George M. Marsden: A vision to serve the kingdom

An eminent theologian, educator and author discusses the impulse that inspires vibrant institutions.


George Marsden finds parallels between the vibrancy of modern-day Fuller Theological Seminary and the impact of Jonathan Edwards on 18th-century American religion. Both, he says, were driven by evangelical zeal and grounded in intellectual gravitas. Each cultivated a vision of Christian principles infusing individual as well as institutional lives.

Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame. From 1965 to 1986 he taught at Calvin College. He taught at Duke University from 1986 to 1992 and at Notre Dame from 1992 to 2008. His book “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” received the 2004 Bancroft Prize from Columbia University.

Marsden spoke with Faith & Leadership about institutions, including Fuller Theological Seminary, and about Jonathan Edwards. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: In writing your book on Fuller Seminary, what did you learn about creating a vibrant institution?

Fuller became what it is because its founders had a grand vision. Harold Ockenga became the first president about 1947, when fundamentalism was still very much on the margins of American culture. Most people had written it off, but he’s asking, Can fundamentalists win America? and talking about how Fuller is going to be a great intellectual center. That grand vision helped to bring in some remarkable early faculty and restore some intellectual seriousness to the popular side of evangelicalism. It helped that the people who founded Fuller were also friends with Billy Graham. Very soon after that, Billy Graham emerged as this great national leader, so they were combining intellectual emphasis with practical evangelism.

Q: Fuller’s founders had very different kinds of skill sets. Ockenga was a pastor and Graham an evangelist. Others raised the money, and others hired the faculty.

Fuller illustrates a common phenomenon in American evangelicalism: many of the great fundamentalist evangelical institutions throughout American history have been centered on a leading evangelist. As in the case of Charles Fuller, when they get into their later years, they begin to wonder, Well, what’s going to happen once I go? And then they found an institution.

In Charles Fuller’s case, the founding of the institution was influenced by the fact that he had a son who wanted to be an evangelist, but he was really an intellectual. He was a scholar and had been studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Fuller had his own sources of income supporting the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” and that provided a base for the support of the institution. Ockenga had connections with quite a few well-to-do businesspeople who supported these kinds of institutions.

Q: Early in your career, you, Nick Wolterstorff and Rich Mouw worked together at Calvin. Each of you went on to contribute at other institutions. Could you speak about that formative time?

Calvin was and is a wonderful place that developed out of the Dutch Reformed tradition, a tradition of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands that was conservative theologically and evangelical in principle, and also had a strong emphasis on intellect and cultural transformation. Most of Calvin’s faculty was Christian Reformed, like Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. Rich Mouw grew up in the RCA Church. I came from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, so there were a few of us coming from the outside, but that was unusual.

When I got out of graduate school in the mid-’60s, Calvin was the place I wanted to go because, of all the evangelical Reformed institutions, it was clearly the place where there was a strong intellectual community already. There was a good interdisciplinary interchange going on all the time that we were there. It was a unique moment.

Q: Why are Christian institutions important for the sake of diversity of higher education in general?

It was true in the mid-20th century that a lot of institutions that had been Christian were moving away from being Christian -- in higher educational institutions. In the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a reversal of that, where schools that had been fairly marginal in American higher education have developed into being excellent academic institutions, and are really thriving. And they are recruiting wonderful faculties, because there are all sorts of serious evangelical scholars out there now who want jobs at these institutions. So these institutions are becoming very strong, and that provides a kind of diversity in America in that educational institutions can span the spectrum from very conservative religiously to very secular.

And these schools now have made the more conservative part of the spectrum academically competitive, and they’re also sending lots of people into the academic mainstream. So I think there’s really been a remarkable sort of renaissance of those kinds of institutions and interests.

Q: You’ve also written a book on Jonathan Edwards. What was it in Edwards’ intellectual tradition that allowed him to do so many different things well, including being a pastor, an educator, a missionary and a theologian?

Edwards is working in a tradition of strong community, an intellectual community, a theological community, and he is refining that tradition, using it to respond to the challenges of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. First of all, you find that people like that are driven spiritually. Someone very different in that same era, George Whitfield, did not sit at home and did not write a lot of treatises but traveled all over the world. Both Edwards and Whitfield were driven by an intense piety.

In that time an intellectual could be an expert in all sorts of fields; they didn’t have the separation of disciplines. Edwards could be a leading philosopher, a leading theologian, a leading evangelist, a leading preacher, missionary to the Indians and so forth. He had a very strong sense of calling. All the leaders I mentioned had a strong sense of being called to a wider cause, and playing a role in a much larger thing that God is doing.

