Early last week, theologian Bruce Fields lost a 21-month battle with brain cancer. I met him in the fall of 1990, near the beginning of my time as a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. With the exception of Doug Moo, he was the tallest faculty member, a basketball player who knew how to play the big man’s game. I remember learning that one of his coaches had been Chuck Daly (who went on to coach NBA championship teams with the Detroit Pistons) and asking him about his experience. He did not enjoy Daly’s approach of playing mind games and other forms of manipulation. I was hoping for some anecdotes about glory days under a future celebrity coach; Bruce revealed the more complicated and unsettling truth. I discovered that Bruce would tell you the truth as it was and did not seek easy or palatable answers to questions, whether about basketball, theological questions, or the world of evangelicalism.
When I arrived at Trinity, I was stepping into a world of theological education at an institution that placed a premium on academic excellence and publication. Before long, I found myself in those conversations with other students where you admire the achievements of certain faculty members. As I recall, not many brought Bruce into this conversation. While there are reasons these conversations emphasized some professors with more publications or prominence in the evangelical debates of the day, I know now that I missed the opportunity to learn how Bruce was walking through a unique experience: that of an African-American theology professor in an evangelical institution.
The faculty of evangelical institutions of higher education in the early 1990s included few nonwhite faculty in general and hardly any professors of Bible and theology. (Full disclosure: There still aren’t many of us. I doubt you will find even 30 of us.) Although I had many conversations with Bruce about questions minority students had at Trinity, and numerous theological conversations (including engagement with liberation theologies), for some reason it did not occur to me to ask how he was navigating this unique experience. For four years I was in the presence of a true pioneer; though we had later conversations after I joined our small club, there was an opportunity missed.
Though he is no longer with us, there is still much to learn from him. Bruce was a highly reflective and humble man. He had tremendous knowledge but his discourse never laid an emphasis on how much he knew. Rather, what I picked up from him was a perpetual state of inquiry. He never hesitated to share his convictions but seemed aware that there was always much more to be known; he wanted to tread the academic path with curiosity, always seeking to learn more. He had a learner’s mindset and patience with the process.
I once recall mentioning a future research idea, and his reply was “That will take some hard thinking.” I don’t think I fully understood what it meant to do hard thinking back then. But when I consider the careful and deliberate approach that Bruce displayed (perhaps especially when speaking, lecturing, or preaching), I think he meant that in our path of inquiry, we must be willing to take time to be still in the face of potential obstacles, seeing what is there and considering how God’s word can lead us to greater fidelity to God in word and deed. This deliberate, honest, and patient pursuit of truth would serve us well in a time that presents a perpetual temptation to speak quickly and get attention. I think Bruce might tell us that not all hot takes are bad, but we should leave many of our thoughts in the oven of reflection much longer.
Bruce was also more of a visionary than some recognize. About five years ago, he began to convene fellow African American theologians and pastors to consider together how to be people of evangelical conviction while paying greater attention to the questions of justice and flourishing often unaddressed in white evangelical institutions and communities. While some things have improved since Bruce’s early days at Trinity, Bruce was aware that a considerable horizon remained. The few times we gathered were refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. The baton now passes to me and others.
Bruce was deeply committed to his family and the church; when he spoke of them his love was on clear display. He understood that those commitments were the most important things. His life is a reminder that while there is value to the academic life, the more important is fidelity to our Triune God, to the church, and to our relationships. Obituaries and other tributes will say even more, but let us remember a person who truly fought the good fight and learn from his courageous, humble, and godly example.
Vincent Bacote is an associate professor of theology and the director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.
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