By Shane Kastler
In The Making & Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward
Carnell, Rudolph Nelson delves into the fascinating life and tragic
death of one of the 20th century's most influential Christian
philosophers, Edward John Carnell. After receiving simultaneous
doctoral degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Boston University,
Carnell blazed onto the theological scene in 1948 by winning the $5,000
first prize in a book contest sponsored by Eerdmans Publishing for his
book: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense of
the Trinitarian-Theistic Faith. Soon after the book was published,
Carnell sought and was granted a professorship at the newly formed
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Though still a young man
in his twenties, Carnell appeared ready to take the Christian academic
community by storm. Instead, by the end of his short life some twenty
years later...the "storm" had overtaken him. He died alone, in a hotel
room, having overdosed on prescription sleeping pills. Adding further
stigma to his name, the autopsy report stated that it was unable to
determine whether the death was accidental or suicidal.
Ed Carnell grew up as the third of four children born to a fundamentalist, Baptist pastor named Hubert Carnell. After bouncing around the Midwest, serving various churches, the Carnells eventually settled in Albion, Michigan, where Ed was a popular, though unimpressive student. Both his family and his friends were quite stunned when Ed, upon graduating from High School as a "C" student, announced his intentions to enter the ministry and to pursue training at Wheaton College in Illinois.
The college life, proved financially difficult for Carnell. Coming from a poor family, he had to make his way by working part-time in the school cafeteria. But, for the first time in his life, he excelled in the classroom. By sitting under the teaching of renowned Philosophy professor, Gordon H. Clark, Carnell found his wings, academically speaking. Clark's influence over many of the Wheaton student's was quite profound. An engaging, theologically Reformed, apologist educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Clark challenged and inspired his students to understand and properly defend the rationality of the Christian faith. This is exactly what Carnell set out to do.
After graduating from Wheaton, Carnell moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster Theological Seminary. It was here that he encountered the teacher who was arguably the most influential Christian apologist of the 20th century, Cornelius Van Til. While Van Til influenced Carnell toward an Apologetic methodology that espoused man's presuppositional belief in the Christian God; Van Til's influence proved to be much less significant than Clark's had been. By the end of his writing career, Carnell had received some mild rebukes from Van Til for not having embraced the full-orbed presuppostionalism that he espoused. Van Til was also involved in a major controversy with Gordon Clark over Clark's ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The argument, over an extremely technical and theological point, led to a permanent schism between the two men, both of whom remained in the same denomination. Clark eventually left for a different brand of Presbyterianism, but undoubtedly, the damage done to Clark by Van Til, had a profound impact on Carnell.
Carnell dutifully served Fuller Seminary as Professor of Theology for five years, but the situation at Fuller was contentious. Harold Ocknega had served during that time as President in Absentia, remaining in Boston where he pastored a church. He vacillated numerous times between moving to Pasadena to take up the Presidency full time and resigning to focus on his pastorate. But it was clear that the seminary needed on hand leadership. In 1957, into this void stepped Edward Carnell.
While it is frequently difficult for a person to go from colleague to supervisor, the transition seems to have been doubly hard for Carnell. Though the faculty sought an onsite President, they were divided in their agreement on Carnell's suitability for the position. Young, ambitious, and inexperienced Carnell appeared to be in over his head, and perhaps he was. Add to the mix that Carnell was by personality and temperament more suited for the classroom and study than he was the fundraiser and figurehead role of President and you have a recipe for disaster. Carnell made it clear time and time again that he was not a fundraiser, but an academician. Nevertheless, funds were extremely tight, and stress weighed heavily upon him. Though the seminary progressed under his leadership, he ultimately resigned in 1959 after a five year tenure, and returned to the classroom. But his life was never the same again.
Later Life & Tragic Death
Carnell had suffered from insomnia for much of his life; and the added strain of the presidency exacerbated his emotional state. At times, he fell into deep seasons of depression and sought relief through medication and electroshock therapy. His mental condition was further assailed by polemic assaults from the fundamentalist Christians of the day. Though Carnell once labeled himself a "fundamentalist" he ultimately preferred the term "evangelical." Fundamentalists were considered anti-intellectual, and legalistic in some of their views, and Carnell was anything but. He desired Christian scholarship to be rigorously academic and rational; and he confessed that he had grown up under a smothering brand of legalism that he found distasteful. Because of some of these comments, he was attacked by some fundamentalists, and the assaults took their toll.
