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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 20: The Church-Related College and a Mature Faith

The Church-related college is of primary importance both for the Church and for education. For the Church, it can be pointed out that a main reason for the vigor of the American Church in contradistinction to the British and the Swedish, for instance, is the fact that, in both of these latter, leaders of thought in the Church have been generally overawed by the paralyzing power of secular thinkers. Both Britain and Sweden give their theological degrees through state-controlled institutions of higher learning. These secular institutions determine almost sovereignly what are to be regarded as criteria for truth as well as the patterns for what is properly accepted as legitimate knowledge.

In both instances, the leaders of science and philosophy, with few exceptions, have espoused theories of knowledge not only dampening to the faith but destructive of it. I have personally observed the blighting force of secular university influence. The point of view held by the secular university is regarded almost with religious reverence. It is final truth! In America, however, institutions of learning independent of such secular ones keep calling the bluff of these secular scholars, whose theories often spring out of their presuppositions and their presuppositions all too often out of their basic approach to life. Depth of learning and vigor of thought have helped the Church to accept the truth of its faith without the constant internal bleeding that results when it is secretly, at least halfway, assumed by the Church leaders that their faith, although good and high, is not in fact true.

For education, on the other hand, the Church-related college has helped the secular university. Surveys made of the background of scientists and of scholars generally in leading American institutions of higher education have indicated surprisingly that these come out of all proportion from the small Church-related colleges, if that term is taken to mean colleges with a general Christian background of contemporary concern. There is a motivation present in the Church-related colleges that gives the drive of seriousness to young scholars. Faith generates creativity. These scholars may later disavow the form of their erstwhile faith, but all the same, they owe to their background much of the drive which has put them in the position of leadership. This situation with regard to the small liberal-arts colleges, giving birth to prominent scholars who then generally stay in the secular institutions, parallels the raising up of the majority of the Christian ministry by the conservative churches. These persons then go on to become educated Christian leaders who generally hold a more intellectually mature faith than the communities which reared them.

To the fact of the demonstrated importance of the Church-related college must be added that now on a nationwide scale in America, even in secular education, there is an intensive focus of thinking and support directed to higher education. Along with this general undertaking to strengthen materially higher education, there is also right now intensive denominational and interdenominational emphasis on Christian higher education.


The role of the Church-related college is obviously twofold: It is an agent of the Church; it is a servant of higher education.

The Church-related college is nothing less than the Church in education. The Church-related college is the Church at work educationally. It is the Church learning; it is the Church expressing its faith in terms of knowledge and in relation to knowledge; it is the Church communicating its faith.

In the first place, the Church must find its faith. In one sense, to be sure, the faith of the Church is given once for all. In Jesus Christ, the Church has the abiding anchor of its faith. The Church that does not confess centrally that Jesus Christ is Lord is not Christian. Christ defines the Church and gives it reality. But in another sense, the faith must ever be discovered afresh. Gustaf Wingren, a weighty Swedish theologian, has said that the perma- nent task of the Church is to relate the Bible to the world, or as he puts it, the constant work of the Church in education is to carry on a dialectic between hermeneutics and anthropology. Hermeneutics, as he uses the term, expresses the constant requirement to look afresh at the basic interpretation of the Bible in the light of the needs of a concrete age; while anthropology, in his terminology, stands for the constant need to view man’s understanding of himself in the light of the Bible. Thus, both the Bible and each age have need of continual confrontation of each other by the believer who participates both in the Christian community and in the thought patterns of his age. In this profound sense the Church is continually finding its faith, and the best place for so doing is within its own institutions of higher education.

But the Church needs also to confess its faith within the thought patterns which are most real to it; and within the forms that most clearly and forcefully express its faith. No believer or community of faith can be at its best until the reality by which it lives can be put into such natural expression and used so meaningfully in worship that the faith itself becomes its own best recommendation. In one sense, the faith should become such a sound background for study that it forms a context for thought, a context that is taken for granted.

