A day in the life of a Union Seminary student in the early 1950’s
April 25, 2015
Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) was a Presbyterian scholar of the Old Testament, equally committed to the homiletical imperative of the church. Among her several books are Nature, God, and Pulpit (Eerdmans, 1992), The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (Baker Academic, 1994), Preaching from the Old Testament (WJK Press, 1989), Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1998), The Committed Marriage (WJK Press, 1976), and she wrote commentaries on Nahum to Malachi for the Interpretation commentary series. She was also an active leader in the pro-life movement in mainline Protestantism.
In her autobiography, Not Til I Have Done, she talks fondly about her days at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. “Union Seminary has never again achieved the theological distinction of having such a faculty,” she writes in reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, John T. McNeill, Paul Tillich, Cyril Richardson, and others. She loved Niebuhr but was far less enamored of Tillich. Here is an excerpt, with a humorous anecdote:
It is difficult to picture the theological intensity that pervaded Union’s campus at that time. Every mealtime involved theological discussion, and if you set forth a theological proposition, there was always some fellow student to challenge it or a graduate student to knock it down There, in those conversations, we hammered out our own positions on the rock of dispute. We learned what could be defended and what was nonsense. Gradually we arrived at theologies that were sound and biblical.
There was no theological professor who was more balanced in his teaching than John Bennett, and it was from him that I learned the essentials of Christian doctrine. Niebuhr taught us about the pride and sin of human beings in a theological realism that is still perennially pertinent. And I think I never knew truly how to worship until I attended morning chapels with Cyril Richardson and heard his “Amen” booming out at the end of collects, as he prayed on his knees.
We had a lot of fun in the midst of that theological hothouse. One day at lunch we discussed Tillich’s theology with Niebuhr. “Tell Tillich,” remarked Niebuhr, “that he’s a damn pantheist.” So off we all scurried to talk to Tillich. Some time later, Niebuhr encountered Tillich in the courtyard, contemplating the flowers growing there. “Paul,” asked Niebuhr. “What are you doing?” The reply came back in Tillich’s accent, “Ze damn panteist is worshiping.”
It always seemed like something of a mental triumph when we managed to wrap our minds around Tillich’s system of theology, a system that he simply read to us in class. But try as he might, Tillich could not reconcile his system with biblical theology, and though he had many disciples most of us faulted him on his distance from the biblical faith. Later we learned about his unfaithful marital life; that simply underscored the weakness in his theology, because a person’s theology is made manifest in his or her actions.
Unfortunately, Union chose to waste the knowledge of the brilliant historian John McNeill by letting him lecture only on dates and conditions in church history, whereas to Tillich was assigned the history of Christian thought. Tillich’s lecture notes proved totally unusable when studying for the history portion of my Ph.D. exams, because they did not illumine the central traditions of the Christian faith.
Contrary to Tillich’s personality, what was impressive about some of the other theological giants at Union was their humility, a humility that we were later to encounter also in Karl Barth. Niebuhr – famous, yet always engaged with students, tall and angular and full of vitality – was never intimidating, but was a beloved friend, and we all wept when he suffered his series of debilitating strokes in the 1950’s. [pp. 38-40]
From 1953-54, she spent time in Basel with Karl Barth, accompanied by her fellow student and husband, Paul Achtemeier. Both would emerge as accomplished biblical scholars at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. You can read her glowing account of Barth in How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim. She writes, “A rumpled, lovable, old giant of learning, Barth acted toward us as a pastor” (p. 108). In her autobiography, she has a chapter on Barth.
She also has a chapter “On Being Female.” In a previous post, I mentioned that Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a “hardnosed” diatribe against feminism in her preface to Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity. And she continues her complaints in the aforementioned chapter. Unfortunately, her kind is pretty much nonexistent in the mainline Protestant world today.