Here is the text of the address I made at the Whitley College Celebration, on December 6th, as a message of challenge and commissioning for the community I am now leaving:
It has been an unspeakable privilege to have been part of the life of Whitley College for these last 26 years, teaching, writing, preaching, sharing in the lives of students and colleagues, and trying to offer something of a lead—not only in the college, but also across the University of Divinity and in the wider community of the church—an immense privilege and joy.
And I want to thank every one of you who has shared this journey with me. What we celebrate today is this journey, in which God has been with us, and it is that faithfulness and continuous blessing I want us to celebrate tonight.
Throughout all of this time, I have had on my noticeboard above my desk a quotation from a letter written by the young Karl Barth: as he began his teaching career, and no doubt under great stress, the pressure of teaching new courses, being called upon to explain himself and his new directions for theology and the church—it all threatened to overwhelm him. And he wrote to his friend Eduard Thurneysen:
To be a proper professor of theology one must become a sturdy, tough, insensitive lump, who notices absolutely nothing (of the world going on around … Will I perhaps in time myself become such a blockhead? (Karl Barth, March 1922)
This was the same man who taught that to prepare your sermon you need the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. For Barth, theology and preaching must always attend to the Word of God, but that word is always a word for the world: a world addressed to us, to people, to situations.
He was, rightly, afraid that academic theology might turn him into a blockhead, who paid no attention to anything going on around him: a sturdy, tough, insensitive lump. Such theology would be, and is, a negation of the witness of the Scripture, which it is supposed to be about. John gives it to us so simply, yet profoundly:
The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. (John 1. 14)
For God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3. 17)
And all this because God so loved the world! How then can theology concern itself with God without the world? Such would be a negation of our God!
Here, my friends, is the word I want to leave with you. There are two basic views of theology, and of what a College should be about. This college is constantly under criticism from those who think we should be all about a certain kind of theology and church, that is all focussed on itself: on church growth and church ministry, but without understanding or engaging with the passions and struggles and possibilities of the world around us. That world is there for us to preach at and push our view onto, as if there is nothing of God in this world: as if we have to deliver God into these places.
Well, that’s one kind of theology, but I don’t think it is Christian: it’s not the God of Jesus and not the God of the Bible.
Another wonderful gift to me is this statement, found in the work of a Southern Baptist teacher I was privileged to hear when I was a student at Whitley: Findley Edge says this in his book, The Greening of the Church:
It is imperative that we become a people who understand who we are, who God is, what God is about in the world and what God is calling us to be about in the world. Findley Edge, The Greening of the Church p.37.
Here I think is the central agenda for a theological school and indeed also for a local church. It is what the Baptist vision of church is meant to be about. It is not primarily about the church at all: it is about God, and what God is doing in the world: and as a result of that we understand who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in the world.
Therefore, we go forward: the future is uncertain, in some respects—as in fact it always is. But the DNA of this College is very strong, and we must trust it, and trust ourselves to it. At the core of who we are, and always have been, and will be, is the Word who became and becomes flesh, the God who loves the world and is continuously and creatively present in this world. Here we are in the season of Advent, called to trust this Word, coming and coming again, God with us and us with God.
Our college is a part of the new community, from many nations, seeking a new life together, a life with God and in God, in this world: this is a community which will read the Bible together and pray together, asking: so what is God doing, here and now? And what then shall we do to join with what God is doing?
To be this community, we must go on learning to read the Bible properly, to pray together, with open hearts and imaginative listening—and as we do this, we will discern the way of Jesus, still, here, opening up a future for our community, for our college, for our world. And as we see that, we will sense, too, the presence and power of the Spirit, enabling this journey of faith and ministry, hope and mission, love and justice.