Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors #7: Dan R. Stiver

stiver It’s been awhile since I last added to this series on Theological Mentors.  As usual, Danny cannot be held responsible for my theological errors–since that’s doubtless due to my being a poor student. 

Dan R. Stiver currently occupies the Cook-Derrick Chair of Theology at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, TX.  Logsdon and HSU are related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and is a partner institution with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  When I knew Danny, he was Professor of Christian Philosophy at my alma mater, The (old) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (before the fundamentalist takeover of the early ’90s).

Dan is a product of Midwestern American upbringing (Springfield, MO) and of the old “moderate” or non-fundamentalist stream of Southern Baptist life.  He was educated at William Jewell College in Missouri, an institution with both Southern Baptist and American Baptist ties. He then earned his Master of Divinity at Midwestern BTS in Kansas City, MO.  He earned his Ph.D. in theology at SBTS where he was the last doctoral student of the late Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody.  He has held pastorates in Missouri and Indiana.  A theologian with a philosophical bent (not all that common for the Baptist tradition), Danny taught Christian philosophy at SBTS for 14 years, from 1984 to 1998. (I arrived in his classroom in 1986–he’d had enough teaching experience to be confident and still enough passion and experimentation to excite students who were often  unsure why they, as student ministers, had to study anything philosophical! In the last year of college, I had discovered Karl Barth and so came to seminary with a decidedly anti-philosophical bent!)

I was worred that theologies which rely over much on philosophy, whether the Platonic metaphysics that influenced the Church Fathers (didn’t know there were Church Mothers then), the Aristotelian thought behind Thomism, liberal process theology, Kantianism, etc. were always diluting the gospel and distorting it–either in conservative or liberal or some other direction.  I found that Danny was far from naive about these problems, but that he believed that all theology must interact with various philosophical currents (ancient, contemporary)–even if they are wary of substituting a philosophical “foundation.” or starting place for the Church’s One foundation, Jesus Christ the Lord. Theology is interacts with philosophy as part of its missionary nature.

It was Dan’s genius to mentor students who took VERY DIFFERENT approaches to theology and were attracted to different philosophical currents: From evangelical rationalists who were disciples of Carl Henry, to process theologians (either in the form of the evolutionary theology proposed by Dan’s own teacher, British Baptist Eric Charles Rust, or in the more dominant Whitehead-Hartshorne school), to Marxist-inclined liberation theologians, to “post-structualist” Deconstructionists.  After freeing myself from an inordinate fear of philosophy (while remaining alert for the subversion of the gospel by alien thought forms), I found that my own philosophical interests were quite  eclectic: My deep  respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. led me to read the Boston Personalists and my fascination with Dorothy Day led to the very different Catholic Personalists, especially Jacques Maritain. My attraction to liberation theology kept me critically engaged with Marx (and heterodox Marxists like Gramsci, Bloch, and Enrique Dussel) and my interest in Jewish thought led to Buber and Heschel.  Dan encouraged all of this and more.

It took awhile, then, to grap Danny’s own philosophical interests, except to think he’d read everything and everyone twice over! (He hadn’t, but it sure felt that way!) Dan has strong interests in philosophy of language, especially religious language and has been a major dialogue partner in the modern/post-modern divide, without being wholly in the “camp” of either the Deconstructionists and Post-Structuralists (Foucault, Levinas, Lyotard, etc.) or that of the “Anglo-American” post-modernists (influenced by J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). His first book, The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story (1996) mapped the lay of the land and staked out some of his own ground.  It is clear that the Catholics Hans Kueng and David Tracy, as well as the Reformed Juergan Moltmann and the Baptist Langdon Gilkey, as well as Dan’s own teacher, Dale Moody, were large influences. 

   It was also clear that Dan was attracted to narrative theology (an interest I shared), but more from the perspective of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) than to Hans Frei or Hans Gadamer.  I had stumbled onto Ricoeur myself both because of my strong attraction to narrative theology (Ricoeur helps one weave together narrative and liberationist strains in a way that I think Frei does not) and my commitment to pacifism–Ricoeur himself was a Christian pacifist–although still drafted into the French army in WWII. (Ricoeur was quickly captured and spent the war in a German concentration camp, teaching philosophy!)  But Ricoeur’s work is so large and so wide-ranging that I never knew what I  thought of the project as a whole. Dan was a tremendous help with his second book, Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (2001).

Dan eventually came to be part of my doctoral dissertation committee and, although mine was a work on theological ethics, he kept me seeing how my project fit into larger conversations in philosophical theology.  I THINK it was Danny who  once told me that there was a large difference between Christian philosophers who were trained first as theologians and those who, however theologically well informed, only had philosophy degrees. (Surprisingly, the latter are often more conservative than the former, as a survey of the Society of Christian Philosophy will show!) That’s been Dan’s main influence: introducing me to conversations and dialogue partners rather than teaching me HIS views on everything.

In fact, I still don’t know Dan”s views on a great number of things. I’d love to see him write his own systematic theology! I don’t know if he shares my Christian commitment to pacifism, although I do know that he is deeply committed to Christian peacemaking and  human rights and is a member of the Baptist  Peace Fellowship of North America. (We have to get Danny to one of our summer conferences, peace camps, sometime.)  I know little about his politics except that he is a registered Democrat and, like all true Baptists, a STRONG advocate for church-state separation and for religious liberty for EVERYONE. 

