It was in a one-room school house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that a young Robert Lightner first discovered he wanted to be a teacher. “I went there for eight grades and I admired a couple of those teachers very much,” says Dr. Lightner. From that time on, God would use admirable educators to mark Robert Lightner's life and propel him into what has become a distinguished career in theological education.
It was shortly after discovering his interest in teaching that Dr. Lightner became a believer in Jesus Christ. Growing up in a strong Christian home, he and his three brothers and one sister often found themselves at a church service. “We went to a church that was like a storefront church; it would fall into the category of Pentecostal,” says Dr. Lightner. They gave alter calls and I felt convicted by the Spirit many times, but that particular night I went forward and trusted Christ alone as my savior.”
After high school, Dr. Lightner headed to Baptist Bible Seminary in Johnson City, New York, It was there that he met a man who would influence his life significantly: “When I went to Bible college, the dean was a graduate of Dallas Seminary, Dr. John R. Dunkin. After receiving some training there I realized I wanted to teach the Bible. I was especially attracted to theology and to doctrine because of Dr. Dunkin and that is why I came to Dallas Seminary. So it was really through the influence of a graduate of Dallas Seminary that I narrowed down what kind of teaching I was going to do.”
While in college, Dr. Lightner was developing a number of other ministry skills. He was involved in three or four different gospel team ministries and a male quartet. “I was basically the preacher for the group. We would go around to churches and sing and preach.”
Upon graduating from college, Dr. Lightner was in the midst of exploring a ministry in church planting. When it became apparent that those doors had been closed, he headed to [DTS] to pursue a Th.M. degree.
At Dallas, he found other men who further solidified the direction his ministry would take. Dr. Ryrie, Dr. Walvoord and Dr. Pentecost all made “profound impressions” on his life.
Soon after completing the ThM program, Dr. Lightner found himself in the classroom back at his alma mater, Baptist Bible Seminary. He would teach there for two years, training men in Theology, Christian Education, Homiletics, and Bible. Theology, however, had his strongest affections and he found himself back at DTS working on a ThD.
Five years after earning his degree, he was on [the DTS] campus teaching alongside his mentors. He remembers what impressed him as a young professor: “When I came to teach here there was great unity within the faculty on all the major areas of theology. Especially in Ecclesiology, Eschatology and Dispensationalism. There was an amazing unity and core agreement. We always had differences and kidded each other about those, and there was a good deal of toleration, but on the basic foundational planks we all agreed. This impressed me greatly.”
After thirty-seven years of teaching, Dr. Lightner continues to keep his focus on the field of theology. His love for his chosen field is apparent in his concern for its future: “Living in a postmodern age, I have great concern that some Evangelicals are being effected to the extent that they are raising questions about truth. Truth is seen as coming from the reader rather than the writer, even with the Bible. We are told truth is not definite or definable. Of course we must never view our interpretation of the Bible as equivalent to the Bible in authority. But there are absolutes where there is no room for disagreement without moving outside the pale of orthodoxy.”
During the past thirty years, Dr. Lightner has been involved with more than just theological interests. For much of that time he has also been author, speaker and interim pastor.
As author, he has written over fifteen books. His latest, Angels, Satan and Demons, will be coming out later this year.
As interim pastor, Dr. Lightner has ministered to a number of church bodies. He has often been invited to serve as the on-site pastor while a church looks for someone permanently. He is present regularly providing a listening ear and helping with the church's needs, which often includes guidance in selecting the new pastor. There are several churches, in fact, where he has been responsible for placing DTS graduates. He recently finished such a mission in Lufkin, TX and is now at a church in Austin. “I enjoy doing this,” he says, “it keeps me in touch with the real world.”
There is yet one other ministry in Lightner's life that keeps him in touch with the real world, his family. After his salvation, the next most significant days in his life are the days he met and married his wife Pearl. Together they have had three children, all daughters. He is also grandfather to eight boys and two girls. Their love for him being quite evident by the pictures and works of art that decorate his office. One poem by a grandchild is particularly revealing when it says, “My grandpa is the funniest man I have ever known.”
When speaking of retirement, Dr. Lightner correctly points out that his retirement is by no means of the traditional sort. He has already agreed to teach one course in the fall of 1998 and one in the spring of 1999. He has also agreed to teach at three of Dallas Seminary’s extension sites. Along with those duties, he will be teaching at least one course each semester at Tyndale Seminary.
Over his many years of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and God's Word, Dr. Robert Lightner has himself become like his mentors—an admirable teacher. It is good for us all to see another of the Faithful finishing strong.
Previously published in the Threshing Floor, the Student Newspaper of Dallas Theological Seminary, April 24, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 7