Fifteen years. The fact shakes me a bit. It struck me recently that perhaps it would be useful to write some thoughts about MSC then and now with a few reflections to spice the mix. February, 1979, McKenzie Study Center (named for its proximity to the McKenzie River) quietly arrived in Eugene, one block from the University of Oregon campus. I had finished a seminary degree and had come to Eugene to start a Ph.D. program in educational foundations.
From early in the seventies a concept of a study center—something like Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s “L’Abri” in Switzerland—had occupied my thoughts about future ministry. But rather than locating such a ministry in a retreat setting apart from city and everyday community, it seemed important to have such a resource for teaching, research, outreach, and dialogue about Christianity located, as Luther put it, “where the battle rages”—namely, near a secular university community.
My wife Carol and I were the first staff of McKenzie Study Center. Doug Groothuis, a bright, recent graduate of the university, became our first ministry intern. A year later Doug joined the staff full time, along with Greg Spencer, also a graduate student at the university. Carol’s sister and her husband, Doug and Diane Schell, launched a study center ministry in Gothenberg, Sweden. Together, Centrum for Kristna Studier and McKenzie Study Center formed Christian Alternatives, Inc. Centrum for Kristna Studier, while no longer part of Christian Alternatives, stills exists in Sweden.
I met Jack Crabtree in 1979 while traveling through Palo Alto and invited him to speak at a seminar for MSC. The relationship and friendship between Jack and me proved interesting and pivotal in the history of MSC. Jack, a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University, had been a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, for eight years. While there, Jack led a group of teachers in establishing “Scribe School,” an institute for biblical languages, exegesis, and pastoral training. Scribe School proved very effective, making a deeply felt theological and spiritual impact on the lives of a good number of young men and women, many of whom took their preparation for gospel ministry into other churches as well as other vocations.
Some five hundred miles north of Palo Alto, McKenzie Study Center focused its work on reaching out to university students and offering teaching and discipling in the Christian worldview. In those beginning days we taught several courses in university classrooms, both in credit and non-credit formats. Doug Groothuis, Greg Spencer, and I each had developed courses for university curricula which we offered to students wanting to gain deeper understanding of such topics as intellectual history, the thought of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and the biblical view of love, sex, and marriage.
Then in 1981, as God moves His children around occasionally, Jack Crabtree resigned his pastoring position at Peninsula Bible Church (PBC). PBC’s loss was MSC’s gain. Jack joined the MSC staff with a desire to establish a fresh version of Scribe School in Eugene. The new study program, called the MSC School of Biblical Exegesis, offered full-time students an in-depth course in biblical, theological, and church historical studies with an emphasis in hermeneutics, the study of interpretation as applied to the Bible. The new program required more staff with skills in teaching biblical languages and interpretation. To meet that need, David Smith, also a former PBC pastor, Ron Julian, and Dick Booster came from the Bay Area to work with Jack. David Crabtree, Jack’s brother who already lived in Eugene and was a graduate of PBC’s Scribe School, also joined the teaching team.
MSC’s ministry had been located in a small two-story house on the corner of 18th and University Streets. Adequate classroom and office space was a serious problem, and the staff had been looking for several months for another facility to meet that need. In the summer of 1981 an unexpected but much needed “mega-miracle” arrived from God: a gift from a local foundation to MSC—a fraternity building at the corner of 19th and University Streets. From “out of the blue” God had provided what the study center desperately needed but had no earthly way of providing for ourselves—a 13,000 square foot facility to meet the needs of offices, classrooms, and student residents. God’s outrageous provision literally stunned us. Several financial gifts, including a one-time foundation grant of $30,000, provided for a much needed renovation of the building’s interior.
During the following two years, some of the original MSC staff (Doug Groothuis, Greg Spencer, and Doug Schell) left the MSC ministry because of various circumstances and changes in personal calling. David and Krisan Marotta, former exegesis students, joined the MSC staff and developed a third version of the exegesis school for yet another group of students who desired to tackle a serious Bible study program.
