Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 8
*If you have not been reading this series, this installment may not make much sense to you.*
My writing and publishing career really began in earnest with a phone call in 1990. I knew Stanley J. Grenz because he had also studied with Wolfhart Pannenberg and taught at my alma mater, North American Baptist Seminary. We became good friends, often rooming together at professional society meetings (especially the annual American Academy of Religion meetings), and we had much in common in terms of our visions of what evangelicalism and evangelical theology should be. Stan called me in 1990 and asked if I would like to write a chapter for a book InterVarsity Press asked him to edit. The book was to be about 20th century theologians. I immediately suggested that we simply write the book together and he agreed. In 1992 my first book, coauthored with Stan Grenz, was published: 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age. It was very well reviewed and received and sold well. It still sells well all these years later!
After that, Stan and I wrote Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (IVP, 1994). That was also well received and has sold over fifty thousand copies. I will share an anecdote about that book’s origin. Stan and I were riding in a car with some of our IVP friends, the publisher and editors, and we began to talk about the need for especially lay people to understand what theology is and appreciate it. We came up with the book’s outline, chapters, and basic contents during that ride to the hotel we were all staying at in Washington, D.C. from the restaurant where we ate dinner together. This was during an annual AAR meeting.
After that I approached IVP about publishing a book I wanted to write alone—The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. Well, they jumped at it and I wrote it (a one thousand page manuscript) during a sabbatical in the late 1990s. It was published in 1999 and has sold many thousands of copies in several languages. I suppose people would call it my magnum opus. Again, it was well reviewed and well received and won a special award from the Evangelical Publisher’s Association.
*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.*
Now I approach a public “telling” of the major controversy of my time at Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University). First, however, let me say that I loved Bethel and enjoyed my fifteen years there; I have no regrets about going there and staying there throughout that time.
One of my greatest achievements during my Bethel years was recruiting Greg Boyd to join our faculty—in the undergraduate Biblical and Theological Studies Department. The department chair handed me a pile of applications for an assistant professor position in theology. I went through them and picked out Greg’s application as the obvious best choice for us. Of course, we did our due diligence and interviewed several candidates and gave them all fair hearings in interviews. However, Greg stood out as most qualified. I was delighted when he joined our faculty and soon he was publishing and making his mark on the evangelical world. Greg and I spent many hours together—discussing theology and singing old gospel songs on road trips.
One day Greg asked me to read the manuscript of a book he had written entitled Letters from a Skeptic. I told him I loved it but that his seeming endorsement of open theism would cause a firestorm among our conservative, especially Calvinist constituents. He didn’t believe me. And so it went. After the book was published the firestorm erupted. John Piper was especially incensed by the endorsement of open theism and by my very public defense of open theism as not heresy in a major review essay of The Openness of God in Christianity Today.
John called me on the phone and asked me to have lunch with him. When I met him at his church office he assured me that our meeting was not an inquisition but that he just wanted to know “what made me tick.” The lunch turned into a two hour argument about whether or not open theism is within “evangelical boundaries.” John told me that if I kept defending it and Greg Boyd he, John Piper, would get me fired. I told him I was “open to open theism” and he said “I will not let you do that.” When we emerged from his car in his church parking lot he said to me, “Roger, I will be reporting what you said during our lunch to pastors.” I reminded him that he said it was not an inquisition. Frankly, I felt, as they say, sucker punched by John. I assume he did report our conversation to the pastors who were against open theism and wanted Greg fired from Bethel.
Bethel’s president was extremely skittish about the open theism controversy. To make a long story short, in (I think it was) 1998 he called a “Day for Theological Clarification” and invited all of Bethel’s and the Baptist General Conference’s (now Converge) theologians to attend. I asked the provost during a faculty meeting if this was going to be a heresy trial. He insisted it was not and that no vote would be taken. I attended only to defend Greg and open theism—as not beyond the boundaries of evangelical theology.
About fifteen of us met in a conference room for an all day confab about open theism. It began with Timothy George, then dean of Beeson Divinity School, presenting arguments against open theism. I was convinced that all of his arguments against open theism would apply also to classical Arminianism. (George was and I assume is a Calvinist.) Then Northern Baptist Seminary dean Timothy Weber came into the room and presented arguments for open theism—as not outside evangelical boundaries. After lunch Greg was given the opportunity to explain his version of open theism and defend it and himself. He did an excellent job and answered questions very well.
Then…came the ballots. I was furious. This was a heresy trial. We were asked to write “yes” or “no”—yes for Greg is within evangelical boundaries or no for Greg is outside evangelical boundaries. We, the faculty, had been promised no vote would be taken. Sitting across from me was the president of the denomination. I saw him write on his ballot and fold it and hand it in. The result was unanimously in Greg’s favor! No abstentions. Later I read pastors (on their discussion board) saying that the president did not vote.
Greg kept his job—for a while. But he was under tremendous pressure to resign—as was I for so vocally defending him and other open theists as evangelicals. To me, it was not only a tempest in a teapot but also an attempt by (mostly) Calvinists to take power within the evangelical theological world and expel from it open theists and those of us who defended them.
After that “Day for Theological Clarification” I knew my time at Bethel was up. About a year later I received two invitations to leave Bethel and join seminary faculties. One was from Northern Seminary (they dropped the “Baptist” at least publicly while remaining primarily Baptist) and the other was from Baylor University’s new seminary, George W. Truett Theological Seminary. I interviewed at Northern one day and at Truett the next day. I was offered full professor positions by each. After much prayer and serious thought I opted for Truett and have never regretted it.
Next…my transition from Bethel to Truett…stay tuned…
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