For a scholar who has steeped in medieval Christianity and historical theology for four decades, Philip L. Reynolds seems to effortlessly bring a wellspring of newness to his ancient subject matter.
Indeed, he says that the greatest satisfaction of his teaching career has stemmed from working with students on the close reading of medieval texts, which they had typically never encountered before his courses. “This form of pedagogy is scary—in a good way—because it is always unpredictable,” he says. “Before a session begins, I don’t know how it will go or even what we’ll be talking about.”
Reynolds, who joined the Candler faculty in 1992 and retires this May, has drawn energy and inspiration from these unscripted pedagogical moments that keep things fresh. Throughout his 29 years on the faculty, his aptitude for facing the unknown—academically, spiritually, and vocationally—alongside his students and colleagues has underpinned an illustrious career in which relationships and scholarship have gone hand in hand.
Among his many distinctions, Reynolds is the only current Candler faculty member to hold two named professorships: He was appointed Aquinas Professor of Historical Theology in 2006, and his installation as Charles Howard Candler Professor of Medieval Christianity came a decade later. The Charles Howard Candler professorships honor senior scholars across Emory University who have shown outstanding teaching ability and productive scholarship in one or more fields of learning, and who have distinguished themselves through long and substantial service to Emory and in furthering the cause of higher education.
In other words, as Professor of Christian Ethics Timothy Jackson puts it when speaking of Reynolds, “Any time your post bears the same name as your institution, you are doing something right.”
Reynolds calls his 2016 installation to the chair his proudest moment at Candler. “I didn’t see it coming, and my career as a professor divides, for me, into before and after the chair.”
A bit more about the before: Reynolds came to Emory after teaching as a Downside Fellow at the University of Bristol in his native England. In addition to his position at Candler, he directed the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory (now housed at Candler) from 1992 to 1998, and he was appointed a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology in 2013.
He is also on faculty at Emory’s Laney Graduate School and a senior fellow at the university’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion—which he names as another career highlight. “Participating in interdisciplinary projects with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion has been an outstanding blessing: university culture at its best,” he says. He directed the center’s “Pursuit of Happiness” project, which ran from 2005 to 2010 and culminated with the 2010 Interfaith Summit on Happiness, which brought luminaries such as His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to campus.
The editor of two books and sole author of three, Reynolds’ 2016 volume, How Marriage Became One of the Sacraments: The Sacramental Theology of Marriage from its Medieval Origins to the Council of Trent (Cambridge University), won the Haskins Medal in 2019. The medal is presented annually by the Medieval Academy of America for a distinguished book in the field of medieval studies, and despite its small size—approximately 1 inch in diameter—it is a major award honoring exemplary scholarship.
But through all his positions held, honors won, and pages penned, there’s no question that what stands out for Reynolds the most has been making connections with students over the years. “I love Candler students!” he exclaims. “I have been impressed by their insight, commitment, and seriousness, as well as encouraged by their warmth and humor. I have learned from them as much as I have taught to them.”
And he’s taught them quite a lot. Reynolds’ research interests lie in Western Christian thought A.D. 400-1400, with a particular emphasis on scholastic theology and philosophy during the central Middle Ages, especially Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. He also focuses on contemplative and apophatic theology, and the theology and canon law of marriage.
Emory College of Arts and Sciences Professor of English James Morey, one of Reynolds’ many wider university colleagues, calls him an authority on mysticism, including the famous 14th century Middle English text The Cloud of Unknowing, a guide to contemplative prayer still in use today. “Colleagues and generations of students have benefited from Philip’s profound knowledge of the unknown,” Morey says.
Growing accustomed to not knowing everything—even enjoying it—has been key for Reynolds in his teaching. “In a professional school such as ours, I believe, it’s important to find a balance between the practical and the speculative: between ministry and activism on the one hand, and inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and the quest for meaning on the other. Both are features of religious faith,” he says.
“I used to tell students at the start of a course that we can sometimes benefit from walking through a forest without cutting down the trees to make useful things.”
Reynolds has walked through the forest right beside them. Third-year MDiv student Astria Wilson considers him one of her most supportive and encouraging professors.
“I entered Candler not sure of myself or my abilities to process the thought of ‘thinking theologically,’” she says. “But Dr. Reynolds reassured me of my academic capabilities and motivated me to be my best, and to keep going when I wanted to walk away or felt fear from the unknown. His support carried me through the academic process at Candler and helped inform me vocationally. His work and deep love for the early Christian church created a desire in me to want to know more about the first ecumenical councils and the timeline of the church’s formation.”
And, Wilson adds, Reynolds’ compassion for students is always clear. She recalls her final exam in his class during her first year. “He stood in the hallway to ask if we were okay, and how did it go. He wanted to make sure we felt our best leaving the exam, and he did all that he could to reassure us of our ability to master the information.”
That intentional care, paired with his reputation as a world-renowned scholar in his field, has made the reserved yet witty Reynolds beloved by students and colleagues alike.
