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The Young Man

Archibald Thomas Robertson was born to John and Ella Robertson on November 6th, 1863 in Chatham, Virginia.[1] He would only spend twelve years of his childhood there, but having a deep sense of place would always consider himself a “Virginian.”[2] His family was as one might expect for the antebellum South. Like most rural families at the time the Robertson’s operated a plantation and their way of life was dependent upon such business. However, as Robertson was coming of age he saw the transition of the South right before his eyes. Recalling the state of the South after Emancipation Robertson lamented, “As I came to notice life about me I found myself in a home of beauty and sadness. My earliest memories of my Father are associated with financial struggle.”[3] Many of the slaves would go on their way and who could blame them? However, many of the older men and women stayed always maintaining a good relationship with the family. With terms of endearment Robertson spoke of his post-emancipation caretaker, “I had my Negro Mammy who was kind and good to me.”[4] The reality of the reconstruction period after the Civil War was financial hardship for many Southern families. So, on September 1st, 1875 John Robertson would move his entire family to Statesville, North Carolina.[5]

North Carolina would be the permanent residence of everyone in the Robertson family, except for young Archibald who would later set off for Louisville, KY. It was in North Carolina where Robertson attended Boone Preparatory School which laid the foundation that would eventually lead to him Wake Forest College.[6] In the midst of much turmoil and change came a ray of light just a year later. In a church meeting in the Spring of 1876 A.T. Robertson “felt a change of heart,” joined his church and was baptized.[7] Shortly after this many began to persuade Robertson to take up preaching. Robertson wrote of his pastor, “Brother Boone nearly scared me to death by asking if I did not think of preaching.”[8] This was reminiscent of a gentler encounter that the young Robertson had with an Episcopalian Bishop who after laying hands on the boy’s head said, “God bless you, my boy, and make a preacher out of you.”[9] It would seem that from early on Robertson had planted in him seeds of what would soon become his passion. It would be at Wake Forest College[10] where that seed would begin to sprout.

The Budding Scholar

            Robertson arrived in Wake Forest on his sixteenth birthday with two dollars in his pocket. He had borrowed money from a friend for the train ticket-a whole ten dollars.[11] Not only did Robertson arrive poor, but he also arrived two months late, but was able to catch up with hard work.[12] Unfortunately, Robertson also suffered from a speech impediment. However, this was later resolved when he was taught a breathing technique by a local doctor.[13] Robertson’s work ethic is evident in his performance. While at Work Forest College Robertson never averaged less than a 95. He excelled in Greek and Latin while also being the coeditor of a nationally recognized collegiate paper, The Wake Forest Student.[14] Although Robertson excelled in Greek he failed to win the Greek Medal, the award given to the student with the highest average. It was this failure that would motivate Robertson to become the prestigious New Testament scholar he is remembered to be.[15] Although he would be offered a professorship at Wake Forest, Robertson longed for more. The place for more was in Louisville at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Discovered: Influenced Student and Professor

            Robertson arrived in Louisville to attend Southern Seminary in 1885.[16] Immediately he came under the influence of one of the Seminaries’ founders. Sampey says that Robertson “fell under the spell of John A. Broadus.”[17] The relationship between Broadus and Robertson cannot be overstated.[18] Not only did Robertson marry Broadus’ daughter Ella, but David Dockery claims that Broadus took pride in mentoring the up and comer, “Broadus himself thought of Robertson as his greatest discovery and modeled for the young professor two disciplines for which Robertson later became famous: New Testament Interpretation and preaching.”[19] In fact, A.T. Robertson’s first published work would be the Life and Letters of John A. Broadus. In the preface Robertson wrote of Broadus, “It is not an exaggeration to say that he was the pride of American Baptists and his influence is undying among us.”[20]

The diligent work ethic so evident in his college days carried over to his time at Southern Seminary. Robertson’s language skills allowed him to take Senior Greek, textual criticism, and patristic Greek his first two years even though they were normally reserved for the seminarians final year.[21] He also met weekly with John Sampey for one hour to read the Septuagint.[22] Eventually his hard work and relationship with Broadus opened the opportunity for Robertson to become Broadus’ assistant in Greek and Homiletics.[23]

The young boy prophesied to be a “preacher” would have his life marked as an academic shortly after becoming Broadus’ assistant. In October 1888 Robertson began his professorship at Southern Seminary, a position he would hold literally until the day he died.[24] The first year of Robertson’s professorship he had the rare privilege of living in the home of James P. Boyce. Living alongside the seminaries first president no doubt blessed Robertson, but it was short lived as Boyce died before the year was up.[25] His place as an academician was further realized when after attempting to be seminary professor and pastor of New Castle Baptist Church, Robertson realized he didn’t poses the stamina to be faithful to both.[26] He would go on to resign from the pastorate. It was this decision that permanently cements Robertson’s fate- although he would not pastor a church, he would train those who would.

