Evangelicals Supporting an Atheist Chaplain

By Chad Brand

Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded in 1636 by the Puritans who arrived on the shores of what would be Boston only six years earlier. Aboard the ship Arbella, en route to the New World, John Winthrop, who would serve as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, proclaimed that these English settlers, fleeing persecution in England, would establish a “city on a hill.”

Harvard, the first college in the English colonies, had as its motto, “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae,” “Truth for Christ and the Church.” On its shield one word is displayed, “Veritas.” Yet, Harvard has had a long history of conflict over what “truth” actually is. In 1805 Unitarian theologian Henry Ware was appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity, or what we would now call systematic theology. The senior professor of theology thus denied the fundamental and historic doctrine of the Trinity. In the late 1800s, Harvard President Charles Eliot proclaimed that each person had the right and responsibility to determine truth for himself. Clearly, the cry, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, had been replaced by Truth for and by Man Alone.

Even that drift, however, would be nothing in comparison to what has happened at Harvard in just the last few weeks. The school, as one would expect from a formerly orthodox educational institution, has always had a chaplain. It currently has a group of chaplains or campus ministers, supporting a wide constituency of religious beliefs. These chaplains are represented by a “president,” a position elected by the other chaplains on the board. Last Spring the board elected an atheist, Greg Epstein, to that position, a role he has assumed here at the beginning of the academic year.

The vote was held by a group of thirty campus ministers. They included InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus minister Pete Williamson who joined in the unanimous election of Greg Epstein. Williamson has written an article for Christianity Today in an effort to justify his decision, an article in which he extols the “new approach” which is “rising” among campus chaplaincies. This approach is one exemplified in this case by the election to the presidency of a “chaplain” who rejects not merely the biblical God, but any and all gods. Previous generations, which Williamson disdains as benighted in his article, would never countenance the notion of an “atheist chaplain.” They would, in fact, see the notions of “atheist” and “chaplain” as mutually exclusive, a contradiction of terms.

There is much that is disconcerting in Williamson’s apologetic for Epstein’s election. One of most pronounced is that here, a leader in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, admits to electing a non-theist to this position. InterVarsity Fellowship is, after all, the campus ministry connected to InterVarsity Press, a publisher that made its early impact and established its bona fides by publishing the writings of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, a theologian, prophet, and stalwart defended of orthodoxy warned us of such days as this. One can only imagine this lederhosen-wearing, goatee-sporting preacher venting his spleen on the organization whose publishing arm he virtually single-handedly put on the map.

It gets worse, though. On August 30 Evangelical pastor and author Tim Keller tweeted to the new chaplain, “Congratulations Greg on your appointment.” Keller is a giant figure and a loud voice in the Evangelical community. He has authored many books, including works on apologetics. He notes in another tweet the same day, “Greg is a friend whom I have debated and while I don’t agree with him on many things, I do wish him well.”

One is forced to ask the question, “OK, you think this is a nice guy, maybe even a great guy. He is a guy you trust to be around your kids and your dogs. But how does that equate to his appointment to the Harvard chaplain presidency?” I’d like a little more clarity here.

When it comes to Keller, I might ask him, had I the chance, “Why don’t you just keep your fingers off your keyboard on this issue? Do you feel you have to share your opinion about everything and about everyone you know?” Keller’s Evangelical veracity is already under attack from many quarters. There comes a time when silence is the better part of wisdom.

To Williamson, I might wonder aloud about why he felt the election of Epstein had to be a unanimous choice. After all, his organization has a heritage, and one that goes back before even Francis Schaeffer. But his vote is a slap in the face to that century-old organization. In my opinion, Williamson should have said, “No,” and Keller should have said nothing. Both men could have preserved their heritage and even the integrity of their faith.

The city on a hill long ago hid its light under a bowl. Do Evangelicals need to throw dirt on that bowl?