The Good Ship Fuller: Chapel Message, 1976

David Allan Hubbard

It appears that the good ship Fuller is headed, once more, into the winds of controversy. For those who know our history well, this occasion will be no surprise. Those who launched us did not envision some idle pleasure cruise, but a mission requiring all our strength and skill as befits a vessel commissioned in the service of Christ. Even our shake-down cruise met stormy assault.

We were not established to fill a regional vacuum, but to meet an international need. We did not see ourselves as the Southern California franchise of a continental network of educational institutions. We saw ourselves as raised by God to serve a unique role in our generation. Every item in Fuller’s original profile was controversial.

We became a seminary at a time when it was more evangelically fashionable to be a Bible institute. We dedicated ourselves to the needs of the entire Christian church at a period when the party line called for ecclesiastical separatism. We aimed for the highest standards of scholarship in an era when technical research and hard thinking were considered to be not only a weariness of the flesh, but a menace to the Spirit. We called for Christian social action at a time when many others thought it was their duty to avoid social and political involvement.

For these stands, we have been buffeted at some times by the enemies of the gospel, and, sadly, at other times, by brothers and sisters within the Christian church. It has been difficult to combine features of Christian obedience in theological faithfulness, churchly responsibility, and public involvement striving to maintain our balance and direction in this era, which has frequently caused God’s people to wobble from one side to another. Yet, we have never viewed ourselves as an ordinary institution, even in those days of what seemed numerically like small beginnings.



As a Christian accepting the Biblical revelation of the nature of the state, I am responsible to use my influence, my voice, and my vote to promote principles of right-doing and justice in the state of which I am a part. This is a principle which demands more attention than evangelical Christians have given it.

— George E. Ladd, “The Christian and the State,” TNN 14:3, May 1968, pp. 3–6.

The vision was large, the hope was high, the conviction was deep, but sailed we have. And with some measure of steadiness, even in seas made rough by misunderstanding and disagreement. Undoubtedly, our own faulty navigation has caused us at times to ship water, because we were not headed at quite the right angle through the troughs. Through it all, we have had one goal as a graduate institution: the training of Christian leaders to be fully loyal to God’s Word, God’s Son, and God’s people, and to be keenly aware of the needs of the world in our time as God gives us wisdom and grace.

Once again the winds are rising and the waters turning choppy, whether signaling a squall or a storm, I am not yet sure. This week marks the appearance of a book by Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, published in Grand Rapids by the Zondervan Corporation (1976).

Dr. Lindsell seeks to make two major points: First, the Bible itself in the history of the Christian church supports an interpretation of inerrancy that includes not only the intent of the biblical authors and their theological teachings, but also every detail of geography, history, and science. Second, only those churches, institutions, and individuals who adhere to that definition of inerrancy can remain true to the evangelical faith.

My statements today are in no way intended to give a detailed answer to Dr. Lindsell’s arguments. Others will do that better. The response will come in a number of forms, I am certain. Theologians will wrestle with the exegetical and theological assumptions present in the book. Historians will evaluate the numerous statements in support of the thesis that have been excerpted from the writings of significant Christians, denominations, institutions, and individuals who have been criticized within the book, like the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Covenant Church, Fuller Theological Seminary, Robert Mounce, F. F. Bruce, and G. C. Berkouwer. They will give answers as to the factual accuracy or inaccuracy of the statements made about them. Beyond that, the church will undoubtedly hear the heart reaction of wounded and puzzled people who will wonder how we can ever pursue the other items on the church’s agenda if this particular issue is, indeed, the benchmark of Christian orthodoxy as Dr. Lindsell avers.

Please hear these reflections, which I put in the form of three questions, as a positive affirmation of our commitments at Fuller Theological Seminary at a time when some have chosen to call them into question and others, who have always believed in Fuller’s unique mission, need help to support that belief.


What’s at Stake in These Issues?

Were this a private controversy between brothers or between a Christian brother and an institution, which he helped to found, and where he served for 17 years, I would be reluctant to make public response to Dr. Lindsell’s statements. Through the years while he was at Fuller and since, we have had numbers of conversations on the matters with which the book deals. The publication of the book and the thrust that it takes remove the debate from the closed doors of offices in Washington, DC, or Pasadena. The Battle for the Bible raises three issues.

