Interview with Douglas Foster

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By Brad Dupray

Douglas Foster is director of The Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University, where he also serves as professor of church history. ACU is primarily affiliated with the a cappella churches of Christ, but Foster brings a broad knowledge of the Restoration Movement as a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement and of the forthcoming World History of the Stone-Campbell Movement (due from Chalice Press in 2012). He completed an undergraduate degree at David Lipscomb University and earned a PhD in church history at Vanderbilt University, both in Nashville, Tennessee. Foster has taught at ACU for 20 years and was a professor at Lipscomb University for seven years prior to that.

Describe the basic historic development of church of Christ colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities affiliated with churches of Christ, historically, have pretty much the same impulses as those that you can see in Alexander Campbell when he talks about higher education. He wanted all Christians to be educated in the broadest possible sense. That would include the sciences, math, literature, English, and Bible. So, all of the colleges and universities in the early part of the Stone-Campbell Movement were those kinds of schools.

Did Campbell encourage a focus on study specifically for ministry?

Campbell himself said there shall never be a department of theology at Bethany College (which he founded). He didn’t want to isolate theology so that only professional clergy would study it. Every student took Bible, as well as general academic courses like chemistry and math. If you’re going to give yourself fully to the service of the church, that’s great, but you’re going to take the other courses, too. If you’re going to be a scientist, great, but you’re also going to study the Bible.

Would that be typical among colleges and universities affiliated with churches of Christ?

Most colleges affiliated with the group definitely have that liberal arts impulse. Every college and university operated by members of churches of Christ requires even Bible majors to study a broad range of disciplines. And every school requires a significant amount of Bible classes. For example, when I studied at Lipscomb, every student had a Bible class every day of every semester. Most schools don’t require that much, but everybody at Lipscomb then earned the equivalent of a Bible minor. Abilene Christian University requires every student to have at least 15 hours of Bible.

How much focus is there on ministry education versus liberal arts and other studies?

Students are going to get quite a bit [of ministry education]. In some sense, liberal arts is an umbrella that is going to include the study of the Bible. Certainly, all of our schools have departments that are devoted to teaching the Bible, so there are faculty who are trained in biblical studies, theology, church history, and ministry. But most of the students who take courses in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University are not Bible majors. And, every semester in my church history courses for Bible majors, I have students from the English department, history department, physics department, etc.

Do higher educational institutions affiliated with the independent Christian churches seem to take on a different flavor than those affiliated with churches of Christ?

When the independent Christian churches moved away from the Disciples of Christ, a part of that included the formation of their own educational institutions. Historically, the schools Christian churches began at that time were Bible colleges, reflecting the kinds of schools at that time (in the 1920s and 1930s) that would be labeled as “fundamentalist.” Most of the schools that were formed by the independent Christian churches would have reflected that Bible college model, which was very focused on Bible study—the only major was Bible. Yes, there were English classes and other classes that would help a person work in the church as a profession. Colleges like Milligan and Johnson both preceded that set of events, however—they’re more liberal arts schools.

What caused the founders of those schools to move away from the schools affiliated with the Disciples?

The beginning of those higher educational institutions reflect the conviction that Christian churches had to pull away from older institutions because those schools had been corrupted by liberalism and were not focused on faithful Bible instruction. The circumstances that led independent Christian churches to become a separate, identifiable group led them to a model that was reflective of the fundamentalist Bible college. This is not a value judgment, it’s just what they felt was needed at that time.

What trends do you see in independent Christian church schools now?

Many of those schools have made a move to become liberal arts schools, more along the historic lines of higher education in the Stone-Campbell Movement. This happened over a period of time, where there is a sense there is a need for a broader range of options for people. You can see it reflected somewhat in the change of names. For example, Cincinnati Christian University is a very overt change of name from Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary. Or, from Lincoln Bible College to Lincoln Christian College to Lincoln Christian University.

Beyond a change of name, what other changes reflect that trend?

In some ways there has been a conscious effort to look more like a broad-based liberal arts institution. So, in requirements for faculty, for example, you’ll see an increase in the number of PhD’s. This is true in most educational institutions. Every educational institution goes through a developmental process to reexamine what is needed the most. It seems to me that Christian churches over the last few decades have come to the conclusion that, without giving up convictions, liberal arts education, rather than a narrowly focused Bible college model, would work better.

