What happens when the culture moves in a less theocentric direction? The middle also moves with it. While William Childs Robinson may have been pugnacious in his defense of traditional Calvinism, he was right about the effects of loosening confessional subscription on the institution and the church. The story of Columbia Theological Seminary is mixed. There were many days of greatness followed by mediocrity. There were movements to improve the institution by moving in a more elite direction, but there was a loss of confessional stability.
Erskine Clarke, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 369.
Erskine Clarke, a former professor of American Religion at Columbia Theological Seminary, has written a readable and thought-provoking history of one of the preeminent seminaries of the Southern Presbyterian Church. In its 369 pages, he gives the reader a critical view of the seminary. What separates it from David Calhoun’s volume on Columbia, Our Southern Zion, is the connections with southern culture and his critical analysis of some of the theologians connected to the institution—especially over the issues of race. Also, unlike Calhoun’s volume, he goes into the history of the seminary when it moved to Atlanta. For Clarke, Columbia is a seminary that struggled financially and intellectually with its past. He traces the changes to the seminary from strict Calvinism to a seminary that is now loosely associated with the Presbyterian Church and dominated by a theology of diversity.
Clarke begins his history with the founding of the seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. While there are other histories of the institution that can give the names, dates, and synodical actions that brought the seminary into existence, Clarke goes beyond that by bringing out the influence of the plantation system and slavery in Columbia’s founding.
Ainsley-Hall, the centerpiece of the seminary, was a southern mansion whose physical characteristics pointed to an elitist institution that trained the gentlemen theologians of the south. But the institution and the building were “to help hide the harsh realities of slavery and to help legitimize the power and wealth of slave owners and the social order that kept them powerful” (p. 7). Clarke is somewhat justified in his opinion because the seminary was intertwined with the plantation system and its slaves. The seminary in its early years may have had a brilliant faculty with John Henley Thornwell, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, and John Adger, but slavery was also there. While some Columbia professors may have disliked slavery as an institution, they were still paternalistic towards African Americans. The approach of the Columbia theologians as described by Clarke, was a middle way between abolition and radical proslavery opinions which was dehumanizing. But the middle way would be abandoned during the Civil War for an extreme position.
With the advent of the Civil War and reconstruction, the seminary suffered through poverty and destruction with the dismantling of the plantation system. As a way to survive the war intellectually, John Girardeau and other faculty created a milieu in which they maintained southern culture and used language to preserve the “lost cause.” Clarke sees this era as one of not only economic but also intellectual impoverishment. He notes that John Girardeau’s theology represented a “theological shift.” “Girardeau’s scholasticism represented a narrowing of the spirit that animated the seminary and that he shaped the tone of what was taught and learned on the seminary campus” (p. 111). He contrasts Girardeau to Adger, who followed the sacramental mystery of Calvin.
Another event was the James Woodrow affair which was a retreat from openness to science. Woodrow was called to the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation which was established in 1859. The scientifically trained Woodrow was to show that there were no conflicts between biblical revelation and science. Woodrow was a proponent of evolution and “insisted science was neither religious nor irreligious…” (p. 119). But for R. L. Dabney and other southern theologians, the ramifications were an assault of modernism. Clarke believes that the real issue was that Woodrow called into question not only the received orthodoxy, but also “Their self-understanding as white Southern Presbyterian” (p. 123). It was a further narrowing of the intellect.
The fortunes of the seminary changed in the twentieth century with the re-emergence of the south’s economy. The seminary moved from Columbia to Atlanta in 1927 and with significant changes. The architecture changed from a southern mansion in Columbia which was its main building to architecture that was reminiscent of Cambridge and Oxford. The physical plant resembled a college which gave the tincture of elite academics. Under the long serving president McDowell Richards, there was a move towards academic professionalization and a broader perspective as new faculty was hired. Eventually, Columbia turned to Neo-Orthodoxy, feminism, and diversity. The seminary that once saw itself in service to the Southern Presbyterian Church loosened its ties to Presbyterianism and in 2012 its revised mission statement said that “Columbia Theological Seminary exists to educate and nurture the faithful, imaginative, and effective leaders for the sake of the Church and the world” (pg. 285). Clarke sees Columbia now as “post-denominational” (p. 285).
Conservatives during this period are not portrayed positively. William Childs Robinson is portrayed as arrogant and overly zealous in his defense of traditional doctrine. George Manford Gutzke comes off as an academic lightweight. As the 1960s approached with the problems of segregation, conservative students were seen as intolerant when it came to the issue of race and theological liberalism. Some of those students included the founders of the P.C.A., such as Morton Smith and Kennedy Smartt. In the epilogue to his volume, Clark asks the question whether Columbia is trying to rid itself of its tradition which was heavily influenced by antebellum southern culture only to be replaced by a cosmopolitan culture (pp. 291-292).
This book should encourage readers to ponder Erskine Clarke’s work due to his investigation of the influence of culture on seminary education. As one reads about the impact of slavery and racism, one cannot help but mourn. And while one may focus on the glories of the southern presbyterian tradition, one may want to also groan over its shortcoming.
Yet, while conservatives have their own sins to bear, progressives also have much to ponder. The loss of confessional fidelity has led the seminary away from it primary mission of not just equipping ministers for the Presbyterian church, but also its own unique Christian witness. Besides vocational training, Columbia’s modern ethos makes it more like a modern university. One set of cultural values has been exchanged for another.
There are issues that some readers will take issue with this volume. Clarke comes close to stating that the adoption of Old School Calvinism contributed to the establishment of slavery. He writes that the “theological traditions taught at Columbia offered students and their parishioners’ explanations of the incongruent and contradictory character of life in a slave society and provided ethical standards for living in such a world” (p. 25). To some extent this may be true, but it also needs to be kept in mind that there have been a variety of responses to slavey amongst the proponents of Old School Theology even during the Civil War period.
While this volume gives some idea of the changes that occurred theologically at Columbia, it makes the reader ponder how the seminary wandered so far from its past. Perhaps part of the reason is that Columbia, according to the author, tried to forge a “middle way” between extremes. During the Civil War, they didn’t follow that mindset. With the recovery of the south after the war, that genteel mindset may be a significant reason for the change. What happens when the culture moves in a less theocentric direction? The middle also moves with it. While William Childs Robinson may have been pugnacious in his defense of traditional Calvinism, he was right about the effects of loosening confessional subscription on the institution and the church.
The story of Columbia Theological Seminary is mixed. There were many days of greatness followed by mediocrity. There were movements to improve the institution by moving in a more elite direction, but there was a loss of confessional stability.
Dr. Jerry Robbins is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Warrington PCA in Pensacola, Fla.