THE MAN FROM ISSACHAR
An Address Delivered in the City of Washington, D.C. upon the Inauguration of Russell D. Moore as President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at Capitol Hill Baptist Church by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Without a providential understanding of time and history, one is left with the affirmation that human affairs are often guided by a series of very happy coincidences. At just the right time, the right leader emerges to fill a crucial need. The intersection of an individual life and a demonstrable need meet in a moment and in a person. We celebrate just such an intersection today, but I am not able to describe it as a coincidence. I believe that the providence of God is today demonstrated in the intersection of a man and a moment—in the inauguration of Russell D. Moore as President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
First, I point to the character and giftedness of this man. I can remember the very first conversation I had with Russell Moore. In that first meeting, I caught a glimpse of his intelligence, his conviction, and his ambitions. I knew then that he was out to change the world, but that his first loyalty and constant horizon is not this world, but the world that is already but not yet—in other words, not the kingdoms of this world but the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.
His intellect is first rate, as is his scholarship. He came as a Doctor of Philosophy student and transformed his doctoral dissertation into a manifesto for kingdom ministry and cultural engagement. His intelligence is energetic and his wit always on hand. To talk with Russ is to enter into a world of ideas undergirded by conviction and footnoted with readings.
He is not merely fascinated by ideas, he is a true public intellectual. He belongs to that class of thinkers who are not merely collectors of ideas but movers of minds. He is a master of communicating those ideas and he knows how to make truth come alive as a living force.
He is one of the most natural conversationalists I have ever encountered. He is like the Victorians who could enter any room and join the conversation and immediately add to it. He is a voracious reader who is a walking bibliography and a library on legs. He comes alive when a book or an idea or a problem or a personality comes to attention.
Amitai Etzioni has distinguished between two classes of public intellectuals: those who are generalists (who can speak about anything intelligently) and those who are disciplinary (who can speak with unique authority within a specific field). Russ combines the best of both. He can talk about almost anything; but he talks with the authority of one who knows of what he speaks.
Above all, Russell Moore is a Christian thinker. In this construction, “Christian” operates as a noun, not as an adjective. He does not merely think like a Christian, he thinks as a Christian. His personal commitment to Christ, to the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Word of God, and to the faith once for all delivered to the saints is clear and tested. He is a defender of the faith and a Christian intellectual who dearly and deeply loves the Christian faith.
Russell Moore is a Baptist by conviction and a Southern Baptist by passion. He is a member of the tribe who transcends tribalism. He is not a Baptist by accident. His commitment to the free church in a free state and to the elegant simplicity of Baptist ecclesiology is clear. He is a conversionist and a churchman. He is deeply committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Great Commission. He knows the Southern Baptist Convention and he loves Southern Baptists with an eyes-open love. Thus, he can lead Southern Baptists. The late Carlyle Marney once said of Southern Baptists, “We may not be much but we are many.” Russ Moore is representative of a generation of leaders needed to make much of many.
He is, as no less than Augustine described the Christian teacher, one who is passionately committed to truth because he stakes his life on this truth and is himself transformed by this truth. He is, as our common mentor Carl F. H. Henry would define, a Christian thinker who is unreservedly committed to the totality of the comprehensive truth claim of the Christian world and life view.
All that, and he has a sense of humor. Russ Moore has an ear for irony and a readiness to be found joyful. Like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, he knows that the deepest truths reveal the deepest joys, even as the reality of our human foibles reveals humor, whether we like it or not. Like Flannery O’Connor, he has an eye for the bare reality of truth, knowing, as Flannery would remind us, “Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
He is a leader who knows how to run a great enterprise. At a very early age he became Dean of the School of Theology at the mother seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, serving also as its Senior Vice President for Academic Administration. His reputation as a leader is well attested. He is a leader, an administrator, and an energetic catalyst for good. At the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission he comes to a work well established and much respected. He will build it and take it into the future.
He is also a faithful husband and a compassionate father. To know Russ is to know that he is the husband of Maria, and the father of Benjamin, Timothy, Samuel, Jonah, and Taylor. He finds joy in his home, and he has a joyful home in which to establish his life, both public and private. His dependence upon Maria is transparent, as is his joy in his sons.
