The current issue of the Yale alumni magazine has an unusual cover story: "The New Evangelists: Yale Divinity School and the Future of Protestantism." This is the first extensive treatment of the Divinity School that I can recall in the alumni magazine in the twenty years since I graduated. Indeed, much of the university regards the existence of the Div School as a curiosity and a relic, not central to the university's mission today. There was even a serious attempt to abolish the school in the '90s, by a president now happily departed (he also tried to kill the sociology department – clearly a misguided individual).
This story, by Warren Goldstein '73, '83PhD, an historian and biographer of William Sloane Coffin, is about the renewal of YDS. What struck me about the story was the fact that the author, and most of those interviewed for it, took it for granted that the mission of Yale Divinity School was to serve liberal religion. Goldstein's framework was that the decline of mainline Protestantism and the decline of Yale Divinity School went hand in hand. The Protestant "establishment" of old no longer rules, and its leading seminaries have taken a long time to adjust to that fact. Goldstein reads the decline of the establishment as the decline of liberalism.
This is a familiar argument, and yet on second thought it seems peculiar. In what other context would we take it for granted that the Establishment was liberal, much less "progressive," a term that Goldstein also uses?
The Protestant Establishment, at its height, was not defined by its liberal religion. It was defined by its traditional religion, applied to guiding, if not running, a modern society. As I see it, the mainline lost its way and began its decline when it lost confidence that that traditional faith could guide a modern society, and cast about instead for a modern faith.
Yale Divinity School was not created to serve liberal religion. It was created to train ministers of God in a learned faith – a learned, old-fashioned, biblical faith. When I was a student there, I thought that was the strongest part of the school, learned from teachers such as Margaret Farley, Paul Holmer, and Brevard Childs. The revival of YDS does not depend on a revival of liberalism, but on a revival of religion.