An Address at the Inauguration of
Gregory Alan Thornbury as the
Sixth President of The King’s College
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York City
April 3, 2014
I first encountered Gregory Alan Thornbury not as a person and not even simply as a reputation, but as a kind of foreshadowing. He was, as Bob Dylan might put it, a slow train coming down the track toward my life. I was contemplating applying to the doctoral program of Southern Baptists’ mother seminary, a school that had endured a reformation back to its roots in doctrinal orthodoxy, but a reformation that, as far as the doctoral program was concerned, was still “already and not yet.” Many in the admissions office were not on board with the new conservative direction, and some even actively sough to dissuade me—and who knows how many others—from applying. But, at the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, I spoke with one admissions counselor who told me, “You need to get to know Greg Thornbury.”
I say he told me that, but it is more accurate to say he whispered it. He kept looking over his shoulder as though he were Mr. Tumnus afraid to mention Aslan lest he be overheard by the trees, which might turn him over to the White Witch. He went on to say, “Seriously, remember that name. Greg Thornbury. He’s the smartest guy in every room, and he’s the real-deal, whole-package evangelical.”
When I arrived on campus as a new doctoral student in systematic theology, the first person I met was Greg Thornbury and, just as advertised, he was the smartest guy in every room—and he was the real-deal, whole-package evangelical. In a very short time, we were allies in doctoral colloquia and seminars, and working together in the President’s office, or, more usually, the President’s basement. And I found Greg Thornbury to be even more than I had heard. It was as though a scientific genius had engineered a way to mix the best of Carl F. H. Henry with the best of Elvis Costello.
And now, here we are, where, it seems to me, Greg Thornbury was always predestined to be: leading a great evangelical institution of learning in the heart of New York City. This is, personally, a thrilling time for me. It is also a sobering time, because what President Thornbury is undertaking represents a great charge and a great trust.
In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells us a story—one of the parables we reflect on not nearly enough. The chief priests had challenged Jesus on the question of where he obtained his authority. Keeping with his usual practice, our Lord turned the questions back around on them, asking questions about John the Baptist he knew they wouldn’t want to answer. He then told a parable of two sons. The father asks the first son to work in the vineyard and he says “I won’t go,” but then, changes direction, and says he will. The second son immediately agrees to go, but then later turns and says, “I will not.” Which of these sons, Jesus asks, is faithful to the will of his father? This is precisely the question we should ask ourselves tonight.
When we were students, Greg once took our mutual hero, Carl F. H. Henry, to the Sunday service of a booming evangelical megachurch. After the service, Greg asked Dr. Henry, “So, what did you think?” Dr. Henry sat silently for a moment, before answering, “I think that service represents the success of the evangelical movement.” He then added, “We were so successful with our youth rallies that our teenagers grew up and want to repeat them, and call them worship services.” For those of you who don’t know, from Dr. Henry, that was not a good thing.
He knew that the very things that helped evangelicalism flourish—entrepreneurialism and freedom from longstanding institutions—could easily, when unmoored from doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesial rootedness, become the undoing of the movement. Persistence itself is no sign of fidelity, if that persistence doesn’t persist in obedience. Jesus identified the religious establishment of the nation of Israel as persistent in observance and in structure. But they had so lost their way that they couldn’t recognize the kingdom of God, standing before them in flesh and bone.
Evangelicalism always faces the temptation to listen to the call of that old zombie Harry Emerson Fosdick, who never stays long in his crypt and often walks forward with Mr. Rockefeller’s money brimming from his pockets. Fosdick’s temple stands across the city from where we are tonight, a monument to what some would tell us that we need. The temptation is to barter away what the world around us finds embarrassing about the faith we have received. In a previous era, that was the miraculous—virgin births and empty tombs. In our era, it is usually a Christian sexual ethic. This never works, which is why, despite Mr. Jefferson’s predictions of the future, the Unitarians have not inherited the earth.
