Michael Goulder, 1927-2010

March 4, 2010

A leading theologian who abandoned a promising career in the church to become an "unaggressive atheist" has died.

Michael Goulder was born on 31 May 19 and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Classics. After graduating, he moved to Hong Kong, where he discovered a religious vocation that led him to be ordained as an Anglican priest.

Professor Goulder returned to Trinity to study theology, before working as a cleric in the Manchester area and then as principal of the Union Theological College in Hong Kong. When he returned to England in 1966, Professor Goulder was appointed tutor in theology - and eventually professor of biblical studies - at the University of Birmingham. He remained at the institution until his retirement in 1994.

Professor Goulder had a rare expertise in the Old and New Testaments, and produced important studies of the Psalms. But he is probably most famous for his approach to the so-called "synoptic problem", arguing that it was not necessary to hypothesise the existence of a "Q Gospel" as a lost source for Matthew and Luke.

The 1970s was a decade of great self-reflection among liberal Anglicans. Professor Goulder played his part by contributing an essay to The Myth of God Incarnate (edited by John Hick, 1977) and editing the sequel, Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (1979), both of which aroused intense controversy.

Yet it was his experience of trying to teach others that in 1981 led to a loss of faith. Professor Goulder said at the time: "You feel rather awful after you've kept people's belief going, week after week, and then say to yourself as you go home: 'I'm not sure I really believe this myself.'

"Gradually the penny drops, and in the end it drops with a clatter."

He would later debate his spiritual journey with John Hick in Why Believe in God? (1983).

Marius Felderhof, senior lecturer in systematic and philosophical theology at Birmingham, remembered Professor Goulder as "a great communicator and an excellent teacher", as well as "an outstanding scholar and one of the stalwarts of Open End - a philosophical seminar group for staff".

"He had a keen wit and intellectual courage, and was certainly not afraid to take up unpopular causes, challenging authorities if he believed them to be in the wrong," he said.

"He generated a great love in his students, even if they were at opposite ends of the theological and religious spectrum."

Professor Goulder died on 6 January 2010 and is survived by his wife Clare, two sons and two daughters.


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