In August 1979, the day that my wife, Debra, graduated from Mercer University in Georgia, we moved to Louisville, Ky., for me to begin seminary education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We would spend the next seven years in Louisville while I pursued first the master of divinity and then the doctor of philosophy degrees.
Those years had their rough spots as I tried to process my grief over the still very recent deaths of my parents and rid myself of the vestiges of legalism that still clung desperately to my soul. I was also coming to terms with the truth that the opportunities that were being given me were by the grace of God and not by any personal merit. Therefore, I need not be afraid of failure so long as I was trying to follow faithfully, which most of the time I was.
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 Southern from 1979-86. 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, was the supervisor of my doctoral work. As Dr. Kelley’s student and as his teaching assistant, I heard nearly every lecture he delivered. I experienced how he treated other students. That treatment was, while at times necessarily firm, always gracious and fair. He had a kind and gentle Christian spirit and a genuine love for the Lord, the Bible, Baptists and all people.
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, perhaps the smartest professor I ever had. He was at least the only one who had both a doctor of theology in New Testament from Southern Seminary and a doctor of philosophy in church history from Oxford. He would lecture, I think without notes, on all the intricacies of the history of our faith; it was mesmerizing.
Dr. Hinson’s real influence on me came through the way in which he shared his life with us, through the confessional nature of his teaching. He gave me the freedom 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.
Other professors at Southern who had an influence on me are George Beasley-Murray, Bill Leonard, William Tuck, Paul Simmons, Andy Lester, Wade and Judy Rowatt, J.J. Owens, Marvin Tate, John D.W. Watts, Alan Culpepper, Gerald Keown, Bryant Hicks and Dale Moody.
Southern Seminary is on my mind because the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is taking place on June 23-24 in Louisville. During the week, Southern’s sesquicentennial is going to be celebrated. I wish I could be there but I cannot.
I cannot because the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that I attended no longer exists; it died in 1990 when Southern Baptist fundamentalist party loyalists gained control of the board of trustees. That death was cemented in 1993 with the retirement of President Roy L. Honeycutt and the ascendancy of Dr. R. Albert 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.
In the view of those who now write the “official” history, the 40 or so years immediately prior to the fundamentalist victory were dark and liberal years for Southern. My guess and my fear is that in the celebration of Southern’s 150th anniversary, those professors who gave their careers and their lives during that period to the education of Baptist ministers will not be given due credit. Given that those are the very professors who taught President Mohler during the years of his master of divinity and doctoral work, it is somewhat ironic.
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 master of divinity 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.
Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.