Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 7
*If you have not been reading previous installments of this series, you may not understand some of what I write here*
After two challenging years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University, in 1984 my dream came true. God opened the door for me to join the faculty of Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. God used my seminary professor and good friend Dr. Al Glenn, long-timer Bethel faculty member, to open that door for me. I went to Bethel “walking on clouds” I couldn’t believe my fortune.
At that time, Bethel was definitely in transition, but it was becoming one of the premier evangelical liberal arts colleges (together with a seminary) in the United States. It had recently built a new, “shiny” campus on a beautiful lake. I walked into my office in the Academic Center with profound satisfaction and joy. My job was to teach courses in historical and contemporary theology—two of my favorite subjects.
Throughout my time at Bethel I felt absolute academic freedom—within the confines of evangelical Protestant Christianity broadly defined. I soon learned that some of my colleagues did not feel as I did; there were many mutterings against the administration among some faculty members. After two years at ORU I found their complaints hard to take seriously.
Bethel had a distinct ethos from its Scandinavian pietist roots. It was founded in the 19th century by Swedish pietist immigrants. A word I heard often about Bethel’s ethos was “irenic”—irenic evangelicalism. Also “warm-hearted evangelicalism.” Bethel positioned itself between fundamentalism and liberalism. I felt that I could fit right in if I kept my mouth shut for a while and listened and learned—especially from the older, “veteran” faculty.
Bethel was operated and controlled by the Baptist General Conference which had previously been known as the Swedish Baptist Conference and is now called “Converge.” It was a relatively small Baptist group of about 800 churches in the U.S. Although the official BGC and Bethel Statement of Faith included the term “inerrancy,” I was told by top administrators not to worry about it. They did not have an official definition of inerrancy and did not require anyone to sign the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy—something I could not have done.
In fact, when I asked about the meaning of “inerrancy” at Bethel, my friend and mentor Al Glenn showed me a two page explanation of the concept written by John Piper when he interviewed to serve on the faculty a few years before I arrived. (John left Bethel to pastor a church before I came.) John’s explanation of “inerrancy” (which is on his web site) defined it as “perfection with respect to purpose.” I could then and now sign on to that definition, but, unfortunately, not all inerrantists think it is sufficient (including Carl F. H. Henry who criticized it in a letter to me).
As I said, Bethel had a distinct ethos. One of my first experiences was being “Bethelized”—day long “initiation” (part of new faculty orientation) featuring several veteran faculty members and one administrator. I felt absolutely comfortable with being “Bethelized.” My personal form of evangelical Christianity fit perfectly with Bethel’s.
Still, and nevertheless, I determined to duck my head, not make noise, and listen and learn for my first two or three years at Bethel. I met personally with faculty members who were critical of Bethel and claimed that academic freedom there was a myth. We discussed especially cultural relativism. Some of the professors in Cultural Studies seemed to me like believers in cultural relativism. We talked long and hard about questions like whether there is a transcultural “core” of the gospel. Some of them said no, there is not. Some of them were highly suspicious of me as a theologian. They told me that theologian Wayne Grudem, who had held my position previously, left a bad “taste” in their mouths about theology. I did not know Wayne or anything about him, so I could only listen.
One of my best experiences at Bethel was auditing a Doctor of Ministry seminary taught by one of my theological heroes—Bernard Ramm. He was in deep retirement then and came to Bethel from California to teach this one class which lasted every day, all day, for two weeks during a summer between my first and second year at Bethel. Dr. Ramm had Parkinson’s Disease and was not very well. Still, I benefitted greatly from getting to know him and listening to him hold forth and ramble about evangelical theology. (The course was ostensibly about homiletics, but Ramm talked all over the place about many subjects including speaking in tongues!)
*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.*
Early at Bethel I detected a certain suspicion about theology on the part of some of my faculty colleagues. I went out of my way to have conversations with them and attempt to clear up misunderstandings. One professor of physics told me in the faculty lounge “Theology—that’s just theoretical Christianity!” I responded “Physics—that’s just theoretical engineering!” He laughed, delighted at the retort, and we were friends after that.
