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A.T. Robertson & his ‘monumental achievement’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — On the afternoon of Sept. 24, 1934, A.T. Robertson pondered over a difficult text in his Greek New Testament. Leaving a mark on Matthew 6:11, Robertson walked out of his office in Norton Hall at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to teach his Greek class.

He would never return.

As students recited their translations of New Testament passages, sweat poured down Robertson’s discolored face. The scholar dismissed class early, an occurrence so rare that a junior professor rushed to Robertson’s aid and took him home. Shortly after, with his wife Ella at his side, the 70-year-old Robertson died of a stroke.

According to his biographer, Robertson’s sudden death left the seminary campus in a state of shock. “If a storm had blown away the buildings and left Doctor Robertson,” a student is recorded as saying, “the seminary would have been more real than it was with him gone.”

Eighty years later, Robertson’s grave lies in the shadow of his father-in-law, Southern Baptist statesman John A. Broadus, at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Despite requesting this humble resting place, Robertson’s towering genius arguably surpasses that of Broadus, one of the founders of Southern Seminary.

“Robertson’s life and his work stand as a monumental achievement pointing to the true essence of evangelical scholarship,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary, said of the famed Greek New Testament scholar. “The very fact that we are having this discussion 80 years after his death is an indication of the power of a teacher and, in particular, the power of a teacher in the service of the Christian church.”

Born Nov. 6, 1863, Archibald Thomas Robertson professed faith in Christ at the age of 12 and was licensed to preach four years later. He attended Wake Forest College, where he earned his M.A. (1885) before enrolling at Southern Seminary. Broadus, his Greek professor, quickly recognized Robertson’s aptitude for the biblical language and selected him as a teaching aide. In 1890, Robertson was elected assistant professor of New Testament interpretation and would teach at Southern for 44 years until his death in 1934.

Recognized as the premier New Testament scholar of his generation, Robertson published 45 books, including the six-volume “Word Pictures in the New Testament” and 1,454-page “A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research,” which is still consulted by leading Greek scholars a century after it first appeared in print.

When Robertson completed the 3-foot-tall handwritten manuscript of his Greek grammar, the publisher required him to pay for typesetting fees on account of his nearly illegible writing. As the price continued to soar, Robertson borrowed on his life insurance policy and took out a second mortgage on his home to finance the project. Southern Seminary President E.Y. Mullins and trustee George W. Norton established a $10,000 endowment fund to cover the remaining costs.

Amid the financial crisis, Robertson confided in fellow faculty member W.O. Carver, lamenting the possibility of bankruptcy and questioning the value of the project. Carver consoled him, saying, “You are our window to the world. Nobody knows anyone at this seminary except you.”

In 1914, the first edition of the grammar received widespread praise from Greek scholars. Harvard scholar Henry Cadbury said it is “not only the most modern of such grammars; it is much the completest.” By 1923, the book appeared in a fourth edition, bringing the 26-year project to completion.

When Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann visited Southern Seminary in 1966, he told a group of graduate students about a personal audience he had with Pope John XXIII. Upon noticing a copy of Robertson’s grammar next to the pontiff’s Greek New Testament, Cullmann asked why he was using an English grammar. “It’s the best one available,” the pope responded.

“A.T. Robertson was one of the greatest scholars in the seminary’s rich history, perhaps the greatest of all,” said seminary historian Gregory A. Wills, who is also dean of the school of theology. “He did more than any other to establish the seminary’s reputation for scholarship.”

Robertson delivered his initial address at Southern Seminary, titled “Preaching and Scholarship,” on Oct. 3, 1890, rejecting the idea that theological education was a waste of time. “If theological education will increase your power for Christ, is it not your duty to gain that added power?” Robertson said. “Never say you are losing time by going to school. You are saving time, buying it up for the future and storing it away. Time used in storing power is not lost.”

For Robertson, scholarship was not the goal of seminary education but rather a means. “If our system of theological training fails to make preachers, it falls short of the object for which it was established,” Robertson said in his address. “My plea is for scholarship that helps men to preach.”

Robertson himself gained renown as a preacher, frequenting the pulpits of churches across the nation and delivering lectures at conferences and colleges. He refrained from denominational leadership during the Mullins presidency but pursued broader activities through the establishment of the Baptist World Alliance in 1900.

“His scholarship was not in order to advance his reputation or career, but to serve the Kingdom of the Savior,” Wills said. “His 45 published books, countless articles and many addresses throughout the nation advanced sound Bible teaching, defended the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy, and opposed the aggressive errors of his day. He gave his life in defense of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

The quotable “Doctor Bob”

“The greatest proof that the Bible is inspired is that it has stood so much bad preaching.”

“Give a man an open Bible, an open mind, a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time to keep from being a Baptist.”

“The Greek New Testament is the New Testament. All else is translation.”

“The Lord won’t hear your prayers if you don’t treat your wives right. Don’t look at me, Brother! It’s a dangerous thing to get married if you still mean to pray.”

“There are so many young Spurgeons, but so few of them grow up.”

“A minister ought to be a gentleman even though he is a minister.”

“If a numbskull comes to the seminary and goes away a numbskull, do not blame the seminary. For some men are hard to teach.”

    About the Author

  • S. Craig Sanders