Exemplars 10

“Unless You are Like Little Children…”

School of Divinity

Growing up in the small community of Long Prairie in west central Minnesota, the academic affairs of a university were hardly on my mind. The beauty and enormity of the natural world was perpetually nearby, and if one stopped to appreciate it, hours could pass in what seemed an instant. The grass seemed greener and the air fresher. The night seemed stiller, and the stars more distinct. The world was at once big and simple. I began to appreciate the work of art that is our world. And, as with any masterful work of art, I found myself in awe at the skill of the artist. This awe that I experienced was the beginning of my endeavor into the world of theology.

Born into the Catholic Church, the ancient faith came alive in a new way. I began to appreciate, in particular, the life of the early church and its growth amid, at times, severe persecution. While I was developing interest in the Christian faith, I also was growing in admiration for history and found myself reflective on the past. This reflection has now led me into the scholarly pursuit of history and theology.

In pursuing the earliest history of Christianity, I found myself in love with the letters of the great apostle to the nations: St. Paul. I wanted to know the history of Christianity from the very beginning, and St. Paul provided me with the very earliest Christian writings, which even predate the Gospels. In my study of St. Paul, I found it curious that a single, childless man–Paul–was so concerned with the image of believers being childlike.

Recently, I endeavored to understand more deeply the meaning of this image and metaphor of adults being childlike. Since most scholarly work regarding this image has been focused on Jesus’ teachings, I decided to limit my work to my primary interest in the Scriptures–the letters of St. Paul. Along the way, it was clear that telling adults to be like children would not have been a very popular message in a culture where the main goal of one’s childhood was simply to get through it, and where children were treated, at times, only a little better than slaves. At the same time, St. Paul does not always say it is good to be like a child. In fact, he often uses two distinct words for “child” in the Greek. One of them is always used with a negative connotation, for example, to describe believers who are disobedient, and not knowledgeable about good and evil. Other times he uses a word with a positive connotation, one that describes a believer who is in line to receive the inheritance because of his obedience, simplicity, and awe of the creator.

Through my research, I have learned that the culture of the time period must always be taken into consideration. For example, Paul wrote letters. Are ancient letters perhaps different than the ones we write today? What is the purpose of an ancient letter? It is difficult to say something systematic about Paul’s theology; rather it makes more sense to say that Paul’s writings were relevant in specific situations.

My research also has taught me to go only as far as the subject matter allows. This work has much potential to impact those in my field since it takes Paul’s teaching on childlikeness from many letters and does the work of systematizing it into an orderly account. Not only can this research be an asset to scholars in the field but also, I believe, it has something to offer to the modern person of faith. For me, this is the most exciting thing. He is at once a historically accepted inspired author of Scripture and a pastor to communities and individuals who actually existed.

Kyle Sellnow
“I found myself in love with the letters of the great apostle to the nations: St. Paul.”