Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Somebody Must Defend a 92 Year Old Man

Dr. Morton H. Smith: 
For Three Transgressions and for Four

Most people who have studied under Dr. Morton H. Smith have a story or more about "Snortin' Morton" ("snortin'" not because he used cocaine in class but because he sometimes acted as an irritated bull might), the nickname he was given during his teaching years at Belhaven College (now University). Here is one of mine. 

Because I got married the summer of 1969 I did not move to Jackson and take summer Greek at Reformed Seminary. When I discovered that I could take Systematic Theology with the seniors, I signed up for the two remaining quarters of Systematics in the 1969-70 term. At end of the Spring quarter, I noted the time and day of the exam and showed up to take it. However, Dr. Smith kicked me out of the classroom and did not allow me to take the exam. What was my offense? Discovery of plagiarism in a paper I had turned in? Catching me with a set of cheat sheet notes in my pocket? Axe murder maybe? No. I was wearing Bermuda length shorts and loafers without socks.

I had to go home and change. When I got back I had to meet with Dr. Smith and President Sam Patterson. Dr. Smith told me he did not go into downtown Jackson without putting on his suit jacket, and Mr. Patterson told me he thought the seminary was pretty lenient with the students. It was a clear incidence of what then was called "the generation gap." I was excused from the exam that day, took it later and got an A, and the next year served as Dr. Smith's student assistant. The A and the job may have been make-ups. But I'll take them.

Now, in this day of dress down everyday for everybody and of cool ministers preaching in skinny jeans they borrowed from Carl Trueman, the idea that a seminary student could be kicked out of a classroom for wearing shorts to take an exam sounds like one of those "tales from the unknown." 

The 60s and 70s were years of social and political turmoil. Vietnam (all the younger seminary students had divinity deferments from the draft). Sexual revolution. Race riots. Campus riots. War protests. Watts. Kent State. Watergate. Assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? Mongomery. Selma. George Wallace. Forced busing. Woodstock. Flowers in your hair. Hair. The dawning of the age of Aquarius. Something's happening here...and you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction?

The point is that the world was very different then in ways almost inconceivable to those under 50 today. It was radically different from our day in terms of race relations and racial politics. Segregation was the norm, de jure in the South and de facto in much of the rest of the county, even as it remains the de facto reality in much of the U.S. today. Interracial dating and marriage were rare and opposed by many. It was Lyndon Johnson who cajoled and threatened till he got the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Dr. Smith was born in 1923. In the South. He grew up with and adopted as pretty much self-evident the racial views of white Southerners (and many white Northerners). He believed in and defended segregation. From the Bible. I think part of his argument would be that God created the races, and that what God separated man should not integrate. His view was unremarkable for his day. He was and is a man of his times.

I think Dr. Smith is wrong about race, integration, and intermarriage. He has, I understand, criticized me for my defense of an interracial couple when I was a campus minster of at the University of Southern Mississippi. (I can only imagine what he would say to me if he knew I had become an Episcopalian. I am sure he would be snortin' indeed.) He has on occasion spoken in defense of his view. I remember questions being directed to him in faculty question and answer sessions at the Pensacola Theological Institute. He has also written and published on the subject of race. At the founding of the PCA in 1973 many would have disagreed with Dr. Smith, but many would have found his views unexceptional.

It should be noted that in my experience Dr. Smith never went out of his way to defend his views on race. He answered questions when asked. I do not recall and do not believe he ever taught his views in lectures. I do not know of a single student of his at RTS who adopted his racial views. I do know that some of them, apart from Dr. Smith's influence, accommodated themselves to the racial civil and ecclesiastical politics of the times. I personally witnessed this and experienced its unhappy effects.

Today, the church following society as it so often does, race has moved to the top, or close to the top of the ecclesiastical agenda. It appears that sins regarding race are the great sins that must be urgently addressed. (What constitutes sins of race is another question and a huge one.) There are those who think it their duty to "expose" Dr. Smith, to confront him, and to call him to repudiate and repent of his views.

I think this unwise, unnecessary, unfair, and uncharitable. I believe it needs to stop. I hope that some of the "big boys" who want the PCA to address the matters of race will counsel others to stop going after Dr. Smith.

