Theologian Fisher Humphreys honored; offers challenge
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Church historian Walter B. Shurden offered two reasons for theologian Fisher Humphreys being honored with the annual Judson-Rice Award: “his life and his words.”
In a tribute, Shurden described Humphreys as “a quiet, contemplative, serious scholar” — widely known to be polite, kind, caring, humble, cautious, irenic and careful — who “never struts his stuff, though he has much to strut.”
“Excruciatingly, irritatingly kind,” Shurden added, “Fisher has led by how he lives.”
He quoted Dean Timothy George of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, from which Humphreys retired and was named professor of divinity emeritus, who called Fisher “one of the finest Christians I’ve ever known.”
While Humphreys has never turned over tables or stormed the microphone in a meeting, Shurden warned of seeing him as timid or fainthearted.
Rather, Humphreys — while leading with consistency and civility — has made a major impact through his many years of shaping theology students, preaching and teaching in churches (Baptist, Episcopalian and other), and writing numerous articles and books, added Shurden.
“Fisher has taught us about our theological traditions and called us to biblical faithfulness,” said Shurden.
However, he added, “theology for Fisher has never been a theological playpen; … it’s been ministry.”
Shurden noted that a book of essays published at the time of Humphreys’ retirement was aptly named Theology in the Service of the Church.
Also he commended Fisher for writing and speaking with more clarity than any theologian he has ever read.
“He dealt in profound subjects with the clearest of words,” said Shurden of Humphreys. “But simplicity never meant simplistic.”
“Fisher has led with his heart and head, but also with his hands,” added Shurden, noting the theologian’s willingness to tackle hot-button ethical issues as part of what Christian theology is all about.
The Judson-Rice award was presented April 21 by Nurturing Faith, the publishing arm of Baptists Today, Inc., during a well-attended dinner event at Birmingham’s Mountain Brook Baptist Church.
After receiving the award Humphreys thanked Shurden for the tribute, noting the retired Mercer University professor once unintentionally gave the best understanding of the objective of Christian higher education.
He recalled asking Shurden casually about his teaching of university students and hearing him say: “I’m trying to get my students to take seriously the things Jesus took seriously.”
Humphreys offered encouragement to those who take that challenge as well.
“Millions of us who have faith in Jesus try to walk a path between two opposite problems,” he said. “On our left there is secularism, and on our right there is fundamentalism.”
While these two perspective are different, Humphreys said they have this in common: “Neither one has a gospel; neither one gives us much reason to hope for our troubled world or for our mortal selves.”
Fundamentalism, he said, presents us with a legalistic God who, a little bit like Noah, is rescuing a few chosen people from a coming destruction. And secularism tells us we are all alone in the universe; we are on our own.
“Many of us cannot believe either one of those messages,” said Humphreys. “We are with St. Paul who wrote: ‘We have our hope set on the living God who is the savior of all people and especially of those who believe’” (1 Tim. 4:10).
Not everything is wrong with fundamentalism and secularism, said Humphreys.
He noted that fundamentalism is right in wanting to identify the fundamentals of Christianity — what is most important in the Christian faith.
“But I think [fundamentalists] are wrong about what the fundamentals are,” said Humphreys, “and I don’t share their attitudes toward other people who are not fundamentalists.”
Secularists are right about wanting government to be secular, Humphreys affirmed.
“The way to provide maximal freedom for citizens of a religiously diverse society is for government to remain neutral toward religion — neither promoting religion nor interfering with it except in the interest of some compelling public interest,” he said. “… The American experience continues to prove that it can work.”
However, Humphreys believes the secular vision of reality is mistaken. He urged faithfulness to a middle path.
“Hundreds of millions of Christians of a lot of churches and denominations are walking in the middle way between fundamentalism and secularism,” he said. “But the way is still not marked out very clearly.”
Those seeking to walk such a path need guides, he added.
“We need leaders and institutions and publications that nurture our non-funda-mentalist, non-secular faith,” said Humph-reys. “You are doing that at Nurturing Faith.”
He commended the non-profit publishing ministry for its newly named and redesigned Nurturing Faith Journal.
“With the human interest stories you tell, the news you report and interpret, the interviews you conduct, the Bible studies you publish, the opinion pieces you provide,” he said, “you are nurturing your readers’ faith in Jesus and faith in his way of life.”
Humphreys said he welcomes the new columns on missions, science, theology and history in the journal — as well as the Bible study curriculum and books published by Nurturing Faith.
“You are showing what it means in our world to pray and work that God’s kingdom may come and that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he said. “You’re helping us to take seriously the things Jesus took seriously.”
Humphreys thanked his family and the many representatives of Baptist and Episcopal congregations where he has preached and taught for their presence at the award dinner.
As part of his earlier tribute, Shurden noted that through his longtime friendship with Humphreys he has never heard Fisher criticize another person in a nasty fashion — smilingly wondering if perhaps he ever had.
Shurden then added: “We all know that the reputation of many a saint depends on the silence of his family.”
The Judson-Rice Award was created in 2001 to commemorate the contributions of early Baptist leaders Adoniram and Ann Hasseltine Judson and Luther Rice, and to recognize a current leader who has demonstrated significant leadership while maintaining the highest integrity. This was the 16th annual presentation. NFJ
By John D. Pierce
“We need leaders and institutions and publications that nurture our non-fundamentalist, non-secular faith. You are doing that at Nurturing Faith.”