Connected Education

Sometimes teaching requires pastoring.

Image: JEFF WILSON / JOHN DAVID PITTMAN

Connected Education

Sometimes teaching requires pastoring.

No student expects a relationship with a professor to be the primary shaping influence on her path to higher education. In fact, some seminary students see theological education as largely intellectual, impersonal, and detached from life and ministry—a pursuit of the mind, not the soul or body. But others in seminary have found it to be much more holistic, and relationships between students and faculty members, along with interactions that model how to integrate knowledge with the rest of life, are essential to this process.

Catherine Arnsperger experienced this connected education under the seasoned, pastoral oversight of Dr. Glenn Kreider at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he has been a systematic theology professor for over two decades. Catherine took her first systematic theology class with Dr. Kreider in the fall of 2013. Early in her seminary career, the two developed a relationship that not only enhanced Catherine’s education but brought their families together and resulted in radical transformation.

Arnsperger: When I arrived at seminary, I had a skewed view of God. I suppose everyone has an inaccurate understanding of God simply because we are finite humans living this side of the resurrection. Our impressions are like a crayon drawing done by a child: we do the best we can, concentrating and coloring diligently, but even still our finished product only faintly resembles the object itself. My drawing rendered God without a heart. If you tried to point out that I had a heartless God, I’d have quickly told you about God’s sovereignty, omnipresence, power, and glory, and I would verbal assent to his love, mercy, and grace. My view of God was skewed—I just didn’t know yet.

I entered seminary in my late thirties following a career in business consulting and a number of years leading a nonprofit. My husband was a busy executive and we were raising three small sons. As much as I love them, I was starving for something I couldn’t quite identify. Since childhood, I have had a voracious appetite for all things theological. I was the one asking unanswerable questions to unsuspecting Sunday school teachers and pastors. Few were willing or able to answer the queries I posed, and I was regularly left to find the answers on my own. Because the time was right and my family was supportive, I finally enrolled in seminary, thrilled that I was going to study with people who had questions like mine.

Kreider: I arrived at seminary with a skewed view of God. I grew up in a Christian home and community where spirituality was largely defined as morality, the Bible was a book of rules, and God was an angry cosmic judge. Life was to be endured, waiting for the opportunity to go to heaven, and God was always watching to be sure his children did not misbehave. To be fair, this skewed view might not be what was taught, but it is what I learned.

Then I discovered divine sovereignty, not the healthy view that a gracious God is working all things together for good but in the view that God is a holy and righteous judge who can never be in the presence of sin and sinners. Disobedience brings condemnation and judgment, disappointing God brings shame and guilt, and failing to walk in consistent holiness means God is severely disappointed with me. This fit well and provided theological support for what I had learned as a child. I began teaching with this skewed view of God.

Several things led to changes in my thinking. One was the realization that I could never be good enough to earn God’s favor. I came to appreciate the implications of grace, unmerited favor. I read, as if for the first time, God’s description of himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6–7, ESV). I began to lean into this God and found him to be what he claims. Finally, a gentle nudge from a student pointed me to Romans 2:4 and encouraged me to consider that God’s kindness is what leads to repentance, not fear of divine wrath.

Arnsperger: Dr. Kreider has always invited vulnerability. In my first class with him, he allowed me to dump all of my theological junk on the table, and, with arrogance that masked my deepest fears, I demanded answers to the unanswerable.

While Dr. Kreider felt like a safe enough space for my questions, I didn’t realize he was also a true teacher: a theological dueling partner who patiently crossed swords with me for years, a pastor who cared for my family during our darkest season, a relentless critic of my faulty and careless assumptions who spurred me on in excellence, and a friend who was quick to laugh with me (and at me). Dr. Kreider is a teacher whose end I still have yet to meet.

