Gerhard von Rad: A Faith Example

[1] In 1960 I enrolled in the Ph. D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. To my incredible delight and surprise Dr. Gerhard von Rad was to be a guest professor at Princeton for two quarters in the school year. I had been introduced to von Rad’s teachings my senior year at Trinity Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Von Rad seemed to supply for me what was missing in my biblical studies. I had learned the critical tools for studying the Old Testament. Von Rad went further. He used these tools of scholarship to explicate the kerygma of Old Testament texts. His insight changed just about everything for me in my approach to the biblical message. Gerhard von Rad quickly became my mentor-in-chief.

[2] In the years prior to my study at Princeton I confess that I had come to admire certain of my teachers who “breathed fire” on students with whom they disagreed or who asked impertinent questions. Silently I cheered them on. I thought I had found my teaching style. That was before my experience in a classroom with von Rad. He treated his students and their questions with great respect. I always took his academic demeanor to be a deep expression of his Christian faith.

[3] Not only was von Rad the most brilliant theologian I ever studied under, he was also the most humble. Several times during the course of the year students asked him very sharp questions challenging the very basis of his Old Testament theories. I remember one student in particular whose question challenged von Rad’s basic thesis in Old Testament studies. He accepted the question with humility and grace. He acknowledged that if the questioner were correct it would mean that he would have to make serious changes to his system. That was vintage von Rad. He never felt the need to defend his own theories or to put those asking challenging questions down. I learned a new way of teaching from this wonderful man of faith.

[4] An interesting incident from his life on his German faculty demonstrates well his humility. Each year the professor would decide on a project to engage for the academic year. One can only imagine the esoteric nature of the topics. Von Rad had had enough. When it was his turn to suggest a topic he simply said: “Couldn’t we just go bowling?” And they did!

[5] On his last day of class with a group of students working for their Ph.D. in Old Testament he was asked this question: “What is you central advice for us who wish to teach the Old Testament?” He thought for a minute and then replied: “Be open, open, open. Our interest is in the kerygma of the text. If someone comes along with an approach that opens our eyes and ears to the kerygma in a new and better way then we need to be willing to throw away a lifetime of research and give this new approach a chance.”

[6] I am deeply grateful that Gerhard von Rad, a man of deep faith, modeled the teaching profession for me.