Reprinted with permission from the September – October 2011 issue of The Fourth R.
Jon Dechow trod a path familiar to many Westar Fellows. Raised in a conservative tradition of Christianity, he began on the right side of the church, and through education and experience gravitated to the progressive side.
Jon’s path into religion began early. Influenced by his father’s and grandfather’s deep roots in the Lutheran Church’s Missouri Synod, he left his home in Michigan at the age of 13 bound for Milwaukee and a rigorous classical education at Concordia High School and Junior College.
He then entered Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and by 1960 he had earned his bachelor’s and master of divinity degrees and a prime appointment as co-pastor of First Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two years earlier, he had married Esther Toenjes, then a student at Concordia Teacher’s College in River Forest, Illinois. They had three daughters. Esther continued her education at Temple University and earned a degree in mathematics. Hired by IBM, she embarked on a successful career as a systems engineer and manager, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an independent consultant with a major Boston-area printer.
In 1965, Jon moved to Philadelphia to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania while serving as pastor of a Lutheran church. His research settled on early Christianity, and he followed the disputes of the first and second centuries over right belief and practice into their creedal dispositions in the third and fourth centuries.
His main work resulted in Dogma and Mysticism in Early Christianity: Epiphanius of Cyprus and the Legacy of Origen, with preface by Henri Crouzel (1988). The book demonstrated that the heresy charges against Origen of Alexandria (185-254 C.E.), “the greatest scholar of Scripture in early Christianity,” were inaccurate and without merit.
Jon completed his Ph.D. in 1975 and found himself at a crossroads. The politics in the Lutheran Church had become particularly nasty and difficult. He was 39, and the only academic positions available to him were either one-year appointments or starter jobs, which he couldn’t afford to take.
At the same time IBM offered Esther an opportunity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jon, who is a bit of a Renaissance man, discovered he had other talents to explore. He and Esther invested in property in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Portola Valley.
This acquired real estate knowledge prompted their later acquisition of 52 acres in Santa Cruz. He has spent 20 years off and on preparing it for development with a series of heavy-construction projects, while overcoming the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the intricacies of getting permits in Santa Cruz County.
In 1985, Westar founder Bob Funk and Burton Mack invited Jon to join the Westar Institute as a Fellow. He joined the board of Polebridge Press in 1988. Westar has enabled him to nourish his fascination with early church history. He and Esther are present at most Westar meetings.
“I appreciate the work of Westar in sharing with the public the results of modern Biblical scholarship. Biblical literacy is important. That’s why Esther and I have gladly participated in the Campaign for Westar. It means a lot to us.”