In 1995, professor E. Frank Tupper published a book called A Scandalous Providence. It was an effort to weave together the mid-life deaths of two people: of his first and only wife Betty, who died of cancer in 1983; and of the one who died at unknown age on a cross outside Jerusalem. Thus, the subtitle: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God.
I read it when it first came out, while a pastor in Kentucky dealing with all the traumas of congregational and personal life. Like all the others, I was captured by its single, simple thesis: “In all circumstances, God does all that God can do.”
It is hard to capture a more elegant, elastic phrase for what the theologians call the providence of God. Frank was a theologian and spent part of his distinguished life trying to make me one also.
He came to the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1973, It was the golden age of that great school, considered by many as the global epicenter of graduate theological learning in a Baptist context. He was a first-year professor, and I was a world away in Israel, traveling the Holy Land month after month with his mentor and mine, Dale Moody.
Together they comprised half of the four-person department in theology at the seminary when I went to study in 1974. David Mueller held down contemporary theology and Wayne Ward held forth on biblical theology. Dale Moody was the systematic theologian of the group and became my supervisor when I began doctoral work in 1978. Four years later I finished, having sat through colloquia with that quartet of thinkers: Moody, Ward, Muller, and Tupper.
Tupper had the wit and the wisdom, the learning and the levity that made the experience so memorable. And one episode stands out. He, the young compelling professor was walking across campus, surrounded by an entourage of doctoral students, all of us eager to see and be seen with E. Frank Tupper. Someone, and it surely was not me, made a disparaging remark about country music; to which Tupper replied, “Now, be careful. I tell you I am a full-blown convert to country music.” He said it with a playful twinkle; but it all made sense to those who for years listened to his lectures about Willie, Johnny, and Jesus. And it helped me learn to love the same, especially Jerry Lee Lewis and Kris Kristopherson, albeit much later in life.
Tupper started out in Mississippi, where he was a star on the teenage gospel circuit. After Mississippi College and a three-year stint in Texas earning a master’s degree at that other Baptist seminary, he came to Southern to do his serious stuff. His study under, and dissertation about, the great German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was both original and important; it resulted in his first book and, eventually, a place on the faculty.
Facebook has been full of tributes to this great human being. It began with his daughter, Michelle, who had been posting regularly about Frank’s declining health. Three years ago, Frank fell in his own home, in the middle of the night, probably taking care of the things that we older men do during the midnight hours. His face-first fall broke his neck; he never walked again or moved with any kind of freedom; and (more serious) he could not resist the infections that beset bodies weakened by trauma. He died last week, surrounded by those he loved.
A resplendent life, wrote one grieving minister; a force, asserted another. For many, Frank was a friend, a mentor, a preacher, a guide, a teacher, a theologian of the first order, leaving behind that stark and sturdy sentence: “God does all that God can do.” That signature statement bespeaks the limitations God placed upon God’s own presence and power. But when it came to E. Frank Tupper, what God did was all that we might desire in a man, a husband, a father, a scholar, a Christian who embodied in his own life and witness the story of Jesus.
Thanks be to God.