During the course of your years in seminary, you will spend hundreds of hours with a small number of men and women whose instruction, counsel, theology, and mere presence will have an immeasurable influence on the rest of your life. Whether you like or dislike, agree or disagree with them, your life and ministry will be shaped by those who stand at the head of the class and whom we call Professor. Some you may know—or at least know of—before ever taking a seat in your first class; you may even have chosen your school so that you could sit under their instruction. Others, though, are strangers, known to you only through their CV or bio on the school website, or through the input of other students. In a few years you will don cap and gown, receive your hard-earned diploma, and walk away from school for the last time. With a hug or handshake, words of congratulations and gratitude, you will say goodbye to the Profs—some of whom you will now call friend—with only the memories of their instruction and a few dozen notebooks. But who are these influencers, and what might you learn from them that appears on no syllabus? Let me introduce you to one of my professors, Dr. Gerry Breshears.
Affectionately (and a tad fearfully) known as “scary Gerry,” Dr. Breshears is Professor of Systematic Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he has taught for over thirty years. You probably will not earn a degree from Western without sitting for at least one semester in one of his classes. It might be possible to avoid him, to take a less challenging class, but don’t.
Although the three primary theology courses are designed to help students form a coherent systematic theology, Gerry’s quiet tutelage is formed not primarily in the halls of academia but in a life given to practicing theology in the mess and muck of the real world. As a result, the systematic theology he teaches is eminently practical. I especially appreciate Gerry’s ability to teach a wide variety of theological viewpoints, not merely his own; and in ways that allowed students to better articulate their own views. His extensive experience with different cultures and theologies—he has taught in eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines, in addition to the U.S. and Canada—has given Gerry a broad perspective on the diverse beliefs within the worldwide Christian church. His concern is never for mere agreement, but always for a solidly biblical defense. Whether in the classroom or with his scholarly associates in the Evangelical Theological Society (of which he is a former president), Gerry is quick to ask his favorite question, “where is that in the Bible?” And if the answer is not found there, then he encourages a caveat to the conviction: “It seems to me that….” On one particular matter, Gerry admitted that his theology had shifted over the three decades since he first began teaching. And in a setting weighted by younger students from conservative theological backgrounds, such a biblically-oriented openness breathed a fresh breath into the classroom, encouraging both rigorous study and a light grasp of our dogmas.
The clearest and most challenging element of theology that has stuck with me from Gerry’s classes is his teaching on the sovereignty of God. Addressing such matters as God’s will and the level and type of involvement he has in our daily lives, the question of God’s sovereignty lies at the heart of nearly all our concerns. It impacts our prayers, decision-making, and how we face suffering and evil. Gerry presents two views—the “script theory” and the “ship theory”—that are simple enough to hold onto with ease, yet complex enough that each seems just slightly dissatisfying!
In short, Gerry Breshears has an uncanny ability to help students work out their theology biblically while at the same time offering no easy answers. I think his favorite answer to any “either/or” question is a simple and unsatisfying, “yes.” Is it this or that? Yes. Did God do this to me or is it the result of my decision? Yes. Whether in the counseling office or the classroom, those are not the answers we want. Yet with great care, compassion, and grace, Gerry will never allow us to be settle for simple answers where none truly exist. And for that, I am deeply and eternally grateful.
About the author: Randy Ehle earned a Master of Arts in Ministry and Leadership from Western Seminary in 2014, attending both the main campus in Portland, Oregon (three years) and the Sacramento, California campus (five years!). After five years as an associate pastor in northern California, Randy and his family moved to San Diego, both to care for an ill sister and to search for a lead pastor role. He is presently delivering messages of another sort—as a letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service—and honing his writing skills through his blog, “The Rushed Contemplative.” Follow Randy on Twitter @randehle or check out his own blog, The Rushed Contemplative, at www.randehle.com.