The Surprising History of Harvard

Josh Buice

My family was having a meal with a group of ladies who were visiting from England back in January.  As we discussed life in America, someone brought up the American educational system.  As we talked about the origin of some of the most well known and prestigious universities, a couple of the young ladies had no idea that those institutions were originally founded for the training of ministers of the gospel.

It may come with the jolt of an electric shock that Harvard was originally founded for the training of gospel ministers, but it’s true.  Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States.  The school was founded in 1636 in Massachusetts and named after the generous preacher, John Harvard, who upon his death in 1638 gave his entire library and half of his estate to the school.  To this very day, his statue on the campus of Harvard is one of the most popular landmarks of the institution’s history.

The founders of Harvard looked forward, like other groups who organize the founding of an institution of higher education.  They looked into the future and drafted a statement that would help set a vision for the school.  The language of this document has the ring of the Puritan age.  The following is taken directly from Harvard’s official admission requirements:

2.  Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well,the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17.3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him Prov. 2, 3.

From the beginning, Harvard placed a high priority upon God’s Word.  From the reading of God’s Word to the studying of God’s Word, the Harvard faculty seemed to be committed to standing firm upon the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible.  The following statement from the admission requirement gives a picture into where Harvard once stood upon the importance of God’s Word.  They called it “light” that “giveth understanding to the simple” as they quoted from the Psalms.

3. Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day,that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein, both in theoretical observations of the language, and logic, and in practical and spiritual truths, as his tutor shall require, according to his ability; seeing the entrance of the Word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple, Psalm. 119. 130.

This document that would be binding upon all students pointed them to God’s Word to know and worship God.  They were committed to training ministers to love God’s truth.  This is evident by the following paragraph:

4. That they eschewing all profanation of God’s name, attributes, word, ordinance, and times of worship, do study with good conscience, carefully to retain God, and the love of his truth in their minds, else let them know, that (notwithstanding their learning) God may give them up to strong delusions, and in the end to a reprobate mind, 2 Thes. 2. 11, 12. Rom. 1. 28.

Today, Harvard has a completely different position regarding God’s Word.  The divinity school still remains in existence, but they also have Harvard College which serves as their main undergraduate educational option.  Within the divinity school, the faculty members instruct from a liberal perspective regarding the trustworthiness of God’s Word.  The present faculty would not hold to the Puritan positions on inerrancy, biblical authority, and sufficiency as did the founders.  Today, many faculty members within the divinity school of Harvard embrace a more ecumenical position of openness and spirituality.  This is far different from where John Harvard and the founding faculty of our nation’s oldest higher educational institution once stood.

Harvard research professor, Dr. Harvey Cox, in his forthcoming book, How To Read The Bible (to be released 4-14-15 from HarperCollins), writes, “I am not satisfied with the ex nihilo interpretation of the creation account, which implies a God who is utterly omnipotent and therefore does not have to struggle against evil as we humans do” (26).  This gives us an idea of why Dr. Cox would reject the verbal plenary inspiration of God’s Word as well.  He employs a “history of interpretation” method of biblical interpretation.  In short, Dr. Cox writes, “it moves us out of the duality of ‘what it originally meant’ verses ‘what it now means’ to what it has meant(128).  According to Professor Cox, this methodology widens our perspective and gives us a better understanding of what the Bible says by listening to others interpret the Bible through their lens and context of life.  I will have more to say on Dr. Cox’s positions when I review his book, but needless to say, his positions are starkly different from the positions of John Harvard.

Harvard has changed.  The faculty has changed.  The student body has changed.  Perhaps this change at Harvard is best depicted by a quick comparison of the school’s motto found on the original Harvard seal verses the present day official seal of Harvard.  Rather than  “Truth (Veritas) for Christ (Christo) and the Church (Ecclesiae),” the new seal simply reads, “Veritas” or truth without any binding or absolute foundation.

The question remains – has the Bible changed?  Rather than standing firmly upon the robust authority of God’s inerrant Word, Harvard has taken a more loose position regarding the Bible.  Although the success and prestige of Harvard continues into our modern era, the original doctrines once taught from the lectern in the classroom have been turned into antiquated documents of Harvard’s history, or perhaps, reference points in Dr. Cox’s “history of interpretation” method of biblical hermeneutics.

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Note:  I have been invited to Spain to debate Dr. Harvey Cox regarding the inerrancy and authority of the Bible in October of this year.  I will write more about Dr. Cox’s forthcoming book referenced in this article and the debate in the coming months. 

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Author The Surprising History of Harvard

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.