If I am a provocateur, Dan is more of a mediator. He likes to get people of very diverse opinions engaged in real dialogue and see if new insights emerge.  There is something DEEPLY, profoundly Christian about that and I hope I learn more of it from my friend and teacher.

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August 9, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, mentors, peacemaking, philosophy, theological education, theology | 2 Comments

Theological Mentors 6: Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005)

ricoeur_paul2I haven’t added to the series on mentors in some time, so let me correct that, now.  (Here is the index to the series.)

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) was one of the most  brilliant and influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th C. whose thought and writings ranged widely and influenced many different fields.  Less well-known, perhaps, is that Ricoeur was also a deeply pious Christian, a lifelong member of the French Reformed Church (which dates back to Jean Cauvin [John Calvin] and the later Huguenot movement during the Reformation.

Ricoeur was born 27 Feb. 1913 in Valence, France.  His family were devout Protestants in a country whose majority is Catholic. (France adopted religious liberty and church-state separation during the Revolution of 1789 and it is today formalized as the principle of laicite since 1905.  Religion is considered far more a private matter than in the U.S. and left of center politicians seldom refer to their faith, though this is changing slightly.  The French govt. does not keep statistics on religious adherence or race or ethnicity.  In a 2003 poll, 41% of French respondents said the existence of God was “excluded,” or “unlikely.” When questioned about their religious affiliation, 62% responded Catholic, 7% Muslim, 2% Protestant, and 1% Jewish. )  His father died in 1915 in WWI.  His mother died the same year. So, from 2 onward the orphaned Ricoeur was raised in Rennes by his paternal grandparents and an Aunt, helped by a stipend he received  as a war orphan.

Perhaps aided by the family emphasis on Bible study, Ricoeur was bookish and intellectually precocious.  He received his license (equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts in the U.S.) 1933 from the University of Recennes and began studying philosophy at the University of Paris at the Sorbonnes in 1934, where he was influenced by the existentialist Gabriel Marcel.  In 1935, Ricoeur received the second highest agregation award in the nation. (This is a French civil service examination for educators.) It presaged a bright future as an academic philosopher–but WWII intervened.

Christian pacifism is rare among the Reformed (Calvinist) branch of Protestantism, but it is a stronger minority among French Reformed than elsewhere.  Ricoeur did not believe Christians should kill but France had no conscientious objector  law. (The laws for COs  in France are still not great–far more restrictive than in either the UK or the US.) So, Ricoeur was drafted into the French army.  He was almost immediately captured and spent most of WWII in a German concentration camp–where he managed to get permission to teach German philosophy to prisoners and guards. Ricoeur’s wife was pregnant with their first daughter when he was captured and he did not meet her until after repatriation.

After the war, Ricoeur taught for a few years at several lycee (the final stage of French secondary education, preparing students for university work; closer to the German gymnasium system than to U.S. or even UK high schools) before teaching at the University of Strasbourg between 1948 and 1956. (Strasbourg is the only French university with a Protestant faculty of theology and Ricoeur used his time there to become thoroughly aquainted with contemporary theology.  He kept up with major currents of theology throughout his long life, though he never pursued novelty for its own sake.  In U.S. terms, Ricoeur’s theology could be considered at the overlap of “the evangelical left” and of “Neoorthodox” theology, though he was uninterested in such labels.) In 1950, Ricoeur received his doctorate, submitting, as is the French custom, two theses: a minor thesis that was the first translation of Edmund Husserl’s Ideas into French, along with commentary, and a major thesis later  published as Le Volontaire et l’Involontaire (English translation would be roughly “Free Will and Determinism.” It was published in English as Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and Involuntary.]

From 1956 to 1966, Ricoeur held the chair of general philosophy at the Sorbonne.  In 1967 the University of Paris was massively reorganized and Ricoeur became an administrator at the new University of Paris at Nanterre (now Paris X).   He taught there until mandatory retirement in 1980.  Beginning in 1956, Ricoeur also taught regularly in the United States in both philosophy and theology departments.  From 1970 to 1985, he taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School and continued to commute between France and the U.S. throughout his “retirement” years.

Ricoeur’s prolific writings in philosophy begin with existentialism and phenomenology.  But he, along with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, pioneered the “hermeneutical turn” in philosophy.  This proved to have huge implications for theology and biblical studies. In fact, Ricoeur wrote numerous books on biblical studies and hermeneutics.  However,  his works on general philosophical hermeneutics made no reference to his biblical and theological works and many of his strictly philosophical students knew little or nothing of his biblical and theological works.

It was his biblical work I discovered first, especially Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1980). But I eventually discovered The Symbolism of Evil (1967, French 1960) and his other works. I am still trying to wade through his massive 3 volume Time and Narrative. 

What I have learned so far from Ricoeur is that all of reality has a narrative quality:  that is, that our existence as humans can only be described in the form of story–personal and greater stories. Unlike his one-time student, Jacques Derrida, Ricoeur never lost faith in grand meta-narratives (after all, the Christian Master Story is one he believes!). So, he is not “post-modern” in the deconstructionist sense. Yet, Ricoeur also warns against the  idea of fixed meanings. He knows that interpretations are always provisionary and conflicted. See his Conflict of Interpretations.

I know that Ricoeur shared both a theological and political outlook that, in broad brushstrokes, largely agrees with my own. Yet his  writings are so voluminous that I am not sure I have understood his entire “project,” nor how his philosophy, faith, and ethical-political outlook formed a coherent whole–although spelling out these connections was something he worked hard at during his last year. ( I have got to find time to read Onself as Another, The Just, and Thinking Biblically.)  I especially want to see if there are connections between his broad thought and his commitment to pacifism.

So, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ricoeur is becoming a mentor as I am grasping more and more of his project.   I look forward to further insights from fellow theological  bloggers.

For help, I highly recommend Dan R. Stiver, Theology After Ricoeur:  New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).  But as much as I admire Danny (full disclosure: a former teacher), I want to try to grasp Ricoeur on my own. I have always preferred primary sources to secondary, but when someone’s works take several pages just to LIST, a secondary source may be helpful. I recommend this one.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | mentors, theology | 2 Comments

Index of Posts on Theological Mentors

Since I have now been blogging long enough that more than 100,000 people have visited this site (something I still find amazing), I am going to create some indices of popular series I have done for the benefit of new readers. This will enable me to refocus for new efforts, such as continuing my case for GLBT inclusion in churches (with a single-standard sexual ethic), etc. This is stock-taking.

Realizing that we all stand in particular traditions, I have written a fairly popular series on my theological mentors–one that I may soon resume.

  1. The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-1997).
  2. Baptist ethicist and peacemaker, Glen H. Stassen (1936-).
  3. My eldest daughter’s namesake, Baptist theologian and seminary president, Molly T. Marshall.
  4. Baptist historian and mystic, E. Glenn Hinson.
  5. The late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000).
  6. The late philosopher and French Reformed Christian Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005).
  7. Baptist philosophical theologian Dan R. Stiver.

Well, this is obviously incomplete and I clearly haven’t added to it recently. I need to write posts on my college NT. prof., Craig Blomberg, on George R. Beasley-Murray, Clarence Jordan, Henlee Barnette, Dorothy Day, Letty Russell, Paul Fiddes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, Muriel Lester, Walter Brueggemann, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., & William Stringfellow. At least.  (I have written on some of these, but not as personal mentors.) I hope people continue to enjoy this series.

July 14, 2008 Posted by | heroes, mentors, theology, tradition | 7 Comments

Glen Stassen: Peace Theologian

glen-h-stassen-peace-theologian.jpg

My mentor, Glen Harold Stassen, now the Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, was one of the founders of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America in 1984.  There was a Baptist Peace Fellowship that was only for American Baptists that began in 1941. In 1984 the remaining leaders of this group met with Southern Baptist peace leaders (especially those connected with publishing The Baptist Peacemaker, which is now the official journal of the BPFNA) at Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  At the end of that meeting, the two groups decided to merge and to boldly call the resulting group (in hopes of even broader participation) the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America! Glen served on the board for several years as the group’s membership expanded to include Canadian Baptists (connected with the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec [BCOQ]; the Baptist Union of Western Canada [BUWC]; the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches [CABC]; so far, we have not succeeded in gaining any members of the Francophone l’Union d’Eglises Baptistes Francaises au Canada ), Mexican Baptists, Puerto Rican Baptists, Cuban Baptists (mostly associated with the small, progressive, La Fraternidad Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba), Seventh Day Baptists, National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, members of the Baptist General Conference and the North American Baptist Conference (denominations which originally were peopled by immigrants from Sweden and Germany, respectively).  Since the splintering of the SBC, our members have also included many from the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and fewer that call themselves Southern Baptists, still. We have yet to be successful in outreach efforts to members of the Conservative Baptist Association, General Association of General Baptists, or Free Will Baptists.

Glen has stepped back in recent years to let others fill leadership roles in the BPFNA, but he usually attends and has a deep sense of identification with this organization.  Many of us can trace our involvement to Glen’s influence and he is a mentor to more than just his own students.  This picture was taken by my daughter, Molly.

August 5, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, mentors, peacemaking | 1 Comment

Mentors #5 James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

mcclendonI have postponed this entry long enough. 

James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000) was a gentle giant who came to have more influence outside his home denomination than in it, more’s the pity. Born and raised in Louisiana to a Methodist father and a Southern Baptist mother, both traditions would influence him, although he was converted and baptized in his mother’s congregation–though only after exposure to African-American Baptist life. (His family was wealthy enough to have a black maid and she exposed Jim to Black Baptist life.)  Jim went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating just as the Japanese surrendered, ending WWII. Along with many other U.S. sailors of his generation, Jim saw the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki firsthand–an experience that had a slow, but lasting, effect on his life and thought–though he did not immediately recognize this.

After leaving the military, McClendon earned a second B.A. from the University of Texas and a Bachelor of Divinity (a graduate degree equivalent to a modern U.S. Master of Divinity) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning a Th.M. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Unable to work with the mentors he wanted at Princeton, McClendon returned to SWBTS to pursue a Th.D. under Walter Thomas (W. T. ) Conner (1877-1952), the greatest theological mind SWBTS has ever produced. Unfortunately, Conner died before McClendon’s doctoral work was much off the ground and he later accused the seminary of not giving him much supervision, nor teaching him much in the way of theology. Ironically, he found this liberating: First in the pastorate and then as a teacher, McClendon explored every major contemporary theologian without much in the way of preconceptions and asking all the fresh questions he should have been exposed to in seminary! Everyone from Barth to Tillich was a live possibility!

McClendon was recruited by Southern Baptists to teach theology at their (then-brand-new) institution, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco. The U. S. Black Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement was in full swing and McClendon rocked the boat by speaking out in its favor. When he helped students raise money to respond to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea for volunteers to come to Selma, Alabama, Golden Gate promptly fired him–despite his tenure and without a hearing!

