When he died in March of this year, Paul Simmons was called an “outspoken Baptist ethicist” and “a lightning rod at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for advocating a woman’s right to abortion” (quotes from this article). I remember Paul as a Christian gentleman, a brilliant scholar, and a friend since 1955.
Paul D. Simmons was born in Tennessee on July 18, 1936, so this Thursday is the 83rd anniversary of his birth.
Paul matriculated at Southwest Baptist College (SWBC, now SBU) in the fall of 1954, and June and I met him a year later when we became students there. He was one of the “big men on campus,” and one of the upperclassmen at the junior college whom I admired the most.
After graduating from SWBC in 1956, Paul finished his college work at Union University in Tennessee, earned two degrees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and then in 1969 completed his Ph.D. degree in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Kentucky.
Paul was an instructor in Christian Ethics at SBTS while a graduate student and then joined the faculty there in 1970, receiving tenure in 1975 and promotion to full professor in 1982. Ten years later the trustees of SBTS began to work on ways to remove Simmons from the faculty.
In January 1993, Paul took “early retirement” (at the age of 56!) from SBTS. After a few years teaching in Louisville as an adjunct professor, he then taught 20 years as Clinical Professor of Family & Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville, retiring at the age of 80. (Click here for his obituary.)
Introducing Paul’s Book
In addition to numerous scholarly articles for various publications, Paul was the author of three major books, the first of which was Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision Making (1983).
That book was published not long after the beginning of the “conservative resurgence” (a.k.a. “the fundamentalist takeover”) in the Southern Baptist Convention. In the early 1980s, the Religious Right began a strong anti-abortion campaign, and because of the position Paul propounded in his book he increasingly came under attack.
“Abortion: The Biblical and Human Issues” is the third of six cogently written chapters. In the initial chapter, “Bioethics: Science and Human Values,” Paul clearly states the two basic assumptions underlying his research and writing. “The first is that the Bible not only is relevant but is indispensable for Christian ethical understanding.”
Then, “A second major assumption is that there is no irreconcilable tension between the Bible and modern science” (p. 21).
The second chapter is “The Bible and Bioethical Decision-Making,” and Paul asserts at the end of that chapter, “The starting point for all Christian ethical action is in the person’s relationship to Christ” (p. 63).
I certainly agree with Paul’s two assumptions as well as his key emphases in the second chapter--and one would think that most contemporary Christians would also. Nevertheless, partly because of the sixth chapter in his book, Paul was, deplorably, driven away from his tenured faculty position by the ever-increasing conservatism of SBTS.
Reconnecting with Paul
In January 2011, June and I drove to New Orleans where I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. One of the highlights of that conference was seeing Paul again and the three of us having a meal together.
He was the same sincere, sweet-spirited person we had known 55 years earlier at SWBC, and we deeply enjoyed having conversation with him again.
So, we were greatly saddened when in March we heard of Paul’s passing, and we remember him with abiding appreciation for the fine man and good scholar he was.