Donald Bowdle: The Beauty of a Life Well Lived

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Don_BowdleI had heard stories about Don Bowdle before I ever encountered him. His classroom was the proving ground for many a religion major at Lee University. Don saw it as a duty to Christ to help his students prepare fully for the challenges of future ministry. This translated into classes that were extremely demanding, but very rewarding if the student put in the work. Along with hundreds of other students over the course of fifty years, I received the benefit of his wisdom, his tough classroom demeanor, and, most of all, his remarkable demonstration of a Spirit-filled life.

During my first year of seminary, I had the pleasure of returning to Lee as a graduate student to speak to Don’s systematic-theology class. Don had invited me and Todd Hibbard to address the topic of seminary training so that his current students could get a better sense for what lay ahead. As I recall we told them that systematic theology was one of those classes that had prepared us for graduate-level work. The exams alone felt like going through an intense Yoga exercise in which the mind was contorted in various ways as the fingers wrapped themselves tightly around the pen in order to maximize the speed with which words could tumble onto the page. Under Don’s tutelage, however, students were exposed to the wider world of evangelicalism and the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. The lectures, the exams, the papers, and the dialogue, all inculcated skills for learning and challenged students to understand and own their faith.

Don was what I would call Pentecostal in outlook and Presbyterian in form. This was his understanding of an “informed Pentecostalism.” The Reformed tradition was the thread that connected most of his educational journey from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia to Princeton, Yale, and Edinburgh. While not Reformed in the strict sense, he drank deeply from the Reformed well, and his students were better for it. He named his most important publication in the Church of God after the Westminister theologian John Murray’s work (Redemption Accomplished and Applied). In those pages, the student discovers an “informed Pentecostal” outlook in which Pentecostal blood courses through a Presbyterian body. It was Don’s way of being ecumenically open while remaining grounded in the Pentecostalism that nourished his spirituality. Such a fusion also allowed Don to be a faithful critic of his tradition, challenging it to a clearer understanding of the scriptures. I did not realize it at the time, but this was one of his most important contributions to his tradition—an openness to the broader Christian tradition coupled with a deep connection to one’s own tribe.

Entering Don’s classroom was an experience in itself. The space was sacred; a sanctuary dedicated to the love of learning and the desire for God. From the moment the prayer concluded, students put pens to paper, jotting down every word uttered from his lips. One never knew on a future exam what part of the lecture would be in play. This was part of Don’s technique. Nothing was casually uttered in his class, even if it might seem to be so at the time. If you did not pay attention, if you didn’t get the “Oh, by the way, you should. . .” you were in trouble. Many students faltered at the start because they did not realize that they were in the presence of a man who offered up every syllable to God for his glory and human enjoyment. He wanted his students to do the same and attention to detail was his way of inculcating that trait.

The wisdom of Donald Bowdle was not simply a “bookish” knowledge about life, although there is no doubt he was a bibliophile. For Don, theology was about life, its joys and pains. The same Spirit who inspired a greater vision of God, empowered the believer to move through the valleys and up the mountains. In 1992 I witnessed this perspective in action when Don had to face his first wife Nancy’s battle with the disease that ultimately took her life. I recall being in the Bowdle home with my wife when Don returned from teaching at Lee one day. We were there to help Nancy while Don was taking care of his duties at school. When he entered the house, he immediately went to Nancy, got down on one knee and inquired about her day; how she was feeling, what had happened—no stone was left unturned. As an over-eager student I wanted to engage him in deep theological conversation, but Dr. Bowdle completely ignored me. Nancy was his world, which was how it should be.

Later that summer, I heard Don preach one of the most theologically rich and emotionally jarring sermons I had ever encountered. It was out of Lamentations 3:22 and Jeremiah’s hope in the midst of Israel’s exile. With tears in his eyes, the steely eyed classroom professor became the searching, questioning husband who, nevertheless, proclaimed the faithfulness of God amidst life’s tragedies and uncertainties. We prayed with Don Bowdle that night at Westmore Church of God that God would heal and deliver Nancy, but, in his sovereignty, God saw fit to take her home. Through this tragedy, I witnessed Don’s theology in action. There was no dichotomy between academy and church in his life. Theology was about life.

Theology was also about baseball. A true man of his generation, Don Bowdle was a baseball fanatic. I thought of him as the George Will of Cleveland, Tennessee. He loved the game and could go from a intense discussion of its intricacies to an infectious enthusiasm for its play. A good friend, Todd Hibbard once recalled taking Don to a spring-training game in Florida. Don had come down to preach at a church in Lakeland, but punctuated his visit with a little extra-curricular activity. Todd said that watching Don’s face light up at the ball park was an experience he would not forget. There was a boyish grin to the old professor as he watched young players ply their craft on the field. As C.S. Lewis once noted, God transposes his joy into all kinds of created forms. For Don, baseball was one of those forms.

When I later returned to Lee as a professor in 1999, I found a joyous Don Bowdle, madly in love again with Jean. I came to see how much their love was a healing balm for both of them. They were God’s gift to one another, and together they became God’s gift to others. I found out how much of a gift when I walked into Don’s office and asked, “What shall I call you Dr. Bowdle?” At the time, I could not imagine calling him anything other than Dr. Bowdle. His response was swift and gentle: “Call me Don. We are colleagues now.” Those words were life to me as a young professor, trying to fit in to a place I had only known as a student. It was acceptance, a passing of the torch from one generation to another.

Every educational institution needs a Donald Bowdle. Someone who dedicates himself to its flourishing, whose tenacity and creativity will not see it fail. Don’s life is woven into the fabric of Lee University, from the building that bears his name to his words in the catalogue to his imprint upon the students that have filled its spaces. He embodied the wisdom of allowing learning to shape one’s existence. Theology, baseball, reading James Michener novels, traveling broadly in mind and body, this was the “stuff” of his life. When I think of Don Bowdle, I am reminded of the final paragraph of Norman Maclean’s novella: “The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” He was one of those rivers, cut from the rocks by the great flood of life. His is the beauty forged from a life well lived, and this may be his most lasting legacy.

Dale M. Coulter
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3 Responses to “Donald Bowdle: The Beauty of a Life Well Lived”

  1. Kim Roebuck says:

    Dale — thanks for this beautiful dedication to Don Bowdle. I never had him for a class but had heard many comments about it. Your tribute provided some needed context for his work and life. Thank you for insight into this wonderful man. Kim

  2. Dr. Coulter – What a wonderful tribute to Dr. Bowdle. He was a wonderful man, scholar, professor, and Christian. He opened a world to me that I did not know existed. I had no idea how deep and wide the river of Christian theology runs, but he gave me a hunger and thirst to immerse myself in it.
    His Presbyterian flavor greatly influenced me as well. I graduated from a Presbyterian seminary but landed in the UMC and there is lots of room for a strong theology of the Holy Spirit in both. Dr. Bowdle will be greatly missed and the world will be a little less joyful without him.

    Jason D. Greene
    M.A.R.
    M.A.C.M.
    Pastor, Neel UMC, Hartselle, Alabama

  3. John Epley says:

    Dr. Bowdle was more to me than a teacher. I have never wanted a professor’s approval more than his. Then I realized it was not the instructor’s approval that I wanted, but the spiritual leader of our faith. We had a common bond in being from Maryland. I will miss him.