Retirement Profile: Michael Williams
Published by Calvin Seminary
IT WAS DOWN IN THE DARKEST NETHER REGIONS OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN, CLOISTERED FOR A 70-DAY NAVY SUBMARINE PATROL IN THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC CONFINES OF A TITANIUM TUBE, WHEN MICHAEL WILLIAMS AT LAST ENCOUNTERED A POSSIBLE PURPOSE FOR HIS HERETOFORE DRIFTING, AIMLESS EXISTENCE.
“I’d been sort of free-floating through life,” said Williams, recalling the moment when the submarine began its steady descent toward the ocean floor. “It occurred to me that I could die down here. All it would take would be one crack, one rupture from a seawater pipe and that would be the end.
“And it hit me that if I did die, well, what difference would my life have made,” Williams went on. “Why am I even breathing? Why am I doing this? Nothing was making sense to me. The [futility] of living without any purpose or direction was crashing in on me. Where can I go for answers? What’s the point? And right then, providentially, one of my crewmates held up a Gideon New Testament.”
Williams had grown up in Tampa, Florida, in a nominal Roman Catholic family, but knew precious little about the Bible and perhaps even less of God’s nature and the possibility of experiencing a deep relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So when he was offered the slender Gideon volume containing the New Testament as well as the Psalms and Proverbs, Williams devoured it and began an astonishing journey of self-discovery and personal and professional development.
“I found [in the Bible’s message] meaning and purpose and direction,” he recalled. “I discovered that this is a whole new life that’s being offered in service to God.”
Williams’ decisive encounter in the salty depths of the sea touched off a passionate pursuit to learn more about the grand plan of redemption and the story of God, a journey that carried him to college, seminary, and advanced graduate work in biblical studies.
“No one in my family had gone to college,” said Williams, who opted to leave the Navy after eight years of service and find a Christian college to attend. “I found a broadly evangelical Bible college in South Carolina, Columbia Bible College, and it was great. I was exposed to dispensationalism, charismatics, Pentecostals, and
Reformed thinkers. By then, I had read through the Bible with fascination and eagerness several times. I would weigh what I was hearing against what I had read, and for me the Reformed guys made the most sense.”
That led him to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and then on to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. It was while working on his doctoral dissertation that Williams received a phone call from Calvin Theological Seminary, inquiring if he would be interested in a two-year lectureship in Old Testament.
“I had never heard of Calvin Seminary or the Christian Reformed Church,” Williams recalled. “I looked it up in Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People, and there was one paragraph about the denomination, which was described as the most solid and dignified bastion of conservative Reformed doctrine and church discipline.
“I had no idea what I was getting into here,” Williams continued. “I wasn’t ordained. I didn’t have an M.Div. and didn’t have my Ph.D. yet. I was a complete outsider, but they were willing to take a chance on me. It was 1995 and I read through the Acts of Synod to become familiar with all the controversial issues. It was clear that every effort was made to hold the line on what Scripture said, but not to require more than Scripture said—be as fair as possible with the texts. I thought to myself, ‘I could work for these people.’”
And so he has, with duty and distinction for nearly a quarter- century, rising through the ranks from lecturer to assistant professor and associate professor to full professor and more recently the occupant of the Johanna K. and Martin J. Wyngaarden Senior Professor in Old Testament Studies.
He takes leave of that posting “with nothing but appreciation and gratitude for the seminary. They took a great chance on me. I was completely from left field. Yet every time I suggested something, it was approved and encouraged. And there has always been good student-faculty opportunity for interaction.”
Williams said he has sought to use his teaching role at the seminary to serve the church with insight and scholarship that is accessible to the informed lay members. He’s written a number of books that are aimed at a popular readership, as well as a few unapologetically scholarly tomes. He’s also served as an associate editor for the NIV Study Bible and as Secretary for the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version and Chair of the Translation Review Committee for the NIrV.
“It’s been a symbiotic relationship between the classroom and these translation committees,” Williams said. “This isn’t just words on a page. I can see where the issues are. Some of the experiences I have had in the classroom, the perspectives of the students and their reactions, I can take that back to the translation committee.”
As he takes leave of the Calvin Seminary faculty at the close of the current academic season, Williams expects to remain involved in his longstanding work with the NIV and the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible. He also hopes to teach “an occasional course at the seminary, if they’ll have me.” There are at least a couple of new books that he is in process of writing. And he and his wife, Dawn, plan to visit their favorite mountain village in Switzerland a bit more frequently with a more flexible schedule in the offing.
By Bruce Buursma
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