**after writing a good bit on this article I realized that I somehow had written more on my undergraduate experience at Belmont University than my Southern Seminary experience. This is one instance where I decided to let what came from my heart stand. I recognize the possibility that this post could bore you to tears. Nevertheless, I thankfully submit it as words from my heart and not my head.
I have graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. It has been a wonderful and life-changing process that has come about through a succession of equally important events that led up my time in Louisville, KY. I can remember so clearly the last day of classes at Belmont University in Nashville, TN where I graduated with a Religion and Biblical Languages degree. My last final was in Greek Exegesis and after the the test was completed, I just sat in the classroom. I could not believe that four years had come and gone. Never again would I sit under these professors who I had grown to love and respect. After about 15 minutes, well after the classroom had been abandoned, Dr. Byrd, my Greek professor, stuck his head inside the door. “Philip, are you ok?” he asked. I was. But I told him about the way I felt. He talked to me for a good while, just me and him, inside that classroom long after my parsing and translation of the Greek New Testament were complete. I didn’t want to leave it because I knew the end was near, I would never step inside that room again as a student. My experience at Belmont has made me pause on many occasions and reflect. I consider myself very blessed to have studied under a great group of professors who loved their students and loved teaching. My professors, for the most part, knew that I was one of the more conservative students of the bunch, but hopefully they not only respected that, but also saw potential in me as someone who was not simply a fundamental annoyance, but who was thinking through important issues. Many of those kinds of conversations came with a professor named Marty Bell. Here is one such example:
Dr. Bell was the church historian at Belmont and probably the best lecturer I have ever heard. Much of my love for church history today stemmed from him. Plus, I just thought it was so cool that he actually wore his graduation garments on Reformation Day. Anyway, he took his Church History class to visit the monastery in Bardstown, KY called the Abbey of Gethsemani. I was with about 15 students and Dr. Bell. We were going to visit the Sunday morning Eucharist at the monastery while we were there and Dr. Bell talked to us about the formalities of the service. I told him I wouldn’t be partaking of the Eucharist and when he asked me why, I innocently said, “because I don’t drink wine.” I will never forget the look he gave me. It was strange combination of “boy, this kid has a lot of growing to do” and “boy, I respect this kid.” Over the course of the next few years, Dr. Bell and I would have several conversations, such as the translation philosophy of Scripture, why the King James Version was not the only version of the Bible, and why he believed the Bible was “infallible” but not “inerrant.” Professors at Belmont like Dr. Bell helped me to grow and think past a “King James Only” mentality but did not brainwash me either. I have never believed anything other than the inerrancy of Scripture. And yet, if not for my Belmont professors, I would not be as far along in my thinking and my love of God as I am. I think in some ways, those old professors of mine at Belmont might have wished I would have taken a slightly different path. But, I also think they all are proud of me for who I am. At least I hope so.
The last message I ever received from the aforementioned Dr. Bell was written on a blank piece of paper attached to the last final exam I took for him as a senior. It simply said:
“Philip – Still Waters Run Deep. I have thought this about you from the first time we met. I still do.”
I still have that final exam and Dr. Bell’s note. I look at it from time to time. I wonder if professors realize that it is those kinds of moments that really shape students.
The one element of my experience at Belmont that was lacking for me was the shortage of spiritual nurturing that took place inside the classroom itself. This is one reason why my experience with Dr. Bell at the monastery and other instances like that were so important to me. It is one thing to be learning the Documentary Hypothesis theory. It is quite another to be learning from the heart and life of a man who you look up to. And I looked up to my professors. This was not a problem across the board and I realize that first and foremost we were there to learn about the academic side of religion. But religion never can be just simply academia. So, it was with great interest and excitement that I was able to listen to my OT and Hebrew professor Mike Ruffin preach at a small church he was pastoring. That experience changed my heart on a number of things.
This church was a small, country church with about 70 folks attending a Sunday morning worship service. These were good people who loved the Lord. And these were people who could absolutely care less if there was a four source combination to the authorship of the Pentateuch. I was able to listen and watch Dr. Ruffin preach and interact with his congregation in a way that showed his great love of people and his great love of God. That allowed me to take a different viewpoint into my second year Hebrew class. Dr. Ruffin, as any reader of my blog will know, is still a very important friend and mentor to me. But it was that experience of seeing him living out his great knowledge and intellect with his church congregation that lit another fire for me to take my school work seriously. Before I graduated, I spoke at length with the Dean of Religion, who was then Dr. Steve Simpler, about giving the opportunity for students to see their professors in those kinds of circumstances more regularly. I know for me it had a tremendous impact.
The other instance where Dr. Ruffin left such a remarkable impression on me was the first time I ever really spoke to him. My mom was visiting the school and we were sitting on a bench in the cramped corridor of the School of Religion. Dr. Ruffin came briskly walking by, clearly with an intended destination. I offered a simple “hello Dr. Ruffin” knowing that he and I had yet to have a class together and that he would probably not know who I am. Not only did he stop dead in his tracks, but he turned toward me and my mother, said “Hello Philip” (I still don’t know how he knew my name) and talked for a good while with my mom. I learned a lot from Dr. Ruffin during my tenure at Belmont, but that was the greatest lesson he ever taught me. I use it every Sunday, when things at church are so busy and I am doing 2 million last minute tasks for worship, I always try to stop and look at folks in their eyes. I got that from a casual encounter with Dr. Ruffin some 15 years ago.
At this point I’m not really sure where I am going with this except to say that Belmont University had an impact on me that ended up shaping me in ways that were not what I originally thought. The knowledge from the classroom served me in tremendous ways later in my seminary experience and the lessons from those special times with professors provided me with a knowledge that I treasure more than any other. My time at Southern Seminary would be, in a way, almost a complete reversal. The classroom served both as an incredibly intense academic exercise, but also as a place of worship. Yet, I do not have the same kinds of intimate professor stories as I do from Belmont.
Alas, I will wait until part 2 of this article to expound on those experiences.