Good questions, for the love of God: Interview with Justus Hunter

December 16th, 2015

Dr. Justus H. Hunter and I recently spoke about topics including faith, his theological research on the divine motive for the Incarnation, the art of teaching theology, and the ongoing relevance of medieval theology in contemporary Wesleyan Christianity. Dr. Hunter is Assistant Professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, where he teaches church history and theology.

Clifton Stringer: You grew up, I think, in a family with Christian and Wesleyan commitments. How did you come to embrace your family's faith in Jesus Christ as your own?

Justus H. Hunter

Justus Hunter: Indeed, I’m a Free Methodist pastor’s kid. I have been blessed with many great pastors, and my father is still an important one for me. I think the process you mention was an organic one. That is, I cannot isolate a key moment, and it is probably true that my faith remains my family’s in a rather significant sense; now we are trying to pass that faith down to our sons. I would say, though, that at some point while I was in college I sort of awakened to the fact that my faith in Christ was something really, deeply significant to my life, and was going to remain so.

CS: Your educational background includes Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky (both the college and the seminary), the University of Dayton (a Catholic and Marianist university) where you earned a second master's degree, and most recently SMU where you earned a Ph.D. What's the story here? How did you make the decision — some would say crazy decision — to be a theologian?

JH: Wow, that does sound rather odd! It was not the result of great foresight or a master plan. As an undergraduate, I ran out of classes my sophomore year and had to declare a major, so I went through the catalog and circled every class that sounded enjoyable to me. I ended up majoring in Bible and theology, and burned a lot of electives in classics and history. That meant, of course, that upon graduation I was virtually unemployable, so I found a job selling new Mazdas. It turns out that I can sell cars, but I don’t really enjoy selling cars. I would come home after work and sit down on the couch to read Karl Barth. After a few months of this, my wife finally suggested I go to seminary, which sounded like a good idea to me, and the next thing I knew I was graduating from SMU last August, a full decade after I started seminary! Becoming a theologian was simply the result of a long series of small discernments and decisions to follow the lead of God, wherever that led.

CS: Your work, like my own, focuses on medieval theologians. We both care a lot about the Franciscans and Dominicans studying and teaching at the University of Paris in the 13th century. And you're a United Methodist. It seems like that makes you sort of a rare bird. So I have to ask: What does the study of medieval scholastic theology contribute to contemporary Wesleyan and United Methodist theological conversations? What should it?

JH: This is a fair question, but it’s also one I want to challenge. One of the detrimental impacts of our denominationalism is the tendency for our scholarship to become quarantined to a set of figures, texts, or concepts from our disparate traditions. Methodists study the Wesleys, Catholics study Aquinas, Lutherans study Luther, and so on. Fair enough, I like John and Charles Wesley as much as the next guy, but it seems to me a rather peculiar arrangement. We would think it rather absurd if a historian of the automobile, simply because she drives a Camry, refused to study anything before 1982, the year Toyota rolled out that classic model. It seems particularly peculiar when we Protestants accept this way of divvying up our research so readily; after all, where were we in the 13th century? It seems to me that it’s a bad idea to conceive of our tradition in such restricted or discontinuous ways. Instead, we should seek to understand the figures, places, and debates that carried our tradition through time — even before our champions emerged. That means that some of us will have to figure out a way to conceive the study of scholasticism as a fittingly Methodist intellectual exercise. Like you, I want to be one of those people. And I hope that many others will do the same with other parts of our common tradition: Augustine, Maximus, Luther and so on. The more we see these sorts of projects cropping up alongside the excellent work going on in Wesleyan and Methodist Studies these days, the healthier our intellectual tradition will be.

CS: That's a very good answer, and rings true for me. I think the process of understanding what I'm doing studying 13th century figures has been bound up with discerning, as you perhaps hint, where Wesleyans were in the 13th century. I have some thoughts on it, as I bet you do, and I hope we can return to the topic sometime.

