Former 'Seminary in Exile' Dean Dies at Age 73

A memorial service will be held next weekend for a professor at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., who died this month of complications from leukemia.

Robert Harry Smith, a prolific author and lecturer on the Bible's New Testament, taught classes until the last week of his life and was one of 40 faculty members from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's Concordia Seminary in St. Louis who walked out in 1974 in a theological dispute that ended with the ousting of Concordia's president, the Rev. John Tietjen. Smith was 73 when he died Mar. 16 at his home in El Cerrito, Calif.

“He had an absolute joy of life,'' his wife, the Rev. Donna Duensing, told The San Francisco Chronicle. "He lived life to the fullest, each and every day, with a twinkle in his eye.''

Known for his engaging style, the biblical scholar was popular among students, particularly for the Greek dinners he often held at his home.

“Smith did not merely teach scripture, he captured its spirit and showed its relevance to present day concerns,” according to a statement made by Pacific Lutheran. “He was a riveting teacher; students left class wanting more; they wished semesters would never end. He taught scripture as proclamation; he wrote as a preacher for preachers.”

On his webpage, Smith wrote: “As a teacher of the Bible, I would be a failure if I kept my nose and students’ noses only in the Bible.”

“Christ lives,” he continued, “and God continues to act and speak in the world today.”

Throughout his career, Smith wrote numerous articles and books, mostly on the New Testament, and for more than a decade, he edited "Preaching Helps'' in the magazine Currents in Theology and Mission.

After earning an associate degree from Concordia Junior College in Bronxville, N.Y., and his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from Concordia Seminary, Smith served as pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Chappaqua, N.Y., from 1959 to 1968. He then taught at Concordia Seminary from 1968 to 1974.

After the theological dispute in 1974, which led to the dismissal of Smith and roughly 40 dissident professors, he helped form the seminary formally called Christ Seminary-Seminex, which later merged with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Smith served as dean for the “seminary in exile” from 1981 until 1983.

In 1983, Smith joined the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, one of nine Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries that make up the Graduate Theological Union, along with UC Berkeley and 10 other religious centers. He taught classes on the New Testament and Greek, and wrote a textbook, "Read Greek by Friday," published in 2004.

In addition to Duensing, Professor Smith is survived by his brother, Stanley Smith of Hartford, Conn.; sisters, Janet Anderson of Wayne, Pa., Margery Valenti of South Hadley, Mass., and Cheryl Zygmont of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; daughters, Roberta Brennan of Evanston, Ill., Judith Campbell of Bend, Ore., and Maria Kukla of Glendale, Mo.; and six grandchildren. Smith’s first wife, Emita M. Rivas, whom he married in 1955, died after they had three daughters together.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Apr. 8 at the Chapel of the Cross on the Pacific Lutheran campus.