You can read part 1 of my reflection here.
I concluded the first part of my reflections on Southern Seminary by describing a few soul-changing experiences at Belmont University, my undergraduate Alma-mater, and how those events led me ultimately to SBTS. When it came time to continue my religious education, I began taking a look at a few schools and applied to a couple. Since I lived only 3 hours from Louisville and the SBTS campus, Andi and I jumped in the car and drove up for a visit. That was the deciding factor. There was something about the campus, the city, and students, and the brief discussions I had with professors during that visit that cemented for both me and Andi that Southern Seminary was going to be our home for the next three years. So, we moved from middle TN to Louisville, KY where I began serving at Graefenburg Baptist Church.
My first class at SBTS was Greek with Dr. Jonathan Pennington. The very first thing he did when he entered the classroom was to look at the class and say, “let’s pray.” Dr. Pennington then dove into a prayer about how Greek needs to ultimately strengthen our relationship with God, to empower our ministries, and to cause a greater appreciation for Scripture. I started looking around the room to see if anyone else was freaking out. This was so foreign to me in an academic classroom. He spent the first five minutes of class earnestly praying. I must confess to have thought at this point, “oh man, I have got myself into just a big Sunday School situation with no academic excellence.” Then, Dr. Pennington said “amen” and proceeded to blow our minds for the next 45 minutes with his great knowledge of the Greek language. I quickly discovered that the speed and difficulty of the class were going to far surpass what I had previously experienced.
From there I entered my Systematic Theology course with Dr. Bruce Ware. It is because of the courses with Bruce Ware that I developed a greater appreciation for theology. There is a contagious influence about Bruce Ware and his passion, love, and reverence for the supremacy of Christ and the glory of God rocks the walls of the classroom. I was with my good friend Patrick Hamilton during this first class and I can remember us looking at one another and saying, “oh my goodness.” That passion of Dr. Ware soon had Patrick digging in his Bible and becoming almost angry that some of his previously held convictions were on shaky ground. I remember thinking, “why am I just now hearing this stuff?” This was the first time that many concepts about God which I had believed were being put into words that made sense. Dr. Ware’s classes helped take what was already in heart of heart’s and put shape to it. Patrick would soon approach Dr. Ware with almost a tone of contempt because the good Dr. had been so overwhelming to Patrick’s way of thinking. It wasn’t long, though, that both Patrick and I were thankful and amazed at having been placed in Bruce Ware’s class.
Then it was on to my first class with Tom Schreiner, probably the seminary’s “most famous” professor. This guy is nuts, brilliant, and usually leaves you wondering what in the world he had just said. Schreiner’s lectures were fun because he would throw very, very random thoughts right smack dab in the middle of his teaching, which would leave us thinking, “is he serious?” The funniest of these came from a teaching on Matthew 19:24 where Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to
go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter
the kingdom of God.” Dr. Schreiner, with no change in his inflection says, “If you really think about it, it actually is possible for a camel to go through a needle’s eye.” All of us paused and the classroom was dead silent with 50 students trying to figure out how a camel actually can go through the eye of a needle. Then, Dr. Scheiner says with a slight laugh, “no, it really isn’t actually.” Schreiner would regularly point us to liberal theologians, taught us to appreciate but not to necessarily adhere to voices outside of evangelical conservatism, and was level-headed in his approach to theological conviction. Yes, he is very conservative. But Schreiner is one of the influences at SBTS that I believe attackers of the seminary do not understand or appreciate.
Which is too bad. My seminary experience at Southern showed me that a good number of folks focus on one aspect of the seminary life, namely Calvinism, and neglect so much good work that is happening there, good work that crosses the conservative-moderate divide. The emphasis on missions is staggering. It is truly staggering. The chapel preaching and worship is phenomenal. The lectures and events held at the seminary, from a host of different speakers from different denominations and even from the Catholic church, are diversified and helpful. For example, one upcoming history conference is centered on the theme “Baptists and War.” The seminary just simply made me want to be a better follower of Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, that is really the bottom line. My devotion to my God, my wife, and my ministry were all incredibly affected for the better because of SBTS.
