Henry Gustafson

1924-2008

by Phil Johnson

Henry Gustafson, outstanding Professor of New Testament and theologian, died September 1, after several weeks of treasured hospice time with family.

Most people with whom Henry had contact felt a special experience of brotherhood. He met us all personally, men and women, as the Christian brother he was.

I’m amazed at the extent of his ministry. I first heard about him up in International Falls as a boy in the ’50s. He was sometimes mentioned because he was a teacher at North Park Seminary and my people, extremely conservative, suspected that he didn’t really believe the Bible. Also, I was vaguely aware that our family was related to his with roots in Minnesota and Iowa farm country.

Henry Gustafson was integral to North park and the Covenant and he had deep impact on the personal lives of students and colleagues for many years. He is the same person who later invigorated the life of United Seminary. He concluded his Christian service as a Presbyterian Pastor’s Spouse and a Sunday School teacher. This Spring, Pastor Shiela and Henry retired to Minnesota.

Henry’s faith and Christian walk were moment-by-moment, always in the present. Wherever he found himself, he did what he could, sought to understand those around him, listened to them, and loved them. He did not seek places of honor but he was invited to the head of the table and to the place of honor many times.

After his outstanding, influential career at North Park, Henry did it again, teaching New Testament at United Seminary of the Twin Cities (UTS). His students and colleagues from United confirm that Henry revived Biblical study at UTS. Prior to his coming, faculty and administration were rather hard pressed to justify the relevance of required Bible courses to students who felt the only ministries that mattered were ministries of social justice—how did learning Bible and Greek help in that?

Henry changed that. Hundreds of students from a wide range of backgrounds and with divergent reasons for being in seminary (the majority by this time were women) took Henry’s classes and were profoundly affected. More than a decade after I had Henry as a professor at North Park, my wife, Sandy, took New Testament from him in the process of completing a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies (MARS) degree. Of course she loved Henry and loved the course.

While at North Park, Henry often said that perhaps the Covenant was the seed that needed to fall into the ground and die to revive the larger church. Many Seminary graduates were taking churches in other denominations and it was likely more would follow.

When Henry acted on his vision himself and decided to minister to other denominations, I was not surprised. He ministered so successfully that in 1985 UTS established the Gustafson Lectures. Dr. Krister Stendahl gave the inaugural lectures—magnificent lectures they were. This October marked the 17th Gustafson Lectures at United Seminary as Henry’s legacy continues.

The Gustafson children, artist Joan Cox and Mark, Professor of Classics at Minnesota, carry on the Gustafson-Holmer intellectual tradition. Their mother, Joyce (Holmer) Gustafson, former outstanding hostess in the North Park community, has been a member of the great choir of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and now lives in Saint Paul.

We Covenant boys and girls, especially those who attended North Park, celebrate you, Hank Gustafson! We United Seminary students celebrate you, Henry Gustafson. May love who is God bless your soul as we bless your life and memory among us.

You are remembered as the Apostle of Love and as Agape Henry. God bless you.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson