Wednesday, July 15, 2009

By George

I’m teaching the Gospel of John at Liberty Theological Seminary this summer. It’s an advanced New Testament elective in the master’s program, so I’m reading and grading lots of research papers. And that’s made me think of George. Nearly every paper I read quotes him at length, and well they should! Not only is his commentary on the Gospel of John a fine piece of New Testament scholarship, but George was one of the seminal influences on my own life and career. I speak of George Raymond Beasley-Murray.

I still recall the day when I was talking with another George who was influential in my life – George Balentine – about where I should go to seminary. George was the dean at Palm Beach Atlantic University and my New Testament Greek professor, mentor, and friend. George said: “Well Wayne, if it were I, I’d go to Southern (he meant The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY).” Then, holding up a copy of Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament, he said: “They just landed George R. Beasley-Murray on the faculty there, and that makes them the best!” I read Baptism and was convinced. It was the most carefully crafted, brilliantly written New Testament scholarship on baptism I had ever read. I had to study with George.

When I arrived at Southern, the first class I took was a New Testament Greek exegesis class with George. I was in awe of him – his brilliance, his capacity to read and remember everything he read, and above all, his wonderful British accent. Even though he lived in the US for a score of years, he never lost his marvelous accent. Indeed, it seemed to grow more “pronounced” with the years. He told me one time that he had preached at a rural church in western Kentucky, and when he finished, a woman came up to him and said: ‘Dr. Beasley-Murray, I didn’t understand a thing you said, but I just loved the way you said it!’” He was such a joy just to listen to that I even forgave him his horrid Greek pronunciation! He insisted on pronouncing parousia (Greek for “coming” as in the Second Coming of Christ), “par-OW-sia.”

Years later, when I had finished my PhD and was teaching on the faculty of Midwestern Seminary, I chaired a committee that planned and scheduled lectureships for the faculty and students. I scheduled George. He and Ruth flew to Kansas City where George delivered a series of lectures around his new book which I was using as the text for a course I was teaching, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. Typically, he was stunning. Both faculty and students were enthralled. We took him to a rodeo while he was in Kansas City. He said he’d never been to a rodeo. After the rodeo, he said: “Everyone should go to a rodeo…once.” He was finishing work while he was with us on his new commentary on the Gospel of John for Word Publishing. He asked me read parts of the manuscript for him and give him my opinion. I said: “It’s typical Beasley-Murray – succinct yet thorough, honest yet gracious, rigorously academic yet unfailingly Christian.” He quipped: “Yes, yes, but will you buy it?”

Cheryl and I drove George and Ruth to the airport following his lectures. It was a difficult time at the seminary. Baptists were going through another of their patented and infamous “Baptist battles,” and the seminaries were in the thick of it. I was conflicted in that I was thoroughly committed to what I call “thoughtful belief.” That is, I was unapologetically committed to Christian orthodoxy, yet at the same time I was equally committed to the best, and most rigorous, scholarship at my disposal confident that Truth had nothing to fear from questions. Practically speaking, that meant that I was comfortable in neither of the two political “camps” vying for denominational control at the time (as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t do “group think” no matter what group is doing the thinking). George and I talked about that a lot on the way to the airport. I knew he understood because the kind of scholarly commitments I was articulating described him as well. When we arrived at the airport, George looked at me and said something I’ve never forgotten. He said: “You know, Wayne, there’s all the difference in the world between believing that the Bible merely contains the Word of God and believing that the Bible is the Word of God.” Then he added, “If you believe that the Bible just contains the Word of God, then you’re free to pick and choose what parts of the Bible you wish to accept and follow as authoritative. But if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then I’m afraid it’s a whole different matter, isn’t it. Then you must accept the Bible both when you like what it says and when you don’t.” Then, poignantly, he added: “Of course, there’s a price to pay for either one you choose.”

I would pay that price some years later. I had gone to be pastor of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh. The church was clearly on one side of the Baptist battle. While there, I learned that George had come to Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest to teach as a Visiting Professor for his dear friend Louis Drummond who was president of the seminary at the time. However, because Drummond was regarded (fairly or unfairly) as a political pawn of one of the denominational factions, George’s presence on the campus was problematic to many in that he appeared to be lending support to one side of the battle over the other. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. George went there because Drummond was his friend and had invited him to teach. And, of course, anyone who knew George knew that he taught exactly the same things at Southeastern he had taught at Southern a decade before. I thought several times how wonderful it would be to invite George to preach or teach for me at First Baptist, but knowing where my church stood in the conflict, and not wishing to alienate anyone, I let it slide. I ran into George in Rex Hospital one day while I was there visiting someone in my church. George was there because he had slipped on an icy sidewalk and had broken his arm. We chatted for a while and then parted, awkwardly. Looking back on that now, I’m ashamed…and embarrassed…that I pandered to prejudice.

My last conversation with George took place some years later when I had gone to be dean of a Baptist divinity school. I was editing a theological journal on Paul’s Thessalonian Correspondences and I needed an article on Paul’s understanding of the parousia. Instantly, I thought of George, now retired and living in London. I called him, not knowing how sick he was; he didn’t say a word about his health. We chatted for a while, and he graciously declined my invitation. I said: “But George, you can write this article in your sleep!” He said: “Asleep or awake, Wayne, it must be written, mustn’t it.” A few months later, I learned that he had died.

The other day, a student of mine was working on the draft of her paper for my course, and researching resources, she had come across George’s Word Commentary on the Gospel of John. She asked: “Dr. Stacy, do you know the name George R. Beasley-Murray?”


kevin ferrell said...

In 1981, a young pastor from Stuart, FL taught as an adjucnt Greek instuctor at a small Christian College in West Palm Beach. I too was greatly influenced by his teaching and his genuine Christian devotion which so influenced my love for the biblical languages. Through the years I have watched him from afar not knowing where he "settled" in the political/academic controversy. I am so glad to see that the man I came to respect those many years ago has maintained his integrity--both academic and personal--throughout these years. Thank-you for sharing your journey and giving me "the rest of the story" of which I have often wondered. Your friend and pupil, Kevin Ferrell, '83 PBAC

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for the gracious comment, Kevin. If anything I did back in the early 80's there at PBA has been of help to you through the years, I am grateful. Pax Christi, wayne

J. Travis Moger said...

I had Dr. George R. Beasley-Murray my first year of seminary too when he was a visiting prof at Southeastern. I was very impressed with him and had some similar experiences. Your post brought back fond memories of a remarkable man who had a positive influence on my life and intellectual development. Thank you.