Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Glen H. Stassen: In What Sense “Evangelical?”

The Louisville memorial service for Glen Stassen will be held on 21 June 2014 (Saturday) at 2 pm (EDT) in the sanctuary of Crescent Hill Baptist Church where the Stassen family were members for 20 years.  Especially if you were unable to attend his funeral in Pasadena and would like to attend or send tributes, I urge you to make plans, now.


In the days following Glen’s death at the end of last month, and at his funeral, I told several people that I felt as if conversations with him had been abruptly interrupted. I suppose part of my grieving process is in trying  to continue these conversations as far as I can. So, this post will be one of a series of blog posts in which I try to mentally “map out” dimensions of my mentor’s life and thought. In the Festchrift I helped to edit for Glen, Ethics as if Jesus Mattered: Essays in Honor of Glen H. Stassen (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, Inc., 2014). I wrote a biographical chapter, “Glen Harold Stassen (1936-2014): Follower of a Thick Jesus.” I may expand that into a full theological biography–both because my chapter now strikes me as wholly inadequate and because Glen was considering writing a theological memoir before the aggressive nature of his cancer moved too rapidly to make any more writing projects possible.  But these blog posts will just be initial fragments–and I invite feedback on them from Glen’s friends, colleagues, and other students.

Anyone who knew Glen Stassen to any degree at all knows that he was serious about his Christian identity–about following Jesus as faithfully as he knew how and teaching others to do the same. But was Glen Stassen an evangelical Christian? As with most important questions, the answer depends in large part upon one’s definition.

For many people in the USA since the 1980s, and, especially, it seems, for those involved in the U.S. mass media, the term “evangelical” has become synonymous with “member of the ‘Christian’ Right,” that is, a conservative Protestant who is fundamentalist in doctrine, legalist in ethics, and part of the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party.  If THAT is what one means by “evangelical” then the term clearly does not apply to Stassen. Indeed, in one of his earliest published articles (“Faith of the Radical Right and Christian Faith,” Review and Expositor 65/3 (Summer 1968): 314-334.), Stassen anticipated the future political power of the Religious RIght (then a fringe movement) and opposed it strongly.  While it is true that he was raised in a politically prominent Republican family, the Stassens were liberal Republicans–a breed now all-but-extinct. Glen Stassen himself became a registered Democrat. He opposed the semi-theocratic tendencies of the Religious Right–upholding the traditional Baptist view that the institutions of religion and government should be firmly separated. One’s faith informs one’s political values, but never in such a way as to make second class citizens of those with different faith commitments (or without religious faith) and never in such a way that would use or manipulate God or the faithful.  Stassen’s values: justice for the poor, racial justice, equality of the sexes, taking transforming initiatives for peace and human rights, caring for the integrity of creation—these are diametrically opposed to the goals and priorities of the Religious Right.

But the Right hi-jacked the term “evangelical” and are not entitled to their current near-monopoly of the term. (Indeed, as Stassen pointed out, the Right has attempted to hi-jack Jesus and to label all who disagree with them as “not really Christian.” In several places, he called for non-fundamentalist Christians to “take Jesus back.”)

“Evangelical” at its most basic means “related to the evangel, to the gospel or good news.” Indeed, when I have taught at Catholic institutions, I have noticed many Catholics use the term “evangelical” where Protestants would say “evangelistic.” Stassen was certainly evangelical in THAT sense. In nearly everything he did he was concerned to bear witness to the Good News in Jesus and to invite people to follow Jesus seriously.

From the time of the Reformation, “evangelical” has often been a synonym for “Protestant,” as it is throughout parts of Europe and most of Latin America, still. Although he has expressed appreciation for some dimensions of Catholicism, Glen Stassen is definitely Protestant. Later “evangelical” meant that one had a personal conversion experience–whether shaped by the Puritan or revivalist experience.  Glen Stassen describes his conversion in his autobiographical chapter in Peacemakers, ed. Jim Wallis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

