The Inspiring History of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Trinity Theological Seminary Entrance in 1961.

Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. If you read Christian biographies, you have likely been encouraged by the lives of great saints who have gone before. If you are a leader of an organization, you have probably been moved by the stories of businesses or organizations that face difficulties yet manage to survive and see success without violating their core values. What is rare, however, is for these worlds to collide, but a new book released last week does just that.

This year, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and this new book, Great is Thy Faithfulness—The Trinity Story, looks at God’s faithfulness over the years. It all started in 1897 when a group of Swedish Christians began to see God move in their congregations in the upper Midwest. Congregants were hungry for biblical truth and were showing up to hear the preaching of faithful men of God who had little biblical education.

After sensing the need for pastoral training, the Swedish Bible institute of Chicago was formed. Its goal was to improve the state of preaching by offering courses in biblical studies, including hermeneutics and exegesis. The first class to enroll counted 22 students. A little more than ten years later, a Norwegian-Danish school was formed in Minnesota for the same purpose, and the two schools would merge shortly thereafter. This school would eventually change its name to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and grow to include a liberal arts college, a graduate school, and a law school with a total university enrollment exceeding 2000 students. However, that growth has not always been a smooth and steady process.

Students at the Norwegian-Danish Bible School in Rushford, MN, 1914.
Students at the Norwegian-Danish Bible School in Rushford, MN, 1914.

What makes the pages in this book intriguing is that the authors do not hold back on the difficulties and conflicts the organization faced through the years. A couple of financial crises nearly ended the life of the university, but the Lord provided what was needed. Even if it felt like the last minute, the Lord’s timing is perfect. As you read Trinity’s story, you will often see outstanding leadership at the helm, but it will be evident that it was the Lord’s hand moving the story forward. As interesting as the business aspects are, there is something even more compelling in the book.

Many themes run through this book, but one thread addresses Trinity’s orthodoxy. The school was founded on theologically conservative truths. First and foremost, as D.A. Carson describes it, a “nonnegotiable commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture.” Trinity held and still holds that the word of God is not only true, it is inerrant. The school also affirms the five solas of the reformation: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. This commitment to orthodoxy has been the school’s foundation for 125 years, but this commitment has been questioned from time to time. Many have asked throughout the years, “Is Trinity going liberal?”

The need for theologically conservative Christians to ask this question was sometimes the result of a second commitment held by the university. Though Trinity stands firm on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, it believes that there should be liberty when it comes to the non-essentials. Trinity is a seminary open to all orthodox denominations and allows conversations to flow freely in these areas. Some Christians believe any variation from their denominational views is a move toward liberalism, so a school like Trinity will always be suspect. Still, there have been times the question of the school’s orthodoxy seemed valid.

Highlighting this concern, one of the fascinating stories in the book took place in the 1970s. Protests on college campuses were common in the late sixties and early seventies. As Scott Manetsch tells it, “Trinity had been largely isolated from the explosive student demonstrations of the period—until Jim Wallis and several members of the People’s Christian Coalition enrolled as students at the seminary in fall of 1971.”

Wallace led several protests at Trinity, including carrying a casket with the word “Trinity” painted on it through the campus and burying it in front of the executive offices. This demonstration was to say that Trinity had died; it was no longer a Christian institution because it did not care about the poor. Another protest involved cutting out all Bible passages about helping those in need, holding the Bible up in a chapel service, and shouting, “This is your Bible!”

These protests had more to do with progressive political sentiment than concern for the poor. This theologically liberal-leaning activism caused some theological conservatives to question the school’s orthodoxy. Through it all, the school’s leadership and doctrinal foundation stood unmoved on the word of God.

There is nothing new under the sun. Similar concerns have been raised through the years as theological liberalism has tried to make inroads into evangelical circles. However, just as in the seventies, Trinity still holds firm to the inerrancy of Scripture and its commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. There have been many outstanding faculty and administrators who have carried the torch throughout the years. Carl F.H. Henry, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, John Woodbridge, and Walter Kaiser are a few of them.

This book will give you more than you expect. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Christian biographies and highly recommend it to anyone who works in a Christian institution and feels the pressures of our times, whether economic or political, to give up on your calling. The Lord is faithful to his people, and his word will not fail. As Carl F. H. Henry once said, “For the crisis of our times, the Light that shines in the darkness is still more than adequate.”

-D. Eaton

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