Sunday, June 21, 2009
In Memory of Southern Seminary
I tried to give them a fair shake; really I did—but I knew in my heart that I was just going through the motions. Still, I did visit a couple of the other seminaries; I accompanied our Campus Minister and some other Mercer students to Wake Forest to take a look at Southeastern Seminary and I did so hoping that I would like it since it was the closest Baptist seminary to my Georgia home but it just didn’t ring my bell and in September of my senior year I flew out to Ft. Worth to evaluate Southwestern which struck me as awfully big which was ok but when I went to a Dairy Queen to get lunch they had never heard of a Mr. Misty and they sold tacos which caused me to conclude that the culture shock would be too great.
Besides, the influence of Southern Seminary on the Mercer Christianity Department was great in those days; several professors had at least one degree from Southern and my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens had two; it seemed to me that the path that led from Mercer to Southern was the most natural one for me to take. Also, the talk among my college student Baptist preacher peers was that Southern was the most academically rigorous of the six Southern Baptist seminaries; one saying held that “if you love to preach, go to New Orleans; if you love the Lord, go to Ft. Worth; if you love to learn, go to Louisville.” I loved all three but I fancied myself a budding scholar and so it came to pass than in August of 1979, on the same day that Debra graduated from Mercer, we loaded up and moved to Louisville for me to begin my seminary education.
We would spend the next seven years in Louisville while I pursued first the Master of Divinity (with an emphasis in Pastoral Ministry) and then the Doctor of Philosophy (Old Testament major, New Testament minor) degrees. Those seven years had their rough spots as I tried to (a) process my grief over the still very recent deaths of my parents, (b) rid myself of the vestiges of legalism that still clung desperately to my soul, and (c) come to terms with the truth that the opportunities that were being given me were being given me by the grace of God and not by any personal merit and therefore I need not be afraid of failure so long as I was trying to follow faithfully, which most of the time I was. In other words, I was still trying to grow up while also trying to assimilate the call I perceived I had from God and trying to achieve academic excellence.
It is first to our gracious God and second to my gracious wife that I owe the outcome: I persevered.
But I also owe a lot to the professors who taught me at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1979-1986. Two merit special attention because of the role that they played in my spiritual, vocational, and academic development.
The first is Dr. Page H. Kelley, who went home to be with the Lord in 1997. Dr. Kelley, a devoted Hebrew Bible scholar who was also one of the world’s foremost experts on the Masorah (the protective “hedge” built around the Hebrew text by those ancient scholars known as the Masoretes), was the supervisor of my Ph.D. work; I also had the privilege of serving as his garrett fellow for three years. As Dr. Kelley’s student and as his teaching assistant, I heard nearly every lecture he delivered; I also experienced not only how he treated me but how he treated other students and that treatment was, while at times necessarily firm, always gracious and fair. Dr. Kelley had a kind and gentle Christian spirit and a genuine love for the Lord, for the Bible, for Baptists, and for all people. During the six years that I taught Biblical Hebrew at Belmont University I used the excellent grammar that Dr. Kelley had produced; I liked to think that I was in that way continuing his ministry.
The second, to whom I was not as personally close as I was to Dr. Kelley but who nonetheless exerted a great influence on me, was Dr. E. Glenn Hinson. Dr. Hinson may be the smartest professor I ever had; he was at least the only one who had both a Th.D. in New Testament from Southern Seminary and a D.Phil. in Church History from Oxford. During my first year of seminary I took the required year-long Church History survey with Dr. Hinson. He would come in most days with a stack of books that he would recommend as parallel readings to us; we would snicker down deep inside because we knew we’d never finish the assigned readings, much less get to any parallel ones. Dr. Hinson would begin each class with a prayer, usually one from Michael Quoist, which I always found moving and meaningful. Then he would lecture, I think without notes, on all the intricacies of the history of our faith; it was mesmerizing.
But Dr. Hinson’s truly lasting influence on me came through another class I took with him: Classics of Christian Devotion. In that course we read many of the great spiritual writings of the faith, ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Francis of Assisi’s Little Flowers to Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and from those works I learned, along with the other members of the class and the many others who were blessed to take that course over the years, of the great struggles that led to the great faith of those writers. Dr. Hinson’s real influence on me, though, came not through the assigned readings but through the way in which he shared his life with us, through the confessional nature of his teaching. Dr. Hinson gave me the freedom, later affirmed and deepened by the writings of Frederick Buechner, to accept and to build on all the events and circumstances of my life as I tried to live faithfully as a Christian and as a Christian minister. Like Dr. Kelley, Dr. Hinson is one of the most genuine Christians I have ever known, a truth that is underscored by the chagrin he will feel if he ever finds out that I said so.
While Dr. Kelley and Dr. Hinson had the most lasting influence on me, there are other professors who taught me at Southern whose names I would be remiss not to at least mention: George Beasley-Murray, Bill Leonard, William Tuck, Paul Simmons, Andy Lester, Wade and Jodi Rowatt, J. J. Owens, Marvin Tate, John D. W. Watts, Alan Culpepper, Gerald Keown, Bryant Hicks, Larry McSwain and Dale Moody all come to mind.
Southern Seminary is on my mind because the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is taking place this week in Louisville and during the week the Sesquicentennial of Southern is going to be celebrated. I took a look at the schedule of events that is taking place to celebrate that milestone and I waxed nostalgic; I wish I could be there but I cannot. I cannot because the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that I attended for seven years no longer exists; it died in 1990 when Southern Baptist Fundamentalist party loyalists gained control of the Board of Trustees and that death was cemented in 1993 with the retirement of President Roy L. Honeycutt and the ascendency of Dr. Albert R. Mohler.
In the rewriting of Southern Baptist history that has been taking place since the successful completion of the Fundamentalist Takeover/Conservative Resurgence, the story that is told is that the fundamentalists saved the SBC from liberalism and that, under the leadership of Dr. Mohler, Southern has purged its liberals and has been returned to its historical roots.
My guess and my fear is that in this week’s celebration of Southern’s 150th anniversary--since, in the view of those who are write the “official” history, the forty or so years immediately prior to the fundamentalist victory were dark and liberal years--those professors who gave their careers and their lives during that period to the education of Baptist ministers will not be given due credit, which is somewhat ironic, given that those are the very professors who taught President Mohler during the years of his M.Div. and Ph. D. work.
And so this post is my halting and flawed effort to say to Dr. Kelley and to Dr. Hinson and to all the rest—most of whom left Southern after 1990—thank you and God bless you because you provided an invaluable ministry and left an enduring legacy to me and to thousands of others.
In my heart, I have no seminary alma mater, which saddens me.
But also in my heart, I carry with me the spirit, the values, and the legacy of what the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary used to be.
In a way, it doesn’t matter; Southern is in its new way still a good school—a former student and good friend of mine just finished his M.Div. there and he received a fine education. Moreover, because of what happened to Southern and to the other Southern Baptist seminaries, many more excellent theological education options are now available to Baptist students of the moderate persuasion.
But in a way, it does matter—those of us who were taught and mentored and nurtured at the Old Southern need to be proud of it and to stand up and say so. May we pre-1993 alumni never forget what Southern used to be and may we never forget what she and her blessed teachers did for us.