News October 2023 Perspective Online Top Story

Register Now to Attend Fall Convocation 2023

This year’s event features a diverse lineup of lecturers who will challenge attendees – clergy and laypersons alike – to answer the following questions:

  • Is there only one way to “read” the Bible?
  • What can I learn from someone else’s reading or interpretation of the Scriptures?
  • How can one’s perspective shape the impact of God’s work in our communities?

Join Esau McCaulley, Carolyn J. Sharp, Eric D. Barreto and Terry Wildman as they offer stimulating, rich theological reflections on the Scriptures and inspiring real-life ministry implementation. Pick and choose which sessions you want to attend, or stay for the entire conference at a significant savings!

Register now at:

News Perspective Online September 2023 Top Story

Welcome from the Dean

Dallas campus orientation

As the faculty and staff prepared for the beginning of the fall semester, I was interested in meeting with Perkins’ new students. The orientation for our new students showed that they are eager to begin their theological education and that they are excellent students who are ready!

Houston-Galveston hybrid program orientation

In my conversations with several of our new students, I discovered a wide range of academic interests. A few are curious about Biblical studies, some are interested in the Hebrew Scriptures, and still others are seeking a thorough understanding of the New Testament. Of course, there were students with a keen interest in the Biblical languages, either Hebrew or Greek. Those who enroll in a Biblical language have three semesters of work before them: two semesters of learning the language and a semester of exegesis. Certainly, it is challenging work.

Others are more interested in theology, while others are more drawn to the history of the Christian Church. As I listened, I learned most of our new students came prepared and interested in the Perkins theological education. This is an excellent group of students with knowledge, passion and determination.

As proud as I am of our new students, I am equally proud of our faculty. In the past few months, there have been occasions for conversations with our faculty and learning about that on which they have been working. They have shared their scholarship with me, and I am looking forward to the publishing of several books and articles. The faculty are diligent in their work, and I hope many of you are grateful for them.

In order for theological education to occur, there is a significant group of staff members who are vital to Perkins’ educational endeavors. It could not happen without the persons who work in Bridwell Library, the school’s administrative staff, the enrollment management team and several others who are deeply committed to Perkins and our work of forming students for their vocational callings.

Thank you to all for your commitment and your work for Perkins.

Bishop Michael McKee
Leighton K. Farrell Endowed Dean, ad interim

July 2023 News Perspective Online Top Story

Perkins Mourns the Passing of Two


Joseph L. Allen, Professor Emeritus of Ethics who served on the faculty of Perkins School of Theology from 1957 until his retirement in 1998, passed away May 3 at the age of 94. Among his scholarship, he wrote and published the 1995 Love & Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics and the 2011 Perkins School of Theology: A Centennial History.




The Rev. Carlton R. “Sam” Young was a comprehensive contributor to church music for decades. He was Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at Perkins from 1964-75 and established the program as a vital force in graduate professional church music. He also founded the Church Music Summer Seminar at Perkins, a program that continued for over four decades, training countless local church musicians who could not attend seminary.

Young edited The Methodist Hymnal (1966) and The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), and earned distinction as a composer, arranger, conductor, teacher and scholar. Young died May 21 at age 97. Read more about Young’s life and legacy in this profile.






May 2023 News Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean

The mission of Perkins is “to equip persons for faithful leadership and Christian ministry in a changing church and society; to educate those seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian faith; and to strengthen the church, academy and world through service, scholarship and advocacy.”

Perkins is serious about the broad welcome implied in our mission covering a multitude of vocational and service opportunities enabled by our theological education. Further, we embrace the opportunity to learn from the wide swath of thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of those who are part of our community. The richness of who we are is our commitment to welcoming all.

Though the word “Methodist” is an integral part of Southern Methodist University’s name, more than 25 distinct denominations are represented in this year’s student population, including Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, African Methodist Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, Christian Methodist Episcopal and Buddhist. The Methodist ethos at Perkins creates an inviting ecumenical spirit.

Similarly, our faculty are not all United Methodist by formation or by affiliation. The rich diversity of Christian thoughts and traditions and the ecumenical movement and engagement with interreligious bodies by The United Methodist Church is evident in our faculty, staff and students, which run the gamut of the theological spectrum. Despite theological differences, you will find that we have more in common than one might think. Our students learn not what to think but rather how to think and how to form their understanding of the Christian faith.

At Perkins, diversity, equity, and inclusivity are underlying tenets to who we are and what we offer – to the Church, to the academy and to the world. The Baptist House of Studies, the Black/African Church Studies Program and Perkins’ Hispanic ministry initiative – CASA (Centro de Acompañamiento, Solidaridad y Adiestramiento) – are a few important examples of the many ways we work to educate and engage diverse student populations.

Moments after washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus proclaimed: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples…” (John 13:34-35, NRSV).

Our commitment to upholding these sacred words guides our actions as a school, where differences are celebrated and serve as pathways to active discipleship.

January 2023 News Perspective Online Top Story

Farewell to Dean Hill

In honor of Dean Craig C. Hill’s retirement at the end of 2022, there’s a new addition to the portrait gallery in Kirby Hall Parlor at Perkins. A portrait of Dean Hill by artist James Tennison was unveiled at the Dean’s Christmas and Retirement Party on December 6.

Hill, the Leighton K. Farrell Endowed Dean and Professor of New Testament, announced in June 2022 that he would retire as dean December 31, 2022 due to medical reasons. He will remain a member of the Perkins faculty until December 31, 2023. Bishop Michael McKee became dean of Perkins ad interim effective January 1, 2023, and will serve until a permanent dean has been named.  Bishop McKee served as episcopal leader of the North Texas Annual Conference from 2012 until his retirement from that position on January 1, 2023.

The portrait was made possible through the donations of members of the Perkins Executive Board, faculty and staff.  Tennison’s portrait commissions have taken him across the United States and to England. His works include the official portraits of former Texas governors Rick Perry and Ann Richards, which hang in the State Capitol in Austin, portraits for the National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Texas Christian University, Texas Instruments and Frito Lay, as well as many portraits for families. This is the second painting that he completed for Perkins – he painted the portrait of Dean William Lawrence when he retired in 2016 – and one of several that grace that SMU campus. He also painted portraits of James Zumberge, SMU’s seventh president from 1975 – 1980; L. Donald Shields, president from 1980 – 1986; and Kenneth Pye, SMU’s president from 1987-1994, as well as portraits of SMU donors Mr. & Mrs. David Miller and of Jerry Junkins, former Texas Instruments CEO and SMU trustee.

Tennison traveled from his home in Whidbey Island, Wash., to Dallas to meet with Dean Hill in his office last year before beginning the portrait.

“I like to discuss the client’s expectations and how they would like it to look,” Tennison said. “It helps me to meet the person, to get to know them and learn more about them, and to see their gestures and natural poses. All of that informs the portrait.”

Tennison took many photographs during his visit.

“I’ve learned that people sort of pose themselves better than I can,” he said.

Noting that the painting would be added to the gallery of past Perkins deans in Kirby Hall, Tennison aimed to make his portrait consistent in terms of size and proportion. His impression of Dean Hill, he said, was of a very kind person, and “I just hope that that came through in his portrait.”

Confirmation that he captured his subject came from Dean Hill’s wife, Robin, who had a chance to review the portrait, and approved.

December 2022 News Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean

For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not fleshly and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not all too human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  (1 Corinthians 3:3b-6)

In this well-known passage, Paul warns the Corinthians not to form factions based on allegiance to specific leaders. To do so is “fleshy and behaving according to human inclinations.” The my-apostle-is-better-than-your-apostle argument is just one example of the countless ways people find identity and status by aligning with what they perceive to be a superior group. It is a sign of human insecurity and vulnerability as much today as it was then. It has always been divisive and is quite frequently perilous, sometimes catastrophically so.

Thankfully, Corinthian-level identification with leaders is not an issue at Perkins. That’s not to say that this or that former leader is not regarded with particular appreciation. That is as it should be. It becomes a problem only when such admiration exists to the exclusion of and in competition with appreciation for the gifts and achievements of others. In that case, the true focus in not on the leader but on us.

When I read this text, my attention is drawn instead to verse 6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Unquestionably, I knew this lesson to be true on an intellectual level before becoming Dean. Still, it is easy to begin a leadership position with the unconsidered and largely unconscious conviction that one’s job is to solve every problem and, in due time, to hand off the school to the next Dean in all but perfect order.

Over the years, several things become much more front-of-mind thanks to lived experience. Among them are the following:

  1. Whatever you achieve, there will always be new opportunities and new problems. Who saw COVID coming with its myriad long-term effects? What new technologies will emerge in the next decade or two that will disrupt (and improve, one hopes) current models of education?
  2. Where significant advances are made, it will be because others bought into a shared vision, whatever its origin, and worked to see it come to pass. There is only so much you can do alone. It follows that, over the years, your appreciation for your colleagues will deepen. It also follows that you see retirement not as the occasion for leaving colleagues in the past, but rather as a chance to continue to know them, though now wholly as friends.
  3. Likewise, the more time goes by, the more admiration you will have for your predecessors—in my case, Deans Lawrence, Lovin, and Kirby in particular—and the more appreciation you will have for their accomplishments. (Thank God for the things they did that freed me to focus my attention elsewhere!) The same goes for the members of the Perkins Executive Board and other benefactors whose generosity made possible those advances.
  4. The borderland between continuity and change has always existed in the church (consider, for example, the controversy over Gentile inclusion in the 1st century church), and it will always be hotly contested territory. This tension can be avoided to some extent through the adoption of self-contained, circular positions that promise ongoing and comfortable certainty, but that certainty eventually will be challenged by the threat of some new change.
  5. Perhaps the most insidious change is that which is not even recognized as change. My children grew up with computers, social media, streaming content, and so on. The enormous cultural shifts brought by such technologies are largely unknown to them as change. Similarly, a great deal of what passes for normal, acceptable Christian life in America today would have been unrecognizable to St. Paul or even to John Wesley.
  6. You see this dynamic of continuity and change playing out over the decades at Perkins, recognize it in our own time, and anticipate it in the future. You hope that vital continuity will remain, but also that necessary change will occur every year, just as it has in each of the years of my own deanship.

Perhaps you’ve heard recited “The Oscar Romero Prayer.”  It was composed by Bishop Ken Untener for inclusion in a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in 1979 at a celebration of departed priests.  It is often prayed at services commemorating the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, but also on other occasions of transition. It sums up perfectly my own thoughts as I am about to move into a new phase of life.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen, indeed.

Let me close by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all of the many wonderful people associated with Perkins School of Theology and SMU. I trust that you will continue to support our cherished school and its leadership for years to come. I shall always remember you with profound gratitude.

Grace and peace,


News November 2022 Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean: “For Lack of Knowledge”

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”  (Hosea 4:6)

Years ago I presided at the wedding of two friends, a delightful couple who are both well known in their respective fields. Present in the congregation that day were a number of prominent persons whose names you would almost certainly recognize.

I had been asked to preach a wedding sermon, which is a somewhat unusual request. What surprised me afterward were the comments I received from a number of those eminent attendees. It’s not that they were negative. Quite the opposite: they were overly positive. The sermon was fine, I suppose, but nothing exceptional. It dawned on me that the bar I had needed to clear was set incredibly low. I was saddened to realize how little they expected of a preacher.

I have taught in a great many churches over the past 40+ years. Being human, I appreciate postive feedback when it comes. At times, however, the experience is rather like that described above. I hasten to say that the comments are not about the style of presentation but rather about the content.  I am not talking about anything particularly esoteric, unusual, or controversial. The same information would be offered in a New Testament Introdicton course taught by any of my colleagues at this and previous schools. Eventually, someone will say, “I have been in this church for 20+ years. Why haven’t I heard this before?” Why, indeed?

Based on personal observation, I’d say one explanation is that a good percentage of seminary graduates shy away from teaching.  Among the reasons:

  • It’s somebody else’s job.
  • Not being subject experts, they lack confidence. (Trust me, all teachers at times expose their ignorance. Q&A in particular is a minefield for those of us with a less than stellar memory.)
  • It can take a lot of time to do well.
  • Pastors might suppose that persons in their congregation would be…
    • Incapable of understanding.
    • Challenged and offended if they did understand.
    • Oppositional and divisive from that point on (assuming they don’t just leave).

Too easily, serious theological study becomes the province of an elite, self-protective class, and the church, in reaction and result, becomes increasingly suspicious of academic theology and, forgive me for saying it, increasingly ignorant. As I observed 26 years ago in a sermon at another theological school, “Few Christians are equipped to think Christianly at a very high level. Among other things, this intellectual disengagement has cost the church much of its cultural influence.  Why should society listen to us when the public face of Christianity is so obviously banal, uninformed, and even ridiculous?”

