FOREWORD


“Dr. Dennis R. Edwards: On Speaking from the Margins”

12.14.2021  |  Season 3  |  Episode 9




SHOW NOTES

Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards joins Dr. Madison Pierce and Dr. James Arcadi for episode nine. Dennis is Associate Professor of New Testament at North Park University, along with being an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. He has attended Cornell University, completed an MDiv at TEDS, and finished his education with a PhD at the Catholic University of America.

Dennis is a multi-talented person, and Madison and James have a great time learning about his journey to faith. He recounts his early experiences in the church and how he eventually discovered a call to ministry and to academic teaching (after earning a chemical engineering degree!). Dennis explains further how he found his way to studying James 5 at Catholic University for his PhD, even while he continued pastoring. He describes how he balances these two dimensions of his life, the academic and the pastoral, and offers crucial insight for the role of study in the life of the church. From there, they discuss his most recent book, Might from the Margins, and how his own experiences of marginalization provide points of contact with other forms of marginalization, and how the church can be reframed to remedy this. Dennis finally shares some vital insights from his work in 1 Peter, especially what it teaches us about what it means to live as Christians not understood (or even hurt by) the broader world.

Along the way, listeners will discover…

  • Which theology book kept following Dennis around, despite his best attempts to avoid it
  • What instrument Dennis plays, even when he preaches
  • What Dennis’ hopes for TEDS are

To learn more about Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards, see his faculty page, purchase Might from the Margins or his commentary on 1 Peter, or watch his recent message at Mosaic.

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Transcript

Dennis Edwards
[00:00:00] Like, I should know more stuff on Max because I saw Josh’s tweet about this, and I thought, “I don’t know.” I mean, Max and I co-taught a course, but it was over Zoom, and I didn’t get to know him super well. I do know that he loves his green screen, and he always pretends that he’s fighting Star Wars battles on his… [PIERCE LAUGHS]

James Arcadi
Is that right?

Edwards
He seems to like Star Wars.

Arcadi
He’s got a green screen thing going? I didn’t know about this. [LAUGHS]

Edwards
He does, and oh my goodness. He loves…yeah. That part, I think a lot of people know now, because he’s posted a bunch. But yeah, I can’t dig up any real dirt on him. [LAUGHTER]

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

Madison Pierce
Welcome to Foreword: A TEDS Faculty Podcast. I’m Madison Pierce.

Arcadi
And I’m James Arcadi.

Pierce
Today, we have the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards. He’s Associate Professor of New Testament at North Park University. In addition to his academic qualifications—an MDiv, an MA, a PhD—he’s also ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and has served in ministry for decades. We also got some inside scoop from Max Lee [EDWARDS LAUGHS]: he played football for Cornell, he still plays the saxophone—in fact, when you preach, you often play the saxophone as well—

Edwards
I do!

Pierce
—which is pretty great! And he works hard at maintaining physical health—so he works out; he eats well. We have the privilege of interviewing Dr. Edwards because he’s a TEDS alum.

Arcadi
Woo!

Pierce
We’ll talk more about that later. So, Dennis, welcome!

Edwards
Well, thank you so much! I really was honored to get the invitation to be with you, so thank you.

Pierce
Thank you. Well, so, it’s hard to know where to start with you [EDWARDS LAUGHS] because you have had a very rich life and do have expertise in so many things. But, can you tell us a little bit about your younger years and your journey to faith?

Edwards
Yeah, and I’ll focus on some church experiences, because I started attending church when I was about ten or eleven—first, Sunday School, and then, worship services. But it was a big deal. Sunday School is an hour and a half; the worship service, about three hours. Then, we had an afternoon service for a couple of hours, and then an evening service for a couple more hours. So we could be in church all day, and I was in church for a good part of that day. But it’s worth mentioning for folks to know that the teaching in that church was a little bit outside the Christian mainstream. And I always have to mention that because it really is a big factor in my spiritual journey. The church taught that there was no trinity—it was Jesus only. So you might be familiar with “Oneness Theology,” which I wasn’t then. It was all I knew, of course. So you had to be baptized in the name of Jesus—not “Father, Son, Holy Ghost.” And then you needed to speak in tongues to have evidence that you were a Christian. So it wasn’t a “Second Blessing” in sort of the classic Pentecostal way of thinking—if you didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t a Christian. And so I got baptized at thirteen, I did not speak in tongues, and it didn’t go the way everybody thought it would go. And I was a pretty faithful person at church—very involved, there all of the time, counted on for a lot of things, a reliable young man, but I wasn’t saved. And it was a real problem. It was also the 70’s, so there was a lot of The Late Great Planet Earth and “Jesus is coming back any moment” kind of stuff. So I want to frame my journey with that in the background. So when I went off to college, I started meeting other kinds of Christians and people who were a little different from my background. But I started to build some relationships. I came to…I guess I would say a “more traditional,” maybe even “orthodox” understanding of the faith. And people were saying, “Dennis, God has called you to ministry.” But I kept pushing that aside and pursued a degree in engineering. I would say later in my journey of faith, I found myself being more broad-minded, more…even “ecumenical,” I would say, in my thinking. But I wound up in an Evangelical Free church, and it was from there that I found out about Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. So that’s kind of the brief journey of faith for a long life. [LAUGHS]