From 1981 to 1987, three groups of students matriculated through the School of Exegesis. MSC’s other classes, seminars, and outreach efforts also continued. The MSC staff developed seminars on such topics as education, homemaking, business, and sexual ethics. I finished my Ph.D. in educational policy; Jack entered and completed a Ph.D. in philosophy. During his tenure as a graduate student, Jack was given several opportunities to teach credited philosophy classes at the university.
Since the late 1980s, Margaret Sholaas, Charley Dewberry, Tony Arlyn, Nancy Scott, Larry Barber, and Jeff Johnson—each bringing a special set of gifts and perspectives to the fellowship and outreach of the ministry—have joined the MSC staff. Paul and Nancy Pindell serve as managers for the MSC residence and ministry house.
Looking back, it seems appropriate to describe the purposes of the MSC ministry as existing at different levels. At the most “generic” level, MSC has provided classes, tutorials, seminars, personal counseling, and a residence ministry all serving as “alternative” education formats for Christians from both the university and the local community. At the level of vision and message, however, the purpose of MSC has always been grounded on deep convictions about (1) the nature of authentic biblical Christianity and (2) the appalling misunderstandings of the faith that seem to dominate the modern evangelical scene.
The following four phrases represent essential points of reference for the believing church at any time in history: (1) pursuit of truth, (2) authorial intent, (3) the nature and role of religion, and (4) the meaning of biblical grace. When we persevere in melding and actualizing these four concepts in our pursuit of the faith, then the Bible lays bare its philosophical power and radical message of love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope in our world. I believe these four phrases also point to the ideas at the heart of the MSC ministry.
(1) The Pursuit of Truth
Christians believe in the existence of absolute truth. In this post-Christian era, however, the wider culture thinks Christians are insane for embracing such a “medieval” idea. The concept of truth arrived at through reasoned effort has been seriously questioned by western thinkers for over a century now.
Consider this absurd story: We die and upon arriving at the pearly gates of heaven we discover a sign left for us by God, “Warmest greetings to all. I don’t exist, but you should go on believing in me anyway.” Now consider this question: Is God the kind of God who would have us go on “believing” even though He does not exist? This little story/question points to the posture of mind and heart that the Bible advocates we adopt. We need not be afraid of truth—wherever it is found—for God is the Author of all truth.
Put starkly, the ethics of the Bible teach us to love and cherish truth above all else. God is the kind of God who desires us to be creatures in love with the truth. The Bible tells us that the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth who will lead us to truth if we desire it. In this age of deep skepticism about the admittedly subjective nature of knowing, the ethic to pursue truth seems childish, naive, and, at worst, willfully ignorant. The MSC staff teachers are aware of the subjective complexities that science, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy have uncovered regarding such a pursuit of truth. We believe, however, that the Bible and our common sense as it confronts realities of this world teach us that objective truth exists and that we should seek it with courageous abandonment.
(2) Authorial Intent
The authors of the Bible are often exasperatingly difficult to interpret and understand; yet through them God has providentially given us a knowable and reliable picture of His worldview. Critically important, however, is the interpreter’s belief in and commitment to discovering the message the human author intended for his original audience. Only when our interpretive efforts have in view the meaning and intent of the authors who wrote the Old and New Testaments do we have a right to say the message of the Bible and its significance can speak to us.
This view of authorial intent in biblical interpretation does not rule out the vital role of God’s Spirit working in our hearts to give us “eyes to see and ears to hear.” We will not understand, receive, and embrace the message of the Scriptures unless God works on our evil hearts. But we haven’t even “got the message” until the objective nature of the author’s intent has been settled. Authorial intent and God’s illumination of our hearts go hand-in-hand in the process of God’s revelation becoming significant for us today. At MSC we see authorial intent as a necessary component of how God gets His word and mind to us in a fallen and rebellious world.
