The Founding Vision of Theos Seminary

Dean’s Address

Delivered at Theos Leader’s Conference

Indian Wells, California

March 24, 2023

‘Faithful Witness in the Academy: The Founding Vision of Theos Seminary’

Chris M. Palmer

I want to acknowledge all of you whom are here tonight: we consider you friends and much more than that, Theos Family—co-laborers in the work of our Lord.

The content of what I bring to you tonight, prophetically I think, merge two things that are both immediate and dear to my heart: the early pentecostal movement and Theos Seminary. I have been known for joking on our platforms that I am an unreliable pentecostal, doing my best to create distance between myself and the uncanny (we will just call it that) things Pentecostals have been known to do. I do this for the sake of all our reformed and evangelical brothers and sisters who are looking for credibility in our school. (My fellow academic Pentecostals in the room are feeling my sentiment right now).

Yet, tonight, instead of trying to create distance between myself and the tradition of my up-brining, I would like to draw near to that tradition. I feel there is a certain prophetic contour in that movement that our entire Theos Family who is here– Pentecostal, Charismatic, Baptist, Anglican, Eastern, and almost Catholic – might be able to appreciate as it is a contour that, I think, has us all here in this room waiting to see what God will do amongst us this week and in the days ahead after this conference.

And I don’t think it’s too verbose to assume that the same Spirit that drew what we will see is a bunch of institutional disruptors to a tiny mission at 312 Azusa street - just 90 miles from here - might very well be the same Spirit that has brought us to this desert church over a century later, sharing the same concerns as they.

Now, as a man who appreciates even teaches hermeneutical method, I feel I owe it to my Pentecostal forebearers, in whom I am about to talk about, to follow in their method in approaching the text tonight as it illustrates my big idea. Early Pentecostals were simple in their readings of Scripture. They drew from the text but usually never explicated the text in a complicated manner lest they inadvertently treat the text like the higher critics, those armchair theologians in the institutions who had divorced their own methods from the well-being of the flock and so failed the flock and came short the first principles and first purposes of the Christian academy.

Moreover, as Early Pentecostals read the text, they perceived themselves as restorationists. The initial leaders believed that the onus had fallen on them to teach what they called ‘the apostolic faith’. That doctrine that had been delivered to the first century saints. They were to follow after those few throughout history in whom God’s spirit had rested to preserve the faith and restore it from out of the hands of human corruption - corruption that was promulgated by religious institutions and ecclesial structures that had surrendered the apostolic faith to religious and social compromise.

Lastly, they were Acts 29 people in their method. They saw themselves as the continuation of the story of what God was doing in the earth until the time of Jesus’ coming. As part of the story, when they preached, they simply shared their own stories as an integration with the story of God’s people throughout the text—those whom the early Pentecostals called ‘faithful witnesses’. Faithful Witnesses are they who, throughout the millennia, said what was unpopular and against the societal, civic, and intellectual trends. Those who suffered social, economic, and physical persecution and for their witness found themselves in prison and pits, caves and caverns, detentions and detainments.

They were Simple. Concerned with the first century faith. Part of the story. Faithful in the face of social trends, without fear of consequence.

And now my text:

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  1 Corinthians 10:27

And now my story

…which beings in July 2020.

I was two years into my PhD, and teaching at a well-known seminary and finding myself dealing with the cynicism and skepticism that comes from being an academic and the disenchantment that the events of that year had brought us all. What might have been most concerning to me, above all of that, is that the temperature of 2020 hadn’t helped the ironclad, evangelical academy from giving way to progressive ideologies that donned themselves in, what I was seeing as an academic as, unconventional methodologies finessed craftily enough to give the students the language they needed to justifiably walk away - or should I say, ‘not continue in’ - the things they had been taught as a child in matters of morality and orthodox doctrine.

I had just told a colleague of mine about my concern for Christian academia (two adjectives which were becoming loathed and taboo among emerging progressives). I saw the Trojan Horse, the poisonous pill. My very short tenure had given me the insiders perspective to all that was coming down the pike. The drip I heard then was the beginnings of the rushing flood of progressivism we are observing now.

I told my colleague that the academy needed faithful witnesses. Those who just didn’t become what academics are supposed to become and do what academics are supposed to do - to be tolerant and be affirming of anything that was supposedly ‘speaking truth to power’ and ‘finding itself at the margins’ -  the unsuspecting and even noble sounding mantra of CRT and progressive theology.