Pierce
Wow, that’s great.

Arcadi
I wonder if I could just follow up on that shift from engineering in undergrad to then sort of really embracing that calling to ministry and coming to TEDS…

Edwards
Yeah!

Arcadi
What…what precipitated that? What really brought that about?

Edwards
[00:04:39] Well, you know, it was really quite a struggle. I mean, I was pursuing engineering. I was trying to play football—I actually only played one year. It was like… I couldn’t keep up my grades. I liked science, I liked math, but for some reason, things weren’t clicking. There were a lot of reasons, I think, as I look back—including my no real role models about what it means to go to college. But in that space of people telling me that I was called to ministry and “God is using you” and all this, I just put that in the back of my mind. But, one instrumental event I’ll mention—I was working in West Virginia for Union Carbide Corporation, a great summer job for an engineering student. And I was going to a bible study at a Presbyterian church. I was worshipping at a Baptist church, but the Presbyterian pastor sat me down—it was close to my last weekend in town—and he said very straightforwardly, “You need to give up engineering and go into ministry.”

Arcadi
Wow.

Edwards
And he said it…I mean, I didn’t expect the Presbyterians to be so prophetic like that [LAUGHTER], but he was very forthright. So I asked him a few questions—“Why?” and what he thought—and he told me, “Read the book Knowing God, by J.I. Packer,” he said, “and pray about this.” And I told him, “God wants me to be an engineer.” So I didn’t do either of the things that he said: I didn’t pray about it and I didn’t read Knowing God. As the Lord would have it, I started dating a young woman, and as we got to know each other, I found out that she was…that she owned the book Knowing God. So I said, “Oh, maybe I should read that.” I still didn’t. [PIERCE LAUGHS] And then I had some difficulty finding a full-time job as an engineer. It was a weird time in our country—there was a recession. Long story short, I wound up teaching math and chemistry, and I was a good teacher, I found out. And through a series of circumstances, we wound up going to an Evangelical Free church and they were doing a Sunday School class on the book Knowing God [LAUGHER]—

Pierce
[LAUGHS] Wow!

Edwards
—So I said, “I think I’d better read this thing now.” [LAUGHTER] So we actually stayed for the length of the Sunday School class, and read the book, and I had long conversations with the pastor, and he said, “You need to go to Trinity seminary.” He hadn’t gone—he went someplace else. He said, “But that’s where you need to go.” I didn’t know anything about seminaries, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it—I didn’t know anything—but that’s what got me to apply and then eventually attend, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Arcadi
So cool.

Pierce
Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah. And from there, you went on to do an MA and a PhD at Catholic University of America. Could you say a little bit more about why you ended up actually doing a PhD and what your experience was like there?

