Ryan Baer, Pastor, Ridglea Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, TX:
When I was a prospective student, the admissions office arranged for me to meet with a few professors during my very first visit to Columbia Seminary. I sat down in Charlie Cousar’s office and we had a pleasant enough conversation. As we were finishing, I asked him if he had any recommendations of things to read before matriculating to seminary, and he said, “Go read Shirley’s book.”
I confess that at that precise moment, I had no idea who Shirley was or what her (sic) book was about, but I was too terrified to show my ignorance to Dr. Cousar. After our meeting, I wandered into the bookstore and surreptitiously inquired about a book by “Shirley Somebody,” and the very helpful work study student took me to directly to the shelf and put Christian Doctrine into my hands.
My early years as a disciple of Jesus were spent outside the Reformed theological tradition, as is the case with many of the people in the churches that I have pastored over the years. Christian Doctrine remains an invaluable tool for me both personally and professionally for introducing new generations of Christians to our Reformed way being the church.
Tom Cheatham, DMin ’87:
In one of my sermons about the formation and importance of the Bible, I noted: “People may ask whether you or I ‘believe in’ the Bible or if we’re ‘Bible believers.’ The late scholar Shirley Guthrie, Jr. had a fine answer in his book Christian Doctrine: ‘Strictly speaking, a Christian whose faith is grounded on God’s self-revelation has to say no to this common question—just when he takes the Bible seriously as the Word of God. Our faith is not in a book, but in the God we learn to know in this book. God himself, not the Bible, rules and judges and helps and saves us. We do not “believe in” Isaiah or Paul or John. We believe in Jesus Christ…. [The biblical writers] do not ask us to place our trust and hope and confidence in them, but in the God to whose speaking and acting they point. We believe the Bible just when we do not believe in the Bible, but in the living, acting, speaking God to whom the biblical writers introduce us’ (81-82).”
This passage has been the most important for me both personally and professionally, having come from a fundamentalist “Bible believer” background (though in the old PCUS!) in which the Bible was said to be “plenarily, verbally inspired” and every word was from God. Guthrie’s comments about the Bible confirmed and strengthened what I had discovered for myself in my first pastorate, namely, that Jesus is the Word of God, and it is he that is to be worshiped, not the Bible.
Will Christians, Pastor, Shady Grove Presbyterian Church, Memphis, TN:
The first two theology books I ever opened were John Leith’s Basic Christian Doctrine and Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine. Auburn University’s Religion Department consisted of one professor, and it didn’t offer much in the way of theological studies. A friend and I worked up the nerve to negotiate a for credit class on Reformed Theology, led by the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Frank Covington. The class was approved, but funding was not. Dr. Covington graciously agreed to teach the two of us anyway. Guthrie’s book opened to me a world of thought that I had previously given only a passing glance. The book was a first stone set on the path to seminary, and even now, is kept on my bookshelf within arms’ reach.
Will Coleman, PhD (pictured left of Shirley Guthrie above, taught at CTS 1992-2000), Associate Professor of Theology and Religions of the World, Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, GA:
I was introduced to both Christian Doctrine and Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. during first year as an MDiv student at Columbia Theological Seminary in 1981. At that time, I had not become a Presbyterian. During the course of learning “Reformed Theology,” which he and C. Benton Kline co-taught, I was also introduced to his method of teaching that was his landmark genius: how to translate and transform complex theological concepts and themes into readily understandable ones. I did not know at that time that years later, he and I would co-teach Christian theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. Nevertheless, as one of his many multi-generational students, I would absorb and digest this foundational method, incorporating it into my own pursuit, through his insistent encouragement, of graduate studies in systematic theology, philosophical theology and theological hermeneutics.
Reflecting on my years of exposure to his tutelage, I believe I understand the key to his genius both as a writer and teacher: his conversational approach to neo-orthodox, reformed “dialectical theology” (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) subverted one-sidedness and engendered a style of inquiry that views all theological concepts and themes as provisional, rather than infallible, while simultaneously sustaining the essential, historic truths they seek to convey.
