The Future of Harvard Divinity School

“Christian unity has become essential to withstand the assaults of irreligious agnosticism, materialism, and infidelity. … A service of this kind could be rendered to the Christianity of the future only by the theological and ecclesiastical department of a great non-sectarian and undogmatic university.”

The president of Harvard University is attempting to bring about something like a transformation of the Divinity School of that institution, upon principles whose enunciation has provoked no little discussion. For the most part, this discussion has been unsympathetic, whether on the ground that those principles are not reducible to practice, or on that of the objectionable character of the results, if they should be so reduced. Even when the president’s scheme has been favored, it has often been on grounds which have only more seriously compromised it in the eyes of those who thus questioned the value of the results proposed.

But it is submitted that there is a point of view from which the proposed plan of transformation would appear not only a logical development of the past history of this school, but also a profoundly philosophic interpretation of the obligations of such an institution as Harvard University to the present and the coming age.

The authorities of the university have, for a half century or more, insisted upon the unsectarian and undogmatic character of its Divinity School, and have therefore been unwilling to have the name of any one sect or denomination attached to it. It is frankly admitted, however, that it has been, none the less, to all practical intents and purposes, Unitarian. In a controversial and most dogmatic age, it has been a distinctive characteristic of this one body of Christians that, unlike all others, it held dogmatic differences to be of very subordinate importance. There has been but this one denomination which would not strongly repudiate any undogmatic or “unsectarian” ministerial training: all other theological or even ecclesiological education has been, as it is still, based upon the acceptance of certain dogmatic and ecclesiastical premises, the polemic defense of which was a dominant motive in such education. In such an age, under such conditions, to attempt to stand apart from the dogmatic struggle in which all denominations of Christians—save only one—were earnestly engaged, and especially to attempt to educate ministers upon the principles of such doctrinal neutrality, was of necessity, in the eyes of all such denominations, to accept practical identification with that one.

From this identification, the other, and notably the college interests of the university have undoubtedly suffered: and for this reason the president and fellows twice—in 1855 and in 1858—sought to disembarrass the university of trusts which so seriously involved it. Both efforts were unsuccessful; and it therefore remained only to discover some way of relieving the Divinity School of its practically Unitarian character, — some principles upon which these trusts could be so administered that, instead of being a source of weakness, they might become a source of new strength.

Although the college was itself—quoting from the president’s report—“originally established largely for the sake of training ministers,” the Divinity School has “for sixty years represented and maintained” the principle that “the various philosophical theories and religious beliefs should be studied before, and not after, any of them are embraced.” As a matter of fact, however, to whatever extent these various theories and beliefs are made the subject of private investigation before any one system of belief or of ecclesiastical fellowship is accepted, rather than others, the question of theological and ecclesiastical affiliation is almost invariably determined prior to any serious purpose of studying for the ministry. A divinity school, therefore, conducted on the principle thus above laid down, would naturally be found, as it has been found in the present case, “practically unserviceable to the vast majority of young men who prepare for the ministry;” to all, in fact, but those already virtually identified with the one undogmatic denomination above referred to.

As a school for training ministers, then, it has been impossible to divest this Divinity School of a practically sectarian character: if, therefore, it is to be resolutely relieved, in the interests of the college, of such a character, it would seem that it must cease to be, save perhaps incidentally, a divinity school at all. Are there any other theological or ecclesiological functions which such a department of the university can consistently undertake to discharge, upon the principles thus maintained for the last sixty years?

During this period the state of the religious world has been singularly unfavorable, even antagonistic, not merely to training ministers, but to the attempt to enter upon any other strictly theological or ecclesiastical work, upon these principles. There has been no sphere in which these principles could unite Unitarian and Puritan, Methodist and Presbyterian, Baptist and Churchman. There has been no common ground upon which thoroughly representative members of any two of these systems could meet as such. So long as each conscientiously claimed to exhaust the field of legitimate theological teaching or of ecclesiastical training, so long the distinctive principles of each were naturally held to be inconsistent with, if not the absolute negation of, those of every other.

During the latter part of this period, there has indeed been far more of personal commingling and individual religions co-working between those whose ecclesiastical affiliations and theological convictions remained as antagonistic as ever. This has no doubt done much to relieve the different Christian bodies of the personal feeling which once too generally characterized their relations, and so to prepare for a future thus dimly foreshadowed: but the real conditions were not yet changed, since such persons met and coöperated not as representatives, but as those who, for the time being, ignored these controversies.

But in the more irenic era which is now apparently coming to divided and distracted Christendom, while these dogmatic and ecclesiastical differences—antagonisms, even—still exist, yet, nevertheless, the explorers of Christian thought have reached at last a loftier plateau region, accessible from every side, in whose pure, bracing air all such differences can be compared, discussed, no longer in the struggle for victory, but now in the far nobler search for truth, by whomsoever it may be held, wheresoever it may even yet be hid.

