September 14, 2012

Roy J. Fish: A Mighty Oak at Southwestern Seminary

During a memorial service for Roy J. Fish at Southwestern Seminary today, we heard about a "mighty oak" and "mighty warrior." His impact on thousands of seminary students was recounted in the moving eulogy of Dr. Steve Gaines. Like so many, Dr. Gaines was stricken during his first class with Dr. Fish with this thought: "Who in the world can have that kind of heart and mind?!" Dr. Gaines came to Southwestern Seminary because of Dr. Fish and he completed several degrees, including the Ph.D., because of this "mighty oak." "In many ways, he was Southwestern Seminary to us." Another speaker described him as "Perhaps the most beloved seminary professor in the history of the convention."
            Indeed, Southwestern's legacy is found in professors like Roy Fish, and it is that legacy that ought to define our future. Just as his son, Steve Fish, prayed, "Let the fire that burned in this man burn in us!" Thanks are owed to Jean Fish and the Fish family and to Dr. Paige Patterson for allowing his memorial to be held in Truett Auditorium, for as Dr. Gaines said, "Southwestern was his home." Please allow me a moment to share some words from a surprising source that also describe who Roy Fish was, followed by a personal reflection.

A Surprising Testimony
            From his early days, "God found in [him] the kind of moldable clay he could shape into one of the great Christian leaders of his generation." His character and "passion"—this word often appears in the references of those he touched—marked him out as special. He possessed "intellectual ability," but, most importantly, he had an "obvious gift and passion for evangelism." While certainly capable of leading a great church, he became a professor of evangelism, filling the "Chair of Fire" at Southwestern Seminary. He had a special calling from God to become part of Southwestern Seminary. And he stayed with the school he helped make great, because he believed that through his students he could "be preaching in a thousand pulpits after I am dead and gone."
            From a theological perspective, he believed with B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary, that the school should be "kept lashed to the Redeemer." He also believed in the "traditional" understanding of evangelism, that it is "the sharing of the good news of Jesus with a view to winning people to Him as Savior and Lord." His personal beliefs may be encapsulated thus: "One cannot understand [him] without seeing him primarily as a person of great passion for people who are lost. He not only preached it but he lived it." Finally, he was also "a denominational statesman," who enthused state evangelism conferences and filled countless pulpits. He first retired from his seminary office only a few years prior to going "to his eternal reward."
            These words appropriately describe Roy Fish's service to His Lord on this earth while at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. However, Roy Fish himself wrote these words, not about himself, but about another great Southwesterner: Lee Rutland Scarborough (See The Legacy of Southwestern: Writings that Shaped a Tradition, ed. James Leo Garrett, Jr.) The correlation between these two lives tells us much about the legacy of Southwestern Seminary: we are passionate to preach the good news to every human being, believing that Christ died for all.

A Personal Word
           Those who were not here for the service today are invited to celebrate with us the legacy of Roy Fish. I was also a student of Dr. Fish, and it was a profound privilege to become his colleague. He is one of the gentlest man I have ever met in my life, similar to the giant of a theologian whom I escorted to Dr. Fish's memorial service: James Leo Garrett, Jr. Roy and his wife, Jean, joined me in Oxford, England one summer a few years ago. There, I learned that this man is the genuine article. I detected no guile in him whatsoever. I have known many Christian leaders and seen them struggle with their coarser natures, but I found nothing but brokenness before God in Roy Fish. He is one of the few heroes in my life to remain a hero even after I came to know him for who he really is.
            My heart will always thrill at the private moments he took to encourage me. I will miss Roy Fish. I will miss his encouragement to remain traditional in theology—to remember that God's nature of love, expressed in his sending His Son to die on the cross for a lost world, is foundational to the theological and evangelistic tasks. I will miss his encouragement to pursue both theological and administrative roles—to use the gifts God has given me to their fullest for His glory. But, most of all, I will miss his gentle and consistent reminder that we must sow the Word of God and reap the results by inviting people respectfully and kindly to believe in Christ Jesus. We will miss him, but we will not forget him.