To Associate Professor of Early Christianity Anthony Briggman, “Philip has been a ready source of wisdom and humor, a trusted confidant, a conversation partner, an ever-present support, and a good friend. He has been my senior colleague in field since I arrived at Candler; I could not have asked for a better one. He has consistently put his desires and interests second in order to enable my success.”
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Theology Ian McFarland calls Reynolds a scholar’s scholar: “careful, meticulous, exhaustive in his attention to source material, and correspondingly sure-footed and balanced in his conclusions. And these features of his own research have been mirrored both in his teaching and in his service to Candler. Where matters of school policy are concerned, he can always be relied upon to respond both frankly and thoughtfully, and his concern for fostering the best habits of scholarship in his students is unparalleled.”
For Assistant Professor in the Practice of the History of Christianity and Director of Digital Learning Sarah Bogue 16G, the opportunity to work with Reynolds as a PhD student in the university’s Graduate Division of Religion drew her to Emory in the first place. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Philip was the main reason I came here in 2010, and he has been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration in the eleven years since,” she says.
In that decade plus, Bogue has been Reynolds’ student, dissertation advisee, research assistant, and now colleague. She’s witnessed up close his commitment to his students, courses, and research—and notes that just because his subject matter is more than 600 years old doesn’t mean he treats it that way, to everyone’s benefit.
“I believe pedagogy to be one of Philip’s greatest strengths,” she says. “Every single year he revises each of his syllabi—adding new scholarship, shifting assessments, and thinking critically about what the true takeaways should be.”
Reynolds’ continuous refreshment of his course content also stands out for Briggman. “Our master’s and doctoral students have had the privilege of being taught by a scholar of the very first rank. A scholar, moreover, whose dedication to teaching resulted in a continuous revision of his courses in an effort to provide the best possible instruction to our students,” he says.
But it doesn’t simply stop with excellent instruction. Now a Candler faculty member herself, Bogue says, “Watching him connect with students—in small conversations after a lecture, in office hours, in lengthy emails and comments on papers—continues to be an inspiration to my own teaching.”
These connections have mattered a great deal to Reynolds. “The wretched pandemic has reminded us of the importance of day-to-day community,” he says. “Whenever I worked in my office during the semester, I used to leave my door open so that students passing to and from their classes could interact in whatever way they chose—from dropping in for a chat or a joke to calling out hello in passing. These brief interactions meant a lot to me, and I hope they helped the students, for being a student is demanding and stressful and sometimes unsettling.”
Indeed, third-year MDiv student Shoshana Edelberg calls Reynolds’ classroom “my refuge… He always had time for me, whether I was bubbling over about something I had read or struggling with my vocation.”
Moreover, Edelberg says, “Dr. Reynolds created an atmosphere of lively, creative, and collegial discussion in every single class. His gentle humor, wealth of anecdotes and multilingual puns made even the most difficult subjects approachable.” She adds, “It is no small feat to make Thomas Aquinas seem approachable, and to make the class laugh while unpacking arguments about ethics. But Dr. Reynolds accomplished it because his passion for his subject matter was always infectious. His classes were everything I came to Candler for in the first place.”
Current GDR student Jared Jones credits Reynolds, his dissertation advisor, with offering “crucial support and guidance” as Jones moved his PhD from modern European thought to medieval Christianity at a pivotal point, right before his preliminary exams. He, too, lauds Reynolds’ ability to bring new life and relevance to history.
“Dr. Reynolds has taught me what it means to be a historian,” Jones says. “He never simply taught history in his classes. He always modeled the virtues of a great historian through his meticulous attention to primary sources, his excitement at discovering new interpretations in conversations with his students, and his use of subtle humor to cultivate laughter, historical distance, and yet empathy with the historical texts and authors with which we engaged.”
Says Timothy Jackson: “As an historian, Philip himself embodies continuity and change, passion and action, in ways we cannot live without.”
These parallel traits have served his students well. Third-year MDiv student Rachel Collins, one of Reynolds’ last advisees, says, “He was thoughtful and honest as he advised us regarding not only courses, but life direction. He openly displayed an interest in our academic and professional progress, encouraging us when times were bleak, and celebrating our victories. He was a compass for me in a time when I needed one the most, and I will always deeply appreciate his wisdom and advocacy.”
After being a guide for so many students and colleagues, Reynolds and his wife, Sue, are preparing to return to their true north. “Emory is my second home now, but Yorkshire has remained my first, and I am happiest when I’m out walking in the hills, physically connecting with turf and stone and with history.” He knows he’ll maintain strong ties with Candler and Emory, though: “my being a professor emeritus will be a lifeline.”
Reynolds’ daughter, who also lives in Yorkshire, is expecting a baby this fall, so, he says, “this will give us something new to live for—although we shall find it hard to leave behind our son and two grandsons,” who live in metro Atlanta.
“And,” he adds, “I have another book to write, beyond the one that I am working on this year. My really good book is always the one that is not yet written.”