When I became a theologian.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 May

Relax. “Why” is part of the story.

My pastor recently asked me what led me to go to a bible college and study theology.

It strikes a lot of people as odd that I majored in biblical and theological studies… and yet never had any plans to become a pastor nor college professor. ’Cause that’s usually why people major in that area. Or it’s not, but it’s what they naturally gravitate towards next. Whereas I went right back into journalism.

Well, journalism and theology are both searches for truth, y’know.

But generally how it happened was like this: I originally majored in journalism. Then I got sidetracked by newspaper jobs. And since the whole point of journalism school was to get newspaper jobs—and I already had newspaper jobs—I ditched school for work. Till I got downsized out of a job. Then I decided to knock out that bachelor’s degree once and for all.

By this point, I realized I didn’t need a journalism degree to get a journalism job. Half my fellow employees had no such degree: They majored in other stuff, and a lot of times they used that other stuff to help ’em be better reporters. A political science major is definitely gonna write better stories about politics, as will an economics major about business trends, or an education major about schools. You certainly don’t need a journalism degree to own or start a newspaper. Since I figured I’d taken all the relevant editing, ethics, media, and law courses, I didn’t feel like taking the others. I wanted to do journalism, not study it.

My mom asked me what I’d study if it could be anything I wished; I picked God.

For that, I figured my best bet would be a college in my denomination, the Assemblies of God. I looked into their nearest school, Bethany College (later Bethany University, which closed in 2011). The biblical studies major covered everything I wanted, so I knocked out the last general ed classes I needed to complete my A.A. in journalism, then transferred in. The journalism stuff didn’t transfer—which left me some units short, to my annoyance—so I minored in biblical languages. They come in handy.

And yeah, it confused my fellow students when they found out I had no plans to get a pastoral or teaching job. ’Cause that’s why they were studying it. What, was I there for fun?

Darn right I was there for fun. I had a blast. Really annoyed my roommates, ’cause all those years writing on deadline means papers come ridiculously easy to me. Plus I have this bad habit of remembering everything I read, so I spent way less time studying than they did, and aced tests anyway. I spent my free time turning the school newspaper from a monthly to a weekly, and writing a third of it myself. And yes, I still had a social life. And got my seven hours of sleep every night.

And after graduating, went back into journalism. Teaching came later.

Theology and Fundamentalism.

I grew up Fundamentalist. Which is why I wanted to study God. I grew up learning cessationism, premillennial dispensationism argumentative Christian apologetics, Bill Gothard’s system of using the bible to make kids behave themselves, and why it was mandatory for Christians to side with the Republican Party. It generated a hodgepodge of theology which I’m still recovering from.

Most people assume “Fundamentalist” means “conservative,” or “more conservative than me.” As I explained in my piece on Fundamentalism, it’s not political conservatism; it’s theological. They insist Christianity is based on certain foundational truths. Knock away the foundation and it’s not Christianity any more, but heresy. So yeah, your salvation is kinda based on embracing the fundamentals, which they consider orthodoxy. Which Fundies treat as if it’s a fruit of the Spirit: If you’re not rock-solid on the fundamentals, you’re probably not saved.

The actual first principle of theology is “I am wrong: Jesus is right.” But the entire point of Fundamentalism is once you believe the fundamentals, you’re now right. You’re a real Christian, whereas everyone who doubts or drops any of the fundamentals isn’t, and is probably going to hell. As you might suspect, Fundies don’t do grace very well.

The Fundamentalist movement was a backlash to “modernism”—by which they mean asking questions. You know, the Socratic, scientific process of probing anything and everything to see if it holds up. Since it arose with Socrates, you realize it’s hardly all that modern. But in the 1800s, academics were applying it to things the Fundamentalists consider untouchable. “Modern” education questions the historicity of Jesus. The accuracy of the bible. God’s existence itself. Stuff Fundies believe we must never, ever touch. The human psyche is too fragile!

So at Fundamentalist schools, there are certain topics you aren’t allowed to discuss. Questions you aren’t authorized to ask. Doubts you’re never permitted to express. Woe to any teacher who even accidentally stumbles there: They’ll be fired for “giving the devil an opening.”

Thank God I never went to one of those schools. I wouldn’t have lasted. I question everything. Socrates is my homeboy.

Since Fundies are convinced their beliefs are already spot-on, they look with great suspicion upon anyone who dares to study theology. They’re worried you wanna take a crowbar to the foundations. They’re convinced this is all Christian seminaries do. They’re just gonna confuse you. Teach you what heretics believe, which’ll mix up your head and tempt you to believe heresy yourself. Happens all the time: Some kid goes to “cemetery” (the word Fundies love to use to refer to seminary) and comes back believing the King James Version isn’t the One True Bible, or that Roman Catholics are Christian, of all things. God forbid!

