An Interview with Retired Western Seminary Faculty Member, J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney

Carl, How did you happen to come to Western Seminary?

It was the fall of 1970 when I drove into the parking lot on the east side of Milliken Hall, then a men’s dormitory, and unloaded my typewriter, a few books and a picture of my sweetheart to begin my studies at Western Seminary. I completed my Master of Divinity in 1973 and headed for Israel with my wife, Nancy, where we spent the summer studying at the Jerusalem University College. It was life defining experience for both of us! Returning to Western for further studies, I wrote thesis on “The Geopolitics of the Judean Hill Country,” graduating with my Th.M. in the spring of 1974.

I longed to dig deeper into the Bible and was accepted into the Th.D. program at Dallas Seminary. My studies in Bible Exposition commenced in the fall of 1974 with Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost as my major professor. During my program at Dallas I was given the opportunity to develop my teaching skills as an Instructor Bible Exposition.

Approaching the end of my doctoral program, I began wondering about where I might use my seminary training. One summer afternoon while visiting Portland, I stopped by the office of Dr. Robert Cook, Western’s academic dean. He graciously invited me into his office for a visit. Then he asked, “Would you be interested in returning to Western to teach biblical literature?” Wow! I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough! After faculty interview in the early spring of 1977, I received a letter from President Earl D. Radmacher inviting me to join the faculty as an Instructor in Biblical Literature. One year led to two, and two to three, and a lifetime later I am looking back on an amazing, forty-year career at Western Seminary!

You have been teaching the Bible at Western for forty years. Do you have a philosophy of education that has guided you as a faculty member?

Yes, the verse in Scripture that describes my philosophy of teaching is Ezra 7:10, “For Ezra set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” First, note that Ezra made the study of the Word his priority. He “set his heart” to seek God’s truth. But he was not content with mere head knowledge. Ezra put the lessons he discovered into practice. He was a doer of the Word, not merely a self-deluded hearer (James 1:22). Finally, I see that Ezra taught God’s Word to the people of Israel. Is significant that Ezra applied the truth personally before teaching publicly. You can’t teach what you haven’t studied, and you can’t teach effectively what you have not first applied in your own life. So my philosophy of education is to follow the example of Ezra. I seek God’s truth, apply in to my own life, and then share it with others.

What have you enjoyed most about your teaching career?

I have certainly enjoyed the opportunities my faculty position has given me to research, write, and prepare lectures and resources for my students. But what I have enjoyed most is the privilege of taking students to Israel. In Western’s Israel Study Program, we spend three weeks in the Land of the Bible hiking, swimming, exploring, studying and sharing meals together. This program provides opportunity for biblical discipleship which I define as “companionship in preparation for leadership.” The Israel Study Program is a life defining experience for students, and I have been privileged to share that experience with them.

In addition to teaching, what other ministry activities have you enjoyed?

In addition to my class room ministry at Western, it has been my privilege to serve as interim pastor in a dozen different churches. The longest interim assignment was three years in a Chinese church where my sermons were translated into Cantonese! I love to preach God’s Word and to shepherd God’s people. Weddings, funerals, baptisms and hospital visitation have provided me with a breadth of ministry experience to help my students prepare for their future opportunities. I have also had the privilege of ministering overseas, teaching in seminaries in the Philippines and the Netherlands, and of course, the Jerusalem University College.

What part has your wife, Nancy, played in your seminary career?

Besides being my number one encourager, Nancy has been involved in Western’s women’s ministry, meeting with seminary wives and hosting students in our home. And before our children were raised, she “kept the home fires burning” when I was teaching for Western in Seattle or ministering overseas. There have been three great women in my life—my mother, my mother-in-law, and my wife Nancy. I am who I am today because of their love, their support and their prayers.

What was the most difficult time for you as a prof?

