As I think about the possibility of a theology of seminary education, I thought it worthwhile to revisit a core text in my early musings on seminary: George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism. Indeed, I read this well before I considered attending seminary, while I was at Wheaton and still intending to go on to law school. It and Marsden’s companion book Fundamentalism and American Culture formed part of my research in my American Church History class project on my family religious history.
Though it wasn’t an immediate factor, I strongly suspect Marsden’s book influenced my later decision to attend Fuller. That and Fuller was down the 210 freeway from where I was living. But mostly the book, I’m sure. I didn’t choose Talbot, after all, and that was down the 57, about the same distance.
It has been 20 years and three degrees since I last read it. I’m a little worn and so is my copy of the book. A mouse found the stored box of books a nice place to spend winter and chewed up the edges of its furniture.
No great damage done and a lot of very worthwhile information inside. I think it especially interesting to note how Fuller described itself early on. Three passages from Marsden stood out to me in my continuing musings.
The first three catalogs included these three purpose statements (quoting from Marsden, 55-56):
First, “no interdenominational theological seminary of outstanding academic and evangelical qualifications” existed in the rapidly expanding “budding culture’ of the far west.
Second, “naturalist modernism had invaded many old line seminaries.”
And third, other independent seminaries, (meaning Dallas, Westminster, and Faith), were “too often associated with a particular doctrinal emphasis which limits their usefulness.”
Thus early on Fuller tended towards being apophatic in its self-understanding, emphasizing what it was not and who it was not like.
In more positive terms, Fuller understood itself as interdenominational and independent in the pursuit of both academic and evangelical goals. It was West coast in expression and context, serving a specific developing region. Pasadena had a population of 104, 577 in 1950 and Los Angeles had a population of 1,970,358, most of the surrounding area was farmland (cf. my family religious history link above).
Fuller (both the school and the man) sought a school that could be be a training center for evangelism and apologetics while pursuing a rigorous academic culture by both faculty and students. As Marsden (p56) notes, Fuller’s first press release described it as a “research center for Evangelical scholarship.”
A well-to-do, famous radio evangelist got a group of well-regarded and highly educated pastors and scholars together to help ignite a renewed expression of conservative Christianity.
This emphasis on academics became a priority for Fuller Seminary, which makes sense given the rather low social and academic reputation of mid-century Fundamentalism. To be heard, to make a difference, they realized they had to be rigorous in scholarship and education.
Alongside this emphasis on scholarship, there was also a strong initial push towards social involvement and, of course, pastoral expression. Evangelicals were characterized by wanting to engage broader culture rather than feeling a need to separate from it, to bring back social action as part of a more holistic understanding of the Gospel.
John Wesley, of course, was not alone in seeing how evangelism and social reform went hand in hand. A significant number of social reforms were led by conservative Christians during the 18th-19th centuries. It was in the early 20th century that social action became identified with liberal theology. The Social Gospel was put in contrast to evangelism, liberals adopting the first and rejecting the second, fundamentalists prioritizing the second and distancing from the first. Sadly this division defined religious development throughout the century.
Those who started Fuller knew their Bible and their history, so wanted to put aside these divisions. However, without a specific advocate for this aspect, social engagement was not emphasized in practice. Marsden (p82) notes:
“In 1947 the call for more social involvement among fundamentalists was little more than that–a call. In reality, this theme received relatively little attention at the early Fuller. The two overwhelming priorities were remaking the modern mind and evangelism. The school was to be a great center for scholarship; and it was also Charles Fuller’s school, a place for training a generation of missionaries and evangelists.”
Fuller was thus conceived as an expression of new hopes and goals for Evangelicalism, rising out of its Fundamentalist limitations to embrace, indeed return to, a more historic pattern of conservative Christian belief. This embrace was to happen in a new context, a developing and highly dynamic context far away from the established centers of traditional seminaries back East.
I focused on the early understanding here, but it is worth noting that over the last couple of decades Fuller has very much developed in emphasizing social involvement. This can be seen in various ways, such as engagement with the arts and social justice concerns. Some may see this as a turn away from Fuller’s early priorities, but it is certainly not. Such emphases express some of the earliest, and long undeveloped, ideals of Fuller and Evangelicalism.
After almost 70 years, Fuller is still coming to terms with its own initial impulses.
For more on Fuller’s history, in addition to Marsden’s book I heartily recommend David Allan Hubbard’s 1979 lecture.