  1. Evangelical unity has been threatened by what I must consider narrow definitions of the term “evangelical.” This large and cherished word must never be given a sectarian meaning. If the convictions expressed by Dr. Lindsell are accurate, a sharp line will be drawn through the heart of the evangelical community in the United States and around the world. The dangers of forcing this cleavage are frightening. The arrogance of any one group of Christians, who seek to preempt this title for themselves by robbing it of its historic breadth and richness, should be more than vexing to the whole Body of Christ.

We at Fuller are prepared to spare no effort to continue to work for the unity of Christ’s people and for the most cordial cooperation among all those for whom the gospel has become a saving way of life and who therefore gladly and humbly call themselves “evangelical.”

  1. Evangelical priorities are jeopardized by distraction. We must, in the next year or so, convene a major consultation to look at evangelical priorities for the next decade. The task of world evangelization continues to call for our fervent participation. The oppressed, underprivileged in our society and beyond must be heard by those who seek to share in the ministry of the compassionate Christ. The waves of humanism, secularism, and amorality that are sweeping through our society and undermining the biblical convictions and concerns of God’s people must be met with strong and united defense. The citadels of learning, technology, economics, and politics must be penetrated and permeated with salt of God’s chosen people.

The mind-boggling, the heart-rending tasks of reversing ecological damage and stemming the ravages of hunger require every muscle and fiber of Christian men and women that can be put to these tasks. To the world, we will look like hockey players from the same team fighting over the puck behind the goal if we allow the precise definition of biblical inerrancy or infallibility to be our consuming preoccupation.

  1. Evangelical contributions to the larger needs of the church must not be curtailed by this controversy. Huge numbers of God’s people are hungry for renewal. Almost every Christian congregation in America is itself a significant mission field. The ecumenical movement is more open than ever before to evangelical input. The Lausanne Continuation Committee for World Evangelization is just tooling up to make its unique contribution to the spreading of the gospel and the building of the church. Others may be willing to wrestle in the locker room over the question of the six players who belong in the starting line-up. We at Fuller prefer to play the game on the rink and to make whatever contribution our abilities and energies allow. We believe we know whom we are and what we are called to do. We intend not to let questions, criticism, or misunderstanding force us to veer from that aim.

From where I stand, the alternatives being offered to Fuller’s approach look like a scholarship turned defensive, a churchmanship turned divisive, a historiography turned selective, and a personal pique turned vindictive. For me, these ingredients form too shaky a foundation on which to build a stable, let alone a significant, institution.


What’s Different About the Present Era?

The second of my three questions asks, What is different about the present era? Part of Dr. Lindsell’s thesis is that there is a rhythmic pattern apparent in the American church that has made three appearances in the last hundred years:

  • in the controversy between Union Seminary and Princeton centering in the teachings of Charles Augustus Briggs
  • in the Westminster-Princeton controversy which led to the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary by a number of Princeton Seminary professors about 1930
  • in the alleged changes in attitude toward inspiration, authority, and inerrancy in the 1970s

Several factors make me question this analysis of American church history. First, the battle between fundamentalists and liberals, which characterized the American church in the first half of our century, is now more a matter of history than a living reality. The impact of the theologies of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others—together with the growing influence of the great biblical theologians of our time like Oscar Cullman and Walter Eichrodt—have combined to bring a much clearer sense of the biblical realities of sin and grace to the contemporary church.

In every confession in the American church today, there are substantial signs of renewal among Christians. This renewal has meant that faith in the Scriptures, commitment to the Scriptures as the Word of God, and a willingness to hear the biblical message have increased measurably. We can no longer see Christian groupings in clear-cut black and white, such as seemed possible two generations ago.

We at Fuller honor the historic struggle of God’s people to maintain the purity of the faith, but we feel that the struggle may take different forms in different generations. Once, at the beginning of my tenure, I remarked to our honorary trustee and cofounder Harold John Ockenga that I felt no constraint to carry on at Fuller the strategies and apologetics characteristic of the old Princeton in the days of B. B. Warfield and William Henry Green. I said, “I honor those warriors of the faith and feel toward the efforts that they expended precisely as I do when I stand at Bunker Hill and recall the indispensable deeds of our America forefathers. I revere that battle, but I cannot fight it again.” From period to period, the battleground changes and so do the configurations of foes and allies. In planning our present mission, it is essential for us to know that the situation in the Christian church today is not the same as it was in those gallant years of Francis Patton and J. Gresham Machen.

