Tag Archives: Nazarene

Called to the Fire

Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi; The Story of Dr. Charles JohnsonCalled to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi; The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson by Chet Bush

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After graduating with my bachelors at Olivet Nazarene University, I wound up in a graduate program at the University of Mississippi. There, in Oxford, Mississippi, my wife and I started attending the single small Nazarene church in town. We hadn’t been members there long when a young pastor and his family arrived. Chet Bush quickly became a great friend and mentor as well as my all-time favorite pastor, for a lot of reasons.

One of those reasons was that he didn’t want to preach.

That’s not to say he wasn’t a good preacher. He was. He was a great preacher, but he was a great preacher because it was clear he wasn’t doing it because he loved speaking or loved being in front of people. He was doing it because he felt like he needed to. More than that, it was clear he was doing it because he wanted to teach

And perhaps most important of all, it was clear he was doing it because he wanted to learn.

Fast forward a few years. I’m back in the Midwest, teaching at my alma mater, and Chet, after a brief peregrination to Tennessee, has returned to Mississippi as a graduate student in the history department at Ole Miss. Along the way, he’s written a book that I think captures a lot of what Chet himself is about. More than that though, in a weird way I found this book on the life of a Nazarene minister active in the Mississippi Civil Rights movement a call to the entire denomination regarding what learning, scholarship, and ministry can really mean.

If you grew up in the Nazarene church, like Chet and I did, you probably remember missionary books. They were an attempt to pass on the denomination’s history and heritage. They were usually stories of the heroes of the denomination (often but not always foreign missionaries), how they came to faith, and what they ended up doing with their lives. I don’t remember the specifics of any of them, but I remember how they felt.

With Called to the Fire, Chet has written something more than a Nazarene missionary book. In some ways though, it has that familiar feel. The book is the story of Charles Johnson, the African American pastor of a Nazarene church in Meridian, Mississippi, and the role he played as a leader in the community during the height of the Civil Rights movement, during which time Johnson briefly took the national spotlight as a witness for the prosecution during the famous Mississippi Burning trial.

Johnson’s personal journey took him from growing up in rural Orlando and coming to faith in a Nazarene revival there (which is where the book feels most like those missionary books I remember from my childhood), to school at the Nazarene Bible College in Institute, West Virginia (more on this in a moment), to his first ministerial posting at ground zero of the Civil Rights struggle. A major portion of the narrative is the young pastor’s wrestling with God to accept what he felt was God’s calling to overcome a young black man’s fear and take his family and his life into the heart of the country’s most segregated state during one of the most violent periods in its history.

The book is brief but covers the pastor’s career up to the present day, retold by Chet and built on interviews with Johnson, whose direct quotes pepper the account. Because of its brevity, the work is of necessity cursory, not delving much into the politics of a segregated denomination or the broader context of Johnson’s personal experience. Much of Johnson’s years in Meridian are passed over quickly, with the narrative coming into focus on events like Johnson’s first day in Mississippi, his days at the trial on the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers outside of Meridian, his experiences with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Johnson’s final reconciliation with one of the defendants in the trial.

It’s a good book (though, as Chet admits, looking back on it with the historical training he’s already received at the University of Mississippi, there are things he’d do differently), but most importantly it captures the story of someone whose life and actions might have gone largely ignored or been forgotten in his own church. This is where the book for me was a doorway into understanding something bigger regarding my own denominational heritage. (And yes, I’m going to consider myself culturally and contextually a Nazarene for the following discussion, even though I’m no longer a member of the denomination.)

Here’s the thing: Charles Johnson’s story opens onto a history that’s either been ignored, forgotten, or was simply never told. My first clue was the mention of the Nazarene Bible College in Institute, West Virginia, where Charles Johnson studied. I know a bit about the history of Nazarene higher education, and I had never heard of this school. It was clear from Chet’s account that this was a historically black college, which Johnson attended because Trevecca Nazarene College was closed to black students at that time. (I hadn’t realized Nazarene schools in the south were segregated.)