I had always been on the lookout for someone I could be unguarded around as I allowed them to meddle with my view of God—and trust them to do it properly. Maybe I knew then I was lacking a critical component of my faith, because I knew he had something I was missing. And proving himself a deft meddler, he was one of the few willing to weather my voracious appetite for theological information and endless questions.

Kreider: The first class Catherine took with me was online, and we interacted more than is normal in such a setting. We shared an appreciation for good music, especially U2. We discussed concert experiences and favorite songs, as well as theological questions the course material surfaced. But we had never met in person—until that day.

In the middle of a different class on campus, Catherine emailed me a link to an article that supported her position that God causes everything that happens in the world, including evil. For reasons I did not understand then and don’t really understand now, I sent a short response: “Come to my office.” Although I’m known for short emails, I don’t often reply in commands. She immediately left class and spent the next couple of hours in my office trying to convince me that her view of God was correct.

Arnsperger: When I arrived at seminary, I brought my crayon drawing of God that overemphasized his sovereignty and minimized all other attributes. The sovereignty of God was the lens through which I saw and understood his entire character. I prioritized his love and kindness under sovereignty, as if God is more sovereign than loving. My drawing was a caricature at best.

As with so many of us, my skewed view was the product of my experiences. My obsession with sovereignty grew after my husband, Dan, and I unexpectedly lost our first child at birth in 2005. I found few satisfactory answers for my pain. Eventually, I gleaned that I was to accept the impossible tension that God is good and sovereign, and if we were to ever understand our daughter’s death, it would be in his timing. But this wasn’t enough for me. I was unable to rest on the love and kindness of God while still trusting his prevailing wisdom. I had too much pain.

Trying to make sense of our personal tragedy, I tinkered with my theology, the one area I felt control over my brokenness. It was an elaborate effort, rooted in pain, to fit God into a box of my own making. I needed answers to my why questions, and an impersonal, distant, yet sovereign deity seemed to work. Despite my confidence in my theological system, it was a shaky house of cards. There was no place for a loving, good God. And because his love felt out of reach, I was forced to build more theological constructs to accommodate this perception. This led to a coldness in me, a rigidity, a hardness Dr. Kreider always sensed.

Kreider: Catherine’s way of dealing with her daughter’s death was to attribute it to God. She said to me, “God needed her more than me. God took her.” The article she sent argued that very point: Everything that happens comes from the hand of God, and he is responsible for both the good and the evil. With that article, she now had what she needed—a widely respected theological voice who supported her view. But two problems were obvious to me: she was pitting one attribute against another, and she was equivocating on the character of God. For Catherine, God’s sovereignty means God causes everything that happens. Thus, God is the cause of both good and evil, and he ceases to be only good.

Over the next couple of days, we talked for several hours. Some of the conversations were heated as Catherine held firmly to her position. Despite her intensity, I would not and could not back down or yield the discussion. Too much was at stake. If God is not good all the time then he is really not good at all. And a god who is not good cannot be trusted. I had seldom had a dialogue partner who would not quit, who would not capitulate so the battle could end. This woman was persistent. And stubborn. And wrong.

Though I have a long history of wanting to be right, naively believing that I can win every argument, this was different. Winning was not my goal. I was deeply moved by a mother who seemed unable to grieve, unable to cry, who kept repeating that God’s sovereignty meant that God killed her daughter. Tears would stream down my face, but there was no emotion from her. The closer I got to the core of her pain, the less passionate was her response.

Never had I had such an experience. Never had a student responded in this way. Never had I tried so hard to break through a shell like hers. And I wasn’t even sure why. At least not yet.

Arnsperger: Three years into seminary, devastation struck again, revealing the tight grasp I still had on faulty theology. My marriage faltered, and my heart’s rigidity created more conflict with my husband. Dr. Kreider had tried to warn me; as he predicted, faith in a distant and detached deity makes a cold and brittle believer. My theological system, which arranged God’s sovereignty over all else, finally collapsed. It might be better to say it was smashed to smithereens, splinters flying in all directions. All I knew was that I was in tremendous pain and I was furious.

