Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors, #3, Molly T. Marshall


Continuing my irregular posting of tributes to my intellectual and spiritual roots. Currently Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall is President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, the first woman to head a Baptist seminary or divinity school in North America. She is also Professor of Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation at CBTS, an American Baptist seminary that now also has strong ties to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I first met Molly in January of 1986 when I arrived on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Molly, herself twice an alumna of SBTS, a former missionary to Israel, campus minister, youth minister, and interim pastor (one of the earliest ordained women in the SBC), had been hired in ’84 as Asst. Professor of Christian Theology. I was first introduced to her as Dr. Molly Marshall-Green. [Let me take this opportunity to quench a persistent rumor. She is STILL happily married to Douglass M. Green, M.D., a retired family doctor. They have never been divorced. But Molly’s hyphenated name had never been legally changed and was causing her considerable problems in the SBC. So, she dropped it to just use her original surname in ’88.]

I was looking forward to taking classes with Molly. I had come from a church with women deacons and was theoretically in favor of women in ministry, although at that point I had never met one. But I was also nervous. Molly was widely rumored to be an “extreme feminist theologian,” and, although I had specifically determined to take every controversial professor at SBTS to learn the truth about conservative charges, I was a bit nervous. The extent of my previous exposure to feminism had been to vote (and lose) for Florida to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

I found a gracious woman who pushed students to explore ideas fearlessly, including those of “raging liberals.” But Molly’s favorite theologian, to judge by numbers of quotations in class, was the Apostle Paul with a close second going to the Reformer Martin Luther! Yes, she had studied with the Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, a fascinating figure who combined a conservative approach to the New Testament with a very liberal theology! But, no, Molly has never been a universalist–I read her dissertation from cover to cover in one long day in the library to check out that rumor!

Like many Baptist theologians, she is a creative eclectic–powerfully influenced by her teacher, Dale Moody, by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, by Juergen Moltmann, Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza, but also writing in creative dialogue with conservative evangelicals like Bernard Ramm, Clark Pinnock, and, in New Testament Theology, George Eldon Ladd. In class she assigned texts by a wide range of authors, often asking students to compare and contrast an evangelical text with another from a different tradition–and never telling them where they must “come out” at the the end. Hardly the radical others made her out to be!

I remember asking Molly once, after reading a strong feminist critique of all-masculine God-language at the same time I was reading both St. Athanasius and Juergan Moltmann on the Trinity, if it were possible to take the feminist critique of God-language seriously while remaining a thoroughgoing Trinitarian. Molly got that twinkle that all students and colleagues know portends a quip from her irreverent sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White [my name at the time], but you will forever after be doomed to very complex sentences!” And so it has proved–helped by my thoroughly Trinitarian feminist teacher.

In 1988, Molly survived a hostile trustee board and was granted tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at SBTS. But the story was not over. When Al Mohler was elected to succeed Roy Honeycutt as President of SBTS in 1994, it was with clear instructions to fire Molly Marshall. But firing a tenured professor is not easy. He accused her of violating the Abstract of Principles, the statement of faith that all faculty must teach within at SBTS. What he meant was that she violated Mohler’s supposedly infallible interpretation of the document. When Molly voluntarily wrote a long paper expositing her understanding of every article of the Abstract and offered to meet to discuss point-by-point, Mohler sent the dean to tell her that it was no good, “they already had the votes” on the trustee board. Molly had been convicted by president and trustees of heresy without any formal charges or the chance to defend herself fairly. Molly tried to follow Jesus’ directions in Matthew 18 to go to her brother and make peace, but he, the supposed inerrantist, refused to follow Jesus’ words and even meet with her. She considered suing since being fired is usually disastrous for any academic career. She agreed to resign if she were allowed to finish supervising her remaining Ph.D. students–putting others before herself even in the face of pure evil and vicious lies. (The contrast can be seen in the fact that Molly never mentions Mohler or says anything about the current SBTS, whereas he has bad-mouthed her seminary and her in articles and his blog and on his radio show.)

Fortunately, in the graceful providence of God, the story does not end there. At the end of ’95, Central BTS hired Molly as full Professor of Christian Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation. She and Douglass moved to Kansas, the American Baptists accepted her SBC ordination, and she has enjoyed a powerful ministry as guest preacher in many pulpits while working with a small, 100 year old seminary. She is still, as I knew her, a “midwife of grace,” to theology students and church members alike.

I owe much to this woman:

  • She introduced Kate and myself and later officiated at our wedding.
  • Our oldest daughter, Molly Katharine White (b. ’95) is named after her. (The elder Molly calls my daughter “Molly the Younger,” while my daughter calls her namesake, “Dr. Molly.”)
  • I learned to read very widely in theology and to think theologically–integrating Scripture, the traditions of the church, and input from human experience.

Conservatives who think of her as a heretic are ignorant and most have never met her. She began each class with a hymn and doubtless still does. She sight-read from her Nestle-Aland Greek NT as she lectured. She quotes large sections of the Church Fathers (and some of the newly rediscovered Church Mothers!) from memory, and can often be found volunteering time and money for the poor and marginalized, especially (for deeply personal reasons) prisoners and their families.

I like to think the student has also influenced the teacher. Although she still loves Luther, over the years I have noticed her pay more attention to the Anabaptist tradition and its impact on early Baptists. (She could, of course, gotten this from many places, but we all have our little conceits and this is mine.) Perhaps that was reflected in her stint as Bible study leader for the 2004 summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

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August 27, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, mentors | 11 Comments