After 20 Years, I Still...

by Thor Madsen November 4, 2019

I am in my fifties, and this age puts me in the rank of senior professor, compared to the younger faculty who serve with me. I now get notices from AARP and receive targeted advertisements from pharmaceutical companies and vendors of walk-in tubs and prosthetic teeth. I have a lot of deteriorating to do, and I had better get on with it, if I want to take advantage of these remarkable deals. 

However, certain perks come with being over 50, one of which involves a license to wear comfortable shoes, if not ones that fasten with Velcro. Another perk is the invitation that may come now and then to reflect on one’s time at an institution like MBTS, having seen all kinds of changes after 15 or 20 years. That invitation came to me a few months ago from our president, on the occasion of our faculty workshop. 

I have been at the same institution since 1999, and during this time I have indeed witnessed a number of interesting events involving transitions of faculty, staff, and administrative personnel, plus the upgrades made to the campus itself. Midwestern has reached a level of maturity that I could not have imagined 20 years ago, and I expect that it will continue to astonish me, if the Lord tarries and I get to stay here another 20 years. 

Nevertheless, for the benefit of my colleagues, I decided to concentrate on what has stayed the same, rather than on what has changed. After all, everyone can see the changes. They are obvious and welcome. But not everyone can see the constants. So then, the following remarks—some light, some heavy—summarize what I said to our MBTS faculty, looking back on my service since 1999. Twenty years later, I still. . .  

I still rejoice that I am not writing my dissertation. Indeed, I have never met someone with a PhD who does not, when asked, agree on how glad he is to have got his dissertation over with and to have tricked his alma mater into letting him graduate. That feeling never wears off, and I do mean never. The same levity also attaches to the fact that I give examinations now, rather than taking them. My students notice the spring in my step on testing days, and I am sorry about it (I guess)—but not sorry enough (apparently) to conceal keep my deep, dark feelings of joy during midterms and finals. 

After 20 years, I still learn from my students, which may not be the best thing for someone like me to say, come to think of it; but there it is. I learn from them and often get surprised at how much they have read and how far they have come theologically. I do not know what impression I might have made on my own seminary professors, before the Cambrian Explosion, but that impression could not have been the same as what I now receive. 

After 20 years, I still enjoy the ebb and flow of the academic year, with new students finding their way around, moving into our apartments, and entering new classrooms for the first time. I still look forward to our ceremonial days—like convocation and graduation—which maintain practices that a few of us started in the Middle Ages. I think that my colleagues also feel the same way, and I know that each of us would pine for these days, if they should ever cease. One of our retired professors kept walking with us in convocation into his late 80s, even when it hurt badly for him to do so. He still wanted to be there. Probably all of us will, if we live that long. 

After 20 years, I still love the people that I work with, especially their idiosyncrasies and all that makes them unlike me, except in the essential ways. I notice their trendy socks, exotic culinary tastes, and the strange objects in their workspaces, imported from distant lands. Seminary professors are not conventional people. Some of them are too focused for their own good and may need help finding their own cars and houses. Please provide this assistance as you are able. 

Early in my career, I discovered the value of befriending our international students, if for no other reason than to access their culinary skills, but not just for that reason. They come from all over and can tell stories about their lives and work that highlight the power and goodness of God, often seen in the circumstances that brought them to one of our SBC seminaries. God has pulled strings in their case and brought them through rough seas. After 20 years, I still enjoy meeting them and letting them tell their stories. 

Finally, after 20 years, I still have a charge to keep. I was hired during the last stages of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC, when our institutions and seminaries were leaving liberal theology behind and recovering a high view of God’s word. I also entered SBC life from the outside, having come most recently through the European university system; and this fact, combined with the previous one, compelled our trustees to examine me with unusual scrutiny, across the full range of subjects that I was set to teach. They had just turned the SBC around, for the better, and they were in no mood for anyone’s weird theological experiments. I could sense the urgency of their work in the questions that they asked and their determination not to be let down once more. 

I have used the word ‘I’ too often in this essay, but that usage was inevitable. I was supposed to reflect on how things look to me, following two decades of service in one theological institution. Maybe the I’s will seem less intrusive here, in the end, if I close with a confessional statement shared by everyone serving in one of our SBC seminaries. I know that all of us would say what I say now: I do not deserve to be in this place, doing this thing every day. No one does.