Our highest faith is our presupposition; no presupposition, moreover, activates vigorous thought until it gives a steady perspective to our universe of knowledge. Faith should co-ordinate as well as motivate inquiry. Well has Goethe said that the believing ages are the creative ages. Even when Alfred North Whitehead maintains that, on the whole, it is the unstable ages that are the epochs most productive of high faith, he means not that such high-grade experience results from uncertainty or from confusion, but rather, that it results from the searing need to rethink what is assumed in the light of the welter of new evidence and new thinking. The task of the Church-related college is to facilitate the confession of faith. It is ever to reformulate the faith in terms of its foundation, with constant reference to the experience of the believing community. When this is done effectively, the foundation itself is understood afresh and the experience of the community of faith is cleansed and strengthened.

Besides finding and confessing its faith, the Church-related college must learn how to communicate it. No faith is mature until it knows how to live in its environment, however secular, without either hostility or conformity. Such maturity comes from the kind of security people have who know not only what they believe and why, but also how to communicate it to nonbelievers. Such communication depends upon an integrity of community experience within which it is possible to feel oneself into the very lives of those who reject the faith. The community must be able to become involved with the world, to enter into its inmost feelings of anxiety and self-assertion, without forfeit of its own confession. To do so, the Church-related college should learn how to make use of the signs and symbols that express the wider and the more basic faith of the outside world and to create symbols of communication of its own that will reach the nonbelieving community, whether this be the secular university or the more amorphous field of the general public.

To carry on this work of finding, confessing, and communicating a mature faith the Church-related college must be, to use Clarence Cranford’s phrase, a fellowship of the unashamed. It must be a community of commitment to the Christian faith. The ideal, of course, is to have the whole of the administration and the whole faculty continuously aware of the commitment involved in being a Church-related college. The Church-related college is in purpose a community of Christian administrators and teachers. In any case, it is failing its distinctive task unless it has an administration definitely aware of its nature and committed firmly to its task, and unless a large group of the instructors are actively and intelligently concerned with the primary purpose of the college. A Church-related college without a Christian faculty fellowship is a misnomer.

But the Church-related college is not only the agent of the Church, the Church at work in education; it is also, on the other hand, the representative of higher education. Neither task can be subordinated to the other. The Church-related college must, by circumstance, serve two masters. Each master has full right over its servant. The Church-related college assumes inescapably this twofold task.

With reference to higher education, the college should have unswerving allegiance to truth. Its intellectual integrity needs to be beyond question. The task of higher education is to find, to formulate, and to communicate truth in general. It is to find truth for the sake of life. Knowledge must be sought with inviolable honesty; yet knowledge is also pursued with concern for life. Man is not in the educational enterprise for the sake of some unrelated, abstract ideal of knowledge; he is in education to solve his problems in the light of dependable knowledge. For this reason, in legitimate education, no bias can be presupposed that determines the conclusions beforehand. Whatever faith lays binding hands on truth is false. It is no use at all to say that all thinkers have presuppositions and that, therefore, the Christian has a right to his own. Mature faith is rooted and grounded in truth. Unless man has the capacity for some real measure of finding and bowing to truth not of his own believing or making, faith is the arbitrary shouting of seekers lost in the dark.

This integrity of service to higher education involves the requirement that the Church-related college enjoy freedom of inquiry, of thought, and of expression. No Church body or Church-appointed trustees should dictate the intellectual conclusions of faculty members. No faith is real that must live at the expense of truth. No creed is worth holding that can live only by the suppression or the distortion of facts. No confession is worth teaching that cannot endure hard reasoning. Even pressure, however subtle or indirect, on the faculty to conform to the Church’s faith rather than to whatever truth it finds precludes a genuinely open inquiry.

The faculty must dare to criticize freely its own faith. At the same time it must be committed to the Church it serves. The Church-related college serves these two masters. Each is sovereign in its own sphere. There is a direct relation of the college as an educational institution to God. It does not need to serve God only as a part of the Church. It need not come to its finding within the presuppositions of its Church’s theology. God has created the world and works in it. The Church-related college, as college, stands in a direct relation to God within the order of creation.

The Church, however, sees everything first of all in the light of Christ. Its temptation is therefore to telescope truth into a means of salvation. It tends to contract the order of creation into the order of redemption. But the college as an institution of higher learning deals with vast fields of knowledge, like chemistry and astronomy, where Christ and the Church have no direct relevance. Whatever ultimate relevance these fields may have is a task for theology to work out and is not the direct responsibility of the college. It finds and teaches the facts. When the facts of the order of creation, however, seem to do away with faith, the faculty must wrestle honestly with such a situation, with no compulsion from those who employ them, provided the faculty members recognize genuinely the primary purpose of the Church-related college to be the Church at work in education.

High religion and high education are basic needs for any creative culture. In the work of the Church-related college the two are wed. Marriage of independently influential partners offers occasion for strong tensions. Such tensions are altogether likely within the work of the Church-related college. They are, in fact, salutary, provided that the tension be constructive. Such crosscurrents should be the occasion for the growth of a zestful, creative community.


The role of the Christian college in its aim to produce a mature faith is therefore, basically, to be both a community with the Christian faith as its presupposition and a community of learning with a completely open method of inquiry. Such a commitment to two masters is impossible unless the Christian faith is also true. If it is not, there can be no authentic Christian colleges. My own conviction is that the Christian faith centers in the reality of Christ as God’s universal love and in the Holy Spirit of truth. If Christ and the Holy Spirit are made central to the Church-related college, what results is a community of concern and integrity. The Christian faith stands or falls with the faithfulness of God for all and with the dependability of the Holy Spirit as the guarantor of freedom in the truth. My own experience is increasingly that discipleship and scholarship need not conflict but can give that background of constructive tension that makes it ever necessary to re-examine the faith and to keep it alive and fresh. The more the Church-related college becomes the community of integrity and concern, the more it will serve well both of its primary functions.

To be sure, this will involve a constant dialogue with the Church at large as to the nature of a mature faith. The Church-related college should serve as the mind of the Church. It should be the intellectual conscience of the Church. The mind by its very nature is restive. The feelings, on the other hand, flow in accustomed channels of satisfaction. They are basically conservative, while the mind transcends the present. It sees what can be and what ought to be. It sees different possibilities. It keeps the self unsatisfied, ever solving problems, ever adjusting itself to new situations. The mind of a community should stir that community out of its false self-satisfactions and self-securities. The mind of the Church stirs up the Church creatively and constructively. For those who live on the accumulation of the past, new ideas often come as the threat of the new and the untried. The Church generates much thought based on a false attachment to past ways of doing or of thinking. Much of its thinking is due to an uninformed devotional attitude that is not always wise. The Church therefore creates or constructs much thought that cannot stand the light of vigorous criticism. For this reason it needs the critical work of its mind, the Church-related college. The mind, if free to do so, insists upon a self-consistency that eliminates intellectual discrepancy or moral inconsistency, but, in fact, hurts as it helps. Then the Church-related college has a most important function to perform, however unpleasant its work may be for many in the Church.

To be sure, the Church-related college should also be willing to listen. Often, thought is advanced more lightly by those not in direct responsibility for the life of the institution. Often, the conservative feelings are right and need to be heeded. Thus, with regard to the need for arriving at a mature faith, the Church-related college and the Church need to carry on a constant dialogue. Because of the divergence of function there arises all too often a strong, if not bitter, anti-intellectualism in the Church and a determined anti-ecclesiasticism in the college. These are the false by-products of a necessary process of mutual co-operation within divergent functions.

The Church-related college must also, on the other hand, carry on a determined dialectic with the secular university. This dialectic is particularly needed with regard to religious data and religious interpretations. The secular university has its function within the general providence of God. The secular institutions of higher learning are of immeasurable help to the Church-related colleges because of their constant challenge of the theological bias on the part of those committed to the Christian faith. The world is better off for having secular universities, or at least for having public institutions of higher education not under any kind of Church control or dominating influence. But no subject is without presuppositions, and often the subjects taught in the universities have as their presupposition assumptions prejudicial to the Christian faith. Science, for instance, can be turned from a method into a metaphysics. When this is done covertly, the danger is great.

