The Ongoing Story of Fuller Theological Seminary: Roots in Orthodoxy, Branches in Innovation

Fuller’s first president, Harold John Ockenga, gave his opening convocation in a season of turmoil for the evangelical church and for America. Try to imagine him, bent over his notes crafting the seminary’s vision, in the context of the news surrounding his October speech in 1947: Jackie Robinson named Rookie of the Year; the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves near Wadi Qumran; The Diary of Anne Frank published; India soon to declare independence from Great Britain, forming India and Pakistan—when 400,000 would die in the turmoil; rancher W. W. “Mack” Brazel discovering debris from the crash of an unidentified flying object just northwest of Roswell, New Mexico.

Days after Ockenga delivered his speech, President Harry S. Truman would give the first-ever televised address from the White House in which he would urge Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry and eggs on Thursdays to “help stockpile for starving people in Europe.” The country was still suffering the aftermath of World War II as the Cold War with Russia began to rear its icy head. Picture Fuller’s first president crafting his “challenge to the Christian culture of the West,” believing that ahead lay an unparalleled educational opportunity—not in spite of turbulent times but because of them. Back then, many in evangelicalism declared their own cold war with the culture, removing themselves from its messy fray in the name of faith. Fuller’s founders established their seminary right in the midst of it.

In the first years of Fuller’s establishment, great lengths were taken to counter the isolationist tendencies of the founders’ evangelical siblings. Some of the vintage homes that characterize the Pasadena campus were moved from their original locations to what became the Arol Burns Mall, requiring closing off half of a city block. This was done for many reasons, but the choice continues to make an implicit point: by establishing Fuller right in the shadow of Pasadena’s City Hall, the founders punctuated the place of evangelicalism right in the center of culture.

In the decades following Ockenga’s leadership, when Edward Carnell gave his inaugural address, David Allan Hubbard his iconic chapel message “The Good Ship Fuller”; and Richard J. Mouw his inaugural address about the restless seminary, firm convictions about the calling of Fuller Seminary have often been voiced into the air of change. In times stormy enough to uproot the shallower convictions of some in theological education, our former presidents sounded clarion calls to grow Fuller’s evangelical roots deeper so that the gospel could branch wider. It is refortifying and energizing, nearly seven decades later, to share this history in a season of societal change, while we embark upon an equally remarkable opportunity for a new day in theological education.


Roots in Orthodoxy

Fuller’s early classes met in a Lake Avenue Congregational Church Sunday school room where students made arguments from child-sized chairs. Unconcern for such incongruity was also part of Fuller’s character, as noted by Carnell in 1955:

Since the seminary is in possession of what it confidently believes is a confessional summary of the gospel, it is easy for it to suppose that its educational job consists in the use of whatever means will guarantee the student’s safe enclosure within the heritage of the school. Rather than presenting alternative positions with fairness and objectivity, the professors may feel that it is their solemn duty to withhold evidences which may possibly disturb the student’s faith.

I call this robbery—and the term is not too strong—because divinely ordained privileges are being removed. Even as the founding fathers came to their own conclusions through free examination of facts, so each generation of young minds must earn its right to belief by an honest appraisal of all of the evidences. Otherwise the students will be academically conditioned, not educated.

Back then, the “minds of students” were mostly young, white, and male—many veterans and chaplains returning with deep theological questions from yet another war that did not end all wars. Fuller was founded to train men as missionaries and evangelists and preachers for the dominant culture, but now, years of growth later, Fuller’s gender, race, vocation, language, and even geographical boundaries have expanded to “equip men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his church.”

Even “church” takes forms that could not have been imagined by Ockenga so many years ago—any more than he might have anticipated Twitter, reality television, or the bankruptcy of Detroit. Our generation, too, is challenged to think beyond traditional seminary education to prepare for a future that cannot be predicted. Yet in all this stands the primacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


A Changing Landscape

Seminary education isn’t, today, what it was even 20 years ago. The church has changed, the culture has changed, graduate education has changed, and deep theological scholarship has changed. The only thing that has not changed—for us at Fuller—is our grounding in orthodoxy.

In 1947 America, city founders were building essentially the same small town throughout the country, which wordlessly evidenced the priorities of American life: the center square had a courthouse, a library, and a church. The steeple of First Baptist, or First Presbyterian, or First Methodist was the tallest point at the heart of the city, while everything else was on Second Street. Evangelism and church growth were not issues, and pastors were unconcerned about declining numbers because, back then, everybody went to church.

As one older pastor observed, “If a man missed church on Sunday, his boss asked him about it at work on Monday.” That is a different world than we live in today, where stressed, two-career families consider Sunday the only day to sleep late, have brunch, and nap on the couch after the game—in other words, their one day of rest. In such times, church might appear to be an interruption to family life.

It’s not surprising if pastors feel that seminary didn’t prepare them for change at such magnitude. Whereas the culture once provided the structural underpinning for education, law, and religion equally, now pastors, lay people, businesspeople, and artists are trying to live out callings in contexts that resist and even suspect their faith. There are ministries that Fuller equipped people for years ago that no longer even exist. “What most pastors have begun to figure out, that not every seminary has figured out,” claims new Vice President for Vocation and Formation Tod Bolsinger, “is that most seminaries are still teaching for a bygone world.”

“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.”

