Friday, January 29, 2010

I am Thankful for my Professors at Wheaton College

The decision to go the Wheaton was really quite simple. I knew God wanted me to continue my studies after Lee. It hadn’t come as a specific word but as a growing compulsion. I just had to do it, but where?

First, Pentecostals were not welcome at most Evangelical graduate schools in the mid-seventies. I looked at Dallas Theological Seminary but they required a commitment to not speak in tongues while a student there. I really wanted to go to Asbury, a solid Wesleyan seminary, but they required a commitment to not practice any of the charismata on school grounds or at school sponsored events. [A few years ago Cheryl and I became acquainted with Dr. Maxie Dunnam while he was President of Asbury. I told him of my experience and he with great grace apologized for the past. Sometime later he called and asked Cheryl and me to come teach at Asbury. Things had changed a lot in 20 plus years.] Wheaton had lifted their ban on Pentecostals a few years before we graduated from Lee. Ironically, more liberal schools were open to Pentecostals, but that wasn’t an option for me. Wheaton was the only reasonable possibility unless I was willing to deny my faith.

Second, the two leading Evangelical scholars in the field of Christian education taught at Wheaton, Lois and Mary LeBar. Dr. Lois had written three books that had made a profound impact on me.

Third, when Cheryl and I were dating we discovered we had independently decided to go to Wheaton for graduate school. That settled it all; it was a final sign I was to go to Wheaton and I had to marry Cheryl just so people wouldn’t talk. It worked for me.

At Wheaton I discovered Dr. Lois to be the master teacher. She was the director of our program and we took everything we could with her before she retired in the middle of our studies. (At seventy she and Mary, at sixty-eight, left for Africa where they served as missionaries.) She modeled everyday her theology of teaching and learning, engaging all of the students in the subject matter. She truly was phenomenal. In every session it was like she brought us into the presence of Christ to learn at His feet. I was transformed and my Pentecostal heritage was affirmed (although she was not aware of this later reality).

Dr. Mary LeBar was very different from her sister. Lois was soft spoken and, well, plain. Mary was loud and wore bright clothing and makeup along with gaudy, cheap jewelry. She wasn’t a master teacher, but she was dynamic and engaging. The two of them were quite a team.

A great bonus for going to Wheaton was to study with Dr. Merrill C. Tenney. Tenney was the leading Evangelical New Testament scholar of the mid-twentieth century. His New Testament Survey was the survey text at virtually all Bible Colleges. Cheryl and I had gone for a campus visit in November before we got married. The admissions process required an interview with one of the graduate faculty members (a fact we had missed). Dr. Tenney was the past Dean of the Graduate School and available for an interview. He graciously received us in his Office in the basement of Edmunds Hall (a girl’s dorm). During the interview we heard a phone ring next door. Shortly thereafter Dr. Waterman knocked on the door between their offices and entered carrying a phone with an endless extension cord. These two leading scholars shared a phone in the basement of a girl’s dorm.

When we left Cheryl asked me what was wrong with me. I had clearly been nervous and said very little. She had carried on an engaging conversation. I asked her if she knew who we had just been talking to. She said “I think they said his name was Tenney. He was a very nice elderly gentleman.”

“That was THE MERRILL C. TENNEY,” I said.

“So, who is he?” she responded. Cheryl has a special gift for engaging and honoring the elderly, famous or not. Dr. Tenney was the quintessential Christian gentleman.

In the interview Dr. Tenney said something that has remained with me. “Don’t come to Wheaton for what you will learn. Come for how you will learn it. We teach the same things you would learn at any Evangelical school. But we teach it differently. We expect the student to engage the content through inductive methods. That’s our distinctive.” Unfortunately, that distinctive may have left Wheaton when he and the LeBars retired.

A fourth teacher was a great joy, Dr. Earl Cairns. He had written the Evangelical text on church history. Each day Dr. Cairns brought hand written notes to class, some of which were from his research for his dissertation decades earlier. They were scribbled on scraps of paper of all shapes and sizes with a few napkins in the bunch. He was so welcoming and open to new insights. Although he was about seventy years old, he made learning fun.

I should also mention Howard Newsome, our youngest teacher there. He was encouraging and inspiring.

I am thankful for my teachers at Wheaton. They had a deep piety and keen spiritual insight. They introduced me to a vibrant Christian faith beyond Pentecostalism. They accepted me as a brother in Christ without prejudice against my heritage. And as noted above, their approach to the Scriptures and to knowledge affirmed my Pentecostal approach to the Christian life in ways I am certain they never recognized.

Cleveland, Tennessee
January 29, 2010


Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

Every single faculty and administration member at WHEATON today should read this. I think I will print it out and take it to my great friend, Dr Joe Stowell--who is currently president of Cornerstone University.

Great tribute to some great people.

Anonymous said...

I think you described our time at Wheaton quite well. I call those years "the classical, warm evangelical" years. Hope the new president can move the college back to that ethos instead of the neo-fundamentalist path of recent years.