For all of his huff and puff, Malcolm Yarnell is an extraordinarily peacable soul. He’s as much the ace up Paige Patterson’s sleeve as he is the silver bullet in his gut. Whenever Patterson needs academic credibility, he runs Malcolm out to battle like cowardly King Saul sent Jesse’s youngest son. Whenever you see Southwestern’s associate dean hurling his smooth stones, you can almost bet that Patterson has dispatched him.
But Malcolm Yarnell is a brilliant man with a conscience, which makes him both useful and dangerous to Patterson. If he believes the cause is right, he will hurl himself into the fray with all of his might. But if he judges a Pattersonian initiative to be unjust, unethical, or unbiblical, he will resist the impulse to please his sovereign, and allow Southwestern’s president to twist in the wind.
I got to know Malcolm Yarnell early in my studies at Southwestern Seminary, owing in large part to the persistence of another young professor of theology, Scott Swain, who believed we would both benefit from regular and intimate dialogue. Malcolm Yarnell introduced me to some of the brightest minds among writing theologians today, and for a year we gathered weekly in his office to masticate the finest morsels of Oliver O’Dovovan, Stanley Hauwerwas, and others whose political theology taps into our mutual scholarly interests. Along the way, he also introduced me to some of the best Mexican food in Fort Worth.
Malcolm is as honest as he is intelligent. To enjoy a window into his private counsel is to be valued above any degree Southwestern Seminary can provide. To pick his brain is worth skipping chapel. To hear him lecture is worth additional coursework. Over the past several years some of the greatest intellectual stimulation and heartiest laughs I have known were shared in his company. Truth be told, the presidency of Southwestern Seminary would better be occupied by a man with his balance of administrative skill, theological precision, and kind demeanor. By his own admission, Malcolm Yarnell has never killed a giraffe or a kudu. Then again, he doesn’t really need to. Were he to assume the president’s office at Southwestern Seminary, it might actually return to its former days as a quiet chamber of theological inquiry rather than the taxidermist’s nightmare its current occupant has designed. The only sheepskin on Yarnell’s office wall would have the word “Oxford” emblazoned across it, rather than the mangy woolen carcass of some New Zealand herbivore.
More than his contemporaries, Malcolm Yarnell loves the institution where he serves. While deanships at Southwestern are being doled out to men whose loyalty to Patterson surpasses their academic credentials, Malcolm has contented himself to remain a lowly associate, a classroom professor, and a committed churchman. That men with with Ph.D’s in “humanities” from the University of Texas at Arlington would supervise men with D.Phil’s from Oxford makes about as much sense as a mut telling a Malamute how to mush. His position at Southwestern Seminary is more a testimony to Yarnell’s humility than anything.
And yet, Malcolm Yarnell lacks in backbone what he’s got in brains. A few cases in point: When serving at another SBC institution, Yarnell was privy to details regarding administrative abuses and financial irregularities that, had he the courage to confront, would have vacated the presidency. Rather than exposing the seminary to further embarrassment and confusion, Yarnell left his post and returned to Southwestern in silence. Within a year, Yarnell was called to the presidency of Louisiana College and given the chance to steer the course of higher education for an entire state. The school was in crisis, the faculty was in disarray, and the future was uncertain. Yarnell accepted the job, travelled down to the Louisiana state convention for a laying on of hands, and soon thereafter reversed course. There were some pretty nasty fundamentalists on the board of trustees, and Malcolm didn’t have the stomach for a fight. I told Malcolm at the time someone was cutting him at the ankles through private conversations with Louisiana College trustees. Perhaps, in the end, Malcolm figured that while he could stand in the face of open opposition from Cajuns in the bayou, he couldn’t deal effectively with secret manipulations from jackasses in Cowtown.
And yet, Malcolm has been given to courageous acts through the years. When Patterson tried to circumvent the student handbook in censuring me, it was Yarnell who counseled me about the process of appeal, even reviewing my fifteen page letter to the faculty committee before I presented it. Without Yarnell’s advice, I would not have been able to push Patterson for a lightning fast reversal within 72 hours. Again, Yarnell’s keen eye for the ethic of a matter trumped his commitment to protect the interests of the president. Then again, perhaps Yarnell was protecting Patterson in a way that Southwestern’s president has never been able to recognize. Subordinates are expected to defend the president against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I doubt Patterson would have been pleased to know of Yarnell’s involvement at the time, and it is equally doubtful that he will appreciate it these years hence.
I’ve seen Malcolm Yarnell grieve over a slight against his beloved professor, James Leo Garrett. When Patterson was reorganizing the seminary faculty, the giant of Southwestern’s theology school was forced to relocate from his corner office of some thirty years to a dark cubby hole down the corridor of some forgotten hallway. Yarnell, it was ordered, would take over Garrett’s office.
The day he found out what was happening, I was in Yarnell’s office. Choking back tears, he told me how much it grieved him to push Dr. Garrett out of his office. The decision had been made, however, and there was no court of appeal. The two men talked about it, and Dr. Garrett assured Yarnell that no offense was taken. Thus the man for whom Yarnell named his own son vacated the office for a disheartened colleague who knew the foolishness reflected in such acts of administrative whim.
Yarnell is a peacemaker, a beatitude that guarantees heaven’s blessing but frustrates recalcitrant insurgents such as I. He is as quick to visit with Morris Chapman as he is with Paige Patterson. He walks the line in the middle, trying as best he can to reach out to both sides and pull them together in gospel unity. In fact, if the Southern Baptist Convention stands a chance of surviving, it will be because men like Yarnell arise to take the reins and not those who have been cultivated in narcissistic academies of inbred indoctrination. If the sides, wherever and whoever they are, should get together again, it will not be without the assistance of men like Malcolm Yarnell.
And if Malcolm Yarnell would accomplish so noble a task, it will not be without the assistance of the Holy Spirit of God, without whom the city’s watchmen stand guard in vain.