Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 1

Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 1 July 9, 2021

Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 1

This blog essay is Part 1 of a projected series about my experiences as an American evangelical theologian. Some of you will already know much about me from reading my blog. Others may know nothing about me. Some may only know of me from my Wikipedia article which says that I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister which is false. (Perhaps it has been changed by now as I have told many of my students about this error.)

Recently I assigned my students in a class on modern theology to watch and listen to a portion of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s last lecture from 1984. It’s title is Erfahrungen eine katholischen Theologen (excuse my German; I’m going by memory). Rahner died not long after giving the lecture. The English translation is available somewhere. I gave my students enough of it to know what he was saying and assigned them to watch and listen to only a short portion of it—just to see and hear the greatest Catholic theologian of modern times. (Of course, I know others will disagree and call out other names such as Hans Urs von Balthasar or even Hans Küng as the greatest modern Catholic theologian.)

This series is my equivalent (not in quality but in intention) to Rahner’s lecture, although I intend to tell more personal stories about my experiences as an American evangelical theologian from about 1982 until now, 2021. In brief, for almost forty years I have worked “in the thick” of American evangelical theology, getting to know most notable American evangelical theologians and writing about 22 books mostly published by leading evangelical publishers. In addition to that I have written numerous articles and chapters that have been published about many subjects—many of them about evangelical theology. I have served on the faculty of three evangelical universities, as chief editor of an evangelical theological journal, as contributing editor of Christianity Today, etc. I wrote numerous articles for CT as well as for Christian Century. Some people have said that I am the only true evangelical theologian who has published in both of those magazines. I doubt that.

I would dare to say there are very few American evangelical theologians who have had as broad and deep experience within the evangelical theological community as I have had over the past forty years. Most of this began by accident although I admit to pushing open some doors to “get in.” Over the years I came in contact with other notable evangelical theologians (as well as non-evangelical theologians) who helped open some doors for me. Over the years I have participated in numerous theological symposia, seminars, weekend retreats, discussion groups, etc.,–some of them very ecumenical (as opposed to attended only by evangelical theologians).

I do not assume any interest in what I write here, but I beg you to wait and see if some of what I write catches your interest. I intend to tell some secrets here. I expect some people to quite unhappy with some of what I tell—that I have mostly kept to myself over the years. I have remained an evangelical theologian even though I have experienced some extremely disillusioning events among so-called evangelical theologians (as well as among some non-evangelical theologians). Most of the time I will not name the names of the people in question. Those “in the know” will easily guess to whom I am referring.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

So, to begin with, who am I? Right now, as I write this first installment of my intellectual (and somewhat personal) autobiography, I am the Holder of the Foy Valentine Chair in Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. However, I am done teaching classes and will fully retire on December 31—after 22 years in this position (although the chair was given to me only a few years ago). After that I will be Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics of Baylor University.

Before this I taught Christian theology at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma for two years (1982-1984), an experience that many people will find hard to believe as I tell about it. It came about seemingly quite by accident, but I tend to think God led me there to help some students who were very confused by things they were hearing in chapel services at that university. My life there was challenging, to say the least. But more about that later.

After leaving ORU in 1984 I taught for 15 years as Assistant Professor of Theology, then Associate Professor of Theology, then full Professor of Theology with tenure at evangelical Bethel College, a liberal arts college in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. Overall, that was a great experience, but during my time there a severe controversy broke out about so-called “open theism” and I got caught up in it. I finally decided I had to leave that lovely place and position when Pastor John Piper, a leading, influential constituent of Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) told me to my face that he would get me fired for being “open to open theism.” At that time Bethel did not have real tenure, only five year contracts. I felt my position was becoming precarious—also because I was not at all sure I believed in biblical inerrancy. Ironically, I believe in it as John Piper defined it—“perfection with respect to purpose”—but that was becoming insufficient as a definition of inerrancy among many of the institution’s denominational constituents (and also among conservative evangelical leaders generally!).

In 1999 (I believe) God opened to door for me to come to Baylor University’s then nearly new George W. Truett Theological Seminary and become one of its first full time, tenured faculty members. The open theism controversy followed me here, much to my chagrin, when certain influential Southern Baptist theologians published lies about me and things I allegedly said and wrote about open theism. But more about that later.

I have never been a Southern Baptist; I have been several kinds of Baptist. I grew up Pentecostal/Full Gospel (Open Bible Churches). I attended a moderately evangelical Baptist seminary after college (North American Baptist Seminary now Sioux Falls Seminary). I proceeded to a Ph.D. program in Religious Studies at Rice University to study under Baptist theologian and philosopher of religion John Newport. I served as minister to youth and director of Christian education at a Presbyterian church during that time in Houston. I then moved to Munich, Germany to study theology under Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who was at that time widely considered one of the world’s leading theologians. I wrote my Rice dissertation about “The Historical Being of God: Trinity and Eschatology in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” A chapter based on my dissertation is forthcoming from Fortress Press in an edited volume. I do not yet know its title.

In Part 2 of this series I will return to the beginnings. How and why did I become a theologian? Many people have asked me that over the years. And it is a strange story. I suspect that many people assume that someone in my position must have begun life in the lap of luxury or at least in a highly educated, affluent, intellectually-inclined home and church. Nothing could be further from the truth. I began life in poverty, even living for two years in foster care, in the bosom of a religious form of life that eschewed the life of the mind—at least with regard to theology. My becoming a chair-holding academic theologian at a major American research university was not predictable or expected in any way. Looking back on the process that led me here, I can only explain it in terms of God’s providential working. I was brought up to believe that God has a wonderful plan for every Christian’s life. One of my favorite Christian theologians (yes, he was a theologian although he is often called a philosopher) Søren Kierkegaard said that life must be lived forward but can only be understand backward. As I look back I now see clearly where God opened doors for me that only God could have opened. He used people, but how that happened is so strange that it can only be explained as providential.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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