Professor David A. Dorsey: Big Enough to Be Small


On Tuesday, January 7, 2014, hundreds of people gathered at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, to bid farewell to our beloved Distinguished Old Testament Professor Emeritus David A. Dorsey, who died on January 2. I was deeply honored to serve as one of his pallbearers and one of the tribute speakers at the funeral service. Below is the full text of my eulogy.

Philippians 2:3-7: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When people talk about Dave Dorsey, superlatives roll off their tongues with ease. And rightly so. We need big words to describe Dave because Dave was a big man. Big in all the right ways. Like Jesus, Dave was big enough to be small.

• He was a towering figure among us, yet he never looked down on anyone.
• He was an intellectual giant, yet he communicated in simple and self-effacing ways.
• He was a genuine expert on the Old Testament, yet he never sought to be famous.
• He was a gracious and soft-spoken man, yet he was a witty cut-up who could leave you in stitches.
• He was a man who endured a long and painful affliction, yet he never complained to those around him.

Listen to people talk about Dave, and you’ll hear words like “wisest,” “kindest,” “humblest,” and “funniest.” You’ll hear phrases like “the most helpful,” “the most patient,” “the most compassionate,” “the most influential.” You’ll hear the biggest kinds of words because Dave was the biggest kind of man. He was big enough to be small.

That’s not the assessment of a broken-hearted friend and former student groping for consolation at a time of deep loss. I’d venture to say that that’s the assessment of nearly everyone who knew Dave well. So let’s just say it plainly and simply tonight: Dave Dorsey was a great man. 

As Christians, we’re not comfortable saying things like that. We know the dangers of putting people on pedestals. We know the pitfalls of hero worship. But I think we can admire someone without worshiping him. We can appreciate a man without deifying him. We know that Dave was a son of Adam, and therefore the Last Adam had to save him to make him a son. So in that sense, we can say big things about Dave without sounding like he’s part of the Trinity.

But let’s be honest—haven’t you, more than once, thought to yourself, “Dave is an awful lot like the person I envision Jesus to be”? I have. And I don’t think that’s heresy. Paul could say in 1 Corinthians 4:16, “Imitate me.” He wrote to the believers in Corinth, “I became your father through the gospel, so I urge you to imitate me.” Paul could say, “imitate me” because he was imitating Christ. And though Dave never actually told us to do so, we could imitate him, too, because he imitated Christ—perhaps as well as anyone I’ve ever known.

And, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 4, hasn’t Dave been like “a father” to many of us—a father “through the gospel”? The father we never had, or maybe the father we always wanted. Someone who listened to us and loved us—flawed though we were. Someone who was in our corner, cheering us on—stuck though we were. Jon and Ben and Sarah were privileged to have him as a father at home, and we were privileged to have him as a father right here as well. That was the grace of God to us. Thank you, Dorsey family, for sharing him. It’s not hard to see that he he’s left his mark on each of you, as well.

We often heard stories from Dave about his family. Jan—the prayer warrior, who is wise and kind and authentic and supportive. She took such great care of Dave these past years during his illness. There’s nothing quite so beautiful as a spouse who keeps her wedding vows “in sickness and in health.” She was the quiet hero behind the hero.

And we always knew what baseball pitches Ben could throw, and the velocity with which he could throw them. We began to hear about how Sarah was following in her father’s footsteps and becoming an Old Testament scholar in her own right. And Dave was so delighted to share a recent edition of the Evangelical Journal with Jon. Dave had two articles published, but he was even more excited that his son was published right next to him. That’s because Dave was big enough to be small.

I first met Dave in the summer of 1990. I was in Mike True’s office. (Mike was the Dean of Admissions back then.) He was helping me select some courses for my first semester here at Evangelical, and Mike said, “Be sure to take everything you possibly can with Dr. Dorsey. You won’t regret it.” About 30 seconds later, Dave happened to walk by, and Mike called him in to meet me. And Dave spent the next 10 or 15 minutes talking to me, wanting to hear my story.

I had just read an article about the Documentary Hypothesis, and how multiple sources supposedly came together to form the Pentateuch. (Remember J, E, P, D—that 4-letter word?) So I asked Dave what he thought about it. He said, “I’m not convinced that that theory’s right.” And he went on to explain why. And in that explanation, I heard the word “chiasm” for the very first time. I didn’t know a chiasm from a kayak, but Dave took a few moments to explain it. I was stunned by all the time he gave me that first day. I was a nobody—but not to Dave. He was big enough to be small.

Dave had other ways of making people feel important, too. Whenever a student stopped by his office to talk, if Dave was typing on his computer, he would immediately stop typing, take his hands off the keyboard, look you in the eye, swing his chair around, and give you his undivided attention. It was a small thing, but it caught my attention—probably because that wasn’t how I did it.

If somebody appeared in my doorway while I was typing, I would be like, “Hang on a second; I’m in the middle of this brilliant thought, and that doesn’t happen very often, so let me write it down before I lose it. Thank you very much. Hi, how are you?” Sometimes it was the little things he did that meant so much.