In the book, Chet talks about how Johnson was assigned to the church in Meridian, Mississippi, by Warren Rogers, who was superintendent of the Gulf Central District of the Nazarene church, which encompassed sixteen states. Now, I admit that I didn’t read this portion of Chet’s narrative carefully enough, because I only realized the importance of this in a later conversation with him by phone. I was asking him about there being a single superintendent over such a large district and said that I hadn’t realized the entire southern half of the United States was basically one district at this point in time.

It only slowly dawned on me in speaking with Chet that I had misunderstood, and I actually stopped the conversation to make sure I was hearing correctly: this wasn’t the only Nazarene district in the South. This was a segregated, separate black district, geographically overlapping several white districts.

I had to let that sink in for a minute. Up until (I think) 1968, there was a separate district in the south for black Nazarene churches. Their ministers went to a separate Nazarene college (which no longer exists), and they had a separate superintendent.

What floored me most about this was not the implications for race and reconciliation in our own denomination. What floored me most was that I simply didn’t know. I didn’t know the history of the church I’d grown up in. And in asking around since then, I get the idea that no one else knows this either.

Here’s where it comes home for me, and in this context it’s not about race. It’s about learning, scholarship, and ministry. Because Chet, I’m sure, is going to go on in his academic career at the University of Mississippi and do good work. I hope he does scholarly work on the history of the Nazarene church in the South, especially the history of the Nazarene Bible College of Institute, West Virginia, which apparently has no archive and knowledge of which exists now only in the memories of aging African American ministers across the country. That’s a story that has broad implications apart from its importance to the denomination and deserves to be explored.

My fear though is that as a denomination we don’t have a scholarly forum on which work like this can be disseminated and discussed. Sure, we have individuals at individual institutions who are doing good work, and Chet’s book has found a welcome audience at, for instance, Trevecca Nazarene University (where Charles Johnson was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate).

But I don’t see us as a denomination having a place to dialogue with relevant, important, ongoing work by Nazarene scholars like Chet (or, for instance, Tom Oord) in a pan-Nazarene academic context. That seems a shame, especially for a denomination with a rich history, a tapestry of vibrant institutions, and a host of issues from our heritage—from racial segregation to science and faith topics to gender and sexuality to our stance on alcohol to our understanding of holiness—that are begging for dedicated, sophisticated academic thought and dialogue at a denominational level.

A modest proposal: what about a society for Nazarene scholars and those pursuing scholarship in Nazarene contexts? It would be open to anyone, with a small annual membership fee that could sponsor the publication of a (for now) annual peer-reviewed journal. The pages of the journal would be a place for Nazarene scholars to pursue and explore these topics. I want to read informed scholarship about the history of the Nazarene church in the South (and throughout the world). I want to know more about the relationship between holiness theology and higher education. I want a place where scholarly voices in the Nazarene denomination can interact.

Heck, maybe we could even get together once every four years or so.

The thing is, our denomination has the resources and it has the need. As Chet’s account shows, there’s lots of good work being done and still to be done, but I don’t feel right now that we have a place to share this at a denominational level. Speaking from my own experience, I feel fairly disconnected from the scholarship happening at other Nazarene schools outside my own particular discipline.

Does anyone else feel the same way?

The Uncontrolling Love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of ProvidenceThe Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence by Thomas Jay Oord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world of Nazarene higher education was rocked not long ago by news of the controversial dismissal of Thomas Jay Oord from his teaching position at Northwest Nazarene University. Though I don’t know Oord personally, I know he was generally regarded as a respected and active theologian inside and outside the denomination and someone who was doing important work. He also had a certain amount of controversy about him, primarily as he was considered a leader in the field of process theology.