This began McClendon’s long career of teaching outside Baptist institutions, something rare for most Southern Baptists until quite recently. He was first hired by the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, thus becoming the first Protestant in America to teach theology at a Catholic institution.

But this, too, was not to last. The Vietnam War was heating up, McClendon’s sons were facing decisions about whether or not to resist the draft, and McClendon opposed the war on Just War grounds. He said so publicly and in print and joined students at “teach-ins” and other protests–which was too much for a Catholic institution in 1965–McClendon was fired again.

Now, at this point, all my readers who are academics or would-be academics should be horrified. It is the rare academic career that survives one forced termination, never mind two in close succession! It is amazing that McClendon ever recovered. He did, but not without scars. He began taking every Visiting Professor slot that came his way, criss-crossing the country to teach at such places as Stanford University, Temple University, the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary’s Moraga, and Goucher College before eventually finding another tenured position at the (Episcopal) Church Divinity School of the Pacific, part of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.  (McClendon was also part of the core faculty of GTU.) McClendon was to stay at CDSP/GTU from the early 1970s until his first retirement in 1989, but by the time CDSP/GTU hired him the strain of a vagabond existance after 2 firings had taken a huge toll on his marriage. Though he sought marital counseling, his first wife, Marie, mother of his sons, divorced him. At this time, divorce was rare among clergy and unheard of among Southern Baptist ministers. This tragedy alone would have prevented McClendon from ever again being hired by an institution of his home denomination. (Years later, McClendon would marry again: a former Catholic turned Anabaptist who had a Ph.D. in philosophy of science from CalBerkely and was one of Jim’s students at GTU earning a Th.D.! Dr. Nancey Murphy, Jim’s widow, is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained Church of the Brethren minister. During their life together, she was also nearly half his age! I first saw Nancey with Jim’s sons and mistook her for a daughter! Fortunately, I figured things out before opening my mouth. ) After retiring from CDSP/GTU, Jim became Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena where his wife was on faculty.

By the time he arrived at CDSP he had become a full pacifist, but he was yet to discover what that meant theologically.

When he arrived at CDSP, this Anglican/Episcopal seminary was fond of saying that they were both “Catholic and Protestant.” Jim figured that since he had taught at both Catholic and Protestant schools, he would fit right in, but he didn’t. In reading Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus in 1974 (two years after it was published), McClendon rediscovered his heritage in the Radical Reformation–part of what he liked to call the “small b” baptist tradition. He undertook to write a dogmatics from this tradition, but in a way that could be understood by the mainstream. The result was the incredible 3-volume Systematic Theology, written in the order, Ethics (1986, rev. ed., 2002), which explored the question “How must the church live in order faithfully to be the church in this time and place?” Doctrine (1994), exploring the question, “What must the church teach in order to live that faithful life?” and finally Witness (2000), exploring the cultural conversations with the arts, music, sciences, and philosophy–dialogues of a faithful church in a late North American context (NOT a prolegomena stuck at the end). The final volume was finished and Jim saw the finished product just before his death at 76.

Along the way, Jim helped launch the narrative theology and anti-foundationalist reactions to the Enlightenment and modern theology (both liberal and conservative), but distanced himself from the faddish forms of these movements and from anti-realism. His influences included Karl Barth (1886-1968), John Howard Yoder (1927-1997),  the irrepressible Stanley Hauerwas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the later Wittgenstein, the philosopher of language John L. Austin, as well as Clarence Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day,  Jonathan Edwards, and Roger Williams. His students and dialogue partners included an atheist philosopher (James M. Smith), a rabbi and Jewish theologian (Michael Goldberg), a radical biblical scholar and activist (Ched Myers), a Catholic philosopher (James Burrell), a cranky, foul-mouthed Methodist (Hauerwas), a few a-typical feminists (Molly Marshall, Elizabeth Barnes, Georgia Harkness, Tammy Williams, etc.) and numerous “baptists” like myself who found in McClendon an alternative to fundamentalism or liberalism’s equally poor straightjackets. My dissertation tested and (slightly) modified McClendon’s methodological approach to ethics and renamed his “baptist vision” as Incarnational Discipleship.

I remember at one meeting of the American Academy of Religion seeing Jim huddled together in conversation with John Howard Yoder, Glen H. Stassen, Stanley Hauerwas, and Fr. Simon Harak, S.J.–all old friends and colleagues. I was convinced that only the Holy Spirit could have welded together such friendships: Yoder, taciturn and lacking many people skills, brilliant, but brusque and hard to get to know; Stassen, the Minnesota populist, gregarious-but-competitive–son of a politician, a former scientist turned theologian; Hauerwas the Texas Methodist who insisted on displaying his working class roots with his constant profanity (He once bought me a beer right after calling me an s.o. b. ! I accepted only after he agreed to leave my mother out of things!); Harak the deeply pious Palestinian Jesuit; and Jim, genteel with a Southern patrician air and constant good humor. Jim, I thought, was the conduit the Spirit used to keep these disparate folks as friends –and it is a tribute that these and many more widely diverse circles continued their friendships after Jim’s passing.

My debt to Jim McClendon is huge–behind only Yoder and Stassen–and I miss him constantly. I am deeply glad that I was able to contribute to one of the Festschriften in his honor. This mentor is a giant on whose shoulders I try to stand.

