It was almost 8:00 a.m., the official start time for the first class of my undergraduate career, and I was lost. When I finally found the room, secreted away at the top of an obscure staircase in the back of the chapel like something out of a wicked-stepfather fairytale, I realized I wasn’t the only one who’d perspired through a few hectic minutes on the hunt. Even the professor, Scott J. Hafemann, then Wheaton College’s Hawthorne Chair of New Testament Greek and Exegesis, showed up late.
I arranged my notepad and the Basics of Biblical Greek textbook on the desk and waited for what I assumed would be a tour of the Greek alphabet. I was wrong.
Dr. Hafemann laid a slide on the whirring overhead projector and slowly pronounced the Greek words of Romans 15:13 now emblazoned on the classroom’s back wall: ho de theos tēs elpidos plērōsai humas pasēs charas kai eirēnēs. Underneath, as a concession to those of us who had dutifully memorized the alphabet ahead of time but hadn’t quite managed to learn any actual Greek words, an English translation was provided: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.”
Light on the Path
But he didn’t start by lecturing on the meaning of this Greek sentence. Taking a step back from the projector, and fanning a multicolored bouquet of dry-erase pens, he began to tell us instead about an aid for busy pastors titled Light on the Path. Aware of how hard it is for working pastors to keep their biblical languages in good working order, the book featured brief biblical passages in their original Hebrew and Greek arranged for daily reading and annotated with lexical definitions and grammatical helps.
The compiler and editor of the book was a man named Heinrich Bitzer, and he was neither a pastor nor a theological educator. He was a banker.
I don’t recall Dr. Hafemann’s exact words, but the gist of them makes my heart beat a bit faster to this day: “If Heinrich Bitzer, who worked in a secular job and didn’t need to know Greek for any of his professional tasks, took the trouble to learn it in the snatches of time he wasn’t at the bank, how much more should those of you who have the luxury of attending college full-time take advantage of this staggering opportunity to learn how to read the New Testament in its original language.”
I had come into my freshman year of college having already declared a major in English literature. Within weeks, I was filling out paperwork to switch to a major in Ancient Languages. To this day, I have never sat under any teaching that was as single-mindedly earnest and enthusiastic as Dr. Hafemann’s. In his hands, Greek seemed like an urgent thing, something worthy of years of devoted study.
Over the weeks, Dr. Hafemann slashed and underlined and circled and starred those words of Romans 15:13, making them the leitmotif of the course. And as he’d planned, we students began to repeat them to ourselves at idle moments. In the shower: ho de theos tēs elpidos plērōsai humas…. While waiting in the omelette queue at the college dining commons: pasēs charas kai eirēnēs…. Even in our sleep: ho de theos tēs elpidos… I recall forming the letters on the page in a dream one night.
Learning to read Greek had become not just a doorway into a seminary degree after I finished college. Nor was it only a skill to stash in my theological toolkit. Under Dr. Hafemann’s tutelage, it was a way of listening for the divine Word itself.
A Theological Touchstone
The Isaiah Berlin essay that riffs on the ancient proverb—“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing”—famously classified various thinkers as one or the other. Plato and Hegel were hedgehogs, whose philosophies represent one long, complex unfolding of a central, singular idea. Writers like Aristotle and Montaigne were foxes, interested in the irreducible multiplicity of particulars.
Dr. Hafemann was decidedly a hedgehog, which accounts, I think, for the profundity of his influence on me. It didn’t matter whether he was waxing eloquent on Paul’s use of the Old Testament in 2 Corinthians or discoursing on what he saw as the pernicious effects of postmodern relativism on biblical hermeneutics, he always came back to what he called “the covenant structure of the Bible.”
For Dr. Hafemann, God’s redemptive work was trifold: God provided (the covenant prologue), God asked for trust and obedience (the covenant stipulations), and God promised future blessing or judgment (the covenant sanctions). What was distinctive about the Bible—which he read as one great narrative—was that the covenant relationship between God and humanity, which ruptured almost as soon as it was initiated in Genesis 3, had been restored through the work of Christ and the Spirit. God’s provision in Christ’s atonement and the outpoured Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in faith, hope, and love, in anticipation of the future grace that will be ours in the eschaton.
So many academics are brilliant at the encyclopedic task. They catalog intellectual artifacts with aplomb, leading students item by item through the chaotic cupboards of history and philosophy. Far fewer teachers manage to discern a pattern in their cataloging, so that their dizzying display of items acquires a singular shape in the minds of their students.
Dr. Hafemann was one of those few. He excelled at the detailed work of the encyclopedist, and to this day, my impatience with over-hasty exegetical argumentation owes a lot to his remembered voice whispering in my ear.
But more than that, he had a theological rationale for his hedgehogish proclivity: He believed that God was the ultimate author of both Testaments of the Christian Bible and that they pointed to a common subject matter. His determination to do, as he called it, “whole-Bible theology” wasn’t a matter of choosing to be a hedgehog rather than a fox; he felt himself pressured to do so, constrained by the nature of the work itself.
A Pastoral Presence
Now that I am teacher myself—I went on to get my own Ph.D. in New Testament studies, motivated in large measure by my desire to be like Dr. Hafemann—I realize what a sacrifice he made to further my education. Across the table from me in the college dining commons, he gave me dozens of informal lessons in biblical theology. Hungry for more, I would also show up unannounced at his office door and, almost always, be welcomed in for no less than half an hour.
It was during those sessions—outside of the heat of a classroom moment, away from the competitive stare of fellow students—that I tested my theological wings, posing solutions to exegetical dilemmas and comparing my conclusions against Dr. Hafemann’s. To anyone who knows the rigors of faculty responsibilities at a liberal arts college, the generosity of Dr. Hafemann’s open-door policy will immediately appear as the rare gift that it was.
Dr. Hafemann left Wheaton shortly after I graduated, moving on to teach seminarians at Gordon-Conwell near Boston and, eventually, to supervise doctoral students in his current post at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His legacy is wider now, but it can’t be any deeper.
Readers who would like to write—and the mentors or heroes do not have to be well-known—should write us at [email protected] with a brief description of what you would say.
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