Frederick W. Danker: Professor, Prophet, Provocateur?

Doctor Frederick W. Danker died on February 2, 2012.
                I read the news in the alumni news magazine from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and it hit me hard. I read the news and was stunned. Then I thought about it in the following days, when I had spare moments for quiet reflection, and I came to some important conclusions.
                Here was a man who embodied something so radical and so foundational that his spirit absolutely must live on.
                Most recently Doctor Danker was Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and was one of the world’s greatest lexicographers of biblical Greek and scholars of the New Testament. You can find a decent summary of Professor Danker’s career and accomplishments at this Wikipedia link:, and this newspaper article:
                But everyone who knew him would say there was always much more to Fred Danker than can ever be put down in writing. He was an experience.
                Searching for a word or two to describe “Red Fred” as we often called him to distinguish him from his illustrious brother, Doctor William Danker, who was called “Black Bill,” I first thought of “provocateur.” After all, being around him never failed to provoke or arouse a reaction. But an agent provocateur, narrowly understood, is a paid and planted stooge who provokes people to some sort of criminal action for the purpose of entrapment. Fred Danker, instead, was an independent actor who truly and spontaneously embodied something that had the power to provoke the very best in people and in the church.
                What he embodied was delight in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
                Red Fred had that shock of red hair that did stand out in a crowd, but it’s radiance was outdone by that unmistakable grin on his face. It was indeed a bit of a mischievous thing, but deep down it was always reflective of a heartfelt wonder at the power of God’s good news to change everything. Professor Danker would regularly refer to the “New Age” and the “great party” God was preparing. And with broad gestures and that ubiquitous grin, he would signal that these things were worthy of copious exclamation points.  
                I remember one chapel service he offered that was so typical of his ways. He marveled at God’s invitation to all, including “yellow-line straddlers” and “charismatic astronauts” and concluded with a karate-like swish of his arms, declaring, “Christ doesn’t offer the peace of the world, and neither do I.”
                And then he swiftly made his exit from the chancel and slammed the door after himself.
                Fred Danker showed us what someone looks like when the full impact of God’s grace sinks in. That person looks alive. That person looks giddy with delight. That person and that church doesn’t sit around on the “seat of its toga,” but  is supercharged and ready to take on the powers and principalities of the cosmos.
                Perhaps the most obvious thing Professor Danker demonstrated was an aversion to phoniness and pretension. He knew that humans are riddled with sin and inadequacy, and the worst tragedy in the world is that church people, who are called to be the messengers of grace, so often pretend not to need it. With his words, Professor Danker “blew the whistle” on all attempts at “image preservation” that is the bane of the church’s proclamation.
                In his life and in all his actions, he embodied this drive for authentic proclamation of grace as well. At the “pre-exile” Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where I had the privilege of studying under Professor Danker, we once had a campus-wide project of reflecting on what “the freedom of the gospel” meant. I interviewed Professor Danker on the subject and he got that huge grin on his face. He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for the idea. He said, “I’ll tell you what the freedom of the gospel is. At a faculty meeting today someone expressed disappointment in me. I hadn’t completed some task he was expecting me to complete. And he said, ‘We are all counting on you, Fred.’ So I told him, ‘Well, damn it, don’t count on me.’ That’s the freedom of the gospel.”
                Once, Professor Danker and his wife, Lois, invited my wife and me, along with another seminary couple, to their house for dinner. I was overwhelmed by the honor of this invitation and remember keeping a rather low profile. The other student was quite a bit bolder than I and insisted on calling Professor Danker by “Fred,” which Mrs. Danker strongly objected to. I was amazed by the brashness when the young man said, “I call all my colleagues by their first names.”
                During the meal the Dankers served wine. The other student swished the wine in his glass, sniffed it, and then sipped, declaring, “Ah, this is a fine one. What vintage is it?” Professor Danker got that wide smile back on his face instantly, produced the bottle, slammed it on the table with some force and announced, “A & P; three ninety-eight a gallon!”
                I must admit being a bit smug about that exchange; but I had my own bubble of pretension burst when I was newly out in the parish and was so proud of a couple of my first sermons that I mailed them off to Professor Danker. I’m sure I expected him to heap praise on me. I was trying, after all, to use the same kind of colorful turns of phrase and exuberance that I thought I heard in his preaching.
                But what my teacher noticed first of all was an unhealthy leap in my logic. In my attempt to make the Bible contemporary, I had fancied myself as a prophetic figure. He assured me that I did not quite come up to the status of a spokesperson for God. I was, instead, a fresh-faced, white-knuckled, recent seminary graduate; nothing more, nothing less.
                In spite of all of his great accomplishments in the world of academics, I never witnessed Fred Danker become enamored with himself. He was too full of amazement at the freedom, the joy, the healing, the gratuitous and overwhelming goodness of the gospel to ever get caught up in “image preservation.”
                And so, though he would never claim it for himself, Professor Danker was perhaps not a provocateur, but a prophet.
                News of his death reminds me now to preen a good deal less and grin a good deal more—all because of the coming great party.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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