Former RTS President Reflects on Years at RTS for 25th Anniversary Year of RTS/Orlando

A message from Dr. Luder G. Whitlock, Jr. on Aug. 21, 2013, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of RTS/Orlando.
I want to thank Dr. Sweeting for the invitation to be here for this Convocation as RTS begins to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Orlando campus. He epitomizes the best of both the heritage and future of RTS. I must say that it doesn’t seem like 25 years ago that Dr. Carl Henry gave the first convocation address to an audience of 400 at the Sheraton Hotel in Maitland. I also realize that this event is somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of Dr. Ligon Duncan as the new chancellor, marking a new era of leadership for RTS. As we celebrate what God has done through RTS Orlando, we wish Dr. Duncan well in his new role and also pray for blessings on RTS as its fiftieth anniversary approaches.

Dr. Sweeting’s encouragement to reflect on the history of RTS Orlando for this occasion, after some consideration, is welcomed because as I have thought about it, I am probably the only one here today who has lived through the whole history of RTS as a participant or close observer.

In order to fully appreciate the history of RTS Orlando, it seems to me that you need to start at the beginning, which takes us back to 1963 or earlier. About that time five ministers gathered in Memphis to pray about the need for a new seminary because all four current Southern Presbyterian seminaries had abandoned the infallibility and final authority of the Bible. Simply put, they had come under the influence of liberal theology with all the problems emanating from that. These five ministers realized that the future of Presbyterianism in the South depended on having a seminary that would train students to honor God’s Word. Without that, their confessional heritage would eventually be lost. With its influence, renewal could happen.

In Philadelphia, where I was newly enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary, Professor Morton Smith brought some of us up to date on the exciting news about the possibility of starting a new seminary. Soon after, he agreed to return to Mississippi in 1964 for the purpose of establishing the Reformed Theological Institute that would in two years lead to the founding of RTS in 1966.

The Sixties were a turbulent period in American history. Students were protesting the Viet Nam war. Leftist and free speech agitators were taking over university campuses. Some theologians trumpeted a God is Dead theology. Presbyterians were busy stomping out home missions among other things. Amid all that social and political upheaval, the 5 professors and 14 students who formed the nucleus of the fledgling RTS were barely noticeable.

However, Southern Presbyterian seminaries and the Presbyterian hierarchy did notice. Adamantly opposed to any conservative initiative, they made a concerted effort to squash the tiny new seminary in Clinton, Mississippi, on the outskirts of Jackson. Which brings one to ask, what motivated the key decision makers to locate RTS in such an unlikely place? What prompted that decision?

The answer may surprise you. There were sustained efforts to locate the new seminary in several states and promises of seven figure or more gifts accompanied those efforts, but political pressures exerted in every presbytery blocked those possibilities. Not only did RTS fail to find a home in those other states it also failed to reap the promised funds. Central Mississippi alone welcomed the new seminary and pledged to support and protect it. Consequently, RTS made its home on 14 acres in a nondescript neighborhood along Clinton Boulevard. Initially, it was a small unpretentious campus, with a 7-11 prominently located at the entrance and a trailer serving as a bookstore.

Those early days were mighty tough. Opposing church leaders bristled with hostility toward this upstart school with its theologically right wing adherents. Three fourths of the presbyteries voted not to permit their candidates for ministry to attend RTS and would not accept RTS graduates. Some pastors excused their actions by saying that an unaccredited seminary was unsuitable for their candidates. Later, I learned from reading the history of ATS that when RTS sought accreditation, all four of the current Southern Presbyterian seminaries requested a secret meeting with ATS executives for the purpose of blocking RTS from accreditation, but they were unsuccessful. During the process of seeking accreditation in the mid 1970’s, it became apparent to RTS that a president should be selected in order to meet accrediting standards. The Reverend Sam Patterson who had served as Chairman of the Board from the outset agreed to become president. He was the real mover behind the founding of RTS and its visionary.

Sam Patterson’s vision was for RTS to reach out to all Presbyterians, regardless of region or denomination. He called for developing a Pan Presbyterian seminary. He did not want to be limited to the Deep South. The emergence of the PCA in late 1973 tested that irenic spirit because RTS professors ended up in both denominations. Feelings ran high. As the years passed however, Sam’s ecumenical vision for Presbyterians was embraced. In fact, RTS moved beyond it to welcome all evangelicals while retaining its Presbyterian and Reformed commitment. Eventually, faculty would hail from 15 denominations and students from more than 100.

By 1978, 12 years after its founding, RTS had 200 students; ten years later the goal was to reach the 500 mark by the twenty-fifth anniversary. RTS had established an endowment of more than 5 million in the mid 1980s although initially the Board had a no endowment policy. The Board thought, at that time, that an endowment might encourage a drift to the left. By now it was clear to all that RTS was growing, becoming healthier, and firming up its identity as it searched for a more promising future.

Undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic developments in the history of RTS was the establishment of a campus in Orlando, spurred by the offer of $20 million from two donors in response to the vision of becoming an institution of national prominence and influence. In 1989, two years after their offer and the eventual withdrawal of it, RTS opened a small campus in the Maitland Center Commons in 1989, becoming the first accredited Protestant seminary in Florida.. A stellar faculty included RC Sproul, Richard Pratt, and Roger Nicole. They were soon joined by Elmer Smick, Charles MacKenzie, Ron Nash and others. John Muether is the only remaining member of that original faculty. Life was never the same again.

Students came from everywhere. More than 100 enrolled that first year, astounding everyone. The numbers escalated annually. There were the usual obstacles too. At the invitation of the Florida Council of Churches nearly 70 liberal seminaries and mainline denominational representatives gathered in Orlando out of concern regarding this renegade rightwing seminary that had invaded Florida without knowing better than to tread on their turf without permission. They discussed how they could counter this unwanted new development. As a result, Columbia Theological Seminary soon opened an extension campus at Rollins College, but it eventually folded.

Another unexpected occurrence early on was a blanket mailing to Florida pastors on ATS letterhead, signed by Marvin Taylor as the Executive Director, stating that RTS did not have permission to open a campus in Florida and that its accredited status was in question. Of course ATS never sent such a letter and Marvin Taylor had been dead for several years but those pastors didn’t know that. RTS forged ahead, undaunted.

Because Orlando was such a success, soon other campuses and extensions followed – Charlotte, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Memphis, Boca Raton, Korea, Brazil, and the UK. And classes were offered in Hong Kong, Budapest, LA and numerous other places. Within ten years there were ten campuses or extensions plus a virtual campus serving 2,500 students. In addition, RTS played a key role in the decision of Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) to relocate to Orlando.

It became apparent that a new, energetic multicampus model for theological education was taking shape. New strategies for communication, leadership in distance education, and a program for spouses of pastoral students that was adopted by about 60 seminaries were evidence of the creative spark that drove RTS. Meanwhile, RTS was twice selected in a Christianity Today poll as the most doctrinally sound seminary in the USA.  And, a study by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School concluded that RTS had the best advertising of any seminary. Christianity Today agreed. RTS became one of 4 or 5 seminaries that everyone else watched, copied or wanted to copy. We were in the top ten seminaries in fundraising also. 

Alister McGrath of Oxford University cited RTS as one of the five leading evangelical seminaries in North America in his Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Within 10 years from the Orlando launch, RTS had become one of the 10 largest seminaries in North America with what was perhaps the greatest Reformed faculty in the Twentieth Century. Now it was larger than all four Southern Presbyterian seminaries combined and its reach extended far beyond Presbyterianism.

Those were exciting years but they are history. Near the half-century mark now, we fondly remember them. RTS has matured, as has RTS Orlando at 25. New faces have emerged to provide leadership in a world that has become very different from the one in which I entered seminary and the one in which RTS came into existence. Finding the way forward for the sake of the gospel will be challenging, but critical.

The old struggle among Presbyterians that precipitated the founding of RTS is gradually winding down and Presbyterianism is itself winding down into a minor movement. Church growth in recent years has been toward independent churches and that trend shows no sign of abating. The agenda for Millennials is drastically different from that of the Boomers. The lasting effects and emphases of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the early Twentieth Century have faded too, except among a diminishing crowd.

How will RTS address these new circumstances? That is the important question. The Scripture we read today (Col. 1:9-14) is a reminder of our goal and responsibility: to grow in the knowledge of God (through whom we have redemption in Christ), gaining spiritual wisdom and understanding so that we may live in a way that is worthy of the Lord and please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work with endurance and patience.
America remains an unusually religious nation but our freedoms, especially our religious freedom, are unexpectedly in jeopardy. No one would have expected it 25 years ago. Christianity will likely experience severe, punishing pressure as we can already see with decisions on marriage, abortion, etc. Will we, in the face of these changes, become a powerful spiritual force for good, healing the sick, lifting the lowly, encouraging the weak? Will we be the problem solvers or the finger pointers? Will we be seen as an influence for the common good that others cannot afford to lose, or will we be seen as a constant irritant that precludes progress?

Will the rising generation find hope in the redemptive message of the Gospel and its expression in our lives or will it find us repugnant? I don’t know the answer to these questions but I hope we can, by God’s grace, learn to respond accordingly so that, as in the pluralistic ancient world in which the Church was born and spread like wildfire, we may see the Gospel catch fire in our ministries today. There appears to be a widespread desire for human flourishing. It seems to me that Christians are the ones who should be able to contribute most powerfully to the good life expressed by the term human flourishing.

This is a good time to ask what role RTS will play in shaping the future of the Church and of human flourishing. The question Sam Patterson posed to those who doubted whether they could successfully found a seminary is still pertinent: How big is your God?” 

Will you trust our sovereign God and our Savior to open new and better opportunities for RTS and for your own ministries to our hurting world?




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