EDITORIAL — Theological Liberalism at Abilene Christian College (I)

By Cecil Willis

In the April 20, 1972 issue of the Gospel Guardian, there appeared a lengthy article entitled “Theological Liberalism at Abilene Christian College.” This article was written by a young man who then was a student at ACC, Randall Mark Trainer. Brother Trainer has since graduated and now lives in Austin, Texas.

Apparently there have been some who have been questioning the soundness of Brother Trainer, for he recently urgently asked me to publish an article stating what he believes on several fundamental points. He stated that some rumors persisted indicating that he had denied the faith, on certain salient points. He indicated that these rumors preceded his Gospel Guardian article. I have since published his article in order that Brother Trainer might have it publicly known what he believes, and lest he be misrepresented.

In the article under consideration, Brother Trainer used three columns of type defining what he meant by “liberalism.” By the time he finished narrowing his definition one would have a difficult time finding much “liberalism” anywhere! In this article, and in some others to follow, some things will be said and some evidence cited which will disagree with the conclusions drawn by Brother Trainer.

After narrowing his definition of “liberalism,” Brother Trainer concluded: “I must honestly report that I have seen very little evidence of its presence. To be specific, I know only two or three students whom I would consider theological liberals, and no faculty members whatever. Neither does there appear to be a trend in the direction of theological liberalism . . . . I have been in the classes of six professors in the Bible Department (Carl Brecheen, Everett Ferguson, Bill Humble, Robert L. Johnston, Thomas Olbricht, and J. W. Roberts). If any of them has presented anything even remotely akin to theological liberalism, I am unaware of it…. If some brotherhood watchdogs have discovered an onslaught of theological liberalism in the church of our Lord today, they must have found it somewhere else than Abilene Christian College, at least as far as I can tell. On the contrary, if and when theological liberalism does become a serious threat to the church, I hope and expect that our brothers at ACC will be in the first ranks in the battle against it.”

That is a right good testimony, isnt it? A speech like that would make good advertising propaganda, wouldnt it? At least, the ACC Administrators thought it would. John C. Stevens, the President of ACC, photographically reproduced the Guardian article, and widely circulated it through the brotherhood. It served his purposes well. The Firm Foundation, whose editor is on the board of ACC, also published the article, as did the Christian Chronicle. Apparently it has given our liberal brethren throughout the country a good deal of comfort. I might suggest to our young Brother Trainer that it could well be that naive articles like this may be what has caused his convictions to be suspect in the minds of some, though he acknowledges there were some suspicions before he wrote the article.

But there are a number of evidences that contradict the glowing report given by Brother Trainer. For several years, Ira Rice has been carrying on a campaign against some of the liberals among the liberal element in the church. Paradoxically, few men have been more liberal in several different ways than has Brother Ira Rice. In the December 31, 1967 Far East Newsletter, Brother Rice presents some inside testimony evidencing that there was considerable liberalism within the ACC faculty. His proof was the testimony of an ACC Bible faculty member, Eugene Clevenger. Brother Clevenger formerly was a faculty member at Florida Christian College, and I studied under him, as I did under Brother Bill Humble, now the Dean at ACC. Neil Lightfoot, who is a now a faculty member at ACC, and I were schoolmates at Florida College. Tony Ash, now with Pepperdine, formerly was an ACC faculty member, and also a schoolmate of mine at Florida College. I mention the names of these brethren, since some of their names will appear in the letters which I am about to quote.

Clevengers Letters

On October 5, 1967, Brother Clevenger wrote Brother Rice to commend his book Axe on the Root, which book was devoted to the exposure of modernism within the liberal element of the Churches of Christ. Clevenger then said: “Since you called my name in the book with regard to the R. B. Sweet Living Word Commentary, I thought you might be interested in a letter which I wrote David Stewart on April 29 of, this year. I am enclosing a copy of the letter. Neil Lightfoot has also withdrawn from the Commentary, and I am hoping that others of us who are not in agreement with the views of such men as I named in the letter will also withdraw. I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate the Christian vigilance and courage which you have and are manifesting, and I am with you 100%. If I can help you in any way, please let me. . . .”

Then follows Clevengers letter addressed to David Stewart who then was Director of Publications for the Sweet Publishing Company of Austin, Texas, the publishers of the Living Word Commentary.

“Dear David: This is to inform you that I have decided not to write the Living Word Commentary on Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon for the following reason.

“I was conscious from the beginning that many of the writers of this commentary were theological liberals, but I thought that if men like Frank Pack, Raymond Kelcy, Neil Lightfoot and a few others could join with you in this effort, I could too. However, after considering the matter carefully, I have about concluded that the liberals have gained control of the R. B. Sweet Company, and my opinion is that you have a few conservative brethren as writers to make the set respectable to a broad segment of the brotherhood.

“I have decided not to have a part in this cooperative effort with such liberals as Everett Ferguson, Abe Malherbe, Tony Ash, Dick Batey, Bob Johnson, Pat Harrell, Don McGaughey, J. W. Roberts. The time is fast approaching when the position of such men as are on the Bible faculty of Abilene Christian College must be made known to the brotherhood, and I have decided that I for one, will do what I can to expose the liberalism that prevails in the Bible Department here at ACC.

“I ask you, therefore, in view of my feelings on the subject and in view of what I plan to do in exposing some of these brethren, to withdraw my name from the Living Word Commentary. I may add, if anyone wants to know the reason for this withdrawal, you are at liberty to tell them what I have said in this letter. Sincerely yours, (s) Eugene W. Clevenger.”

Rice then wrote Clevenger in reply, in the course of which letter, Rice stated: “The evening your letter of October 5 reached me (being relayed to me in Nashville by -my secretary in Dallas), the family and I had been invited to dinner at the B. C. Goodpastures. Since I was leaving the following morning for my next World – Missions Workshop (at Karnes / Knoxville, Tennessee), I took it along with me to discuss with Brother Goodpasture. In handing it to him, I commented that this may be the break-through, which is sorely needed, to get those who really believe sound doctrine to stand together against the rising apostasy. When he had finished reading it, he agreed.

“In fact, he asked me if it would be all right for him, too, to write a word of appreciation and encouragement to you. I told him I thought this would be most appropriate. Perhaps by now you may already have heard from him.

” . . . I just must not let another day go by without telling you how grateful I am for your stand and your willingness to stand up and be counted on the side of truth. Please tell Brother Neil Lightfoot that I honor him for having withdrawn from the Commentary. God bless you both.

“In your writing to me, may I assume that I am free to publish and/or quote from your letter and enclosure? This would go far toward encouraging the brethren generally to take a stand….

“In looking through the list of those you had named to Brother David Stewart as liberals, I knew all of them to be such with the exception of two — Bob Johnson and J. W. Roberts. I have documentation on most of the others. I just dont know Bob Johnson well enough to say what his views are. And I was unsure concerning brother Roberts.

“Gene, any documentation you may have regarding the views of any of these brethren, please let me have it. I would not wittingly misrepresent them or any one at all. I do not fear to publish what I can prove. However, I have had to withhold several names so far simply because I could not prove what I really believe concerning them. As documentation comes to hand, one by one their hands must be called. There is no compromise possible between truth and error. I know you will help on this all you can….”

Well, to say the least, there is a wide diversity between what Brother Clevenger said he saw in the ACC Bible faculty and what our young brother said he found there. More will be said about this situation next week.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 39, pp. 3-5
August 10, 1972