Timothy George did not apply for the position of dean of a brand-new divinity school on the campus of Samford University in 1987. In fact, he never wanted to be a dean, and even once joked that he didn’t especially like them.
“No offense to the deans reading this,” he said with a smile.
Leaning back in his leather chair in the inner part of his office where his day-to-day work happened, George confided that he didn’t think he would be very good at being a dean.
Yet, after being persuaded by then-Samford President Thomas E. Corts 32 years ago to come meet the divinity school’s benefactor Ralph Waldo Beeson, George began to seriously consider the prospect. Beeson’s vision for this divinity school, that it would be Protestant, Christian, evangelical and interdenominational, matched George’s sense of what theological education should be.
As George listened to Beeson talk, he thought, “Well, here’s something that’s worth giving your life to."
From Hell's Half Acre to Heaven's Preacher
George came from the most unexpected of places. Born to an alcoholic and abusive father who later died in prison and to a mother with polio, George was raised for many years by two great aunts, who lived in a section of Chattanooga, Tennessee, called Hell’s Half Acre.
Those who were the poorest of the poor lived in Hell’s backyard. It was an integrated neighborhood back in the 1950s—“not because we were uppity liberals trying to make a social statement, but simply because none of us could afford to live elsewhere.”
George remembers what it’s like to go to bed hungry and to go to school wearing raggedy clothes.
But despite these difficult circumstances, God met George in a little Baptist church near his home. In this church, through worship, prayer and preaching, George heard about and experienced the love of Jesus Christ.
As he grew, George began to sense God working in his life. On Aug. 6, 1961, he gave his life to Jesus Christ. Three months later on Nov. 18, he felt called to preach after reading Romans 10:15 in a missions magazine, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.”
“That was the passage that gripped my heart, and I felt that was meant for me—that I was to be the one to go over the hills and the mountains preaching the gospel,” George said.
From that moment forward, George began preaching to whomever would listen. He preached a bird’s funeral, during recess at school and to Coke bottles while chopping wood. He would eventually move up to preaching at his church on youth Sundays and at youth revivals. All these years later and through the many positions he has held, the call to preach the gospel has remained at the core of everything George has done. He is first and foremost a preacher of the gospel.
“Even when I went to college and then went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard, I was not single-mindedly focused that I wanted to be a professor. I was called to be a preacher of the gospel,” George said. “But along the way, the opportunity came to teach at a seminary, to train other ministers of the gospel, and I saw that as an extension of my calling as a preacher of the gospel, not as contrary to it.
“To this day, I would say the same thing about my job here. I would not want to be an administrator, dean or anything like that, if I could not at the same time, in and through that work, advance the cause and proclaim the gospel. That’s what I was called to be, and these are jobs I’ve had in service of my calling.”
From the time George learned to read, history grabbed him. “It wasn’t just about names and dates and facts of dead people long ago,” George said. “It was a living, breathing reality, and to enter into the lives of these people who have been consequential in our story, our human story and our Christian story, was very appealing and interesting to me.”
When George and his wife, Denise, whom he met at Flintstone Baptist Church in Chickamauga, Georgia, were on their honeymoon in Atlanta, George bought all of John Calvin’s New Testament commentaries at a discount bookstore, long before he would study him so intensely and 20 years before he would author John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform.
While a student at Harvard pursuing a Master of Divinity, George was drawn to one professor in particular, George Huntston Williams. Williams became George’s mentor and one of the most influential persons in his life. After Williams’ death, George became his literary executor. Williams had a profound effect on his academic trajectory, launching him into Reformation studies.
Drawn by his Baptist convictions, George began a journey to learn more about his Baptist roots. This pursuit led him to the Reformation and to figures like Martin Luther, Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Cranmer. He discovered that these were people who were not only amazing scholars but also persons of deep faith committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“That’s really what hooked me on the Reformation,” George said. “It was a theological quest for the roots of the gospel.”
George’s magnum opus, Theology of the Reformers, was published in 1988, the year he came to start Beeson Divinity School. The book was the result of his doctoral work at Harvard and a yearlong sabbatical in Switzerland during his tenure at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Reprinted and expanded in 2013 for its 25th edition, George’s book continues to be used as a standard textbook in Reformation classes at universities and seminaries and has been translated into four languages.
Theology of the Reformers exemplifies two major contributions George has made over the last more than 30 years to the church and scholarship: retrieval for the sake of renewal and integration of history and doctrine.
“We’re not just interested in studying the past for the past’s sake, or history for history’s sake, and retrieval is not simply recapitulation,” George said. “It’s not just repeating something in the past and dusting it off and looking at it again for curiosity’s sake. No, the past is a teacher. It’s a pedagogue, and it teaches us some very important principles.”
He continued, “So we study the past in order to understand who we are in the present and to shape the future under the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s what I mean by retrieval, retrieval for the sake of renewal—the renewal of the church, and in some ways, the renewal of God’s world that we’re part of.”
George’s retrieval of the past led him to a certain understanding of the unity of the church, which became the impetus for his ecumenical work, including dialogues with Roman Catholics and Methodists, and the Reforming Catholic Confession, which he cochaired in 2017.
“The Reformation was not the spawning of a whole new church,” he said. “It was the renewal of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
This article originally appeared in the 2019 edition of the Beeson magazine. You can read past editions of Beeson here.