The Professor and the Dean
by C. Norman Kraus
In his biography of Harold S. Bender (1897-1962), Albert Keim
wrote, " 'The Bible Department is becoming quite weak,'
he [Bender] told Wenger. 'We cannot afford to have Norman Kraus
become the chairman, and no one else is ready.' " Then Keim
adds, "Bender was concerned about Kraus's theological stance"
(pp. 505-06). Now, some forty years later, the current changes
on the Mennonite theological scene make a further explanation
of the content of this "theological stance" desirable
for the record.
Business sessions of the Bible faculty, which included all
teachers in the college Bible and the Th.B. program, during 1953-60
was dominated by Bender's plans to upgrade the Th.B. to a graduate
seminary degree. This required that the Bible faculty be divided
into undergraduate and graduate divisions, and the accreditation
association did not approve of graduate teachers teaching in
the college Bible curriculum. The "weakness" of the
Bible Department in the early 1960s that Bender indicates simply
refers to the fact that most of the teachers in what had been
a combined College Bible and Theological Seminary faculty had
been shifted to the newly separated seminary, leaving the undergraduate
Bible Department inadequately manned.
While Bender was busy forming the new seminary organization,
curriculum, and faculty, he insisted on also remaining the chairman
of the college Bible Department. Unfortunately in his zeal to
form an independent seminary he had not given the needed attention
to forming a strong Bible faculty or to developing an undergraduate
curriculum. He made it clear that he expected J. Lawrence Burkholder
and me to continue as teachers in the Bible Department. Presumably
Burkholder would be the chairman of the Department. But at the
time of his remark to Wenger (1960) Burkholder was leaving for
Harvard and I would not return from Duke University for another
year. The faculty for the coming year would be largely made up
of temporary and part-time teachers.
I do not think there was any suggestion that either Burkholder
or I were considered weak teachers, or unqualified for the positions.
Indeed, Bender acknowledges in his statement that I am the only
one qualified to be chair of the department. That was his problem!
In the summer of 1960 I had made a special trip to Goshen to
talk with President Mininger and settle the conditions under
which I would be willing to return from Duke to teach at Goshen.
While I had no qualms about my reputation as a teacher, there
was as yet no tenure policy for Goshen faculty, and the "theological"
situation was tense. Thus I think Keim's conclusion that Bender's
problem was my "theological thrust" is most probably
I had received a B.A. degree in Bible from Goshen in 1946,
and a B.D. in 1951, and I had been on the faculty since 1951.
(Keim incorrectly says that my B.A. was from Eastern Mennonite
College.) I had recently received my Ph.D. from Duke, and I was
returning to the Bible Department as the lone representative
of the 1951 faculty. Even though Bender's close colleague, Paul
Mininger, had become president of the college, and the president's
office retained its special prerogative to regulate the department,
Bender was fearful that I could not be trusted to chair it. So
while he was still in charge he arranged for John C. Wenger to
stay with the college as chairman of the Bible Department. Positions
were still somewhat fluid at that point, so it is not quite clear
whether Wenger was being asked to "stay" or to "return"
to undergraduate teaching.
I was quite willing to work under the chairmanship of Wenger.
We were longtime colleagues and friends, and heading the department
was the only possible rationale Bender could give for asking
him to move back into undergraduate teaching. As it turned out
Wenger was not at all happy to have been left out of the newly
formed seminary, and after Bender's death Mininger arranged for
him to move to the theology department of the seminary. Thereupon
I became head of the undergraduate department and worked with
President Mininger and Dean Carl Kreider to develop curriculum
and recruit faculty.
It was no secret that Bender was suspicious of my "theological
stance." I felt that he had distinctly cooled toward me
by 1955 when I returned from a year at Princeton Theological
Seminary. It was my experience there that made me decide to pursue
American religious studies rather than follow his lead into sixteenth-century
Anabaptist studies. And it was no secret that he associated me
with John W. Miller, a Concern group member and colleague on
the Goshen faculty, who, as Keim indicates, was not in Bender's
good graces. He had planned the dismissal of John in a not-too-subtle
arrangement: he was to take a leave, and was then not to be hired
But what were the theological issues? First, I must note that
they were only in the most general sense "theological."
Orientation or temperament would be a more accurate designation
than "stance." I will not try to list the items of
tension in any order of chronology or significance. Most of them,
as it will be clear with their listing, have long since ceased
to be issues in the church.
One of the major causes of tension concerned the concept of
the church and church organization. Influenced by the Concern
Group's theology some of us younger faculty organized a "koinonia
group" in which we sought to find renewal and integrity
as followers of Christ. Keim refers to this in his biography
on pages 469 following. We even had the temerity on one occasion
to share the Lord's Supper. Since the group happened to be meeting
at my home that evening, and since I was an ordained minister
at the time, Bender reminded me that I had seriously overstepped
my prerogatives in the Indiana-Michigan Conference. He ticked
off the offenses. I had assumed the authority of a bishop. I
had not gotten permission from my bishop to have a communion
service, and I had not asked permission of the bishop in whose
district the event took place. Further, the koinonia group was
not a recognized congregational body. Shades of sixteenth-century
Zurich! He was very concerned that our group would become a schismatic
faction. Ironically, in this situation he was much nearer to
Ulrich Zwingli in spirit than he was to Conrad Grebel, the Anabaptist
leader whom he idealized in his biography.
