Evangelicalism and Fuller Seminary

I spent a few days this week at my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, promoting a Doctor of Ministry cohort that I’m leading/teaching over the next three years.  Of course, the visit was full of nostalgia for me, including trips to some of my favorite restaurants, and drive-bys of my old residence (the Bresee House) and my employer (Pasadena Covenant Church).  I visited Knox Presbyterian to see my Fuller housemate, Matt Colwell, preach, and I had coffee with another classmate and feminist/evangelical theologian, Linda Peacore.

It was amazing to me how much Fuller has grown since my last visit, which must be at least ten years ago.  There’s a new library, and Fuller has expanded into several new buildings, including a sleek, modern space that houses Student Services and the D.Min. offices, among other things.

I was also honored to give a talk in Travis Auditorium, a spot that hold memories both sublime (the lectures of my late friend and mentor, Bob Guelich) and ridiculous (playing Captain Kirk in the Fuller Follies, alongside Carla Grover Barnhill (Uhura), Matt Colwell (Spock), and Craig Detweiler (expendable Star Trek guy in the red shirt)).

But as I spent time at Fuller, I found myself thinking more and more about Fuller’s location, not in Pasadena, but in the landscape of American Protestantism.  I even had the good fortune of chatting with Fuller president, Richard Mouw, for an hour — a conversation that will remain off the record.

A couple weeks ago, Rich spoke out boldly in defense of Rob Bell’s orthodoxy to the USA Today, and he wrote about that on his blog — comments for which he has received an enormous amount of feedback, both positive and negative.  Just yesterday, he posted again, further clarifying his thoughts.  (I kidded Rich and asked him if this was precedent-setting — would he now publicly defend all Fuller alumni?  He assured me that it was not! 🙂 )

Here’s the thing about Fuller: At it’s best, I think, Fuller Seminary turns out alumni like Rob Bell and Linda Peacore and Miroslav Volf and Matt Colwell and Philip Clayton (with whom I also met yesterday), and, dare I say it, me.

I am very much a product of Fuller.  I’m proud to be a graduate, and I have encouraged dozens of persons to attend Fuller over the years — in fact, it’s the only M.Div. program that I wholeheartedly recommend.  At Fuller, by the like of Bob Guelich and Miroslav Volf and Nancey Murphy, I was taught the methods that have led to the very theological speculations that I regularly make on this blog.  And I was taught the generous orthodoxy about which Rich wrote on his blog yesterday.

But there are, as you can imagine, some Fuller alumni, and even faculty, who have expressed concern about my hiring.  While I don’t know the details, it is almost surely my advocacy for the full inclusion of GLBT persons in the church and in the marriage laws of our society that have irked some people enough for them to protest my role as an adjunct faculty member.

The thing is, when you look down this list of notable Fuller alumni, I can pretty much guarantee you of one thing: Fuller alumnus John Piper is not encouraging anyone to attend Fuller. I doubt that John Maxwell is, either.

But I am.  And I bet Rob Bell is, too.

Fuller holds a unique and somewhat precarious place in the geography of American evangelicalism.  While it continues to produce pastors and scholars who are, dare I say it, generous evangelicals, those more conservative elements within evangelicalism will be discomfited.  They’ll think that something is wrong at Fuller.

But I think that Rob Bell is Exhibit A that something is very, very right at Fuller.

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  • carla

    I couldn’t agree more Tony. Fuller taught me that there is a wide and wonderful diversity among Christians, from the postmodern skeptics to the charismatic leg-lengtheners. It is an extraordinary place filled with God’s people pushing and pulling at each other in ways that I fully believe only make the kingdom better and stronger.

    I have to correct you on a minor point: I was not in the Star Trek skit. I believe Grace Park was Uhura. I was in a delusional woman in a skit with LuAnda and managed to snag a husband out of the deal.

  • I toured Fuller back in 2007 and it was leagues above all of the other schools I visited. It never ended up working out, I think I always knew it was far above my price range.

  • Well put, Tony. I had been a bit cynical about seminary education before I attended Fuller. Or maybe it was simply the stigma of the “stale institution” that rubbed me the wrong way. What’s unique about Fuller is that it is not stale and static. It is living and breathing and it promotes a faith that is living and breathing. While Nancey Murphy brilliantly taught me Philosophical Ethics, she also taught me the art of respectful discourse rooted in relationship. In a time when I was frustrated and isolated from the church, the professors became my pastors. Fuller is a place that greatly values intellectual assent, while remaining most intentional about fostering humanity’s greatest need; relationships.

  • Tony,

    Thank you for the reflections on Fuller. I too am an alumn — 2x over. Fuller allowed me to explore my faith, and while Rich might not feel led to defend me on all counts, I would recommend Fuller to people looking for a broad evangelical context in which to study.

    I had good mentors and teachers as well — Jim Bradley, Colin Brown, Roberta Hestenes, Jim Butler, Don Hagner, Mel Robeck, and Jack Rogers, among others.

    I learned to wrestle with my faith without abandoning it!
    I was wondering at your hiring, but glad they did. Hey, they’ve even hired me on occasion!!

  • Wait, Grace Park, star of Battlestar Galactica, went to Fuller and played Uhura in a skit?!? Who knew?!

    But seriously folks…
    Tony, how do you as faculty – and I as perspective DMin student – reconcile our “advocacy for full inclusion of LGBT persons in church and society” with Fuller’s statement against those persons? Especially since Fuller says, “statements of community standards are affirmed by all trustees, faculty, administrators, staff, and students of the seminary.”

