A.T. Robertson remembered for pastoral scholarship, 80 years after death
On the afternoon of Sept. 24, 1934, Archibald Thomas 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 The 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 eminent 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 Southern Seminary campus in a state of shock. A student is recorded as saying, “If a storm had blown away the buildings and left Doctor Robertson, 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, A.T. 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.
In the midst of this financial crisis, Robertson confided in W.O. Carver, lamenting over 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 inaugural address at Southern Seminary, “Preaching and Scholarship,” 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,” said Robertson in his inaugural 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.”
S. Craig Sanders is the manager of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Robert L. Plummer, Thomas J. Nettles, John B. Polhill, and the late Wayne Ward contributed biographical information in a 2009 panel discussion on A.T. Robertson, which can be found online here. For a list of memorable quotations of Roberston, click here.