Jason Byassee: Cells in the body of Christ

The inauguration of a new president of Wheaton College reminds us of the inauguration of Christ’s reign, on which the school was founded.

Wheaton College is the rare case of a school founded by zealous evangelicals that can still claim the ideals of its founders without embarrassment. Jonathan Blanchard was an abolitionist preacher, an end-times visionary and an institution-building educator. He founded Wheaton, he said, because the Lord “had need” of it, “to aid in preparing the way for His coming.” Wheaton would be part of the education and evangelization of not only what was then (in 1860) “the west,” but via the international hub of Chicago, the entire world. And then Christ would come back and inaugurate the kingdom. In the meantime, the college was a stop on the underground railroad. Radical politics wed to eschatological zeal -- may Blanchard’s tribe increase.

There was another sort of inauguration recently, this one of the eighth president of Wheaton. This “Harvard of the evangelicals” is now a 3000-student, Christian liberal-arts college with fantastic departments of English, philosophy and political science, among others, and boasts a gleaming new science building. Its department of Bible and theology is fast becoming one of the best places in this country to study the “queen of the sciences.” The place has a decidedly conservative bent -- pity the Bible scholar of the last quarter century with designs on a Wheaton job who wanted to stand up for historical criticism or was unsure about a “literal” Adam and Eve. Yet it’s a thriving institution in the best sense. Wheaton’s difference from other places makes it a crucial contributor to the ecology of both faith and learning.

Newly-minted president Philip Ryken was almost ancillary to the inauguration’s proceedings. Scholars from several hundred schools processed in academic regalia. I sat next to alums from Holy Cross and of the quite-different Wheaton College in Massachusetts (subject of this hilarious conversation on Jimmy Fallon). Noticing the representative from Butler, I wondered if I should challenge him to a game of rock, paper, scissors. Evangelical schools and seminaries, more in Wheaton’s institutional orbit, sent their brass. There were enough presidential medallions to challenge the bling in the average rap video.

Why all the colorful gowns? Like most academic events, this inauguration continues medieval traditions of Christendom. In that day, newly installed leaders of academic institutions would be visited by other leaders -- bishops and deans -- as a sign that what would be taught there was the faith of the one Catholic Church. A school was a cell in the larger body of Christ, not inventing its own knowledge or packaging it for sale but passing on the faith once delivered to the saints, and occasionally breaking new ground in scholarly endeavors.

There were two moments in the inauguration that moved me. One was a blessing and prayer sent from Wheaton’s most famous and influential alumnus: Billy Graham. A representative read a note from Graham expressing his wish that he could have visited his alma mater one last time. Graham wrote of his affection for the institution before praying God’s blessing on Ryken and Wheaton. It was like hearing a missive from Augustine or Wesley, only the man yet lives and prays for the school he loves (perhaps -- forgive me evangelicals -- Augustine and Wesley too still live and pray for Wheaton!).

 The other was the charge from the now-former president, Duane Litfin, to his successor Ryken. Litfin’s reputation is not that of a sunny executive. The president of Wheaton will always be to the right of its faculty and to the left of its donor base. One might have expected Litfin to charge his successor to be on guard against the acids of liberalism.

Instead, Litfin charged Ryken to see his presidency as a labor of love. Then he read 1 Corinthians 13. I had never noticed how perfectly “the love chapter,” normally intoned in clichéd ways at weddings, could work in an academic context: “Love . . . does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (13:4-6). What more perfect word could there be from and to an academic community?

Visiting Wheaton as a representative of Duke -- as one cell of the body of Christ recognizing another -- I saw anew the need for events like these, with all their pageantry and pretense. They can bring out the best in us, from one president to another, one school to another, one thriving institution to another, from the dead to the living to generations yet unborn. God bless Wheaton, and so, all of us.