In this same vein he one time expressed his disapproval and
caution when I urged a large spiritual life conference on campus
to give more place and freedom to the Holy Spirit in the life
of the church. I made the statement that in effect the traditional
Trinity of the Mennonite Church had been "God the Father,
Son and Holy Bible," and that we needed to put more emphasis
on the authority of the Spirit. In this connection I had quoted
Donald Baillie (God Was In Christ, 1948), and he cautioned me
about following his theology, although I'm quite certain he had
not read Baillie at that point. All this was at least a decade
before the charismatic movement impacted the church, and it represented
a theological perspective that threatened the authority of church
leadership based on "biblical" injunctions.
Further, Bender and my other colleagues knew full well that
I had serious questions about the adequacy of the "inerrancy"
theory of biblical inspiration on which to ground the authority
of the Bible. I had written a paper analyzing the implications
and weakness of inerrancy in the mid-50s that was shared with
the faculty in duplicated form, but never published. Then in
1958 I read a paper to a faculty seminar, entitled "The
Religious Use of Language," which deeply disturbed Paul
Mininger. Of course, by 1960 many of us on the Bible faculty
questioned the doctrine of inerrancy, and when the Mennonite
Confession of Faith was published in 1963 the word itself was
dropped. Even John C. Wenger, who had a great deal to do with
the formulation of this Confession, was willing to see our doctrinal
statement refocused and reworded.
Another area of tension between Bender and me had to do with
the limits of academic freedom to examine or debate issues that
were considered "liberal." From the reopening of Goshen
College in 1924 up until the early fifties, public lectures and
discussions of controversial theological topics were carefully
circumscribed. For example, during the 1950s public discussion
of the theory of evolution was still limited to lectures by anti-evolution
speakers. Class texts in the Bible Department were chosen with
extreme care. Dependable classics and reprints were used where
possible. Each year for his course in The Acts Bender scoured
the secondhand bookstores for copies of G. T. Purves, Christianity
in the Apostolic Age (1900) that had long been out of print.
Books by authors considered "liberal" or "modernist"
were excluded from the library shelves lest students find and
read them. When I assigned a chapter for collateral reading from
a currently published textbook on the New Testament, a chapter
that I thought quite acceptable, Bender reprimanded me, saying,
"Don't you think that the students can read other [non-acceptable]
chapters as well?" After I returned from Duke, at an opportune
moment I suggested to Bender that the time had come to add liberal
and modernist books from an earlier era to the library for purposes
of graduate students' research projects. He cautiously agreed.
The number and quality of the library holdings were a major concern
of the accrediting agency, and Bender was determined to have
This was a time when the academic options of Mennonite scholars
were beginning to broaden. Prior to the 1960s Bender had carefully
steered his proteges into the right seminaries and graduate schools.
He had also suggested what their fields of study should be. In
my case he had chosen Princeton for my Th.M. studies, although
he had by then begun to have some doubts about Princeton's theological
orientation. While at Princeton I wrote a Master's thesis on
the rise of dispensational theology in nineteenth-century American
Christianity-a movement that had caused much tension and controversy
in Mennonite circles as well. Under the tutelage of Professor
Lefferts Loetscher I began to see the significance of understanding
American Christianity and became convinced that its study was
of critical importance for twentieth-century Mennonites. Thus
when I looked for a graduate school to finish my Ph.D., I looked
for both a qualified faculty and library resources to study American
church history and theology. I chose Duke University, a school
not on Bender's recommended list.
Up to the sixties, historical research and teaching of both
College Bible and seminary faculty had majored in Mennonite history
and the sixteenth century. Now with increasing Mennonite exposure
to and participation in American society, I began to realize
how little we understood the modern society in which we operated.
So I proposed to Bender, who at that time was still head of the
Bible Department, that upon my return to Goshen College I be
allowed to introduce a new course entitled Protestant Christianity
and locate the Mennonite History course within this broader context.
I also urged that American Church History be made a staple of
the new seminary curriculum and offered to teach it. Bender was
not supportive of either suggestion although he did agree to
let me teach Protestant Christianity in the college, which became
a requirement so long as I was at the college.
These were the major issues upon which we had explicit verbal
exchange as I remember them. I found out years later that he
and other senior colleagues on the faculty had made trips to
Illinois to pacify congregational leaders and parents who were
upset by student reports about what I and others had said in
class, but he never discussed these with me. I was told by some
who had been involved in those discussions that he assured them
that we "loved the church" and he thought he could
keep us under control. If there were other theological issues,
I was not aware of them.
Kraus, former pastor, missionary
to Japan, author and professor emeritus at Goshen College, is
living in retirement in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
"Dean Bender," as I knew him was a theological conservative,
but not a fundamentalist; a pragmatic churchman more interested
in denominational unity than in theological precision; and he
was a consummate manager who had no qualms about using others
as well as himself for the church as he envisioned it. I, on
the other hand, was concerned about theological precision and
integrity of expression in the life of the church. And, I must
add from this vantage point in history, I was extremely naïve
in the realm of church politics. Today I suspect that the scenario
might have played out differently. We might actually have sat
down and talked over our differences.§