Conversations On Changing Times

Rev. Carl Cassel's (1931-2021) reflections on the doctrinal convictions of the BFC, as interviewed by Jill Davidson and Rachel Schmoyer (edited for clarity by Ralph Ritter)

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Carl Cassel| personal photo

Rachel Schmoyer: In 1956 when you started at Coopersburg, what was our denomination like doctrinally as far as reformed theology goes?

Carl Cassel: We were in opposition. The reason we wrote a doctrinal statement and the reason we did a study on the form of government was that we had severed connections with other Mennonite groups in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario.

Jill Davidson: What do you believe drove the desire to embrace reformed doctrines of soteriology and who were the key players in this transition? What do you remember about Conference discussions regarding the issue?

CC: I think that issue is part of the leftover of our former form of government. The committee that wrote the articles were respected men, either those serving as district superintendent or the next generation of district superintendent. T.D. Gehret, F.B. Hertzog, C.E. Kirkwood, Donald Kirkwood, Jansen Hartman, my uncle Willard Cassell who served as the secretary, and A.L. Siefert. That was the Articles of Faith Study Committee. I think, because they were such respected brethren, it was a blue ribbon committee. And so when it came to Conference, the lay brethren and the other ministering brethren just said, “If these brethren said it’s okay and recommended it, we will vote for it.” They did not really know what they were doing. I sat down with each of the men, well, not with Brother Gehret (by the time I had gotten this idea he had died and I think C.E. Kirkwood had died, too.) But I talked with the rest of them and the only one that I had gotten really straight answers from as to how did this happen was Don Kirkwood. Don said “I think the brethren just were just unwilling to say anything that didn’t fit with Scripture.” When he retired, I used to go out to Quarryville [a retirement community]. We would have the opportunity to just talk. He read everything and knew what was going on. I think Don, therefore, had come to see reformed soteriology as being clearly taught by the Scripture. He just, in his dogged yet humble way, said, “what are we going to do with this? This is what the Bible says.” One of the things he did say was that the brethren were absolutely against saying no to anything that was clearly taught by the Bible. But I don’t think they really understood its implications. So even the Committee probably didn’t realize just how radical a change they were proposing. Our people – our laypeople and many of our pastors – just didn’t recognize at the very beginning as something that was very significant.

RS: So was there any opposition at all to when the reformed soteriology was put forth by the district superintendent? Or did they say “oh, that’s fine?”

CC: We weren’t as quick to call for the division of the house in those days as we are today and I think that’s good. That’s another thing that has changed. When I first went to Conference, virtually nobody said anything on the floor. There was very little discussion because the district superintendents were in charge.

RS: Did you have votes?

CC: Oh, yes, there was voting, but there were not a lot of deep questions. You didn’t ask hard questions. Because this is the way we are doing it.

RS: That’s very different than how it is today!

CC: Yes, and I am very thankful. I think it is stronger and my own feeling is it’s only when mature brethren who are committed to this work, are open to whatever the Bible says, face the needs of their people, that they can have open honest discussion and a willingness to pray for God’s guidance. I think you have to live with this idea: that is how God is going to guide us. That’s the way it’s going to happen. And in my early days of Conference, there were very few questions asked and it was a pretty perfunctory kind of function. I’m thankful for the way it’s come out.

[How Carl Learned Reformed Soteriology]

My own experience there … this was very interesting to me because it was happening to me while at school and while it was happening to my dad at home. My first exposure to reformed soteriology was at a junior level doctrine class at college and we used a text by Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology. My teacher for the course said at the beginning of the section on soteriology that if you had time to read sources other than our text here are three. I can remember writing those three titles in the upper right hand corner of the first page of that book. I can’t remember two of the titles but the third one was Warfield’s Plan of Salvation. And I was such a naïve kid at that point that I bought a copy, paperback, of Warfield’s Plan of Salvation and it was so different than anything I had ever heard before. I knew there was stuff out there, bad stuff, and it was called modernism and I said “this must be what this is.” (LOL) I stopped reading about halfway through the book, but I didn’t throw the book away. That was my junior year and I started taking Greek in my freshman year of college. By the time I got to Faith Theological Seminary, J. Oliver Buzwell and John Sanderson were my theology teachers… John Sanderson made a tremendously valuable presentation of the reformed understanding of redemption and what had seemed like heresy to me five years before seemed very clear from Scripture. I think part of the reason I mention the Greek is that by that time I had read a good part of the New Testament in Greek and wasn’t conscience of the implications theologically but I began to absorb the way this pervades the New Testament and at that point that just me made realize … this is what the Bible says!

[The Benefits of Being Forced to Search the Scriptures]

Frankly that’s been the struggle of my whole time in ministry. Because it seems to me since we were in this generational change … every time I turned around someone was saying “how can I believe that?” But my own personal reaction was although it was sometimes hard, it was good because it kept chasing me back to the Scriptures. (chuckles) And we had to go to the right place to get answers. So we did! And that grew me! That’s one of the benefits that came there. We have come to buy into it. One of the encouraging things to me is that the younger generation of men that the Lord is bringing are coming here because of those things, not in spite of them. We went through a time when we were kind of viewed more as fundamentalist people but had these peculiar doctrines … I served on the Candidate Committee so long I saw some of those things … a guy would say yes, I agree with that statement, but as soon as they started talking about election … they said “is that in there?” They had read it, but it didn’t register. Today it seems that those [same truths] are part of what’s attracting men to us.

JD: It’s your lifetime.

CC: Yeah. It’s all I’ve known.

RS: It’s very hip…it’s cool to be Reformed right now (laugh).

CC: And you know what…I think the Spirit of God was bringing that change to us. It’s coming to be a broader sense of what the Spirit of God is doing in His Church among folks who take His word seriously. And consequently this brings us the question “are these people this way because it’s hip or because they see it in the Scripture?”

RS: That’s true, but I do think it comes with a measure of “this is what Scripture says.”

CC: But there isn’t any place that doesn’t have its dangers so… (chuckles) we keep going on!

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