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In the twenty-ninth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Divinity and Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Sweeney begins by talking about the unique space Beeson fills in theological education as a confessional, evangelical, and interdenominational institution. He then goes on to talk about how that unique space is enhanced by Beeson’s commitment to offering an incarnational experience for ministerial formation through in-person teaching, small class sizes, shared worship experiences, and common meals. Ream and Sweeny then transition to talking about Sweeney’s own preparation for leading such an institution as a result of his experiences at Yale University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. A key component of that preparation in Sweeney’s life is his study of Jonathan Edwards and ways Edwards faith prompted him to pursue truth regardless of where it may reside. Ream and Sweeney close their conversation by talking about the relationship Beeson shares with Samford’s other professional schools as well as ways it seeks to offer continuing education for laypersons.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Divinity and Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Thank you for taking the time to join us.

Douglas Sweeney: Great to be with you, Todd.

Todd Ream: Beeson Divinity School is a professional school at a historically Baptist university, was initially funded in large measure by the generosity of a Presbyterian layperson, and is presently led by a Lutheran dean. The school also refers to itself as interdenominational, confessional, and evangelical. 

Would you start our conversation by offering a brief history of Beeson and note where it fits in the current landscape of theological education?

Douglas Sweeney: Sure. Beeson’s a young school. We were founded in 1988, and we were founded as the Divinity School of Samford University. Samford is a much older school. It was founded in 1841 as a Baptist college in a little town that very few people have been to anymore called Marion, Alabama. 

In the mid 20th century, Samford moved to its current campus. In the late 20th century, Samford kind of moved from being mostly a Baptist college to being a broader Christian university. And then in 1988, when we were founded as the Divinity School of Samford, we were founded, as you note, with help from a Presbyterian layman, with some good Wesleyans, Todd, you’ll be glad to know, in his family. 

And he asked the university if we could find the div school from the beginning as an interdenominational, evangelical divinity school. So that’s what happened. Our founding dean Timothy George served for a long time. As the dean, I’m only the second dean of our divinity school, and we’ve always been an evangelical, theologically traditional, pretty irenic, communally-oriented, academically rigorous place, so that’s kind of how we fit. 

But I think if you visited Beeson today, you’d probably conclude that the most important distinguishing feature of our divinity school is that we’re a life together school with a very communal, incarnational approach to theological education. It used to be that lots of seminaries were like that. These days, many seminaries, most seminaries are moving pretty aggressively online and Beeson is not. So that kind of distinguishes us today.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Would you say a little bit more about that incarnational culture? If I was to spend a day there with you and your colleagues and your students, what are some of the sort of cultural distinctives that I would sense and feel, as we went through the paces of our day?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, so we’re only 35 years old so we’re still reasonably small, about 125 students. We’re well endowed though, and so we have a great faculty-student ratio. It hovers usually between seven to one and six to one. We have small class sizes. As I say to prospective students, when they come for preview days and things. It’s impossible to be anonymous at Beeson. 

We bring professors here who are great scholars. Most of them are pretty well known folks, but all of whom are committed to mentoring students, spending time with students. We don’t do teach and run. A lot of students experience many classes that would be seven, eight, ten, twelve students in a class. We worship together regularly. We share meals frequently, every week together. 

Professors all know their students by name. The dean knows most of the students in the school by name. Most of them are in my home on a regular basis. We’re praying with them. You know, we’re taking ministerial formation in community very seriously. And that’s not just a rhetorical thing that the dean says. It really is true about the school.

Todd Ream: Thank you. That’s beautiful. And I would add to that, too, the chapel sits sort of at the center there geographically, but also the culture, too, at Beeson and I assume that’s a real asset, in terms of that formative nature of how you go through your education with students.

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, sure is. Todd, you’ve been in it. You know how pretty it is. It’s not a typical evangelical looking chapel. 

We talk about ourselves as a great tradition school. Our master of divinity degree requires a lot of work in the history of theology and the chapel looks like we’re a great tradition school. It’s an evangelical school with a very kind of old-fashioned looking chapel that’s, that’s beautiful, that people love to be in.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. 

When you think about the landscape of theological education and Beeson’s place within it then, what would you identify as some of the greatest opportunities that are before Beeson, but also some of the greatest challenges?

