Suspect Reasons Behind Professor’s Firing


Thomas Jay Oord is tenured full professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University (as well as an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene), and he is being fired from his position for official reasons that apparently no one seems to believe. The official reasons have included: the university’s financial problems and low enrollment in the graduate theology program. But that would seem to ignore that Oord was threatened with a “heresy trial” in the summer of 2014, and that:

In 2013, [NNU President David] Alexander and Intermountain District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Borger asked Dr. Tom Oord to respond to 70 questions about his theology–-in order to stay in good standing with the church and the university… He wrote an 80 page paper in response to these questions, and after being interviewed by Nazarene theologians…  Dr. Oord’s thoughts were found to be within the limits of Wesleyan theology.

Why the investigation into Oord’s religious views? Several articles (e.g., Inside Higher EdChristianity Todaysuggest it was because of Oord’s pro-evolution views. In an article in The Daily Beast, Karl Giberson writes:

Oord was the university’s leading scholar, with 20 books on his CV; by most measures he was also the denomination’s leading scholar and one of a tiny number of Nazarene theologians whose reputations reached beyond evangelicalism. Oord had won multiple teaching awards and was wildly popular with students and respected by his colleagues. He had brought over a million dollars of grant money to the university—a remarkable accomplishment for a professor at a small, unsung liberal arts college.

Oord, however, was controversial.

He strongly supported evolution and had long been a target of creationists in the denomination. He embraced “open theism,” the view that God does not know the future but responds in love—rather than coercive control—to events as they occur, rather than foreordaining everything. Fundamentalist critics called him a heretic and had been vying for his termination for years. But Oord was also gentle and pastoral, especially with students.

In the meanwhile, the NNU faculty has passed a vote of no confidence in President Alexander, and a Facebook group in support of Oord has been growing, with over 2200 members.

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anon
anon
6 years ago

I have a colleague who is very informed about this case and very close to it, and his perspective about what’s going on is very different than these news reports. It’s unlikely that evolution had much if anything to do with it.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

In response to [email protected]:04:

Although the press keeps suggesting that Oord has been accused of heresy because of his views on evolution and open theism, I’ve been wondering whether he has other views that his opponents consider heretical.Report

Alan White
6 years ago

“Oord has drawn attention to the views of many Nazarene scholars and rank-and-file believers who accept evolution, suggesting that there is much to be learned scientifically from sources other than the Bible. These views appear to contradict Northwest Nazarene’s statement of faith, which states: “The Old and New Testament Scriptures, given by plenary inspiration, contain all truth necessary to faith and Christian living.” –From the IHE article

I’m an alum (’75) of NNU (-C) and graduated with a double major in philosophy and religion. I started out as a ministerial student but the excellent quality of many of the courses I took there (some pastoral courses however were beyond awful) led me to become completely non-religious (and with a career in philosophy much happier I might add). Even then there was some tension about evolution versus creationism among students and faculty, but the church as far as I know took no official stance on it. The reason I quoted from the IHE article is to point out that the statement of faith says that scriptures were given by plenary–not literal–inspiration, and that they contain all truth necessary for *faith and Christian living*. These claims are not at all contradictory to Oord’s position on evolution, unless the church has over the years added other statements on this I’m unaware of. The theology of the church is conservative, but not fundamentalist (it would have to subscribe to scriptural literalism to qualify for that label, for example). Open theism would be certainly in tension with Nazarene theology, but if that is such an issue with them now as to warrant Oord’s firing, they will never get another nickel from this graduate.Report

dennis d. chitwood
dennis d. chitwood
6 years ago

I attended Nazarene Bible College, as well as NNU. MY 3 children went to NNU also. Anyone who has studied the History, Theology, and Polity of the Nazarene church would know that it predates the Fundamentalist movement by 25 years. It was part of the Holiness Movement, and is Wesleyan-Armenian theologically. It’s main mission has always been to serve others. We should not allow the changes in our society cause us to loose focus of our history and mission. We seem to be getting sidetracked here on things the denomination and movement have always felt were non essentials. In otherwords, how I live my life being Christ to others.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
6 years ago