It would be a mistake to assume that because Robertson stepped down from the pulpit it means he could only teach rather than preach. Robertson was a mighty expositor and well sought after. Gill wrote of Robertson, “…his scholarship only increased his ability as a preacher. It gave body and lasting worth to his preaching.”[27] Although it is perhaps a grave overstatement when Gill says, “there was no preacher like him among all his contemporaries” it is true nonetheless that Robertson was anything but a dry academic. Robertson was not only becoming know for this preaching but soon as a world-renown scholar as Gregory Wills notes,

During the final twenty years of his career, Robertson became quite popular as a lecturer, speaking at Northfield’s Summer Bible Conferences many times. Such Fundamentalists as A.C. Dixon, William B. Riley, Curtis Lee Laws, J.C. Masse, Len Boughton, C.I. Scofield, W.H. Griffith –Thomas, J. Gresham Machen, and B.B. Warfield sought him out for counsel, articles, and lectures.[28]

In the classroom Robertson was loved even though he expected quality work from his students. Using the recitation method, students would have to recite their particular assignments. Had they failed to complete the assignment they were expected to turn in a note so that Robertson would not call on them. On the occasion that a student failed to turn in their note Robertson showed little grace. A student called to recite who was unprepared would simply get a zero. Gill offers an account of one student who said of Robertson, “he felt called of God to take the strut and conceit out of young preachers.”[29] Robertson had little patience for those who didn’t study. Robertson lamented to his wife, “The new students hate me for the first few weeks. But, after they make up their mind to study, and learn to do it, they begin to love me.”[30] For all of Robertson’s students he eventually would be known as “Dr. Bob.”

As a faculty member Robertson would also prove to be a leader within then Southern Baptist Convention and abroad. Within the convention Robertson is remembered for being a supporter of controversial seminary president William H. Whitsitt. Whitsitt is known for arguing against the traditional landmark position concerning Baptist origins.[31] For many in the Southern Baptist Convention Whitsitt was not merely practicing academia, but challenging Baptist orthodoxy.[32] There were many supporters of Whitsitt who campaigned in support to keep him on faculty. Leading the campaign was William E. Hatcher who recruited Robertson to be his “party whip.”[33] As will be seen in greater detail later Robertson thought scholars should be able to pursue academic interest. Furthermore, his support of Whitsitt was out of great concern for the seminary. In correspondence with faculty member Edwin Dargan Robertson said if it were only about Whitsitt, “I could be willing to see him go for the sake of the seminary.”[34] Robertson was convinced that Thomas Eaton, the man calling for Whitsitt’s resignation, would become president if Whitsitt resigned and put his won landmark stamp on Southern.[35] Regardless of ones convictions concerning the controversy it shows that Robertson was committed to academic freedom and the heritage of the seminary. His support of Whitsitt also furthered the respect his faculty peers had for him. E.Y. Mullins who followed Whitsitt as president wrote Robertson to thank him for defending his predecessor, “You expressed what I had felt so strongly that I cannot refrain from dropping a line to say so.”[36]

The leadership exhibited by Robertson was also evident abroad. As an editor of the Baptist Argus Robertson wrote an article titled Why Not A World’s Baptist Congress?[37] A year later in 1905 Baptists around the world met in London for what became the Baptist World Alliance. It was an instant success. Gill describes the meeting this way, “It really was an epochal event in the life of the Baptist movement in the world.”[38] The Baptist World Alliance would exist for years with enthusiastic participation. Although there were many others involved, the meeting may not have occurred if it were not for Robertson’s 1904 article in the Baptist Argus.