Not knowing much about him or about process theology in general, I was anxious to read his most recent work, which is an accessible and non-academic introduction to this school of theology and in particular an explanation of how Oord’s particular flavor of process theology can provide what he sees as a solution to the problem of evil. In the work, it’s clear that Oord has read and engaged extensively with wide fields of contemporary theology across denominational traditions as well as the work of scientists at the forefront of the dialogue between theology and science. If you want to know what Oord in particular and process theology in general are about, this is a good place to start, as Oord’s discussions engage much of the current literature and his extensive footnotes give lots of directions of various places to go to learn more.

The goal of Oord’s work is to apply his brand of process theology to the issue of evil in the world. That bad things happen is undeniable. Oord calls this “genuine evil” and begins the book with several examples, from a random death caused by a rock through a windshield to the story of a woman who was raped after her family was murdered. Any theology, Oord maintains, that attempts to say things about the nature of God needs to give an account of these evils, and Oord outlines several possible responses. Any response, however, that says that God is all-powerful and could have prevented these things but did not, Oord believes, leaves God culpable for the evil and is thus unacceptable. If one has the power to prevent evil and the knowledge that it will happen but allows it to happen anyway, Oord argues, one is in some respect responsible for the evil.

Here is where Oord’s process theology comes into play. In his brand of process theology, God knows all that can possibly be known in principle. However, because Oord believes modern science has shown randomness and uncertainty as fundamental properties of the universe, the future is in principle unknowable. God does not know the future. He is presently omniscient, in that He knows all that happens in the unfolding of time, but He does not know the future because it does not yet exist. He experiences the unfolding of time along with Creation. In a sense, He learns as certain potentialities close and others become actualized.

This takes care of the foreknowledge issue in the problem of evil. God simply does not know for sure what is going to happen. But what about the divine power to prevent evil? Here is where the crux of Oord’s argument lies, as outlined in the title of his book: Oord argues that the primary, essential, and logically prior characteristic of God is uncontrolling love. This means it is always God’s nature to give freedom to his creation—from animate, intelligent beings to inanimate rocks governed by the law-like properties of the universe. Everything that God does flows from this kenotic, self-emptying love that preserves the freedom of all creation. Because God cannot deny his own nature, He cannot violate the freedom of either a person bent on evil or the trajectory of an errant stone. It’s not simply that He choses not to intercede (in which case He would still be culpable in Oord’s eyes). It is instead that the nature of God means He cannot.

If this feels like a risky, limited vision of God, it is. But it’s not one that’s completely without precedent in the Christian tradition. The old analogy of God creating a rock so big He can’t lift it points to the long-held Christian belief that God cannot do things that are logically impossible. Oord believes what someone might think is “lost” in this view of God is more than made up for by replacing a God who seems to allow evil with a deeper knowledge of the essential aspect of God—love.

To some extent, this is a view I can sympathize with and find much attractive about, especially the portions that deal with God’s nature in respect to human freedom. But there are places where I remain unconvinced, primarily related to ideas about God’s foreknowledge or lack thereof, Oord’s definition of “genuine evil,” the perception of God we’re left with, and a few other issues that Oord may clarify in later work or perhaps has already addressed elsewhere.

The first issue is something I’ve never understood, and perhaps someone can explain it to me at more length. I’ve never understood how divine (or any) foreknowledge is incompatible with free will. The explanation usually goes that knowing exactly what someone is going to do would mean they didn’t have free will in making the decision. But consider this: if Doc Brown followed me around for a week (undetected) observing and recording everything I did and then got into his DeLorean and went back in time a week, he would now have foreknowledge of every choice that I made. But would that mean I didn’t have free choice when I made them? I don’t understand how his knowledge would be incompatible with my freedom.

