Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 3
*If you have not read the first two parts of this semi-autobiography, this one may not make very much sense. It is a continuation of the first two parts.
I was relatively contented with my Christian form of life, intensely evangelical, Pentecostal, until about midway of my first year of college. High school graduates who were members of my church were expected to attend that particular college. As the pastor’s kid, I felt obligated to follow tradition and enroll there even though some of my high school teachers and advisors begged me not to. They wanted me to go to a “regular liberal arts college or university.” But to do that would have been to cut the cord of fellowship and to break away from my family and church and denomination. My uncle was then president of our denomination. Many of my aunts and uncles were its missionaries. Some of my aunts and uncles and cousins had at various times pastored its churches. The lines between my family, my church, and my denomination were very unclear. I just knew I was expected to attend this little Pentecostal Bible college. All my friends, including the young lady I intended to marry (!), were students there. My parents graduated from it as did numerous members of my extended family.
I went there expecting to get at least some of my theological questions answered. I often raised my hand during lectures and asked questions my professors either could not answer or did not want to answer. The ethos of the college was cultic; everyone was expected to, as the Germans say “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” Questions were not welcome. About halfway through my first year I realized that many of my teachers were simply ignorant about the subjects they were teaching. I had an excellent high school experience and read voraciously on my own—including existentialist philosophy, modern science, literature, history, etc. I devoured massive tomes—both fiction and non-fiction. But I stuck with it for four horrible years. During those four years the college had five presidents. It was a time of tremendous turmoil within the college including some open rebellion among students. I realized that in order to learn my subjects I had to learn on my own and I continued my high school habit of reading. I hung out at the local “Book and Bible Store,” spending what little money I had on mostly used books. I went to a local university and spent much time in its library reading.
To make a long and unhappy story short, I graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Ministry and Theology. However, I was told by my uncle that the college board discussed not allowing me to graduate because I was considered rebellious. I had dared to challenge some of my teachers when they taught blatant errors, skipped classes, shamed students for asking honest questions.
I will tell only one anecdote to illustrate what happened. During one class in Pentecostal theology I asked the teacher to show me where the Bible teaches that a person must speak in tongues to be Spirit-filled. He gave the usual “evidence” from the Acts of the Apostles—that most often when people were filled with the Spirit they spoke in tongues. I pointed out that this does not demonstrate the doctrine. The teacher could not satisfy me so he called in “the big gun”—the most powerful pastor in the denomination who looked straight at me and said “If we didn’t believe it we wouldn’t be Pentecostals, would we?” I thought that was a weak argument to say the least—especially to defend making it a doctrine. Opinion, yes, fine, but not doctrine.
*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.*
After college I enrolled in a Baptist seminary. That alone was proof that I was losing my faith. I’m sure many of my relatives and friends prayed for me. They believed that Baptists could be saved, but Baptists did not have the “full gospel,” only we (they) did. I agreed that most Baptists lacked a complete understanding of the Holy Spirit, but I no longer believed 1) that speaking in tongues is necessary or even for everyone, or 2) that bodily healing is in the atonement, or 3) that the “church” would be raptured before the Parousia—the second coming of Christ. My disbelief in these three crucial Pentecostal doctrines caused me to be shunned by Pentecostals. For me it was like losing a part of my family and even a part of myself. But I had to be intellectually honest, not like my uncle, the president of our denomination. He was one of the nicest men I have ever known, but when I asked him if Billy Graham was Spirit-filled he said that he must be. I responded that Graham wrote in his book about the Holy Spirit that he never spoke in tongues. My uncle’s response was “Then he’s the exception.” I asked him if I could teach that there are exceptions to the rule (doctrine) if I remained within our denomination and taught at one of its colleges. He said no. That was, for me, a major “Aha!” moment. I had to leave.
My seminary experience was the polar opposite of my college experience. My professors encouraged me to ask any questions and they answered them with knowledge and understanding—when they could. If they couldn’t answer them, they helped me find answers—if there were any. They encouraged me to push the envelope—going outside the seminary and taking classes in process theology and liberation theology at a local Lutheran seminary extension. Not once did I experience any spiritual abuse there. My memories of seminary are without exception positive.
During my seminary years I spent many hours in the seminary library and in the libraries of the two local liberal arts college—both at least vaguely Christian. I spent many hours in my professor’s offices querying them about theology. I often left with a pile of loaned books by theologians like Donald G. Bloesch and Bernard Ramm and even Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. I soaked in seminary. It was such a breath of fresh air after the oppressive atmosphere of the college.
Also during seminary I began to read Christianity Today, Eternity (no longer published), The PostAmerican (later renamed Sojourners), The Other Side, and other magazines and journals of progressive (nonfundamentalist) evangelical thought.
All of my seminary professors had earned doctoral degrees; all of them had published articles and books. All of them took me under their wings and spent generous amounts of time with me. Some of them began to urge me to look into pursuing a Ph.D. in theology. I did not think I was qualified for that, but they did.
During my seminary years (1975-1978) I survived financially because both my wife and I worked—half to full time. I served as Assistant Pastor at a Pentecostal-charismatic church that had been dramatically changed by the Jesus People Movement and the charismatic movement. It was not at all “classical” Pentecostal; it was “populated” mostly by mainline Protestants who had become charismatics. But it was not infected with “charismania.” Many of the members had “come to Jesus” through the Jesus People Movement. I did have to hide my intellectual inclinations at the church; it was a spiritual hot house and many of the members tended to look askance at theology. Some even half-jokingly asked me how things were are the “cemetery” (their way of saying “seminary”). But nobody opposed my attending seminary and many said they enjoyed my Bible studies and Sunday School classes. Most of my work there, however, had to do with supporting the pastor—doing things he didn’t want to do. That was okay; my mind and heart were at the seminary.
I graduated from that seminary (NABS, now Sioux Falls Seminary) with an M.A. in Religious Studies magna cum laude in May, 1978. I was headed to Rice University in Houston, Texas to study with a well-known Baptist philosopher of religion and theologian named John Newport.
This was the first miraculous door-opening for me. I applied to several Ph.D. program. One very well-known Christian university with a Ph.D. program in religious studies turned down my application. Rice accepted me and gave me a generous stipend and eventually paid my way (together with my wife and daughter) to spend one year in Germany studying theology with one of the most famous theologians in the world—Wolfhart Pannenberg.
I felt like something of an imposter, knowing how pathetic my college experience had been—through no fault of my own. Still, God opened the door for me to pursue a Ph.D. at one of the United States’ best research universities. At that time Rice was always listed in the top ten of American universities by U.S. News and World Report. It was called “the Harvard of the South.”
To be continued…
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