During that dark season, kindness overwhelmed my husband and me. Dr. Kreider lovingly pastored us, and for as brilliant as he is at theological swordplay, he truly excels at tenderness. He mentored Dan and taught us theological systems that emphasize God’s love as a part of their foundations. Though before he’d been necessarily firm, he was now very gentle with me. He was patient as I worked through reconstructing my theology and as my husband and I rebuilt our marriage. He had hope for us. He helped shoulder the burden of our doubts and carried our faith when we were unable.

Kreider: Upon meeting Dan the next winter while Catherine was on campus taking classes, I began to understand God’s plan in bringing our families together. As I watched the couple interact, I noticed tension bubble up, especially when discussing the character of God or the problem of evil.

Theological educators should serve in a pastoral capacity—it is one of our greatest responsibilities and joys. After all, education is not simply the transfer of information but also the encouragement toward growth, godliness, and character development. Theology is not an ivory-tower task because good theology is inherently practical. It works in the lives of professors and students and makes a positive difference in the world.

Pastoring from a distance is challenging, but this couple was different. We exchanged emails; mine short and Catherine’s quite long. And when I was in town or they were in Dallas, we saw each other. I prayed for them, grieved for them, and only much later did I understand how tenuous the relationship was during their worst. Many factors negatively impact marriages, but I warn my students that bad theology can do the worst damage. It’s more than cerebral—it hurts people, even those we love most.

Arnsperger: During my worst, I couldn’t see what was clear to everyone else: Without God’s experiential love permeating every fiber of my being, I was going to continue to stagger under the weight of emotional pain. Unfortunately, my broken theological system did not allow for experiencing God’s love in tangible ways. If I had continued to cling to it, I would only experience life through pain or fear, and as a result I would live under the threat of loneliness.

But God didn’t abandon me to my defective theology. He didn’t leave me believing he was heartless. Through Dr. Kreider’s consistent patience and presence, it was like I had a new sheet of paper and fresh crayons and God was saying, “Want to draw a picture? Let’s do this one together.”

The combination of my professor-turned-pastor and hours of marriage therapy created a turning point. Through the kindness of others, God revealed that when we see himthrough the lens of his love, his sovereignty is actually more amazing and more powerful. And when his sovereignty seems to contradict our expectations, we can remain sure, unafraid, and trusting because we are loved. I made quite a mess of my life when I tried to disregard God’s love, but thankfully, he does not allow us to drown in terrible theology. He shows up in the flesh as he brings people to minister to our broken hearts through the power of his Spirit. Dr. Kreider was Jesus in the flesh for Dan and me.

Kreider: Life is meant to be lived together. Christians are not exempt from this truth. We need one another. It is impossible to fulfill the biblical mandate to love one another without being in relationship. Even relationships with sparks shape and change us. In these places, we can embrace and incarnate the call to love God and love others.

In the midst of pain, grief, and sorrow, we cling to the hope that God is both good and sovereign. I remain convinced of this. His sovereignty does not demand that he cause that which is not good, and his goodness does not demand that he is untouched by our suffering. God knows our pain, and he cares deeply. Because of God’s posture toward us, it is a privilege to carry someone else’s burdens, to hold each other, to believe for each other, and to be the hands and feet of a good God to each other.

Catherine Taeger Arnsperger holds an MA from Dallas Theological Seminary. Before seminary, Catherine was a management consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers followed by a number of years as an executive director of a multi-site pregnancy center. When she isn’t pursuing the answer to one of her endless theology questions, she and her husband, Dan, enjoy raising their three sons in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Glenn Kreider is professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and editor in chief of Bibliotheca Sacra. He is the author or editor of several books, including God with Us (P&R) and, with Michael Svigel, A Practical Primer on Theological Method (Zondervan). He and his wife, Janice, enjoy live music, bold coffee, and good stories.

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