Editor’s note: This article was written prior to Molly T. Marshall’s resignation announcement. Its publication was delayed, along with the “Brother Molly” podcast about Marshall’s life and ministry, due to the announcement. The author has given EthicsDaily.com permission to publish the article in its original format. “Brother Molly” is now available here.
In the fall 1988 semester at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I took Molly T. Marshall’s Systematic Theology 1 course.
Prior to enrolling in her class, I was well aware of Dr. Marshall’s reputation as a popular, brilliant and dynamic theology professor. That course, and Dr. Marshall, altered the trajectory of my ministerial vocation.
A love of theology ignited (and continues to burn). A doorway was opened to explore the possibility of serving the church as a teaching theologian.
And my hanging around after class, or stopping by her faculty office, to ask questions were the beginning of a relationship that led to Dr. Marshall becoming my “Doktormutter.”
That relationship bloomed into friendship as a fellow scholar and theologian, a trusted mentor and counselor, and a sister in Christ.
If you have ever heard Molly preach or lecture, you quickly know that she uses “big words.” She does so not to impress. Rather, those “big words” invite the listener to journey deeper into faith.
Those “big words,” for me, were her invitation into the great cathedral of theology.
Let me tell you some of what I learned (and continue to learn) from Molly in the beautiful, transcendent space of this cathedral.
First, theology is attending to God.
In the classroom or in a rocking chair in Molly’s faculty office, I quickly discerned that theology is a sharing in the mystery of God’s triune life.
Theology happens as the Holy Spirit works within us the mystery of God’s word made flesh as we bear before divinity our joy, gratitude, lament and protest.
As a human practice, theology arises as we, in community with other disciples, seek the meaning of life, especially the suffering of life, against the divine landscape of God’s creative and redemptive purposes.
Second, I learned that Christian theology and faith are eucharistic.
Molly once said in a lecture that Baptists suffer from eucharistic famine. I have been wrestling with that piercing insight my entire academic career.
Not only have I considered the effects of such malnourishment, but I have also imagined the meaning of eucharistic abundance.
I learned from Molly that God is a eucharistic God: God is thanksgiving; God is self-giving; God is known in taking, blessing, breaking and sharing Jesus’ food; God is abundance; God is communion.
Stanley Hauerwas is right when he says, “Gratitude turns out to be not only a central virtue but a strong claim, indeed even a metaphysical claim, about the way things are.”
So, secondly, I learned to rethink everything from the reality of the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.
Third, I learned that theology is doxology.
With regularity, Molly began class with song. Good theology should and must be sung she always reminded her students. In this way, she taught that worship shapes theology and theology shapes worship.
As we pray and proclaim, sing and be silent, confess and profess, eat at Jesus’ table and baptize in the Triune name, we are immersed in the language of faith. Filled, soaked and saturated with the story of God, we press and write theology upon our hearts, minds, imaginations and bodies.
Fourth, I learned to discern who is absent from the prominent places in a cathedral.
Molly modeled and taught me that women’s exclusion from the ambo, the pulpit and the communion table diminishes and demeans the gospel’s radical vision of belonging envisioned by the Christ and conjured by the wild, liberating Spirit of God.
Such gender exclusion in ecclesial leadership personally and spiritually injures women, as well as, wounds the body of Christ.
In Molly’s Feminist Theology course, I truly began to learn how to be an ally with women in the advocacy for women’s leadership in the church.
The church rightfully images the triune God when women are readers of Scripture, proclaimers of the good news, officiants offering Jesus’ food to the people of God gathered at his table of hospitality, and senior ministers prophetically and pastorally leading the people of God.
Lastly, I learned how to be a teaching theologian.
In her faculty office in Norton Hall, Molly had two rocking chairs.
As a student, if you arrived at her office and Molly really wanted to have conversation, you took a seat in the rocking chair in front of her desk. Coming around her desk, she sat in the other rocking chair.
In that holy space, Molly would question, probe and push your theological reflection; she would challenge your suppositions; she would ask you to clarify your thought. Other times, she may guide a reflective conversation on vocational discernment.
In those moments, Molly exercised, in maximal ways, her gifts as professor, teacher, pastor and counselor.
In those rocking chairs in her office, Molly modeled a professor concerned with the intellectual, spiritual, personal and vocational flourishing of students.
My students at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky would say that I too like “big words.” I take that as a compliment!
My hope and desire as a teacher is to nurture in students a passion for theology, inviting them into the great cathedral of theology. In so doing, I honor my teacher and dear friend.
Mark Medley is professor of theology at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown and Louisville. He teaches courses in theology, ethics, Baptist heritage, and Christianity and culture. He is theologian-in-residence at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Lexington, Kentucky. Mark and his wife, Maria, live in Georgetown, Kentucky, and have one son.