We have committed ourselves to a positive rather than a negative program. . . . We are not devisive [sic]. . . . From the very outset it was made clear that the new organization and school was not to indulge in fighting modernism, nor to run competition to other existing institutions. It was agreed that it should be the avowed purpose of all involved to rather present in all activities the fundamental and sound truths in a positive, rather than a negative way (A Miracle of God’s Grace,5,16-17).
With these words Dr. Suckau voiced a conviction that placed him and his fellow founders in agreement with other Christians living in the United States during the 1940s. Dr. Suckau’s use of the phrase “negative way” refers to the divisive, combative spirit that had come to characterize certain segments of “fundamentalist” Christianity in the 1940s.
In the early decades of the twentieth century conservative Christians in the United States believed that it was necessary to take a strong stance against “modernism.” The then-preeminent expressions of modernism included: Marxism, Darwinist evolution, theological liberalism, and significant shifts in social morality. Too often, when it was believed that fellow fundamentalists had not gone far enough in their militant stance against modernism, separation from fellow fundamentalists became necessary. As a consequence, by the 1940s significant segments of fundamentalist Christianity in America had become tragically fractured. From Dr. Suckau’s words, we might gather that the founders of Grace University were wearied by and wanted to steer clear of the fragmented, combative negativity of certain varieties of Christian fundamentalism.
The founders of Grace University did make the conscious decision to take a conservative stand on theology and lifestyle. At the same time, “the fundamental and sound truths” were to be held “in a positive, rather than a negative way.” As a nineteen-year member of the Grace University family, I can testify that this “positive” attitude has been a defining feature in the school’s DNA.
As one reads A Miracle of God’s Grace one also observes that the founders of Grace were committed to bridge-building with fellow Christians, both in the Omaha area and throughout the Midwest. As historians of American evangelicalism have noted, Bible institutes became “nondenominational” denominations. These schools, with their corresponding radio stations and printed media, became rallying centers where pastors and parishioners in specific geographic locales could share commonality of belief and mission. Instead of creating a school of “fighting fundamentalists,” the founders of Grace wanted to create a Gospel ministry training school that would serve as a unifying catalyst for Christians in the Midwest.
Christians expend considerable energy today in culture wars. It is believed that the stakes are high. And they may well be. Unfortunately, much of this cultural engagement is done in a negative fashion, a fashion not unlike the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century. Social media and the blogosphere provide ample illustrations of negative cultural engagement. Today divisions among Christians are still strong. Some matters of division seem to never go away. As then, so it is today: Christians often view each other as either too conservative or too compromised in their doctrinal convictions and lifestyle choices. There is a crying need today for an uncommon unity among Christians that is Gospel-centered and Holy Spirit-empowered.
In light of the present discord of conviction and the passion with which contemporary convictions are held, the founders of Grace University have imparted a precious, yet often forgotten, legacy. They were committed to living out their convictions truthfully, yet graciously and in “a positive way.” It is my belief that conservative convictions can be embraced, yet presented in a warmly gracious and fervently loving way. Seventy years after its founding, Grace University still upholds the “fundamental and sound truths in a positive, rather than a negative way.” This means having a robust life of the mind, and requires a courageous engagement of culture. But it also means loving people well.This kind of graciousness and truthfulness can only be achieved through the power of the Holy Spirit.
May God grant that the “positive way” of Grace University’s past and present continue to characterize its future.