Douglas Templeton (1935-2017)

Graeme Auld remembers the life and work of Douglas Templeton

A Yale friend assured me in the early 1980s that the Scottish Enlightenment was still alive in Edinburgh’s new town.  He had passed a remarkable man in a battered green coat and a dark kilt, between the gardens north of Queen Street, pushing a young child in a wheelchair, to whom he was quoting Plato – in Greek.  I like to imagine it was the Gorgias, with its argument that rhetoric and cosmetics allow you to sound and look well, but that it is athletics and philosophy that really improve the body and mind.

After a Cambridge Classics degree, Douglas served for two years with the Black Watch, before taking a BD in Glasgow.  He then studied at Jena (in the former East Germany) and Göttingen, and spent three semesters at Tübingen studying with the redoutable Ernst Käseman.  His Glasgow PhD thesis, under the supervision of Ronald Gregor Smith, was on the Kerygma as understood by Rudolf Bultmann and C.H. Dodd. He worked for a time as assistant to Bill Christman in the parish of Richmond Craigmillar in Edinburgh; and then, in 1968, the famous year of revolution, he was appointed to teach New Testament on the Mound.  In May 1969, at the end of his first session in post, he was one of those who led the Dissembly – the alternative General Assembly – in the undercroft of St George’s West.  It did not endear him to the then Dean of Divinity.

Douglas’s lectures were always unpredictable, but very animated.  Sometimes he would be lying on the desk at the front of the lecture room as students came in, and he would leap up at the beginning of the class, taking up where he had left off the previous day. Challenging and elusive, he seemed to be very at home in the world and mindset of Paul, keenly aware of his rhetorical strategies and, of course, his sense of humour. He could also be highly amusing, though students were not always sure when he was being serious. His scorn of pretension and glib answers was salutary; and his kindness and attention to anyone seeking help with an essay or exam were exemplary.  A slow ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes’ in response to a question often issued into a return question: ‘You don’t think, do you …?’  And the questioner was usually satisfied that the issue had been set in a new frame, and far from disappointed that the question as posed had not received an answer.  One of his ablest students remembers writing an essay with which he was rather pleased, but Douglas wrote on it: ‘Yes, but isn’t it all a bit more difficult than this?’ So that, curiously, he ‘taught’ not by simplifying but by complicating.

One of his doctoral graduates remembers that he could be an intimidating supervisor, but was also kind and encouraging. ‘He could spot the flaws in an argument, and he could be trusted completely to be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of any piece of work you sent him. He inspired a sense of loyalty among his students, at times when his views were not always appreciated by the Academy.’  Central European graduates, from behind the then Iron Curtain, deeply appreciated how they were made part of a family, with friendly hospitality and meticulous supervision.  His months in early 1960’s Jena had honed his sympathetic inclusiveness of this small but important group of students.

In earlier years, he was a regular supporter of the NC rugby team, and his presence on the touchline was always appreciated, as was his willingness to dig out his ancient hickory-shafted clubs for the annual staff-student golf match - he was a much better player than he pretended to be.  Open House on Tuesday evening was a fixed point in Douglas’s week, from 1968 at 108 Rose Street onwards.  He and Elizabeth were renowned for their hospitality and theological conversations often late into the night. It was probably just as well that no lectures were held on Wednesday mornings in those days.

His colleagues of the 1970’s and 1980’s enjoyed the termly Faculty seminar at the Pollock Halls, the discussion eased – lubricated – by bottles of Port and Madeira served by Douglas.  And a former Head of School, who did not readily issue compliments, would have chosen Douglas, if he had had to be marooned on a desert island with one of his colleagues, as the most interesting and well-read conversationalist.  When he contributed an essay to a volume in honour of George Anderson, it came headed by a Latin Georgic in Virgilian hexameters that both saluted the Professor and introduced his topic, the Carmen Christi in Philippians 2.  The essay itself gave a rich foretaste of his 1999 study, The New Testament as True Fiction.

Graeme Auld, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament