Skip to main content

Remembering Rev. Dr. Howard H. Cox

Our seminary community mourns the death and celebrates the life of beloved professor emeritus, the Rev. Dr. Howard H. Cox, who passed away on April 15th at the age of 98. Dr. Cox, professor of Old Testament from 1960-1989, is remembered here by Rev. Dr. Craig D. Atwood, the Charles D. Couch professor of Moravian theology, who pays tribute to the man he describes as "academically demanding, pastorally caring, wise, and witty."

The Rev. Dr. Howard Cox was a legendary professor at Moravian Theological Seminary and I am grateful for having been his student, his colleague, and his friend. Howard was trained in the classic German approach to biblical criticism, and his specialty was the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Howard would walk into a class filled with first semester seminarians with nothing in his hands but the Hebrew Scriptures. After a brief prayer, he would launch into an in-depth analysis of the stories in the Book of Genesis. He would start with the different accounts of the creation of the earth in Genesis 1 and 2, insisting that students read the text carefully without trying to reconcile their different chronologies, cosmologies, and vocabularies.

He was a firm advocate of Julius Wellhausen’s theory that the Pentateuch was stitched together from at least four distinct ancient sources. It was a shocking theory to students whose only exposure to the Book of Genesis was Sunday school accounts of Adam and Eve or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Howard was aware that his approach could be disturbing to young seminarians, which is why he opened class with prayer. He was a demanding professor, and a very hard grader, but he was also a gentle man with the heart of a pastor. His goal was always to unlock the Scriptures so that students could discover deeper meaning and purpose in the ancient tales. He also brought a great deal of humor to his teaching and interactions with colleagues.

Howard was ordained on October 31st, which is Reformation Day in many Protestant denominations, and he believed firmly in the importance of biblical study as part of the Christian faith. He did not want the Bible to be reserved for the educated clergy; everyone should be able to read and understand the text. As a young man, he was deeply influenced by the theologian Paul Tillich, and Howard shared Tillich’s conviction that theology is for all people, not just for religious professionals.

For decades, Howard taught a Bible class for adults at Central Moravian Church, guiding lay people through the intricacies of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was still teaching this class at the age of 98. When I was his student, I was in awe of Dr. Cox and valued his praise, but when I became the chaplain of Moravian College and Theological Seminary I got to know Howard as a colleague. I learned that he truly deeply cared for his students as well as his discipline.

Howard loved music, too. He especially loved J. S. Bach and for many years sang in Bethlehem’s Bach Choir. When someone discovered an old German Bible that was signed by Bach, Howard took on the task of researching the handwritten notes in the Bible. He proved conclusively that the notes were by Bach himself, and Howard used that Bible to investigate the theological convictions of the great composer. When I returned to MTS as a professor, Howard was one of the first people to welcome. He often came to seminary functions, always accompanied by his devoted wife, Shirley.

He was the rare professor who embraced the role of professor emeritus. He was still coming to campus to work in his office in the library well into his 90s. I have been blessed by many great professors and mentors, but Howard will always hold a special place in my heart.