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The Biblical Scholar and His Works

            It would be impossible to faithfully summarize the lifework of A.T. Robertson in the space of this paper. For that reason, a broad survey will be offered of his work with special attention given to his most important and influential.[39] Out of the 40 volumes penned by Robertson Gill suggests that they can be placed into four categories: Grammars, Expositions, History, and Character Studies.[40]

Robertson often published studies on various characters in Scripture such as Jesus, Paul, Peter and John.[41] He also wrote several expositions, some of which took form as commentaries or lectures on Scripture.[42] Other works focused on the history of the gospels and the world of the New Testament.[43] Robertson’s works were well accepted and certainly helped to promote Robertson as a beloved scholar. However, it was his work as a Greek grammarian that ensured it.

Robertson’s most famous work is by far A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research. Originally Dr. Broadus approached his protégé about revising Winer’s grammar, but after 100 pages Robertson quickly learned that a revision was not possible.[44] An up to date grammar was needed. However, the project almost never reached print. The thorough and complete nature of the details combined with the technology available at the time made the publication very expensive. Due to corrections made by Robertson and the technical nature of the work the typeset had to be changed several times.[45] To help pay for it Robertson took out the full amount of his insurance policy, but even that was not enough to publish the book. Verging on bankruptcy Robertson wished he could sink the whole thing to the bottom of the Atlantic. Fortunately for Robertson E.Y. Mullins and George W. Norton began an endowment fund for the project.[46] That was enough to have the book published and it was made available in 1914. The Grammar was an immediate success receiving positive reviews from world-renowned scholars such as E.J. Goodspeed and James Denney.[47]

Constructing a “theology” of A.T. Robertson proves to be very difficult, if not outright impossible. Robertson saw himself as a biblical scholar and dealt with the text thoroughly. However, he hardly ever offered elaborate theological conclusion based on his exegesis. One need to only read his famous Word Pictures to note this.[48] Commenting on this method of scholarship David Dockery notes,

Their commitment to exegetical theology, however, was simultaneously a strength and a weakness. They upheld the authority of Scripture, but both were cautious at best in developing a systematic approach to theology. This approach advanced biblical theology but failed to advance a coherent Baptist theology.[49]

The lack of a coherent theology from Robertson has lead to some debate concerning some of his beliefs- in particular, Robertson’s position concerning the nature of Scripture. In an essay by Edgar McKnight it is suggested that Robertson was the “evangelical middle” focusing on the Bibles authority rather than its inspiration and inerrant nature.[50] However, in an earlier work Russ Bush and Tom Nettles survey an array of the Robertson corpus to show that he not only viewed the Bible as authoritative, but as inspired and inerrant.[51] Due to the amount Robertson’s works cited in comparison to McKnight it seems best to side with Bush and Nettles, but Robertson has not made it easy for readers to discern.

What readers can be sure of is that Robertson valued academic freedom and was hesitant to dismiss critical and liberal scholarship without good reason. Wills says that Robertson “valued the scholarship of the liberals and was disturbed by reactionary and ill-informed criticisms of many fundamentalists, but his convictions on most points aligned with the fundamentalists.”[52] Robertson had wonderful relationships with scholars all around the world from various theological backgrounds.[53] So, although Robertson was certainly theologically conservative his friendships and academic skills drove him to use the best of what critical scholarship had to offer while not endorsing all of their conclusions.

Above all Robertson was dedicated to Southern Seminary and its Baptist heritage. There is little doubt that Robertson held to the “Baptist distinctives.” In fact, it is reported that Robertson once said, “Give a man an open Bible, and open mind, a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time to keep from being a Baptist.”[54]

The Legacy

            A.T. Robertson was a faithful teacher, preacher, and denominational leader. Although he came be remembered for many things and in many ways there is little doubt he will be most remembered as the greatest scholar in the history of Southern Seminary. Wills writes, “Robertson was the most widely recognized and accomplished scholar in the Seminary’s history.”[55] This is certainly true, but David Dockery goes further by suggesting that Robertson is “the greatest scholar in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.”[56]

It has already been noted that Robertson impressed established scholars around the world, but perhaps what speaks to Robertson’s legacy the most are those who looked to Robertson and learned from him. In a letter addressed to Robertson a young man thanks him for writing and helping him find a particular resource. The young man ends the letter with, “…I am 19; a junior at Lebanon College, Annville, Pa.; and that I like Greek immensely- I hope to be a N.T. Greek Prof. Respectfully, Bruce M. Metzger.”[57] Of course, Metzger went on to be one of the most prestigious textual critics at Princeton Theological Seminary. Little did Robertson know that the young man he helped would soon become a scholar with his own respective legacy.