Students and alumni will remember that Dave didn’t want us to call him “Doctor Dorsey.” He wanted us to call him “Dave.” Remember how hard it was to get used to that? This brilliant Old Testament scholar—who didn’t have awards and accolades all over his wall, just pictures of family—he wanted to be called “Dave.” He said, “I’m not really smarter than anybody else; I’m just a little further along in one field of study.” To us that was a gross understatement, but he really meant it. He talked freely about the gifts and abilities of other people. He truly lived out Philippians 2, thinking more highly of others than himself. He was big enough to be small.

Dave would often say to anxious students taking their first Old Testament course, “Don’t be afraid. I’m the one on the hot seat, not you. You have a lot of work to do, but I have to deliver the goods, so we’re in this together.” He was so reassuring to those who were just starting out. He was especially reassuring to those who were struggling. By the end of my third semester, I had been getting good grades, but I was maxed out. On top of classes, papers, language studies, and deadlines, I had a part-time job, a wife, a 2-year-old son, and one on the way.

In the midst of all that pressure, one day I lost my patience with my son. I felt absolutely horrible about that, and I decided to quit seminary. On my way to the business office to un-enroll, I ran into Dave. I didn’t tell him what I was up to, but I’m sure he saw the distress on my face. And he said, “Hey, by the way, I just wanted to tell you, you’re a good student, and I appreciate the work you’re doing in my class. Keep it up.” How could I quit after that? That one statement changed my life, and the lives of many other people, because I never did make it to the business office.

Dave was a master at responding to the stupid things we would say in class. Looking back I marvel at the grace he displayed. We’d say something goofy about a passage, or something off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on there.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the text, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed. Dave was big enough to be small.

When you took an Old Testament course with Dave, you soon discovered that his main mission in life was to teach you how to look for theological insights in a biblical text. That is, he taught you how to find in any given passage of Scripture what God is really like (even difficult, obscure, arcane passages in the law). So every syllabus had it listed—the last and greatest objective of the course was, “To come to know God better.”

All of our training was designed to help us get to that payoff: learning Hebrew, how to do word studies, literary structure, historical-cultural backgrounds, biblical geography, archaeology—all of it was in service of answering that one question, “What is God like?” It was never about Dave; it was always about God—because Dave was big enough to be small.

And Dave taught us well. He was a “teddy bear” of a person, but he was a tough grader. He worked us hard, and risked unpopularity in doing so. But that’s because Dave wanted to raise our view of Scripture, and raise our view of God. In the process, he raised our view of him. That wasn’t his goal, but that’s what happened. We got to see Dave in action, and we saw what a truly remarkable man he was.

I remember how exciting Old Testament courses were back in the early 90s. I couldn’t wait to get up the hill on Friday mornings with my buddy Kirk Marks—from down there at the townhouses, up here to what’s now Room 110. It used to be called “The Blue Room.” Dave’s classes were magical. His lectures were inspiring. His slides were captivating. Reading his books and articles was illuminating. Eating together and listening to his wisdom was heavenly. I cherish it all. Dave could have taught anywhere, but he chose to teach here in Myerstown. That’s because he was big enough to be small.

And how about that sense of humor? Who else but Dave could get away with calling the New Testament “an appendix” to the Old Testament? When Dr. Buckwalter first got here, our Gospels class walked over to Dave’s Pentateuch class one December, and we sang Christmas carols to him. With great joy, we reminded Dave that there was a “better covenant,” as it says in Hebrews; no need to play around with Moses anymore. Dave took it well. But the following week, he responded by having 6 pizzas delivered to our class—and sticking Dr. Buckwalter with the bill. Doug didn’t have enough money on him to pay the delivery guy!

One day in class, Dave told us to bring our weekly assignments up and put them on the overhead projector. We said, “Dave there is no overhead today. It’s not here.” He looked over to where the projector usually sat, and he said, “The righteous can see it.”

Dave was a treasure and a delight. I wouldn’t be who I am, or where I am today had Dave not been in my life. And I’m sure that many people here tonight can say the same thing. There were so many times in those early days of pastoral ministry when I wouldn’t know what to do, or how to handle a certain situation. But by simply asking the question, “How would Dave respond to this?” I was able to get a godly frame of reference.

His response was always kindler, gentler, and wiser than my own impulse. And that made all the difference in the world, not only for me, but for so many other people in my congregation as well. I think our men’s group got the last tour of the archaeology museum that he ever gave. And he gave it when he was in a considerable amount of pain, just to do me a favor. He was big enough to be small.

In my first year of pastoral ministry, a man in Fleetwood asked me if I would perform an exorcism on his house. That’s not a request you get every week! But he thought his house was haunted—and as it turned out, it really was. The man was engaged, and his fiancé refused to marry him and move in until the problem was fixed. All kinds of weird things were going on there, and it was scary. I had no experience with that sort of thing, but Dave had recently shared in class about his own experience with a haunted house, so I turned to him for help.

