In terms of Union’s history, I couldn’t have gone there at a more auspicious time. It was its golden age. Reinhold Niebuhr was there, and Paul Tillich was there, these two great luminaries. Martin Buber came to lecture, looking like somebody out of a musical comedy with his stringy beard and a Yiddish accent so impenetrable that I found it impossible to understand more than a few words he said. Less famous but no less powerful as teacher there were, supremely, James Muilenberg in the Old Testament department, not to mention Samuel Terrien, and John Knox in the New Testament department. There was Paul Scherer to teach homiletics, Wilhelm Pauk and Cyril Richardson in Church History, and, in the Philosophy of Religion, Robert McAfee Brown . . . (Frederick Buechner, Now and Then [New York, NY: HarperOne, 1983], 8.)
The names that Buechner mentioned were all luminaries in their respective fields. Though not evangelicals, these were brilliant scholars and teachers. One would have learnt so much from them but strangely enough what Buechner remembers from his studies with these great people was not the content of what they taught, but the teachers themselves. Buechner writes:
In the last analysis, I have always believed, it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves. In some box in the attic, or up over the garage, I must still have notes on the lectures I heard given by Niebuhr, Tillich, and the rest of them. It would be possible to exhume them and summarize some of what struck me most. But though much of what these teachers said remains with me still and has become so much a part of my own way of thinking and speaking that often I sound like them without realizing it, it is they themselves who left the deeper mark. (Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, 12.)
Buechner’s observations about teachers ring true. I was privileged to be studying at Regent College (Vancouver) at what I consider a golden age in the life of the school. I sat at the feet of teachers that included Bruce Waltke, J I Packer, Klaus Bockmuehl, Ward Gasque, Carl Armerding, Loren Wilkinson, Roy Bell, Phil Collins, Sam Mikolaski, John Nolland, Peter Davids, Quek Swee Hua, William J Dumbrell, Sven Soderlund, and others. I have lost most of the notes I took in their classes. I believe, like Buechner, I have internalized the key lessons I learnt from my teachers. These insights emerge when I preach, teach and write, and in how I approach life and ministry. Indeed the most important lessons I learnt at Regent were not so much from what the lecturers said, but from who they were. Let me give an example.
I was privileged to study the book of James under Peter Davids, a key scholar in Jacobean studies. I can’t remember much of what he taught in class. (I am grateful that I have his commentaries and can refer to them.) What I remembered was his poor fashion sense. Peter would often come to class wearing clothes that were clearly not in fashion. When we asked him why he didn’t wear clothes that were more up to date, he replied that he didn’t see why he had to spend money to keep up with the dictates of fashion. If his clothes were still ok, he would continue to use them. In this way he could release more of his monies for mission and for the poor. The dangers of wealth and discriminating against the poor are some of the key themes in the book of James. Here was a teacher who testified to those truths through his scholarship and through his life. Besides, he said, given enough time a particular style would be fashionable again. As Buechner observed, “. . . it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves.”
Or perhaps it may be more accurate to say that the lives of the teachers are the living vehicles of the truths they seek to convey. Hence Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:10a: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life . . . .”. His teaching and his way of life go together. Like his master Jesus, Paul models what he teaches. If this is true, that the most powerful and lasting way truth is taught is through a life, then we must continue to keep the personal dimension in education. In his book, The Skillful Teacher, Stephen D. Brookfield highlights the importance of personhood in teaching.
Students recognize personhood in teachers when these teachers move out from behind their formal identities and role descriptions to allow aspects of themselves to be revealed in the classroom . . . Personhood is more appropriately evident when teachers use autobiographical examples to illustrate concepts and theories they are trying to explain, when they talk about ways they apply specific skills and insights taught in the classroom to their work outside, and when they share stories of how they dealt with the same fears and struggles that their students are currently facing as they struggle with what to them is new learning. (Stephen D. Brookfield,The Skillful Teacher, 2nd Edition [San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006], 72.)
This semester I am teaching two courses, “The Ministry of the Laity” for Trinity Theological College, and “Vocation, Work and Ministry” for the Biblical Graduate School of Theology. I am quite sure that my students will soon forget what I taught in class, though I hope they will remember some of the stories. But I do hope and pray that they will remember a man who, though very imperfectly, did struggle to understand what God was up to and tried his best to play his part in that divine endeavour. And when I work hard to teach in this way, I reflect the best I learnt from my teachers. Thank you, sirs.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 NIV)