A Memorial Tribute to Shirley C. Guthrie

Kimberly Clayton Richter

When Shirley C. Guthrie, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary, died on October 23rd, the church lost a beloved theologian who greatly loved the church. Shirley taught at Columbia Seminary for forty years, from 1958 to 1997. I am one of hundreds of students who were privileged to learn from him during those years. Many of us have memories of Shirley teaching while poised, flamingo-like on one leg, the other propped up on the table before him and jingling the change in his pocket. We remember his mix of humility and kindness, balanced by occasional pauses of grace-filled exasperation, as he taught theology year after year after year to new students.

He was one of the most gifted professors I have ever known. Shirley could take complex theological doctrines and, with blackboard and chalk, begin to untangle their complexity with his unique clarity. With a B.A. degree from Austin College in his home state of Texas, a B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Th.D. from the University of Basel Switzerland, where he studied under Karl Barth, Shirley was committed to being a theologian in, and training theologians for, for the church. His book, Christian Doctrine, written as an Adult Sunday School Book in the old PCUS Covenant Life Curriculum, also helped many a seminarian through the Ordination Exams. Shirley used to tell us, however, that he would not be overly impressed if we quoted his book on exams for his class because, he claimed, the book had been written on a 10th grade level! Christian Doctrine has now been revised and reprinted and is still considered a classic text for Reformed theology. In almost every exam for his theology class, Shirley required us to show our theological mettle, but to do so in the language of the laity. An example of an exam question might go something like this: You are teaching the Middle School Sunday Class. One of your students asks, “How can God be three things all at the same time? I mean, I just don’t get how Jesus could be born and God could still be in heaven at the same time.” And off we’d go, writing an answer to satisfy a professor and a middle schooler at the same time.

His other books, Diversity in Faith—Unity in Christ and Always Being Reformed: Faith for a Fragmented World are further examples of his scholarly and practical commitments to the church. I was on Columbia’s campus in mid-July and ran into Shirley in the dining hall. We embraced and I asked him what he was currently working on. He told me he was beginning a new Adult Education Series on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. I expressed my joy and remarked that our congregations are longing for substantive, accessible adult study books. I wish we could have received this last gift he intended to give the church. It was only four weeks later that I got the news Shirley was terminally ill with cancer and in the care of hospice. With his wife Vivian and son Tom at his side, Shirley lived fully each day of those last weeks at peace in of his confidence in the goodness of God and the power of the resurrection. He received more than 500 cards and letters from colleagues, friends, and students during the last weeks of his life.

Though there are more stories about Shirley than can possibly be told this evening, I want to share two in closing because they tell something about the character of the man, the theologian, the friend of the church. First, I was in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta in the late 1990s when the Presbyteries were voting on an amendment affecting ordination standards in our Book of Order. At our Presbytery meeting, held in Trinity Presbyterian Church, the debate was long and contentious and did not go well in the minds of many of us. It was difficult day for all of us, divided as we were. Someone had had the foresight to ask Shirley to speak to us following the vote. Shirley stood and said that he sometimes thought God was tired of listening to all us. And then, humble himself, he humbled all of us by saying something like this: “God’s purposes are not dependent on or determined by a vote of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta or any other Presbytery, for that matter. God is still God and acts with freedom and grace.”

The second story is from the day-long celebration at Shirley’s retirement from of his forty years of service to Columbia Theological Seminary and the church at large. In the morning, several theologians spoke in a formal setting about Shirley’s contributions and influence in their lives and in theology. At lunch there was light-hearted laughter in the dining hall as someone roved about with a microphone letting ordinary folks offer remembrances and “Shirley stories.” Then in the afternoon, there was a panel discussion led by a student from each of the four decades of his teaching career. They talked about what they had learned from him at that particular time in history and the way it had shaped their ministry. Finally, late in the day, there was a time for Shirley to speak.

He stood and said, “Well, I hardly recognized myself today in all that was said. And I can assure you that Vivian did not recognize me!” And then, as if he could not let a teaching moment go by, Shirley said, “I guess I want to say that the most important thing I ever worked on failed.” He was talking about his experience of working with a committee on writing “A Declaration of Faith,” a document approved for study and use in worship, but never included in the PCUS’ official Book of Confessions. He said he enjoyed the years of work on it and was so proud of the Declaration they produced together, even though the church never adopted it. It was a grace-filled lesson for all us from this faithful teacher…one more lesson that our best contributions, our most important work or act of ministry will not necessarily be that which is outwardly rewarded by the church as a “success.”

Tonight the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is honored to remember Shirley C. Guthrie and to give thanks to God for his life and his many contributions to the church. Shirley served on our Board of Advisors from the very beginning. He wrote a chapter in our first publication, Renewing the Vision and was the keynote speaker for our 2002 Conference. And Shirley is one of the featured theologians in our new video, Turning Points. How glad we are that Shirley’s voice and wonderful face can still be heard and seen as we continue our own journeys in service to the church.

The very last section of A Declaration of Faith seems every bit as relevant and powerful a charge to us today as when the words were first written in 1977, and it has Shirley C. Guthrie written all over it. It is a charge to keep hope alive and strong as we practice theology in our lives and in our life together:

Hope gives us courage for the struggle.
The people of God have often misused God’s promises
as excuses for doing nothing about present evils.
But in Christ the new world has already broken in
and the old can no longer be tolerated.
We know our efforts cannot bring in God’s kingdom.
But hope plunges us into the struggle
for victories over evil that are possible now
in the world, the church, and our individual lives.
Hope gives us courage and energy
to contend against all opposition,
however invincible it may seem,
for the new world and the new humanity
that are surely coming.
Jesus is Lord!
He has been Lord from the beginning.
He will be Lord at the end.
Even now he is Lord.

Amen.

Thanks be to God for life and witness of Shirley C. Guthrie and for the faith we share.

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