By David Tulis
The collapse of Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga tells of a faltering faction in Christianity that had its heyday in the 1960s in American fundamentalism’s peak.
The school was a bastion of conservative Baptist thinking styled premillennial dispensationalism that yanks Christianity out of its optimistic dynamism and steeps it in pessimism. The Tennessee Temple theory in Christianity is a historic novelty about 200 years old, but it is a majority report in the conservative wing of evangelical Christianity. Its ideas are reflected in Christian radio stations such as WMBW with Moody Radio and WDYN, and national ministries such as The John Ankerberg Show. Theologically, it argues for cultural withdrawal, dislikes God’s law as a grid for economics and national life, shuns the public square, cheers modern-day Israel as if its people were God’s chosen and leaves a paltry theological record.
Despite its origins, Tennessee Temple (founded in 1946) in its latter years seems to have abandoned its posture of shrinking back to await the return of the Lord Jesus in a second coming. Professors at the seminary are said to be mostly Calvinistic, holding to the doctrines of sovereign grace. Danny Lovett, head of the university (2005 to 2011) and Highland Park Baptist Church, is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary. The academic program has shifted to account the necessity of a “Christian worldview” on a growing list of topics.
Temple’s inward-looking fundamentalist origins, its financial distress and its position overwashed by the digital economy’s demolition of the university model of centralized education — all combine to spell the end of Tennessee Temple University.
Lack of financial support
Hamilton County sheriff Jim Hammond, a trustee of the school, is dismayed that so few alumni responded to a plea for financial support. “My first thought was that of the 15 to 20 thousand alumni that’s within a couple hundred miles of here — why did so little respond?” Mr. Hammond says. It would’ve taken F$3 million to F$5 million to help the school relocate. But non-trustee alumni gave less than F$65,000. “We knew that we could pray for a miracle,” Mr. Hammond says, “but we also had to be ready to pick up our swords and be ready to move. There was a day and time that we knew that we could not go beyond this date and have the money to do an honorable closing. And that date came.”
The trustees met the same day that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the federal congress in Washington to stoke interest in more American military intervention in the Middle East. His speech was greeted with noisy enthusiasm. Americans are hawkishly allied to their federal government’s client, Israel. To that nation they are attached by the theological glue that oozes from across the lecterns at Tennessee Temple University.
Israel first and other new ideas
Temple University grads love modern-day Israel on the grounds that it is a reconstitution of the Hebrew republic of the Old Testament, and that Israelis are God’s people. This belief is called Judeo-Christianity, and is a cult within Christendom that disregards teachings of Christ about the object of God’s affection and favor. God rejected national Israel and honored its self-maledictory oaths when its chiefs clamored for Christ’s crucifixion. God divorced Israel, destroyed it as a nation in 70 AD, scattered His enemies among the Israelites far and wide, and remarried Himself — to the church. Judeo-Christianity or Christian Zionism denies passages in the scriptures showing that the church is Israel now and recipient of all the promises made to God’s people during their minority. The distinction between Jew and Gentile, invalid today, is largely of historically interest. To claim Israelis are God’s people is to propose God has two routes to salvation.
Christian Zionism is pervasive in American Christianity but is perhaps less significant upon culture than other aspects of fundamentalism. These would include its subjectivism and its privatization of Christianity, its rejection of God’s law (antinomianism), its defeatism and pessimism as to the claims of Christianity on society, and its rejection in its nonsystematic theology of key biblical principles such as that between justification and sanctification.
The shrinking world of Tennessee Temple circ. 1980
Premillennial dispensationalism began retreating in the 1980s before the onslaught of reformed authors such as Ken Gentry, Gary North, Ray Sutton, R.J. Rushdoony, James Jordan, Gary DeMar, David Chilton, Greg Bahnsen, and George Grant.
➤ Gloomy outlook. Tennessee Temple represents dispensational premillennialism, which is pessimistic regarding efforts of Christians to build culturewide God’s kingdom on earth. A much older view of the church and the progress of time is post-millennialism, which holds that the word of God will eventually conquer every tongue, tribe and land before the last day. It holds that man has a responsibility to rebuild a world broken by sin for God’s glory. It teaches that by sovereign grace and the validity of God’s law as a standard for human conduct, Christendom will bring the people’s to the throne of God. In contrast, Tennessee Temple’s theology, more so 50 years ago than today, lets men off the hook for rebuilding and reconstruction. Christ is coming soon, and the Christian should think only of his own soul and converting his neighbor. God and the church have lost the war, satan is sovereign on this earth, and there is no time to think about rebuilding the arts, psychology, economics, medicine, sheriffing or to worry too much about recombinant genetics or the coming end of the welfare-warfare state.
➤ Subjectivism. If we had to name a single most encompassing error in the Tennessee Temple paradigm it would be this one. Pelagius the English monk said man is born neutral and that is will is not bound by original and actual sin. Salvation is an assertion of will. Pelagius concentrated on man, the subject, and man’s efforts. His idea is subject oriented. “Salvation leads to sanctification,” Ray Sutton says. “If salvation takes place by subjective efforts, the will and emotion, then so will sanctification. It too becomes a process of internalization. Therefore, subjective theology from start to finish emphasizes a man as an individual and his inner efforts. It is inward theology. *** The historic church sided with Augustine, who refuted Pelagius. His emphasis, to the contrary, was the objective nature of salvation.”
Christianity grows by the conversion of one soul at a time, so that by the end of time nations belong to God. But it operates by the external principle. “Man is not saved by conjuring effort from within. He can not. His help comes from the Lord who is external to him. Salvation is therefore objective, because the righteousness of Christ which saves is outside of man. This objective emphasis extends throughout the Augustinian approach to the major issues of Christianity. Ethics, for example, centers on the objective standard of God’s Law. *** All of these issues and many others are viewed from this external principle. Subjective theology looks at them from an internal principle. *** Anabaptist theology individualizes the covenant. Consequently, the covenant becomes subject oriented.”
“Dispensational theology leads to moral paralysis. Moral paralysis produces intellectual paralysis,” says Gary North in Rapture Fever; why Dispensationalism is Paralyzed (1993) Click this link and download the book. “Intellectual paralysis produces institutional paralysis. Institutional paralysis produces extinction through attrition. Dispensationalism is now at this final stage. We appear to be witnessing the birth of the terminal generation — not the terminal generation of the Church of Jesus Christ but of dispensationalism.”