It was to be the class heard around the Baptist World. Dr. Dale Moody the famed theologian was being prematurely retired from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He had been a teacher’s assistant for Paul Tillich and studied under Karl Barth two of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. He had studied at the Dallas Baptist Theological Seminary a fundamentalist hotbed. He was a hybrid of Texas evangelist and premier world scholar and theologian. His new book The Word of Life would be coming out during the class. [I think the following sentence could be cut in two.] It would be his magnum opus and his defense of his theology from those fundamentalists who had pressured him out of his professorship at the Seminary where he had taught for over thirty years. I was lucky enough to take the class.
When I went to seminary I went to learn. Others went to hear repeated back to them the things they already knew or believed. I had plenty of faith I knew what I believed but I also knew that there was plenty more to believe. When he taught you felt as though at the end he should offer an altar call.
That was the problem for the new fundamentalists taking over the Southern Baptist Convention. He spoke as they did, believed as they did, but was open to academic freedom. It was hard to challenge him because he knew the biblical text better than anyone else. He knew the Greek better than anyone else. He had been teaching for decades so he knew every argument and he had his practiced defenses of his belief. Thus he had to go.
Now the class was put in the largest room on the campus and was full to the max. Certain times other professors would step in to sing his praises and when he taught some subjects the walls would be filled with people who wanted to hear his ‘last’ words. The air was electric in the room. And he was in full form preaching his word. But there was also a sense of melancholy he was the Lion in Winter. His last roar to a Convention gone wild. Everyone knew with his demise that no other professor was safe. In fact five years later only two professors would survive the purge.
Even though this was his last class the challengers were ever prevalent. The seminary had become a minefield for professors as students were coached by outsiders trying to prove heresy in the seminary ranks. Students were given questions to ask and then had hidden recorders of each class. Now this was a conservative seminary but sometimes professors in dialogue or thought bubbles would challenge their beliefs and the student’s beliefs. And sometimes they would speak in the voice of theologians they did not necessarily agree but whose ideals they thought should be heard for a solid education.
Dr. Moody on his first day said tape his lectures but do it in the open. He was glad to let anyone know why and what he believed and had nothing to hide unlike hidden questioners. He was often challenged by students who did not know that he had forgotten more theology and Bible than they would ever know. One of his chief challengers was one of my distant cousins from Alabama. He was known in the family for having an unearned high opinion of himself. But every day he would challenge Dr. Moody. He was what you might call not a social climber but church climber. He wanted to move on up. Dr. Moody would politely annihilate my cousin but unfortunately he was well beyond humiliation. Today my cousin is a pastor, church consultant, and car salesman.
I decided my best option was to listen. He told as a Southern Baptist in the rarified air of the elite theological world he would often be the bullfrog in the room. The bullfrog was the one who would speak out against the status quo. He said at least that was what Karl Barth had called him once. I listened to him for a semester and except for the one theological belief could not find any straying from the norm of Baptist thinking. I grew to like him even though his evangelistic teaching style was not for me. He won over even his critics in the class.
But all things must pass and we were now in our last class. The room was so full a fire chief would have fainted in alarm. What would be his final words? Would he curse the Seminary and Convention that now was turning him away? What wisdom would he leave behind? Would some arrogant student yet challenge him on his last day? It was as all things a simple ending. The class presented him with a sculpted bullfrog and our respect. We regretted we were powerless to turn the tide against his banishment. He for his part was not the Texas evangelist and spoke in a subdued voice. He closed the class with these thoughts. Believe and grow it with knowledge and Bible. Believe hard and never waver unless you are shown you are wrong for in the end it is faith and knowledge that will carry you through. The bullfrog dropped his mic and left the room.