Who Does GRTS Serve? Reflections on 30 years of theological education (Part 2 of 3)

By David Turner on April 10, 2018

Editor's Note: We are celebrating Dr. David Turner's 32 years of ministry in the Bible department at GRTS. We asked him to reflect on his time here and to offer a parting word for students, alumni and colleagues. This is the second of three posts. Here is part 1.

Constituency: Who are our stakeholders?

When Victor Matthews' retirement led to my coming to Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary in 1986, I was told that about 60% of our students identified as Baptist or baptistic, and the rest came from other denominations. Today, the GRTS student body comes from over 20 different denominations, ranging from Pentecostal to Presbyterian and Wesleyan to Reformed. Roughly 40% of GRTS students identify as independent or non-denominational, and the largest denomination represented is still Baptist (nearly 20%). When the baptistic views of many independent churches are taken into account, Baptists and baptistic students still make up roughly half of the GRTS student body. About 75% of the students are Caucasian, 16% African-American, and 4% Hispanic. Currently the number of males and females is nearly equal. Much of this increasing diversity comes from the wide appeal of the Counseling and Urban Cohort programs. Enrollment at GRTS this semester is about 330 students, about double what it was when I arrived.

The current Cornerstone Confession reflects this development. The school's original doctrinal statement was very much like that of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. As the GARBC ended its practice of approving colleges and seminaries, President Rex Rogers led the emerging Cornerstone University community toward a broader constituency. In the mid-1990s the board authorized a three-tiered statement that articulated the school's common heritage with all orthodox Christians, its baptistic distinctives, and its role as a Christ-honoring biblically-based academic institution. Under the leadership of President Stowell, the more succinct Cornerstone Confession was formulated. This document articulates Cornerstone University's unchanging affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrine from a conservative evangelical viewpoint.

I sometimes hear the story, even on campus, that GRTS is no longer the narrow-minded little Baptist school that it used to be. I strongly differ with this myopic misunderstanding of the school's history. When I came there were people outside the school who saw us as a reactionary, isolated place. That was our fault for not informing them about who we really were. If these people had ever sat in on a GRTS class, they would have known better. Back then there were also some very conservative folks in the Baptist movement who thought we were alarmingly progressive, but we were only modeling the first letter of the B-A-P-T-I-S-T acrostic: Biblical authority. Both of the above narratives were mistaken. GRTS was and is a place where people from whatever background could come and study together under the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. The GRTS classroom was not and is not a place where indoctrination is the primary goal.

I began to realize who could flourish at GRTS when I observed how my colleagues Joe Crawford and Carl Hoch did business. When I first walked into Joe's office I noticed a well-worn set of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics on the bookshelf. Most scholars believe that Barth was the most important theologian of the twentieth century, but my previous teachers and colleagues in theology had only condemned Barth's errors from a safe distance. Joe actually engaged the Dogmatics closely and evaluated the pro's and con's in the classroom. Anyone who sat in Carl Hoch's New Testament classes had a similar experience. To describe Carl as well-read would almost be to insult him—he was a walking book review of all the latest in New Testament studies. Joe and Carl, among others, modeled a style of graduate theological education that didn't suit either the fashionably trendy folks on the left or the reactionary folks on the right. With its current focus on teaching an increasingly diverse community of Jesus-followers how to think rather than indoctrinating a narrow group, GRTS continues this model.

The upshot of all this is that at GRTS, the more things change, the more they have remained and should remain the same. We have changed by being blessed with a wider vision of the body of Christ, resulting in a more diverse community of learners. And we remain the same as a community that is normed by and continues to be reformed by the Word of God and the Spirit of Jesus. The greater breadth of our community need not compromise the depth of our theological commitment—the wider our branches, the deeper our roots should be. The ethos that has long informed and enlivened our classrooms is sufficient to guide us in the days ahead, and we need to acknowledge and reaffirm this ethos as we envision the future. Anyone who can say a heartfelt “amen!” to this, whatever the name that's on the sign in front of their church, should be a stakeholder at GRTS.

An old saying that is traced back to the Welsh composer Joseph Parry (1841-1903) fits GRTS: "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold."

Categories: Culture, Faculty & Staff, Ministry