Douglas Sweeney: I think the greatest opportunity is a flip side of the coin of our greatest challenge. 

Our greatest opportunity, I think, in the years ahead, is to become the school of choice for people who are more or less evangelical and want a rigorous, traditional theological education in community. I think that’s what we do best. I think we do it very well. 

But of course, the flip side of that is not many people choose to go to a seminary that offers in-person, residential, required residential, rigorous classical theological education anymore. So the challenge for us these days is in persuading people that there’s still so much value in this kind of life together formation for ministry, that it’s worth the trouble that very few schools require that you take anymore.

So I really do think it’s worth our effort to live into this. But we know full well, we’ve got to be careful tracking with market trends and so on. I mean, what we talk about as a faculty from time to time, the fact that over the course of the 21st century, residential MDiv programs across the continent have been tanking.

So we’ve got to be careful both to emphasize that and to sort of build out some other programs and emphases that help us with enrollment numbers as well.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned Beeson’s founding dean, Timothy George, served in that role for 30 years. As George’s successor, how would you define the leadership that he exercised at Beeson, within theological education, and within the Church?

Douglas Sweeney: Oh, Timothy is a wonderful man. Much better than I am. He’s about as good a predecessor as someone like me could wish for. He really took the lead in building up a beautiful, orthodox, evangelical, ecumenical, irenic life-together school, and cultivated an environment at Beeson that faculty and staff and students just love to be a part of. I’ve never been at another school whose alumni love their school as much as Beeson’s alumni do. 

So if you’re like me, and you spent most of your career as a regular faculty member who liked to do research and write books and so on, and then find yourself just five years ago in the role of the dean, you couldn’t ask for a better setup.

You know, Beeson is institutionally stable and my predecessor cultivated an environment here that’s just lovely, just wonderful. And I’m grateful to be his successor.

Todd Ream: When you retire one day, how do you hope your successor defines your legacy, in terms of efforts that you have at Beeson, but also within theological education in the Church?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, Todd, I don’t want to sound more pious than I am. 

I just don’t think a whole lot about that. And frankly, what I, what I would most like is to be found faithful when I meet the Lord at the last day. I’d like to be somebody who was known as facilitating a lot of very helpful, loving, thoughtful nurturing of Church life in and through the ministries of the seminary during my time as dean.

 I came as the second dean not to revolutionize Beeson Divinity School. You know? I was drawn to it because of the mission that Timothy George and others had established before my arrival. But when I did arrive I’m not a lifelong Southerner. I’ve lived probably in Chicago more than any other place, but I’ve lived all over the country over the course of my life. And I’m not a Baptist and the biggest denominational group where we are in Birmingham is Baptists. So I felt like I had some fresh eyes when I kind of landed here in Birmingham in the spring of 2019. 

And what I did notice is there was more room for us to live into this wonderful mission that I think God has given us and to make it more accessible and more useful to a wider range of people, a wider range of people in terms of gender, the female student population is growing these days. A wider group of people denominationally. We’ve always been interdenominational, but in the last few years, we’ve become an official seminary of newer denominations, like the Global Methodist Church, like the North American Lutheran Church, and others. 

I’ve been trying to take steps to make us more helpful to our African American student population and to other students of color. Again, not by changing in any dramatic way the DNA of Beeson, but just to get us thinking about how to offer things and how to design things and how to advertise things and how to make friendships with people, that make Beeson feel like a place that could be a blessing to all kinds of other people, even around the country. You know, we’re a young school in the deep South, and I’ve been trying, too, to nationalize and a little bit internationalize our networks and our reputation.

Todd Ream: If I may, I want to transition now and ask some questions about your sense of vocation as a theologian, as a clergy person, and as an administrator, an educational administrator. 

Prior to being appointed as dean at Beeson, you served as the Distinguished Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, the Chair of the Department of Church History and Christian Thought, and the Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, where we go at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 

What led you to accept the appointment at Beeson?

Douglas Sweeney: Again, I don’t want to sound more pious than I am, but frankly, God led me to Beeson Divinity School. 

I was very comfortably ensconced where I was in Chicago at TEDS. I had a cushy teaching load. I was teaching one and one third classes per term. And I had a sabbatical every seventh semester. So if you’re like me and you like research and you like writing books and so on, it was just a perfect setup. 

