Theological 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 (since 2004), 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, 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 remained married to Douglas 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. Douglas M. Green, M.D., Molly’s faithful husband and, formerly, my family doctor, passed away this past Pentecost Sunday, at the age of 85. He was considerably older than Molly and had grown children and grandchildren from a first marriage. An obituary is found here.]
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!
A graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University, she earned her M.Div. and Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), mother seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. She has done additional graduate work at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, Cambridge University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention, her credentials were later affirmed by the American Baptist Churches, USA. She is a member of Prairie Baptist Church, Prairie Village, KS. Previously editor of the Dissertation series of National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (NABPR), of which she was president in 2004, Molly now serves on the editorial board of American Baptist Quarterly, and The Review and Expositor.
Like many Baptist theologians, she is a creative eclectic–powerfully influenced by her teacher, Dale Moody, by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, by Jürgen 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 Jürgan 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, 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-reads from her Nestle-Aland Greek NT as she lectures or preaches. 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.
In addition to numerous scholarly and popular articles, dictionary articles, and chapters in edited books, Molly has written three monographs:
No Salvation Outside the Church? : A Critical Inquiry (NABPR Dissertation Series) (Edwin Mellon Press, 1993.) A revision of her 1983 Ph.D. dissertation comparing and contrasting the views of Emil Brunner (other faiths may contain some truth, but salvation is exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ), Karl Rahner (all salvation is through Christ, but some persons of other faiths may be “anonymous Christians” whose faith is, unknown to them, directed savingly to Jesus Christ), and John Hick (we live in a pluralistic world and there are many routes to God). Marshall comes closest to Rahner, pushing for the uniqueness of Christ’s saving act on the cross, but seeing that saving act have consequences beyond the church and beyond explicit Christian confession.
What It Means to Be Human: Made in the Image of God (Smyth & Helwys Press, 1995; 2d. ed., 2008). (Upon publication, Molly joked that her old foe, Al Mohler, president of SBTS, was writing a sequel, “What it Means to Be Divine: By One Who Is.”) This is a strong, contemporary theological anthropology written in a popular style.
Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit (Judson Press, 2003). Here is a strong work in Pneumatology that draws on the contemporary renewal of Trinitarian theology and written for laity as well as theologians.
I have long waited a monograph from her on the atonement in feminist perspective.
Her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, is only irregularly updated, but usually worth reading.