A naturalistic metaphysics often becomes a dominant theology, an idol, simply on some such false ground as that science is the only road to truth. Even when such a claim is made openly, it is dangerous, both to the faith of the faculty and to that of the students. When, however, it is simply assumed, the hurt is incalculable. The Church-related college in such a case needs to have representatives who, with utmost competence and integrity, will show the limits of efficacy on the part of the scientific method, without in any way appealing to arguments of ignorance in favor of religion.

Similarly, the social sciences may become messianic and pseudoreligious, claiming to be the main road to effective truth. Such claims put forward by able professors of university graduate schools who teach the instructors of the Church-related colleges and its graduate students, or who write the textbooks, may put the stamp of an ineffective religion on instructors or students for life. The Church-related colleges should then have the voice of the deeper wisdom, which appreciates and accepts all truth in science and social science, but which sees both the proper limits of their fields and the limited nature of their pronouncements. Psychology, for instance, may put forward a theory of determinism which is true for limited data and for definite purposes, but which becomes destructive of moral and social responsibility if really acted upon, and which contradicts the very meaning of the Christian faith, not because the claim of such a limited psychological pronouncement is the full truth, but because it has become falsely universalized either by the instructors themselves or by the students who fail to differentiate between limited operational efficacy and truth in general. Niels Bohr’s advocacy of complimentariness is to the point in this case.

Or philosophy, by a false separation of life and logic, may rule that man’s basic questions are meaningless, whereas it has pronounced most certain the metaphysical assumptions which underlie its whole approach. It is particularly important to remember that no knowledge of ultimates is neutral. Man either accepts or rejects God, through whatever circuitous routes. A large part of so-called secular knowledge is, in fact, the result of man’s sinfulness and the rationalization of his disobedience. Such depth-conscious fighting of God takes place through the creation of false religions, by whatever name. Therefore, the Church-related college has a task staggering the imagination: to take every thought captive for Christ in the high places of man’s secular learning.

In the Church-related college there should come together mature faith and mature learning, the synthesis of man’s basic needs for a creative society. Such union of faith and of learning, however, cannot be had without much effort and pain. For the marriage of faith and learning to take place, the Church needs to raise up and to support its most competent representatives to man the Church-related colleges. Apart from such training and staffing, the difficult job of constant dialectic by the Church-related college with both the Church and the secular university is impossible. Needed, too, is the kind of Christian community of learning and communication which gives the support of a family warmth and a capacity for creative criticism.


In the case of a mature faith, however, we have to deal primarily with people. When this is done, usually most of the emphasis is put on the students. The Christian college should help the students find a mature faith. But if such mature faith is to be produced in the students, it must first be possessed and demonstrated by those more mature in years. Seldom is a mature Christian faith even understood, much less had, among those who man the Christian college; and therefore we start with them, where start we must.

A new movement, however, is already beginning to train trustees in their high and holy calling. Perhaps we must go back even further in responsibility to those who choose the trustees. The trustees should study to understand the dual role of the Church-related college, at least to the point where they become aware of the main issues on both sides and can put their influence behind every wind that blows toward a mature faith. In their selection of administrative personnel, the most careful and wise Christian judgment is required.

The administration ought to select faculty with the double function of the Church-related college in mind. Competence and integrity in one’s subject are definitely not enough to qualify for such teaching; nor is it enough to add to these requirements a good character. Faith is of the essence, not only of the bene esse, of the Christian college. This fact makes staffing a most troublesome task. It cannot be shirked with immunity. Perhaps our Church-related colleges must select their own best products and persuade, yes, constrain, these students to prepare themselves for Christian college teaching, giving them all needed support. Such groups as the Danforth Foundation and the National Council on Religion in Higher Education stand anxious to help. The raising up of such Christian teachers should become a determined passion.