During my early years at Bethel I declined to join the Evangelical Theological Society, a membership widely expected of evangelical professors. The ETS was then considering expelling New Testament scholar Robert Gundry whose writings I highly valued. I decided that I didn’t want to be a member of any society that launched what I considered a heresy-hunt. Gundry was a well-known and highly regarded New Testament scholar. I never did join the ETS and for that I am glad.
During my early years at Bethel College I often walked “over the hill” to the seminary to meet with some noted evangelical scholars there. Among them, of course, were Millard Erickson, dean of the seminary, and Berkely Mikkelson and Robert Guelich and Robert (Bob) Stein and other notable evangelical scholars and authors. Eventually I was offered a position at the seminary but declined. More about that later.
During my fifteen years at Bethel a rift developed between the college and the seminary with the seminary moving in a decidedly more conservative theological direction than the college. Real tensions began to develop over women in ministry, women teaching seminary students, inerrancy, Calvinism, open theism, and other controversial subjects. Overall and in general, I think it is safe to say, the college was more open to new ways of thinking while the seminary, led by Erickson, moved closer to fundamentalism without actually becoming fundamentalist.
I joined the American Academy of Religion in order to participate in the relatively new Evangelical Theology Group (a program unit of the AAR). That was led by Rob Johnston of Fuller Seminary and Donald Dayton. I found the meetings invigorating. Eventually I became co-chair of the Group. I also joined the American Theological Society (Midwest Division) that met twice annually in Chicago—rotating its meetings among the various seminaries in Chicago. That was (and I assume still is) a very ecumenical and diverse group of systematic and historical theologians. The first meeting I attended included a kind of debate between Postliberal theologian William Placher and revisionist Catholic theologian David Tracy. Needly to say, the meetings were fascinating. Eventually I became president of the ATS (Midwest Division).
All of that is to say that at Bethel I eagerly “networked” with all kinds of people—both evangelical and liberal (mostly outside the seminary). But I stayed true to my evangelical roots and commitments while openly rejecting the growing attempt by conservatives among evangelicals to baptize biblical inerrancy as the “super badge” of evangelical identity.
While I was on the Bethel faculty storm clouds began to gather over the college and the seminary from conservative “constituents.” Rumors began to circulate among them (mostly BGC people) that the college especially was “going liberal.” Biblical inerrancy (not interpreted strictly enough), women in ministry (both the college and seminary supported that), and “annihilationism” were three flash points of controversy. I learned that the president, George Brushaber, was coming under increasing pressure to clamp down on the faculty—to assure our conservatism, adherence to traditional evangelical beliefs. The “boundaries” of evangelical belief became a topic of constant conversation. It soon became clear that one of the people stirring up the constituents against the perceived “liberal trajectory” of Bethel was John Piper.
This was a time (1980s) of the rise of the so-called Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell who had all but crowned himself as the spokesman for American evangelicals. Also, the late 1970s heated controversy about biblical inerrancy was making itself felt. It wasn’t enough that we affirmed it; we were under pressure to affirm it in a certain way. The teaching of evolution became a point of controversy as did some professors’ drift away from premillennialism and dispensationalism—neither of which were in the Statement of Faith. Yet some constituents treated those—together with Young Earth Creationism—as hallmarks of authentic evangelical Christianity.
But everything was simmering somewhat under the surface until one turning point that put the cat among the pigeons (as the British say)—my colleague Greg Boyd’s public affirmation of what came to be called open theism. More about that later.
During my fifteen years at Bethel I had many articles published in Christianity Today and some in Christian Century. I also wrote for and became editor of Christian Scholar’s Review. I had some articles published in Scottish Journal of Theology and other scholarly theological journals. I was beginning to emerge as a scholarly voice among evangelicals. President Brushaber took notice and took me under his wing and promoted me to his wide circle of evangelical academic leaders including all the presidents of the Christian College Consortium.
But my real breakthrough came with the publication of my first book 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (InterVarsity Press) written with Stanley J. Grenz and published in 1992. It was well received, well reviewed, won an award, and sold very well. My “star” was rising within the evangelical academic world.
To be continued…
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