Friday, February 20, 2009

Peter Enns Question 3: On Nazarenes

Question #3, for the Arminians out there. Continued thanks to Pete for doing this!

For previous questions:
#1 Who are you?
#2 A Good Calvinist?

3. We hear you’ve been attending a Nazarene church for the last 7 years. What would you say are some of the differences in flavor between them and those contexts where people have taken strong exception to your ideas?

My how news travels. Yes, about seven years ago my family and I began attending Immanuel Church of the Nazarene in our hometown. As you might guess, the decision was a complicated matter, especially since I was employed at a Reformed seminary at the time. The most pressing issues were opportunities for our children to be involved in youth activities and an approach to worship and preaching that were more conducive to my family’s growth. We made the move after about a year of contemplation and with the blessing of the board and administration at WTS at the time.

We have found a wonderful believing community there, and it has taken me a while to put my finger on why. As I would say is common among churches of a similar tradition, the center on gravity at ICN is not a detailed, comprehensive theological precision—which is never far under the surface in any conservative Reformed congregation I have ever been a part of—but worship and maturity in Christian character.

This is not to say, as some might be quick to say, that “theology doesn’t matter” or “sounds like they believe in works over grace.” They are thoughtful, grace-centered people. Neither is it to say that Reformed churches are universally rigid in worship or not focused on the building of Christian character beyond theological orthodoxy. I am only saying this has been my experience.

Because guarding theological articulations is not the heart of ICN’s community identity, they are open to curiosity, innovation, and progress in many areas. I bring points of view to this church body that they value, even if they are not something they are used to hearing. This is reflected more broadly, as well. One need only familiarize oneself with the Nazarene Christian College network to see that there is an openness to certain things that one would not readily find in other contexts. For example, Karl Giberson is a biologist at Eastern Nazarene College, and a well-known outspoken and articulate proponent of evolutionary theory (author of Saving Darwin, for example). I do not think his public persona could be as tolerated in other evangelical settings.

I know of numerous people in the Nazarene world who have read Inspiration and Incarnation (I&I) and to a person (of those who have spoken to me) they cannot identify with the criticism I have received from the conservative confessional Reformed world. Of course, this would make them suspect immediately in the eyes of some, but there you have it (and I do not feel I need to defend these brothers and sisters). As a result, I have been welcomed there, am valued for who I am, and am happy to be an active member in the life of this body. It is a blessing from God for us to be there, and everyone in my family has been blessed in ways I certainly did not anticipate seven years ago.

In the broader Wesleyan tradition I have found numerous conversation partners that had been kept secret from me for many years (by myopic gaze, to be sure). Your website, Ken, is a good example. I appreciate the tone and depth of the academic interaction I&I has received here. No, you may not agree on all points with me (your loss :-), and we’ll get to all that in a subsequent post). But we do agree that the conversation about Scripture that I&I seeks to be engaged in is of vital importance. The conversation itself does not need to be defended against those who declare it out of bounds. It is only the arguments, the articulation of the conversation, that has to be defended, and this is as it should be.

What I am finding in the Wesleyan world is a culture where both rigorous thought and openness to change is expected. This is no utopia, but it is without question a most welcome change from the “culture” of very conservative Reformed confessionalism where rigorous thought and maintenance of tradition are prized. Individuals in that tradition differ as much as in any other, and it is not fair to lump them all into the same category. Even churches and schools differ or change over time. But as a “system,” it is my unwavering experience that there is strong suspicion of moving beyond certain well-scripted boundaries, and it is to this system that all within its boarders, regardless of individual variance, will eventually have to give an account.

In my view, this situation stems from its own history, particularly in the US, that has its roots in the modernist/fundamentalist debates. Old Princeton was very active, to say the least, in these debates. It is commonly understood that many in the conservative Reformed orbit today see themselves in strong continuity with those generations of Presbyterian and Reformed folk, and are zealous to honor the battles that were fought and the blood that was shed.

There is a concern—I would even say fear—not to retreat now, after all this time, to concede any ground to the liberals. To say the least, it is very hard to do constructive, innovative biblical scholarship in a tradition that invests such energy in making sure that “Princeton” does not happen again. (I could go on and on here of figures within the WTS orbit who were exceptions to this mindset, e.g., Ned Stonehouse, Ray Dillard, and others, but these figures were exceptions that prove the rule.)

My point here is not to rehearse this history, but simply to point out how this history has created a culture of combat, and generations of “Machen’s warrior children” (as John Frame has so eloquently put it) have arisen, for whom being Reformed (and therefore Christian) means to fight for particular definitions of orthodoxy, wherever it is found. Curiously, those battles are most intense among their own, steeped in a suspicion of enemies from within, which is the narrative of the demise of Princeton Theological Seminary and the need for Westminster Theological Seminary to arise out of the ashes.

Well, as anyone even remotely familiar with this whole issue knows, books have been written on the subject and I cannot get into all that. I have been asked to give my opinion on the differences in “flavor” between these two Christian traditions. My focus here is that, regardless of how and why, there is a world of difference between the two cultures, even if there is sufficient plurality of tone and content among individuals within those cultures. I do not rejoice in this difference, and I wish it were not the case, but it is my experience as well as that of many others still laboring within those well-marked boundaries or of those who have left to go elsewhere.


Brian D. said...

I came across this blog via Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed site.

Very interesting, refreshing, and insightful response from Peter Enns.


Pizza Man said...

Very interesting read. Thanks!

james petticrew said...

"curiosity, innovation, and progress in many areas" Peter as a Nazarene pastor can I say you have encountered a truly wonderful congregation by the sounds of it, oh that there were more of them! Anyway I am glad the Nazarene family is touching your life with grace.

Don said...

I was at Westminster Seminary during the controversy with Norman Shepherd over justification by faith. It virtually ruined the seminary environment at that time. The thing I didn't get then and don't get now is why a professor who is out of step with the seminary community (even in his support of an arminian fellowship, clearly contrary to the standards to which he subscribed when he joined the seminary)would continue to insist that he teach there. This contrary position says something about the professor that validates his dismissal. By most accepted standards I am not reformed. I simply hold to the point that you boldy confess your beliefs and then do not insist to be employed by those who oppose those beliefs. He certainly has the right to enjoy whatever fellowship he chooses but you can bet that the denomination with which he chose to affiliate and which is so "open" are not open enough to have Calvinists teaching in their seminaries. Dr. Enns by both belief and by practice should have chosen long ago to teach elsewhere and left the seminary in peace.

Ken Schenck said...

Thank you Don for chiming in. From what I understand, though, Pete is still a Calvinist who affirms the Westminster Confession. Indeed, some professors at Princeton took WTS to task for their use of the Westminster Confession.

But I agree with you that institutions have the right to set their own boundaries and professors who teach there hopefully have come to conclude within those boundaries genuinely in their pursuit of truth. Thus, in theory, a person should be able to teach at a confessional institution within the fullness of academic freedom, although there will always be ambiguity around the edges of a vibrant academic community.

I'm sure WTS couldn't care less what an Arminian like me thinks about their boundaries, just as I can indict their ideology well within the academic freedom of an Arminian institution. But since a self-sustaining board of a place like that has almost absolute power, I think it does them well to have some outsiders nipping at their heals to keep them honest.

Peter Enns said...


I will try to refrain from commenting on my own interview (!), but your concern is addressed at the end of the first paragraph: "We made the move after about a year of contemplation and with the blessing of the board and administration at WTS at the time."

Our move to attend (not join) a Nazarene church was unusual but thoroughly vetted. Of course, you are free to hold a different opinion (i.e., question the wisdom of the board and administration at the time) but there you have it.