What united these two professors was a humble, sincere, and dogged devotion to the truth, to pious living, and to the person of Jesus Christ. Theirs is a loss that is sorely felt, and not easily replaced.
Scholarship in Charity
I had the pleasure of studying under both professors. I was already enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary, or RTS, when the D.C. campus invited Howard Griffith to serve as academic dean of the school. He had previously served for twenty-three as a pastor of a Richmond-based church in the Presbyterian Church in America (P.C.A.), a small, theologically-conservative denomination. He gave 17 years to RTS. I took one course from Dr. Griffith, a systematic theology course that was undoubtedly the most academically rigorous I took while a Presbyterian seminarian. I told him as much, and that I was grateful for it, a few weeks before he died. I also knew him more personally as a friend from church, as he attended a local P.C.A. congregation where I was also a member — a church, which by the way, was in many respects doing the Benedict Option long before the BenOp was a thing.
Though far, far more people both at RTS and at my former Presbyterian church knew him better than I, I will always remember him as a man who was not only an intellectual powerhouse, but as a deeply kind and affable man. He was very noticeably attentive both to his wife, Jackie, and their children, setting an example to the church of a loving husband and father. He also had an infectious laugh. I remember once during football season making a snide comment about Eagles fans (we both being Redskins fans), which elicited hearty, gregarious laughter from him.
Dr. Griffith was also a man I turned to when I began to question the fundamental tenets of the Reformed tradition, and became increasingly drawn towards the Catholic faith. We discussed many theological topics. Ultimately, we parted ways, as I left RTS, and our PCA church, and returned to the Catholicism of my youth. Though Dr. Griffith strongly disagreed with my choice, and told me as much in no uncertain words, it was always in charity. We communicated a few times over the years, via email and at weddings of shared friends, and I never experienced anything but love and kindness from the man.
Philosophy Balanced with Grace and Virtue
Several years after departing Calvinism, I enrolled in Christendom’s graduate theological program, where Dr. Burns was serving as dean. When I met her, I noticed that she, like Dr. Griffith, skillfully managed to balance intellectual sophistication with profound grace and virtue. I was blessed to take two of Dr. Burns’ courses, both on philosophy, over the next few years. She had quite an impressive resume, being a co-founder of Christendom College, and the first woman to earn her doctorate in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (the Angelicum).
One of the main reasons I enrolled at Christendom was because I recognized that I was quite impoverished in my understanding of philosophy. I made the right choice — Dr. Burns was not only a talented philosopher but an extraordinary teacher, as the current dean of the graduate school, Dr. R.J. Matava, has described her. Through Dr. Burns’ guidance, I was introduced not only to the basics of Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, but the many important, if erroneous, philosophical schools of the modern age: materialism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, etc. Her classes were intellectually demanding, but essential, not just for theology, but for life.
I wrote a popular article in the summer of 2018 arguing exactly this, that all humans, whether they realize it or not, are constantly making decisions based on certain (often erroneous) philosophical presuppositions. It was largely reliant on the lessons learned while under Dr. Burns’ tutelage. When I sent it to her as proof that I was applying what I was learning, she told me she couldn’t have done it better herself. I knew that wasn’t true, but it exemplifies the humility that was so ingrained in her person. Of all the courses I’ve thus taken at Christendom, I most consistently return to the lecture notes and reading materials from her classes.
Commitments Beyond the Classroom
Certainly Doctors Griffith and Burns left impressive academic and intellectual legacies, touching the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of students in the areas of theology and philosophy. But they were also both parents, and grandparents. In a time when many Americans, and certainly those of the intellectual and academic caliber of these two professors, have eschewed family commitments in favor of careerism, Doctors Griffith and Burns remind us of one of the most valuable legacies we can offer. Marriage and raising children, done right, are difficult tasks, that require tremendous sacrifice and commitment. But there are few things people can leave their communities, their nations, and their churches, than virtuous, God-fearing children who will impact the next generation. Both of these Christians seemed to knock this one out of the park.
Coming from deeply divergent theological traditions, Griffith and Burns surely would have had plenty to argue over. Yet they were both committed to the same project: a disciplined, intellectually thorough pursuit of truth; building happy, flourishing families; serving their local communities; and loving and serving God. The two represent what is best in localist, orthodox, biblical, conservative Christianity in America. We should mourn their departure from our ranks, and pray that God will raise up capable American men and women of faith to continue to carry the torch. Lord knows we’ll need such people.