Theologians I Have Known: Reflections on Their Personalities Part 1
Over the approximately forty years since I entered seminary I have had the privilege of meeting and spending quality time with many professional theologians (by which I mean men and women who spend the bulk of their time teaching theology and/or conducting research and writing in the field of theology). Some of them were not famous when I met them, but they became famous (among people interested in theology) later. Their levels of fame and influence vary greatly. Here I’m going to mention and briefly describe those I had the privilege of getting to know on a personal level—beyond merely hearing them speak in a chapel or church or conference.
This is a walk down memory lane for me. It will not be interesting to most people, but perhaps a few others who come here will find my experiences of famous and influential theologians interesting. I’ll be mentioning the theologians and describing them (from my admittedly limited experiences with them) in roughly chronological order of when I met them.
I think the first famous and influential theologian I met and spent a considerable amount of time with was James Montgomery Boice, then publisher of Eternity magazine, radio Bible expositor and preacher, author of many books, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia (successor to Donald Grey Barnhouse). Boice was my homiletics professor in seminary. Before he came to teach a single course (while on sabbatical from his pulpit) I already knew of him through the magazine he published and a few articles he had written. Boice, of course, was a five point Calvinist, but he didn’t promote that in the class. It was an all afternoon class that met every day of the week for (as I recall) three weeks during the summer. This was around 1976. I don’t remember the exact year. During breaks I sat and chatted with him. I found him a bit aloof and distracted, but otherwise very gracious and eager to teach seminary students how to preach. One thing I remember about him was that he and I argued a bit about the biblical grounds for divorce. That was a hot issue then—among evangelicals. He insisted that when Jesus stated the famous “except for the cause of porneia” (usually translated “fornication”) he meant that if a person married someone whom he later found out was not a virgin he could divorce her. I argued that “porneia” had a broader meaning than that and included adultery. He strongly disagreed. I don’t remember how that subject came up, but even then I knew enough Greek to know he was wrong. Boice went on to become famous, at least among evangelicals, for his many books and for helping organize groups like Christians United for Reformation and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He was instrumental in organizing the conference that produced the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. As I watched his fame and influence grow I was dismayed by what I thought I saw as a narrowing of his mind toward excluding people like me from evangelicalism. Through it all, both during my weeks as his student and my later observations of his career, I could not detect any influence of Karl Barth on Boice. He had studied with Barth in Basel.
During my doctoral studies I took a class in New Testament with French biblical scholar Etienne Trocmé who was then on sabbatical from the University of Strasbourg. He had served a term as president of that university and was then at the peak of his career as a noted New Testament scholar and theologian. He was an extremely gracious gentleman and welcomed students into his home (a rented “flat” across the street from the university). However, as a teacher he left much to be desired. He read papers to us—chapters he was writing toward a book he planned to publish. I don’t recall now whether it was ever published. It may have been published in France only. However, the theme was a familiar one to anyone who had read any of his books—the separation of Christians from Judaism and synagogues as the most important “Sitz im Leben” of the New Testament writings. The class met in a library parlor where the lights were dim and it was extremely difficult not to fall asleep while Trocmé droned on for two hours. I especially remember a funny thing that happened. The chair of the Religion Department, my mentor throughout my doctoral studies, visited the class one afternoon and fell asleep. There were only about ten of us in the seminar and we sat in a circle of very comfortable chairs and sofas. I hoped and prayed that Trocmé did not notice!
A parade of famous people came through the university during my doctoral studies there. One who was not a theologian per se but who was famous as a Christian writer was Malcolm Muggeridge. I spent an evening with him in a college master’s living room—with several other students and professors. He kept us spell bound with his amazing British accept and sparkling conversation. I wanted to talk with him about his book Third Testament which had then recently been turned into a television series and was showing on public television in Great Britain and the U.S. But the undergraduates present wanted to talk to him about sex. Muggeridge had converted to Roman Catholicism and was very strident in his opinion that sex was only for the purpose of procreation and therefore birth control was immoral. He held steady to his view under a barrage of critical questioning from especially undergraduate students and sprinkled his responses with many delightful phrases and anecdotes. Later I used some episodes of Third Testament (the video series) in classes on historical theology. I especially liked the episodes on Augustine and Bonhoeffer.
