The End of an Era: Reflections on the Closing of Cincinnati Christian University

My wife and I met at CCU as did her parents, Mark and Pauline Maxey, and two of her brothers and their spouses. Faith’s extended family including 3 uncles and an aunt attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS) before it was designated a university and her uncle, Victor Maxey, was the school librarian for much of his life and much of the life of the school. Her Aunt, Isabelle, attended the school in its third year of operation. Isabelle’s father, R. Tibbs Maxey, drove her there in a Maxwell touring car from Boise Idaho and the old car had to be backed up Price Hill as it could not otherwise make the steep grade. Tibbs had experienced the divisiveness of liberalism up close, with Disciples’ organizations taking over two of the churches he had organized and he had watched the liberals capture his alma mater, the College of the Bible in Lexington, so he had a vested interest in the new school.   After hearing J. Russell Morse’s appeal for workers in China, Isabelle used her preparation at CBS in a lifetime of missionary service in Asia.

Faith’s father would make the journey to the school with his brother Tibbs and with Max Ward Randall from Minnesota Bible College. Mark was impacted at CBS by the teaching and preaching of Ira Boswell. During the Memphis convention, in which it was clear the liberals were making their move to capture the convention and the brotherhood, when the chairman had tried to quiet the objectors by intoning, “Let us pray,” Boswell had jumped up on a bench and shouted, “Pray nothin! I feel like fighting.” As Mark described him, “that was only part of his nature. He was at the same time one of the wittiest and most inspirational men I ever listened to.”

The outstanding class, in Mark’s memory, was a course on the Campbell debates taught by R. C. Foster. Cincinnati had been the sight of two of these debates and was in close proximity to the third, the debate on baptism with Nathan Rice, which had taken place in Paris Kentucky. This proximity to history and the sense that the tides were changing marked the atmosphere of the school. In Mark’s description: “The battle had not yet been won so the events related to the struggle were vigorously debated both in the classes and in the assemblies. The students knew what the issues were and why.” The “war” in Mark’s depiction and in his life-time of work had as much to do with allowing for freedom within brotherhood organizations as it did with higher criticism and theological liberalism.

Cincinnati was also the location of the United Christian Missionary Society and, due to World War II, two key informants of the Philippine struggle for independent missions, Juan Baronia and Ben Allison, were available. CBS became the center of a movement of independent missionaries and missions and Mark’s work for his B.D. thesis would detail the struggle against the UCMS as it occurred in the Philippines.  

Part of the significance of this depiction is its close ties to a specific historical projection, key personalities, and the story as it was being experienced. The Campbells and Stone had so grounded their reading of Scripture on reasonable interpretation that the broader sweep of Church history, inclusive of creeds and tradition, were largely brushed aside. Their own struggles, their deep intellectual engagement, their approach to Scripture and their particular experiences came to constitute its own significant history. This sense of continuing the historical struggle was passed to the early heirs of the movement.

The second-generation teaching at the school and the third generation of students, of which I would count myself, were bound to have a very different experience and sensibility. Neither Stone nor the Campbells hesitated to pose novel interpretations of Scripture and they were not anxious to establish a systematic theological understanding. The first generation at CBS were also practitioners of a new form of organization which was dependent upon a sense of individual freedom and the powers of individual interpretation.

 I may have gotten a distilled version of the anti-theology, anti-clergy, and anti-credentialing, in the person of Seth Wilson. Wilson (who made a point of his lack of ordination and credentials) had served as R. C. Foster’s teaching assistant at CBS, and though he never received a graduate degree, he was one of the founding faculty of Ozark Bible College. Ozark was in the mold of CBS, but specifically in the mold of R. C. Foster through the person of Seth Wilson. At that time, Ozark had no courses in theology. In its place we studied Acts, the life of Christ, and the New Testament, and of course we had a class in Restoration History. One of my memories is of John Relyea, who would serve and die in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea as a missionary, arguing with Seth in class that it was nonsense to be against a systematic theology as we all had one, either consciously or by default. Seth dismissed him, accusing him of thinking like a German.

The passage of CBS into the hands of a second generation of teachers is perhaps most notable in that with the hiring of Jack Cottrell, the school would undergo its first shift away from the inclinations against establishing a systematic theology. George Mark Elliot, who taught theology to Cottrell at CBS, like the Campbells and Stone had engaged the theological enterprise in an ad hoc manner. Cottrell would set out his understanding of the theological catalogue in his own three volume systematics, which is the most extensive systematic theological statement by a single individual to come out of the Independent branch of the Movement.

