It was snowing when Matthew J. Hall and his wife pulled into the Grinstead South apartments at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Months before, upon a recommendation by a friend from Detroit, the Halls visited Louisville to learn about the M.Div. program. Hall remembers how that visit almost immediately cemented his desire to attend Southern. It just felt right.
“I’ve told people over the years that it was like putting on an old coat that fits just right, even though you didn’t know you had it,” Hall said in an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine.
On the snowy night when Hall and his wife, Jeannie, moved to Southern, they were greeted by a friend of the Detroit friend, who invited them to join him and another young couple at a local Steak ‘n Shake. The other couple turned out to be Jeremy Pierre, now associate professor of biblical counseling, and his wife, Sarah, starting a friendship that has lasted more than 13 years. For Hall, it was just another example of his deep sense of belonging at Southern Seminary.
“From every conversation we had,” Hall said, “being on the campus, talking with people, our response was just, ‘This is it. This is home.’”
From that January 2003 evening to a July 2016 afternoon, Hall has moved from the brand new (at the time) apartments at Grinstead South to the refurbished dean’s office of Boyce College at Williams Hall — from an M.Div. student at Southern to the leader of Boyce, the undergraduate arm of SBTS.
“It’s just God’s remarkable, gracious, and entirely unexpected providence,” he said.
‘The light suddenly came on’
Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Hall grew up in a Christian home, where the gospel and the church were always “front-and-center” in his life. His father, a youth pastor, moved his family to Spain when Hall was 7 to start the grueling work of church planting in a secular nation. Hall wrestled with questions of identity during this time, and always saw himself as others did: an outsider. He continued to struggle with these questions after his return to the United States at 13.
“There was always a visible reminder that I wasn’t one of my peers — no matter how good my Spanish was,” he said.
As a high school student in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hall turned to football and loved it. Although he was involved in Christian organizations like Young Life, Hall mostly found his personal meaning elsewhere.
When he started looking for a college to attend, he wanted to find somewhere he could keep playing football. Though he says he wasn’t a good player, Hall hoped he could find his way onto a Division III roster. But there was a catch: His parents required that he attend a Christian institution for at least a year, which limited his options. He settled on Grove City College five hours away in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and planned on joining the Wolverines’ football team and studying international business.
During his senior year of high school and the summer before his freshman year at Grove City, Hall’s priorities began to shift. He started to grapple with his own sin on a new level, confronting deep questions of identity he had carried since childhood. Two weeks before training camp, Hall called his position coach. He would not be playing that fall. He turned his attention to his academic studies.
“In God’s providence, football was kind of what got me to Grove City, and I had a great experience there,” Hall said.
As for the business degree, Hall quickly felt disillusioned with that, too. Not only did he find his business math class “disorienting,” he also took an elective on Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. And something clicked.
“I had just never had an experience like that in the classroom,” Hall said. “It was like the light suddenly came on, I was enjoying it. I actually wanted to read the assignments.”
Hall changed his major to Christian Thought, a combination of philosophy, theology, and history, and began flourishing academically. Hall also met Jeannie at Grove City — they married in 2002 and Hall’s attention turned to attending seminary. Although Hall had Presbyterian professors who encouraged him to attend broadly evangelical seminaries, he knew his confessional identity lay elsewhere, thinking: “I don’t know what kind of Baptist I am, but I know I’m a Baptist.” It was at this point his friend from Detroit recommended Southern.
Hall’s journey toward historical studies was not completed at Grove City. When Hall first started at Southern Seminary, he planned on being a church planter in the Pacific Northwest (a fact that puzzles his closest friends even today, who say he does not have the temperament for church planting or the Pacific Northwest). Once he took a couple church history classes, however, things changed. He again felt pulled toward history.
“Up until this point, most of my sense of calling was self-determined and self-identified,” he said. “For the first time, I had guidance at Southern with its faculty. I had men in my life who said, ‘We see a gifting to teach, and we see your interest and ability in historical studies. Go for it.’”
A bigger vision
Hall worked numerous jobs throughout seminary: at UPS, at a coffee shop, and as a grader. In 2005, Michael Pohlman asked Hall to be a call screener for R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s radio show. Hall says he didn’t even think twice about it, and for 10 hours a week he developed skills listening to callers. Before long, Hall was executive producer of the Albert Mohler Program. His relationship with Mohler continued to grow, and in 2009 Hall was appointed his chief of staff, a role he held until he became vice president for academic services at Southern in 2013.
Hall earned his Ph.D. in American History from the University of Kentucky in 2014, an experience to which he attributes a lot of his growth academically and personally in matters of racial reconciliation — a significant passion for him.
Hall recently moved into leadership of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement, reflecting his desire to see faith and society integrated. The Henry Institute, founded at Southern Seminary in 1998, represents the institution’s close relationship with evangelical luminary Carl F.H. Henry, who developed a mentoring relationship with key SBTS figures in his last 20 years, including Mohler; Gregory A. Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City; and Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and former dean of the School of Theology at Southern. Moore was also executive director of the Henry Institute, 2002-2009.
Hall’s own longstanding relationship with the seminary and his interest in evangelical cultural engagement accords with the mission of the Henry Institute, as Hall describes Henry’s life and thinking as one of the most influential voices upon his own. Though he never knew him personally, Hall enjoys hearing new stories about Henry from the men who knew him well. One of Hall’s personal favorites is the time D.A. Carson asked Henry how he managed to maintain a humble spirit after his significant influence on evangelicalism. “How on earth can anyone be arrogant when standing beside the cross?” Henry replied, according to Carson.
“[Henry’s] fundamental assumption that biblical revelation directly impacts and confronts the systems of the world at every level is more timely than ever,” Hall said. “Our hope for the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement is that it would continue to perpetuate this vision in service of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as the global evangelical movement.”
As the dean of Boyce College, Hall is well aware of the significant challenges facing any Christian institution in the 21st century, particularly in issues of gender identity. Hall is also willing, however, to double down on the value of Christian higher education, of which he says, “the best days are not behind us.” Hall intends to articulate alongside Mohler a vision of education that integrates calling and mission.
Hall says he wants students to leave Boyce with a clear vision of what it means to live a good life and be human in each of their programs of studies — from business to education.
“My vision for Boyce is a lot bigger and a lot more aggressive than just, ‘How do we get good grades?’” Hall said. “It is, ‘How do we teach our students what it means to be human and made in the image of God in a world that is so confused about that?’”
Hall says Boyce College’s confessional identity is both protective and liberating, as it guards the institution from theological error but also allows for healthy theological dialogue within those boundaries. Boyce also brings a unique blend of academic focus and godly, kingdom-oriented zeal.
“We want our students to be stretched, we want them to learn, we want them to be challenged with new ideas, we want them to be great students, but we also want them to love God deeply, to love their neighbor as themselves,” he said. “We want them to think globally, to not be confused about where their true identity is. We want to speak not just to what they know, but we also want to speak to what they love.”
Andrew J.W. Smith is a news writer for Southern Seminary.