That’s why they created Fundamentalist universities. While the “modern” universities will try to slip godless doubts into the curriculum every chance they get, their good Fundie schools build a hedge of protection round their students, and keep ’em safely ensconced from all the evil pagan ideas you find in secular schools. You know, the ones which supposedly turn good Christian kids into liberal vegan atheists.

Hence when I was a high school senior, my youth pastor put together a southern California college tour for us. It was mainly focused around his alma mater, Biola University—the very college which started the Fundamentalist movement, so Biola’s Fundie credentials were impeccable. Only the most paranoid, bunker-dwelling Fundamentalists in my church (and we had a few) could object to it.

There were a few other schools on the tour, ’cause the students had ’em on their wish lists. So we visited UCLA, USC, Pacific Christian College, Azusa Pacific University, and The Master’s College. But our tour was scheduled for Biola’s open-house weekend, and we stayed in their dorms, and saw a lot of their activities and amenities. No surprise, lots of us wound up going to Biola.

I was one of the exceptions: I was bitten by the journalism bug in high school, and wasn’t going to a Christian school unless it had a journalism program. Not one of the Fundie schools we toured had one. (No surprise; journalists ask questions, y’know.) So much for the Christian schools. I figured I’d have to settle for a pagan school like CSU Sacramento. That’s where I wound up… and y’know, it wasn’t anywhere near as pagan as the folks in my church claimed.

Some years ago I read a series Roger E. Olson had written on how people practice theology, which included his own story on how he became a theologian. (Here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3.) Like me, Olson grew up in a Fundamentalist church, who looked at his studies with disdain and despair. Especially once he decided, of all things, to attend a secular university for his graduate work in theology: They gave up on him. That’s why he’s no longer in that church.

Here’s the bit I found interesting: Olson’s Fundamentalist church was Pentecostal. Whereas all the Assemblies of God churches I’ve been part of, though we definitely have Fundies in ’em, are certainly not Fundamentalist. Yes the Assemblies has fundamental beliefs; churches have to if they’re gonna define themselves, their mission, and what they stand for. But what we don’t have is the Fundamentalist attitude of “We’re right, and everyone else is wrong.” We don’t look at education as a dangerous competitor to our absolute truths. When I told my pastors I wanted to study theology, their response was unanimously, “Good for you!” Fundies would’ve responded, “By all that’s holy, why?

The attitude I’ve found among the Pentecostals I know, is that all truth is God’s truth. If I’m following the Holy Spirit, it won’t matter where I study: He’ll keep me on the straight and narrow. Mt 7.14 By the time I finally decided to head back to school, this attitude had mostly become my attitude.

And, unexpectedly, Calvinism.

I say “mostly my attitude” because my choice of school wasn’t a big risk. Bethany was my denomination’s school. I figured if I was gonna study theology, why not study my own church’s theology?—assuming, to some degree, they were right. Hey, I didn’t know theology begins with “I am wrong.” I grew up Fundamentalist, remember? All I knew was Fundies weren’t infallible, ’cause my previous batch of Fundies definitely misrepresented Pentecostalism. And all that dispensationalism stuff they taught turned out to be crap. So maybe the Assemblies’ theology was correct. Anyway, I’d find out in our seminary.

Little did I know my theology professors would not teach my denomination’s predominant beliefs. Drs. Truett Bobo and Koo Yun instead taught Calvinist theology. They called it “reformed theology” because they weren’t crazy-strict about some of its tenets. But it was indeed five-point Calvinism. Bobo had learned it from Fuller; Yun had learned it from Princeton.

Not at all what you’d expect in a Pentecostal school. American Pentecostalism largely comes out of the Methodist Holiness tradition, and as a result nearly all American Pentecostals hold Wesleyan/Arminian views. (In case you’re unclear on the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, the main issue is this: Calvinism’s all about how God is sovereign. But Calvinist “sovereignty” is pretty much determinism, which Arminians point out is entirely inconsistent with God’s character.)

Why’d Bethany let Calvinists teach the bulk of their theology classes? Partly because Pentecostalism is a big tent: You don’t have to be Arminian to be Pentecostal, though most Pentecostals are. And partly because the school, and the professors, believed in academic freedom. They didn’t demand, as a Fundamentalist would, that students must only believe as they do. (Since we are wrong and Jesus is right, what basis do any of us have for demanding any such thing?) They only insisted we have a solid biblical basis for any beliefs we held to. If you can’t defend it with a commonsense interpretation of the bible, you have no leg to stand on.

And y’know, Calvinism was actually the best thing I could’ve studied. I understand and can appreciate it—even though I ultimately rejected four of its five points. (For the theology nerds, that’d be everything but total depravity, which was an Arminian point before it became a Calvinist one.) My professors definitely did their job: I know Calvinism better than some Calvinists who attempt to debate me.