See, I thought the right thing to do was get “super spiritual,” put on a Christian Ghostbusters uniform, and go room-to-room in the house, lighting candles, singing praise songs, and rebuking the devil. Well, as you can probably imagine, Dave had a different approach. He said, “Tim, go to the guy’s house, sit in the living room, pray a brief, simple prayer, and ask God to do for him what no human can do, and leave it at that. Don’t do anything strange like the prophets of Baal did on Mount Carmel—nothing that would bring glory to you or to some technique that can be copied. Just let God be the hero.” Dave was saying, “Tim, you be big enough to be small.” So that’s what I did. And God took care of the problem. The house was swept clean, the guy got married, and he was suddenly very interested in this amazing, powerful God.

Speaking of scary stuff, the first time I filled in for Dave here at Evangelical, and taught one of his courses: About 15 minutes before the class began, I had a panic attack. Not just feelings of anxiety; I mean a real panic attack. Heart palpitations. Hyperventilation. Sweating. Feelings of dread. All of it. I was incapacitated for a few long minutes. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I ran to the men’s room and found a place to sit down. (Tim Valentino, seated on his throne; how appropriate!)

And I prayed, “God, what in the world am I doing here? No one can fill Dave’s shoes.” And I struggled deeply for several minutes. But then I remembered something Dave had written to me on the inside cover of his Literary Structure book when it first came out. He signed my copy and wrote a very encouraging note. I also remembered some of the other notes he wrote to me over the years. Some of them were so complimentary I had trouble believing them.

But in the middle of that panic attack, I dared to believe that at least some of what he had said to me was true. And that gave me the courage I needed to go out there in that classroom, and make a go of it. What he wrote helped me realize: I didn’t have to try to fill his shoes; I just needed to fill my own. And with the training he gave me over the years, I could begin to do that. Dave wanted others to succeed—even those who began teaching the courses that he had taught for 34 years. He was big enough to be small.

And that’s what makes tonight so hard. I’m saying goodbye to someone I don’t want to say goodbye to. Someone I love. I’m happy Dave’s not suffering anymore, but I don’t want him to leave. And I know you don’t, either. It’s so hard to imagine life without him. I find myself saying what the disciples said on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24: “We had hoped.”

• We had hoped that Dave would have more time with us.
• We had hoped that God would heal him.
• We had hoped that Dave could keep writing and finish that amazing book on the law.
• We had hoped that he could teach a course or two in retirement.

But it wasn’t meant to be. And that really hurts. Like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, we’re disappointed at how things have turned out. And yet, Jesus was very near to them. They didn’t know it at the time, but Jesus was right there with them—which I find amazing.

Who are these guys? One is called Cleopas—whoever he is—and the other guy, we don’t even know his name. They’re not part of Jesus’ inner circle. They’re not part of the Twelve. So why is Jesus spending so much time with them? I mean, this is resurrection morning—the most important day in history. Jesus is fresh out of the tomb—King of kings and Lord of lords—and yet he falls in step with a couple of nobodies. Why? For no other reason than that their hearts are breaking. Jesus was big enough to be small. The manger tells us that. So does the cross. So does the quiet resurrection. The first Easter had no trumpets.

See, if I were Jesus, newly risen from the dead, I would have gone right to Caiaphas’ house, levitated over his bed, and scared the living daylights out of him. And then I would have gone to Pilate’s house, floated over his bed, and spooked him real good, too. “Hey Pilate, next time, listen to your wife.” And then I’d call a press conference and let out one great big, “I told you I’d be back!”

But not Jesus. No, Jesus falls in step with a couple of nobodies on Resurrection morning just because their hearts are breaking. Like Father, like Son. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord (Yahweh) is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

And maybe that’s where you are tonight. You’re crushed in spirit. I am, too. But maybe together we can dare to believe that God is still with us, in heavy disguise, like Jesus, meeting us in the pain of our shattered hopes. That’s a safe conclusion to make because—do you remember how that story ends? These two guys finally recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread. He really is alive, and so there’s revelation and rejoicing once again.

In his final days, Dave received several visions of heaven. We hear that a lot in pastoral ministry. It seems as if God sometimes weans his people away from this life by showing them the next. Dave said that what he saw was pure beauty, joy, and peace. Good had triumphed over evil. It was a harmony so incredible it was beyond description. This Bible scholar who knew 7 or 8 languages found it hard to put into words all that he was seeing and feeling. And that gives me hope. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has entered into the heart of any man the things that God has prepared for his people.”

But Dave was given a glimpse of what God had prepared for him. And five days ago, he was finally given the full picture. He saw the face of the God he loved, and it took his breath away. Literally. And now everlasting joy is his.

Thank you, Dave. Yours was a life beautifully lived, and all of us are the better for it. With Christ, we say to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” You fought the good fight. You finished the race. You kept the faith. On earth, you were big enough to be small, and now, in heaven, you’re bigger than ever.

6 thoughts on “Professor David A. Dorsey: Big Enough to Be Small

  1. What a deeply touching tribute. Thanks so much for sharing it. I never met Dr. Dorsey, but certainly came to know him through your comments.


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