Scholarship & Coram Deo

I recently finished Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar (Eerdmans, 2022). I was eager to read it. I am always eager to read an autobiography about the intellectual and scholarly life of a person so accomplished and prolific as Johnson. The author provides a list of his academic accomplishments to give us a sense of his qualifications for writing such a book. He has published over thirty-five books, over seventy-five scholarly articles, over one hundred popular articles, and over two hundred book reviews.  In addition, he has directed twenty-seven Ph.D dissertations, given four hundred lectures to academic and ecclesiastical gatherings, plus two hundred teaching videos.  Johnson’s accomplishments certainly qualify him to talk about the life of a scholar.

But Johnson is more than an academician.  Johnson was also a Benedictine monk and retains his monastic name, Luke.  As a result, Johnson says, “My long life of reading and writing, I have always understood, was carried out coram Deo (“before God”)” (15). According to Johnson, a love of learning and desire for God have gone hand in hand. However, the life of the mind cannot be divorced from the life. So, Johnson gives us a general tour of his life.

Reading about his early years strikes a sad first note. He lost his father before the age of one and his mother at the age of eleven. He and his brother went to live with his brother and sister-in-law in Jackson, Mississippi. The days were difficult, and Johnson recognized only later that he was an angry young man. His Roman Catholic school enabled him to draw down on that heritage his mother had instilled in him, and early he made the decision to enter the Benedictine Monastery and pursue scholarship.[1]

However, during his doctoral studies he became reacquainted with a woman named Joy Barnett. He had met her several years earlier in connection with a Roman Catholic charismatic group in Louisiana. Joy came to visit Johnson in New Haven in September of the first year of his doctoral studies. They spent a “thoroughly platonic weekend” together but at the end that time they knew “that they were more comfortable with each other” than with anyone else they had ever met (82-83). Surely, there is more to the situation. However, this scenario is deeply troubling.

Johnson says that they tried to come to grips with their new and powerful relationship. They asked, “Was it a temptation from the devil? Was it a gift of God’s Holy Spirit?” (83) In the end, Johnson and Joy decided that their newfound love was a gift of God. Johnson describes Joy and his relationship to her as the embodiment of God’s grace.  By Johnson’s own admission, his theology has come to emphasize embodiment. The implication is that Joy was already the embodiment of grace to her first husband, even if and especially if her marriage had grown cold, as Johnson says. It is hard not to read this situation as Johnson living coram Luke Timothy Johnson.

Consequently, Joy sought a dispensation to be released from her marital vows and Johnson sought a dispensation to be released from his monastic vows. Both were denied. Both abandoned their vows and lived in exile from the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, Johnson found a refuge in Protestantism for many years.  

However, this is not the only troubling moment that Johnson records. A little later in the work, Johnson writes about leading a class of Yale students “on the way concrete human experience can be analyzed theologically” (103). The small class was a success, according to Johnson, and he later taught the same to over sixty students. It is out of that context that he writes,

“Many students used these journals as a means of coming to grips with their sexuality. I was stunned, honored, and deeply moved by reading these documents. These stories, plus the story of my stepdaughter’s struggle to come out as a lesbian, turned me from a homophobic person to one who had to acknowledge the presence and power of God in the lives of all (104).

This open view was apparently made known by Johnson and so at Emory University he was known as “LGBTQ-friendly” (161).

The book is divided into three sections: becoming a scholar, being a scholar, and scholarly virtues. The final part of the book is hard to read considering Johnson’s life. Johnson exposits virtues that are hard to see in his own life. Johnson may argue that he is speaking of virtues pertaining to scholarship and not life. However, once Johnson argued that his scholarship was done coram Deo it is impossible to divorce scholarship from every day life.

For example, when Johnson speaks of the moral virtue of contentment as self-sufficiency or self-control, one cannot help thinking about his unwillingness to be content with a life in which Joy was not his wife. His actions show a decided lack of self-control. Again, self-control and contentment would have meant, for a clergyman, helping Joy to understand her place in an existing marriage

Another example is related. Johnson asks the question, “How could my own experience of failure as a monk yet new life with joy be understood in the light of Scripture?” 9183). This, seems to me, is an important question. How could Johnson have missed the story of David and Bathsheba as being applicable to his own situation? What is more, in the writing of this book, Johnson could have reflected Biblically on these past decisions and wrote of his need to repent. But instead of repenting for his part in leading Joy to divorce her husband he calls the whole thing a grace from God.  Indeed, the adulterer eats and wipes his mouth and says I have done no wrong (Proverbs 30:20).    

After reading this book I was left thinking, if coram Deo means output of scholarly literature and lectures, then Johnson was successful. However, if coram Deo means a life not only before God but conformed to his righteous image according to a righteousness revealed in Scripture, then Johnson falls short.  In fact, he doesn’t even seem to recognize his failure. 

How can I not have respect for a man, a scholar, who has achieved so much?  Luke Timothy Johnson has accomplished and achieved much. Yet, when that man tells me to measure what he has done by the measure of coram Deo, I can’t help but give him a failing grade.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Editorial Director of Ref21 and Place for Truth both online magazines of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


[1] Johnson writes of how a teacher from the school suggested and led him into his monastic calling.