(3) The Nature and Role of Religion
Every Christian tradition from the first generation New Testament believers until today has “smuggled” religion into its spiritual agenda for the church. Religion—here defined as personal and corporate disciplines, practices, and liturgies proffered as essential for true spirituality and salvation—should be given a “mixed review.” On the one hand, religion can be a positive or neutral aid; its activities and symbols can remind us of the truth about ourselves and God. On the other hand, we at MSC have witnessed religion’s power to obscure essentials of the faith and provide “attractive alternatives” to facing into the actual truths of Scripture and the gospel itself. (Jack Crabtree has written two seminal essays on this subject, “Why Christianity is Religion-Free” and “The Means of Grace” that are available through the MSC office.)
Being good Jews, both Jesus and Paul practiced their religion. This is clear from the texts of the New Testament. They understood and taught clearly, however, that God is not impressed with “sincerely held” religious attitudes or practices that in any way substitute for the heart attitudes of authentic poverty of the spirit as disclosed, for instance, in the Beatitudes of Matthew, chapter five. Jesus wasn’t being very “religious” when he drove the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem. There is much for us to ponder here. At MSC that pondering goes on—especially in light of vast and deeply entrenched blindness in many parts of the church today that cannot delineate between the shadow of religion and the substance of biblically defined faith.
(4) The Gospel of Grace
At the very heart of MSC’s ministry calling lie the issues surrounding our understanding of the gospel itself. We believe the true nature of the gospel has been obstructed by innumerable forces both in and outside the church. This has been interpreted by some as arrogance on our part. At MSC we accept this criticism and do not take it lightly. As sinners, we are certainly capable of arrogance and the blindness it can create in us. Our excuse is this: as we look at the Scriptures—studying, for example, key books of the New Testament like Romans, Galatians, James, and Hebrews—we are dragged, kicking and screaming, to the conclusion that many of our well-intentioned fellow Christians have misunderstood what the authentic gospel promises and accomplishes for us in this world and the next.
We often hear in blustering triumphalist attitudes that the good news of the gospel has to do with success, health, wealth, and being “winners” for Christ. What we don’t hear much about is our deep brokenness, rebellion, and total helplessness before the standards of moral beauty and righteousness. We don’t hear how God in Christ is solving these deepest of human problems. It seems to me as if we Christians have blindly taken the gospel for granted and moved on to questions of more “pertinence” and “relevance” for living “successfully” as Christians in this world.
There are, of course, countless genuine believers. To put it plainly, however, many are true believers by the grace and inner work of God’s choosing, not because they have been clearly taught the central issues of the gospel from the New Testament. We in the church ought to be constantly aware of: (1) our rebellion, sin, moral failure, and desperate need for God’s mercy and kindness; and (2) our need to re-study the Scriptures in each generation in order to make the gospel of grace unmistakably clear and understood in the light of our historical and cultural circumstances. I believe the MSC staff, more than all else, desire to be involved in clarifying the nature of the gospel for ourselves and for those who come to us for help and encouragement in the faith.
From the foregoing you can see that I think there are some things we at MSC desire our history to be about. We also desire our ministry and fellowship to be characterized by love and acceptance of the deeply flawed humanity we all bear. How can we understand and embrace the gospel—telling as it does of our desperate need and failure to be the kind of creatures we should be—and not find ourselves striving to be a place where mercy and understanding is available to those who seek for them?
In this light, MSC staff are constantly wrestling with: (1) how to say what we have to say in a way that reflects appropriate humility as well as conviction, always being ready and willing to be shown that we are mistaken; and (2) how to be a fellowship, a place where persons of all types and callings are welcome to come study, think, discuss, argue, and, we hope, emerge by God’s grace with a better understanding of themselves and God. MSC’s history is full of people, projects, and strategies, along with human sinfulness, errors, and failures. As I see it, we are a group of Christians growing older together—perhaps seeing better little by little—in a ministry effort which deeply desires God’s message of mercy, forgiveness, and hope to somehow, someway be heard in this darkening world.