A Generous Scholar-Priest
  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rest in Peace, Rise in Glory: Rowan A. Greer III

By Christopher A. Beeley

Last month marked the passing of a great scholar-priest of the Church. On March 17, the Rev. Prof. Rowan A. Greer III of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale died after several years of on-and-off illness. He was 79. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Greer studied at Yale College, General Theological Seminary, and Yale Graduate School, from which he earned his PhD in 1965. He then taught at Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale for nearly 35 years, first as a professor of New Testament and eventually as the Walter H. Gray Professor of Anglican Studies.

Generations of Berkeley and Yale graduates remember Greer for his devotion to his students, his deep erudition, and his great sense of humor. Following his ordination as a priest in 1960, he served St. Paul’s Church, Fairfield, Connecticut, Christ Church and St. Thomas’ Church, New Haven, and St. Peter’s Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as the chaplaincy of Edinburgh Theological College and many years in St. Luke’s Chapel at Berkeley.

Greer is widely known among his former students as a devoted teacher and a model of the Anglican scholar-priest. He taught staple courses in patristic theology, the history of biblical interpretation, Church history, the British Anglican tradition, the history of pastoral ministry and spirituality, and patristic Greek. His courses were popular, and he often taught more of them than was required. As a teacher Greer was exceedingly generous. He lectured effortlessly on a broad range of subjects and typically returned student papers with several pages of written comments. Unsurprisingly for someone with his faith and erudition, his preaching was always thoughtful, inspiring, and deeply biblical.

For most of his adulthood Greer pursued the semi-monastic life of a scholar within the seminary community, faithfully keeping to the daily routine of chapel, study, and classroom, with regular walks in East Rock Park, and always conducting himself with a noble reserve. Whether in the classroom, the office, or the park, Rowan could usually be found in the company of one of his golden retrievers, MacGregor, Montgomery, or Macintosh. In chapel, when he was not celebrating the Eucharist, he faithfully prayed with the community, sitting in the back row and following the readings in his Syriac, Hebrew, or Greek Bible.

Greer helped to train hundreds of Episcopal and other Christian clergy and lay leaders, and a number of doctoral students, many of whom are now teaching the next generation and some of whom have already retired. Stanley Hauerwas spoke for many when he identified Greer as the faculty member who had had the greatest influence on his general outlook, in his essay “Enduring, or, How Rowan Greer Taught Me to Read” written for Greer’s Festschrift, Reading in Christian Communities: Essays on Interpretation in the Early Church (Notre Dame, 2002), edited by David Brakke and Charles Bobertz. Although Greer abhorred praise and recognition, many others followed suit. Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example, lauded Greer’s volume on Origen of Alexandria.

Despite his cloistered lifestyle, Greer had a formative influence on the study of patristics in the United States, and his scholarship garnered an international reputation. He began as a specialist in Antiochene Christology. His first book, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Exegete and Theologian (Faith Press, 1961), which appeared four years prior to his PhD dissertation, “The Antiochene Exegesis of Hebrews,” and his 1966 article “The Antiochene Christology of Diodore of Tarsus” remain classic works on the subject.

Yet Greer’s scholarship had its greatest influence in two related areas: patristic biblical interpretation and the spiritual and pastoral theology of the early Church. Greer adeptly showed the way in which early Christian biblical interpretation constantly involves theological, ecclesial, and social commitments, and that those commitments are in turn informed by the community’s reading of Scripture. Greer’s work in patristic exegesis was pioneering. For many years his treatment in Early Biblical Interpretation (Westminster, 1986), written with James Kugel of Harvard, was the most reliable account of early Christian hermeneutics. His insight into patristic exegetical methods was in many ways ahead of its time. In the 1960s and ’70s, while others were championing the supposedly objective potential of historical-critical scholarship, Greer was already signaling the sort of community-based and integrative hermeneutics that many of us now take for granted after the “linguistic turn” and the ascendancy of various theoretical approaches.

The second major area of Greer’s influence lies in the spiritual and pastoral dimension of early Christian theology. From his 1974 article on early Christian hospitality to his award-winning book Christian Hope and Christian Life: Raids on the Inarticulate (Crossroad, 2001: Association of Theological Booksellers’ 2001 Book of the Year), Greer gave sustained attention to the deep continuities that exist between Christian theology and Christianity as a social phenomenon. The fullest expression of the theme came in Greer’s monograph Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Penn State, 1986), a work that ranges from classical soteriology to the practicalities of family, hospitality, and Christian politics. As Greer put it, “Theology in the early Church was always directly or indirectly concerned with the common life of Christians. … And even more the technical aspects of early Christian theology were designed to explain this Christ and his significance” (p. vii).

A few years earlier he had published a work that covers both subjects, his translation and introductory essay on Origen for the Classics of Western Spirituality series, a much-used book still treasured by many readers (Paulist, 1979). The theme of theological spirituality reappears again in Christian Hope and Christian Life, which covers Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, John Donne, and Jeremy Taylor and is one of the finest recent works on Christian eschatology. It is no accident that Greer was chosen to write the chapter on “Pastoral Care and Discipline” for the new Cambridge History of Christianity (2007, vol. 2).