Edwards
Yeah, thank you! While I was at Trinity, I found I was doing well—I was doing well as a student. I had some challenges here, too: it was more “fitting in”—but that’s probably been the story of my life of trying to figure out where I fit in. But apart from those cultural misconnections, maybe, I found myself really interested in Scripture more and more. And I think because of my background, I wanted to rightly divide the word. I wanted to understand how to do this. And I was a bit frustrated with preachers who were always…you know, drop “The Greek says…” or whatever, you know. And I said, “Well, teach me how to know these things.” You know? And so I said, “You know, I’m just going to do it myself.” So I didn’t know what to do. I went out and bought an Interlinear Bible, I bought an Amplified Bible—I bought all of these tools trying to help myself do this. And then eventually, I thought, “Maybe I should do more schooling.” So I did ask some TEDS professors what they thought. I could name drop, but a few of them—Scot McKnight, John Sailhamer, Grant Osborne—I asked people what they thought, and I eventually applied. I was in New York, had planted a church called “New Community.” But while I was in New York, I applied and got into Fordham University up in the Bronx. So I started at Fordham, but when I left the church plant and took a call to a church in D.C., I thought I’d have to give up on my PhD pursuits. And then I found out I could do Catholic University and could go part-time, so I reapplied and started all over. They hardly took any of my work from Fordham, except my Aramaic, which…I was grateful that they took that. So I had to do the MA on the way to the PhD. But I could pace myself, and I couldn’t afford to go full-time, but I went part-time. And one of my main instructors was the late Joseph Fitzmyer—he was a tremendous New Testament scholar, sort of a walking annotated bibliography. So I studied a lot under him, and eventually intrigued and working in the book of James, I had…there was a lot of Pauline stuff going on. And it was at the time where some controversy—maybe I shouldn’t say “controversy,” but challenging ideas were emerging in Pauline studies. And I thought—this would be the mid-90’s—so I thought, “Let me go where not too many people are going.” And that was the Book of James. So I tried to find some unifying features in James. I felt like James was addressing communities of faith who were struggling with tensions and problems—maybe in light of what they perceived as the “End Time”—eschatologial challenges. So my dissertation is on chapter five—I call it “A Reviving Faith: An Eschatological Reading of James 5:13-20.” But I never published it. I was still a pastor and doing both at the same time—pastoring a church in D.C. and doing my studies. So I said, “When I’m done.” So I didn’t even think about publishing it. So anyway, but that was the journey there of doing my studies in D.C.—mostly with Joseph Fitzmyer, although I wrote under Francis Moloney who is a Johannine scholar for the most part. And so he was really my advisor, but Fitzmyer was the person I had studied a great deal with.

Pierce
That’s tremendous, yeah.

Arcadi
Kind of on that point, I was just curious about that intersection point between pastoral ministry and academic work. I think a lot of current TEDS students think about that intersection point. I know myself—doing some pastoring, doing academic work as well. How did you see those two spheres interacting with each other—in your own life or just how you see that generally as well?

Edwards
[00:10:47] Yeah, I think if I’m honest, I honestly—that was redundant—but I was really unsure of myself as an academic and I didn’t have any role models. And when I was studying there in the 90’s, the one person I knew of was the late Bruce Fields, who was here, and Bruce was appointed the year I graduated from TEDS. So I knew him, and I communicated a little bit with him, but I really didn’t know many African American scholars. In fact, an article came out in the Washington Post in the late 90’s about how few African American biblical scholars there are in the whole country, considering how big the guild is. So I thought, “Well, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what should happen, but I’m understanding this ‘pastoring’ thing, so I’ll stay there.” And then the Lord opened some doors for me to teach adjunct, but I still wasn’t super confident that I could teach full-time. So I just said, “I’ll stay in a world that I think I understand”—you know, this “church world.” But more and more opportunities came for me to teach, and I realized, “Oh, maybe I could do this, and maybe I could write too.” So I feel like I came at it kind of late to be honest, James and Madison. I feel like a lot of folks who, maybe like you guys, when you’re younger, get a sense of that call and you can sort of lean into it. It took me a while to discern. I’m grateful for the years of pastoral ministry, but sometimes I wish I had started writing and researching earlier in my life. But, it is what it is, and the Lord has used all of that in shaping who I am. To be really pointed to your question, I do think there’s a space for theologically, and biblically, and historically—just well-educated clergy who help their congregants to understand—not to present themselves as the expert and everything—but to help their congregation to know that there’s much more than they might think. I mean, Christianity is not 200 years old. I mean, there’s some things that they can learn and know and be pointed to—and even skills they could get—and I think educated clergy can help people to wrestle with the myriad of things they’re encountering in their lives. So I don’t think a PhD means you have to be in the academy, but for me, it was something I felt like I should do, especially as I had experience and there’s not as many voices.

Arcadi
Yeah, yeah. Cool, thanks for that.

Pierce
That’s wonderful. That intersects a bit with your most recent book, which is Might from the Margins. And you write that book specifically out of your experiences as a Black man in America, and drawing on some of that marginalization. But I was surprised to read it, where you really do kind of open the door for all kinds of forms of marginalized people. And so can you say a little bit more about what the book is doing and then that kind of broader vision?