The main reason I attended the university where I earned my Ph.D. in Religious Studies was a Baptist theologian there named John Newport. John and I became friends even though he left the university one year after I arrived. I was privileged to take two seminars with him—both on philosophy of religion. At that time he was especially interested in and working on the issue of religious language. It was under him that I came, temporarily, under the spell of “Wittgensteinian fideism” (e.g., D. Z. Phillips). (I should note that Newport himself did not endorse that approach to religious epistemology and language.) John was a bit eccentric. He was very friendly and gracious toward students and everyone, but his “head” seemed always to be in a cloud of deep intellectual thought somewhere. He was a voracious reader and prolific writer. When I studied with him he had just published a very fine book on the theology of Paul Tillich. I knew John to be a very pious evangelical man so I wondered how he could appreciate the theology of Tillich. But he always found the good in everyone. I was taking a seminar with him when the Southern Baptist Convention met in Houston for its infamous 1979 annual meeting (at the Astrodome). John talked a great deal about the planned “fundamentalist take over” of the SBC and named names and talked about personalities. I remember him saying to us “They will never be able to take over the SBC.” Of course, they did. Years later I reminded him of what he said and he just shook his head sadly and admitted he was wrong. John opposed the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” and was an “old fashioned Southern Baptist”—meaning moderate theologically and mainly interested in missions (as the purpose of the SBC). His own contribution to missions was attending and speaking at an annual gathering of students of many religions and worldviews and engaging with them in what Brunner called “eristics”—arguing gently for the intellectual and spiritual superiority of Christianity.
During my three years in residence at Rice University, working on my Ph.D. in Religious Studies (with special focus on Christian theology) I met many well-known and influential theologians, but I did not get to spend “quality time” with very many of them. I heard them speak and shook their hands and maybe asked a question or two. But most of them simply came into lecture and leave. One person I did get to spend quality time with, however, was not a theologian but religious scholar named J. Gordon Melton. I had an adventure with him you may find interesting. Melton was then little-known. He was starting up his career as a scholar and expert in “new religious movements.” Later he would become the “go to guy” on that subject for major news outlets. Melton came to Houston and Rice to speak on Wicca and Neo-Paganism—a subject of great interest then. The course was titled “Deity, Mysticism and the Occult” and I was assigned to be one of its graduate student teachers—under the department chair. The focus of the course was mysticism, but I invited representatives of many “new religious movements” to speak in the evening class. I’ll never forget the evening some Hare Krishnas came and danced and chanted for half the class time passed out “treats” to the students to eat. I knew they had devoted the food to “Lord Krishna” in a temple ceremony and so set mine aside—not because I was afraid of it but because I didn’t want them to see me eat it and think I was then somehow under the influence of Krishna (which was their whole purpose in passing out the food). What especially struck me was that they (about four of them) could not really answer students’ questions. I remember that in answer to one student’s question they simply started dancing and chanting again! Back to Melton (who, ironically, is now my colleague!). I was assigned to be his host during his three days in Houston. I picked him up at the airport and one of the first things he said to me was “Let’s find some witches.” To make a long story short, we did—within less than an hour! We drove to a tiny store called “The Occult Shoppe” near the airport. I had never been inside such a place in my life. At first we were clearly not welcome. The store was a place for Wiccans. Melton drew some information about the Houston neo-pagan scene out of the two ladies who ran the shop and then we left. I drove Melton around Houston for two and a half days and we had many fascinating conversations about new religious movements. I found him to be very friendly and eager to share his vast store of knowledge about a subject that was just coming to the forefront of public attention (this was around the time of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple).