But in the U.S., Protestantism became a “two party system” and “evangelical” came to mean both “doctrinally traditional” and “separate from” or even “in opposition to” “mainstream liberal” or “ecumenical Protestant.” We will return to “doctrinally traditional,” but it is clear that there are many ways in which Glen Stassen was NOT part of the “Evangelical subculture” of the U.S., despite teaching at one of its most prominent seminaries (Fuller Theological Seminary) for the last two decades of his life.  He was clearly not a product of the educational institutions of the Evangelical subculture. His university years were not spent at Wheaton College or Westmont College or Calvin College, Gordon College, or denominational equivalents. Majoring in nuclear physics, Glen went to the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” the symbol of the American Enlightenment.  True, the first seminary he attended was The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, but, although SBTS has become a symbol of CONSERVATIVE Evangelicalism since the beginning of the presidency of R. Albert Mohler, Jr. in the 1990s, this was not the case when Glen Stassen attended in the late ’50s–and he left after the the 1958 conflict between the faculty and president that resulted in the firing of 12 faculty members and the academic suspension of the seminary.  Stassen transferred to (and earned his B.D. at) Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, THE flagship seminary of the liberal (and, later, the Neo-Orthodox and Liberation Theology) tradition in American Protestantism.  The teachers that influenced Stassen were not evangelicals who somehow managed to get hired at Union in the 1950s, either. They were Reinhold Niebuhr, process theologian Daniel Day Williams, Old Testament scholar James Muilenberg, New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, and Robert McAfee Brown (who introduced Stassen to the theology of Karl Barth). Stassen’s Ph.D. was earned at Duke University. Again, today, Duke’s Divinity School and its Graduate School of Religion is known as a center of “Post-liberal” and “Generous Orthodox” thought where the conservative end of the “mainstream ecumenical” spectrum meets and overlaps the progressive end of the evangelical spectrum.  But, once more, this was not the case in the 1960s when Stassen was a student there. In those days, Duke was firmly a part of the liberal tradition of Southern Methodism.  His Ph.D. supervisor, Waldo Beach, was a student of H. Richard Niebuhr (the subject of Stassen’s dissertation), and, all of his 8 books were in the Protestant mainstream. Others who influenced Stassen at Duke were Hans Hillerbrand (a Lutheran church historian with a strong interest in 16th C. Anabaptism–probably triggered by his own undergraduate studies at Goshen College, a Mennonite school) and Frederick Herzog, a former student of Karl Barth and a champion of civil rights and liberation theology.  Later, during sabbatical leaves, Stassen studied at Harvard University (with Ralph Potter), Columbia University, the University of Heidelberg (Germany), and Duke University, again.  So, Stassen was educated completely outside the Evangelical subculture in the U.S.

Nor is there any evidence that he participated in any of the well-known evangelical “para-church” organizations of that subculture during his formative years. He was active in his local Baptist church, always. And, at the University of Virginia, he participated in the Baptist Student Union, the Baptist campus ministry.  But he was not a part of Navigators or Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ or Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, etc.  However, when the Sojourners ministry began in the 1970s, Stassen, traveled to Washington, D.C. and spent time with this radical, progressive evangelical community serving the poor and was later a contributing editor to Sojourners magazine. He did join Evangelicals for Social Action (founded by Ronald Sider) and even served as a faculty advisor for some of its publications.  As a teacher of Christian ethics, Stassen would assign works by evangelicals (as well as others) including (of my own knowledge) works by Arthur  Holmes of Wheaton College, Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (though he was frustrated by the way the later editions “tamed” the suggestions for political action), Stephen C. Mott’s Biblical Ethics and Social Change, Lewis B. Smedes’ Mere Morality, and, of course, tons of works by John Howard Yoder (considered by many to be an evangelical, but not by others).

Many evangelicals are obsessed with defending “biblical inerrancy,” the concept that the Bible contains no errors at all (although many definitions of “inerrancy” have so many qualifications and/or loopholes that it is difficult to see what would qualify as an “error” when all the qualifications are made). Stassen was not interested in finding biblical errors, but neither did he have any patience with the inerrancy debate. Stassen was proficient in critical biblical studies from all points of the theological spectrum. He had a high view of biblical authority and this was displayed in his close study of the texts (to this date, he is the only known Christian ethicist to have published in a major journal of biblical scholarship. See “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (Summer 2003): 267-308).

If one’s concept of an American Evangelical is that of Carl Henry, Cornelius van Til, Billy Graham, or Francis Schaeffer, then Glen Stassen does not fit–and never tried to fit.  If one thinks an evangelical must always criticize the people and institutions of “liberalism,” Stassen does not fit. He loved his teachers at Union and Duke.  In my hearing, he repeatedly defended Harvard’s Harvey Cox from the lazy and inaccurate way that conservative critics lumped him in with “Death of God” theologians because of sloppy readings of Cox’s book, The Secular City, or, worse, reviews by title alone. He was a lifelong scholar of the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although he published little to show this, he was greatly influenced by the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (but see his “God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Journal of Religion 83/3 (July 2008): 416-418.).