Secular news reports of the goings-on of religious institutions will often interpret those events according to a certain narrative, the one we see here, i.e. Brilliant Progressive Guy Battles Ignorant Creationist Sticks-in-the-Mud. We saw this also (perhaps more absurdly) with Pope Francis a while back, I think, in a post at Feminist Philosophers. I would be wary of these reports. Also, the blog post linked to indicates that none of the 70 questions asked of Oord had anything to do with evolution. I think, Justin, you might edit your part of the post that seems to imply that this is about creationism? In the spirit of responsible blogging? Or at least indicate that the IHE article is suspect in this respect? (The Christianity Today article makes clear that the Nazarene Church does not have an anti-evolution stance).Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I hope it will be accepted as a friendly correction that Mr. Chitwood meant “Arminian.”Report

MA-Student
MA-Student
6 years ago

I hope Oord moves on to a better university. He’s a brilliant guy that deserves a better post anyway.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

It seems to me that the primary issue here is one of academic freedom: a tenured professor might lose his job because the views he has defended in his research are unpopular with the president of his university.

I’m grateful that Justin has posted something about this and surprised that so few people have commented. This situation should be of great concern to professional philosophers. Every time a tenured professor loses a job because of the content of his or her research, we should wonder what tenure really means.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
6 years ago

I’m curious: is comment #1 written in a code that some DN readers discern and the rest of us don’t? I have trouble understanding how such a vague, anonymous assertion of hearsay could have 7 votes. Same for “anon female grad student,” whose remark also suggesting that this isn’t about evolution has 6 votes. Is there some reason these commenters don’t just come out and say what they think this is about? Is there some reason those voting for these comments aren’t chiming in?Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
6 years ago

@Matt McAdam, I have no inside info. I just think that the only real evidence that this is about evolution is that this guy is pro-evolution and there are (is one?) traditionalist creationist blogger(s) that have criticized Oord—I was taken aback that *one guy* on the internet (who says the Nazarene church is “in a crisis”) was taken to be somehow representative of the position of the church! Against that you have the fact that the Nazarene Church itself is totally okay with evolution (read to the end of the Christianity Today article) and that the school never asked Oord anything about evolution when they examined him for heterodoxy (read the Ric Shewell blog post).

Moreover, I just think that whenever a certain kind of journalist can twist something to make it about creation vs. evolution, they will, because it’s a kind of trope that people can understand, it’s a hot button thing, it will get you hits, oftentimes it’s the only (or at least the primary) categorical scheme people are able to employ for thinking about progressive vs. conservative theologies. I don’t know what this firing is about. Maybe it’s about open theism. Maybe the guy is a pain in the ass for administrators for some reason unrelated to his theological views. I admit, the reasons cited are bizarre and absolutely not grounds for firing a tenured professor. So let me be clear: by saying this is not about evolution, I don’t mean to be defending the firing. I just think that irresponsible reporting, especially of the IHE in this case, contributes to public misunderstanding of religious beliefs and institutions.Report

Yet Another Female Student
Yet Another Female Student
6 years ago

The Nazarene Church itself may be ok with evolution, but so long as we’re being careful, let’s not take that to mean that no Nazarene institution would take an antagonistic position in response to someone having pro-evolutionary views, nor to mean that they would make no efforts to sanction someone who teaches or writes about evolution. From a 2009 IHE article: “Colling this year left Olivet Nazarene University, where he taught for 30 years, after a dispute in which he was barred from teaching general biology or having Random Designer, his book, taught at the university that is his alma mater. When the book appeared in 2004, some anti-evolution churches campaigned to have him fired, and while the university initially defended him, it subsequently put limits on what he could teach and barred his book from being taught. Those limits were lifted after an investigation by the American Association of University Professors found that his rights were violated. But Colling continued to be subjected to intense criticism from some Nazarene church members, and he resigned in an agreement with the university.” https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/14/evolution

And, of course, some of Oord’s own writing has regarded the percentage of Nazarene community members who believe in evolution, or believe it to be consistent with their religion, and those numbers have hardly been universally on one side of the issue or another.Report

anon female grad student
anon female grad student
6 years ago

@Yet: Yes, thanks! I certainly wouldn’t want to say that! But jumping to the conclusion (as the IHE article does) that this is about evolution is hasty and irresponsible.Report