On Professors and the Cult of Personality

I arrived on Faculty at Westminster in the summer of 2001. I had only been on campus for a couple of months before a group of students approached me one lunchtime and tried to recruit me to a most sinister and dangerous cult. `What?', I hear you cry, `Are the Moonies, the Children of God, and the Manson Family alive and well and operating out of a campus in Glenside, PA?' Well, no, not at all as far as I know. The offer I received was far more dangerous than anything such groups might have made to me. The request was simple: would I be willing to meet with a particular group of students every two weeks in a local bar or restaurant to talk theology? My answer was straightforward and immediate: no

I would, I said, be happy to meet for a drink or meal with any student to chat about theology; but I did not want to make it a regular or formal arrangement. My reason? That is how partisan thinking is born. That is how theological groupies emerge. That is how cults of personality are brought into being. I knew exactly where it would lead: I would try to impress students with my intellectual swagger; they would try to mimic me; and round and round it would go. Other professors, students, groups, etc. would be routinely dismissed, lampooned, and denigrated in a manner that made us feel good about ourselves, and Team Trueman would come to consider itself the best thing since sliced bread. I would give them a tidbit of theological gossip, make them feel they had the inside scoop on something or someone; they would reciprocate with suitable acts of obeisance and worship; and so on and on the merry dance would go. 

Well, so sorry, but I was not going to go there. I'd rather be at home with my wife and kids or out on my bike or off for a run, all of which would remind me of mortality and my more than obvious limitations; and which would ultimately be far better for my soul.

The cult of professor worship is perhaps the most dangerous and reprehensible cult in the theological world. It is no respecter of theological position, afflicting the left just as much as the right. It is no respecter of intellectual ability, as the psychology of leader-follower is predicated more on personality and relational qualities than brainpower. And it is no respecter of souls; nothing so destroys a Christian leader, or his followers, than the mutual flattery involved in the uncritical adulation of a fan-base for a professorial rock star (and I use that term advisedly). Hence, while every instinct in me told me that the offer was a great opportunity to start up Team Trueman on campus, I chose to go against my fallen desires and immediately declined the offer.

I had occasion to recall the incident some years later. By then, I had become something of an amateur student of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and its various institutions. A strange occupation for a Presbyterian; but, when one remembers that the SBC has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last three decades, involving the overturning of a dominant liberal consensus in favour of more traditional evangelical orthodoxy, the story remains inspiring even to those outside the SBC. 

In this context, there are a couple of particularly helpful items in such study. One is the 1995 PBS documentary, "Battle for the Minds," an unremittingly hostile analysis of changes in the SBC, along with a veritable hatchet-job on Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and the early days of his presidency at Southern Seminary. In order to tug at the viewers' heartstrings, the documentary plays the issue as one of the persecution of women, particularly one specific woman professor; but when interviewed in the film, the Vice Chair of Southern's board makes the point that the controversy was more about whether professors actually believed the Abstract of Principles (Southern's equivalent of a confession of faith) to which they were bound by voluntary vows; and that, as the woman professor featured in the documentary did not do so, she was, in effect, working, and taking money, under false pretences.

The other fascinating item is the memoir by Judge Paul Pressler, A Hill on which to Die (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002). Pressler was a layman and Sunday school teacher who became disturbed by the teaching and publications he saw emanating from SBC seminaries in the early sixties. He then spent the next four decades organizing a movement to reinstate Christian orthodoxy both in the SBC and in its educational institutions. It was a hard road for him to walk: the early years were lonely and frustrating, and he and his family were later the targets not only of national negative media campaigns, but even of death threats. Still, he persevered on the simple grounds that the garbage taught in seminaries today become the garbage preached in pulpits tomorrow.

One paragraph in particular caught my eye as I worked my way through his book. It reads as follows:

In some instances a student has gone to an institution and has been befriended by professors whom the student respected. The professors tell the student how bright he or she is and how the professors are willing to help the student escape the limited background from which he has sprung. In this way, some professors create a circle of students who follow them. They will train the students in what the professors believe. Such groups can be used to glorify the professor rather than the Savior and can become another source of liberalism. (p. 152)

What Pressler offers here is a brilliant insight into the dynamic of the relationship between some professors and students, and the unfortunate results which can then transpire. Indeed, it is worth unpacking in a little more detail.

First, there is the fact that the relationship is built on a mutually beneficial dynamic of basic vanity. The professor tells the students how clever they are, despite the limitations of their educational background so far; and the students reciprocate by allowing the professor, magus-like, to introduce them to the wonderful, liberating world of real thought. Everyone's a winner; everyone's ego gets stroked; everyone feels good about themselves and somewhat superior to those left outside the sacred circle of Gnostic knowledge.

