here. The text we read today (Luke 5:27-32) was the same passage I used here on Youth Sunday in 1979—the sermon was titled: “Is This a Hospital or a Health Club?” I learned in this place that Jesus didn’t come to hang out with the perfect people; that he came to be with folks who were sick and broken and hurting.
I accepted Christ as my savior here. I was given opportunities to test my gifts for ministry here. When those early attempts were successful my church family celebrated. When they fell flat or failed miserably, the people of this church gave me a hug and another chance. It was here that I learned what a church can be—the impact that a church can have on the lives of the people who come and participate.
I also learned that the church could be a model of unity. Don’t laugh. We remember the conflicts more clearly, but one of my enduring memories of growing up here was our own Pastor Bill Craig weeping with joy in this pulpit when the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited in 1983, after separating over the Civil War in 1861. Whatever else is broken about the church from time to time, occasionally we get it right and show the world that we mean what we say, and that we really do follow a Prince of Peace.
I started in my new role in May of this year, and the next month I went to the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools—that’s the ATS for the cool kids out there. I flew to St Louis and checked into my hotel—I walked down to the registration table and got in line. The man in front of me turned around and we introduced ourselves. No joke—after learning my name, the first question out of his mouth was, “So where are you on the theological spectrum?”
Seriously. This guy had known me for all of about a minute and he was already trying to figure out which theological box he could stuff me into. I knew what he was after. There are a handful of positions—some theological and some more social or behavioral—there are a handful of positions that divide Christians and churches and seminaries from each other. I evaded the question and talked about my own faith for a few seconds. He turned around to look at his phone and those were the last words we shared.
I’m going to answer that question today, about where I fall on the theological spectrum, but not quite yet. I have some other things I want to say first.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then certainly we’ve learned that election seasons can give birth to opportunities to renew the Christian call to civility and unity. We’ve been reminded of why the prophetic witness of the church is so essential. Whatever our partisan leanings, this last year proved that the Christian call to love our neighbors, even when we see them as our enemies—loving our neighbors isn’t an outdated teaching of a bygone day. It’s a roadmap for living as disciples of Jesus in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society.
I’m reminded of an old episode of “The West Wing”, when one of the characters, Josh Lyman, went on a rant about the contempt both political parties showed for the other. This was before the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before Barack Obama. Before the left and the right said so many hateful things about the other side that they stopped realizing that the things they were saying were hateful. We can whine all we want about the current election season. The truth is, we have just endured exactly the presidential campaign we deserve.
Certainly we can do better than this. Certainly we as Christian people can offer something better. The New Theological Seminary of the West is committed to training leaders who love Jesus, who have the tools to wrestle with the hard questions of Bible and culture, and who place a high value on civility and graciousness as they live and share the message of the gospel.
We’re not the first to try to do this, of course. In May of 1955 Edward John Carnell was installed as the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a veteran of the fundamentalist controversies that led to splits and conflicts that were tearing the church apart. He thought that one solution could be found in the way church leaders were trained. In his own installation address, called “The Glory of a Theological Seminary”, he made the case for teaching students to be tolerant and gracious toward people who didn’t believe the same things. He said:
“[A seminary [should teach] its students an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness toward individuals whose doctrinal convictions are at variance with those [of] the institution itself. Seminarians are seldom introduced to the presuppositions that undergird a Christian philosophy of tolerance. And yet indifference to this phase of Christian thought may well mirror a truncated grasp of Christianity itself.”
Let me translate what Prof. Carnell was saying:
We should teach our students to play nice with others.
We should teach them that the Bible says that’s how they should act.
If we don’t do that, it may be that we never understood the Christian faith very well in the first place.
The response to these words was not very positive at all. One student came up to Carnell after his address and said right to his face that all this talk about Christian love and tolerance nauseated him. Another student quit the seminary that day. The faculty was deeply divided over this call to civility and forgiveness, and after the service the only copy of the address was hidden in the seminary safe until most of the participants were dead. It was finally published in 1987.