To be clear, I do not expect our congregants to be Aquinas. This is not intellectual snobbery. It is in fact the opposite: it is about respecting the capacity of fellow Christians to think for themselves. In my experience, most people hunger to be taken seriously as adult learners. They do not want condescension; they want substance.

The widespread lack of intellectual engagement is evident in current debates about human sexuality, among other things. The depth and quality of arguments is often exceedingly low, descending to the level of today’s debased political discourse. Issues are grossly oversimplified, most often in the form of dualism, resulting in the ultimate binary: us versus them. Thinking this way is both easy and comfortably self-affirming. It is also incredibly dangerous. Most of the worst ideas ever foisted upon humankind–ideas such as Marxism and Nazism that cost the lives of tens of millions–were binary and self-authenticating.  It takes education, which comes in many forms, to engage the world in its true complexity. It also takes honesty and humility.

Returning for a moment to that theological school sermon:

In chapter four of Hosea, the prophet announces, literally, God’s lawsuit against Israel.

1 Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel;
for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.

            No knowledge of God in the land.  To what result?

2 Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3 Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing.

            Whose fault is it?  The corrupt rulers?  The indifferent populace?

4 Yet let no one contend,
and let none accuse,
for with you is my contention, O priest.
5 You shall stumble by day;
the prophet also shall stumble with you by night…
6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…

We need to provide our people with tools for solid and faithful, discerning and critical engagement with our tradition. Otherwise, God might well say to us, “With you is my contention, O clergy, O professor, O dean.”

How are people to believe with life-directing conviction if all they know is a vacuous and inarticulate religion? How are they prepared to wrestle with reality in all its messiness if all they have are pat answers? So many have given up on the church precisely because it did not acknowledge and help them to deal with what Karl Barth famously called the “shadow side of creation.” Pictures of roses are lovely, but actual roses have thorns. Again and again, reality proves itself more complicated, more intractable and more surprising than our ideas about it.

I do not mean to sound scolding. Indeed, a fair share of blame can and should be leveled at theological schools for not doing enough to equip and to encourage the ministry of teaching, among their students but also in the wider church. Perkins itself is not an ivory tower, high above, walled off from and oblivious to the church. Yet, for all it does to meet these needs, more must be done.

We don’t need Christians throwing grenades at each other from entrenched positions, unwilling to think beyond simple dualisms, unwilling to wrestle with complexity.  Just as a democracy requires an educated citizenry to survive and thrive, the church needs well-informed Christians, persons who can, as Charles Wesley put it, “unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Each–knowledge and piety, head and heart–is required to instruct and to temper the other. They are the double helix of Christian life.

Does it seem at times as though, to quote Hosea, “There is no…knowledge of God in the land”? By God’s grace, it is within our power to do something about that.

Thank you for all that you are already doing to raise up thoughtful believers, persons for whom all knowledge is in effect theological knowledge, relevant to faith. Permit me here to challenge myself, Perkins School of Theology, and you to consider what more we might do.


News October 2022 Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean

Faith and the Limits of Reason: A Lesson from Romans

I am a Paul guy. I realize, of course, that the apostle to the Gentiles is a challenging figure, as the New Testament itself acknowledges (2 Peter 3:16). He needs to be read in wider biblical and historical context. Though much venerated (and vilified), Paul is not Jesus ver. 2.0. Nevertheless, much in Paul’s writing is wonderful. In the nearly three decades I taught New Testament Intro, few things made me happier than to hear students say that the class had given them a new appreciation for Paul. There are riches here of which many people are unaware.

A premier example is the book of Romans. I recall reading a Gospel tract when I was a teenager titled “The Roman Road.” It quoted a series of texts from Romans that explained human need and God’s provision for salvation. This is part of a long interpretive tradition.[1] In the first eight chapters of Romans, the Protestant Reformers found the answer to their urgent question, “How shall we be saved?” Ironically, their close identification with Paul worked both to popularize and to obscure Paul’s distinctive theological contribution. In assuming common cause with Paul, they tended to project onto Paul their own struggles with disconsolate conscience and disapproving Catholicism. So Romans came to be viewed as a kind of personal salvation manual, a road-map for guilty, lost souls in search of a forgiving, gracious God. One consequence was the orphaning of the remainder of the epistle, especially chapters 9-11, whose interest in the fate of Israel was scarcely an ongoing or pivotal Christian concern.