But, more importantly, this impulse, is an act of violence. It leaves people in sin and death. If there is no Judgment Seat, or if Jesus and his apostles are inaccurate in what we will give an account for there, then why concern ourselves with Christianity at all, much less Christian higher education? But if there is a Judgment Seat, a Lake of Fire, a New Jerusalem, then those that would mute the hard truths of the call to repentance are worse than merely unfaithful. They are the spiritual equivalent of human traffickers, promising guilty souls safe passage over the River Jordan, but leaving them to die in the desert.
The second son starts out with obedience—with the immediate response of “All to Jesus, I Surrender.” But when the cost is counted, he turns aside. Many have. And many will. Some turn aside to what J. Gresham Machen warned us is a different gospel altogether, liberalism, even when it knows how to sing our praise choruses. Some turn aside to the Canaanite fertility religion of the prosperity gospels, whether in their monetary or political forms. The King’s College much watch, ever diligently, that the college never becomes more important than the King.
But then there’s that first son.
Our response to the challenges around us should not be a dour, curmudgeonly evangelicalism. The gloominess and fretfulness so many evidence is more than defeatism, it is a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. Carl Henry reminded Greg Thornbury and me of that truth. We were lamenting the current state of evangelicalism, two young doctoral students to the greatest evangelical theologian of the twentieth century. We lamented the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies, and we asked, “Does evangelical Christianity have a future at all.” Dr. Henry looked at us as though we were crazy.
“Of course gospel Christianity has a future,” Dr. Henry said. “But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans right now.”
Dr. Henry told us that we were acting as though Christian leadership were a genetic dynasty, complete with ruling families. And yet, he told us, God never built his church that way. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer. Augustine of Hippo was a player. C.S. Lewis was an atheist. Chuck Colson was a hatchet man. The gospel not only saved these leaders, but God put them in the leadership of his church. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from their labors.
We had forgotten what Jesus told the chief priests. “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” And why? It is because in the preaching of John, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” The difference is the gospel as the power of God unto salvation.
This is the burden of The King’s College, in a world of uneasy consciences. This college must exist to preserve and to engage a gospel for the sake of those who are not yet aware of it, or not yet interested in it, or perhaps even as of yet openly hostile to it.
The answer is not what some would prescribe, the sort of selective universalism that refuses to call to repentance in those areas of sin deemed untouchable by the ambient culture. The answer is not the angry warrior spirit that seeks to humiliate our opponents.
The church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free outrage machine. And the church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free affirmation machine.
That’s why The King’s College should never be merely a finishing school for the evangelical elite. Every classroom and every lecture should serve as a reminder that the next Augustine might be wasting away on heroin right now on the streets of Manhattan. The next Corrie Ten Boom might be a sex-worker in a darkened alley right now. The gospel can change, not just for their sake but also for ours. The King’s College must exist for them.
That’s why The King’s College must fight for doctrinal orthodoxy. An almost gospel won’t do. And that’s why The King’s College must ever struggle to retain intellectual rigor. This academic prowess is an act of love, equipping these brilliant students to push back the arguments behind which guilt consciences hide, in order that they may hear the voice that calls “Adam, where are you?”
Yes, we face difficult times, every generation of the church does. But we also face unprecedented opportunities. People walking past on the streets outside us, many of them will be burned over by the unkept promises of the utopianism of the Sexual Revolution and of Faustian libertarianism. You must study, you must labor, to preserve something old, something ever new, not just for us, and not just for our children, but for our future brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom may hate us right now. But many of them may one day lead us, by the power of the Spirit that calls to life that which was dead.
When we gather if, if the Lord keeps us that long, for President Thornbury’s retirement ceremony, what should we hope now that we will say? We should hope that the obedience we pledge now is kept. But we should also hope that through the witness of this place, the church is filled with those who were prostitutes, those who were tax collectors, those who were without hope and without God in the world. We should hope that the reputation of The King’s College goes forth, like Greg Thornbury’s, as a slow training coming. We should hope that we will say then, of this great college, “It’s the smartest place in the world, and it holds the gospel, the real-deal, whole-package gospel.”