Possibly a truly great ecumenical Christian university of the highest competence and integrity would do more than anything else to change the scope and help provide top-level Christian teachers. We need such universities as well as the state-supported and privately operated ones. Besides, the administration can do wonders for a college by making available the right kind of outside resources that will more and more stand ready to help. Unless such Christian speakers of scholarly standing are found, increasingly, the administration will be handicapped. It should also, I believe, require unapologetically, Christian worship and Christian instruction. Certainly, regular worship by the whole college is part and parcel of the reason for the college’s existence, and to be apologetic about required chapel services, required convocations, and required courses in religion is to call into question the very ground on which the college is built. These are required in the same sense in which any course requires attendance: if the students are not interested in pursuing such a line, they ought not to be in such a college. A strong administration, supported by a united faculty, and producing a sustained high level of worship and religious instruction is the key to a genuinely effective Church-related college. The answer is not a false freedom from religion but a fuller effectiveness of Christian worship and Christian instruction.

It goes without saying that the faculty members should know their subjects and maintain their professional competence. Usually, however, the need to teach and to do many other things puts a heavy drain on the time and energy of the faculty and impedes such achievement. But it should be an aim honestly accepted by the administration and faculty alike. Besides opportunity for such scholarly competence, time should be allowed for the continuous growth in the understanding and application of the Christian faith. A Christian Faculty Fellowship that is vigorous can help the faculty become mature in faith. Outstanding theological leaders can be called in, as available, to stimulate and to direct further growth. Some faculties take a long weekend and make a real job of finding such maturity, centered in some retreat led by graduate teachers of religion. Nothing, however, can take the place of discussions of contemporary theology by small groups of faculty members. In some places, such groups meet also for worship, even for prayer. This is good; but the danger exists that there may be a substitution of piety for intellectual vigor. Nothing of course, can be forced in the case of faith, but progress can be made whenever the strong few in the faculty who set the pattern for the rest acquire the vision and the drive to combine as fully as possible man’s two great needs of intelligent education and intelligent religion.

I have written more about the administration and the faculty than about the students because I believe that the former are almost entirely the keys to a top-level Church-related college. Student generations come and go quickly. If students meet a staff Christian in faith and example as well as competent in teaching, they will usually take on the prevailing pattern. I know from experience that often those who teach the faith most powerfully actually teach a subject seemingly unrelated to the faith. The whole staff is therefore of top-flight importance. But the students are, of course, our central aim in producing a mature Christian faith.

Given a situation of Christian community, as real as we human beings can be without false piety or pretense, and given the environment of genuine and intelligent worship, the students. with some advice, will produce their own activities, both locally and with relation to national groups like the Student Christian Movement, the Intervarsity Fellowship, or like the YMCA and the YWCA. Effective programs can be integrated under Christian auspices in the Church-related colleges. But the crux of the matter comes in the teaching. The faculty, to produce a mature faith within the students, must have as its goal neither to shelter nor to shock.

Some institutions and some professors shelter students from the rough places of religion, either because of a false paternalism, even "momism," or because of a fear of the constituency. So to shelter the students is to keep them precritical and ineffective in the modern world. Deep faith thrives only on open truth. On the other hand, some institutions and some professors have grown so far away from the churches and from the faith that they delight in shocking their students. They care deeply and responsibly neither for the Church nor for its students. In such a case there is need for a few strong people to focus the faculty upon the genuine task and upon the distinctive nature of the Church-related college. The more independent a college becomes financially and in its manner of control, and the higher its academic standing, the more it is tempted to ape the secular university.

No high intellectual achievement, however, can in any way make up for the Church-related college that fails the students in the deepest needs of their lives. The students need the feel of reality. They need meaningfulness. They need a sense of purpose. They need to know what is true, and why. In other words, they need adequate authority that is not arbitrary, and they need strong motivation that is not drained by fear. When the faculty, instead of working off their own guilt feelings on their students, find for themselves a mature faith that combines high education with holy faith, then the students will have their best chance to grow deep in creative concern and to grow strong in co-operative community. A mature faith requires the fullest possible combination of integrity and faith, of truth and concern. This is the basic need of our world as well.

The Church-related college, then, stands at the center of the world’s decision. It represents indigenously both education and religion. To dedicate ourselves not only anew, but within a far deeper seriousness and effectiveness, to the work of the Church-related college is to serve God and man where creation meets redemption. It is to minister to the world’s needs where the mind and the heart meet in the whole man. God give all Christian educators wind in their sails.


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