And I wasn’t beating the bushes looking for other opportunities. You know? I wasn’t closed off. I’m in a family of business people. I’m one of those rare faculty members who wouldn’t run away when the president asked him to do some administrative work. You know, I didn’t, I didn’t find it terribly difficult.

Todd Ream: I don’t know any of those faculty, Doug. I don’t know who you’re talking about.

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, we’re a little odd. 

So I did have in the back of my mind I wonder if someday, I should move into some kind of administrative role, but I was so comfortable where I was. And I think God knew I was very comfortable where I was. 

So in the fall of 2018, when the search committee at Beeson and Samford called and asked me to put my hat in the ring, I said, no. I said, here’s all the reasons why you don’t want me to be the next dean of Beeson Divinity School.

And to make a long story short, they finally persuaded me to go ahead and fill out an application that wasn’t terribly onerous and then to engage in a zoom interview. And it was at the time of the zoom interview that I started to feel like, maybe there’s something in this, maybe I’m supposed to pay attention to what’s going on here. Maybe God is at work here. 

So my wife and I and just a very tight knit group of other people– because we didn’t want this to be a big conversation in Chicago– began praying about it. And Todd, in an unprecedented way– you know, I’m 58 years old. I’ve been following Jesus my whole adult life. But in an unprecedented way that winter, I felt like God was moving me out of my position at Trinity. 

And my wife too. My wife, Wilma, had never been, not just to Beeson, not just to Birmingham. She had never been in the state of Alabama before I agreed to come and serve as the dean. But even she, as we were praying and talking, we got to a point, she looked at me and she said I think if they call and ask you to go, you’re supposed to go. So that’s why I went. 

But again, I think you can tell just in the way I was describing Beeson earlier, I love the place and I had been here before and I had friends who are here. I was also very much drawn to this way of doing theological education, but that’s why I came.

Todd Ream: What tasks then typically define your days? If there’s a typical day.

Douglas Sweeney: I wish. I was saying yesterday, we’re hiring a couple of Old Testament professors right now. The finalist was on campus and we were spending time together. And I was saying to that person, when I was a regular prof, I could almost always tell you even 10, 20, 30 days out, what the most difficult thing was going to be that I would face on any given day out into the future and I could plan ahead. And I’m a planner. I’m an introvert. I’m a perfectionist. That was just so comfortable for me. 

And now, as dean, most days I wake up in the morning and I have no idea what the most challenging thing is I’m going to face. So it’s not that every day is entirely different from the days that have gone on before. It’s not that I don’t have a calendar full of appointments. There’s some things that are predictable. 

But the wide array of things that I take care of day in, day out, week in and week out, and the unanticipated challenges that emerge, keep things very lively, and to a degree that’s unprecedented in my career, keep things pretty unpredictable.

Todd Ream: You’re the author or editor of more than 20 books and amongst the world’s leading figures on the work of Jonathan Edwards, having even led the works of Jonathan Edwards project at Yale before coming to Trinity. 

What time in your present role do you have for teaching? 

Douglas Sweeney: A little. Not as much as I used to, but as I’ve said, all the way through my time at Beeson, I don’t want to be a coach who coaches only from the sidelines.You know, I want to play as well. And so I oftentimes I’ll teach of course I teach in churches, a lot off-campus as well. But in terms of on campus maybe one class per term would be normal.

Last semester, you mentioned at the top of the interview that I’m Lutheran, we have a handful of Lutherans at Beeson. I did a class on the Lutheran confessional theological tradition. This May, I’m doing an intensive May term class on American church history. Next fall, we’ve just started a PhD program for pastors, and I’m going to do a PhD seminar in the fall.

But that’s about it. You know? I’m not doing a full load like most teachers are doing at Beeson.

Todd Ream: What time, then if any, does your present role also leave for writing?

Douglas Sweeney: A little. That’s been probably the biggest sacrifice for me. You know, given the realities I was enjoying in Chicago at Trinity, things are very different now that I’m deaning here at Beeson.

