Thursday, November 12, 2015

Personal Reflection on Heretics and Politics

I wrote the personal reflection below in response to Ed Kozar's inquiry in June 2014 about my reaction to Thomas Fudge's recently published Heretics and Politics.


I was a little depressed—I guess is the right word —when I finished reading Thomas Fudge's new book. I was unaware of the details of the "collapse" of Don Fisher's life—especially his treatment of his family. This left me feeling quite sad. I wonder if any good he ever did or any vision he ever had can survive this final legacy.

My involvement in all of this was limited to Jackson College of Ministries (JCM)—the first half of the book—and I thought Thomas made a pretty good presentation here. I think he correctly depicted the dynamic between my scholarly drive and Dan Lewis' application of these ideas to United Pentecostal Church doctrine. Thomas made the point —but I wish he had made it a bit stronger—that in my teaching at JCM I was not really dealing in the traditional apostolic Pentecostal categories at all. In fact, I consciously avoided talking about UPC distinctives.

At this time, I was very much influenced by the "new evangelicalism" of Fuller Theological Seminary. The NT theology of George Eldon Ladd pushed me into serious study of the synoptic Gospels. I was deeply influenced by the moderate thought of C. H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias and even the more challenging thinking of Bornkamm, Conzelmann, Kasemann, and Norman Perrin. I read but was not greatly influenced by the form criticism of Bultmann. (NOTE: I bought all these books at Luther Seminary and read them while a student at Apostolic Bible Institute (ABI) in St. Paul. Everything the late Rev. Robert Sabin said I should not read, I immediately purchased. Surely, he must bear some of the blame for my academic adventurousness.)

At JCM, I taught about the inauguration of the kingdom of God as central to the teachings of Jesus and primitive Christianity. I taught about the historical roots of Pentecostalism in Wesleyan and Reformation circles—clearly an outgrowth of the influence of Robert Sabin. When I taught about water baptism, I took at strongly sacramental position that baptism was a means of grace—that something happens to you when you are baptized—which ran in opposition to the Pentecostal Church Incorporated (PCI) teachings on baptism often associated with JCM instructors. I always affirmed that the most primitive baptismal formula was "in Jesus' name"—although I said nothing about the validity of any other form of baptism. When I spoke of the Holy Spirit, it was always in the context of Joel 2:28 and the primitive kerygma's assertion that a "new thing" had happened in Jesus and that with the dawning of the kingdom, the promised Holy Spirit was available to all. (Clearly, my "kingdom theology" was an obvious attack on dispensational premillennialism, although I do not ever remember attacking these ideas explicitly. The first step of many evangelical scholars—both Dan Lewis and I included—toward broader academic thinking is often the rejection of Darby's dispensationalism and the structure it imposes on reading the Bible. For us, "rightly dividing the word of truth" came to mean more than applying Scofield's notes to all biblical interpretation.)

In my JCM instruction, I also placed a lot of emphasis on the 8th century prophets—something I learned from Wendell Gleason at ABI—and the centrality of ethics in ethical monotheism. I introduced students to the social dimension of Christian obligations that had largely been missing in apostolic Pentecostalism. I portrayed Jesus as a conscious successor of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. I was even beginning to approach—at this early date—the "Jewishness" of Jesus which has been the center of my study to this day.

In my earliest time at JCM, I honestly did not think I was attacking UPC doctrine. I felt that UPC doctrine would be strengthened by restatement in Reformation terms of grace and faith. (Interestingly, David Bernard's subsequent writings take a step in this direction.) I did not—and still do not—see how serious Bible study using the best methods available could ever be a bad thing.

But I was VERY young—22 years old in the fall of 1979—when I largely rewrote the JCM curriculum and embarked on my teaching career. I was only 25 when the "JCM tragedy" came to an end.

I am more than willing to bear my share of blame for this debacle. I was so naïve. Initially, I really believed that I was faithfully serving the community of my heritage. (My grandfather was a Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ (PAJC) man before the merger with the PCI formed the UPC. I was raised under O. C. Crabtree's ministry. I had no roots in the PCI tradition that is sometimes associated with the influence of C. H. Yadon on JCM.) Apostolic Pentecostalism was my theological home as much as anyone's. Clearly, I knew that we were stretching the limits. But by the time I realized we had stretched them too far, it was too late. Don Fisher was my great "protector" in all of this. At the time, I thought this was a great blessing. With hindsight, I am not so sure.

Since my departure from JCM, I have tried to do the honorable thing by withdrawing from the UPC public view. My dissertation topic was "demanded" by my graduate committee. My post-doctoral writings and research have been in other areas. (Actually, I was so isolated from the UPC world that I was unaware of the change in Don Fisher's life and his eventual death until I was contacted by Thomas Fudge for an interview for his book Christianity Without the Cross. I knew almost nothing of the Westburg Resolution until I read about it in Thomas' book. Much of that interview made its way into the pages of Heretics and Politics.)

Of course, social media (as well as Fudge's publications) have brought me back into contact with many of my former colleagues from JCM and ABI. But even now, I try to play down the events of the JCM years. Those debates and deep feelings are probably best left to the past.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for your transparency about the "old days" at JCM. Fudge's book dredged up a lot of old memories for me, too, and somehow they seem so distant that they are almost in another lifetime. However, the recent college retreat at Nashville bridged some of that time gap, and it was really good to see so many former colleagues and students that we knew so long ago. Several people from the music department actually spent appreciable conversation time with me, which was heartening, and of course we reconnected with a lot of our former students from our own department, many of whom went on to their Ph.D.s and professional lives in significant areas of the academy and service to both the church and the world.

