James Forbes and a reflection on Yale Divinity School

Last night I listened to a lecture from Yale Divinity School by James Forbes, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. It’s a sermon, really, not a lecture. As I listened I was reminded how much I was formed by, and am grateful still for the instruction, traditions, graceful scholarship, commitment to parish ministry and ecumenical vision of Yale Divinity School. Studying there was not the recommended path to ordination in the Lutheran church for students of my age–as it is not today–but it was right for me. I have never regretted for one minute my decision to go there, even though most of my colleagues attended one of our Lutheran seminaries. The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, located administratively between the divinity school and the school of music, drew Kirsten to New Haven. We met there.
When I attended YDS, the faculty included a roster of the most distinguished and famously published Lutheran teachers at one place in this country. Historian George Lindbeck was my academic advisor; philosopher Paul Holmer was my primary teacher (Cornell West was hired right after Holmer retired), ethicist Gene Outka, historian Sidney Ahlstrom, New Testament scholar Nihls Alstrup Dahl were all Lutherans. Jaroslav Pelkan was there, working primarily with Ph.D. students. Just before I arrived, Dean Robert C. Johnson (a Presbyterian) began teaching a course on the theology of Martin Luther, which was always fully enrolled, as I recall. Johnson told us that he could not imagine YDS without a core course on Luther’s theology. Roland Bainton, who wrote Here I Stand, the best-selling biography of Martin Luther, was in his late eighties in the first years of my seminary education. At the middle of the day he would peddle his custom-made 16-speed bicycle up the hill from Sterling Library to have lunch with students in the Divinity School refectory.
Unexpected gifts of YDS came to me from teachers who spoke from the other main corners of the Christian church. There were Roman Catholics: Henri Nouwen, Sister Margaret Farley, known for her controversial (and Vatican censured) work on sexual ethics; the great liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh, a Benedictine monk who taught the principles of worship. Theologians David Kelsey, Hans Frei and Brevard Childs who came from the Reformed tradition, I believe. There were New England Congregationalists such as Bainton, biblical scholar Davie Napier and Dean Harry Adams; and Episcopalians Rowan Greer, who taught the Early Church Fathers, and Dean Kelly Clark in his seersucker blazer, blue jeans and boat shoes.
Finally (and, I’m thinking tonight, most importantly) there was Yale Divinity School’s solid connection to the historic black churches. During my years at YDS there was always at least one visiting preaching teacher from a black church in New York City. The thought must have been that in order to understand American Christian churches, students needed to become acquainted with, and hear from, that bright and boisterous corner of the Protestant world. James Forbes still represents that powerful branch of Christian thought and practice in America. Here’s the link to the lecture. http://new.livestream.com/yaledivinityschool/forbes Forbes begins about 17 minutes into the video.

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