Cottrell does not often appeal to Stone-Campbell resources but largely affirms basic evangelical beliefs. Unlike the Campbells and Stone, he fully embraces Calvin’s version of penal substitution. (Stone had completely rejected the doctrine while the Campbells qualified it with a governmental notion of atonement.) Cottrell depicts Christ’s suffering on the Cross as the literal experience and payment for the penalty of eternal torturous existence. (R. C. Foster had warned that this sort of literal reading of hellish punishment as occurring in the suffering of Christ would reduce to contradiction.) In an innovation on original sin, Cottrell acknowledges that Romans 5:12-18 may depict a theoretical original sin wiped out by “Original Grace” given universally through the death and resurrection of Christ. Though he is pitting his Arminianism against Calvinism, as Elliot had understood, Arminianism is working within a Calvinist notion of sovereignty (seemingly reflected in this semi-Calvinist reading of Romans).

When it came time to write my Masters thesis under Cottrell I hit, innocently enough, on the worst of possible topics. Unbeknownst to me he had entered into discussion with Clark Pinnock and a group of “Open Theologians” who were reacting against notions of divine impassibility and an Augustinian understanding of God’s timelessness. I chose to write on and to defend some version of the traditional orthodox doctrine, though I had hoped to critique the Augustinian version of timelessness. It was not until I had initiated the research that I came to understand Cottrell believes (or did at that point) that God exists along a timeline or is temporal and that time is not created. I spent hours in discussion with Jack laying out the implications of suggesting God did not create time and that he is temporal. I equated it, in our conversation, with a Newtonian understanding with deistic implications. Needless to say, I never completed this thesis.

In the spirit of the founding of the school, Cottrell carried the fight against liberalism into theology, but with his emphasis on penal substitution, the unusual focus on the nature of God’s sovereignty, along with his teaching on women’s subordination and the notion that the Holy Spirit works only through the Bible, Cottrell’s articulation of theology is of a fundamentalist evangelical bent and is uneven at best. As George Mark Elliot had reportedly put it, “Cottrell may save us from attacks on biblical authority, but who will save us from his Calvinism.”

The early reactions against theological liberalism at CBS were mainly through New Testament scholarship, largely in the persons of R. C. Foster and his son, Lewis Foster. The tenor and quality of the argument changed with the shift to the battleground of theology. In my view theology was and is the way out of the morass of controversy between theological liberalism and fundamentalism. The moderate, Barton Stone-like tack of another Cincinnati graduate, James Strauss, whose tenure at Lincoln Christian Seminary is parallel to Cottrell’s at Cincinnati, indicates that the Restoration Movement and CBS had theological resources that could simultaneously resist both liberalism and fundamentalism. Strauss provided the impetus for a theological scholarship that moved beyond the modernist battles over authority and higher criticism and Lincoln has been marked by a steadier stream of orthodoxy. Theological fundamentalism simply does not contain the resources to counter the sort of rank liberalism that would eventually mark the demise of the original spirit of CBS. The history of the school followed a predictable pattern in the absence of these richer theological resources, so that the liberal biblical scholarship taught in the final years of the school was already outdated, a century behind, rendered passé by a variety of theological movements.

The closing of CCU marks the end of an era. [1] Its founders and the first generation of students were indeed in the midst of history making events. The Great Generation that went out from CBS changed the shape of missions and had a worldwide impact on the Church. The battles of the first generation, and their manner of engagement in the only way they knew, resulted in a school that had an international impact and defined a generation of ministers and missionaries.


[1] The “Historical Agreement” with another Bible College confounds the sad note of the school’s closing. The basic dishonesty in not addressing the needs of students and trumpeting instead an agreement with a school that has followed the same trajectory as CCU is an added blight. This school also recently received a rejection from the Higher Learning Commission and the reasons must be approximately those outlined in the HLC letter to CCU. Fifteen faculty and staff, mainly those teaching Bible and theology fired (the founding faculty retired or phased out), replaced with a focus on sports (4 full time coaches at a school of less the 200), the position of Registrar phased out, multiplication of administrative salaries and positions, mission drift, etc. etc.