Review: An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism — by John D. Hannah

John Hannah presents the story of Dallas Theological Seminary in the way that only a seasoned insider can–with critical appreciation and historical perspective. It could be said that the history of DTS is the history of dispensationalism, but Hannah resists the reduction of her identity to just one aspect, its hallmark importance notwithstanding. Hannah’s choice to use the six presidents of DTS as the main storyline befits the idiosyncratic identity of the school; for, according to Hannah, DTS is neither fundamentalist, Protestant mainline, nor neo-evangelical. Rather, she is an outgrowth of the independent Bible conference movement, and she remains in a theological stance all her own.

Based on his research of personal correspondence from the school’s presidents, institutional documents, board meeting minutes, and biographical materials, Hannah presents compelling evidence for his analysis. Therefore, if you are looking for an institutional history of DTS, then this well-written and well-researched work by one of the seminary’s own distinguished faculty members is an indispensable resource. We can hope that more seminaries will follow Hannah’s example in providing honest, frank, and open critical assessments of their own stories.

Ch. 1: The World Begins to Spin

The purpose of this chapter is to set the theological context within which DTS was founded. Hannah paints a dizzying vortex of vast theological changes relating to vast sociological and scientific changes in the late 19th and early 20th century. He argues that the shift from pre-modern to modern science and philosophy gives birth to Christian liberalism and its antithesis, fundamentalism.

Noting the notoriously difficulty in determining a historically accurate and satisfying definition of “fundamentalism,” Hannah provides a brief and nuanced history of the interpretation of this movement. He relies upon George Marsden’s predominant view that fundamentalism is basically a loose religious movement bound together by one thing–opposition to liberalism (pp. 43-44).

As fundamentalism took its ecclesiastically independent course it needed an institution to perpetuate its novel ideas, “most particularly certain emphases that were not part of traditional orthodox standards” (p. 39). Such emphases included premillennialism, pretribulationalism, and dispensationalism via the influences of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible (p. 42). The dizzying vortex of fundamentalism, therefore, is the background which Hannah paints before placing the seminary’s presidents in the foreground.

Hannah well accomplishes his purpose in this chapter. His aversion to historical reduction is appreciated as is his frank admission of the major early theological influences upon DTS. Nevertheless, a few points could have been sharper:

  1. First, Hannah interprets J. Gresham Machen as a leader of the fundamentalist movement (pp. 36-37). However, more nuance is needed here; for, judging by Hannah’s own criteria (e.g., the three novel emphases of fundamentalism noted above), Machen opposed the fundamentalist impulse away from historic Protestant orthodoxy toward premillennialism, pretribulationalism, and dispensationailsm. He refused to call himself a fundamentalist. (See, e.g., Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004), 288-92; cf. Charles G. Dennison, History for a Pilgrim People: The Historical Writings of Charles G. Dennison, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2002). More nuance is needed here in order to understand the limited sense in which Machen can be called a fundamentalist, if at all.
  2. Second, Hannah’s purported presentation of the Princeton view of inerrancy (p. 42) is truncated and trite, as if inerrancy hides behind the smoke and mirrors of a mystical autographa.
  3. Third, the bit of Hannah’s conclusions regarding the striking similarities between the fates of fundamentalism and liberalism (p. 45), whether true or not, are not well supported in the chapter. I agree with the basic conclusion regarding a tight relationship between fundamentalism and liberalism, but it documentation is needed, especially regarding the alleged fates of both movements, in order to prove a symbiotic relationship truly exists (or existed for a set time) between them. (Are these movements dead? Or have they morphed into new reactionary movements? Etc.)

Ch. 2: The Making of a Dream (Chafer)

The purpose of this chapter is to survey the life story and theological background of DTS’ founding president, Lewis Sperry Chafer. In short, Chafer was reared in a revivalist and fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. He served as an evangelist before joining the Bible conference and prophecy conference circuit (p. 60). Hannah presents Chafer as an eclectic mix of Reformed, Keswick, and Plymouth Brethren influences (p. 71), though the latter two appear stronger than the former (which Hannah interprets exclusively in terms of soteriology).

The dominating influence of C. I. Scoffield upon Chaffer is the dominant feature of the chapter. Hannah remarks that Chafer cannot be properly understood apart from Scoffield’s influence (p. 62). Chaffer went to Scoffield’s church, was mentored by him, served as his colleague, and referred to Scoffield as his father (p. 66). Chaffer is described as a champion of his mentor’s dispensationalism.