In fact, the matter of Israel’s future was very much on Paul’s mind as he wrote to the Roman church from Corinth, just prior to his final trip to Jerusalem. Paul was keenly aware of the relative failure of the “Jewish mission” (Galatians 2:7-8). He speaks of his “sorrow and unceasing anguish” for his “kindred according to the flesh” (9:2). It is clear that Jewish unbelief in Christ is a theological and not just a personal problem for Paul. How is it that the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel has resulted in an overwhelmingly Gentile church?  Can God be righteous, faithful to God’s own nature and promises, and not save Israel?  (Indeed, God’s righteousness is the unifying theme of Romans. See the thesis statement in 1:16-17.) In the face of his impending journey to Jerusalem, the problem must have appeared acute. Has God failed? And is Paul’s a truly righteous gospel?

Recent biblical scholarship has been more successful at placing Romans 9-11 where it properly belongs, at the center (or, rhetorically, at the climax) of Paul’s argument. The concern of Romans is not so much to explain justification by faith in Christ as to explain how such a system upholds God’s righteousness, especially God’s righteousness toward non-Christian Israel. Thus, deprived of chapters 9-11, Romans would be gravely deficient; indeed, without reading to the section’s surprising conclusion in 11:25-36, one might wonder truly if unbelieving Israel’s present status does not expose “unrighteousness on God’s part” (9:14)

Moving from Romans 8:39 to 9:1 is like walking off a precipice; having scaled the resplendent heights of chapter 8, one drops by a single step to the shadowy depths of chapter 9. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (v. 2). Why sorrow if nothing is able “to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39)? Because it appears that Israel is not among the “us,” that Israel is alienated from God’s love. This is an intolerable conclusion against which Paul mobilizes two basic arguments. First, he contends that now as in the past, only a portion of Israel has been elect or faithful; therefore, one ought not to regard the present case as being exceptional either from the side of God or of Israel.

It is evident that this answer was not fully persuasive even to Paul. The word of God might not entirely have “failed” (v. 6), but Jewish Christianity remained a disconcertingly small success. Paul’s second answer locates the solution outside of present history (and therefore beyond the thwarted historical means of the Church’s Jewish mission): at the return of Christ, “all Israel”, even “disobedient” Israel, will be saved (11:25-36). In this belief, Paul finds a solution to the problem of God’s apparent unrighteousness: God, being God, must save Israel. This is a truly stunning–and for us, a most instructive–conclusion.

The shift in Paul’s argument in 11:11 is immensely important. Imagine that chapters 9-11 had ended at 11:10: “let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent.” In that case, Paul might with good reason be regarded as a thoroughgoing Christian supersessionist.[2] “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (v. 7), and so Israel has been set aside in favor of the church.

Paul asks, “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” For the first time, the possibility is raised of a future change in Israel’s status. Their present “stumbling” is not to be interpreted as a permanent “fall.” As much as Paul wanted to justify the present reality (e.g., through talk of an elect remnant), he could not accept that reality as permanently justifiable. Here at last Paul offers a strong answer to the persistent question concerning God’s faithfulness toward Israel.

In conventional Jewish eschatological expectation, Israel first would be restored, and then into that redeemed Israel would stream believing Gentiles (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; 42:1-9; 49; 55:4-5; 60:1-7; 66:18-23). Paul reveals this “mystery” (v. 25): perceived Jewish obduracy has led to a reversal of the eschatological timetable. Now is the period of Gentile inclusion: “Through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles” (v. 11). “Their stumbling means riches for the world” (v. 12). “Their rejection is the reconciliation of the world” (v. 15). “You (Gentiles) were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [the Jews’] disobedience” (v. 30).

The period of Gentile evangelization is impermanent: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (v. 25). After the mission to the Gentiles is complete, God will complete the final drama: “So all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’; ‘and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins’” (vv. 26-27; quoting Isa 59:20-21; 27:9). “What will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (v. 15).