I’m also not convinced by the concept of a God that experiences time along with creation. For one thing, I’m not ready to give up on the concept of time travel, nor am I as married to a forward-only causality as Oord is. (I’ve even published a story about causality working the other direction.) Oord believes science indicates this is the way the world works, but I don’t think science has shut the door on the world working otherwise. Indeed, relativity shows that time is as fluid as space itself, that the geometry of space causes time to flow at different rates in different locations. I’m not sure how this maps onto Oord’s view of a God learning in time along with us. (And, as a friend pointed out, this view of time is inherently Western. Other cultures view time in very different ways.) More generally though, if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, I’m not sure we need to give up on his extra-temporal nature to maintain Oord’s central argument.

Too much, in my mind, is given up if we give up the concept of a God who transcends time. For one thing, I like don’t like the idea of a God that can in principle be surprised or a God that functions like a divine super-computer, reduced to simply making (very good) predictions about the future. I like to think at least someone understands and foresees the intricacies of my own personality moment to moment, or the personality of unborn kids. I’m also rather married to the idea of certain events (like the crucifixion, for instance, which the Orthodox like to talk about as happening in some sense “before the foundation of the world”) as being eternal and having backward as well as forward consequences.

I also have concerns with the way Oord defines “genuine evil,” which touches on his ontology of choice. In essence, he’s classified the genuine physical harm that comes about from an errant rock with that coming from the choices made by murders and rapists. I don’t think an accidental death can be a “genuine evil” in the same way as the result of a conscious choice can. I want to maintain a distinction between the two, even though both in my mind can have “genuinely bad” or “genuinely harmful” results. Obviously an explanation of providence needs to encompass both, but Oord seems to be on very different ground philosophically when talking about the rock versus the rapists.

In the case of the human actors, I think I can agree with him: if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, then it would result in a logical inconsistency for God to violate His own nature to override the freedom of choice in humans—even to prevent genuine harm. The evil that results from human actions or inactions are the responsibility of humans alone; God is not culpable.

But what about harm that results from the law-like processes of nature, including random actions that result in death and destruction (like a tornado or a stone through someone’s windshield)? Here choice doesn’t seem to be an issue, and Oord recognizes that there’s still a lot to be worked out in this respect. But he claims that because the law-like regularities in the world are themselves a form of grace, God cannot withdraw His presence or override the freedom inherent in physical processes themselves because to do so would also violate His own nature of kenotic love.

This is a bit harder for me to follow, though I again resonate with the idea that the spirit-filled presence of God throughout the physical order means that everything is sustained by God and that law-like regularities (Oord is careful to not call them laws of nature, being sensitive to contemporary philosophy of science) are themselves a form of God’s grace. But in maintaining that the freedom to self-organize is an essential property of nature and that there’s a continuous spectrum of choice from humans down to much simpler forms of life, he has to assume a teleological evolution to the universe in some sense. I don’t know all the implications here, but it seems like Oord is on much shakier ground.

I also wonder if Oord’s prioritizing of self-emptying, uncontrolling love as the essential and logically prior nature of God doesn’t overlay a Western, contemporary view of love on God in the same way that his linear conception of time does. Would this view of love have been one understood throughout history, or even in non-Western contexts today? Note that Oord’s version of process theology does not say that God is evolving; the traits of God remain eternal. But the concept of love seems to be one that has changed throughout history, which makes it potentially problematic to posit as God’s essential nature, at least love qualified in the terms that Oord gives it.

Finally, it seemed like the door was wide open at several points throughout Oord’s account to bring in trinitarian theology, or to at least acknowledge that his work has important implications for our understanding of the Trinity as well as the Incarnation. In his work, however, these implications seemed to take a backseat to Oord’s logical grapplings with qualifying God’s properties.

The idea of a God who suffers along with us, who takes risks, and who is defined and perhaps even bounded by His own self-emptying love is a strong one. I think Oord is on the forefront of important thought on these ideas in evangelical circles. I can follow him a good distance along this road. But especially as relates to issues of the nature of God in time I remain unconvinced, and in questions of God’s presence in the physical world and the implications it has for physical harms (as opposed to those from human or creaturely choice) I need more explanation.