What must they do to head that direction?

That would involve hiring people at the doctoral level who have really become experts in their chosen academic field so the students are not going to get a second-rate education. You do not have to sacrifice academic excellence to come to a Christian institution. That is becoming more and more of the ideal for educational institutions in the independent Christian churches.

Have colleges and universities affiliated with churches of Christ seen an evolution in their own right?

In my opinion, you see that while churches of Christ certainly had certain kinds of convictions that made them a separate identifiable body, their understanding of the nature of higher education never changed from a liberal arts perspective. That’s the baseline. That’s the perspective that would have been taken early in the movement—schools like Bethany, Bacon, Drake, Butler, and others that were [around] early in the movement. Churches of Christ always had that kind of model. We have had some Bible colleges, but even those schools have tended to become liberal arts schools.

As the schools affiliated with these two streams of the movement look more alike in the liberal arts sense, are there other distinctives that set them apart?

The main thing that comes to my mind is that because of the history of independent Christian churches, they probably tend to reflect more of the larger Evangelical American Christian ethos than you would probably find on most campuses of those affiliated with churches of Christ. Many of the Christian church colleges are simply younger. Many of the colleges begun by members of churches of Christ have been around for over 100 years. There certainly are some of those universities and colleges that are not that old, but they are drawing from older colleges and universities. Many of their faculty had gone to Lipscomb or Abilene Christian University and have drawn their heritage from there.

Are the Christian church schools behind the curve?

Most of the independent Christian church schools, overall, are younger and it takes time for the range of things to develop, especially building a strong faculty and so forth. I don’t think it’s a matter of catching up to anything, that’s not true. They are going through a development process as any schools would. As they embrace excellence in a liberal arts education they’re just a little younger in the process.

What can our schools learn from one another?

I think there are deeply spiritual, godly people on the faculty, administration, and staff of both sets of institutions. I know there are extremely effective teachers in universities and colleges affiliated with both groups that could learn from each other. We just need to be together more at all levels. We need to have times when faculty and administration can be together and talk about their dreams and commitments and their accomplishments and desires. To worship and enjoy the deep fellowship that should be there. Out of that connection we can learn from each other.

Have there been any specific efforts toward that end?

The Christian Scholars’ Conference has taken place for a number of years. It was begun primarily for teachers at colleges and universities of the churches of Christ to get together, have fellowship, and learn from one another. Over the last few years it really has expanded to include other colleges and universities affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Movement. There has been an increasing number of students and faculty from schools affiliated with both groups that have participated in that. Bill Baker, a professor at Cincinnati Christian University, began the Stone-Campbell Journal several years ago, and CCU hosts an annual Stone-Campbell Journal Conference that, again, brings students and faculty from institutions across the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially from churches of Christ and the independent Christian churches year after year. And then there are the smaller efforts. I know that Pepperdine, Emmanuel, and Milligan have done some joint faculty retreats.

Do you see that as foundational to encouraging unity within the Stone-Campbell Movement?

At one level—not everything by any means—but at one level it has been scholars and teachers from various parts of the Stone-Campbell Movement who have been at the forefront of bringing people together in Christian unity. Efforts like The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, for example. Contributors from virtually every school affiliated with the streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement are in that book. So scholars are one of the groups of people that have been very active in thinking about and doing something about the ideal of Christian unity that was so important to the early part of the movement.

What kinds of things should a ministry-oriented student look for in Christian higher education?

There are two pieces—not only a strong ministry program, but they’re also going to have a broad-based program that will help them relate to people, to know what’s going on in popular culture, to be able to converse with people who are trained in science or literature and are not going to feel out of place. They’re not going to be experts in everything, but will have a broad-based education that will allow them to relate to people wherever they are.

How about if they’re looking specifically to a school affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Movement?

Obviously they’re going to look for a program in Bible or ministry that is very strong, that has people who know what they’re talking about, with instructors and teachers who are on top of biblical studies, church history, ministry, theology—in all the areas. So they will have solid preparation in that specific area. If they want to be a chemist or a physicist or a doctor, or want to serve churches in a traditional way as a preacher, in whatever area they aspire to go into, they want to find a place where being Christian does not mean second-rate as far as academic rigor and excellence (as it sometimes does in the eyes of the world).

Brad Dupray is interim president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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