I have spent the last two full days in Dubuque, Iowa. I have been visiting the University of Dubuque. Today I will meet with Dr. Les Longden, a professor who retires this term after fourteen years in Dubuque. I will teach his final class of the term on missional-ecumenism. (I am honored to teach this final class and to spend much of this day with Dr. Les Longden, a devout Methodist scholar and serious ecumenist!)
Dubuque is about 160 miles northwest of my home in the Chicago suburbs. I have a lifetime of memories connected to this old city located on the Mississippi River where Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin converge. My first trip here in the 1970s was to make a “blind” attempt to meet the well-known Protestant theologian Donald Bloesch (1928-2010). All I could do was leave a note under his door. But a relationship was eventually begun. Bloesch became a very good friend who supported my work, both financially and personally. I was in his home, and he in my home, many times. We interacted deeply as friends, though Donald was a shy and retiring man in so many ways. He dedicated the final volume of his seven-volume Christian Foundations series (IVP) to yours truly by naming my ministry in a simple acknowledgment. Bloesch was easily misunderstood and labeled falsely by many, especially conservative evangelicals who were suspicious of him based upon misunderstanding of his view of Scripture. Justin Taylor, a conservative evangelical blogger, gets the basic measure of his work right (especially in contrasting his evangelicalism with Carl F. H. Henry’s) and gives him a short and proper tribute in a blog about his theology following Donald’s death in 2010.
The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary is an institution of the PCUSA (mainline Presbyterian). It is one of the smaller schools in the denomination but also one of the better ones for good pastoral training in orthodox theological context. The faculty is warm, engaging and involved in pastoral ministry and teaching students. A few are well-known scholars, such as Elmer Colyer. Elmer was deeply influenced by Donald Bloesch and became an evangelical Methodist minister and theologian. Bradley Longfield is the dean. He is a leading historian of Presbyterianism and knows the J. Gresham Machen era of fundamentalist-modernist conflict extremely well. His outstanding book on this subject is titled The Presbyterian Controversy. (A sure mark of a good scholar is that both sides in a debate recognize their positions as being treated fairly by the writer and thus both depend upon the work as trustworthy, something that Longfield’s prestigious work accomplishes.)
Tuesday evening I had a small social gathering at the University of Dubuque for friends of the ACT3 Network. Several of these friends are long time donors. It was good to see long time friends in person once again. Others that I met Tuesday are now new friends. Last evening I had a lovely dinner with a long time professor of biblical studies at the seminary, and his charming wife. Dr. Howard Wallace, the professor I enjoyed fellowship with, has been retired for eighteen years. He regaled me with stories about entertaining Karl Barth when he visited Dubuque in the early 1960s (This was Barth’s only trip to the United States.) Barth did not lecture in Dubuque. He came here to see friends, including several former students, and to ride on a big paddle wheeler on the mighty Mississippi River. Barth loved the writing of the famous American Mark Twain! Go figure.
My various travels afford me the great joy of seeing where God is at work in places that few get to visit. Dubuque is one such place. Here the kingdom of God is growing and lives are being changed through the good work of a seminary that I have come to respect over the last four decades. Lecturing and sharing my vision here has been well received. I hope we might do a Unity Factor Forum in Dubuque this year or next. This is a predominantly Catholic city and the work of ecumenism here has great promise.
Update: I posted part one of a short series of responses to Tim Challies’ blog on Pope Francis yesterday. I cannot add to this series until next week because of time pressures in my schedule. What I say will not be detailed scholarly response but a personal account of what I have learned by living in the space called ecumenism.