I did not expect the visit to be as poignant and memorable as it was. After being away for nearly 25 years, I recently returned to the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Over the past year I have been working on a podcast series produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics that will narrate portions of my life as a minister, scholar, theologian, seminary president and troubler of Israel – at least the Israel that Southern Seminary became as it lurched to the right over the issue of biblical inerrancy.
I taught at Southern from January 1984 until December 1994, and then I helped several Ph.D. students finish their work after I moved to Kansas and Central Baptist Theological Seminary in August 1995. Part of the deal I struck upon departing was that I might continue their supervision. After all, if one is not in teaching for the sake of the students, one does not belong. Nevertheless, I was soon barred from using the library even though I was doing work for the school.
As media producer Cliff Vaughn and I walked onto the campus, memories welled up as I remembered being there as a Master of Divinity student from 1973 to 1975 and then another stint as a doctoral student from 1979 to 1983. Studying at Southern had been transformative for me. I had come from conservative Landmark country in northeastern Oklahoma, and the larger view of Baptist origins – or even the Protestant heritage in general – was not in my area of knowledge. A new theological world opened to me, for which I continue to give thanks.
“The administration did not want me to ‘poison’ any more students since I was not theologically trustworthy to teach.”
I did know of the school through my maternal great aunt who had attended the WMU Training School, completing her work in 1920. She attended prior to the seminary’s relocation to “The Beeches,” its current campus, in 1925. So Aunt Clema studied at the “House Beautiful” located in downtown Louisville. Although they could not be enrolled in the same degree programs as the men, the women were allowed to attend lectures. My aunt spoke of sitting at the back of the room (quietly of course) when the famed New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson lectured. Sixty-four years later, I could stand (for a time) at the front of the classroom to offer my gifts as a seminary professor.
For the filming, we began at the library because I wanted to visit my old doctoral office, see if my dissertation was still on the shelf and view a historical display that chronicled the founding, theological drift, depths of heresy and resurgence of the seminary as interpreted by the current administration. Friends had told me of the tableau as I figured prominently as exemplar of the HEResy that required the drastic measure of my dismissal.
Entry to the library now required a driver’s license, and I had left mine in the car. I handed my business card to the young man protecting entrance and remarked that I used to teach here. He allowed me to enter, but soon the archivist was hot on our tail, helpful but perhaps a bit suspicious.
I told him what we were hoping to see, but he said it had recently been taken down. I had seen a picture of it; my name was not spelled right, and I was the poster child for what was wrong with Southern. He was not quite sure where the display now was and suggested that we might look in the historical area of the McCall Pavilion, a relatively new construction on campus named in honor of the late Duke K. McCall, president of the seminary, 1951-1980.
Our next stop was in Norton Hall, the main administrative and faculty office building. I wanted to see my old faculty office and reflect on the joy of lining up on the main floor according to rank prior to processing to the chapel for convocation or commencement. Our names were put on the wall to designate where we were to stand, and the goal was to move up the line as one got promoted. I did make it to associate professor, with tenure.
“Studying at Southern had been transformative for me.”
One memorable graduation when the forces of antagonism were at their frenzied heights, David Wilkinson, then the director of seminary relations, planned a wonderful tribute to President Roy Honeycutt and faculty. He invited churches to write notes of appreciation and then had them taped to the corridor walls for us all to observe. I remember one card, written by a GA group (Girls in Action), assured us that they “had been preying for Dr. Honeycutt.” It struck me that that was precisely what the newly-elected majority of trustees had been doing as they opposed and undermined Honeycutt’s many overtures to find a way through the controversy.
We visited my office on the second floor of the east wing, and I pointed out how we turned the men’s room into a unisex bathroom with state-of-the-art technology – a key. I also pointed out how one day I walked across the roof to my classroom, thanks to a structure that made it possible, even in a dress. The trustees were on campus that day, and I simply did not want to be interrogated by them, as some had a habit of doing whenever they encountered me.
We visited my favorite classroom where I taught many a theology class, which always began with scripture and a hymn. And then we went to the classroom where I was scheduled to teach in the fall of 1994. Just a couple of days prior to the beginning of the semester, I resigned under threat of a heresy trial, so my Master of Divinity courses were canceled. The stated reason was that the administration did not want me to “poison” any more students since I was not theologically trustworthy to teach.
I went to the first day of class anyway and told the students why I would not be their professor for that semester and commended them to the care of Dr. Frank Tupper, who had been my first theology teacher. I enacted the sacrament of defeat and left the classroom tearfully. I was allowed to teach a doctoral seminar that fall, ironically “Liberation Theology.” Evidently, the administration believed I could not damage the doctoral students further.
During my recent visit, I did have a memorable encounter with President Albert Mohler. But I will leave that story for another day.