Fresno Pacific’s theological cocktail

Sep 10, 2018 by

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Last week, Mennonite World Review reported that Fresno Pacific University in California had removed the president of its seminary, Terry Brensinger, and announced that pastors Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd and Bruxy Cavey would no longer teach in the seminary’s M.A. program in ministry, leadership and culture. According to MWR reporter Tim Huber, several students have complained to the administration or even dropped out of the program altogether.

The story raises all sorts of interesting questions.

At least on my Twitter feed, the one asked most often had to do with the goals of theological education, the academic freedom of seminary professors, and the relationship of seminaries to the church — in this case, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. “While most seminaries are sponsored by denominations as a means of strengthening those bodies,” wrote Huber, “it can also be common for academic centers to challenge such groups.”

MWR, not surprisingly, focused on another angle: FPU as being both Anabaptist and evangelical.

The seminary website says that this particular master’s program “includes instruction from strategic, global Anabaptist leaders and is grounded in the Anabaptist tradition,” and its students come from MB, Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Huber noted that the program was launched two years ago “to be uniquely evangelical and Anabaptist,” with some pastor-professors straddling those two worlds.

For example, Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in the Minnesota Twin Cities, featured prominently in the 2012 book, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. As I noted in a 2013 post, editors Jared Burkholder and David Cramer included Boyd among a “growing number of evangelical leaders [to] have found in Anabaptism a robust alternative to the program of political involvement employed by the leaders of the Religious Right within their midst.”

Boyd’s critique of Christian nationalism, influenced by Anabaptist scholars like John Howard Yoder, was noted as a potential source of tension with the FPU administration and MB denominational leaders. (And he complained to MWR that the lack of conversation with him surrounding the decisions was “just not very Anabaptist.”) But as far as I can tell from the MWR story, another theological dispute seems to have been more important — one that has echoes in my own institution’s history.

Most commonly known as open theism, Boyd defined his “open view of the future” in an interview with Rachel Held Evans as

the view that the future is partly comprised of possibilities and is therefore known by God as partly comprised of possibilities… the open view of the future holds that God chose to create a cosmos that is populated with free agents… While God can decide to pre-settle whatever aspects of the future he wishes, to the degree that he has given agents freedom, God has chosen to leave the future open, as a domain of possibilities, for agents to resolve with their free choices. This view obviously conflicts with the understanding of the future that has been espoused by classical theologians, for the traditional view is that God foreknows from all eternity the future exclusively as a domain of exhaustively definite facts.

According to the MWR article, MB pastors started raising concerns about Boyd and open theism when the program started two years ago.

Coincidentally, this summer I was talking with a Brethren in Christ pastor who asked me what I knew about open theism, which I had never heard before mentioned in an Anabaptist context. Instead, I know about it primarily because of the debate that raged at my institution, Bethel University (then College), and its sponsoring denomination, the Baptist General Conference (now Converge), in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Boyd was still a theology professor here.

I came in 2003, a couple years after Boyd left to devote himself full-time to Woodland Hills (a BGC church) and his writing projects. So I can’t pass along any firsthand recollections. Instead, let me just share the summary written by Bethel history professors G.W. Carlson and Diana Magnuson in a 2010 history of the BGC: (knowing that some of you probably have your own memories and interpretation of these events)

In the 1990s an “open theism” debate emerged. A group of BGC pastors, calling themselves the Edgren Society [after the founder of Bethel, John Alexis Edgren], suggested an amendment to the BGC Affirmation of Faith to add the words “that God foreknows infallibly all that shall come to pass.” The effort was designed to provide a basis from which to Dr. Greg Boyd… would be excluded from teaching at Bethel and pastoring a church in the BGC.

The leader of that initiative was former Bethel professor John Piper, then pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. (Here’s one of his reminiscences on that affair.) In the end, a committee that included Bethel faculty as well as outside experts held Boyd’s theology to be “within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy and compatible with the theological commitments expected of faculty members of Bethel’s campus.” In 1999 delegates to the BGC annual meeting narrowly defeated the Edgren Society motion; at the next year’s meeting, delegates affirmed that open theism was “contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience” but also declined to amend the BGC faith statement and upheld the Bethel decision.

“In this controversy,” concluded Carlson and Magnuson, “Bethel sought to maintain its commitment to the Baptist pietist heritage and an irenic spirit.”

Flowing out of that open theism controversy, Carlson and his pastor, Ron Saari, launched a newsletter called The Baptist Pietist Clarion, with the express intention of continuing to advocate for a “Baptist Pietist tradition” whose markers included “the irenic spirit” of speaking the truth in love, avoiding harsh polemics, and rejecting “irresponsible heresy hunting.”

If you’ve read the book on Pietism and higher education that I edited (or chapters 6-7 in last year’s The Pietist Option), you probably know that Carlson’s framing of the irenic spirit has influenced my own views considerably. In a sense, my attempt to articulate a “usable past” from Pietism — for Bethel and similar institutions, and now for the church more generally — is an indirect legacy of the last time that Boyd’s employment at a Christian college and seminary was called into his question by his “open view of the future.”

But because this newest controversy involved Fresno Pacific and the Mennonite Brethren, it reminded me that Pietism has been interpreted in many, sometimes contradictory ways.

At Bethel, and for GW and me, Pietism undergirds a strong commitment to free inquiry within a theologically diverse community. That’s not necessarily true at FPU, as I noted in one of the first series at Pietist Schoolman. MB scholars dedicated to the neo-Anabaptist origins of what’s called the “Fresno Pacific Idea” have sometimes linked Pietism (a key early influence on the Mennonite colonies in Russia that became the first Mennonite Brethren) with later encounters with American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. For example, in his chapter on Fresno Pacific in Models for Christian Higher Education (1997), Paul Toews explained that the initial push for an MB school in California came from:

trusted and recognized persons who had grown up within the Mennonite Brethren world and were attuned to historic Anabaptist theological interests. In the early 1940s the leadership passed to a new generation significantly nurtured by pietism and American fundamentalism. This new group of leaders felt comfortable with more expressive and personal forms of piety. They also shared an inclination toward greater precision in theological formulation than had traditionally been the case among the Mennonite Brethren.

For Toews, the opening of then-Pacific Bible Institute in 1944 “did not resolve the uncertainty about what kinds of theology would best nurture Mennonite Brethren youth.” And what he concluded of those early years still sounds familiar today: “Fundamentalism/evangelicalism, Anabaptism, pietism, and ecumenicism have been dialectically linked, and the college has been pulled and pushed in different directions at the same time.”

Chris Gehrz is a professor of history and chair of the department of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. He lives with his wife and two children in Roseville, and attends Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton. This first appeared on his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.


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