But I still find time. I mean, one advantage to being my age is that my wife and I are empty nesters now. So even after a day that’s sort of packed full of meetings and so on, when I get home at night, it’s just Wilma and me in an empty house, things are pretty quiet. That adds a lot of time to a day and to a week. So I’ve been able to. 

You know, when I was a young man, I kind of romanticized the writing process. I really love it and I would wait for the muse to visit or wait for lightning to strike, wait to be in the right mood and then sit down and try to write. I think over time, one thing I’ve developed is a kind of a literary toughness and it’s a weird way to put it, but I’m able now, when I get a little window in my calendar, just to take advantage of it. Sit down, get going, doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, but I’ve got to make some progress. 

But you know, we’ve finished the Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards while I was here. I finished a festschrift for my dear friend Kevin Vanhooser, together with Dan Treier at Wheaton, since being here. And I’m in the midst of a two-volume global history of Christian doctrine project. And by doctrine, I mean pretty simply the ways in which we teach the Christian faith to people in our churches. So it’s history framed globally from beginning to end of the teaching ministries of the churches. And the first volume was released last fall. 

So, I’m not quite as prolific as somebody who’s not a dean, but there’s a little bit of time for that and it’s fulfilling and fun for me to be able to continue to chip away at things like that.

Todd Ream: Would you please offer some details, then, about how your sense of vocation as a clergy person, teacher, scholar, educational leader, developed over the course of your career and how they relate to one another?

Douglas Sweeney: I’ve developed quite a bit over the course of my life. My first job out of grad school was to do manuscript work at the Edwards Project at Yale. Now I did some teaching there. We put on conferences. We facilitated the publication of the modern critical edition of the works of Jonathan Edwards.

When they were visiting scholars doing work at the university I’d entertain them. So it was kind of a fun postdoc, variegated kind of a job, but the main assignment was to do very technical manuscript transcription and work on the Edwards corpus. So that’s a very different job from being the dean of a seminary.

And in between, I’ve been a regular professor at a seminary. When I was young, I wasn’t sure whether my teaching career would be mostly in a secular academic context or a Christian academic context. So even the move from Yale to Trinity was a significant one. And I had to sit down with my dean and say, all right, how do I become a good citizen here? I need to develop some new habits and some new emphases. And my dean Tite Tiénou helped me to do that in a significant way there. 

And now I find myself leading an interdenominational evangelical seminary. So I’ve had to be stretched and grown by God in some pretty, pretty significant ways in the last 30 years or so.

Todd Ream: Are there any particular persons, writings, and or experiences other than the ones that you just noted there at the end that have contributed to that?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, probably the single most important academic role model for me was my, is my college mentor, Mark Noll. I went to Wheaton College as an undergrad and when I started, I was an econ major, who was headed to law school. 

And at the end of my sophomore year, I took my first class with Mark. It was a class on the history of the Protestant Reformation. And I had grown up in a church that was a good church and was good at teaching the Bible, but I’d not learned a whole lot before college about anything that has to do with the Christian faith other than the Bible. So that class with Mark was very eye opening for me. A lot of light bulbs went off in my head. And again, I think God, in His providence, really used it in my life. 

I mean, it was such an important class to me. At the end of that term, I switched from being an econ major to being a history major with really no practical idea where that was going for me. I simply knew I wanted to learn more about the things that Mark was teaching me. So I took all the rest of his classes. 

And those of us who know him and probably a lot of the CSR folks either know him personally or know about him. So I’m not the only one in this world of ours who’s going to say these things about Mark. But he’s not only brilliant and disciplined and accomplished, but he’s one of the most charitable, personable, humble people you’ll ever meet. And I just always thought I want to be like him when I grow up. To this day, I think about that. 

And then I think more personally, my father and my wife have been important for me. When I was at an impressionable age as a kid, I watched my father leave a job without knowing what the next job was going to be and demonstrate a kind of courage and trust in the Lord that made a deep impression on me. 

And then I married a woman who when I was a young scholar, I would say things to her, like I don’t think we’re ever going to make any money. And everybody’s telling me there aren’t any jobs out there. I really don’t know what the future is. And her attitude was, well, that’s fine. It’ll be okay. Let’s do it. Let’s try to figure out what you’re supposed to do. Let’s pursue it. And she’s figuring out what she’s supposed to do at the same time. 

