Dr Haddon Robinson went home to be with his God on Saturday 22nd July, 2017. He was 86 years old. His legacy is incredible. Haddon started teaching preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary while still a student. He went on to teach there for 19 years. He was president at Denver Seminary where he served for 12 years. He finished his seminary career at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he led the Doctor of Ministry program and served as Interim President during a difficult season at the school. He wrote many books and articles, including his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, and he also served with other ministries including Discover the Word, Our Daily Bread, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society.
Haddon was passionate about preaching, of course, but also about education. Consequently, it is fitting that the final decades of his ministry were spent at Gordon-Conwell equipping people to teach preaching across the world. I am so thankful that I got to be one Haddon’s students during those years. My seminary preaching profs had spoken so highly of Haddon that I was thrilled to get the chance to study at Gordon-Conwell from 2005-2007 in the Doctor of Ministry program.
I remember the first Monday morning our cohort were together. Haddon took three hours to go around the room and hear from all 25 of us. Men and women from various backgrounds and denominations, but across the board, we all answered one question in the same way. “Why did you choose to come here?” To put it simply, we all said, “I want to learn from you, Dr Robinson.” He probably got that from every group, but there was never a hint that his ego was stroked. For Haddon “there are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”
On the final day of our last cohort together Haddon went around the room again. Time and again we all said something like, “Haddon, I came here to learn from you and I leave here counting you as a friend.” Haddon was humble, he cared, he showed interest, he cheered us on, and throughout the program he educated.
Each year Haddon would bring in a friend to co-teach the cohort. These were men who had learned from him and were now at the top of their field. They were wonderful teachers and we learned so much from each of them. However, whenever Haddon spoke, we all grabbed for our pens. Actually, it was tempting to grab for a pen even when he prayed. Haddon was a wordsmith. He could put things into words so effectively, whether he was teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or chatting over coffee and a donut.
Haddon Robinson did not believe there are great preachers, but nevertheless, he was one. Many times I have marveled at Haddon’s ability to say so much in a way that feels so unhurried to the listener. I don’t recall hearing a Haddon sermon where the big idea was not clear, concise and accurate. I never heard him fail to nail a landing – his final sentences crafted like a runway that he would always touchdown on a couple of sentences earlier than you expected. Listening to a sermon from Haddon felt like going for a walk through a Biblical text with a wise uncle. I remember finding a sermon on video where Haddon took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and then struggled to put them on one-handed (his other hand held his Bible and he had no lectern to put it down). His struggle comforted me because it was good to see that even he could get a bit stuck, but his calmness in the situation was still a delight to watch as he dropped in a hilarious comment about having just had his one-a-day cup of coffee … and that cup was for March 14th 2035.
Haddon Robinson was a great preacher because he so understood the world of the Bible and because he thought deeply about his listeners. More than that, he understood communication profoundly. And then, on top of that, he was a master educator. Haddon said, “Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it’s lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.” I remember defending my thesis and having Haddon throw questions at me out of left field with a glint in his eye. He was a wonderful teacher of preachers, although he knew he couldn’t get everyone to the same level. Some struggled to grasp the freedom Haddon espoused in preaching. They might read his book or hear him lecture and think it was a complex formula to be meticulously followed. In reality, Haddon wanted to train preachers who were biblically constrained to say what the text said, who were homiletically free to communicate as effectively as possible, and who were spiritually responsive to the God who so masterfully crafted His communication. I am sure all of us who learned from Haddon are not as effective as we could be inasmuch as we haven’t grasped or consistently implemented all that he offered us. At the same time, Haddon was so effective as a teacher that I am confident there are hundreds of preachers and teachers of preaching that are making a massive difference because of Haddon’s input in our lives and ministries.
Haddon grew up surrounded by the gangs of Harlem. There was always a steely determination and a look in his eyes that showed he knew exactly what was going on around him. Sometimes people who do great things in ministry seem to get a pass from those around them for where their character fails to show the fruit of the Spirit. In my experience and observation, this is not so much the case with Haddon. He was gracious, humble, caring and godly. To use words from his definition of preaching, it was my experience that the Holy Spirit had first applied biblical truth to the personality and experience of Haddon, then through Haddon, he also applied the Bible to the hearers.
Haddon was great fun to be around. He took the Bible seriously, he took preaching seriously, and he took education seriously. But he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was alive in coffee breaks, laughing and probing with a big smile and bright eyes. He was alive when he would gather the cohort in the center of the classroom to sing some hymns together. He was alive when Bonnie, his wife, was able to join us for a meal or another sing-along at a piano. And now he is alive in the presence of the God that he served so faithfully throughout his life.
I thank God for the life and ministry of Haddon Robinson. I am just one of many who learned from him as a preacher, an educator, a writer, a mentor, and even as a friend. Haddon loved the Bible, the God of the Bible, preaching, his wife Bonnie, his children … he seemed to love life. May that legacy be multiplied in the years to come.