The second thing different today that leads me to question Dr. Lindsell’s analysis is our enlarged appreciation of the positive results that can flow from scholarly examination of the processes by which God gave the Word. It does little good to deal with contemporary problems in biblical criticism with the same mindset with which we would have faced the issues in the heyday of German biblical criticism in the last part of the 19th century. We know the weaknesses of the philosophical and religious presuppositions which shaped their work. We have better tools with which to do our work in language, philology, archaeology, and theology than were available to those scholars. We also have better biblical assumptions about the tasks of scholarship. The realization is deep-seated within us that indeed the Word of God is given to us in the context of human language, human culture, and human history. The knowledge is heartfelt that it is the only infallible standard by which our Christian thinking and Christian living must be judged.

The purpose of our scholarship is not to destroy, but to build up. It is not to lay bare the humanity of the Bible, but to expose the way in which the Spirit of God used the humanity of the Scripture in order to bring us his truth.

We also have the painful lessons of past history to help us engage in positive, biblical scholarship. Lindsell is right in his claim that Christians today must have an eye on the past. This historical perspective is one of the reasons why we can give ourselves to technical, biblical scholarship in our attempt to discover the divine processes at work in the giving to us of the infallible Word. It is not too much to say that such insight into the processes is itself indispensable for our understanding of, and obedience to, the Word.

Marguerite-Shuster“Imagine it: being presented before God . . . not dingy and gray and scuffed and broken, but so clean and pure that you have no failures to hide. . . . That’s real joy, exceeding joy!”

— Marguerite Shuster, TNN 46:3, October 1999, pp. 8–10. 1975: Shuster was one of the first three women to receive the MDiv degree. Thirty-two years later she was named the first Harold John Ockenga Professor of Preaching and Theology at Fuller.

Third, the increased call for evangelical participation in the frontiers of learning makes today’s situation different from the past. Once we are committed to engage in intellectual dialogue with various academic disciplines, particularly the historical and behavioral sciences, there is no way to back out of the responsibilities of using all the tools and methods of investigation open to us as scholars. Of course, faith and scholarship will go hand-in-hand; but one can never substitute for the other. It is particularly important that we not use the tools of scholarship to buttress our confidence in the teaching of the Scripture, when at the same time we reject them if they call for the correction of some of our traditional interpretations.

Our particular role at Fuller has always called for risk. We, with many other Christians, are tempted at times to play it safe. But the Great Commission does not say, “Go into all the world and be careful.” It calls us to use every ability, tool, opportunity, and energy that we have to make disciples of the nations. The great commandment does not say, “Love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength, but keep certain intellectual cupboards closed, because of fear of what you may discover if you open them.” The God who is Lord of all truth, Chief of all history, Revealer and Inspirer of the Word, calls us to venture largely in our participation in his mission, and in our desire to know and to love him with all that we have and are.

It has never been a good trade to accept a poorer theology just because it seems safer. My deepest concern about Dr. Lindsell’s book is not that it criticizes Fuller, but that its inadequate and unbiblical view of Scripture will divide our evangelical fellowship worldwide. My own question, by the way, is not about the use of the word “inerrancy,” but about the unbiblical definition which I think Lindsell brings to that term.

How Will Fuller Make Clear Our Current Commitments?

My third major question is this: What will Fuller do to make clear our commitments in the contemporary scene? By and large, we will continue to do what we have been doing for these nearly 30 years of our history. We will continue to train some of the finest men and women as servants of the Church of Jesus Christ. We will continue to engage in scholarship limited only by our commitments to the revealed truth of the holy Scriptures and to the confessional statement of the seminary, and limited by the abilities and consciences of our faculty members.

At the same time, present circumstances may call for us to make it even more clear to ourselves, as trustees, faculty, and student body, and to the Christian public at large, what we are all about. We need to affirm more consistently and effectively what we believe. In our writing, in our teaching, in our thinking, and in our living, we must be obedient to the holy Scriptures and sensitive to the doctrinal commitments within which we work and learn in an institution that has a confessional basis for its ministry.

Glenn-BarkerAll four major programs in the School of Theology are in the process of being re-designed to help the Seminary be more responsive to the new role of the church. . . . Students are persons . . . The Seminary’s primary task is to help them recognize their gifts and develop these gifts which can be channeled to accomplish their particular vision.

— Glenn W. Barker, Bulletin 23:1, Feb–Mar 1973, pp. 1–2. Barker became dean of the School of Theology in 1973, and wrote here on “Trends in Theological Training.”