Greer argued that early Christian theology prior to the fifth century was initially framed by the late-ancient quest for virtue, after which Augustine caused a shift of emphasis from human striving to the sovereignty of God. The Antiochenes’ emphasis on the full and independently existing humanity of Christ appealed to Greer’s interest in moral freedom. While this view of the period no longer holds sway — Augustine too was deeply influenced by late-ancient eudaimonism and the quest for personal virtue, and many earlier theologians held a strong doctrine of prevenient and persevering grace — Greer did an enormous service to both Church and academy by showing the communal and ecclesial dimension of early Christian biblical interpretation and the social, ethical, and pastoral significance of early Christian theology. Among his many other works are The Captain of Our Salvation: A Study in the Patristic Exegesis of Hebrews (Mohr/Siebeck, 1973), The Sermon on the Mount, with an Introduction, Parallel Texts, Commentaries (Oxford Limited Editions Club, 1977), Fear of Freedom: A Study of Miracles in the Roman Imperial Church (Penn State, 1989), and Anglican Approaches to Scripture: From the Reformation to the Present (Crossroad, 2006).

Perhaps his greatest scholarly gift was as a translator of patristic texts. Students were often surprised to notice that, when Rowan was fluidly reading a biblical text in a slightly recognizable translation, there was only a Greek or Hebrew Bible in his hand. His undergraduate degree was in Classics, and he remained a disciplined philologist until his dying day. After his retirement from teaching in 2001, he continued to publish excellent translations of early Christian texts, including a set of commentaries, The “Belly-Myther” of Endor: Interpretations of 1 Kingdoms 28 in the Early Church, with Margaret Mitchell (Brill, 2007), and, returning to the subject of his first book published nearly 50 years prior, Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Commentaries on the Minor Epistles of Paul (Brill, 2010).

Together with Origen and the Antiochene theologians (and related to both in interesting ways), Greer had a special interest in Gregory of Nyssa. On entering his office, amidst clouds of pipe smoke and the dog curled up on the floor, one could often find a Greek volume of the Gregorii Nysseni Opera propped up on the writing table before a thick yellow tablet of notes. Gregory of Nyssa formed a major part of Broken Lights and Christian Hope, and, as I discovered almost accidentally over lunch two years ago, Greer had been preparing a new set of translations and a synoptic essay on Gregory’s understanding of Christian salvation. Thanks to the assistance of another former student, J. Warren Smith of Duke Divinity School, the book will appear later this year as One Path for All: Gregory of Nyssa on the Christian Life and Human Destiny (Cascade).

In the end, I am struck most of all by the encyclopedic breadth of his knowledge and his unflagging devotion to the craft of scholarly priesthood. Rowan had such an exemplary gift for making complicated matters seem clear that the effect was often deceptive. To the uninitiated it was rarely apparent just how much he had read and absorbed, when in fact he had mastered the fields of New Testament criticism, early Church theology and history, modern English church history, and much else besides, with a breadth of expertise that few academics today achieve. Rowan also loved English literature and drama. He read widely in the English canon, and in the summers he would drive to Canada with his brother and sister-in-law to attend the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Life at the Divinity School was not always easy for Rowan. He witnessed several periods of major transition and turmoil, from Berkeley’s initial affiliation with Yale in 1971 through the drive to save the Quad and the renovations and controversies of the 1990s. But Rowan proved to be steadier than they were. He persevered untiringly until his retirement, serving the school in the way he knew best, as a scholar of the early Church, a devoted teacher, and a bringer of constant mirth and the sobering perspective of the centuries. Like many former students, I fondly recall being hosted for dinner in his home. The conversation, both witty and down-to-earth, earthy and urbane, was accompanied by succulent lamb and mint jelly, vegetables and potatoes, and a fine Scotch after dinner — all of which was of course “no trouble, no trouble at all.”

Rowan preferred to keep to New Haven. He rarely attended academic conferences or church meetings, and after two years of parish ministry in Charlotte following his initial retirement, he returned to New Haven permanently to be near the Yale libraries. For nearly half a century, he said his prayers, kept at his research, and encouraged all manner of students and colleagues. Many noted how willingly he attended to the least scholarly students as much as to the brightest lights. He had a gift for drawing out the genius in even the most ignorant question, teaching you so subtly and charitably as to almost hide the fact that you didn’t already know it. Rowan’s anti-elitist refinement reflected both his sense of good theology and his culture and politics. By all accounts, he rarely realized what a model he was of what it means to be a priest or a scholar in the Church, or both.

Like his Cappadocian exemplar, Gregory of Nyssa, Greer held fast to the promise of the Resurrection through all the struggles of life. A colleague at another seminary once told me that when her father died, the most moving note of condolence she received was from her former teacher Rowan Greer. He spoke of death with realism and candor, and he unsentimentally commended the hope of one day sharing in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. For all who knew him, Rowan Greer was inimitable and irreplaceable, a beloved teacher and a faithful priest of the Church. Yale Divinity School will host a memorial service for him in the fall.

Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant Rowan. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

In 2003 the Rev. Christopher A. Beeley succeeded Rowan Greer as Walter H. Gray Associate Professor of Anglican Studies and Patristics at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

Rowan Greer III


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