And my father’s example and my wife’s kind of trust in God, love of me demonstrated a kind of non-need for wealth and living the American dream and all that kind of thing. I mean, that freed me up as a young academic to become the kind of person that God was making me to be. It was huge in my life.

Todd Ream: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Thank you. 

I’m going to shift gears then and we’ve mentioned Jonathan Edwards and your work concerning Jonathan Edwards, I want to talk a little bit more about that now in a more formal sense if I may. In 2010, you published a book on Jonathan Edwards that carried the subtitle A Model of Faith and Thought. 

In what ways do faith and thought coexist in Edwards?

Douglas Sweeney: Well, they coexist in every way in Edwards. 

Let me say here, as I talk for a minute about Edwards, that I’m not an Edwardsian. I admire him a lot. I’ve learned a lot from him. But I don’t think we need to be just like him. And I’m certainly not just like him. I’m not a Calvinist, you know. 

But the thing that has always been the most compelling to me about him is his profound faith and belief in God that translated in his life into a commitment to thinking much more than most people do about God and about God’s work in his world and in the world, and about thinking about everything else in relation to God and that work in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever run across anybody else in the history of Christianity, who’s done it with that kind of intensity. Uh, and I found that compelling. 

When I was young, my teachers had me read a lot of Perry Miller. Not everybody in the CSR world knows who Perry Miller is, but he is a pretty famous American intellectual historian at Harvard who was an atheist. So he wasn’t a fan of Jonathan Edwards’ Christianity. But he was fascinated by Edwards. He was fascinated by this element in Edwards life and in Edwards thought.

And he used to describe Edwards as a God intoxicated man. Sometimes when I’m in churches, I translate that a little bit for a more pious Christian audience to say he was a God-centered man, but I usually tell them also that this famous guy at Harvard called Edwards a God intoxicated man. 

He was just so convinced of the reality, the beauty, the beauty of God was central for Edwards, the centrality, the practicality of God, the things of God, Edwards called them divine things, that he was just thinking about these things all the time. He had a faith that was always seeking understanding and it was an understanding that developed over the course of his life that didn’t wind up undermining his faith, rather it intensified his faith. 

And I think for people like us who teach in Christian colleges and universities, that’s a pretty inspiring and helpful example.

Todd Ream: Before coming back to asking more about Edwards, I want to, I want to talk and then tie this into Edwards legacy here about the term evangelical. It is used broadly in culture. It is part of how Beeson identifies itself, but in what way do you define that term in our culture today, as far as Beeson’s relationship to it?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, we define it religiously and not politically. And it’s important to say that today because evangelicalism has become so famously politicized in recent years. For us, evangelicalism has always been at its best, a renewal movement in the life of the larger Church. You know, it’s rooted in ancient Christianity. Theologically, it’s been shaped most profoundly by the Protestant Reformation. Most evangelicals, not all, but most would identify as Protestant. 

And then the evangelical movement, the modern evangelical movement really was catalyzed in the awakening and the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. So that’s the history, in relation to which we want to define ourselves as an interdenominational school. 

But as I think your very question kind of hinted at, these days, it’s important to tell everybody those things, because for so many people, evangelicalism is a kind of, it’s like the religious right, or it’s a politicized thing more than it’s a religious, spiritual, theological movement.

Todd Ream: In what ways then, if any, do you and your colleagues believe you’re responsible for curating such a definition?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, we feel responsible. We’re theologians at a school that identifies with the word evangelical. So we are responsible for doing it. 

Our approach at Beeson, the great tradition school that is Beeson, is to remind people that evangelicalism by itself is insufficient to kind of ground people in the Christian faith and nurture them with kind of fulsome Biblical, theological, spiritual, and other kinds of resources. 

So we want to be evangelical and, in my case, Lutheran and Christian in ways that go all the way back to the New Testament, the Church Fathers, and so on. Others at Beeson want to be evangelical and Wesleyan or Presbyterian or Baptist or non-denominational. So we’re not only evangelical, but we like the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing Christians and churches in bringing Christians together pretty consistently since the 18th century, across all the old ethnic, racial, and state church boundaries that used to divide Protestants from one another. So we’re in favor of more of that. 