— David Allan Hubbard, 1976

That is why we have shifted our thinking—and our curricula—to the training up of wise and discerning and theologically grounded ministers whose vocations are carried out behind pulpits and in boardrooms, homes, counseling offices, battlefields, movie theaters, refugee camps, and gymnasiums. New ministries will be developed, with new opportunities in new places, that we cannot dream of. Far from being intimidated by such challenges, Fuller Seminary loves to engage them: we changed the way education is delivered by adopting online education early on, establishing regional campuses, and boldly reconfiguring curriculum at every level.

In 2013, Fuller’s faculty did something almost unheard of in theological education. They revamped the curriculum. They did an audacious thing: they listened to our graduates. They contacted students. They interviewed alumni. They asked, “How did we serve you? And how are we serving you?” Then, they took the results, crafted a curriculum just as relevant as it is grounded, and Associate Provost for Accreditation and Educational Effectiveness Mignon Jacobs championed it through the process of accreditation with stellar success.

Our scholars have been designing an educational experience that is more than just certification or, as one person put it to me, “a pastor factory.” Such widespread changes can cause understandable apprehension that, with our redesigned curriculum, we may not be as committed to academic excellence, or we may be cutting ourselves loose from the dock of evangelicalism. On the contrary, we are committed to forming students academically, to growing and challenging their minds, and to affirming our evangelical commitments. We will continue to help one another learn from and to form respected scholars and teachers in all three of our schools. We are also committed to the formation of Christian leaders for kingdom vocations, lived out in church, culture, and society.

In addition to a reimagined curriculum—the most far-reaching change of its kind in Fuller’s history—we have instituted a paradigm shift in our approach to the way we accompany students throughout their studies with us. Having done well in the individual arenas of study and scholarship, we now perceive the need to augment that with a rigorous program of what we are calling “the four strands of vocation formation”: personal, spiritual, academic, and global. By integrating the learning experience with formation resources from the schools of psychology, intercultural studies, and theology, we will be able to offer an education unique to Fuller.

“Our excitement does not grow out of a sense that we have invented something radically new,” says new Dean of the School of Theology Joel Green. “We have been able to ask, and move forward in answering, how our basic commitments and values might better be embodied in a seminary curriculum. These include our basic commitments to serving the church as we together serve the kingdom of God, and therefore our vision of a missional church; to the importance of discipling the person in ministry; and to the reality that God is calling persons to a wonderful array of ministries.”


Branches Out into the World

We believe that Fuller should be a community of faith that stays connected to each other throughout our lifetimes. We are all part of a deeply rooted community formed to fulfill lifelong callings. As Bolsinger puts it: “from the first time they come to our website until they go to glory, our students should be part of a community focused on forming them to fulfill their calling to God’s mission in the world. From the moment we are entrusted with that formation, we are committed for their lifetimes.”

As a seminary, we have the responsibility, the opportunity, to be part of a community of faith so tightly woven that we can join students in ongoing formation throughout their lives. Students will be mentored along the course of their studies and beyond, learning the necessary skills to be theologically agile enough to live out their first calling—loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind and loving one’s neighbor as oneself—in any context that life offers.

Fuller’s “seminary for the 21st century” is unique because of the levels of diversity fostered in six decades of communal life. Three different schools, working together, have a rich history of taking seriously the entire human experience in psychology, intercultural studies, and theology. Our schools have a diverse population who come from hundreds of countries and then scatter back out after graduation all over the world. From this burgeoning culture we continually learn and grow.


Crisis and Hope

Much is different since Ockenga’s speech 67 years ago. And much remains the same. Identifying and bridging the gap between the two, for Fuller, is part of our deepest purpose. We are at the juncture of another “unparalleled educational opportunity” in the midst of 2014’s societal shifts. It is in our DNA to rise up and engage during turbulent change, as pointed out in the opening of a chapel message delivered by President Hubbard that would define Fuller for years to come:

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. . . . We were not established to fill a regional vacuum, but to meet an international need. . . . We saw ourselves as raised by God to serve a unique role in our generation.

Green clarifies that call for a new generation: “We know that the church of the mid-20th century is no longer our church to serve, that the church of the opening decades of the 21st century presents its own needs and possibilities.” Still, he says, “We also know that our feet have to remain solidly planted in the soil of classical, evangelical faith, and in our own heritage here at Fuller.”

Our times, too, require the entire community to rally in formation of Christian leaders who are faithful, innovative, courageous, collaborative, and fruitful. Thankfully, nearly 70 years after the inaugural class, we have the strength of more than 53,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, trustees, and donors in every country of the world—something else the founders might not have imagined.

We are, as always, in a season of change and stability, of hope and crisis—just the kind of atmosphere in which Fuller knows how to flourish. A quick look back on events of the last year includes an array of the mundane, the distressing, the sublime, and the hopeful, much like those that marked 1947. Notably, the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela and celebrated the installation of Pope Francis, who has captured the imagination of the world court simply by emphasizing a Christlike life.

Now there are those who exist in the world simply it seems to attack others, and to derogate others, and to drag them down, and to besmirch them. . . . We want the positive presentation of the Christian faith in a critical world.

— Harold John Ockenga, 1947

In June, it’s expected that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will cross the orbit of Neptune after traveling for eight years, just about the same time that hundreds of Fuller students will cross the stage at Lake Avenue Congregational Church for the 65th annual commencement of the seminary. As these notes are being made on Fuller’s vision for the season ahead, born quietly among us are those who will become servants of Christ as innovators, artists, political leaders, pastors, therapists, chaplains, lawyers, and financiers. Within all of these categories, and more which we can only imagine, we will welcome a new generation of Fuller students.