In my own doctoral research I focused on the life and work of George Eldon Ladd, a Bible scholar from the 1950s and 60s. Ladd grew up in the fundamentalist tradition, but as a young man decided that being separate from the culture made it impossible to share any Christian influence on the culture. He went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in New Testament, and became a seminary professor. In 1959 he went to a Baptist seminary in North Dakota and gave a speech to honor the opening of their new library. This school would have proudly identified itself as a fundamentalist institution, which makes what Ladd said either courageous or crazy. You can decide. He said:
“The fundamentalist movement has spawned and promoted the separatist movement. We see a great movement in America of…separatist churches within and without our denominations. The separatist movement is, I think, founded on a basic fallacy. It is founded on the [idea] that a church is apostate when it harbors liberalism, and upon the second fallacy that by separating you can create a pure Church.”
What Ladd was saying was that it was a mistake to believe that churches couldn’t survive if their members didn’t agree on everything. He added that it was foolish to believe that by leaving with the people who agreed with you, that you could somehow have a perfect church. The foolishness in that idea is that it forgets that in the end, there would still be people in the church. As long as people are involved in churches, churches are not likely ever to be perfect.
Why bring up two forgotten speeches by old white guys in the 50s? Besides the fact that my own academic work is focused on that era, the real reason is this: I take very seriously the warnings that Edward Carnell and George Ladd gave to the church back in the 1950s. We’re not getting anywhere arguing and dividing over issues that aren’t central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only will we never achieve the perfect church, where everyone believes the same things the same way, but worse, when we try to do that we look like people who don’t even know our own savior.
When Jesus decided to describe for his followers the true mark of what it means to be a Christian, he said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not if you all agree. Not if your doctrinal positions are all neat and tidy.
“If you love one another.”
So back to my own theological position.
Daniel Kirk is a new testament scholar in the Bay Area. Earlier this year he wrote an article describing his own place in the theological spectrum, and it resonated with me.
He said: “I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative…word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken.”
I don’t know if I can say it better than that, but I can say it more personally.
I remain an evangelical because I believe that one essential marker of the church is our willingness to wrestle with the Bible we’ve actually been given, in all its frustrating messiness and offense to our modern minds. Because it is in the words of that Bible that we find the joy-filled message that in Jesus Christ God is working to redeem and reconcile and restore all people and all places to himself. I still call myself an evangelical because I believe we’re all called to share that message of reconciliation and restoration with anyone who will listen.
But I am called to be progressive because as I struggle to understand the Bible in the light of the church’s history, I am confronted with the mind-boggling truth that God is not finished with us yet.
Why do I believe that?
Because when the Bible was used to defend slavery, faithful Christians embraced the whole witness of Scripture and started the abolition movement.
Because when the Bible was used to defend a second-class status for women or people of color, faithful Christians immersed themselves in the pages of Scripture to say no, a two-tiered social structure is not what God had in mind when the Scriptures say: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.”
Time after time, Christian people have challenged the status quo to uncover a new layer of God’s redemptive work in the world. And in each of those instances, they were branded liberals and radicals and faithless people.
But too often the self-appointed thought-police of the church turned out to be wrong. Not always, but too often. Sometimes the boundaries are stretched so far that the gospel loses its meaning, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as we think.
It is our holy task to look back on our history and learn from it so that we can temper our reactions to those brave women and men who are seeking to stretch the boundaries of our understanding of God’s redeeming work today—not to go beyond the limits of the Bible, but rather to catch up with its radical generosity.
I embrace the category of progressive-evangelical not because I believe less than the Bible promises, but because I believe that we haven’t yet come close to the edges of what God’s word is offering to us.
Just to close. If there is a commandment in the Bible that can get us through the aftermath of this election season, that can guide us through the conflicts we experience in our churches—if there is a single commandment that can help our seminary raise up and prepare a new generation of Christian leaders, it’s this: Love God, and love your neighbor.
That’s what I learned growing up in this church. That’s what has stayed with me through seminary and ministry and doctoral study. That’s what I want to nurture and grow at the New Theological Seminary of the West.
Come to think of it, that’s probably the answer I should have given to that guy at the ATS conference. It’s the way I want to live my own life of discipleship. It’s the faith I want for my son and for my family. And those are the boundaries within which we’ll teach and train at the New Theological Seminary of the West.
When we’re finally done arguing and dividing and checking each other’s theological credentials, then we can get on with the business of being the people of Jesus in the Kingdom of God—of loving our neighbors and spreading the light of the gospel.
May we share that love, and shine that light, in this seminary, in our churches, and in our broken world. Amen.