December 14, 2017

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due: Dr. Timothy George

gl172c.jpgDr. Timothy George gave a presentation at Union University last week called “Is Jesus A Baptist?” (It was renamed. Ignore the title.) The entire talk is a compelling and outstanding exploration of what Baptists are facing in the post-denominational age. The first part, which is autobiographical, is deeply touching and relevant to anyone who cares about the Gospel in denominational evangelicalism today. His proposals are deeply connected to my own post-evangelical journey. I want to commend the talk to you and to honor Dr. George with a post recalling his influence in my life.

In 1982, I returned to seminary after almost three years away. I would graduate in 1984, with my M.Div from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, a degree I consider one of my best accomplishments.

This were great years for me. Denise was supporting our family with a job she loved at the Frazier Rehabilitation Center, a premier facility that used all her gifts and gave great satisfaction. I was working part-time at Highland Baptist Church, a church that would teach me most of the basics about the Christian year that I would need. It was a privilege to minister with Dr. Paul Duke, Dr Lloyd Mims and others in a Southern Baptist Church that used liturgy, great church music, the year, the creeds and so on. The church grew and we made good friends.

At seminary, I had several wonderful teachers. Dr. Richard Cunningham taught philosophy, and I took him for many classes, including apologetics. I owe him an enormous debt, especially for his presentation of existentialism. Drs. Gerald Borchert, David Garland, James Blevins, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Dale Moody and Wayne Ward made for many memorable and beneficial days in class. I treasure those times and those memories.

There was one professor, however, who truly changed my life by his personal example and devotion to his vocation. He was a new professor, Harvard trained, an authority on the radical reformation and he looked all three. He was a diminutive man who wore suits, walked with intensity, looked older than his years, lectured with incredible energy, and most importantly, was an unquestioned orthodox conservative evangelical, something one could hardly take for granted at SBTS in those days.

It was from this professor that I first heard a Baptist say he believed the reformation doctrines of grace. It was in this professor’s class one January, during a lecture on Luther, that I had a revelation of the meaning of justification and incarnation that still resonates within me. This was a professor that made historical theology and church history so relevant that I’ve spent enough money to buy two new cars on books to feed my interest.

That professor was a young Dr. Timothy George, a world class scholar, mentor and a man whose kindness and graciousness I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since. (Having Dr. George teach Galatians in one of the churches I served was a real delight.) I only recently realized he is a mere 6 years older than me. (The suits helped.)

Dr. George, just by being Dr. George, rescued me from a swamp of cynicism in my seminary years. The experience of being in his class counteracted the absurdity of many of the required wastes of time in my degree program. He honored every subject he taught with attention, enthusiasm and love. I had him for church history and for every elective I could find, especially those related to the reformation and the reformers. He was, and is, simply a class act: gracious to students, exceptionally articulate, well prepared, serious (he always were asked to stand when he read scripture, not the norm in seminary) and contagiously, unswervingly evangelical.

For several years, I was aligned with the liberal camp in the SBC controversy. The reasons are complex, but one was that I simply couldn’t see that the conservatives were asserting what truly mattered in their insistence on inerrancy. But when Dr. George came out in support of the conservative resurgence, it deeply impacted me, and I soon changed sympathies. It wasn’t because of an endorsement of all the tactics and issues of the conservatives, but because of the essential issues of universal Christian concern; particularly, the reality and historicity of the resurrection and the unique status of Jesus as the world’s only savior. When Dr. George aligned himself with the need to affirm evangelical, and orthodox, essentials, I changed teams.

When Dr. George went to be the founding dean at Beeson, I knew it would be a special place, and he’s proven that over and over. His leadership there, articulate defense of a Baptist ecumenism, gracious and warmhearted Calvinism and love for the preaching of the Word have made Beeson a world class school. (I’m currently praying about returning there for doctoral study.)

I came to appreciate something else about Dr. George: he was a man with a testimony and a vital relationship with Jesus. He also had a story.

There were times that Dr. George would mention his fundamentalist past, and the fact that he had been a “youth evangelist” in his pre-Harvard days. He once told us about dressing up like the devil and visiting a high school to stir up interest in a meeting. With that kind of past, I was doubly impressed in his journey.

One night I was driving home and scanned across the radio dial, stopping at what sounded like one of the better African-American preachers I’d ever heard. All the cadence was there; all the fire, all the focus and power, and all the dialect. I listened for a few minutes, and something about the voice, the accent and the occasional pronunciation seemed familiar.

It was Dr. George, letting it fly in an African-Americn church in town, and doing so in a way that would have wowed any congregation. This was not characteristic of the seminary faculty in those days, to say the least.

