Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Former President of ACU on The Baptist Studies Center


It's been a curiosity of mine this summer how Church of Christ people would respond to the news that Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology will be opening a Baptist Studies Center. Given the history of dispute between the two groups, particularly regarding the meaning of baptism, I expected at least a few fireworks. If there's been any of that so far I have missed it, but finally someone with a connection to ACU has spoken on the matter. Royce Money was the president of ACU from 1991 to 2010, and he wrote a piece recently for The Christian Chronicle that, for me, sheds a little light on the topic. The relationship between Hardin-Simmons University, where Logsdon Seminary was located, and ACU over the decades has seemingly been fairly positive, as he tells it. I'll leave that to you to read yourself. the two parts I liked the most follow here.

We started receiving inquiries from Logsdon students about transferring to ACU’s Master of Divinity program, one of six master’s and doctoral degrees we offer. Since we require no specific creedal belief before admission, we told the students they were welcome. We are able to do certain things on the graduate level with mature, independent-thinking students that we would never do with our undergraduates. Theological education on the graduate level relies heavily on that assumption.

Being the closest alternative geographically, ACU GST was a natural first option for Logsdon seminarians looking to finish their degrees. Both ACU GST and Logsdon were ATS accredited, which hopefully makes matters much easier. Instead of simply accomodated the displaced students, the administration of the school has taken the unprecedented step of organizing a two-course program with its own office and professor in order to welcome in new people to study for Baptist ministry. This must have required some policy change, as I assume that ACU only hires members in good standing of Church of Christ congregations (this may not be true of all non-theological courses; I simply don't know). 

Anyone unfamiliar with the Church of Christ would know that this is kind of a big deal. Rather than simply welcoming Baptist students to courses as they are, they are making room for Baptist-specific instruction to take place. Baptist theology, polity, and history will be in the mix, being taught within the walls of a Church of Christ university.

The line I especially liked here was 'we require no specific creedal belief before admission.' True to its heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement, truer than perhaps most Church of Christ congregations as well, ACU does not require assent to any creed in order to study there. A couple of years ago I was looking for options for Greek and Hebrew courses that I could transfer to another school, and Alliance Theological Seminary came up. There's a 'campus' (leased offices and classroom space) lower Manhattan, and I've been there a couple of times in years past for special events. When I began the application process, though, I discovered that I had to submit a testimony of my conversion to Christianity. As a post-theistic Unitarian Universalist I could go no further. When I received a follow-up email urging me to apply, I responded with this:

The other day someone from ATS called to see if I'd like to pursue my interest in taking some Greek courses at ATS. On further review, I see that only evangelicals appear to be admitted, and I'm a Unitarian Universalist. 

This being the case, it's probably best that I be removed from your list, as I'm not eligible to attend.

That elicited no reply from Alliance, and the matter was closed. It was about two years before it dawned on me to check out Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology, and not only was there no creedal test, the Master of Divinity program was an exact match for what I'd been seeking. I've since been accepted for Spring 2021, and have also learned that students of other denominations study there as well. Aside from Baptists, I've learned there have been students from the Episcopal Church, independent Christian Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and various non-denominational churches, and likely others. In fact, ACU GST recently tweeted a link to a sermon by a graduate who is now a rector at an Episcopal parish. Again, only if you're familiar with the Church of Christ will you understand why this is significant. 

One more part of Royce Money's article that I liked:

The reasoning of ACU’s leaders led them to conclude, “Why would we not seize this opportunity? We should be flattered our Baptist friends in West Texas think highly enough of ACU to give us this opportunity to educate their young ministers.” This in no way signals a drift or departure from ACU’s historic role in higher education among Churches of Christ. On the contrary, if students from other Christian traditions can benefit from our offerings, all the better.

From what I've gathered from people who have attended ACU GST or otherwise are 'in the know,' the program is still very much offered from a Church of Christ perspective. While the professors don't make uniformity of belief or conformity to certain practices, and do encourage students to practice good scholarship, the angle is still that of the Church of Christ. That seems entirely reasonable to me. If I were to go to a Baptist seminary I would expect that religious tradition to be in evidence. Unlike Alliance Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, ACU GST welcomes those who qualify academically and otherwise without respect to creed. 

I am truly looking forward to seeing what it will be like to study through ACU, and hope that the good things I'm hearing all prove to work out in practice. I'm sure there will be bumps along the way, but that would be the case anywhere I might go, including Unitarian Universalist schools of theology. It's good to know at least that I'm welcome. 

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