For me, this is one of the reasons that Christian Doctrine endures the litmus test of time. It is precisely crafted to inform and educate the inquiring, non-theologically trained mind. It is an un-apologetic apologetic on the essential teachings (“doctrines”) of the Christian faith. It is un-apologetic in its affirmation and interpretation of “credimus” (“we believe”). At the same time (and dialectically), it seeks to give us a contemporary understanding of why we have believed what we believe. And further, it demonstrates how to do so within and organically changing context. It is trans-temporal, not bound or the past or fixated on the present. It is “eschatological” in the best sense of eschaton (“last things”). By this, I mean that it anticipates the ongoing conversations that will be essential for future generations of a “katholike” (“catholic” or “universal”) Christian faith.
Christian Doctrine is an extended catechesis. It is not a selection of or commentary on theological pronouncements. Rather, it is an invitation to ponder, understand and then affirm “Christian doctrine,” past, present and future. Thank you, Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. for your unique genius that endures and sustains what “we believe.”
Margit Ernst (taught at CTS 1999-2002), Theological Coordinator: Exhibition “Living (the) Reformation Worldwide”:
Being invited to write a few sentences on Shirley Guthrie’s book Christian Doctrine from my experience and perspective as a German theologian and sometime CTS faculty, lead to an interesting discovery:
When I think of my experiences with Shirley’s book, it is not the first time I read this book that comes to my mind immediately – even though I still remember vividly how much I loved reading it and how much I wished I had this book available to me as a theology student.
It is also not the countless hours I spent teaching this book, working through it together with CTS students, enjoying their sense of wonder as they start understanding the complexity, simplicity, and beauty of Systematic Theology. Not even my teaching theology classes together with Shirley and his book sprang to my mind as I pondered what to write for the anniversary of this truly epochal book in theological teaching.
No, what came to my mind was the group of German students in Goettingen, with whom I read this book even before I even had heard of Columbia Seminary or met Shirley. I had discovered Christian Doctrine during a stay at Princeton Seminary (and for quite some time I was convinced, that Shirley was a female theologian!). I had loved the book so much that I wanted to share it with the students I was working with at the time as their “studies inspector” for the “Reformiertes Studienhaus”. So there I was, sitting together with about ten students, week after week, working through Shirley’s book. Only a few of them had a background in theology, but all were eager to study their Christian faith and its relevance for their life. And I remember their delight, when they found out that they could actually read and understand the book – even though it was written in English and for Christians in a completely different context. For many of them, that was indeed a new experience: understanding a theology book and recognizing the impact those theological deliberations had on their life. And I do remember a female student, who, at the end of the semester, summarized her impression of Christian Doctrine and of Shirley in a way that touched me then and even today, when I remember those words: “Guthrie loves theology, and he loves his readers.” And this, I think, is the greatness of Shirley’s book in one sentence, from a student who had never met Shirley, whose first language was German, who had never even heard about Presbyterians before, but who nevertheless got the essence of the book and, in a way, also of Shirley. He loved theology, he loved his students and readers, and I would add: he loved teaching the love of God. No wonder this book is still teaching, 50 years after he first wrote it!
Thank you, Shirley, for this enduring gift of love.
Richard Floyd, Senior Associate Pastor for Engagement, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta:
“The truth is, I probably wouldn’t be a Presbyterian but for Guthrie’s book. I was raised Southern Baptist. At age 13 the pastor of the Presbyterian church gave me a dog-earned copy of Guthrie’s book (first edition), and I devoured it. The way Guthrie considered different perspectives and possibilities, differentiated between primary and secondary matters, seemed open to and comfortable with questions – all this was a massive breath of fresh air for me. I went through confirmation a year later, in large part because of his book.
In many ways I have Shirley to thank (or blame?) for where I’ve ended up.
Caroline Leach, Co-Pastor (retired), Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, Decatur, GA:
I came to seminary in 1969 after graduation. Little did I know or imagine that the firestorm over Guthrie and others was continuing. I was appalled at the treatment that some of my classmates and outside folks were putting Guthrie, Ben Kline, Charlie Cousar and a few others through. [In the] first theology course, Guthrie had a legal pad that he would use for his lectures. It did not take me long to realize that they were the chapters in Christian Doctrine!!! I was excited! But others in my class were not. Many of them went over to the newly formed PCA . . . But over those three years and beyond, Guthrie remained a friend and supporter of those if us who were more progressive. I remember his lecture on Eve and Adam and what was called ‘original sin’; by now, I am sitting on the front row to soak it all up and to get away from the back row hecklers. That lecture transformed my world—-women were not the ‘sinners,’ but part of God’s story of redemption for all people.