And we have to be careful in articulating how it is we’re in favor of more of that, in this age, when everybody thinks being evangelical is just being somebody who’s voting for Donald Trump or something like that. 

Todd Ream: Coming back to Edwards then, in what ways do you believe the life of Jonathan Edwards may prove applicable to the lives of contemporary evangelicals and the paces of their days in our present culture?

Douglas Sweeney: Well, again, I think he could be helpful because he was such a deeply faithful intellectual. And those things went hand in hand for him. 

One of his 19th century descendants used to say things to his students at Yale like, there’s no poker in the truth. You know, Christians don’t have to be afraid of the pursuit of truth. And Edwards showed that. Edwards taught at Yale and Princeton. He was a brilliant intellectual, but he was more committed to Christ and the Church than he was to the academy. 

Nevertheless, all these things fit together for him. He was so convinced that all truth is God’s truth that he kind of shows us– he’s not the only one in history who’s ever done it but he’s the one you’re asking about– he shows us how you can be both robustly, vibrantly, faithfully Christian and fully engaged with the kind of learning that’s going on in the university in our day and age. 

And I think he shows us, and maybe this is more important in our day than it was even in his day, he shows us that Christian intellectuals don’t have to hide people from the truth to save their faith. And I think sometimes, modern evangelicals act as though we’re so afraid of the truth, we have to come up with our own version of experts in various fields who are safer than the ones who really are the world’s leading experts in the disciplines that are represented in our universities.

I think Edwards can help kind of encourage us to be the kinds of faithful Christians who don’t teach in a way so as to undermine students’ faith. We teach in part, in an effort to nurture students’ faith, but to nurture it with serious learning. Not with fake learning, not with hiding them from real learning, but with serious learning. I think Edwards shows us that can be done to the glory of God.

Todd Ream: In terms of our sort of last theme or questions for our conversation today, I want to turn to how that learning is done across the university and where a divinity school fits and contributes to that. 

So for example, Samford includes professional schools such as the McWhorter School of Pharmacy, Brock School of Business, and the Cumberland School of Law.

What relationship, if any, does the divinity school share with Samford’s other professional schools and then along with the undergraduate serving programs that also populate Samford University?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah, I think our relationship with the other schools and the university at large is good and getting better all the time. 

We have some faculty members who teach across campus in some of the other schools. Uh, we have some faculty members who were involved in interdisciplinary dialogue groups across campus. There’s a lot of informal fellowship that’s shared between the divinity school professors and other folks across campus. Of course, there’s common committee work, divinity school faculty are involved in some of the same university committees as everybody else. 

Most recently, we’ve had a racial justice task force across the university, where div school folks have been mixing it up with all kinds of other people from the university. We’ve had, as you know, Todd, because you spoke in it, a faith and learning initiative that’s getting a lot of support from the president and the provost these days, we’re all in it together. 

So the divinity people have specialized expertise in theological things, but that doesn’t trump everybody else all the time. We’re all trying to think faithfully and Christianly about our work in the disciplines.

You know, there’s room for improvement. One of the elements of my strategic plan for this season and Beeson’s institutional life is to integrate us even better in the life of the larger university. I want us to be friendly, supportive, and encouraging. I want us to be a spiritual and theological, positive leavening influence on folks all across the university. And we’ll keep working on that.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

The divinity school is a school of the Church. It’s also a school of the university. In your estimation, what opportunities emerge from such a dual identity? 

Douglas Sweeney: Well, we are in a unique position in the div school when it comes to the Church-academy relationship, because people in churches, tend more quickly to trust divinity school faculty than they trust– it’s not like there’s a lot of distrust of everybody else– but church people can relate to the faculty who are educating their pastors and who come and preach and teach in their churches and this kind of thing.

And I think that gives us a special opportunity from the div school, both to be out and about in the churches in the region, preaching and teaching and encouraging and edifying and blessing, and to blessing the university, spiritually, theologically, with the sorts of pastoral and theological resources that we have here. 

You know, there are tensions from time to time, especially when we start talking about critical issues that for some people are threatening to their faith. I’m somebody, not everybody’s like this, but I’m somebody who’s always trying to encourage faculty that there’s both no poker in the truth. All truth is God’s truth. You don’t have to be afraid of teaching students the real truth. 