December 7, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, mentors, theology | 11 Comments

Mentors #4: E. Glenn Hinson


One of my teachers whom I have not mentioned frequently on this blog is E. Glenn Hinson, church historian, contemplative & advocate of strong, disciplined practices of spiritual formation, ecumenist, peacemaker, and advocate of the liberal strand of Baptist theology. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Hinson grew up on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks near Sullivan. A poor Baptist farmboy growing up in the Great Depression and WWII, his path to success began with a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis where he earned a B. A. in history mathematics (correction from Sallie Lanier). As with many of us, university tested Hinson’s faith and he credits a wise counselor at the Baptist Student Union (BSU) on campus for showing him that if “all truth is God’s truth,” and if Christian faith was a relationship with the living God, then one could fearlessly investigate anything, test everything, and trust God through it all. That orientation led Hinson forevermore to see fundamentalism as a kind of fear or even a “works righteousness” that desires to earn God’s favor through holding “right beliefs” and being intolerant of all, even other Christians, who see things differently.

Hinson took this new orientation and a call to ministry to the mother seminary of his denomination (Southern Baptist Convention), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. There he finished his B.D. near the top of his class (earning several awards) and took a Th.D. in New Testament, writing a dissertation in which he concluded that the Apostle Paul did not write the pastoral epistles–a daring conclusion for a Southern Baptist in the 1950s.

SBTS wanted to recruit the brilliant student from Missouri, but needed church historians more than Neutestamentlers. Hinson switched gears and pursued a second doctorate, a DPhil. at Oxford University in early church history. (He studied, of course, at Regent’s Park College, the Baptist theological college at Oxford.)  His background in New Testament has allowed him over the years to make many careful connections between the Apostolic era and the Patristic writings.

Becoming friends with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer whose abbey (Gethsemani) was near Louisville, Hinson became deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of spiritual renewal–connecting the revivalist spirituality of most Southern Baptists to ancient and medieval spiritual practices. His ecumenical efforts included participation in the Faith & Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at a time when his branch of the Baptist movement was not a member of the WCC. He has lectured in Catholic, Orthodox, and many different Protestant institutions.

For 30 years, Hinson taught Church History at Southern Seminary, becoming one of the most published faculty members. He has written major works in early Church history (e.g., The Evangelization of the Roman Empire; The Church Triumphant; The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages) , biography (e.g., Seekers After Mature Faith; Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere); religious liberty(e.g., Soul Liberty; Religious Liberty: The Christian Roots of Our Fundamental Freedoms); spiritual formation (e.g., A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle; Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership), over 30 books and contributions to books in all.

Hinson has even used his NT scholarship and written Jesus Christ for the “Faith of Our Fathers” series in the early 1960s. This work was later to be the cause of some controversy, although the series died and few noticed Hinson’s volume at the time. The assignment by the publishers was for Hinson to write a “biography” of Jesus that included only what historians could prove or be reasonably sure of as historians. So, Hinson summarized the major conclusions of “historical Jesus” research at the time. He noted that the tools of historiography did not allow him as a historian to affirm Jesus’ resurrection, although as a believer Hinson could and did affirm Jesus’ resurrection.

Years later, in the 1980s, when Hinson was a major critic of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, Hinson’s enemies used that book to claim that Hinson did not believe in the resurrection–which is false. One can debate whether or not Hinson is right about the limits of historiography, but that is an argument about what historians can reasonably assert, NOT an argument over the resurrection itself. Trustees at SBTS repeatedly cleared Hinson of any charges of heresy, but one of the injustices of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was that there was no such thing as protection against double jeopardy: Hinson and other professors could be cleared one semester only to face another individual or group putting forward the SAME CHARGES with NO NEW EVIDENCE the next semester.

When Pres. Roy Honeycutt retired from SBTS, Hinson retired rather than attempt to teach under a fundamentalist administration. From 1994-2000, Hinson was Professor of Church History and Christian Spirituality at The Baptist Seminary in Richmond (BTSR) and an Adjunct Professor at Union Theological Seminary of Virginia/Presbyterian School of Christian Education. He has also held many visiting professorships. Currently, he is Visiting Professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Senior Professor of Church History and Christian Spiritual Formation at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (a non-fundamentalist alternative to the now fundamentalist-controlled SBTS), and Visiting Professor at Lexington Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ). During this post-SBTS period, Hinson has affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

As with anyone, I haven’t always agreed with my beloved professor: Hinson denies the Anabaptist roots of Baptists, for instance, seeing English Puritanism as the sole root of the Baptist movement–a view I contest. I find less value than he does in the works of Teilhard de Chardin, whereas Hinson finds Teilhard’s work to provide a philosophy of history. But I have learned from him to appreciate the history of the entire church as MY history and learned steep myself in the “classics of Christian devotion” as guidance in spiritual formation and discipline. We share a deep commitment to Christian nonviolence (Hinson’s is more Quaker-influenced while mine is more Anabaptist in shape) and the work of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Hinson was the original editor of The Baptist Peacemaker.

His personal faith has also long been a source of personal inspiration: Hinson suffered a stroke and loss of some hearing in the late 1960s, but has persevered in service to Christ and the church despite this and much other adversity. I am glad to have been taught so much by this great mentor and friend.

Note: The Fall 2004 issue of the Review and Expositor (the oldest faculty journal of theology founded by Baptists in North America) is devoted as a Festschrift to Hinson.  The Spiritual Formation Network, dedicated to helping all Christians become spiritually mature, has created (in 2007) the E. Glenn Hinson Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation Scholarship.

