A Tribute to Dr. Walter Unger
Dr. Walter Unger, longtime President and Professor at Columbia Bible College passed away on May 9th and is now absent from his body but present with his Savior. Written reflections on the life and legacy of Dr. Unger will be legion, and I hope the following paragraphs are a helpful addition to that broader library. I have three reflections of Dr. Unger: A classroom, a conference, and a conversation.
Dr. Unger (though most of the time he insisted both peers and pupils call him Wally) was easily the most influential theological voice from my time at Columbia Bible College. By the time I had the privilege of sitting in his Theological Confessions course,
Wally was serving CBC in an Emeritus role, would enter most days with the help of his cane, and delivered his lectures from a stool. However, that description doesn’t do justice to the presence he had in the classroom. When I reflect on many of my courses at CBC, I wasn’t always entirely sure where the Professor stood regarding their own theological convictions on the topics we addressed, but that was never the case with Wally. He was fiery, passionate, and taught with an urgency as though the material he was going through was a matter of life and death. He taught persuasively, pleading with his students to think well about theology so that we would properly love Jesus, trust Him, and preach Him crucified and risen – because Jesus is the Life who conquered death. Wally was a persuasive teacher.
In my early days on staff at Northview there was a study conference for Mennonite Brethren pastors in BC. It was designed to discuss some of the theological debates and conversations that were taking place regarding a proper understanding of the doctrine of the atonement (which is the area of Christian thought regarding what Jesus accomplished in his death on the cross). I remember entering that event and there was a palpable sense of curiosity regarding what kinds of things would be said from the main stage. Wally was first up. He used his cane to get to the podium, but this time he did not sit down like he did when I was in his classes just a few years ago. Instead he stood tall and delivered his message Substitution: The Sure Foundation of the Atonement. It was vintage Wally. Clear. Concise. Convincing. And Christ-exalting. This long-standing, stalwart Mennonite Brethren theologian made a compelling case from Scripture that on the cross “the death of Christ was violent, vicarious, and victorious.” The event featured a few speakers and a panel discussion, though it really could have ended after that first lecture from Wally. Wally was a compelling preacher.
A Phone Call
Just a few months ago I participated in an event at CBC with another local leader in a public theological discourse. The event had two distinct parts. The first part included a brief presentation from both myself and my conversation partner stating our particular views, and then a moderated dialogue. It lasted about 60 or 75 minutes and it was designed for one of the theology clubs on campus. It was both surprising, and a bit intimidating, for me to look out on this group of almost entirely 20-somethings and see the familiar face of my favourite professor, Wally. He had his pen and paper out, taking notes more seriously than I probably should have in his class almost a decade earlier. I was hoping to connect with him afterward to hear how he thought the event went. What I really wanted to know was whether or not he thought I made a more compelling case than my conversation partner. But, he snuck away. The second part of this public discourse was scheduled to take place about a week later, and this time it was an event open to the public and hosted in the CBC chapel.
A few days before the second part of this theological discourse, I received a phone call. “Hello Greg, I hope it’s not a bad time to call. I got your number from your Dad… This is Wally, by the way.” I knew from the voice that it was him before he said so. “I wanted to talk to you about that event you did a few days ago. I took notes, and I have some questions for you.” He asked pointed questions – not to trap me, but to prod my thinking and help him understand my view. He forced me to crystalize some of my points. He told me that one particular part of my talk was a new concept to him. He reminded me that he was an old man who studied theology for a long time, and the fact that it was new to him doesn’t necessarily mean I was wrong – but he cautioned me (as he cautioned all of us in his classroom with regularity) that usually if a teaching is new it’s wrong. He didn’t say that I was wrong, but that I hadn’t convinced him yet.
He finished the twenty or so minute phone call by telling me that if he was up to it, he would come to the second event. I told him I would do what I could to persuade him this time. He showed up again with his pen and paper out, taking notes more seriously than I probably should have almost a decade earlier. Without a doubt, Wally was a persuasive teacher, and a compelling preacher, but he was also a lifelong, humble learner who simply wanted to understand what the Bible says.
There they are: my three reflections on the life and legacy of Dr. Walter Unger. But, actually, all reflections have one thing in common. Wally was a committed man of the Word. He spent his life studying the Written Word because he knew that it was through it that we could truly know the Living Word – Whom he is with now.
Pastor Greg Harris