We needed academics who, in fashion of faithful witness, would stand for their tradition instead of creating methods that would blur and even confuse the clarity of what the tradition stands for. They would need to say what is unpopular and against the societal, civic, and intellectual trends and be willing to suffer the ostracization that comes with such, even at the risk of their ministerial and academic careers.

There is a saying I learned while I was teaching in Japan years ago that is appropriate here: ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered back in’. We needed nails that might stick out, who wouldn’t mind the blunt of the hammer—if that meant losing their influence and even so called professional honor’.

He asked me what faithful witness might look like in the academy.

I said a faithful witnesses would be a black swan. An unsuspecting, unforeseen disruptor to come out of left field and challenge the trends that had led our academies and our traditions away from its first principles and first purposes.

It would take the foolish to disrupt the wise, the weak to disrupt the strong. Who would be unsuspecting enough and bold enough to welcome the smack of the hammer?

I gave myself to thinking about these things as that long summer dragged on.

In my kitchen, not long after, while eating a handful of potato chips to console my emotions, I providentially lighted upon one of the many Insta Ads we see with every third post. But this one was different. There was this guy in a bucket hat and it had animal print on it. And he was driving a retro Mercedes through Palm Desert, California and he was chatting with me about theology. Cynical as I am about everything (and I am—heck I read the entire Dostoyevsky corpus in 5 months…and I am an Italian) - I liked what I was hearing. After vetting his profile with my own peer review, I couldn’t help but be curious. So for the first time I DM’d someone with a blue check mark (well, I guess if Lauren Daigle doesn’t count).

One thing led to the next. I found my own ministerial endeavors being disrupted and I ended up in this very desert to teach Greek I and II for what is Theos University. I didn’t know much about these guys or rather why I was here. Or if they would like me or if I would like them. When I rang the door buzzer, another dude with long hair answered. And he too was wearing animal prints. Not a bucket hat, but a swimsuit. ‘Come check out our studio’, he said to which I discovered it was a garage. A garage without A/C. A garage without A/C in the middle of one of the hottest summers, if not the hottest summer Palm Desert had on record in a while. I taught three classes in that garage. I must say, I wondered what my peers in the ivory towers might think if they were to look down into this situation.

But that week I spent with them helped my perspective as I listened to their hearts. By the time I left, I knew that Theos University wasn’t just willing to take the smack of the hammer. It existed because it had already felt the smack of the hammer. They had found themselves in the desert because they wouldn’t go along with the social trends that the academy had begun to court. And this hammer is what had forged these guys and their families together.

And that brings this story to the story of Scripture where we discover that God takes his weakest, loneliest, saddest– those who have been drenched with by the blows of life-- and brings them into the desert, a prophetic place of hearing his voice, to forge a people who are strong. And when these people have learned the lessons of faith, humility, and the fear of the Lord, God makes them the hammer of disruption to dismantle the compromise in his church through their faithful witness.

Think of the weak Moses. The lonely Christ. Abandoned John on Patmos. An even more contemporary example: Pat Robertson of CBN and Regent University, who in his book “Shout it from the Housetops”, talks of leaving a Yale education to live in the slums of New York where God, in this concrete desert, would gave him the vision to build an alternative media company to reach the world, which had just come out of the sexual revolution, with morality again.

Yet, among all these examples, I couldn’t help but relate what I was seeing at TheosU to the dear story of my upbringing, the early Pentecostals.

It was in this movement that God chose to disrupt the status quo in the early twentieth century by choosing a shabby looking man with a blind eye and moving through him in a dusty, old mission. Could it be that God was using a few guys with long hair and animal print clothing to move through them as they labored to teach truth in their 120-degree garage and a few canon cameras?

But how does the TheosU story and the early Pentecostal story compare further? What is the contour we can all appreciate? What is the not so obvious thing they might have in common that you need me here to connect?

I will tell you.

The Azusa Movement, quite typically marked by tongues of fire and their unrivaled missionary efforts should also be recognized for a distinctive that doesn’t get as much attention or press. It was a movement that protested, even disrupted, the compromised academy that had failed it. I think few people recognize their reformers spirit for education because they were explicit about the fact that they weren’t going to send any of their own to these out of touch institutions. Therefore, the early Pentecostals are criticized for ‘rejecting education’ and being ‘anti-intellectual’.