    Do we sign it and ignore it? Or sign it with our proverbial fingers crossed behind our back? (probably happens a lot but doesn’t seem like a very winsome or honest approach)

    Refuse to sign it and hope to explain our position? (doesn’t seem to be an avenue for that)

    Something else that I’m missing entirely?

    Then, after this, there’s that whole divorce missive to deal with… [sigh]

    I know it’s not your job to figure these things out for me, but I’d love to learn from your insights on this.

    • Dave Buerstetta,

      As an adjunct faculty member, I have signed Fuller’s Statement of Faith. But faculty do not sign the Community Standards document, nor, I believe, do students. I have read the Community Standards of Fuller and I have acknowledged that they are, indeed, Fuller’s standards. I’ve also agreed that I will not, in my official position with Fuller, teach against those standards. I am free to communicate my opinions elsewhere, like here, even if they occasionally contradict those standards.

      I hope their wouldn’t be anything therein that would keep you from applying, Dave.

  • DB

    I agree. I think Fuller comes out ahead on this one. I thought Mouw’s new post clarifying his comments and views was truly gracious and actually more insightful than his original.

  • Tony,
    I am a Fuller Grad x2 and I also have great memories and great appreciation for the ways the community of faculty and students there have shaped me as a pastor and as a Christian. Somehow Fuller has managed to maintain the tension that Mouw describes at the new student orientation – that some people have warned prospective students that Fuller is too liberal and others have lamented that Fuller is too conservative. It is one of the few Christian environments I have encountered that is generous enough to embrace a wide spectrum of theological perspectives, and maintain a vibrant center of Christ-centered faith.

    I played the sexually-harassed, muscle-bound office secretary at Fuller Follies, and I also spent a year in the Bresee House, where you were a bit of a legend by the time I showed up. Is the Chinese food/hamburger joint/donut shop still there? Good luck with your class.

  • Charles

    The first pastor that truly shaped my generous orthodoxy was a Fuller grad, Ross Foley. The man had an aides ministry in the early 1980s. His sermons often gave you pause (sometimes jaw dropping) and made you think. I still miss him, even though I’ve moved beyond the evangelical framework of Christianity.

    Is there any discussion of modifying the Fuller Community Standards document? Is it edited by committee? It can’t be by consensus, can it? Just curious.

    • Charles, another of my Fuller housemates was Ross’s son, John Foley.

      I don’t know the process of editing and amending the Community Standards. I imagine it’s done by faculty committee or something. I do know that particular topics, like human sexuality, are regularly talked about at faculty meetings.

  • jill

    Thanks for your reflections, Tony. I think I have similar feelings as a graduate of Fuller as I do as a native of the South – exasperation and occasional embarrassment at its history and limitations, defensive ire against its more ignorant critics, and deep appreciation for the diverse array of magnificent people who have been formed and have formed others in the rich context it provides.

    I don’t know who compiled that list of distinguished alumni you linked, but I am rather appalled that there is not a single woman on it…

  • Charles

    As a non-evangelical it seems to me some very bright women would choose a seminary a bit more gender friendly than Fuller. Not that they are problematic in that regard but someplace “more open” to gender-neutral positions within Christendom (Princeton?) might be more attractive to them. The more conservative branch of Christianity still has gender problems, it seems to me. But that’s just my liberal view of the Christian praxis rising to the top.

  • carla

    Charles, I see your point and in general I agree with you, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate reflection of Fuller. I found my fellow female students to be some of the most amazing, bright, gifted women I’ve ever met. And there were plenty of us there–certainly not a small minority. Faculty-wise, Fuller has some of the best and brightest women teaching theology today–it’s hard to beat Maryanne Meye Thompson and Nancey Murphy. And there are plenty of distinguished female alums doing great work, like Jill up there. I would count myself among them if I’d graduated from Fuller, but alas, I didn’t.

  • Was it really necessary to jab at Piper in this piece?

  • Stephen Hood

    What would happen to a leftward tacking broad church Episcopalian in a DMin program @ Fuller? I’ve looked @ schools in my own tradition plus a few others, and Fuller seems to be doing the innovative stuff I want to explore. Having grown up in the midst of people immersed in the teaching and preaching of grads of Dallas Theological and Southwestern Baptist, I’ve always lumped Fuller in with those guys. But, Fuller may be a more balanced place than I imagine. Any perspectives would be helpful. I don’t mind differing theological perspectives, but I do want to be in a place where I’ll be invited to play in the reindeer games.

  • On the alumni list — that is a partial list that isn’t official, but put up on Wikipedia. We who are alumns and have wiki accounts could update it.

    I might add that Amy Plantiga Pauw and Anthea Butler are two women academics making their mark. Amy teaches at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and is editor of a new commentary series from WJK. Anthea is Associate Professor of Religion at Penn and a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches. Amy was a classmate in the 80s when I was doing my MDiv and Anthea was an M.Div. student while I was doing my Ph.D. in the early 90s.

  • Stephen,

    Fuller is Evangelical but it’s not in the same place as Dallas, Talbot, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell or SW Baptist. I think you’d find it fairly congenial.

  • Jordan Henricks

    Hi Tony,

    I realize this post is a bit dated, but I came across it when I was looking up a name that appeared in the text. I did, however, want to reach out to you. I was the student who was present at Lucky Baldwin’s after your presentation on your visit in March of 2011, but was disappointed with the conversation that night. I emailed you the following week but never heard a response. Is there any reason you didn’t write back or did my email just fall through the cracks?