As I say above, I think Dr. Smith is mistaken. I disagree with his reading of Scripture and of Providence. But I do not believe his mistakes rise to the level of sin. I do not believe his views are disciplinable. I do not believe he needs to be rebuked. I do not think it is right to dishonor him in his dotage. I think this 92 year old man should be allowed to live out his days and die in peace. I think that it is a large mistake to pursue him as some are doing. I think it is wrong to judge his views by the insights and sensitivities of our day. What now seems self-evident, to the point of its being absurd to think otherwise in the view of younger men and black men, was not self-evident in Dr. Smith's day.

Dr. Morton H. Smith served the Lord honorably, humbly, and courageously in his day. I think he should be left alone except to honor his service to Christ and the church.

Below is a news article I wrote for The Aquila Report announcing Dr. Smith's retirement. To it is attached a tribute I wrote when he turned 80.

Morton Smith Granted ‘Honorably Retired’ status 

by PCA’s Western Carolina Presbytery

One the founders of the Presbyterian Church in America, Dr. Morton H. Smith, age 88, was granted the status of Honorably Retired as a minister of the Presbyterian Church in American by Western Carolina Presbytery at its February 25 meeting. Dr. Smith’s retirement is effective immediately.

Dr. Smith holds the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan, the Bachelor of the Theology of degree from Columbia Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Theology from the Free University of Amsterdam.

Honorable retirement will free Dr. Smith from some responsibilities as a churchman, such as attendance at Presbytery and General Assembly, but he will continue his labors as Professor of Systematic and Biblical Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a position he has held since 1998.

The church has benefited from his wide spectrum of service which has included serving as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Bible Department at Belhaven College, as Professor of Theology at the Reformed Theological Institute (forerunner of Reformed Theological Seminary), as Professor of Systematic Theology and Department Chairman of RTS, as the first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America, and as the Moderator of the General Assembly.

In granting Dr. Smith’s request, Western Carolina Presbytery adopted the following statement:

“Western Carolina Presbyter hereby grants honorably retired status to Teaching Elder Morton Smith upon his request this twenty-fifth day of February, 2012, giving great thanks to God for His kindness to us in the gift of Dr. Smith. As a founder and leader of our denomination, as a presbyter, educator and brother in the Lord, Dr. Smith has been, under God’s providence and by His gracious provision, a guardian of our way, both exhorting and modeling the way in which our Lord would have us to go in His service. We are the better for his labors among us. While his stepping down from active service in this Presbytery is our loss, we rejoice in knowing that he will not slow down, especially when called upon for advice and assistance. There will yet be great churchmen, but none greater. All Glory to God.”

Following is a tribute that was prepared by me for the occasion of Dr. Smith’s 80th birthday:

"I join the many who are thanking God and congratulating you on eightieth birthday. Our Lord has been most gracious to you and to His Church in sparing you these many years.

Your service as Professor of Theology in two seminaries, as Stated Clerk and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, and as faithful pastor of Christ’s flock is much appreciated and of great benefit to our Church. The salutary effects of your ministry are seen now in many people and places, but the full effects will be known by us and by you only with the perspective of the coming kingdom.I thank you for your teaching me as a seminary student over thirty years ago. You grounded me in a system of doctrine that has been the foundation of my ministry since I was ordained in 1972. I have told several seminary presidents, as well as others, that, while other professors have their distinctive gifts and contributions, the remarkable thing about your teaching is that you have been able to get across to students a theology they understood, believed, and used in ministry. I am never embarrassed to say, “Morton Smith gave me my theology, and it is that theology that has guided me and that I have preached and taught in every place that I have served as a minister of the Gospel.”

I am appreciative, as well, that you have modeled before many of us and encouraged us to have the courage of conviction. You have stood for what you believe in all the seasons of your life and without fear or favor in the life of the Church. All this you have done as a godly man and a Christian gentleman.

I pray that the Lord will be pleased to grant you many more years of happy and useful service. You will, I am without doubt, fight the good fight, finish your course, keep the faith, and attain the crown of life. When your service is complete, you, full of years, will rest in the presence of the Savior you have trusted, loved, and served, as you await the yet more glorious day when you shall rise to honor and enter the unmixed joy of your Lord.

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