Above image: Tom with the newly minted “Dr. West” at the Free University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands after Travis successfully defended his dissertation, May 29, 2018.
Six Things I’ve Learned from Tom
By Dr. Travis West
Over the course of Tom Boogaart’s 32-year tenure as a faculty member at Western Theological Seminary, he spent thousands of hours teaching, shaping the hearts and minds of hundreds of students. He taught with and supported dozens of faculty colleagues, helped design and implement several curricula, served under three presidents, and devoted his life to one seminary and its mission.
His career demonstrates what is possible when a person’s vocational ambition does not lead them to seek greener pastures elsewhere, but rather to sink roots deeper and deeper into the soil of the place where they are, enabling a mutually beneficial relationship.
This is one of Tom’s many legacies: his wise, intentional, prophetic, playful, and thoughtful presence shaped the character and identity of the seminary, even as the seminary (its students, faculty, staff, administration, curriculum, worship, and community life) shaped and influenced him.
I first got to know Tom when I was taking Biblical Hebrew I as a second-year M.Div. student in the fall of 2005. The first session of that class changed the trajectory of my life forever (more on that later), and Tom has been a mentor, colleague and friend ever since.
In the space that follows I describe six things I’ve learned from observing and listening to Tom over the years. The number is arbitrary, and I could have picked others (indeed, it was painful to select only six!), but these feel central to who Tom is and what he tried to teach throughout his long and meaningful career.
1. Coram Deo describes the soul of Western Theological Seminary.
Tom and I spent the better part of a year discussing the “soul of Western Seminary” over weekly lunches at Hope College’s cafeteria. Over soup and veggie quesadillas I listened to Tom talk about how formation and a sacramental impulse have always marked WTS at its best. At WTS, the heart of Reformed theology is not just an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but an invitation into the presence of the sovereign God, which theologians call coram Deo.
In Tom’s words: “The defining characteristic of God is love, and God, the sovereign of the universe, lowers the scepter and invites us into God’s presence. This theology is deeply personal, relational, and devotional.”
2. The horizon of biblical scholar ship is the life of the Church.
On the first day of my Hebrew class in 2005, Tom made an impromptu appeal to our class to consider that we may be called to interpret the Old Testament on behalf of the church (as opposed to interpreting it on behalf of the academy, or one’s position within it). Never in my life had I considered pursuing a Ph.D. or being a professor. And yet, as I listened, I felt an overwhelming sense of calling to respond. The call was so clear that I went home after class and told my wife, “I think I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I hadn’t even learned the Hebrew alphabet!
Tom’s commitment to the church as the horizon of biblical scholarship literally changed my life and has informed my own teaching and research in significant ways.
3. Metaphors Matter.
Tom taught a different and refreshing way to relate to the Scriptures.
Traditional exegesis develops tools that a student can apply to dissect a biblical text for meaning. Implicit in the metaphors of “tools” and “dissect” is a belief that the Bible is a dead object that we—the living subjects—cut up and analyze to discover its meaning.
Instead of what could be called “cadaver exegesis,” Tom offers the metaphor of hospitality of the heart, in which the interpreter encounters in the Bible a living and active subject. The goal is to make room in one’s heart for the Word of God, that it might speak a word, by the power of the Spirit, and so form us into the image of Christ.
Another powerful metaphor is of “steeping ourselves” in the Scriptures. As a tea bag transforms hot water into tea, so the Word of God permeates our being, transforming us into the pleasing aroma of Christ.
4. “Know what you see rather than see what you know.”
The great Abraham Heschel coined these words in his landmark study The Prophets. Heschel is saying that the easy thing to do with the Bible is see in it a confirmation of the beliefs you bring to it—seeing what you know. Rather, what is required for faithful exegesis is deep knowledge of self, so that you can bracket your assumptions and biases and thus see the Scriptures as they are, instead of as you would prefer them to be—to know what you see. Tom taught me that self-knowledge is essential for faithful interpretation of the Bible.
5. A professor’s first commitment is to his or her students.
Tom stands in a long line of WTS professors who embody this by working in their offices with the door open, attending daily chapel and community time, and inviting students into their homes. Tom never got caught up in the foolishness of professors being “better than” their students or even necessarily “smarter than” (degrees aren’t a reliable sign of intelligence).
He empowered me to teach with him as a student, then gave me some of his classes after graduation. His belief in my ability to teach was instrumental in developing my ability to teach. He has done this for others as well. He does not cling to power or control but knows that shared ownership with deep trust is the key to success.
6. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
When I first met Tom, he was a professor—and therefore not a person. Over time I came to realize that, even though he is full of Gandalfian wisdom and was WTS’s most senior employee, he is still just a kid in a 69-year old’s body. He is a jokester and loves to play. The Hebrew class he made possible is an example of this, which has play built into its DNA. A student recently described the class as “kindergarten on steroids.” And I think that’s a good thing! It is not an understatement to say that both the academy and the church are in desperate need of not taking themselves so seriously.
Western Theological Seminary is what it is today partly because of Tom Boogaart. The same could be said of me and many of his students and colleagues. Tom’s passion, wisdom, insight, storytelling, playfulness, integrity, ingenuity, creativity, commitment to justice, and collaborative spirit are qualities that I hope characterize WTS, the church, and my own ministry long into the future.
Dr. Travis West is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at WTS
At a Glance:
Professor, Encourager, Sage
Born 5/23/1950 Grand Rapids, MI
Married Judy Rietema on January 2, 1970
Children: Tom (Sophie Chatel), Rebecca (Jon Cooper), and Jeremy. Eight grandchildren.
A.B. Calvin College, 1972
M.Div. Western Theological Seminary, 1975
Ph.D. University of Gronigen, 1981
Service to the church:
(1981-83) Professor, Central College, Pella, IA
(1983-84) Professor, Exeter College, England
(1984-86) Professor, Central College, Pella, IA
(1986-2018) Professor of Old Testament, Western Theological Seminary