One in a series of "President's Perspectives" in which Dr. Richard J. Mouw discusses Fuller's core values.
Over a decade ago, The Atlantic published a
lengthy—and much discussed—article by the Boston College sociologist Alan
Wolfe, on “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Fuller Seminary was featured
prominently as one of the places where signficant scholarship is taking place.
Alan Wolfe himself is not a religious believer, but he wrote respectfully of
the kind of serious life of the mind that he discovered at schools like Fuller,
Wheaton College, and Calvin College. He paid Fuller in particular an important
compliment when he observed that the level of scholarship he discovered among
our faculty was as good as anything he had seen in Ivy League universities.
Alan Wolfe is a friend, and in one of our private conversations
he described what he saw as a difficult challenge that we face at Fuller. While
we engage in high-level scholarship, he said, we also somehow manage to relate
well to the “cutting edges” of Evangelicalism as a popular religious movement.
However, he went on, he was not hopeful that we could hold both things together
for very long. Either we “dumb down” the scholarship to stay in touch with the
grass roots, or we keep at the scholarly task in a way that loses our
connection to the cutting edge.
My response to this was—and still is—that keeping the vital
connection between strong scholarship and front-line ministries is crucial to
Fuller’s future. My conviction on this has only been greatly reinforced by what
our trustee Andy Crouch and I discovered in our two-year “seminary of the
future” study. After many conversations with diverse groups, we concluded that
fostering a healthy connection between “core” and “edge” in theological
education is of great significance to our Fuller mission.
At the heart of the “core”—certainly for an Evangelical
seminary—is the study of the Bible. Needless to say, this must be closely
coordinated with the history of the Christian movement and systematic theology.
But biblically based teaching and learning also have to look to the edges—the
worshiping and discipling life of the churches, as well as the outreach of
God’s people into the larger world in which we are all called to be servants of
I once heard a wonderful illustration of the way in which “core”
and “edge” need to be held together at Fuller from the late Robert Guelich, one
of our marvelous New Testament scholars who died (much too early in his life,
from my point of view!) of a heart attack in 1991. He told me that when he
first started teaching the Pauline Epistles, he thought that one of the most
interesting questions a scholar could deal with was “the dating of Galatians.”
But now that he had been teaching classes with students present from our School
of Psychology program, Guelich said, he found that it was more helpful to talk
about “dating among the Galatians.”
For those of us who care about the scholarly study of the
Scriptures, how to establish the dates when specific books of the Bible were
written is an important issue. We need scholars who pay attention to those
questions. But we must also stay clear about how those important scholarly
investigations equip God’s people today in their efforts to serve the Kingdom.
And it is certainly important today to reflect on how the apostle addressed
issues of “the flesh” and “the spirit” in the light of practical sexual
challenges in the early Christian community. To do so is for us one way of
connecting the core to the edge.
None of this requires a “dumbing down” of our serious efforts to
maintain the solid core of theological scholarship. The founders of Fuller
Seminary were certainly convinced of that. Harold John Ockenga, Fuller’s first
president, was a scholar-pastor, a leader deeply devoted to the intellectual
life, while also very much engaged in “edge” ministries. And Charles E. Fuller,
certainly a person who functioned primarily on the practical edge of things
with his extremely popular weekly evangelistic radio program, nonetheless often
expressed the hope that the new seminary he had helped to establish would
become “the Caltech of evangelicalism.”
I find maintaining a vital link between core and edge at Fuller
Seminary to be an exciting project. For one thing, we have so many important
new “edges” these days to address from a biblical perspective. Leadership in
our complex world of corporations, organizations, and ministries. Young people
for whom the use of social media is the norm in sustaining relationships and
accessing information. Blended families. 24/7. Terrorism. Biotech. Sexual
trafficking. And much, much more. At Fuller we are speaking to these realities,
not only in our classrooms and online curricula, but through our Fuller Youth
Institute, our Max De Pree Center for Leadership, our Brehm Center for Worship,
Theology and the Arts—and by means of involvement in the Sun-dance Film
Festival, engaging in neuro-psychological research, and focusing on “children
at risk” around the world.
But, again, it is exciting to be in a position to look at all of
these “edge” realities from the perspective of biblically grounded scholarship.
For that task, Fuller Seminary is uniquely blessed. We have one of the best
biblical studies faculties in the world. And that is certainly where we have to
begin: with a solid core from which we can move out to explore the
edges. This means being very clear about what the Bible is actually saying to
us, given the cultural context in which it was written. The writer to the
Hebrews makes it clear that “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various
ways by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1), and we need today to pay close attention to
these “many and various ways.” People sometimes ask me if I take the Bible
literally, and I try to explain to them that the important thing is to “take”
the Bible in ways that God intends us to understand it. When a sacred writer
refers to the earth’s “corners,” is God meaning to tell me something about the
shape of the earth? What would it mean to take a prayer or a hymn or a lament
or a vision “literally”? We need to study cultural context and literary form to
get at the meaning of the biblical message for our lives today.
I thank God for the ways our biblical scholars at Fuller are
employing new critical tools for their studies of the Scriptures. This is so
important for holding in our contemporary context to a high view of biblical
authority. As A. W. Tozer, a great evangelical leader of a previous generation,
was fond of putting it: we need to use all kinds of tools and methods for
getting at the meaning of the Scriptures; and once those methods have helped us
to grasp the meaning of a specific passage, that message becomes for us an
infallible word from the Lord.
One hymn we sang often in my youth expressed this sentiment about
the teachings of the Bible: “Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words
of life.” There is much beauty to rejoice in on the pages of Scripture. And it
is a great privilege to be able to study those pages in the context of a world-class
scholarly community. Even more, it is a delight to engage in all of that solid
teaching and learning with men and women who know that when the Spirit of the
living God illuminates the sacred pages in new ways as we operate from the core
of theological education, we have the marvelous opportunity to speak “wonderful
words of life” to the edges of our mission in the world.