Yet, it was precisely the Pentecostal’s understanding of the purpose of education, so different from their contemporizes in the ivory towers, that caused them to divorce the institutionalized versions of the Christian university and contend for its restoration.

The Pentecostals were brave pioneers. They weren’t going to beg anyone or wait for the institutions to listen to them. They’d just created their own. And, as the story would go, these institutions would prove to be effective. So effective, in fact, that they would prepare its students for the large-scale evangelization of a world in disarray and so in need of answers as it was on its way into pandemic, economic depression, and world war. A world that the Christian academy of their day didn’t have any answers for. And had been compromised by. How would rationalistic approaches to the text minister to those plagued by Spanish Flu and forced out of their homes by conflict?

A bit of irony, perhaps prophetic. I would argue that the story of the American Pentecostal movement began in a Bible school. This was in Topeka, Kansas on December 31, 1900.

I find it somewhat fascinating that the movement started off as a tiny clamor at a lay, alternative Bible school with only 40 people. What is fascinating and even prophetic looking to me was that this wasn’t the last time a Bible school would find its way into the picture.

The next major turning point in the story begins with a Bible school.

Parham would take his movement, the ‘apostolic faith’, onto the road with him. He preached in bordellos, engaged the culture, and prayed for the sick. But Parham knew that engaging the culture required more than mere power evangelism and miracles and deliverance and prophecy. It required education and skill with the text. But skill that was not compromised with modernism and the academic group think of the day. Or the social trends that succeeded through social pressures.

Eventually Parham set up shop in Houston, TX on the corner of Rusk Avenue and Brazos Street. Parham announced that the new Apostolic Bible Training School would begin in January 1906.

Interestingly enough, historians tell us that his heart was for students to find cheap, affordable education. But it was also to be rigorous. Students would rise, eat, study, and work. If they were consistent, their tuition would remain cheap.

And The Bible was the primary textbook. Now, of course people might disagree with this and call the Pentecostals a bunch of simpletons at this point. But remember what they were dealing with—academia had gotten into higher criticism which had everything to do with anything but the finished form of the text.

Therefore, this approach was somewhat of a faithful witness. It signaled the young budding movements ‘return to the Bible’ as best as they knew how - an objection against the fruitless ventures of the modernists who’s methodologies and approaches to the text had created a cold, powerless church without any demonstration and working of the Holy Spirit - quite unfitting for the crises that laid ahead for the people of the 20th century. And certainly too anemic for the massive harvest that lay in store in the mission field, particularly in impoverished areas without the presence of any thriving Christianity.

Eventually, Parham’s Bible school and the spirit of that school would become a faithful witness against social trends when the Pentecostal movement’s soon to be spearhead, William J Seymour, came along. Though Jim Crow laws kept Seymour from being able to be a full participant in Parham’s classroom, the movement began to embody its diverse nature as Parham arranged for Seymour to sit outside of his classroom. As unpopular as he was for it, Parham wanted education for all those who genuinely sought to learn about the Scripture, no matter their status or color. The opportunity to study God’s Word, specifically in preparation for ministry, should be available to anyone whom God had called and chosen. Though he faced persecution for his stance, Parham was willing to take the blunt of the hammer for his vision of Christian education which would not bow to status quo and social pressures.

What we see from this contour that I hope we can all appreciate is, by 1906 and even before the revival exploded in Azusa, a prophetic concoction that would come to define the next 100 years of Christianity was being stirred together in Bible Schools. It was a back to the Bible approach that included all nations, peoples, and classes made up of whom those in ivory towers might look upon as the weak, the low, the despised, and the foolish.

You could say their movement was a black swan. A disruption. It was a faithful witness against the current trends of the flawed trends of human societies and compromised academia. And it was accessible to all and affordable for any person who was called by God to face the coming onslaught of pandemic, world war, and economic despair with answers from the God-Breathed Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit so that the harvest could be reaped.

God was slowly bringing things to boil, working to restore the apostolic faith in a low budget Bible school that was committed to the well-being of its students, Scripture, and doing and saying what was right in the sight of God no matter how unpopular it was or unsophisticated it sounded or how unlikely their appearance seemed.

