John Carson (RTS' 73) always said that he would never become president of Erskine College and Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, even though colleagues told him for years that he should be. Today, as he sits behind his handsome desk in the president's office at Erskine, he smiles ruefully and admits that one should never say never.
In reality, as the thirteenth president of the nearly 160-year-old Associate Reformed Presbyterian institution, he has for many years felt God's clear call both to influence his denomination and to train new ministers to preach God's Word well.
When The Reformed Quarterly last talked with John in the spring of 1989, he had been Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Erskine for about four years, and had just been elected moderator of the 1989 General Synod of the 200-year-old Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Observers today say that his leadership actually turned the denomination around, steering it away from liberalism. Immediately after his election he set up committees to review all areas of ministry, including missions, church extension, and Christian Education, in order to establish realistic goals in keeping with a biblical emphasis. He hoped the Holy Spirit would bless his efforts.
"John has been a key leader in our denomination for the last quarter of a century," says former classmate James Corbitt (RTS '74), Director of Outreach America, the missions arm of the ARP.
Calvin Draffin (RTS '79) agrees. "John has made a tremendous contribution to our denomination," declares the pastor of Due West, South Carolina Associate Reformed Church. "In addition to his love for the Lord and a commitment to His Word, he has exhibited a great deal of leadership throughout the synod by bringing differing opinions together and getting a consensus."
After graduating from RTS in 1973, John had a successful pastorate in Charlotte, North Carolina, for ten years. Positive growth within the denomination and reaffirmation of its commitment that "the Bible is without error in all that it teaches" created in John a desire to see this momentum sustained. Although he loved the pastorate, John became convinced that God wanted him to teach at Erskine Seminary. He had begun to realize the critical need for good seminary professors to teach solid biblical principles and reformed distinctives to men who would lead the denomination in the years to come.
So in faith, he left his church and spent two years at Aberdeen University in Scotland doing research for a Ph.D. in theology in order to teach at Erskine, even though there was no job opening there in the foreseeable future. He was fully prepared to take a church after getting his degree and wait for an opening. But the Lord providentially opened one in historical theology at just the right moment.
He taught there until 1994 when his home church, First Associate Reformed Presbyterian in Gastonia, North Carolina, wooed him away to become their Senior Pastor. He stayed for four years until he again heard God's unmistakable call -- this time to become president of Erskine. He assumed office a year ago.
His colleagues are elated. Says James Hunt (RTS '71), pastor of Coddle Creek ARP (the oldest church in the denomination) in Coddle Creek, North Carolina, "John is very well-prepared to lead Erskine. He is an alumnus of the college, a former professor in its seminary and member of the Board of Trustees, and a former ARP minister. Thus, his leadership will be sensitive to matters academic, administrative, spiritual, and developmental."
John is the first to admit that he does not adore administration; he would rather be in the pulpit or the classroom. These days, he gets his chance by traveling far and wide, telling anyone who will listen about his vision -- the desperate need for truly Christian liberal arts colleges.
John maintains that students have much with which to contend today. In our postmodern age, a kind of hyper-individualism has evolved -- everyone reinterprets words and thoughts into their own personal frame of reference. Students feel displaced, most acutely in their interpersonal lives. He suggests a two-pronged approach to the problem. First, colleges should develop a relations-based evangelism built on establishing good relationships with people and wooing them to Christ. Second, they must reconstruct a Christian worldview. While some Christian students come to college with mature responses to the challenges awaiting them, many come not really knowing who God is or that there is an Old and a New Testament.
"We need to bring into the classroom the best of academics and Christian commitment," relates John. "At most secular universities, the academic and secular dominate, leaving no place for the sacred. Conversely, at some Bible colleges, the sacred dominates to such an extent that students are discouraged from investigating certain ideas -- such as evolution -- because they might overturn some cherished religious dogma. Ideally, colleges should provide an environment where academic freedom is front and center. "Students and professors should not be afraid to use solid Christian academics to critique what's happening in the marketplace and in the think-tanks of American universities. Academic excellence comes from rigorous intellectual exchanges in the world of ideas, on a level playing field with no quarter given. No one with confidence in God and belief in His creation need ever fear looking through a microscope or a telescope with an inquiring mind."
