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Patterson reflects on 11 years of God’s grace at Southeastern

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–As of Aug. 1, 2003, for the first time in more than a decade, Paige Patterson will not be the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

But his impact on the school will continue for generations.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that I had accomplished everything that God put in my heart to accomplish in any one place,” Patterson said in reflecting on a lifetime of ministry and his 11 years at Southeastern in particular. “But I would say that I leave here with real thanksgiving in my heart for the graciousness of God to me in allowing me to see so much take place.”

Patterson is taking the reins of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. The decision to leave Southeastern was agonizing for Patterson and his wife Dorothy, who have repeatedly said that though they both hail from Texas, they still consider Wake Forest home.

Ultimately, Patterson said it was the clear call of God that is leading him to the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest seminary. And though his mind is clearly focused on the task ahead, the revival that God has wrought at Southeastern during his tenure will forever be on his heart.

When Patterson came from Criswell College to Southeastern in 1992, the school was in the throes of a theological crisis. Trustees of the school were fighting to return it to historical Baptist doctrines of biblical inerrancy and infallibility though Southeastern had been dominated by liberal theology since its beginning in the early 1950s.

Even before he came to Southeastern’s presidency, Patterson was known as a driving force behind the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC, and his reputation had made him a pariah in moderate and liberal circles.

Amidst the seeming chaos, Patterson said his goals at Southeastern were simple but lofty.

“I had in my heart to build a faculty of 50 men and women who would be intellectually respectable in any university in America, but who would be spiritually and pastorally vibrant,” he said. “Instead of 50, I have 60.”

In addition, Patterson said he has been amazed as God has used Southeastern graduates to plant healthy new churches, and revitalize existing ones, all across the East Coast, from Maine to Florida.

Also, Patterson pointed to what has now become Southeastern’s trademark: a passion for international evangelism.

“I had prayed that God would make it possible for this school to be a real contributor to the international missions movement,” he said. “To my amazement, the Lord has enabled this school to become the point of the arrow.

“As I think of things like that, I feel like I have been a recipient of more of the grace of God than anyone I can think of.”

When asked to point to one particular miracle that God has done during his time in Wake Forest, Patterson said there were many but finally settled on one: a theological shift that he considered unprecedented.

“In all the history of Christianity, I know of no other case in which an institution that was formed originally as a liberal school … returned to the faith of the fathers and became a conservative school,” he said. “It was something I certainly could not have brought about. It had to be the intervention of the Lord.”

Patterson is disappointed that he will not be around to see the continued growth of Southeastern both in number of students and in quality of its facilities. He departs at the beginning of a $50 million development campaign that eventually will provide for a new student center, library and a campus that will nearly double in size.

“Southeastern is still poised to experience that greatest percentage growth of any of our six seminaries at the present time,” he said. “I really believe that with new leadership coming on the scene … this school will keep right on growing past 3,000 students [enrolled] and keep on growing in its faculty also.”

While reflecting in the past, Patterson could not help but tell a few stories that have become legend on campus:

— Like the time Patterson, an accomplished rider, fell off a horse during a publicity stunt before a campus revival.

— Or the time he caught a group of students disassembling the school’s pipe organ in the middle of the night and made them put it back together.

But his favorite story is a bit more serious, and he said it is characteristic of all his memories at Southeastern.

“It was a day when we were in convocation, and I had preached a strong evangelistic message and given an invitation,” he recounted. “There was one of the students who realized that he had never been saved. He made a decision to come forward, and he got about halfway down the aisle when apparently the Lord really saved him. He never made it the rest of the way. He just fell on his knees in the middle of the aisle and cried out to the Lord, and the Lord gloriously saved him.

“It was just a memorable experience, one of those things you never forget.”

Perhaps Patterson’s greatest legacy to Southeastern students, now and in the future, is a personality trait of his that he has imprinted on the school: He has the mind of a scholar and the heart of an evangelist.

Before he came to Southeastern, Patterson said, he had a theory that it was possible for a seminary to excel both academically and spiritually.

“The old adage in America is that you had to be one or the other – you could not do both,” he said. “I’ve always believed that you could do both, and this particular faculty is a living affirmation of the fact that you can do both.”

The past decade at Southeastern has changed Patterson as well. He is a bit older, of course, but there are other changes as well.

“The general rule is that you grow mellow in your old age,” he said. “I think that probably doesn’t follow with me. I think I’m more aggressive and more determined than ever before. I’ve seen enough of the truth of the Gospel vindicated here that I believe it more strongly than ever before, more determinedly than ever.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SHARING THE WORD and WITH HIS CO-LABORERS.

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  • Jason Hall