Soul doctor: Jonathan T. Pennington aspires for transformational teaching
“I was long-haired, smoking pot, and in a heavy metal band all throughout high school,” he said. “I was miserable and didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Jonathan T. Pennington, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, likes to joke that his conversion story would make an ideal support letter.
“The before and after picture was so drastic,” he said.
After his father died when he was two years old, Pennington had a troubled childhood in Greenville, Illinois, full of “lots of rebellion.” Sixteen years later, he was a freshman at Northern Illinois University trying to clean up his life.
The turning point came in the form of a Campus Crusade survey handed out at the end of a cafeteria line. After reading, “Are you interested in spiritual things?” Pennington circled the “maybe” option, which led to a meeting with a Crusade worker named Craig, who presented the Four Spiritual Laws, a standard gospel presentation of Campus Crusade (now called Cru). After the second law — “man is sinful and separated from God” — Pennington was “cut to the heart” and converted to Christianity.
“I literally said to them, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was like the Ethiopian eunuch, as I like to say, except now I’ve had six kids,” he said. “I was transformed overnight.”
Pennington immediately became involved with Campus Crusade through leading worship, attending conferences, and reading his Bible. The future director of research doctoral studies at Southern Seminary and highly regarded Greek scholar first experienced Scripture while going through the college ministry’s simple material. But it worked.
“It was so basic; a read-this-passage-answer-this-question kind of thing,” he said. “But I just remember the Bible was alive to me. It was amazing.”
Pennington soon began giving brief devotionals at weekly Campus Crusade meetings. A naturally gifted speaker, each teaching opportunity whet his appetite for further ministry (though he’s sure his early messages would probably mortify him). A required stint of student teaching at the end of college convinced Pennington of two things: he wanted to teach, but he didn’t want to teach history — the field in which he earned his major. The Bible had captured his affection.
While in college, Pennington’s affection also settled on a fellow Crusade worker named Tracy, whom he started dating during his junior year and married after graduation. They have been married for 22 years, have six children, and frequently travel overseas. Pennington highlighted their trip New Zealand as his favorite.
After college, Pennington worked for several years in the Chicagoland area before attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and eventually the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he earned his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies.
As he neared the end of his doctoral work, he emailed Thomas R. Schreiner, whom he had met while at TEDS, and asked if Southern Seminary had any teaching opportunities. A series of providential occurrences — a single opening in the New Testament department, a strong recommendation from Schreiner, and a job offer immediately after his interview with School of Theology dean Russell D. Moore — brought him to the seminary in 2005. He attends the East campus of Sojourn Community Church, where his family also hosts a
“Like most things in life, you can’t really see the end. All you can do is be faithful where you are and the next step becomes clear to you,” Pennington said. “So I didn’t set out to be a New Testament professor, but every step just affirmed that’s what I wanted to do.”
Pennington says his classroom philosophy is driven by his desire to see students flourish in the way God designed, which goes beyond mere informational instruction. He says that the content of each class is the avenue through which he accomplishes his most important task: the formation of mind, soul, heart, and person.
“We’re not merely doing vocational training at Southern,” he said. “If that’s what we’re doing, we should just close the doors. What we’re doing is forming people to a way of being in the world in Christ, and that includes a skill set, obviously, but if we make that our main goal, we’ve lost the whole thing.”
If he can be known for anything, Pennington says he wants to be known as a minister of peace, not only in the classroom but in all of life. He hopes to train whole people who can not only think but also love. His pedagogy reflects his view of all of life, reaching to his role as a husband, father, preacher, mentor, and church community group host.
“I’m called to soul care,” he said. “I’m called to edify God’s people, and the avenue through which I get to do that is high-level academic teaching. But the point of that teaching is always edification.”