Second, the focus of these groups becomes the professor and then the little group of acolytes, not the Gospel or, indeed, proper thinking, scholarship, or anything else for that matter. If they feature at all, they are merely fuel for driving the larger cult of personality. In fact, the decorum and moderation of style which typically mark careful thought and scholarship, and even normal friendships and associations, are signally absent from these groups. It is often the case that these little cabals become hyper-sensitive about even the slightest perceived criticism of themselves or their chosen leader; but, by way of contrast, they are often extremely free and colourful with the language they use to describe those with whom they disagree. He who is not with them is, by definition, against them. 

This violence of language is symptomatic of deeper issues, indicating that it is often, at root, the emotional connection to the professor which drives the subsequent theological conviction rather than the other way around. This exact point is made with some clarity by James Gordon in his intellectual biography of James Denney, the great Scottish theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Denney studied at Free Church College in Glasgow, during the years when the Free Church of Scotland was being torn asunder by the higher critical views of the brilliant young professor of Old Testament, William Robertson Smith. Gordon argues that it was as much the atmosphere surrounding the man, the liking of and sympathy for, his person that helped to shape Denney's own doctrine of scripture, particular in his positive reception of moderate higher critical approaches to the biblical text. [James Denney (1856-1917): An Intellectual and Contextual Biography (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), 72-74]. Affection for the man as an engaging teacher, perhaps even the fact that he was `a good bloke' as the English would say, as opposed to one of the `grumpy old men' who opposed him, led the younger hot-shots in the Free Church to lend him their loyalty and to pattern their own theology after his. 

Of course, this is no monopoly of the left. I am reminded of the criticism of Francis Schaeffer as made by James Barr: he taught a whole generation of the evangelicals that they didn't have to read or think for themselves. This is not to say that either Robertson Smith or Schaeffer consciously cultivated mindless clones of themselves--or that their followers necessarily acted in the ignorant, immature, and ill-mannered way I have described above--but it is to say that this is a constant temptation and danger for the powerful intellect or alpha personality, one that needs to be guarded against at all costs.

Third, the long-term impact is that the views of the particular leader get transmitted to the spheres of influence in which the students themselves progress. This is where the little classroom cults become much more dangerous, where they start to harm people's lives, where they start to split churches. It is surely one of the most unsettling experiences to see one's own faults replicated in one's children. If I treat my wife with disrespect, lo and behold, my son does the same. And if I have an ounce of decency, I feel the pain and shame of my responsibility straight away. 

This is not simply the way biological children develop; it is the way in which intellectual and spiritual offspring grow as well. The throwaway comment that a professor makes in a lecture or a pastor makes in some context can come back to haunt the Church in unfortunate and unintended ways, as admiring students latch on to the words of the coolest profs in town and, in an attempt to get a little piece of the magic for themselves, repeat them, exaggerate them, and even misquote them out of context. This is bad enough when done unintentionally; how much more dangerous is it when swaggering professors go out of their way to cultivate acolytes, who then go out and do this sort of thing virtually for a living? 

Such fan bases, such personality cults, are nothing new. They afflicted the church in Corinth, and they have been an enduring malady ever since. Psychologists could no doubt have a field day here: 

Transposition of filial affection to a surrogate parent figure... 

A desperate need to belong to a group...

Both of these can offer plausible, second-level explanations for such commitment and surely contain important truths. At root, however, the problem is even more serious: the Christian, biblical perspective has to be that what we see in such relationships is idolatry. The Bible is clear that idol worshipers take on the characteristics of their idols. Worship a dumb statue, and you will become dumb (Ps. 115); we might add that, if you worship a professor or teacher or pastor, you will come to be like them, warts and all, and probably in an exaggerated way. That is why so many professorial disciples sound like cheap, lightweight versions of the original; they are basically idolaters, and what you see in their lives and language is the inevitable result of their idolatry.

What is worse than this, of course, is that such people negate the power of the cross of Christ. Paul makes the point with ruthless effect in 1 Corinthians 1. To indulge in a cult of personality is not simply to miss the point of the cross; it is also to empty the cross of its power. That is why it is not simply incumbent upon students to guard against being sucked in to such idolatry. How much more is it incumbent upon the professors to avoid becoming the objects of such a cult? 

It is often said that you cannot enter into a pulpit and make yourself look like a great preacher and Christ look like a great saviour at one and the same time. So it is in the classroom, on campus, at conferences: the professor, the theologian, cannot point to the power of the cross and simultaneously encourage a cult of personality. These things simply cannot stand together. Indeed, it is surely vital that the professor not only avoid creating such cults, but also actively opposes them as they start to arise around him. To do less than this is, I fear, to empty the cross of its power and to lead others into idol worship.

Carl Trueman is professor of humanities at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Born in Dudley, UK, he has previously been a faculty member at the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen (UK) and Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). He was also formerly Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pa. He enjoys running, listening to rock/classical music, and doing what his wife tells him.

This article was originally published on reformation21 in August of 2008.