I want to ask now about your dissertation research. In your dissertation you study the motive for the Incarnation, God's motive in becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. How do the figures you study frame this question? What's at stake in it for them? And what might be at stake for us today as we think about this question ourselves?

JH: One of the great things about the scholastics we study is that they never underestimate the value of a good question. They seize on good questions, questions that cut to the core of the Christian faith. For the past couple of years I’ve been working on one of these good questions, usually put something like, “If Adam had not sinned, would the Son have become incarnate?” Ever since the question was raised, sometime in the 12th century as far as we can tell, theologians have been considering, answering and debating it.

The first thing to know about medieval scholasticism is that the simple, yes or no answer is not what is important. The arguments, those are where the action is. A good question like this provokes reflection, debate, and speculation, which together illumine the central mystery of our faith: the Incarnation. For instance, this question forces the theologian to reflect on the place of sin and redemption among all the reasons God decided to become incarnate, such as the union of our humanity with Christ’s humanity. To put it in a more biblical idiom, how do we hold together Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 1 that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” with his assertion in Ephesians 1 that “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” which would seem to imply Christ would come without the fall?

Now, my interest lies not so much in the specific answers, although I prefer a certain answer, but in the kind of reflection a good question like this demands. The scholastics are always careful, always precise, and that care and precision has one aim; they aim to speak humbly and therefore worthily of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. I love the worshipful yet rigorous spirit of these theologians and their pursuits to “take every thought captive to Christ,” as St. Paul puts it. And the motive for the Incarnation is a case in point — they are more interested in saving God’s freedom over creation and wisdom in action than they are in arriving at a definitive response to the question. There is something instructive there for those of us who aim to serve God with our mind.

CS: From your experience teaching at United Theological Seminary, what advice would you give those who serve God with their minds by teaching theology — whether it be in a classroom, church, living room or coffee shop? What does it mean to be a teacher of theology?

JH: Let’s do this in reverse. I begin my church history and theology classes with a reflection on the question, “Why study church history (or theology)?” After a somewhat tortuous analysis, it turns out that the answer is to know and love God, the same reason we study anything. I try to keep reminding my students, who may some day be my pastor, or my children’s pastor, that this is the reason we require all this study from them. It’s not about knowledge acquisition, and it’s not about becoming critical thinkers, but it’s about loving God with our minds. Jesus said it rather succinctly. But of course, what does that mean? It means, first of all, that there is a more basic fact about me as a teacher than that I have mastered a field of knowledge. The most basic fact about our teachers is that they love God. Christians claim that there is truth and wisdom in that fact. That means that I have to continually ask myself several rather challenging questions when I prepare and when I teach: What does it mean to be a teacher as a person who confesses his sins, who proclaims his belief in the Triune God alongside his fellow believers, who consumes the body and blood of Christ on Sunday, and so on. For whatever reason, I’ve always found a lot of fuel, a lot of energy, from these questions. When the information gets tedious or dense, as it does from time to time, or the criticism becomes difficult or terrifying, as it does from time to time, love pulls me along. That pulling love, in my experience, has a way of overflowing into your teaching, and it’s contagious. Students really seem to catch that energy and enthusiasm. So the short answer is, pray, fast, go to Eucharist and think about who that makes you. That applies as much to teaching theology as it does to balancing budgets or managing employees.

CS: Do you have any inklings you can share of where future research projects might take you?

JH: I have some ideas, but they are still developing. In the short term while I am seeing the current project to completion, I want to continue writing on the motive for the Incarnation, but in conversation with modern and contemporary theology. Beyond that, I have begun diving back into the 13th century, broadening out beyond the Incarnation to think about other divine actions, such as creation or the internal processions of the Trinity, as an expansion of the work begun on the motive for the Incarnation. Someday, I want all that work to feed into a bit of writing on what we can learn from our theological ancestors about the task of theology itself.

CS: I look forward to reading it. Peace be with you!

Be sure to take a look at Justus Hunter's posts over at Seedbed.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in theConverge Bible Studies series.

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