Ch. 3: The [Precarious] Founding of the Seminary (Chafer)

In this chapter Hannah presents the practical issues surrounding the establishment of DTS under Chafer. The school’s early years can be described in one word–precarious.

Chafer’s vision for a non-denominational school which served a primarily denominational constituency led to a precarious choice for entering students: Do I attend an unaccredited school with no denominational backing and risk the chance that my denomination might discredit my education?

Chafer’s commitment to a novel hermeneutic (i.e., the dispensational theology he appropriated from Scoffield) led to a precarious idiosyncrasy regarding DTS’ institutional identity: “The controversy [over evangelism methods with revivalist John R. Rice] once more demonstrates that Chafer was too much of a Calvinist for fundamentalist evangelicalism yet not Calvinist enough to satisfy the Presbyterians, and that there was no real place for hm in the emerging fractured evangelical landscape but for the independent Bible church with its independent mission and publications agencies” (p. 128).

Chafer’s commitment to the so-called George Muller faith principle of finances during the time of the Great Depression led to a precarious situation for the faculty and the board: What do we do when we are not given our salaries (which was a frequent occurrence)? How far do we go into debt before we close the school?

Chafer’s commitment to the Bible conference methodology of instruction meant that, in contrast to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, which was founded for similar reasons, but with professional, academically trained professors, Chafer’s school was founded with none of its teachers having earned doctorates nor professional teaching experience.

Chafer was the school’s pioneering visionary, yet he lacked keen organizational and administrative abilities and experience. He came under heavy criticism for his various policies, especially his financial policies, and the institutional pressures probably played a large role in his heart attack. Institutionally threadbare, the school was ripe for strong administrative leadership. It sought stability from its next president, John F. Walvoord.

Ch. 4: The Stabilization of the Seminary (Walvoord)

Walvoord was virtually Chafer’s hand-picked successor. For over three decades he led the seminary, taking it beyond its precarious early beginning to being the largest independent seminary in the world. Institutionally, Walvoord oversaw the establishment of the president’s office as the actual head executive of the school, the strengthening of the faculty, the expansion of degree programs, and the admission the schools’ first African-American and female students.

The theme of DTS’ idiosyncratic theological heritage evident in the life of its founder, Chafer, is repeated throughout this chapter (e.g., 150ff.). Theologically, Walvoord stayed the seemingly impossible course between fundamentalists on the right and neo-evangelicals on the left. Premillennial dispensationalism continued as a major defining issue for the school’s theological identity, and a strong affirmation of Scriptural inerrancy reflects DTS conservative stance within the larger evangelical context. DTS’ graduates were not welcomed by mainline denominations, thus her graduates mainly entered non-denominational churches.

The length of this nearly-80-page chapter reflects (a) the complexity of the evangelical religious context after the modernist-fundamentalist controversies, (b) the massive changes in American culture during the 50s-80s, and (c) the length of Walvoord’s presidency. Overall, I thought Hannah struck a good balance between contextualizing matters where it was necessary to do so and being careful to keep the main thesis in view.

Ch. 5: The Emergence into Mainstream Evangelicalism (Campbell)

Within this mostly bland and brief chapter is tucked away perhaps one of the most interesting discussions so far in the whole book: the section on “challenges to the creed” (207ff.). During Campbell’s time, which Hannah describes as perhaps the most tumultuous presidency of all, the seminary debated the interpretation of her own doctrinal statement. As Campbell led the school toward a broader scope and a more open stance toward evangelicalism, an expected tension arose regarding the school’s theological identity.

The debated issues, according to Hannah’s account, were primarily these three: the charismatic/Vineyard movement, the so-called Lordship controversy, and progressive dispensationalism. The analysis of all three is fairly scant. Given the fact that dispensationalism is embedded in the school’s history and theological identity, progressive dispensationalism should have received more thorough attention. Thus, the most interesting aspect of the chapter seemed slightly shortchanged.

Ch. 6: The Restabilization of the Seminary in Mainstream Evangelicalism (Swindoll)

Chuck Swindoll’s tenure at the helm of DTS was the shortest of all the past and present presidents. His chief contribution, according to Hannah, was neither academic nor theological, but pastoral: Swindoll sought to give the “DTS man” a new image for the postmodern era, to make him less theoretical, more practical, more authentic and real. He also successfully led the school out of debt and completed a major capital campaign.