So, when all is said and done, God’s election of “all Israel” stands (cf. “full inclusion” in v. 12), and God’s righteousness is vindicated (vv. 29-32). No details are offered concerning the constitution of “all Israel.” At very least, it is clear that this group includes many if not all who are now, from Paul’s perspective, “disobedient” (v. 30-31) “ungodly” (v. 26; a truly amazing characterization), and even “enemies of God” (v. 28). Unlike Gal 6:16, there is no possibility here that Paul is referring to the church as (“spiritual”) Israel.

It is critical to note that the “mystery” revealed in Romans 11:11-32 does not follow logically from 1:1-11:10. Stopping at 11:10, one would conclude that only a small remnant of Israel is or ever will be saved. The church’s mission to the Jews failed, and that is that. But present appearances belie ultimate realities (cf. 8:31-39). The resolution to Paul’s “sorrow and unceasing anguish” (9:2) is found at length in his trust in the ultimate triumph of God’s righteousness. The issue finally is decided, not by reason, but by faith, by trust in God’s character.

Fittingly, Paul’s disclosure of the divine plan leads him to doxology (v. 33ff.), an expression of awe at the greatness of God who uses even “disobedience” to produce “mercy” (vv. 30-31). Of course, it is not God‘s inscrutability or power alone that compels Paul’s adoration; above all, it is God’s righteousness that is proved in God’s “ways” and “judgments.” In his understanding of God’s mysterious plan for Israel, Paul has parted the veil and glimpsed “riches,” “wisdom,” and “knowledge” beyond human calculation. At the end of disputation, Paul points to God’s future, believes in God’s triumph, and worships.

Paul could not reason his way to a satisfactory answer, so, in a sense, he hands the problem back to God. If Paul could do that, then surely we can as well. We do not have to have the answer to every question. Knowing God’s character, we can trust where we cannot know.


[1]  Much of the text below is drawn directly from or paraphrases my commentary on Romans, which is part of The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2013), ed. John Barton and John Muddiman, pp. 1083-1108. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. See

[2]  That is, one who believes that the church has fully superseded, or replaced, Israel.

June 2022 News Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean: (Don’t) Mind the Gaps

I spoke recently with a relative who is a longstanding member of a Bible study group at his church. He expressed frustration with another member who for weeks had insisted—with increasing bellicosity—that his reading of a particular biblical book was unquestionably right and the views of the rest of the group uncontestably wrong. “In this instance,” I responded, “there is simply not enough evidence to know what he claims to know.” Neither can we say definitively that the theory he champions is wrong. This is one of many cases in which a significant gap in historical knowledge undercuts any claim to high confidence, much less to certainty.

The conversation reminded me of my experience teaching New Testament for nearly three decades. I always strove to be fair and transparent when saying what I thought reasonably could and could not be known. Inevitably, this frustrated students who assumed that they had come to seminary to get all the answers. In many cases—say, for example, on the question of the Pauline authorship of 2 Timothy—I had an opinion and could make a strong case for it, but I had to acknowledge that other credible scholars judged the matter differently, and it was also my job to represent their views equitably.

Some will regard this as relativism, but it is not. I believe in facts and in truth. There was a Holocaust. Some statements are exaggerations; others straight-up lies. What is relative, however, is not truth but our apprehension of truth. Each of us exists at a certain time with a certain background, a certain education and life experience, and a certain temperament, among an array of other variables. In such a situation, and especially where gaps in knowledge exist, disagreement is inevitable. Disagreement with contemporaries, yes, but all the more disagreement with those who lived before or who will come after, many of whom represent dramatically dissimilar contexts.

The scholars I most admire are those of such character as to acknowledge their own limitations, who recognize what they do not and even cannot know. One such exemplar was the great Cambridge New Testament scholar C.F.D. Moule. Charlie, as he was known to all, was both exceptionally brilliant and remarkably humble, unpretentious, and approachable. He was a model exegete, weighing evidence thoughtfully and being careful always not to overstate his own case. He readily admitted what he did not know because his identity was grounded in something greater than his own remarkable capabilities. In short, he was a beautiful soul and a deeply Christian man with whom I am privileged to have been acquainted. Contrast his example with those whose identity is so tied up with being right—and thereby being important—that they cannot possibly admit to the limitations of their conclusions.

