Remembering Colin Brown - Theologian and Teacher
On Saturday, May 4, two Christian thought leaders died. Rachel Held Evans and Colin Brown were born fifty years apart, but both have proven influential over the course of their lives. I am going to write a personal remembrance of Colin, but first I want to take note of Rachel Held Evans' passing.
Rachel Held Evans died tragically at the young age of thirty-seven, leaving behind a husband, two young children, and numerous people whose lives she has influenced in her short life through her books, speaking appearances, blog posts, and tweets. While I have added a couple of her books to my kindle library, I've yet to read them. I've been meaning to do so, but since I have a stack of review books to go through, and for some reason I've not been provided review copies of her books, I've not given them their due attention. i have followed her on twitter and have read an occasional blog post. The many remembrances offered by people I respect demonstrates her abiding influence. She may not have directly influenced my life and beliefs, I acknowledge the grief so many are feeling.May God's presence be a comfort to her family and to all who have drawn inspiration from her life and writings.
Regarding Colin Brown -- he was for many years Professor of Systematic Theology and served as the Associate Dean for the Center of Advanced Theological Study at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a British evangelical theologian, which means he was an evangelical of a different stripe than many American evangelicals. He was also an Anglican/Episcopal priest. He was author of a number of books, and edited the influential New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (an alternative to Kittle's Theological Dictionary of New Testament Theology. He wrote about Christology, miracles, and Karl Barth. But for me he was my theology professor. He was head of CATS during my PhD studies and directed one of my doctoral papers (at the time Fuller followed the British model of the PhD as a research degree and not a taught course of studies. He also gave me my German exam), It is in his guise as theology professor that he influenced who I am as a theologian. More about that in a moment.
Before I get to how he influenced my development as a theologian, I need to say that Colin was always a gracious and gentle man. I also got to know his wife Olive, who worked in the library during my years of study and during my time teaching at Fuller. She was also a warm and gracious person. Together they were a blessing to the Fuller community.
Now, for the way he helped form me as a theologian. I remember him telling us on the first day of class that there would be no text book as we would need to develop our own system of theology. In other words, he wasn't going to teach us a system. He was going to introduce us to how Scripture spoke to a specific doctrine, and introduce us to key thinkers and developments in theology, but we would need to form our own system. So instead of prescribed textbooks we were encouraged to read widely and build a theological library. In class, he would take a doctrine, and trace it from Scripture down through the ages to the present. He would share with us, for instance the thinking of Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther, and figures of the recent past, like Barth, and other living figures, and how they developed a doctrine. He would give his own take on the doctrine. He had his opinions. He could state them strongly, but in the end it was up to us to formulate our theological positions. IN pursuit of this, he asked us to type our notes from class, along with our own reflections from readings and own thoughts -- so that we would have our own theology text book. I wrote papers on original sin (I rejected it) and the Christology from the perspective of Latin American liberation theology. In other words, he invited us to do theology from a historical perspective. The other theology professors taught in a more directly systematic way. Many liked that perspective, but this worked especially well for me, since I have always valued history.
I will make a couple of comments about his views of certain theologians and Christian authors.. Regarding Paul Tillich, he suggested that Tillich had the religion of Canaan and the morals of Canaan (Tillich was known for his sexual exploits with female students). On Francis Schaeffer: One day in class he was speaking of Soren Kierkegaard one day, when he took note of Schaeffer, who had said quite a bit about Kierkegaard, but I didn't think Schaeffer had read Kierkegaard. His reason for saying this is that he had read Kierkegaard, and Schaeffer had totally missed the boat (sort of like Eric Metaxas' bio of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which demonstrates almost no engagement with Bonhoeffer and his theology). Oh, and one day in class he made a rather pointed attack on apartheid, which was still official policy in South Africa. At a later date, on the 100th anniversary of Karl Barth's birth, I discovered that Colin wasn't the biggest Barth fan. He wrote a rather critical essay for the Reformed Journal. Now I hadn't read his book on Barth, which if I had his article might not have caught me by surprise. I was surprised by the critical view of Barth, since I never felt that in class. He was always appreciative of Barth, or so I thought. In fact, I owe my own interest in Barth to his classes (though I later took a Barth Seminary from Geoffrey Bromiley -- translator of the Dogmatics).
I honor Colon for teaching me a method of doing theology, which has stuck with me down through the years, rather than teaching me a system that may or may not fit me. My theology has changed over the years, but the method remains the same -- I start with scripture and then ask how a doctrine has been understood in history and in the present. I have added new sources -- more women and persons of color than I had earlier. But, that is as it should be.
So, I hold up in honor the blessed memory of my teacher,The Rev. Dr. Colin Brown, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He lived a long and fruitful life influencing many through those may years as a teacher, as an author, and as a pastor. With him, I honor also the memory of Rachel Held Evans.