A.C. Holland, editor of the Pentecostal Holiness Church’s Apostolic Evangel spoke prophetically of the Pentecostal movement and prophetically of the times in light of the Pentecostal heart for education in its early days. I believe his voice echoes the heart of TheosU this evening as the early Pentecostals were much likes us who are here tonight, whether we are Pentecostal or not. He essentialy said that ‘the twin evils of the day were education for its own sake (‘secular humanism’) and no education at all.’

It isn’t that the Pentecostals were anti-intellectual. Early Pentecostals loved ideas. They loved learning. They were simply anti-academy for they understood that the academy had failed the church and had compromised the ideas so distinctive of the church over the millennia. And they wouldn’t stand for that. 1 Peter 5:2 tells the body to ‘care for the flock among you’. This is because we will stand before a holy God and give account.

The modernists had developed methods without the flock’s spiritual well-being in mind.  

As faithful witnesses determined to return to the Bible, and to depart from the unhelpful musings of man, the Pentecostals’ little bible schools centered on using methodologies that valued morality, common sense, and the work of the Spirit. It kept the fear of God in mind and the fact that we all would stand before Jesus when he would come.

What started as a grassroots movement in education quickly exploded. A survey of Pentecostal periodicals quickly show how educational enterprises began popping up rapidly. This crested into the 1917 General Council of the Assemblies of God where all Holy-Spirit filled young people were urged to enroll in ‘some properly and scripturally accredited Bible Training School”.  Whether the education was formal or a lay enterprise, the Pentecostals always treated good education, coupled with the power of the Spirit, as a qualification for ecclesial leadership.

As educational pioneers and academic restorationists, they were the disruptors of their day. They understood education had been compromised and that, if what was good and right were to be preserved, the responsibility fell on them to lean away from the current trends. The lows of society, the weak and foolish, came together in a most unsuspecting place and put forth a new trend that embraced spiritual passion and intellectual excellence to the best of their understanding. It was an expression that merged passion and learning, grandeur and humility, courage and contemplation, tradition and suddenlies.

I hope tonight, no matter what tradition you are from, you can appreciate this contour and the sentiments we glean from it. I hope they encourage you continue forth in this spirit of academic pioneering, without compromise, as we face our own issues of our day no matter what tradition you are from.

Let me close with this.

Historians who have studied Pentecostalism have typically divided Pentecostalism into three waves – 1) early Pentecostalism, 2) the charismatic renewal, and 2) the neo-charismatic movement. Yet, historians have noticed a fourth wave in Pentecostalism - a wave that they would say we are now in. This wave is defined by increased emphasis on intellectual ability, thoughtfulness, and the writing of books that are more than just practical memoirs and deliverance manuals. They are authentic contributions to scholarship - commentaries, monographs, apologies for the faith -  all of which embrace the entire scope of church history and give us orthodox solutions for the dilemmas of our day. The head and the heart, the intellect and the Spirit - coming to define what could now be called the 4th wave of Pentecostalism.

I couldn’t think of a better time for this wave. The challenges of a post covid world, growing exponentially in technological advances and information by the milli-second, force us to think about different questions that the early Pentecostal movement could have never foreseen.

We’ve needed this wave. A wave of the fresh the power of the Spirit that combines intellectual excellence in order to tactfully and skillfully face these questions without intimidation, fear, or retreat. To be brilliant in our comprehension, bold in our articulation, clear in our responses, and compassionate in our invitation. And, like the Pentecostals, those courageous pioneers, - it means being brave in the face of persecution and ostracization that comes upon God’s faithful witnesses for resisting the social trends and the Babylonian culture.

You may not be Pentecostal here tonight. In fact, as I look, I don’t see tons. But I do see people who love the Spirit. I see thinkers. I see pioneers. And I see people who are not frightened by the crush of the hammer - because you’ve already faced the hammer. And that’s why you’re here. That’s why we are all here. We’ve been forged together as Theos Family. And we are riding a wave of Spirit and Truth to create faithful Christian education with solutions for the complex issues of the 21st century without taint and without defect.

The God who used a cross to overcome Caesar’s throne, and a Lamb to overcome the power structures of Rome…and a little mission to bring about a worldwide awakening… he can use bucket hats and animal print swimsuits to have a hand in restoring the Christian academy into the institution of orthodox truth that it should be.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  1 Corinthians 10:27

I’m honored to call you my brother, my sister, and my comrade who is with me in the trenches.

May we all be faithful witnesses to teach the truth, no matter the cost.

Thank you.

Chris M. Palmer | Dean of Education | Theos Seminary