We hear a lot these days about conspiracy theories. Whether in politics or in religion or, worse yet, in both together, conspiracy theories thrive in the gaps. Their authors supply motives where motives are unknown. They take a thread of this and an otherwise unconnected strand of that, and interweave them with spools of speculation into a tapestry that displays the rightness of their cause and the wrongness, even evil, of their opponents.

There are multiple reasons why this approach is both attractive and effective. The allure of secret knowledge is anything but new. It goes back millennia. (Witness, for example, the ancient “mystery cults.”) To be the possessor of such knowledge is to be singularly important and to own a clarity and a certainty that others lack. The possessor is the only one who knows what’s really going on. Members enjoy the founder’s reflected glory and, in their continued allegiance, encourage ever more outlandish theories. It is a self-justifying circle that can be extraordinarily difficult to leave and all but impossible to break.

Most striking to me is that fact that this same phenomenon exists in scholarship, not least in biblical scholarship. I was once told that it is the job of young scholars to “slay the fathers” (or, increasingly, the mothers). You don’t get a Ph.D. by repeating an existing thesis. Some amount of novelty is required. The temptation is to find something that is new only by virtue of the fact that it is imaginary. “What was Luke covering up? What was Paul’s secret purpose? I alone can tell you.” Uncoincidentally, the supposedly heretofore hidden knowledge typically correlates with a pre-existing agenda. Some studies of the “historical Jesus” are notorious in this respect. There is a contemporary point at stake, and the selection of evidence is both limited and expanded, organized and ordered in such a way as to support it. So it is, for example, that many 19th century reconstructions of early Christian history can, in hindsight, be seen to be blatantly antisemitic.

Let us by no means decry the search for new knowledge and deeper insight. In fact, actual conspiracies do exist, though vastly fewer in number than popularly imagined. But we should be on guard against those who would encourage us to think we know what is unknowable if not blatantly false. It is our desires that make hypocrites of us all. We most readily set aside our critical faculties when the benefit is our own personal security and enlargement.

So, “mind the gaps” if that means being aware of the limitations of our knowledge. On the other hand, “don’t mind the gaps” if that means being untroubled by the fact that we cannot know all we would like to know. Note that neither of the two great commandments—love for God and neighbor—is particularly difficult to comprehend. The difficulty is in the doing. Being a student of Christianity and being a disciple of Jesus Christ are not the same thing. The ideal is to be both.

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Letter from the Dean: Partnering with God

Commencement season is upon us. Here at SMU, and across the country, family and friends will celebrate the accomplishments of graduates, while graduates anticipate opportunities for future achievement.

However, the Perkins ceremony is different in one essential respect: it is a worship service. In it, we also celebrate God’s calling and pray for God’s continuing work in the life of each graduate. Their future ministry is their life’s work, to be sure, but work prompted, encouraged, and enabled by God.

I wrote last month about paradoxes of Christian faith. Another is the tension between God’s initiative and our own. Where does the one leave off and the other begin? Are we mere puppets, or, on the other hand, do we act entirely alone?

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul makes striking use of words built on the Greek root εργ, “work” (as in the English energy), most notably in the following two verses:

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6).

[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13).

John Wesley’s conception of “prevenient grace” likewise includes both the belief that God is the first actor, at work in us before we realize it, and that we ourselves are responsible actors. At one level, this is an expression of the mystery of free will. At another, it is an expression of the mystery of God’s active presence in human life. Wesley would hold the two together, but many of his opponents would not, collapsing one side or the other of this paradox. What the latter gains is simplicity and clarity. What it loses is correspondence to the lived experience of believers who sense both that God is at work in them and also that they are at work for God.

Day-to-day awareness of this partnership is vital. Ministry at times takes us to the limits of our abilities and to the farthest edge of our resolve. It matters that this is not simply our work. It matters that God, not we ourselves, “will bring it to completion.” These realizations are simultaneously humbling and empowering.  It is not about us, but neither are we alone. We have the privilege of making a unique and meaningful contribution to a work very much larger than ourselves. And we do this in partnership not only with God, but with countless others before, alongside, and after us.

God’s work in us neither commences nor concludes at commencement. Still, at that moment much indeed is brought to completion, which is both a marker and a signal as well as a cause for celebration.

Paul wrote his letter to the entire church at Philippi. These points are true for us all, lay as well as clergy. Similarly, Wesley said without any such distinction, “Best of all, God is with us.”

God is with us, indeed. Thanks be to God.