    I, too, have a great sadness about Don Fisher. I had determined at the end of my five years at JCM that I would not be able to work with him any longer on ethical grounds. Being on the inside circle as the Dean of Students, I saw a side of Fisher that most people did not see. I had the chance to apologize to a woman who was treated very badly when she was a student, an encounter with Fisher (and I was present) that can only be described as emotionally brutal and cruel. It has bothered me all these years.

    In the end, I think you are right. Some things are best left in the past. My heartfelt prayer for us all, and Don Fisher included--and it seems to me to be the most basic of all prayers--is, "Lord, have mercy." When I am in church (and I am currently in an Anglican communion) and we do the Kyrie, I sometimes think about those old days. This ancient prayer that goes back to the Psalter and is part of the longstanding liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer expresses so succinctly and powerfully what we all need as the often faltering children of God--that our best hope and our only hope is in the mercy of God. God be thanked, his mercy endures forever!

  2. I've expressed my opinion of HAP elsewhere on this blog. A in depth study of Don Fisher by a historian/biographer will never be written. In lieu of such, Tom has offered the definitive portrait of the man. On the whole, the book is an accurate account of the Fisher years from 1976-1978--the time of my firsthand memories of DWF.

    There were spots when Tom could have dug a little deeper. He writes, "Darrell Johns ... [was] regarded as sympathetic to Fisher's approach and from time to time [was] suspected of less than solid loyalty to UPC doctrine. Johns later changed his mind and put his support behind Craft"--HAP, 328.

    Tom implies that Fisher swayed Darrell to consider the PCI "one step" approach. I can state unequivocally that didn't happen. Darrell was a Fisher disciple and admirer regarding the latter's administrative and managerial abilities.

    Joe, you also were a "Florida Boy" in the Bill Connell years and know that DWJ was a solid three-stepper. He would have been horrified had DWF openly pushed a "one-step" doctrine or privately confronted him with it. I would have too. Of course, that speaks to a larger issue--DWF did not push that issue--at least not during Darrell's and my three years as a student at JCM. As Tom rightly notes, C.H. Yadon did not either, nor did he promote his unorthodox (for the UPC) godhead views.

    You could speak more accurately than me on the 1979-82 era, but I'd be shocked if Darrell was ever a disciple of Fisher for anything more than his management style. From the beginning, Darrell had his course set for a career in the UPC ministry. He was not going to fall on his sword for Fisher or anyone else. And of course, since Darrell was primarily a First UPC--and TL Craft--employee, he knew on which side his bread was buttered.

  3. Tim: Your assessment of the consistent position of Darrell Johns - from the time I first met him as a teenager in the early 1970s to the present - regarding the Acts 2:38/John 3:5 "new birth" experience is exactly right. Darrell was, and still is, greatly influenced by the organizational and management models he learned from Don Fisher - but I do not believe he was ever "tempted" toward a more evangelical understanding of Christian conversion - certainly not by Don Fisher during the JCM years.

    The United Pentecostal Church in Florida - during my youth - consistently sided with the PAJC understanding of the new birth. This is especially true of Wayne Rooks, the pastor of First Pentecostal in Miami where Darrell and his family attended. S. G. Norris, a product of the Witherspoon-Haywood school of apostolic Pentecostalism and the stalwart defender of the PAJC tradition at Apostolic Bible School - spent winter months in Miami and often spoke at Pastor Rooks' church. I know of no minister in the Florida UPC that supported the PCI understanding of the new birth at this time.

    Personally, I became aware of the PCI-version of apostolic Pentecostalism during my high school years from reading Clanton's "United We Stand." But I honestly don't remember ever being confronted with these ideas in any personal way until I arrived at JCM. Even then, I never witnessed any public advocacy of these ideas in JCM classrooms.

    In fact, I don't really remember these specific ideas about conversion and water and spirit baptism being promoted by Dan Lewis or Don Fisher. Rather, I recall that Dan and I - along with Mark Roberts, Jim Wilkins, and others - saw apostolic Pentecostalism as part of larger evangelical Christianity. This acceptance of Christian commitment outside the in-group of the UPC forced us to question the overall apostolic Pentecostal understanding of conversion. I don't think this struggling with our own roots ever took the form of a debate between PAJC and PCI traditions. I do not think that these categories with their specific concepts and vocabularies were ever debated among the faculty, much less the students, at JCM. (Perhaps Dan discussed them in his systematic theology course, but I am not sure.)

    When we faculty members were quizzed by the JCM administration about whether we believed in "speaking with tongues" or baptism "in Jesus' name," we honestly answered that we did - although I am sure that we did not mean the same things by these terms as those who asked the questions.

    But to frame the JCM debacle of 1979-1980 and 1980-1981 as a war between "three-steppers" and "one-steppers" misses the depth of the theological discussion that Dan and I engaged in at this time.

    So I think that Thomas Fudge is correct that Darrell was pulled between the influence of Don Fisher and Tommy Craft in the early 1980s. But you are equally correct that this was not a choice among competing theological visions. Darrell always was committed to the traditional PAJC understanding of the new birth. It was this bedrock doctrinal commitment that pushed him away - at least in part - from Don Fisher and toward Tommy Craft. (And, of course, you are no doubt also right about the practical motivations that shaped Darrell's decisions.)

  4. Question: Do you fellers ever look up long enough from your navel gazing and self serving apologetics and polemics to actually enact any of Christ's teachings in your daily walk with others, or have you chosen to wear the cloak of being offended as a garment to succour you from shredding the Light to the lost? What about them, where is the concern for them from professionally paid theolgians in this modern, ice cold era?