In these ways, therefore, Swindoll can be said to have brought “restabilization.” The “mainstream evangelicalism” bit of the chapter title is a bit of a non sequitur, however; for, besides a cursory treatment of a few theological scuffles during Swindoll’s presidency (i.e., ECT, progressive dispensationalism, and Lordship salvation), Swindoll’s seven years seem to be mostly focused on the school’s new image.

Ch. 7: Poised for the New Century (Bailey)

The chapter on the current president of DTS is the shortest and most humdrum. Aside from a brief biographical sketch and some passing remarks on a handful of theological debates (i.e., Lordship salvation, open theism, and dispensationalism), the chapter reads like a statistical analysis given at a board meeting. Hannah’s comments about open theism are particularly trite (227). Perhaps the most significant point Hannah makes in the chapter is that president Bailey is thoroughly committed to upholding the seminary’s commitment to dispensationalism.

Ch. 8: Conclusion and Personal Reflections

Hannah’s concluding reflections on how American Christianity has rapidly changed since 1924 are, in my opinion, the best insights of the whole book. Herein Hannah ties together some thoughts he had presented in the first few chapters, namely, that DTS is best interpreted as an outgrowth of the bible conference movement which in turn gave birth to the independent Bible church movement. Hannah writes:

It seems to have been the height of naivete, if not utter blindness, on the part of the college’s founders to think that the mainline churches, whose heritages contrasted so strongly with the background of the bible conference movement, would embrace their emphases. The opposite became evident. Graduates of the college [i.e., DTS] found it easier to enter the independent churches and more difficult to enter the major denominations. Quickly the college became a major post-graduate training school for men entering the infrastructure of organizations created by the leaders of the Bible conference movement. The Bible conference movement produced the Bible institute movement; the Bible institute movement produced seminaries such as Dallas. Together, they were instruments in the development of the independent churches, whether they be denominated “Bible,” “Community,” or “Fellowship,” that have emerged since the 1930s. The interdenominational spirit of the Bible conference movement led to the independent spirit of the Bible church movement (287; cf. 292-93).

In addition to reflecting on the context of the school’s founding, Hannah comments on the changes regarding the school’s hallmark hermeneutic: dispensationalism. Chafer, according to Hannah, held dispensationalism to be important, but not the most important doctrine. In the 1950s a shift took place among certain faculty members of the school concomitant with geo-political shifts, most notably, the founding of Israel as a nation. During this period dispensationalism became the all-consuming doctrine for Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost. Hannah hints that the progressive dispensational movement again shifted the seminary’s relationship with dispensationalism, but he admits that divisions persist in the school as to whether progressive dispensationalism is in fact a true heir of classic dispensationalism or a radical departure from it (289).

Finally, Hannah concludes by making explicit what has been an implicit theme all along: DTS is idiosyncratic; in other words, DTS is very American. Since DTS did not embrace cultural separation, she does not fit in with fundamentalists on the right. Since DTS did not embrace the progressive theology of neo-evangelicalism (i.e., Fuller Seminary), she does not fit in with evangelicals on the left. Since DTS does not emphasize ecclesiology, sacramentology, or historic Protestant emphases, she does not fit in with classic Protestant denominations (i.e., Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.)

The seminary’s theological insights left it nowhere to be, but theologically nowhere–to the consternation of observers on all sides. It has nowhere to go but to support independency, a kind of evangelical independency of its own constructions. In this instance, the school shows itself to be a very American institution (296).

The final chapter therefore does a good job of weaving together the threads sown throughout the chapters, and Hannah’s honest, frank, and modest criticisms are to be appreciated.

This is a great book insofar as it accomplishes its main purpose: Hannah tells the story of DTS. Hannah is at his best when his is presenting the fruits of his research into primary sources related to DTS (i.e., personal letters, board meeting minutes, etc.) and when he presents his own critical analyses (e.g., the final chapter). Hannah’s reliance upon secondary sources for his evaluation of evangelicalism is evident throughout, particularly his reliance upon the much respected historical analyses of George Marsden and Mark Noll. Notwithstanding Hannah’s truncated treatment of various theological debates, overall he does a great job of thinking critically and openly about the history of his own institution. He has provided a scholarly example worthy of emulation, and it is my hope that more conservative seminaries will follow his example in providing critical reflects upon their own stories.

Zondervan did a wonderful job of typesetting and layout. The book is attractive, easy to read, and well-organized. The pictures are interesting and directly tied to the immediate context in which they appear. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter adumbrate the contents of the chapter appropriately. I’m not a fan of endnotes generally, and in a few places in this book (esp. in sections relating to theological debates) Hannah makes important remarks in the endnotes which would have been better suited to footnotes.

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