By Kristen Padilla
Editor, Beeson Magazine
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 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 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.”
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. 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.”
‘Whomever would listen’
“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.”
When George accepted the charge to start a new divinity school on the campus of Samford he started with nothing except for Beeson’s generous gift and a mandate: serve the whole body of Christ, remain faithful to God’s word and prepare men and women to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world.
“As a friend of mine remarked, ‘Timothy, you must be either crazy or really called of God to attempt such an undertaking!’”
Pilgrimage of faith
But like Abram and Sarai, who set out on a pilgrimage of faith to an unknown destination, George felt impressed upon by God to move to Birmingham with his wife, Denise, and their two children, Christian and Alyce, to undertake something few had done before.
George’s vision, in line with Beeson’s, was to carve out a Baptist university-based divinity school that was conservative and evangelical in its theology; unashamedly confessional in its commitment to the historic, orthodox Christian faith; intentionally interdenominational; academically superb; devoted to missions and evangelism; and committed both to classical theological education and practical ministry training.
But George knew this experiment would fail if Jesus Christ wasn’t at the center.
“The spiritual vitality of this place has always depended on prayer,” he said.
“I remember in the very early days, when we were meeting across campus in a basement, we would gather together for prayer. It was a small group, very intimate, and those were very powerful times that helped gel the school in a spiritual way.”
In 1994, six years into this experiment, George wrote for Beeson magazine (previously called Vocatio) that “something extraordinary” was happening at Beeson. “There is a hunger and thirst for the things of God.”
Reflecting on those early days of building the divinity school from scratch George said he is indebted to many people who came alongside him to work toward a common goal.
“Leadership is not dictatorship,” George said. “Rather good leadership is about having a vision that grabs you, that constrains you, and then finding others who share it or can catch it and feel an investment in and an ownership of it, and who will walk together toward the goal.
“It’s kind of like a marriage or being in love,” he added. “Being in love or being married is not gazing into one another’s eyes endlessly. It is clasping hands and walking together toward the horizon. That’s what leadership is and we’ve had that here at Beeson Divinity School because we’ve had a community of people who caught the vision — people who genuinely loved Jesus Christ and cared deeply for one another.”
George could point to any number of his many accomplishments as his greatest legacy: founding Beeson Divinity School, construction of Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, meeting three popes, speaking at the Vatican, chairing the drafting committee of the Amsterdam Declaration 2000, serving as senior editor of Christianity Today or general editor of the “Reformation Commentary on Scripture” (InterVarsity Press), writing the “Manhattan Declaration” with Chuck Colson and Robby George or his more than 25 books.
Yet when asked about his greatest legacy he was quick to answer: “Beeson alumni and students.”
“Our legacy is the people we’ve invested our lives in,” George said. “The students are the heart and soul of any school and to see our graduates, who have gone out and done such wonderful things in the Lord’s work all around the world, brings me the greatest joy of anything in my job.”
One gift he hopes he has given to each Beeson alum through the school and Hodges Chapel is a sense of solidarity with the saints and martyrs who have gone before them.
“We have six martyrs remembered in statuary, one from each of the six inhabited continents of the earth, displayed very prominently in our chapel. But above the martyr statues and below the dome, where the great heavenly host surrounds the risen Christ, there are a number of empty niches,” said George.
‘Call of Christ’
“At one time we thought about putting something there, but we decided against that because we knew our students over time would be filling in those statues as they surrendered their life to the call of Christ, a discipleship which could lead to martyrdom.
“So I sometimes say to our students, ‘Those niches are for you. You follow wherever the call of God will lead you,’” he said.
When George chose the hymn “For All the Saints” to be Beeson’s anthem he did so with a recognition that in the New Testament sense we are all sinners who are forgiven and made holy by God in Jesus Christ.
‘No higher praise’
“What’s interesting is that a lot of the people we call saints today were not acknowledged as saints in their own lifetimes,” George said. “Take for example Patrick, one of the most famous saints. Nobody in his day went around saying, ‘Oh, St. Patrick, how are you today?’ No. He said, ‘I felt like a rock, a stone sunk in the mud until God picked me up … and gave me meaning.’”
George said he wants to be remembered as “a person who was touched by God in a special way in his life, who did not deserve all of the wonderful things that came his way, but someone who tried to follow that calling as best he could for as long as he could.
“If Jesus were to say, ‘Well done, faithful servant,’ no higher praise could be given to me in this life or the one to come.”
Now that he is ready to close this chapter and open the next — George is transitioning from dean to research professor — he says he is ready to pass the vision to a new dean.
“We want to advance the cause of Christ,” said George. “We want to see the kingdom of God flourish in this world, and we’ll do what we can to take it as far as we can. Then we will do our very best to pass the task on to somebody else who can run further than we can, faster than we can and who will one day cross that finish line.”
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