October 27, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, mentors, theology | 20 Comments

Mentors, #3, Molly T. Marshall


Continuing my irregular posting of tributes to my intellectual and spiritual roots. Currently Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall is President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, the first woman to head a Baptist seminary or divinity school in North America. She is also Professor of Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation at CBTS, an American Baptist seminary that now also has strong ties to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I first met Molly in January of 1986 when I arrived on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Molly, herself twice an alumna of SBTS, a former missionary to Israel, campus minister, youth minister, and interim pastor (one of the earliest ordained women in the SBC), had been hired in ’84 as Asst. Professor of Christian Theology. I was first introduced to her as Dr. Molly Marshall-Green. [Let me take this opportunity to quench a persistent rumor. She is STILL happily married to Douglass M. Green, M.D., a retired family doctor. They have never been divorced. But Molly’s hyphenated name had never been legally changed and was causing her considerable problems in the SBC. So, she dropped it to just use her original surname in ’88.]

I was looking forward to taking classes with Molly. I had come from a church with women deacons and was theoretically in favor of women in ministry, although at that point I had never met one. But I was also nervous. Molly was widely rumored to be an “extreme feminist theologian,” and, although I had specifically determined to take every controversial professor at SBTS to learn the truth about conservative charges, I was a bit nervous. The extent of my previous exposure to feminism had been to vote (and lose) for Florida to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

I found a gracious woman who pushed students to explore ideas fearlessly, including those of “raging liberals.” But Molly’s favorite theologian, to judge by numbers of quotations in class, was the Apostle Paul with a close second going to the Reformer Martin Luther! Yes, she had studied with the Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, a fascinating figure who combined a conservative approach to the New Testament with a very liberal theology! But, no, Molly has never been a universalist–I read her dissertation from cover to cover in one long day in the library to check out that rumor!

Like many Baptist theologians, she is a creative eclectic–powerfully influenced by her teacher, Dale Moody, by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, by Juergen Moltmann, Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza, but also writing in creative dialogue with conservative evangelicals like Bernard Ramm, Clark Pinnock, and, in New Testament Theology, George Eldon Ladd. In class she assigned texts by a wide range of authors, often asking students to compare and contrast an evangelical text with another from a different tradition–and never telling them where they must “come out” at the the end. Hardly the radical others made her out to be!

I remember asking Molly once, after reading a strong feminist critique of all-masculine God-language at the same time I was reading both St. Athanasius and Juergan Moltmann on the Trinity, if it were possible to take the feminist critique of God-language seriously while remaining a thoroughgoing Trinitarian. Molly got that twinkle that all students and colleagues know portends a quip from her irreverent sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White [my name at the time], but you will forever after be doomed to very complex sentences!” And so it has proved–helped by my thoroughly Trinitarian feminist teacher.

In 1988, Molly survived a hostile trustee board and was granted tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at SBTS. But the story was not over. When Al Mohler was elected to succeed Roy Honeycutt as President of SBTS in 1994, it was with clear instructions to fire Molly Marshall. But firing a tenured professor is not easy. He accused her of violating the Abstract of Principles, the statement of faith that all faculty must teach within at SBTS. What he meant was that she violated Mohler’s supposedly infallible interpretation of the document. When Molly voluntarily wrote a long paper expositing her understanding of every article of the Abstract and offered to meet to discuss point-by-point, Mohler sent the dean to tell her that it was no good, “they already had the votes” on the trustee board. Molly had been convicted by president and trustees of heresy without any formal charges or the chance to defend herself fairly. Molly tried to follow Jesus’ directions in Matthew 18 to go to her brother and make peace, but he, the supposed inerrantist, refused to follow Jesus’ words and even meet with her. She considered suing since being fired is usually disastrous for any academic career. She agreed to resign if she were allowed to finish supervising her remaining Ph.D. students–putting others before herself even in the face of pure evil and vicious lies. (The contrast can be seen in the fact that Molly never mentions Mohler or says anything about the current SBTS, whereas he has bad-mouthed her seminary and her in articles and his blog and on his radio show.)

Fortunately, in the graceful providence of God, the story does not end there. At the end of ’95, Central BTS hired Molly as full Professor of Christian Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation. She and Douglass moved to Kansas, the American Baptists accepted her SBC ordination, and she has enjoyed a powerful ministry as guest preacher in many pulpits while working with a small, 100 year old seminary. She is still, as I knew her, a “midwife of grace,” to theology students and church members alike.

I owe much to this woman:

  • She introduced Kate and myself and later officiated at our wedding.
  • Our oldest daughter, Molly Katharine White (b. ’95) is named after her. (The elder Molly calls my daughter “Molly the Younger,” while my daughter calls her namesake, “Dr. Molly.”)
  • I learned to read very widely in theology and to think theologically–integrating Scripture, the traditions of the church, and input from human experience.

Conservatives who think of her as a heretic are ignorant and most have never met her. She began each class with a hymn and doubtless still does. She sight-read from her Nestle-Aland Greek NT as she lectured. She quotes large sections of the Church Fathers (and some of the newly rediscovered Church Mothers!) from memory, and can often be found volunteering time and money for the poor and marginalized, especially (for deeply personal reasons) prisoners and their families.