Edwards
Sure, thank you. I’m glad that you have looked at the book and I’m honored by that. I had been wrestling with the experiences I had as a pastor—not just as a pastor, but as an African American who has been in Evangelical spaces a lot. And I have my oldest son who’s seen some of this journey, and he would always say, “Dad, write a book and name names.” [LAUGHTER] And I said, “Well, I’m not out to shame people, but I do think there’s some lessons to be learned here.” And here I am, 25 years later, seeing a lot of what I wrestled with as a young pastor repeating itself. So I think my son was right—there’s some things that need to be addressed, and some of us older folks can share it. But yes, I speak to marginalization—I can’t speak for women, I can’t speak for people who have suffered because of ableism, I can’t speak for those folks, but I can say, “Whatever your story is, I think there’s some points of resonance with mine.” So what I say in the book is, “I’m looking for solidarity of the marginalized,” and that, “We can somehow help reshape the way Christianity operates—at least in our country and perhaps even in the world.” So yes, my experience becomes sort of a model, or an example, that hopefully could resonate with other folks who have experienced marginalization from society and even from the church.

Pierce
Yeah. That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Edwards
Thanks.

Arcadi
Could you say a bit more concretely about what that reshaping looks like and how the Gospel speaks into that specifically?

Edwards
[00:15:05] Yes! I think we have seen Christianity practiced to a large degree, especially in Evangelical circles—and, you know, I’m not out to put shade on anybody. I really…you know, I’m a little too old to try to pick fights—but the reality is, there’s sort of a position that has to be one of power. And I’ve watched how Evangelicals particularly like to position themselves for political and social power and clout, as if to say, “Our faith has to be proven by strength,” as opposed to the way of Jesus, which is clearly a path of weakness—Paul would say it. So I have said, “Marginalized folks are the best examples of what it means to practice the faith, because we’ve done it without societal power,” which is the way I think a lot of first century Christians had to operate. So, for example, in 1 Peter, when language is addressed to enslaved people and to women and we see these household codes and we’re a little bit embarrassed by them—and I get that—but part of it is to say, “Well you folks in the lowest of the low positions are actually honored because you show the way of Jesus in a way that others can’t.” And I think that’s still happening, that we see the way of Jesus in the people who have been pushed to the side. So we can reshape Christianity by saying, “You know what? Christianity is about devotion to Christ, it’s about showing love, it’s about seeing the breakdown of the powers and the principalities, without having to lord it over others.” And I think that that’s a powerful lesson.

Pierce
Amen.

Arcadi
Mmhmm. Yeah, yeah. Can I follow up just briefly? I’m just wondering…it seems like you’re thinking we need the inverse of the power dynamics there, and actually look to the marginalized as those who are more fully living into that kind of Gospel narrative. I was wondering, just kind of diagnosing the “power grab” mentality, where do you think that comes from? I kind of wonder, is that a lack of confidence in the Gospel, a lack of confidence in God—thinking that, “I’ve got to take it myself. I’m not going to let God be in charge”? How do we diagnose the problem of being concerned about power and authority and what not?

Edwards
Yeah. Well maybe that’s more a question for sociologists. And not to bow out—

Arcadi
Sure.

Arcadi
—just to preface it that way—but in my own thinking, I mean, this is the way that White Europeans have been taught and nurtured in our world. So there’s a sense that conquering is the way. So when Christians buy into that, to me, it says, “You’re tapping more into a cultural narrative than a biblical one.”

Arcadi
I see, yeah.

Edwards
Is it the way of Europeans to conquer? I mean, just think about…look at South Africa, for an example. I mean, you’ve got Europeans who come and dominate a nation, and even with a Christian veneer to it, had established rule—and so much so, that by the 70’s, when apartheid was becoming really evident and we could see the world was seeing what was going on, we still had Christians in America defending apartheid, because for some reason, they could not see the Africans running their own country. So for me, that’s more tapping into a cultural perspective than it is a biblical one.

Arcadi
Sure, yeah. Makes a lot of sense.

Pierce
Yeah. I think that you’ve highlighted 1 Peter and how that kind of speaks to this marginalized—or the message for marginalized people—but there are a lot of resonances in 1 Peter with some of the modern kinds of conflicts and all of that. You’ve written a commentary on 1 Peter. Do you want to say a little bit more? What does 1 Peter say to us today?

Edwards
[00:18:49] Yeah, thank you. I feel like the whole movement of that book is about this…what we’ve just described as the role of Christians in a society that doesn’t understand, doesn’t know, and might even be hostile to your way of faith. So I feel like that was probably true of other Christian communities too, but it’s very explicit in 1 Peter. So I think the whole letter is about that. And there’s this movement in the letter of building solidarity among the community, you know—especially in chapter three, you start to see that, and into chapter four—and love is clearly supreme. And then there’s a way of being that might not change the power structure, but it sort of disarms it by saying, “You’re living the way of Christ. They have nothing, really, that they can say or do to you in the long run. They might hurt you…”—and that chapter 2 about enslaved people is a very difficult section, I will confess that—

Pierce
It is, yeah.