The one area that was missing in my SBTS experience was the meaningful, personal, timeless relationships with the professors. Although the classroom was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, I missed the outside classroom interaction. There are a few reasons for this. First, the seminary is huge and growing every semester. The School of Religion at Belmont was one narrow hallway with 50 students. That atmosphere lends itself to more personal relationships. Plus, I was married with a kid. That tends to take away from the hanging out at the school all day mentality. And, to their defense, the seminary offered “Shepherding Groups” where you would be assigned to a specific professor to get to know them. They really pushed every student to sign up. I never did because I wanted to spend evenings at home and because my church was nearly an hour away. I didn’t need something else to occupy time. Still yet, even with those things, the demand for scholarship that is placed on the seminary faculty, perhaps rightfully so, has them engaged in a host of other projects that inevitably takes their time away from informal time with the students. Ever professor has written books and is basically expected to be writing something for the future. Many professors are members of ETS and have time devoted to that every year; Dr. Ware actually served as president during my time there. So, I have more deeply personal and relational stories from Belmont University and the professors there than I do SBTS and those professors.
Finally, there is one word that I would use to summarize the philosophy and direction of the seminary. Truth. The SBTS slogan is “Truth, Legacy, Vision” and truth is rightfully put first in that simple slogan because the seminary does take specific stands on issues. Not everything mind you. There are plenty, and I mean plenty of issues that the faculty differ on and there is light-hearted, often humorous debate between professors. Here are a couple that I was privy to during my time there: What was the nature of the Holy Spirit in the OT – was it indwelling? Views on end times – Dr. Scheiner changed his mind twice during my three years on campus (he is currently holding to Amillennialism). Was Jesus’ glorified body able to literally walk through doors or did he just simply open doors? 5 points of Calvinism (Dr. Ware, the leading theologian of the seminary, is not a 5 pointer). The meaning of the word “Holy” – is “set apart” really the core essence behind that word? (this was one of the more fascinating and thought provoking issues). The list goes on.
Still yet, the seminary makes no apology for the Bible being the inerrant, infallible, authoritative word of God and makes certain that every class, regardless of subject matter, judges all matters by Scripture itself. The sovereignty of God is heralded across the campus, as is the responsibility of human choice. The exclusive nature of Christianity is embraced and taught, meaning that Christ is the only way to the Father. Varying roles for men and women in the church and home is taught; case-in-point, Dr. Stinson, Dean for the School of Church Ministry, is president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. For me, the balance between firmly standing on Scripture as truth and teaching it accordingly with the understanding that there will be varying interpretations on some less-important issues was a great and welcomed philosophy. The seminary has, no doubt, draw some lines as to what those “less-important” issues are. Thank God. I can remember being so frustrated (and it still frustrates me, it wasn’t just a “learning” experience) in my undergraduate Belmont University “Letters of Paul” class. My professor organized the class around various questions about Paul, such as whether or not Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was really a conversion experience (which I thought then and still do think that is a ridiculous question). Not once, not a single time, did my professor ever come down on an issue. Never. I remember thinking, good grief man, don’t you take a stand on anything? No doubt he did and was relenting for the purposes of “true education”, but that doesn’t help students in my opinion. So, for the seminary to come down specifically on some issues was a blessing to me.
Finally, let me conclude by acknowledging my gratefulness for both schools I have attended. God blessed me with four great years at Belmont University. God blessed me with three great years at SBTS. The balance of philosophy, teaching, and interaction at both schools has helped me to think theologically and draw closer to God. I can say with all confidence that I am not a “fundamentalist” in the worst sense of the word because of the good people at Belmont. I can say with all confidence that I have a deeper love for God and sharper theological mind because of the good people at SBTS. I can also say with all confidence that God knew what He was doing by placing me in both schools. And perhaps at the end of the day, that is where this discussion is best left.
And so I will leave it, thanking both Belmont University and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for being an important part of my life and ministry. You will not be forgotten.