A Century of Holiness Theology

A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004A Century of Holiness Theology: The Doctrine of Entire Sanctification in the Church of the Nazarene: 1905 to 2004 by Mark R. Quanstrom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in a denomination that defined (and continues to define) itself by a single point of doctrine: entire sanctification. It’s a term you know if you’re a Nazarene, and if you were raised Nazarene (like I was), it’s a term you spent a good deal of your childhood and teenage years trying to puzzle out. For a certain generation, entire sanctification was something that happened after you were saved, a “second act of grace” by which the Holy Spirit filled you completely and you were cleansed of sin and entirely devoted to God. For others (generally in a younger generation) it was a crisis point at which you fully dedicated yourself to God and began a lifelong process (that may have started at the same point at which you were saved) of committing yourself and living a holy life. Whatever it was, it sounded wildly exciting, exuberantly optimistic, and incredibly confusing.

I’m not a Nazarene anymore, and it wasn’t the idea of holiness or sanctity– the idea that one could and should and that certain people even did live a holy life before God– that drove me out. Indeed, I don’t think I was driven out at all, and I still have a great love and even a lot of like for the denomination. I believe there’s a place for people who appreciate, respect, and understand the Nazarene heritage working in and serving the Nazarene world. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am doing what I’m doing.)

But the doctrine of entire sanctification is still confusing. Poll a dozen Nazarenes as to what exactly this means and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. And what I learned reading Mark Quanstrom’s excellent historical survey of the doctrine is that there’s a reason for this. Quanstrom’s work does what the best historical studies should: it gets at the primary sources to provide an insightful narrative, and in this case a narrative that resonates with me and explains a lot of the reason I was at times confused regarding my own church’s doctrine growing up. The work is not a philosophical polemic (Quanstrom lets the documents speak for themselves), nor is it a systematic theological exposition (though my own background in the church helps, as I already in some sense speak the language). I’m not sure how accessible it would be to someone with no background or relationship to the denomination.

Quanstrom starts by laying the historical groundwork for the church’s formation, which I only patchily remembered from my days reading missionary books and studying up for my Caravan badges. (I’m sure I would have gotten more of this had I been a religion major at a Nazarene college.) The point is that the Church of the Nazarene grew from an assortment of groups with one common belief: sanctification as a second act of grace subsequent to the initial salvation experience. Drawing on his sources (which includes texts as varied as General Assembly reports and addresses, evolving Articles of Faith in the Church Manual, and books that were at one time or another on the list of recommended reading for those studying to be ordained in the Nazarene church) Quanstrom clearly shows that the early Nazarene church– an assembly of several disparate holiness movements– was unified in the early decades of the 1900s about the distinct, instantaneous second crisis event called sanctification that cleansed the Christian from inbred sin.

By the 1960s, however, the denomination had to face a loss of optimism of what this second act would actually accomplish– coming to grips with the depth of the sinfulness of humanity, especially in the lost of confidence that led to the Second World War. First, holiness theologians spent some time refining their definitions of exactly what was cleansed in sanctification and differentiating between actual sin (forgiven when a person was saved), the fallen sinful nature (cured via sanctification), and infirmity (never fixed during this lifetime). Then with an important book by the Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop in early 1970s and scholars beginning to go back to John Wesley’s original writings, there developed an understanding of holiness (as well as sin) that was more relational and less ontological. This viewed sanctification as more of a process and put more emphasis on the initial act of grace. Opponents of this view felt it watered down the original meaning of holiness, the doctrine for which the denomination came into being in the first place. Quanstrom says in his study that the church is still in the position of having an official position that rests in an uneasy tension between these two rather irreconcilable positions.

This probably won’t be a page-turner for many people out there (though the writing was lucid and easy to follow), but I honestly found it incredibly compelling. It helped me place a lot of the things I had learned and the cognitive dissonance I experienced learning them into a historical context. And by doing this and by bringing external factors to light that were impacting theological developments in the denomination, it gave me a deeper understanding of the community in which I continue to live and work.