Then I moved to Munich, Germany (then West Germany) to study with Wolfhart Pannenberg for a year. There I would write my dissertation entitled “Trinity and Eschatology: The Historical Being of God in the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” I got to know Pannenberg (I could never call him “Wolfhart” even years later when I was his host in Minnesota when he came there to speak at several colleges, universities and seminaries and when he ate dinner in my home with several of my colleagues.) Pannenberg was at the pinnacle of his career when I studied with him at the University of Munich. He was in his mid-fifties and was just beginning work on his magnum opus, his three volume Systematic Theology. I heard the entire first volume in lecture form in German during that year. I recorded the lectures and then wrote them out in English in the evenings as I listened to the recording of the day’s lecture. Two other American students were studying under Pannenberg that year—George Garin and Philip Clayton. We became close friends and remain friends to this day. I had many opportunities to spend quality time with Pannenberg—usually with George and Philip and occasionally with German students as well. I ate dinner at his house twice and got to know his wife. They had no children. His wife was (and I assume still is) a unique person. She was, to put it mildly, forceful. There were many stories about her circulating among their acquaintances and students. I will tell one that happened to me and my wife. We were invited to the Pannenbergs’ home for dinner and, afterwards, to go with them to friends’ house for “Adventsingen.” This was just before Christmas, 1981. After dinner, they informed us we were walking together to the friends’ house. We walked together through the evening darkness and in the snow. Their friends had a pipe organ in their basement! About fifty people crowded into the basement to sing Christmas carols in German. (Their friend, the husband, was brother to one of my Rice University professors Werner Kelber.) The pipe organ sat in a depression at one end of the basement “family room.” The depression had been made especially in order to fit the pipe order. My wife and I attempted to sing the carols, but we didn’t know most of them. The people asked us to suggest an English Christmas carol, so we said “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”). A pall fell over the gathered group. Silence for several seconds. Then someone said “That’s a Catholic carol; we Bavarian Protestants don’t sing it.” But, then, they sang it anyway—just for us. We were chatting and drinking Gluhwein when suddenly I saw Frau Pannenberg grab Pannenberg by the arm and take him urgently upstairs. I looked at my wife and said “I hope they’re not leaving us here; we don’t know how to walk back to their house and the nearby train station to go home!” So we followed them up the stairs. They were putting on their rubber snow boots and coats. I said “Are you leaving? We don’t know where we are.” Frau Pannenberg said “I forgot we have to be at Cardinal Ratzinger’s house for his going away party! He’s moving to Rome.” So, they were going to leave us there! She invited us to follow them out and we had trouble keeping up with her as she marched Pannenberg down the street toward a highway. I wondered how we were going to get back into Munich. (The Pannenbergs live in the suburb of Grafelfing.) Frau Pannenberg walked out into the middle of the highway and stood in front of the next taxi that came along with her arms outstretched, forcing it to stop. She opened the doors and told us to get in. They would take us with them into Munich. I don’t know what that saved us from, perhaps a night of wandering around in the snow looking for the train station? Anyway, they dropped us off near Ratzinger’s apartment which was in the center of Munich near the famous Odeonsplatz (where Hitler’s attempted overthrow of the Bavarian government failed). My wife and I then attended a concert in the nearby Wittelsbach palace’s concert hall and took the “tram” home. One memory I have of the Pannenbergs is that whenever Frau Pannenberg was present Professor Pannenberg hardly spoke at all. If you asked him a question, more often than not, she would answer it. I found Professor Pannenberg himself very distant and aloof. He was not easy to talk to. And he had no qualms about chiding students publicly. He was formidable. One student told me he was the “typical Prussian professor.” He was extremely stiff and formal. One of my most interesting and vivid memories of him was the incident where Marxist students invade the lecture hall before he arrived (he always arrived ten minutes late and expected everyone to be seated and waiting for him) and began to harangue us, the gathered students, about the evils of America. I shrank down hoping they wouldn’t recognize me as American! They were very scary people. When Pannenberg arrived he entered into a debate with them and eventually ordered them to leave. They would not. Finally he threatened to call the “Hausmeister” (a kind of security person, I believe). The Marxist students slowly slunk out of the room shouting as they went. They obviously hated Pannenberg. I assume it was because of his known friendliness toward America. (Pannenberg was quite conservative socially and politically.) About a fourth of the students left with them. That was a time of great tension within the German universities. Some professors had to hold their classes in secret to avoid having to deal with such interruptions.
While in Munich I met several noted theologians, but the only one I remember taking to a meal was British Methodist theologian who later taught at Duke Divinity School in the U.S.—Geoffrey Wainwright. He has just published his Doxology systematic theology and was well-connected in ecumenical circles. Pannenberg invited him to speak in his class. George, Philip and I took Wainwright to breakfast one morning and spent a considerable amount of time talking with him. I made a point of reading his Doxology before we met and we had a very nice talk about it. Years later, recently, I had dinner with Wainwright. He is now retiring from Duke. We renewed our acquaintance. I don’t think he remembers me from Munich, though. Both times I met and talked with Wainwright I found him to be extremely personable and charming—almost the opposite of Pannenberg.