My first year as a prof was undoubtedly the most difficult year academically. I was preparing lectures on material I had studied, but never taught. And the difference between studying and teaching is huge! I remember one night during my first semester after hosting a group of students in our home. I stepped outside alone, looked into the night sky, and wondered if I could really do this. It was the closest thing to a panic attack I had ever experienced. Standing in front of a classroom of student and trying to intelligently and practically teach God’s Word is harder than it looks! I have often left my office for the classroom remembering Psalm 34:4, “I sought the LORD, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Do you have a favorite book of the Bible to teach? What has been your favorite class to teach?

I have often been asked, “What is your favorite book of the Bible?” My answer is, “Which ever book I happen to be teaching!” They are all my favorites! I love the Torah where God introduces Himself to humanity. I love the historical books where God is at work among His people. I love the Poetic books where God’s truth is revealed through rich imagery and metaphor. I love this Prophets where God addresses His people through his spokesmen. I love the Gospels which introduce us to Jesus. I love the history of the advance of the Kingdom of God in the book of Acts. I love the Epistles have enriched my life through sound doctrine and application of principles. And I love the Book of Revelation which gives me hope for the future. I am a Bible guy. It’s all my favorite! I just love teaching the Bible!

Do you have any advice for seminary students today?

My advice to seminary students who are preparing for pastoral ministry is to dig deep into your language studies. One of the best things that seminary offers you is an opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible (along with Aramaic). There is no need to be fearful of the languages. If I can learn and use the languages, anyone can. There is nothing that has enriched my personal study of the Word more than the ability to read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. If you are going to teach the Bible to others, you don’t want to go through life just reading about what someone else has discovered from the original languages. With the biblical languages, you can make those discoveries yourself! And if you know Hebrew and Greek, you won’t need as many commentaries. You will be writing your own commentary as you study the original text.

One other suggestion for students is to get to know at least one prof in a more personal way during your seminary career. Stop by a prof’s office and introduce yourself. Invite prof to lunch or to your home for dinner. Ask a prof if you can ride along with him or her on their next ministry trip. Not only will a personal relationship with a prof enrich your seminary experience, you will have someone who knows you well enough to write a reference letter when you are applying for a ministry position!

Is there anything in your career that you wish you had done differently? 

When I was finishing my doctoral program at Dallas Seminary, I thought about the possibility of being an overseas missionary, a church pastor, or a Bible/Seminary professor. Honestly, I wanted to do all three. But in the providence of God, I was led to return to Western Seminary. But as a faculty member at Western, I have had opportunities to serve as a short term missionary and an interim pastor. God gave me my heart’s desire to minister the Word in a variety of contexts and opportunities. The only thing I might have done differently is to have spent more time with my children while they were growing up. I was busy writing books, traveling and teaching. All of a sudden, my kids grew up and left home! I cherish the times we had together and only wish it had been more.

How is retirement? What are you doing to keep busy?

I really don’t like the word “retirement” because it seems to suggests leaving the ministry. As long as God gives me breath, I want to be serving the Lord! But reaching the age of seventy, Nancy and I agreed that it was time for a transition. I wanted to step aside from Western and give the younger profs the opportunities the Lord had afforded me. And so I concluded my career at Western on July 31, 2018. I felt that I had prepared myself financially for this transition. But I realize now that I had not prepared myself emotionally for the separation from Western.

People ask me, “How do you like retirement?” Honestly, I don’t like it. I love to teach and I miss the opportunities I had to mentor students and interact with them in the classroom. Retiring from Western left me without an office, without a position, and without fellowship with seminary colleagues and staff whom I have grown to love. “Retirement” is harder than you think! And yet, God is graciously meeting these needs in other ways. I have been invited to Seminary events, new student dinners, and to lunch with faculty friends. I have established an office in my basement and am busy writing a new book (“A Short History of Israel”). I am teaching a Sunday School class on Genesis 1-12 and preparing for two Israel trips this spring. I have had a wonderful career teaching the Bible at Western Seminary, and for that I am very thankful. And by God’s grace, I will continue to enjoy a full life with travel, ministry, recreation and visits with friends and family.

 

 

 

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