The campus of John Brown University witnessed a large influx of new professors over the summer. Two joined the ranks of the Division of Biblical Studies as assistant professors, Chad Raith and Nathan Jacobs.
David Brisben, chair of the division, said 127 people applied within the first month for the job originally listed. The division ended up hiring both Raith and Jacobs because of their outstanding recommendations and the scholarly work they have completed.
“We have never brought in such young professors who are already so accomplished,” Brisben said.
Raith grew up in a non-Christian family. During college, his younger sister became a believer. Raith initially mocked her faith, but over the next two years he started asking questions.
“I lived in the Bible belt, I knew about Christianity,” he said. “It just seemed repressive. I didn’t see it as nourishing to the human flourishing.”
Christianity answered his questions about happiness, purpose and meaning, Raith said. For Raith, intellectual pursuits serve to solidify rather than undermine his faith. While he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, he has since achieved several theological degrees.
“My convictions have changed as a result of my studies,” he said. “But they are stronger rather than weaker, and some of the errors have been pushed out.”
“I enjoy studying theology, and not just because it is my job,” Raith added. “God is love, and when we study theology we are reflecting on his mind.”
Raith became the first Protestant to attend the doctoral program at Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution in Florida. His time there forced him to clarify his personal beliefs, while also becoming informed about Catholicism, Raith said.
Raith willingly asked questions which those around him would not for various reasons. As a result, professors sometimes asked Raith to attend their classes.
“We all wanted a robust dialogue,” Raith said. “We took one another seriously and knew we were not mocking each other.”
Raith’s experience helped him to “think the thoughts” of Catholics rather than merely reading about them, he said. His choice to attend Ave Maria, however, has made him “suspect” in some Evangelical circles. Raith has not found that to be the case here at the University.
“JBU does a great job of bringing together people from different backgrounds for common worship and mission,” he said. “I feel the opposite of suspect here. Questions were already being asked about Catholic and Evangelical relationships before I came.”
Raith appreciates the commitment of the students at the University to thinking about Christianity and not just accepting it thoughtlessly, he said. He added that he has received a support from his fellow professors.
Raith teaches Evangelical Theology and Old and New Testament Survey. He will also be turning the current Honors Western Civilization classes into a Great Books class, he said.
Raith and his wife, Ansley, have two boys: Charles, 5, and Paul, 2. They are expecting their third child at the end of April.
Similarly to Raith, Jacobs did not begin his academic career as a theologian. Instead, his first degree focused on fine arts painting and drawing. He still continues to make money from art, including receiving commissions for work, but his primary vocation now involves philosophy and theology.
He since earned a Christian Thought master’s degree and a Historical and Systematic Theology doctorate.
Academically, he focuses on the thought of modern philosophers, the work of ancient theologians, and the relationship between the two. As an example, one of his “hybrid projects” looks at how Basil, a fourth century saint, would answer the arguments of Immanuel Kant.
Some people may see his varied background as a result of his indecisiveness, Jacobs said. But he sees it as a quest to experience all dimensions of theology.
Jacobs taught at a variety of colleges, including most recently spending three years at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill. The schools he previously worked for have been more denominationally based, he said.
The University’s non-denominational background provided a more appealing environment. Jacobs praised the school’s “ecumenical,” or holistic, approach to Evangelical doctrine.
“Some schools have a list of beliefs professors must affirm to work there,” Jacobs said. “At JBU, they ask ‘Are you dogmatic about this or that?’ Here, they care more about how well you can play with others.”
“I get the impression that here at JBU when they say it is non-denominational, it is,” he said. “At other schools, the statement of faith can sometimes just be the tip of the iceberg of what they actually expect from you.”
This issue especially matters for Jacobs because he is Anglican. He described Anglicanism as a balance between retaining orthodox traditions and yet remaining independent from the papal authority of Rome.
“I didn’t want to be a grey-area person here, so I was very transparent about my faith during the interviews,” Jacobs said. “So far I have perceived a lot more curiosity from people rather than reservations.”
“I enjoy interacting with the students,” he said. “They seem attentive, receptive and engaged.”
Jacobs teaches Logic and Introduction to Philosophy.
Sophomore Christin Garrison is taking one of his philosophy sections. Jacobs understands that the material is deep and difficult to comprehend, she said, and he will not move on until everyone gets the general idea.
“He really wants to know what our opinions are about the different philosophies we are learning about,” Garrison said. “He brings modern-day clips of movies to try to tie in with.