Again, it’s important to remember that at this time of my life, Southern was a school under assault from conservatives. Much of their attack was, in my opinion then and now, unfair and unnecessary, but at the core of their concerns were some real issues. One of those issues was the general treatment of evangelical conservatives on the campus.

For example, the evangelism club was an organization regularly ignored and derided. Students who stood up against the pro-choice rhetoric that held sway in the Ethics department were likely to be taunted and insulted. The occasional conservative professor could expect to be taken less than seriously. (The treatment of Dr. Louis Drummond by certain students stands out in my mind as particularly shameful.)

About everything one needed to say about the atmosphere on campus at that time could be summed up in a story of how a now world famous conservative scholar was treated when he came to campus: a brown bag lunch with interested students. Today, that particular scholar would be treated as royalty on almost any campus, but such were times at SBTS in those days.

I remember Dr. George navigating questions about the doctrines of grace. At the center of his responses was the insistence that we must allow the Bible, not denominational preference or influence, to determine where we came out on the issue of God’s sovereignty. But as you listen to the talk linked above, note what kind of Calvinist Dr. George is: the kind who says “do away with the name entirely if it in any way distracts from the Gospel.” If there were more of that kind of Calvinism in evangelicalism, I might reconsider my own stance towards reformed theology.

Dr. George was a light to me in those times. I would go from class to class and listen to conservatives described, derided and caricatured, in various stages of accuracy. As steps were taken to allow conservative critics the opportunity to visit campus, the paranoia and overheated rhetoric increased. The barbarians were at the door, I heard on one occasion. The Golden Age was ending as the moderate-liberal era came to an end, or so went the myth.

Dr. George was one of the few people who saw, and felt, the worthy concerns of both sides, but who always seemed to feel a greater responsibility to the “church” beyond the denomination. It was he, along with the writings of Robert Webber, who reminded me that there was a greater tradition, and a larger family in Christian history. He was completely absent the desire for someone to win or lose, and often, it seemed to me, frustrated that such a fight was distracting from the far more important business of being good stewards of God’s gift of preparing his future ministers.

I also need to say that Dr. George is always a man with a smile, genuine gratitude for interactions with students, true humility, and a great sense of fun and humor, especially in his lectures. I won’t spend any time pointing out that he is a man who seems to have made his peace as a protestant with Roman Catholicism. His example in ecumenism and dialog is always notable.

When I listened to Dr. George’s presentation at the Baptist Identity Conference at Union University last week, I realized how much his influence continues in my life, and particularly how much his view of the church allows me to be a post-evangelical, and to serve Christ and his church. I am grateful for Dr. George’s ministry to the church, but especially for his friendship, kindness and example for me and many other students who have been privileged to be shaped, prepared and challenged by his ministry.

BOOKS: Let me recommend three must reads by Dr. George:
Theology of the Reformers. No better book exists on Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the Radical Reformers.
Galatians Commentary
The Life of William Carey

Comments

  1. i thoroughly enjoyed his message. as i was listening to it out loud in my living room, my catholic roommate came in and listened to it as he was eating dinner. i admittedly cringed inside as dr. george mentioned pope benedict and catholicism, fearing any ground i had made in friendship would quickly be dashed by a few careless words from an arrogant baptist, but dr. george was quite gracious in what he said, and i agreed with him. to my suprise, my roommate said he like what dr. george said at the end of the message.

  2. Michael, I concur with your analysis of Dr. George. He has been a friend for years and I know of no man more gracious than Timothy. He is a scholar of the highest caliber with a warm love for Christ and His church. I look forward to listening to his presentation at Union. Thanks for pointing to it with you tribute to Timothy.

    Bill

  3. I have been wondering for some time why Timothy George is still a Southern Baptist. Your post has provided something of a helpful answer, although perhaps I can only understand fully if I hear from him myself. But then again, I always wonder why YOU are still a Southern Baptist. It always seems to me that he and you are lonely voices of sanity amidst a kind of sectarian implosion. While I don’t quite fit with the “moderates” (I have rejected that label for some time now) it would simply be too painful to go back and associate with the kind of people who tore apart my college and slandered my professors.

    For what it’s worth, I’m now staked out in the weird and wild world of the “catholic Baptists.” I would love to hear your thoughts on “Towards Baptist Catholicity” by Steven Harmon. Dr. George has made very positive comments about his book.

  4. Timothy George had the same effect upon me. Leaders like Timothy george and David Dockery are modeling a kind of leadership with historical seriousness, theological depth and ecumenical openness that could bode well for the future of my denomination. Let us hope!