After my sojourn in Munich (die schönste Zeit!) I began my teaching career at Oral Roberts University. You might wonder about that transition. I still do! Moving from Munich, Germany to Tulsa, Oklahoma was a shock. And moving from Rice University to the University of Munich to Oral Roberts University was a shock. But kind of knew what to expect. Oral Roberts was a great hero to my birth family and most of the people I grew up with in church and in our denomination. Some of our little Pentecostal denomination’s people worked closely with Oral and some of them were very good friends of my parents’. To make a long story short, I simply didn’t have anywhere else to teach. Oh, well, I was offered an interim teaching position, as a sabbatical replacement, at a Methodist University but turned that down as I didn’t want to move my family three times in one year. ORU offered me a position and I reluctantly accepted it. I have never regretted that because of the excellent students and colleagues I had there, but my two years on the ORU faculty were, to say the least, dizzying. Events were swirling around me. Oral had a “vision” of a 900 foot Jesus and began to talk about God “taking his life” unless he raised eight million dollars to finish the City of Faith—which was draining money away from the university. I could write a book about those two years! But I never met Oral himself. And I’m glad. He was a very scary person—almost, so it seemed to me, unbalanced emotionally and mentally. When he came to faculty meetings he ranted and raved about “loyalty.” I had no idea what he was talking about, nor could anyone explain it to me. But this minor memoire isn’t about “evangelists I have known.” So back to theologians.
While at ORU I met and had lunch with Southern Baptist theologian Dale Moody. Moody had just been sacked as professor of systematic theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His former student Larry Hart brought him to ORU to speak in chapel. I had read some of Moody’s books including Spirit of the Living God—a 1968 book about the Holy Spirit published by Westminster Press. Unfortunately, it’s now out of print. Moody was very angry and bitter about his treatment by SBTS. It was ostensibly about his public denial of the doctrine of “eternal security.” To him, it proved that tenure doesn’t matter and he warned me about that. But ORU didn’t have real tenure, so I was already warned! Once Moody stopped talking about the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC and the injustice of his treatment at SBTS he was extremely friendly, forthcoming (to answer questions) and outgoing. No hint that I could detect of self-importance or arrogance. I like him and felt something of a kindred spirit with him.
I almost literally fled from ORU as soon as I could even though I felt I was having a good ministry with students there. I have kept up a relationship with some of them over the years. Some of them have gone on to do great things in ministry and in business. I had always wanted to teach at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. A visiting professor at my seminary was Al Glenn, a professor at Bethel, and he encouraged me to come there to teach and paved the way for that to happen. I will always be grateful because my fifteen years on that faculty were some of the best years of my life. Soon after arriving to teach at Bethel I discovered that one of my theological heroes was coming to teach a Doctor of Ministry seminar in the seminary. It was Bernard Ramm all of whose books I read and felt very much like he was my mentor from a distance even though we had not met. I much preferred his approach to evangelical theology to, for example, Carl Henry’s. (I met Henry very briefly once, but just long enough to shake his hand and say hell. He gave me his most recently published book. But Henry and I carried on a correspondence in later years.) So I registered to audit the seminar with Ramm. It was such a disappointment. But I enjoyed having lunch with Ramm some afternoons—between morning and afternoon sessions of the all day seminars. Ramm was declining. He had Parkinson’s disease and we had to lead him from the seminar room to the dining center. He was very unsteady and his wife drove their car—to bring him to the seminary and take him back to their lodgings. One thing I remember was how he once went off on a diatribe against speaking in tongues. He called it “spiritual masturbation.” I was shocked. I sat next to an Assemblies of God pastor who was in the seminar and we agree that Ramm was wrong and that we would never follow his example in that way—”blaspheming a sacrament we don’t understand.” I asked Ramm over lunch one day how to break into book publishing. I had not yet written a book. He said “It’s a crap shoot.” He explained how he would never have gotten a book published without the help of Toronto People’s Church pastor Oswald J. Smith who connected him with a publisher and recommended they publish his first book (which I think was Biblical Hermeneutics). In other words, he told me, it’s not what you know or how well you write but who you know—that gets you published (at first). Of course, I would never have gotten my first book published were it not for Stan Grenz who invited me to co-author 20th Century Theology with him.
Stay tuned for Part 2….