Next fall, for instance, I have asked for the privilege of speaking in chapel one day a week during the academic term, in order to expound the implications for the seminary community and the Christian church of the kinds of theological affirmations that are made in our doctrinal statement. Our lives as persons and our corporate life as an institution are based on the fundamentals of the faith and always must be. Skepticism within the world at large and anxiety within our wing of the church may make it necessary for us to speak more specifically, more positively, and more clearly on what we believe and why, than we have felt the need to do in the past decade or so.

We want to learn from responsible critics, to open ourselves to review and to renewal. Institutional smugness must not be our posture. We are members of Christ’s Body, open to the council and influence of other Christians. If those who question the stance of Fuller in any area of our faith or mission are more in touch with the meaning of God’s Word and the needs of God’s world than we are, we must learn from them.

We are ready to engage in theological discussion with responsible representatives of other points of view on any terms that seem fruitful and that are compatible with the educational and spiritual goals of Fuller.

Dr. Lindsell in the book has called for this kind of conversation. I trust he takes his own call more seriously than he took the 1966 Wenham Conference, which was designed to promote just the kind of conversation that he has now called for. In such conversation, our only aim will be just what it is in all our theological engagement, the discovery of the most complete and effective way to talk of what the Bible says about itself.

Portrait of Fuller Seminary Trustee Pearl McNeil in 19721972: Pearl McNeil was the first woman to join Fuller’s Board of Trustees

Our doctrine of Scripture must be as subject to the judgment of Scripture as anything else that we believe. We will try to maintain the same attitude of loving concern and communication towards those who may criticize us as the late Edward John Carnell, who was highly praised by Dr. Lindsell in the book, expressed in his inaugural address as president of Fuller in 1955, an address by the way that itself sparked considerable controversy within and without the seminary. Here is the way Dr. Carnell expressed it in his inaugural address:

If the second greatest of all the laws signifies anything, it follows that even as we never allow either ourselves or others to approach the heart apart from a humble, loving acceptance of the mystery of the heart, so we must approach others with an equal sense of mystery and with equal humility and love. If this rule is cordially obeyed, vengeance and intolerance will yield to patience and understanding, for love takes in the sanctity of another life and wishes for it nothing but good.

We cannot spare the time to defend our right to call ourselves evangelicals. The Lord knows who are his. We have heard him call us by name. We stand humbly and gratefully in the company of his people. We prize the term evangelical in a number of its historical senses, including an identification with the evangelical movements that came out of the great spiritual awakenings in the 19th century with their strong thrust on evangelism, revival, and world mission.

It would be boorish for us to rehearse our credentials. We need only to be reminded that it’s not enough to brand ourselves “evangelicals,” we must be about our evangelical tasks.

One of the first sermons that I preached, after coming to Fuller in the fall of 1963, bore the title, “Are We Really Evangelical?” My basic thesis was that we must never use the term evangelical without our hearing the ring of the gospel in it. A seminary, a church, or a person can be evangelical only when bearing these marks:

  • Loyalty to the content of the gospel, including the reality of the incarnation; the centrality of the cross; the triumph of the resurrection; the hope of Christ’s return, confidence in the power of the gospel to cut to the heart of our basic human problems and to call men and women to be reconciled to God;
  • Motivation by the sprit of the gospel, expressed in our love—despite our differences of race or color, occupation or education, interests or traits, habits or standards;
  • Control by the demands of the gospel, including the demand to go into the world making disciples and the demand to teach these disciples the things that Christ commanded, including God’s concern for human need in every form.

For some of our students, faculty, and trustees, stormy sailing may be a new experience. May I share with you this assurance? My confidence in the seaworthiness of our ship and the correctness of our course has been fortified by numerous correspondence with Christian leaders, editors of journals, heads of Christian agencies, leaders in government, presidents of churches, and seminary administrators. These and many more have sensed the pending gale and have assured us of their stout convoy as we sail ahead.

Meanwhile for those of us who are on board, let us give ourselves to a double task. Let us rejoice in the global impact of our hundreds of graduates who labor in Christ’s name to proclaim and demonstrate the saving Word. Let us stay hard at work in the fulfillment of the calling, which the Lord of the Church and the Lord of the Word has thrust upon us.

Many, many people can argue—and they have every right to argue—with our philosophy of education, but they should never confuse this with theological doctrinal compromise. And this is often the case vis-à-vis bringing lecturers to Fuller with whom we disagree. Many people confuse this as our endorsing all the writings, past and future, of lecturers who come here, and the viewpoint he represents, and this only betrays the fact that these people really do not understand our philosophy of education.

— R. Donald Weber, former director of public relations and development at Fuller, in a 1966 interview with James Hewett