I, among others, pushed him to update his book with more inclusive language later on. I was so thankful he did, so I could continue to use it in study groups and more. We always made sure our church interns had a copy and would challenge them to use it as we had our weekly meetings.
Rachel Parsons, chaplain, Presbyterian College:
I had my first introduction to Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine, when I took Reformed Theology in college. It provided an accessible and even fun introduction to systematic theology. I remember writing “grades are idolatry” in the margins of my final test, and I think Dr. Hobbie appreciated the cheek. When I came to visit Columbia Seminary, I was delighted for the opportunity to sit in one of Dr. Guthrie’s classes. He was as engaging as I hoped. At the end of the lecture, someone raised their hand to ask a question. He said, “I can’t really hear you or see you, so I am just going to answer the questions people usually ask.” I began seminary at Columbia the next fall.
During my first year at CTS, Dr. Guthrie passed away. Even though I never had the opportunity to have him as a professor, his wit and wisdom has become an essential tool for my ministry. Through these pages I learned to unpack deep truths, sit in the questions, and play with the ideas that shape our faith. When church members where struggling to understand the atonement, I pulled out Christian Doctrine. When I taught Pastoral Care to undergraduate students, I turned to his chapter on “The Problem of Evil.” It has been a touchstone for me throughout countless conversations in ministry.
Just as many of my Dad’s books now sit on my office shelves, hopefully someday I will pass my well-worn copy of Christian Doctrine on to one of my children. If it does not hold up that long, I imagine I will have to get them a copy of this anniversary edition.
Nibs Stroupe, Co-Pastor (retired), Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, Decatur, GA:
I was ordained in the PCUS in 1975, prior to the ordination exams being made mandatory after reunion in 1983. But, my home presbytery in Arkansas was a “union” presbytery, meaning that it served both the PCUS and the UPCUSA. I learned to my dismay in 1974 that I would have to take the UPCUSA national ordination exams, which I had not prepared for at all. I had taken several courses with Shirley at CTS, so I did a quick re-read of CD to get ready, and it worked – I passed the ord exams with flying colors!
Billy Wade, Pastor (retired), First Presbyterian Church of Covington, GA:
Shirley always said that his book, Christian Doctrine, was meant to be for Sunday school classes, rather than seminary classes. But, most of us had a copy handy. When I was growing up, my parents had several copies on their bookshelves. My father, a Presbyterian elder, used it for teaching Sunday school.
But, it was also the textbook for a theology class I took as a Religion major at Presbyterian College. When I was asked to preach at a small church in the countryside near the college, I focused on a chapter in Christian Doctrine. Through the years, I have kept a worn copy, stuffed with letters from Shirley, close by, not only for help in teaching Sunday school and leading Bible studies, but as a reference for many of my sermons.
It reads like he taught. I can hear his voice when I read it, laying out the historical background of a theological issue, giving the insights and the problems of various views, including Reformed views; then finally suggesting how the issue informs our private and public lives.
Shirley kept reminding us that the human attempt to speak of God and what God is doing in the world is always limited by our sinfulness, our particular world view, our humanity. Yet we continue to seek to make a faithful witness in our context. As our society and the world changed, Shirley revised the book, offering fresh insights into the old, old story and the God whose Spirit continues to do new things.
Andy Walton, Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Clearwater, FL:
During the mid to late 1990s, I was an ordination exam reader in the Atlanta reading group. In those days before online exams, we all came together each year in a hotel near the Atlanta airport, sat in a big room together and graded ordination exams for three days. Some of the standing rules were that no talking, laughter, groaning, etc. was permitted while grading. During breaks we were not to discuss any particular exam with other readers until we completed all of that section (i.e. exegesis, theology, polity, etc.).
While reading theology exams one day, one of the readers, CTS president emeritus Davidson Philips, belly laughed, prompting others to respond, “What is it?” Finally, the group’s convener relented and said, “Ok, Dr. Philips, tell us what’s so funny.” Dr. Philips read the beginning of a sentence from the exam he was grading: “According to Shirley Guthrie in his book on Christian doctrine, the title of which I can’t recall…”
Just like any refrigerator is a Frigidaire, to Presbyterian seminarians (and many others) Christian Doctrine is Shirley Guthrie’s book!
The CLL’s 2019 Guthrie Scholars Program is accepting applications! Click here to register.
Feel free to add your own quote about Shirley Guthrie and Christian Doctrine below!