Tell us about The Teacher Who Changed My Life – and why.
A favorite teacher who impacted me greatly was Dr. John D. Hannah, Professor of Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). Hannah’s class notes were already written out in bulk, so the notes I took were of his insightful and colorful asides, axioms, principles, and directives for life and ministry. Listening to him pray before each class was a clinic in how to step into Heaven. I had never heard anyone put things like Hannah in his teaching and praying. It was a special delight to host him for Sunday lunch in our home a few years ago after he preached at First Evan.
I kept my notes from his classes. Reading through his sayings and statements, I realize first of all how much of Hannah’s thinking and approach to life and ministry has become my own over the last twenty years. I could provide numerous quotations I resonate with but will note just a few below, with a comment or two from me. Hannah’s words are in bold:
“Three things will surprise us in Heaven: who’s there, who’s not there, and that we are there.” Hannah introduced me to the amazing of grace. Until I got to his classes I had never really marveled at the salvation of God. Not that I ever credited myself for my redemption. But growing up in church and going into ministry, I did feel I was something of a credit to God; that He should want to populate Heaven with the likes of me. Hannah chased that out of me.
“You don’t take a position because it has all the answers, but because it handles the questions best and the problems best.” A lot of us in seminary weren’t looking for theological integrity so much as bombproof certainty that we had the right views on everything. Hannah exposed this insecurity in us without ever using the word “insecure.” Close to this quotation I wrote, “I may not know adequately, but I know He can be trusted.” These things were being said by a man of deep evangelical conviction who could think circles around us Biblically. Coming to realize I would always have limitations theologically actually made me all the more interested in learning my Bible.
“You can afford to lose some faith and hope, but not love.” A “Hannahine” echo of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Hannah was speaking to men (DTS was mostly male when I was there) who put the accent on our soteriology (faith) and our eschatology (hope), but we had a poorly developed ecclesiology (love) in comparison. We were ready to give the church all we knew but would likely withhold ourselves. “You are part of the body too, not its savior; don’t develop a messiah complex.”
“God loves you so much He won’t let you act like a bastard forever — unless you are one.” Again, speaking to a classroom of men, no one took offense. In fact, we appreciated the wisdom in his wit. It was Hannah’s way of updating the Puritan John Owen’s axiom, “Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing changeth the nature of sin.”
“You are not in the business of crushing people. You take them where they are and hope to lead them further, but you don’t crush them. There comes a time when you chuck your little peanut ideas for the sake of God’s family.” Every pastor who hopes to lead His people further into what Jesus has for them knows this tension when they resist. But some of my peanut ideas make peanut butter of the Lord’s people when it becomes more about me getting my way.
“If common sense is fallen, is it then a safe guide?” Hannah’s knack for exposing assumptions: common sense is neither always true nor reliable.
“We set criteria for Christian living that we like because it’s easy to meet, and then we go out and judge everyone by our criteria.” Hannah said this while telling us of a godly friend of his who, on his deathbed, said he didn’t consider himself a very good Christian because he couldn’t memorize Scripture: “But he could pray!” Hannah taught me to take special care in pouring the mold for what makes a great Christian. Sometimes our “essentials,” even as we cite biblical chapter and verse, make our people anxious, discouraged, or even distracted. As I heard John Ortberg put it once, “A young mom with small children listens in church to a middle-age man extol the virtues of getting up early in the morning to meet with God. But she needs the sleep! Why are we killing our people these ways?”
“Our goal in life is not to explain God but to fall down and worship Him.” When I think of John Hannah in particular, I’m drawn to want more of God — the best thing that can be said of any teacher.