I like to think the student has also influenced the teacher. Although she still loves Luther, over the years I have noticed her pay more attention to the Anabaptist tradition and its impact on early Baptists. (She could, of course, gotten this from many places, but we all have our little conceits and this is mine.) Perhaps that was reflected in her stint as Bible study leader for the 2004 summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

August 27, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, mentors | 11 Comments

Mentors, #2: Glen H. Stassen


Glen Harold Stassen (1936-) is my beloved teacher, mentor, occasional writing partner, and friend. Considering that he was the supervisor for my doctoral work in Christian ethics (my Doktorvater, as the Germans put it), some who know me well probably wondered why, if I were going to list mentors on this blog, I didn’t put Glen first. The answer is simple, if a bit embarrassing: I had to find a picture! Stassen is a Baptist ethicist and peace theologian who has lived and worked in several Baptist denominations, and taught on the faculties of Baptist, mainline Protestant, and evangelical institutions.

Born in Minnesota (the grandson of German immigrants) to Harold and Esther Stassen, Glen’s father became the youngest governor of Minnesota and the Stassens were part of the old ethnic German Baptist Convention (now called the North American Baptist Conference and using English in worship)–which had earlier produced Walter Rauschenbusch. Glen and his sister, Kathleen, grew up speaking German in the home and English outside. When WWII began, Harold Stassen resigned as governor of MN and joined the U.S. Navy. (Harold Stassen later wrote the first draft of the United Nations’ Charter, was a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, ruined his career in attempting to get Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket for the second term, and repeatedly ran for president of the U.S. as a liberal Republican. His influence on Glen is enormous.) Glen, newly converted and baptized as a teen, saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning of judgment by God on a war-mad world. He went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia when his father was president of the University of Pennsylvania. There he met a teacher who had volunteered as a “human lab rat” for alternative service as a conscientious objector. This impressed Glen with the idea that military courage was not the only form courage took.

Initially educated at the University of Virginia in nuclear physics (B.A., 1957, cum laude), work for the Navy and Air Force in nuclear research soon convinced Glen that enough people were solving the mysteries of the atom–and not enough were working to keep the atom in check. He soon discerned a calling to the ministry. Up to this point, Stassen had been involved in North American Baptist and American Baptist circles, but he had met and married Dot Lively, a Southern Baptist, and, after investigating seminaries, decided to enroll at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology).  He also met the famed Clarence Jordan who came to Barnette’s ethics class and told the students that segregation was like a mortally wounded horse:  it would kick and do much damage before it died. Unfortunately, Stassen arrived just after a clash between the faculty and seminary president had resulted in the firing of most of the professors with whom he had wanted to study. (13 professors were fired in this “Battle of Lexington Road,” and it took nearly 2 decades for the seminary to regain its former excellence and reputation. Now, since the presidency of Al Mohler began in ’94, that reputation is again in the toilet outside fundamentalist circles. ) Glen transferred to Union Theological Seminary of New York where his major influences were James Muilenberg (Old Testament), W.D. Davies (New Testament), the early Barth scholar Paul Lehmann (who, along with a young Robert McAfee Brown introduced Stassen to the thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christocentric liberal and process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who introduced him to the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr) , and, the Union giant of that day, the Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian ethics). R. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was reinforced at Union by Roger L. Shinn and John C. Bennett.

While at Union (B.D., 1963), Stassen continued involvement in the civil rights movement that he had begun in Virginia and Kentucky, travelling from NYC to Washington, D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington only to meet his father in the crowd when neither knew the other was coming. 

Stassen earned his Ph.D. (Theological Ethics and History of Christian Thought) at Duke University (1967, magna cum laude), supervised by Waldo Beach, but most thoroughly influenced by theologian Frederick Herzog (a creative Barthian and one of the earliest white North Americans to interact with both Latin American and Black Liberation theologies), and Lutheran historian and Reformation scholar Hans Hillerbrand (who introduced Glen to the study of the Anabaptists).
Stassen’s dissertation, The Sovereignty of God in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, has never been published.

Another strong influence was his fellow doctoral student, Lonnie Kliever. Stassen and Kliever were both Baptists who had gone to Union Seminary and now were doing doctoral work also outside Baptist circles–a rare phenomenon in those days–and both were involved in movements for social justice. (Kliever would eventually leave Baptist life and become a United Methodist.) He also continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. In both cases, he worked mostly as a strategist and organizer.

Other major influences include Menno Simons, Richard Overton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder (they were friends and dialogue partners for decades), James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (another Baptist theologian influenced by Yoder and Anabaptists), the Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer, Heinz-Eduard Toedt, and Juergen Moltmann (they co-authored a brief book).  His ongoing friendship with Stanley Hauerwas includes much agreement, but also much continued debate.   Recent dialogue partners include biblical scholars Ched Myers, Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Bruce Chilton, Marcus Borg, Willard Swartley, the late Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, R. Michael Lerner, Cornel West, philosophers Nancey Murphy, and Rene Girard.

Stassen has done additional study at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg. He has taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville), Berea College, Harvard University (Visiting Professor) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1976-1996), and as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-Present).

He has worked in or helped to found several organizations for peacemaking, worked behind the scenes to negotiate the removal of the short and middle range nuclear weapons from Europe, has testified at capital punishment cases and developed a strategy for defense attorneys in captital cases, founded and worked on advocacy for the mentally retarded (his youngest son was misdiagnosed as such during a time when almost no help for the mentally retarded existed in Kentucky) and assisted nonviolent human rights and peace movements in East Germany (Stassen was present when the Wall came down), Kazakstan, Central America, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa. He keeps up an amazing correspondence with students in each of these areas of the world, coming to lecture for them and connecting with church groups(usually Baptist or Mennonite) in all these places.