Likewise my history professors made sure I learned about Orthodoxy, Catholicism, the history of Protestantism (particularly in the United States), and Pentecostal history. Bethany gave me the breadth and depth I’d never have got in a Fundamentalist school, which would only have taught me to parrot everything they believed, and that every other point of view was wrong and devilish.

I got a big dose of Fundamentalist schoolteaching when I became a teacher myself. Y’see, my Christian school unwittingly bought Fundamentalist history textbooks (what did they think Bob Jones University would crank out?), so I was saddled with the stupid things my very first year. I had to correct so many omissions and errors. Don’t even get me started on what they taught about “the War Between the States.” I’ll just say they definitely taught me why so many southern states still suffer from institutional racism.

The never-ending debates.

As is true of most theologians in training, whenever I went home for holidays or summer, I’d butt heads with the people in my home church.

Part of our required reading was Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Good thing. Thielicke warned his seminarians about how they’d go back home with a whole lot of cold hard facts—and forget about grace, love, patience, and other fruits of the Spirit which are ultimately more important. So of course the people in their churches are bothered by the idea of seminary: What was it doing to their kids? They came back less like Christ instead of more!

But relax; it’s a phase. It’s the “young and restless” stage of intellectual growth. Happens with most college students, who learned a bunch of stuff and can’t wait to show it off. Problem is, theology requires us to be humble (remember, we are wrong and Christ is right), so a know-it-all theologian shouldn’t exist. Does anyway, ’cause young Christians are still learning about self-control, and young theologians are especially tempted to not practice any.

Since I was in my mid-twenties instead of my late teens, I had slightly more patience than your average young theologian. And even though I read Thielicke’s book and definitely agreed with it… I got into debates just the same. ’Cause every so often, a Christian would say something that wasn’t just incorrect, but could lead to real problems: Fruitless behavior, heresy, or evil. With great knowledge comes great responsibility, y’know: I gotta speak up.

Half the time, people appear to accept what I have to say. I say “appear to,” because later I’ll hear them repeat those very same errors. As if I had said absolutely nothing. They love their idea too much to change it, but they can’t defend it, so they don’t bother, and wait for me to go away.

The other half the time, they don’t even bother to appease me. They take offense at anyone who dares burst their balloon. They accuse me of being “all head knowledge, no heart knowledge.” This is a Christianese term which means, “You’re all about the facts, but I believe in my heart this stuff is true, and don’t you tell me otherwise.” It’s what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” Their problem isn’t a know-it-all theologian; it’s that they literally don’t care about truth.

Well, that’s fine if you’re Mormon. “Burning in your bosom”—that warm friendly sensation people get when we try to believe really hard that something is true—is the entire basis of the Mormons’ belief system. (Seriously; ask any of their missionaries. If you have any doubts, they tell you to pray really hard and “God” will grant you that feeling.) But it doesn’t work for Christianity. God’s truths run contrary to human nature: The Spirit and the flesh are opposed to one another. Ga 5.17 Our knee-jerk reaction to God’s truth is not comfort and relief: It’s either resistance or repentance. (And after repentance, then comfort and relief.) Those who understand “I am wrong” are gonna repent; those who insist they’re right are gonna resist, and claim God thinks like they do. And that he rewards their faith with endorphins.

I learned a long time ago to stop debating with such people. Their minds are closed; I’m just wasting my breath. Best to shake the dust off my feet and go talk with someone who’ll listen. ’Cause contrary to popular belief, theology isn’t about fixing other people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. If we try to do his job, we’ll just frustrate ourselves like crazy. Theology is about learning the difference between truth (“good theology”) and flawed reasoning (“bad theology”), and following the truth. It’s mostly about me fixing myself. And if you’re interested, it’s about me showing you how I do it, so you can do it too.

And if I’m a jerk about it, you’re not gonna be interested. Why should you be? If I’m defending uncomfortable truths with a rotten attitude, exactly what about me would be attractive? I suspect a lot of the reason people undervalue theology is because too many theologians never stop debating, never get rid of their restlessness, and never remember to be kind, gentle, loving, and patient. So they kill off all their value, ’cause without love, we’re a waste of space. 1Co 13.2 Then they bellyache how nobody values their wisdom. Well duh.

So I don’t stress out about those who don’t want truth, or who are too closed-minded to hear. Like I said, not my job. No woe and hand-wringing, like I see among so many would-be prophets who think it’s their calling to fix the church and the world. No having to defend my academic or pastoral position, because I don’t have one. That’s not to say I have no responsibilities at all; it’s just fixing the world isn’t one of them. All I gotta do is follow Jesus. He makes all things new.