Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Theological Mentors #4 E. Glenn Hinson

One of my teachers whom I have not mentioned frequently is E. Glenn Hinson, church historian, contemplative & advocate of strong, disciplined practices of spiritual formation, ecumenist, peacemaker, and advocate of the liberal strand of Baptist theology. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Hinson grew up on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks near Sullivan. A poor Baptist farmboy growing up in the Great Depression and WWII, his path to success began with a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis where he earned a B. A. in history mathematics (correction from Sallie Lanier). As with many of us, university tested Hinson’s faith and he credits a wise counselor at the Baptist Student Union (BSU) on campus for showing him that if “all truth is God’s truth,” and if Christian faith was a relationship with the living God, then one could fearlessly investigate anything, test everything, and trust God through it all. That orientation led Hinson to reject fundamentalism and to see it forevermore as a kind of fear or even a “works righteousness” that desires to earn God’s favor through holding “right beliefs” and being intolerant of all, even other Christians, who see things differently.

Hinson took this new orientation and a call to ministry to the mother seminary of his denomination (Southern Baptist Convention), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. There he finished his B.D. near the top of his class (earning several awards) and took a Th.D. in New Testament, writing a dissertation in which he concluded that the Apostle Paul did not write the pastoral epistles–a daring conclusion for a Southern Baptist in the 1950s.

SBTS wanted to recruit the brilliant student from Missouri, but needed church historians more than Neutestamentlers. Hinson switched gears and pursued a second doctorate, a DPhil. at Oxford University in early church history. (He studied, of course, at Regent’s Park College, the Baptist theological college at Oxford.)  His background in New Testament has allowed him over the years to make many careful connections between the Apostolic era and the Patristic writings.

Becoming friends with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer whose abbey (Gethsemani) was near Louisville, Hinson became deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of spiritual renewal–connecting the revivalist spirituality of most Southern Baptists to ancient and medieval spiritual practices. His ecumenical efforts included participation in the Faith & Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at a time when his branch of the Baptist movement was not a member of the WCC. He has lectured in Catholic, Orthodox, and many different Protestant institutions.

For 30 years, Hinson taught Church History at Southern Seminary, becoming one of the most published faculty members. He has written major works in early Church history (e.g., The Evangelization of the Roman Empire; The Church Triumphant; The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages) , biography (e.g., Seekers After Mature Faith; Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere); religious liberty(e.g., Soul Liberty; Religious Liberty: The Christian Roots of Our Fundamental Freedoms); spiritual formation (e.g., A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle; Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership), over 30 books and contributions to books in all.

Hinson has even used his NT scholarship and written Jesus Christ for the “Faith of Our Fathers” series in the early 1960s. This work was later to be the cause of some controversy, although the series died and few noticed Hinson’s volume at the time. The assignment by the publishers was for Hinson to write a “biography” of Jesus that included only what historians could prove or be reasonably sure of as historians. So, Hinson summarized the major conclusions of “historical Jesus” research at the time. He noted that the tools of historiography did not allow him as a historian to affirm Jesus’ resurrection, although as a believer Hinson could and did affirm Jesus’ resurrection.

Years later, in the 1980s, when Hinson was a major critic of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, Hinson’s enemies used that book to claim that Hinson did not believe in the resurrection–which is false. One can debate whether or not Hinson is right about the limits of historiography, but that is an argument about what historians can reasonably assert, NOT an argument over the resurrection itself. Trustees at SBTS repeatedly cleared Hinson of any charges of heresy, but one of the injustices of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was that there was no such thing as protection against double jeopardy: Hinson and other professors could be cleared one semester only to face another individual or group putting forward the SAME CHARGES with NO NEW EVIDENCE the next semester.

When Pres. Roy Honeycutt retired from SBTS, Hinson retired rather than attempt to teach under a fundamentalist administration. From 1994-2000, Hinson was Professor of Church History and Christian Spirituality at The Baptist Seminary in Richmond (BTSR) and an Adjunct Professor at Union Theological Seminary of Virginia/Presbyterian School of Christian Education. He has also held many visiting professorships. Currently, he is Visiting Professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Senior Professor of Church History and Christian Spiritual Formation at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (a non-fundamentalist alternative to the now fundamentalist-controlled SBTS), and Visiting Professor at Lexington Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ). During this post-SBTS period, Hinson has affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

As with anyone, I haven’t always agreed with my beloved professor: Hinson denies the Anabaptist roots of Baptists, for instance, seeing English Puritanism as the sole root of the Baptist movement–a view I contest. I find less value than he does in the works of Teilhard de Chardin, whereas Hinson finds Teilhard’s work to provide a philosophy of history. But I have learned from him to appreciate the history of the entire church as MY history and learned steep myself in the “classics of Christian devotion” as guidance in spiritual formation and discipline. We share a deep commitment to Christian nonviolence (Hinson’s is more Quaker-influenced while mine is more Anabaptist in shape) and the work of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Hinson was the original editor of The Baptist Peacemaker.

His personal faith has also long been a source of personal inspiration: Hinson suffered a stroke and loss of some hearing in the late 1960s, but has persevered in service to Christ and the church despite this and much other adversity. I am glad to have been taught so much by this great mentor and friend.

Note: The Fall 2004 issue of the Review and Expositor (the oldest faculty journal of theology founded by Baptists in North America) is devoted as a Festschrift to Hinson.  The Spiritual Formation Network, dedicated to helping all Christians become spiritually mature, has created (in 2007) the E. Glenn Hinson Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation Scholarship.

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October 8, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, biographies, blog series, history of theology, theologians | 3 Comments