Q: At one time there was a sweeping movement among Protestants in this country to found colleges with the twin goals of educating and evangelizing. Where did that tradition go, and can you get it back?

That founding impulse is driven by the combination of the evangelical impulse and the idea that there has to be a strong intellectual support; activism is tied to intellectual emphases. Fuller Seminary would be an example. Whatever lack there has been has to do with American culture -- in American religious life, people want to get quick results. Building institutions for the long run isn’t all that flashy an accomplishment. Intellectual things often have a long and rather subtle payoff. Intellectual life complicates things by its very nature, and so it’s harder to sell to people who are contributors. They like something that has a dramatic payoff.

If you look at the health and vitality of American Christianity, you can see that the people who built these institutions for the long run had a huge impact. Timothy Dwight at Yale in the early 1800s was building an institution that was both a leading intellectual institution and a mission. As late as the eve of World War I, Yale was still sending missionaries around the world that were extremely talented and that provided first-rate leadership.

Q: It seems that institutions driven by an explicit confessional Christian commitment provide reasons for being that are stronger than simply training people to make money.

That’s certainly true. A few years ago the retiring academic dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis, wrote a book called “Excellence Without a Soul,” talking about why he saw Harvard education as becoming empty, because it’s too much driven by immediate vocational interests, and competing interests and vocational interests of faculty; no one is thinking about holistic education.

Whereas higher education in the more evangelical frame has been driven by a vision of Christians as having a cultural task as well as evangelistic tasks, the idea that there should be an infusion of Christian principles throughout everything people do in their lives. It provides a coherence that a lot of people are seeing as lacking in the educational mainstream.

That has something to do with these schools doing relatively well with respect to growth in the last 15 years or so. Even though it costs a lot to send people to those institutions, parents and students recognize you’re getting the kind of education that people have traditionally imagined college should be about, that has some direction to it, some coherence to it. It’s not just a cafeteria of odd things that you might be interested in studying.

Q: Is it possible to attune the affections properly toward God on your own, or do you wait for God to attune your affections?

For Edwards, you have to wait, and hope, and pray and be open. As the Puritans emphasized, you have to be properly prepared. You have to put yourself in a position where you’re open to God’s grace; then it’s God’s work that will open your eyes to see, your ears to hear the beauty of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

The work of the Holy Spirit opens people’s eyes to that beauty. They see what Christ has done and then they are enthralled by it and captivated by it. It’s their action, but it’s really dependent on the work of the Spirit in opening their eyes, and then their hearts are transformed. It’s essentially the work of God, but your response is genuinely your response.

Q: You spoke earlier about the grandiose vision of the people that founded Fuller. Would it be right to say, in this context, that if you don’t have that vision placed in your heart by the Spirit, you don’t accomplish as much?

Absolutely. That is the driving factor. There are people who are driven by wanting to make money and so forth, but people who do things that are for larger service are driven by a larger spiritual vision.

Q: Edwards made a practice of keeping a journal with evidence of God that he saw in nature. Is there a correlation between his practice and the ways we can be alert to God’s working in the world today?

Yes. We all need to cultivate a sensibility to seeing God in whatever we’re seeing. We’re so much surrounded by technology and a kind of impersonal universe, it’s important just to have our eyes open to say that’s a wonderful expression of what God is doing, either in nature or in personal relations, and then having a spiritual dimension of your life that you add on to your practical everyday types of things.

Q: A theater in which God might appear.

Absolutely, that you’re open to that and you’re consciously cultivating that. Edwards, of course, lived much closer to nature than most of us do. But we often go out in the fields and just contemplate, to be reminded of not just the beauty of nature but the beauty of nature as it points to the beauty of God’s love, and particularly as revealed in the highest sort of love, which is the sacrificial love of Christ for people who are undeserving.

Q: You talk about Edwards’ work as pushing back against a mechanistic and impersonal view of the universe. Is there any parallel between the mechanistic way that we now view nature and this mechanistic and impersonal way we view institutions?

One can often get so preoccupied with understanding the techniques that are necessary to make things work efficiently or maximize profit that you can lose sight of a larger vision. Edwards provides a spiritual discipline for trying to develop another sensibility -- that whatever one is doing, there is an infusion of the [desire] to serve the kingdom in some larger way. People that have that vision are often the most effective leaders.