It appears that in his later years, the medication and shock therapy influenced his teaching abilities. His once quick and sharp mind now took awkwardly long pauses when lecturing; and at times, he appeared to be distracted while in the classroom. The end came in 1967, when he was invited to address a Roman Catholic conference in Oakland, California. He had struggled for some time with remembering whether or not he had taken his sleeping medication, and his wife had gotten in the habit of dolling his pills out to him. But, he had done well for quite some time and was beginning to take care of the responsibility himself. Because of this, he attended the conference by himself and was scheduled to speak on noon of the second day. He never showed up and was found dead in his hotel room's bathroom floor. He was 48.
It seems that Carnell's death was more than likely accidental. A towel rack in the bathroom was pulled from the wall, indicating that he had fallen. Furthermore, several pill bottles were found in his room, with pills remaining in them. Typically if one is planning a suicidal overdose, they take all the pills they can. Finally, the level of barbiturates in his system was 3.5mg, and the average barbiturate suicide victim has between 6 and 8 mg. But, the coroner's report sealed his fate and left a permanent cloud over his name as a "possible suicide." Perhaps the suspicions are justified. After all, he was an insomniac, who suffered from severe depression, and had a history of mental anguish associated with his career. But the evidence points to the contrary; and in truth we will never know for certain.
Critique of Rudolph Nelson's Critique
Nelson's book is loosely divided into three parts. The first part examines Carnell's life in a largely biographical fashion. The second part examines his theological positions and professional struggles. The third part, shortest in length, makes final conclusions. Without question, the first part is the most interesting section of the book. One cannot help but be impressed and inspired by this poor, underachieving "C" student, who works his way up the academic latter to the point of attaining two doctorates by the age of 30. Nelson contends, rightly so, that if Carnell had stayed in the classroom he probably would have lived a long and fruitful life. As it was, his ascension to the Presidency proved to be the turning point, and downfall of his career.
The author's critique of Carnell's theology is predictable. Nelson confesses that he was once a "fundamentalist" until he saw the theological light and became a liberal. In his criticism of Carnell, he sneers frequently at Carnell's "primitive understanding" of the Bible and essentially dismisses him as an oaf because he never reached the enlightened position of denying the faith he claimed to possess. In essence, Carnell is ripped and labeled as an ignoramus because he didn't reject his Biblical beliefs and climb (or slide) to the heights (or depths) of higher critical liberalism. In fact, in reading Nelson's condescending critique of Carnell's beliefs, one could easily forget that Carnell was not a backwoods illiterate at all. He had a Ph.D. from Boston University, and a Th.D. from Harvard having written dissertations on the philosophy of the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. The author seems aghast that one could attain such intellectual accomplishments and still be a Biblical Christian.
Nelson also implies that perhaps Carnell didn't really believe what he claimed to. Based on a comment by Carnell's brother, whom Edward was not especially close to, Nelson contends that Carnell suffered greatly because his mind refused to accept the Christian faith that he was taught to believe. Indeed Carnell does admit to struggles with doubt (as all people do), but nowhere in his writings, personal or private, does Carnell come anywhere close to denying the faith. He had his faults, and he had his struggles, but he remained devoted to the Christian faith to the end. It seems that Nelson makes a little too much of Carnell's occasional mentions of suicide in his writings. In his first book, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, Carnell begins the book by writing of the struggles man faces in a fallen world. He mentions that these struggle are manifested most dramatically when once commits suicide. Nelson also comments on an alleged statement made by Gordon Clark in a debate with an atheist. Supposedly, when confronted with what he would do if Christianity proved to be false, Clark responded that he would kill himself because there would be no reason to exist. This statement of Clark's is found no where in print and was given to Nelson by an alleged witness to the debate. But regardless of whether or not it's true; to try and make a case for Edward Carnell's anguish over the believability of Christianity from such shoddy evidence is unconvincing.
Nelson ends the book with a brief conclusion in which he takes the stance of Carnell's death being accidental. And he suggests that his "primitive faith" combined with his foolhardy venture as a seminary President, pushed him over the emotional edge.
While I obviously didn't agree with all of Nelson's conclusion, I did enjoy the book and was fascinated by Carnell's life. The author did a thorough job, in my opinion, of presenting the biographical information in a highly readable fashion. However, the author's personal prejudice against conservative Christianity tainted his judgment towards Carnell and led to conclusions that were unjustified. I would recommend the book, with an exception. If one believes they can be entertained by an interesting life story, while also warned about the possible pitfalls of entering a professions that doesn't suit them then read the book. But the Christian reader needs to be discerning and see through the polemic attacks the author makes on the Biblical, Christian faith.
(NOTE: I originally wrote this as an Amazon review in 2009)