Edwards
—“…but in that way of being, your conscience is clear and your relationship with God is on display very clearly. And God honors the humble and opposes the proud.” So—also a message in Peter—so we see that that way of being is affirmed. And even the ability to deal with the powers, the emperor and those in charge, in a subversive way, but not also in the same way you would deal with God. I mean, you have ultimate allegiance and love for God, even if you have to abide by the state. So I think there are some powerful lessons in there for Christians to figure out—I mean, we don’t live in the same kind of society, of course, but there are some lessons that we can take about how you can respect the state. You don’t have to always defer to it, but you also have ultimate allegiance to God.

Pierce
Amen, yeah. Thanks, Dennis.

Arcadi
Um, I wonder…a little bit about your teaching—your role at North Park University, teaching New Testament—can you just say a little bit more about that role and what your place is there?

Edwards
Yeah, I’m excited to be at North Park. I’m actually at the seminary—I mean, we are a little bit different. There’s the university and there’s the seminary. So I’m at the seminary. So for me, it’s thrilling to teach people who are also thinking about ministry vocationally. I’m sure you guys feel the same way, that there’s something about helping people who are in this work already, or about to be in this work, think about what they’re doing. So I get to teach—with my colleague, Max Lee, whom we mentioned earlier—I get to teach Biblical Greek, Greek Exegesis, and New Testament stuff generally. But I think for me, the strongest thing is being able to just connect with students who think about ministry, and now, all of this pastoral experience that I had that I was lamenting about a little while ago actually becomes really important, because they want to know, “How does this play in the real world?” And I get to share some of that. So I’m enjoying my time.

Pierce
Oh, that’s wonderful. Well, Dennis, it’s so nice to spend time with you, and I could do this all day. But I wonder if you could share in our concluding moments—what is your hope for TEDS as a grad? What would you like to see us grow into?

Edwards
[00:22:00] Yeah, well you know, it’s not as if I have been keeping an eye on TEDS, you know? [LAUGHTER] I was on the alumni board for a while, and so that was nice. I got to come out here—that was back in the late 90’s—and met some great people. I think what I’m seeing is really encouraging—I mean, you both, young scholars. I didn’t see any women faculty in Bible when I was a student here, so that’s already a big improvement in my view.

Pierce
We’ve got three! [LAUGHS]

Edwards
Yeah! In my view, it’s an improvement. I don’t know about African American faculty. I mean, Bruce Fields passed away and I don’t know of any other African American faculty at TEDS, at least in the Bible and Theology. I would like to see that change. I do think that there’s a willingness to engage. I mean, I just saw a poster on the wall to talk about women in ministry—I saw your picture on there, Madison—and it had language almost like our covenant language of “called and gifted.” It was “gifted and called,” and I said to my wife, “I don’t think I would have seen this 30 years ago or so when I was at TEDS,” or people would have snatched the posters down, or they would have mocked them, or there would have been some kind of sneering, almost, at it. It was really at times like that. So I think what’s happening is good. I’m seeing a progress with you folks. So I think leaning into the future, I would like to see TEDS continue to be a place where you can talk about issues like social justice, and race, and other issues that when I was a student, people pushed down on, or dismissed, or even silenced us. I would like to continue to see you guys growing in those conversations, like many of us have been trying to do. So, thank you.

Arcadi
Thank you.

Pierce
Yeah, thank you for your generosity, Dennis.

Edwards
Yeah, thank you.

Pierce
Thank you. Well, that’s just the Foreword. If you want to learn more about Rev. Dr. Edwards, please be sure to check out his website—we’ll link that in the notes. He recently spoke in Mosaic about a year ago, so we’ll link that as well, and we hope that you will buy his book, Might from the Margins, his commentary on 1 Peter, and keep an eye out for upcoming work. As always, we also invite you to follow in his footsteps and to join us here for an MDiv at TEDS. So with that, we thank our good looking producer, Curtis Pierce, our brilliant graduate assistant, Lauren Januzik, and all of you for tuning in. So thank you. I’m Madison Pierce.

Arcadi
And I’m James Arcadi.

Pierce
Thanks, y’all. Thank you, Dennis.

Edwards
Thank you.

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

Outro
Foreword is a podcast hosted by faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The views expressed by the hosts and guests of Foreword do not necessarily represent the views of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can subscribe to our newest episodes on your preferred podcast app or at forewordpodcast.com. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook @forewordpodcast to get updates and additional links to content. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is located 25 miles north of Chicago, with extension sites across the country and online. Trinity educates men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness, and lifelong learning. You can find more information at teds.edu.

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

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