When I was his student, I argued that the implications of his theology and ethic of “just peacemaking,” led logically to pacifism, gospel nonviolence. In 2000, Glen finally began to call himself a Christian pacifist. The influence of Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder, and the New Testament, had finally pushed beyond the influence of his father and of Reinhold Niebuhr (though he remains grateful to both).

Aside from friendship, I have learned the following from Glen Stassen:

  1. He reinforced my dedication to biblical scholarship–staying abreast of current work, but being unafraid to tackle one’s own exegesis and to buck professional consensuses in the cause of Christian ethics.
  2. I was already committed to nonviolence when I met Glen, but he gave me an approach to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that made concrete, pragmatic sense. Just peacemaking, like Jesus and the biblical witness, is not primarily against something (war or violence or injustice), but for the in-breaking Rule of God including taking risks in transforming initiatives for justice and peace–just as God took a transforming initiative for human salvation in sending Jesus.
  3.  Discipleship divorced from sound theology is rootless and leads to a “thin” ethics and even burnout. Doctrine divorced from concrete discipleship (nachfolge Christi) is irrelevant and leads to a docetic, disembodied Christ unrelated to the biblical Jesus.
  4. He deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer and Yoder and taught me to appreciate the Niebuhr brothers more than most pacifists ever do. Glen reinforced my historical bent by introducing me to HRN’s dictum, “History is the laboratory of ideas.” Any ethics or politics that only works in theory, under ideal conditions, is not of much use.
  5. Glen also reinforced my interest in the early history of Anabaptists and Baptists–and introduced me to the life and work of Richard Overton, the inspiration for this blog, Levellers.

Throughout his early career, Glen published little, concentrating on classroom and church teaching and on social activism. But as he has neared retirement, his publishing output has increased, since his developing theology of “incarnational discipleship,” and ethic of “transforming initiatives” has been reaching a mature form.
Rather than give a bibliography, I direct you to Stassen’s website.

August 13, 2006 Posted by | heroes, mentors | 10 Comments

Mentors, #1: John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is one of my mentors and heroes. He was the most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons(1496-1561). Educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel, Yoder taught at both the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and at the University of Notre Dame. Most famous for his work, The Politics of Jesus (1972), which destroyed the popular image of Jesus as an apolitical figure, showing that Jesus was creating a new people whose nonviolence, mutual servanthood, and economic sharing, constituted a political threat to the Powers and Authorities. Although trained mainly as a historical theologian, Yoder wrote in several fields in ground-breaking ways: biblical studies; church history; theology; Christian ethics. Although “mainstream” Christians often read Yoder as representative of “the Mennonite view,” Yoder was often controversial in his own denomination, challenging it to renewal.

Yoder was influenced at Goshen College by Harold Bender, the first Mennonite to be elected president of the American Society of Church History.
Bender successfully sought to renew North American Mennonite life through both ecumenical contact and renewed attention to the 16th C. “Anabaptist Vision.” Largely due to Bender’s influence, Mennonite scholarship in church history became well-known before contributions in other fields.

After college, Yoder, like so many Mennonites of his generation, volunteered for mission, relief, and development work in post-War Europe, aiding in renewal both in European Mennonite life and beyond. (Yoder met and married the French Mennonite schoolteacher, Anne Marie Guth, through this work.) During this work in Europe, Yoder simultaneously enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Basel and engaged in the early post-War development of the ecumenical movement with the founding of the World Council of Churches, thereby presenting the Churches of the Reformation with their first sustained encounter with a representative of the Radical Reformation since the 16th C. The influence went both ways: Work for peace was placed on the WCC agenda from the beginning, and Yoder became deeply influenced by the work of both Karl Barth and, even more, by the growing “Biblical Theology Movement” of the era.

Those remained the dominant sources in Yoder’s creative synthesis: Bender and 16th C. Anabaptist sources; Karl Barth; the “Biblical Realism” of one major strand of critical biblical scholarship. Later influences included post-Vatican II Catholic thought (Yoder taught for years at the University of Notre Dame); the “Believers’ Church Conferences,” which brought representatives of many different Free Church or Believers’ Church traditions together and began a lifetime dialogue between Yoder and certain strands of Baptist thought; the nonviolent strand of the U.S. Black Freedom movement; a sustained and lengthy interaction (both approval and critique) with Latin American Liberation Theology; and post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue. A true polyglot with an incredible ear for languages, Yoder carried on these many dialogues in several different languages.

Painfully shy but with a booming voice and glowering countenance, many believed Yoder to be aloof or arrogant, but it was rather that John had few “people skills.” As many will attest, it was difficult to be his friend. Yet, both personally and through his work, Yoder touched numerous lives. He encouraged my own work as the external reader of my dissertation and in an email a few days before his unexpected death. At his funeral, I met people from around the world, including a young white man from South Africa who, influenced by The Politics of Jesus, refused to be drafted into the apartheid-era South African army and served time in jail in response.

Suffice it to say that my intellectual and personal debts to “JHY,” as he was often called, are immense. I will post a bibliography of Yoders major works later today.

August 12, 2006 Posted by | heroes, John Howard Yoder, mentors, nonviolence, pacifism, theology | 9 Comments