If this is the impact Robertson had on those from a distance there is no way to measure the fruit that grew from his countless students who would go on to preach, teach, and lead. It is thus appropriate to close with Dockery’s admonition; “We now have the privilege and responsibility to carry forth this tradition in a faithful way into the twenty-first century, a generation that will handle accurately the Word of God.”[58]

[1] John Sampey, “An Intimate Sketch of Dr. A.T. Robertson,” The Review and Expositor XXXII (January 1935): 3

[2] Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: Macmillan Company, 1943) xiii

[3] ibid, 14

[4] ibid, 13

[5] ibid, 26

[6]David Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001) 98

[7] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 31

[8] ibid, 31

[9] Sampey, “An Intimate Sketch of Dr. A.T. Robertson,” 3

[10] It is fascinating that today the campus of Wake Forest College is the home of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary one of the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in which Robertson was a leader for many years. Wake Forest College moved Winston-Salem in the 1950’s.

[11] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 99

[12] ibid, 99 Gill notes a peer of Robertson who claimed that not only did he catch up, but passed other students because of his “meticulous observation and a marvelous memory.”

[13] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography,

[14] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 99

[15] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 49

[16] Sampey, “An Intimate Sketch of Dr. A.T. Robertson,” 5

[17] Ibid, 5

[18] I have visited the cemetery in Louisville where Robertson is literally buried in the shadow of Broadus’ giant gravestone.

[19] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 101

[20] A.T. Robertson, The Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Harrisonburg,VA: Gano Books, 1901) x

[21] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Traditon, 101

[22] Sampey, “An Intimate Sketch of Dr. A.T. Robertson,” 6

[23] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 58

[24] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tadition, 100

[25] Ibid, 101

[26] Ibid, 101

[27] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography

[28] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009) 270

[29] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 111

[30] Ibid, 111

[31] Space does not allow for a thorough discussion of this important controversy in the SBC. Only brief comments about Robertson will be included. For a sufficient discussion of the Whitsitt controversy see Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009, 189-229 Cf. William Mueller, A History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959) 143-178

[32] Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009, 199

[33] Ibid, 211

[34] Ibid, 220

[35] Ibid, 220

[36] Ibid, 243

[37] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 94

[38] Ibid, 96

[39] For a complete and thorough annotated bibliography see James Powell, “Archibald Thomas Robertson: An Estimation After Fifty Years,” Mid-American Baptist Theological Journal 8, no. 1(Spring 1984): 65-79

[40] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 140

[41] Epochs in the Life of Jesus: study of Development and Struggle in the Messiahs Work (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907); Epochs in the Life of Paul: A Study Development in Paul’s Career (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909); Epochs in the Life of Simon Peter (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933); Epochs in the Life of the Apostle John (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1934)

[42] Paul’s Joy in Christ: Studies in Philippians (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1916); Studies in Mark’s Gospel (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958); Paul and the Intellectuals: The Epistle to the Colossians (Hodder&Stoughton Limited, 1928)

[43] Luke the Historian in Light of Research (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1920) New Testament History: Airplane View (Philadelphia: America Baptist Publishing Society, 1924)

[44] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 161

[45] Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009, 269

[46] Ibid, 269

[47] Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, 270; Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 172

[48] Word Pictures in the New Testament vol.1-6 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930-1933)

[49] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 111

[50] Edgar McKnight. A.T. Robertson: The Evangelical Middle is Biblical “High Ground” in The Unfetter Word: Southern Baptist Confront the Authority –Inerrancy Question ed. Robinson B. James (Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1987) 90-103

[51] L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles. Baptist and the Bible (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999) 269-275

[52] Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009, 276

[53] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography, 202-213

[54] Dockery, The Broadus- Robertson Tradition, 110

[55] Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 268

[56] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 111

[57] Charles Draper, “Letters to A.T. Robertson,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 89

[58] Dockery, The Broadus-Robertson Tradition, 111

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