Upon this elevated ground, and upon this alone, it is now possible to conduct a scientific and comprehensive study of the theological and ecclesiastical problems of the age. It is to this lofty region that the president of Harvard University wishes, as it would seem, to raise that Divinity School, which on the plains below has failed, and must inevitably fail, of such larger purposes, and which, as a training school for ministers, has only embarrassed the university by the practically denominational character which circumstances have so unavoidably forced upon it. Such a scheme would involve the transformation of Harvard Divinity School into something of much greater importance, of larger and more far-reaching scope than have heretofore been so much as aimed at.

Let the consideration of such a purpose be approached from another direction.

No church, ecclesiastical organization, or sect exists, or can exist, — far less discharge the functions of a Christian church, — on the basis of an unbiased, judicial search for yet undetermined theological or ecclesiastical truth. The pulpit is not available for academic purposes. Every distinct ecclesiastical organization must logically assume that such an investigation is either unnecessary, or that it has been concluded; and that it is upon results no longer admitted to be questionable that its distinctive existence is based. The preacher and the catechist have no reason for being but the conviction that the principles which they seek to inculcate, the dogmas which they teach, the ecclesiastical systems which they defend, have already been surely ascertained to be true.

Whatever attitude any individual theologian or ecclesiastic may personally take toward such questions, in his character of student, the theological seminary or divinity school of any given church or sect must therefore, as such, take its stand upon the principles and dogmas, the convictions and even the traditions, of that body as conclusions already reached, which it is the object of that school to qualify its alumni to preach, to disseminate, and to defend. There is no logical room for even a reformer within any such body, save on the theory that such body has, in practice, departed from its own principles, to which he seeks to bring about a return. From this necessity of its character no such denominational seminary can release itself; not even the Divinity School of Harvard University, considered as practically Unitarian. In so far as even a negative denominationalism has been impressed upon it, it must be held to assume the negation of very much that other denominations hold as essential truth and divine ordering.

If, then, the Harvard Divinity School has been heretofore, in despite of its own principles, necessarily Unitarian, in consequence of its implied negation of dogmatic principles held by all other Christian systems, so also the theological seminaries of those other systems are equally confined, by the conditions of their several purposes as such, to the direct assertion and inculcation of principles and doctrines already accepted as established.

But whatever the principles upon which theological seminaries must, as schools, be conducted, the day is now past when the enlightened Christian scholar and thinker—however strong he may he in his theological convictions and staunch in his ecclesiastical loyalty—can affect to regard his own church or system as actually in exclusive possession of the whole field of Christian teaching or of Christian influence, or claim that it is such a realized ideal of Christian belief and practice that there is no room left for any other. Indeed, the very fact that there are actually other organizations of Christian teachers and workers fulfilling important religious and ecclesiastical functions which would otherwise go undischarged, accomplishing results which would otherwise he lost to the world, would place every Christian man, however strongly partisan, in this dilemma: —

Either (1) the actual life and teaching of his own ecclesiastical system falls short of its principles;

Or (2) those principles are themselves partial and defective.

Either of these alternatives is, in the case of any given denomination, speculatively possible; one or the other is certainly true of every Christian organization in the land.

In view of the possibility of the first, the conditions of all earnest religious life require of each such denomination severally, and more especially of its philosophic thinkers, the creation of an ecclesiastical philosophy of its own distinctive belief and life, — the development of an ecclesiastical statesmanship of its own distinctive polity. This is what each such church or system has a right, therefore, to expect of its own theological seminaries.

But there is another, and in some respects an even greater, need, in view of the fact that the second alternative is certainly true in most cases; and possibly true of any, and therefore of every, one.

The present state of religious thought not only admits, but requires, a theological philosophy which study and combine in their scientific relations to each other all the various doctrinal systems of American Protestantism, to say the least. The state of ecclesiastical controversy, the new problems which the present age seems called upon to solve, demand the creation of a comprehensive and exhaustive ecclesiology, which shall take account of all the various types of American Christianity, the ebb or flow of each distinct form of organic religious life and energy, the mutual actions and reactions of divided Christianity; which shall eliminate from their several experiences the lessons taught, the results attained, by each; and which shall thus work out, academically, the principles of those great ecclesiastical movements and convergences that the concourse of Christian churches and sects, considered in the aggregate, are working out empirically, on the broad field of practical religious life and action.

Surveying the great ethnographical divisions of Christendom, such a philosophy would note that Christianity is by some races regarded as primarily a system of doctrine addressing itself chiefly to the intellect, and interesting itself principally in the inquiry concerning the truth or falsehood of the various doctrines which claim to be divine. It would note that by others Christianity is accepted, primarily, as embodied in an institution, instinctively raising, above all others, the question, “Where and what is the church of Christ?” Yet again, it would note that others conceive of Christianity rather as a spiritual power, working in the heart and thus moulding the life of man; and to these the only essential search is for those influences which shall most efficaciously awaken the affections and draw them Christward.

An exhaustive ecclesiology should therefore be œcumenical, examining and seeking to interpret the mutual relations, influences, and combined results of these seemingly inconsistent, but perhaps only complementary, ethnographical types of Christianity. Thus only could it turn back and fully interpret the interrelations of the dogmatic, the institutional, and the spiritual in the conflicts and coöperations of American Christianity.