But that is also emphasizing that there are better and worse ways of teaching the really difficult, critical issues to the sorts of young people, especially at the undergrad level, that populate our universities. You know, some Christian academics, let’s be honest, have been a little sophomoric about that, have kind of relished disabusing the students of the faith that their parents raised them with. 

I think if we can mature as scholars beyond that M.O., beyond that way of teaching, and find a way to combine serious, rigorous, honest, critical scholarship, with a kind of divine love and spiritual concern for nurturing students holistically and helping them to grow as Christian intellectuals in their own right, then the real blessings of the Christian university will be experienced and we’ll generate lots more trust in the community and in the churches and so on. And I think, again, this school people maybe are a little bit specially positioned to help in this area.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

Last set of questions then for our conversation today sort of builds on this, this understanding of divinity school, a school, a Church and school, a university. In what ways, if any, do you and your colleagues build bridges between those two worlds?

Douglas Sweeney: Well, this is an easy one to answer from the perspective of the divinity school. Our faculty are preaching and teaching in churches in our region every week every Sunday. We have lots of events on campus in the divinity school for the continuing education and fellowship and spiritual enrichment of the clergy in our region.

We have lots of clergy who come to the divinity school and enrich our life in divinity hall, rub shoulders with the students, and help us to mentor them. You know, in any divinity school, you’ll have some faculty who are career academics. 

And then you’ll also usually have a handful of faculty who’ve been clergy themselves for some time and get to a point in their careers where they like to be able to play a role in nurturing the next generation of clergy. Uh, so we, at Beeson, have a nice community of folks who are like that and working together, with the help of other pastors in town, to raise up the next generation of clergy for the U.S. 

One thing that I really like at Beeson that I would commend to folks at other schools and outside of divinity schools as well, we have a lay academy program at Beeson Divinity School. We put a handful of our best teachers every semester in classrooms with lay people from the region, who just love these classes. So they’re not classes that are just like seminary classes. There’s not a lot of homework. There’s not a test in the end. There’s not a grade. 

But they’re usually about six weeks long, two hours once a week for six weeks, and you get great teaching about theology, about the Bible, about all kinds of different things. And that contributes, of course, to the discipleship of the lay people who come. And when we have our best classroom teachers, doing these classes, I mean, we pack out the biggest classroom we have. And then this is available online for people as well. 

And then this is much less important, but I still like it as dean, a lot of these folks just decide they love Beeson Divinity School and they want to contribute money to Beeson Divinity School. They want to help out. They want to become closer friends of the divinity school.

So that’s a real special thing that’s going on here that I think you don’t have to be a divinity school to do. You know, I think there are people in the liberal arts, people in the other professional schools who could do a very similar thing from a Christian perspective in a way that would be very popular, and a great blessing to lots of people off campus.

Todd Ream: Yeah, great idea that others should take up that encouragement on your part to follow in their own ways and with their own constituents that they seek to serve. 

In what ways then do those bridge building capacities provide ways for Samford’s other professional schools to sort of consider and perhaps follow?

Douglas Sweeney: Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll just say a little bit more about what I was commending a minute ago. 

You’ve noted, we have a variety of schools. There are 10 different schools at Samford. We have a law school. We have a business school. We have a school of the arts. We have a liberal arts college. We have a nursing school etc… I would love to see, and not just at Samford, but at lots of other Christian colleges and universities, some of these lay programs where you get people who love teaching, they’re really good classroom teachers, and they can connect with regular people out in the community who want a higher level kind of teaching than sometimes is possible in a local congregation.

And really help them to see both what’s going on in your field of study, what’s going on in your profession, what are the issues that people ought to know about, and what does it mean to address these things as believing Christians and what difference does our faith, what difference does the Bible, what difference does our Christian worldview make for the ways in which we think about these things and respond to them and kind of act out in the world from them day-by-day. 

I think there’s tremendous, as yet unrealized potential, to make a difference in the world, both in the thinking and the behavior of lots of Christian folks in Christian universities.

Todd Ream: That’s an exceptional form of encouragement on which for us to end our time today. Thank you. 

Our guest has been Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Divinity and Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Douglas Sweeney: Thanks, Todd.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).