However, colleges are having a hard time finding professors who are equipped to do this because that's usually not how they are trained. Balancing academic freedom with Christian commitment is not easy, and no college is doing it perfectly. While professors should not turn their classes into Bible studies, they should cover the solid meat of academic material, while bringing Christian ethics to bear upon the subjects. That's difficult to do. "John makes a compelling case for a Christian liberal arts college," says Corbitt. "Students should be taught to think from a Christian world and life view as they are exposed to the secular mindset. In this environment they can develop a biblical analysis of the fallacies and weaknesses inherent in those positions."
"Erskine's motto is 'Knowledge joined with morals,'" explains John. "Therefore, we must emphasize critical thinking and investigation in our fallen world. Scripture shows us that human judgment has been perverted (Rom. 1:21). People twist and contort what they know, neither judging nor interpreting correctly. Christian faculty and students must search out and expose every form of wrongdoing, seek the cause and cure of the disease and devastation, and question all theories and motives."
While Erskine seeks to do this, it is in the minority. John points to James Burtschaell's The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches as evidence of the waning commitment on the part of schools with similar mottoes. They have succeeded academically but left their spiritual roots behind and turned away from their historic mission.
"The vision which John presents across the Southeast is not new," reveals Hunt. "It is the Christian world and life view which many already embrace, that philosophy which asks every Christian disciple to be a responsible steward of life, including education, career, family, church, and community. What is new is that John is articulating this view in a winsome manner to a great many college constituents. That's exciting."
Technical schools, John feels, often charge that liberal arts colleges don't teach marketable skills that will land a person a job. Studying philosophy, music, and theology, they say, is preparation for an unreal world. However, people in Plato's day would have chuckled at such a silly thought; they understood that the real world did not consist merely of the things we see. Actually, marketable skills may be obsolete in five years, but a liberal arts education connects people with who they are, with a history of the world's traditions, with an understanding of how to relate to people. It is an education for life, not merely the next two or three years.
This is not to say that liberal arts colleges should eschew technology; Erskine has been fully networked for computers for years -- fiber optics connect dorms, libraries, and classrooms. But John has in mind much more. "We want to teach students within three concentric circles. The first includes marketable skills for the real world, the second encompasses interconnection of students with the unseen world around them -- history and culture, and the third concerns the real world of the Kingdom of God -- how do we make an impact for the transcendent Christ in our society?"
"Jesus is the touchstone of all truth," John reminds us. "All truth is inherent and coherent in Him and all questions find their ultimate answer in relationship to Him. Students and teachers must not only trace down every fruitful avenue of thought, but ultimately they must relate all findings back to the Touchstone."
John feels that Christ's attitude is the finest example that can be placed before a scholar. Academic excellence is marked by humility before the questions of life, obedience to the rules of research and evidence, sacrifice of all other priorities for the pursuit of truth, in hope subjecting one's own theories and prejudices to the objectivity of truth and knowledge.
Notice that Jesus was a student of the world around him. He knew the characteristics of the flowers of the field, the meaning of a red sky. His knowledge covered much of today's liberal arts curriculum-- botany and zoology, sociology and psychology, economics and business, history and government.
He used this liberal education in his ministry. He met people where they were and through His knowledge of the world directed their thoughts to His kingdom, thus bringing hope and comfort.
"The Holy Spirit works through Christian scholars today in arriving at and implementing godly solutions to life's ills for the benefit of others and for God's glory," says John. "No greater witness can be given to Christ, no greater service can be given to the world than faithfully bringing together Christian commitment and academic excellence as He did."
Return to REFORMED QUARTERLY SUMMER 1999 CONTENTS
Return to REFORMED QUARTERLY INDEX
Return to RTS HOME PAGE