To make this argument clearer, an analogical illustration may be reverently drawn from the relations of an ideal statesmanship to secular politics.

The great mass of those who interest themselves in public affairs are divided into at least two great parties, — the one conservative and the other progressive. The mere politician and the body of the adherents of either party hold, and perhaps really believe, that the well-being, if not the very life, of the country depends only upon its conservatism or only upon its progressive spirit, as the case may be. The true statesman, with whichever party he may associate himself, whether he be personally a conservative or a liberal, knows perfectly well that the maintenance of the national life depends upon the existence, and the well-being of the country upon the balance and virtual coöperation, of both parties; and that any serious impediment thrown in the way of the influence or activities of either would be gravely harmful to the public welfare.

Should the conditions of any given epoch develop special interests or reveal special needs, of which both the great parties remained unmindful, there would inevitably arise a third party to advocate them. Should such interests or needs be local as well as peculiar to the times, such new party would also be local. In either case, the mere local politician, careless of the great principles of the old parties, would be apt to act as though the whole success of government depended upon the one temporary or local truth or principle of which he was the representative. The statesman would recognize in the existence of such a supplemental party the sufficient evidence that there were interests, for the time being, at all events, or in certain localities, of more importance than usual, of which the great parties of the land were unmindful or neglectful; and this once recognized, a true statesmanship would so provide for those temporary or local interests that such minor party would be absorbed in that which thus provided for it, and become to it a new element of strength.

So, an exhaustive ecclesiastical philosophy would teach us all that there are divisions and antagonisms in Christendom only because of the past or present lack of religious statesmanship; and that the new sects which arise at any given period, or in any given country or community, are the temporary or the local consequence of this lack of statesmanship on one side, and of the presence of earnest though possibly one-sided religious leaders on the other.

In easy, prosperous times, — to return to the illustration, — when a nation can support a considerable waste of its resources and energies, the divisions and even the bitter strife of such parties can go on with comparative safety. But in a period of invasion, or of any great national peril, there are times when the harmonious coöperation, if not the practical consolidation, of all parties, large and small, is the condition of the nation’s life.

In such an emergency, who are they who would he brought together to discover a modus coöperandi, to evolve from all such party principles a great and comprehensive national policy ? Obviously, neither the narrow-minded partisans, who remain persuaded that all political wisdom is to be sought among their own following, nor, on the other hand, those who are the mere accidental associates of their respective parties, and who are therefore in no sense representative men. The true statesman can never be a mere party politician; but as little can he be without strong and clearly defined convictions on the questions which divide parties; and it is from the consultations of statesmen only that the nation can hope for such honest and stable political unity as she needs.

So the ecclesiastical statesman can never be a mere bigot or sectarian controversialist; but as little can he be found among those who hold that the questions which divide the churches and sects of Christendom are matters of indifference. It is therefore to neither of these that believers must look for statesman-like counsels, in a day when Christian unity has become essential to withstand the assaults of irreligious agnosticism, materialism, and infidelity.

The conditions of no denominational theological seminary permit it to accomplish such a work. Nor could it be undertaken by any concourse of those who are not personally in full sympathy and thoroughly representative of their several systems of theology and their respective forms of ecclesiastical organic life. A service of this kind could be rendered to the Christianity of the future only by the theological and ecclesiastical department of a great non-sectarian and undogmatic university, such as Harvard claims to be, or such an institution, perhaps, as the Johns Hopkins University; because such an institution could alone call to her aid and command the united services of great scholars, profound thinkers, and, at the same time, loyally representative members of widely differing forms of American Christianity.

Such a theological and ecclesiological academy would not be a divinity school, in the sense of a place of training for any one type of Christian minister. It would offer to divinity students of any and every name opportunities for pursuing special branches of instruction; and even those engaged in the Christian ministry itself would not infrequently pause, or turn aside temporarily from active work, to avail themselves of one or another special course. But its noblest function would be that it would bring and maintain together a body of Christian thinkers, philosophers, and ecclesiastical statesmen, whose combined labors would give to the Christian world results which, in our land at all events, could probably no otherwise be attained.

It is to be hoped, it is believed, that something like this is the purpose of the president of Harvard University; that, sooner or later, some such scheme will be carried out by the corporation, and Harvard Divinity School be eventually transformed into an American Academy of Ecclesiology and Theological Philosophy.

But if it be still premature to propose such an academy, is it premature to hope that at Cambridge, or Baltimore, or elsewhere, some institution may be found ready to take at least a first step in a direction so important to the religious world? Some university—for this is more distinctively university than college work—which aims at retaining a positively Christian, while it avoids a specifically denominational character, — some such university there surely ought to be, ready to establish, on the common frontiers of Christianity, philosophy, and history, at least a pioneer chair for the scientific study of comparative ecclesiology, and for the preparation of a grammar, or certainly a primer, of Christian irenics.