He is a theologian of conviction, a leader of great ability, a teacher of righteousness, a preacher of rare ability and power, and a thinker who knows how and when and where to think out loud. He is an ethicist by reflex, by training, and by experience. He is a colleague with whom I have spent countless hours in joyful conversation and gone through times of trial and great challenge. I know what he is made of. I know where he comes from. I know who he is. I know his ambitions. He is not a self-made man, but a man well made for these times.
So we know the man, but what of the times? Twenty-five years ago, Carl Henry warned:
Our generation is lost to the truth of God, to the reality of divine revelation, to the content of God’s will, to the power of his redemption, and to the authority of His Word. For this loss it is paying dearly in a swift relapse to paganism. The savages are stirring again; you can hear them rumbling and rustling in the tempo of our times.
The last quarter century since Henry’s statement of our crisis has brought no reversal of the trends he observed. To the contrary, the formerly Christian West is, in many sectors, so thoroughly secularized that it now has no consciousness of even being so. The Christian truth claim was reduced to a Christian memory, and now even that memory is gone. Our confidence in American exceptionalism is now fully shaken. If anything, America now seems to be secularizing in a delayed pattern, as compared to Europe, but perhaps even faster on its present course. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us, for millions of people in our civilization, and especially among the elites, belief in God is now, according to their own thinking, virtually impossible.
Many decades ago, the Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood identified America as a “cut-flower civilization”—its flower cut off from the only source of its sustenance. Those roots have further receded from the cultural horizon.
We are now in the midst of a moral revolution marked by a comprehensive scope and velocity that are perhaps without precedent in human experience. We find ourselves looking at a moral world that is changing right before our eyes, and many Christians seem both bewildered and fearful—precisely because they are.
But the real crisis is not in the world, but in the church. More than sixty years ago, Carl Henry (whose 100th birthday we would mark this year), reminded the evangelicals of that day that the failure was ours before it was a failure in the world.
It was the failure of Fundamentalism to work out a positive message within its own framework, and its tendency instead to take further refuge in a despairing view of world history, that cut off the pertinence of evangelicalism to the modern global crisis. The really creative thought, even if done in a non-redemptive context, was now being done by non-evangelical spokesmen.
Through this analysis of the problem, what Henry called The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, he called evangelicals to a new mode of cultural and intellectual engagement.
“There is a rising tide of reaction in Fundamentalism today—a reaction born of uneasy conscience and determined no longer to becloud the challenge of the Gospel in modern times,” Henry wrote. “It is a reaction to which the best minds of evangelicalism are bending their effort these days, convinced that no synthesis is more relevant than modern frustration and biblical redemptionism.”
In other words, he saw a generation coming, and he saw the likes of Russell Moore on the horizon. We dare not underestimate the challenges before us. We are living in a cut-flower civilization. There is a new paganism growing rapidly around us. There are threats to human life and human flourishing at every hand. We do see the ramparts of the family and the faith being both scaled and taken down. Religious liberty is under direct threat and we find ourselves in a moment of great civilizational peril. The culture of death is now institutionalized and made more ominous yet by technology. America has grown more polarized within and seems to be without a clear sense of itself within the international order. The most fundamental, essential, and pre-political institutions of human life and culture are now up for radical revision to the point of destruction. The scale of the crisis defies exaggeration.
And yet, these are precisely the conditions for optimal Christian witness. Under these conditions, the keenest edge of Christian thinking is soon evident and the operation of a genuinely Christian mind is transformative. The church is revealed to be what we know it to be, the kingdom community of the blood-bought, deployed in this world even as we belong truly to the world to come. This is no time for the weak-kneed or for weak thinking. These times call forth the deepest level and highest quality of Christian thinking, cultural engagement, Gospel-mindedness, strategic ambition, and churchly demonstration.
We do not choose our times, but this is a time for choosing. In the last era of the Roman Empire, Bishop Augustine chose to find his bearings for the City of Man within the greater love of the City of God. A time of crisis can bring us to surrender and lose heart, or it can produce The City of God or the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
I think Russ Moore’s legendary love of country music will serve him well. He knows how to speak of brokenness answered with hope and mercy. And he knows, as Johnny Cash would remind us, “there’s a man goin’ round, taking names.”
In 1 Chronicles 12:32, we read of the men of the tribe of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” We know Russell Moore as a man from Mississippi. I think he is really a man from Issachar. I think he has an understanding of the times, and he knows what God’s people ought to do.
The man and the moment have come together and, like you, I don’t for a moment believe it is a coincidence.
 Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward Neo-Paganism (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988), 15.
 Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), 32.