Editor’s Note: This is the penultimate post in a series recounting our Oct. 8-11 visit to the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. The first three installments can be found here and here and here.
Broadus Chapel on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological seminary is one of the more beautiful places to hear the preaching of holy scripture on any campus owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a classically-designed Puritan meeting house, constructed in the late 1990s and dedicated on Oct. 12, 1999, as a place for worship, reflection, and the unapologetic exposition of the Sacred Writ. Before its re-imagining as a chapel named for one of the seminary’s founders and its second president, John A. Broadus, it housed the campus library until Boyce Library was finished in 1959. Thereafter, it became something of a dilapidated eyesore for student hangouts.
Before attending the Heritage Week service in Broadus Chapel on Wednesday morning, Oct. 10, 2018, we had occasion to visit the seminary’s new dean of theology, Dr. Hershael York, in his new Norton Hall digs. Earlier this year, York was named the school’s dean by Dr. Mohler, who commended the pastor-theologian’s “mix of personality and ministry and passion” in his announcement. York concurrently serves as the pastor of the Buck Run Baptist Church, where he is presently preaching through the Book of Ephesians.
The Baptist Blogger listens regularly to Dr. York’s sermons and is consistently challenged to think deeply about both the biblical texts he chooses and their coherent application. Upon a recent Lord’s Day, York’s sermon on Ephesians 6:12-13, entitled “The Spiritual Forces of Evil,” illustrated the story of redemption using the 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix, and the 1978 Academy Award-winning film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Not many preachers can pull that off with style.
Looking back, we’ve known Dr. York for nearly 13 years now, having first met him at an annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention when he served as president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. But it was in 2007 — at the annual meeting in San Antonio — that we had occasion to engage him directly.
At the time, the convention was raging hot with controversy over the now-overturned mission board policies regarding private prayer languages and baptism. It was that year that York was elected to the first of two consecutive terms to serve as a trustee of the International Mission Board. It was also the year of the famous Garner Motion, which put us on opposite sides of an issue regarding the doctrinal requirements for Southern Baptist mission appointment. Yet despite the differences, Dr. York has always been personally affable and intellectually engaging, and has proved a careful listener even when he disagreed with the point we were making.
Truly, the man who sits atop the School of Theology at Southern Seminary has some big shoes to fill. His predecessors include some fairly heavy hitters: a prolific church historian, Greg Wills; one of the giant intellects of contemporary Baptist life, David Dockery; a man who would go on to become the seminary’s eighth president, Roy Honeycutt; and the inimitable Renaissance Man, Penrose St. Amant, for whom it was said, “the Cross never lost its scandal and glory, nor faith its prodigal paradox.” There’ve been others through the years, some of whom went on to lead other SBC entities or — sensing the shifting convention winds — found a home in less conservative, state convention-supported schools.
But in its history, the School of Theology has not had at its helm a great pastor theologian whose professional accomplishments and academic respectability were paralleled by his long tenure as the under shepherd of a growing Southern Baptist church. That Mohler does not require his deans — nor any of his professors for that matter — to resign their pastorates as a prerequisite for seminary appointment is evidence of one reassuring commitment: the men guiding theological education at Southern Seminary still have the smell of sheep on them. Their pedagogy is not rendered sterile by the sanitizing airs of an ivory tower. They’re never forced to lay aside the rod and staff to take up the ink and quill.
Unlike Southwestern, where professors have been forbidden from accepting full-time pastorates concurrent with their teaching responsibilities, Southern’s model recognizes the benefit — rather than the liability — that extensive and ongoing pastoral experience provides to the fulfillment of its core mission. Indeed, the men who teach future Southern Baptist pastors ought themselves to have been at the very least men with a track record of successful, tenured pastorates. Without a doubt, Hershael York fits that bill.
But we want to reflect on two things more about Hershael York. First, his tenure as a trustee of the International Mission Board stretched over three presidencies: Jerry Rankin; Tom Elliff; and David Platt. He was there when the policies on baptism and private prayer languages were codified and enforced, and he was there when they were repealed. In fact, he wrote one of the position papers that undergirded the implementation of those contemptible policies prior to his election as trustee in 2007. And it was in 2015 at his last meeting as a trustee — in Louisville, KY, of all places — that the policies were reversed.
York and I disagreed at the time the policies were enacted, and we have restated those differences in recent days. But Hershael exemplifies the way two Christians can attempt theological triage in harmony. The SBC needs fewer belligerents and more peaceable men in their churches’ pulpits. We are hopeful that York’s irenic spirit and authenticity will prove contagious, not only in Louisville but across Southern Baptist life.
Second, there have been few times when talking to Hershael York that he doesn’t mention how deeply in love he is with his wife, Tonya. For the past few decades, Southern Baptists have been force-fed a helping heap of toxicity by those whose own practice of biblical submission and servant leadership scarcely resemble either submission or servanthood. But the Yorks are not made in that mold.
Or to put it more bluntly, Southern Baptists are well served by deans in their schools of theology whose hermeneutic of ministry and family life are lived out with personal integrity and transparent consistency. That such a man would become dean of the School of Theology promises on numerous fronts that the SBC’s future anthropological formulations suffer neither from contorted exegesis nor manifest hypocrisy.
Tomorrow we conclude our series on “Louisville’s Ghosts” with our reflection on the 25th anniversary of its president, Dr. R. Albert Mohler.
Stay tuned . . .