But if one’s concept of “evangelical” is broad enough to include Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, evangelical liberation theologians like J. Daniel Kirk, Orlando Costas, Rene Padilla, and evangelical feminists like Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, then Glen Stassen is certainly an evangelical. He was comfortable with the term, though he did not flaunt it as a badge or weapon as did many. In later years, he worked with his student, David Gushee (more clearly an evangelical), in the formation of Evangelicals for Human Rights (an anti-torture group) and stayed with it when it broadened to become the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Update: [I left out a sentence.] Frustrated with the lack of serious attention to biblical materials, especially the teachings of Jesus, in textbooks of Christian ethics used in evangelical institutions, Glen set out to correct this. He co-wrote Kingdom Ethics with David Gushee–a major textbook in Christian ethics centered around the Sermon on the Mount, aimed primarily at an evangelical audience, and deliberately published by a major evangelical publisher, Intervarsity Press. Published in 2003, in 2004 it was selected as “Book of the Year” by Christianity Today, the influential popular journal of American evangelicalism. In 2010, the same periodical selected it as one of the 10 best books of the decade. As Stassen intended, it has been widely adopted as a textbook at evangelical institutions.

Update II: Returning to the “doctrinally traditional” dimension of the term “evangelical.” Stassen fits and does not fit. In many times and places, in both writing and speech, Glen Stassen specifically stated that he was not at all attracted to the obsession with avante garde trendiness in theology that is common about liberal Protestants. His faith is clearly Trinitarian and has a high Christology. He has a very high view of biblical authority. But Stassen has never felt himself bound by any traditional creedal formulae if he thought them in error–and he has always understood theology (including theological ethics) as a very human activity prone to mistakes. Many evangelicals are wedded to “penal substitution” theories of Christ’s atonement, for example. While not denying some elements of substitution in the biblical texts, Stassen more firmly identified with versions of the “Christus Victor” approach, especially as articulated by Bonhoeffer and reconfigured in a narrative and nonviolent direction by Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. When Stassen was hired at Fuller Theological Seminary, he was asked to sign the faculty statement of faith. Instead of simply signing his name, Glen asked to write a commentary on the document showing the extent to which he could affirm the document. (He showed me this document. If it exists still among his papers, I’d like to obtain a copy.) The Fuller document committed signers to affirming Creatio ex Nihilo, the traditional doctrine that God created the world “out of nothing.” But Glen Stassen, with his degree in nuclear physics, had been strongly influenced by the process theology of his teacher, Daniel Day Williams. He believed that the Genesis creation stories taught only “creation out of chaos.” In his reply, Stassen argued for his view, citing biblical scholars on Genesis AND the openness to this view in the 1st and 2nd London Confessions of Faith–the earliest 17th C. confessions of the English Particular Baptists. Fuller hired him anyway. Innovation in theology for faddishness or shock value held no attraction for Glen Stassen–but he never allowed traditional formulae or code words to trump loyalty to the truth of the gospel as he saw it. (Incidentally, this is one of the few areas where we disagreed to the end. It’s true that Genesis teaches only “creation out of chaos,” but I contend that “creation out of nothing” is taught in Colossians and in the prologue to John’s Gospel. I also think that the doctrine matters for the Christian hope of resurrection. Glen disagreed and believed that “creation out of nothing” ultimately makes God responsible for evil–and he leveled this critique even at major influences such as H. Richard Niebuhr.)

Glen Stassen’s primary identity was always “Christian.” He was deeply committed to being “Baptist,” though, as he sometimes pointed out, he had been 6 different types of Baptist. He was not the type of evangelical who was afraid of either “ecumenical liberal” Christians or of interfaith dialogue. He was part of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, he served on the board of the Councils of the Societies for the Scientific Study of Religion, and was an active member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. But Glen Stassen was an evangelical Christian and worked hard to get the movement to mature and be more authentically Christian. (See “Incarnating Ethics: We are Called to Faithful Discipleship, Not Credal Rigidity,” Sojourners (March-April 1999): 14.) As David Gushee said, I want to be Glen Stassen’s type of Christian, Glen Stassen’s type of Baptist, and Glen Stassen’s type of evangelical.


May 20, 2014 Posted by | biographies, blog series, mentor | 1 Comment