The following is a guest post by Russell Pulliam, an Indianapolis Star columnist who directs the Pulliam Fellowship summer intern program for the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. This post is a longer, more detailed, personal account of Russ’ article that appeared in the Washington Post.
R.C. Sproul did not think of himself so much as a pioneer but as a teacher of the classical truths of systematic theology, apologetics and philosophy.
Yet he was the pioneer in taking seminary into our homes, or with us on the walking and jogging trails, in our cars and churches. He was figuring out distance learning before the term became part of the educational vocabulary.
He also led the resurgence of reformed theology over the past 50 years.
Conferences featuring Sproul and other pastors and teachers attracted thousands of people and prompted the movement that journalist Collin Hansen called Young, Restless and Reformed in his book.
In the 1950s and 1960s people had been coming to salvation in Christ through all kinds of para-church ministries, mostly launched after World War II. The Billy Graham Crusades were the most well known, andthey were reported as major news events. Other young people were embracing Christ through Young Life ministry for those in high school. Youth for Christ clubs were growing in other schools. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes offered huddle groups for athletes. Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, was offering the gospel of Christ on college campuses. So was Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Navigators.
Finishing his formal education in the 1960s, the young R.C. Sproul thought the Christian movement was too shallow theologically. People should be going deeper into the Scriptures. They needed to go to seminary. We were theologians whether we knew it or not, and we needed better theology.
Sproul could have taught at plenty of seminaries. Aspiring pastoral candidates were inspired by his capacity to teach systematic theology and defend the Christian faith in apologetics. Many students went to Ligonier or used the lectures as a way to follow up on seminary. He could give an understandable definition of concepts such as modalistic monarchianism or the Monophysite heresy. Or he would explain how Immanuel Kant messed up our thinking by putting noumenal (vs. phenomenal) ideas outside the category of knowability. What he taught us about Kant seemed incredible to me, in a course on the Enlightenment. I finally understood the fallacy of a basic presupposition in my education as well as almost everyone around me in the news media. The Bible was essentially a noumenal document, in their minds, and was therefore unknowable or irrelevant to reporting the news. You couldn’t know if the Bible was true and verifiable so keep it out of the newsroom. No wonder we were missing key elements of so many stories.
Sproul worried about the man or the woman in the pew, the layperson who would seldom get to take a seminary class. Those people needed what the seminaries were teaching. He was not an ivory tower intellectual, though he could easily hold his own in high level academic debates with unbelievers and believers. He even played the devil’s advocate in a fun debate with his mentor, John Gerstner. He lost the debate, but Dr. Gerstner consoled him with an assessment that he was at least a good devil. Sproul was an avid sports fan and could talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers or his golf swing as easily as theology.
After a short time as a teaching pastor in a Cincinnati church, he launched the Ligonier Valley Study Center in 1971 near a very little Pennsylvania town called Stahlstown. Men and women started flocking to weekend seminars or week-long classes on the Enlightenment or the doctrine of Christ or the sin nature of humanity.
In starting the study center he had appreciated the L’Abri ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Europe and modeled the study center along the lines of students living with families. He also followed Schaeffer’s example in a big heart for the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life. He and Charles Colson became friends after Colson listened to Sproul’s holiness lectures and was launching Prison Fellowship in the late 1970s. Through the fellowship prison inmates would come for conferences at the study center. A funny story was R.C. lecturing on the importance of authority in the morning, then him arguing vociferously with some faulty umpiring in an afternoon softball game. The inmates on the other team started chanting“AUTHORITY, R.C.! AUTHORITY!!” The inmates had a great time holding the teacher accountable.
He also hosted labor-management seminars in the late 1970s, supporting a reconciliation ministry led by Wayne Alderson to bring the influence of Christ to bear on the Pittsburgh area conflicts between workers and management in the steel industry and other businesses. Later he wrote one of his best books, a biography of Wayne Alderson, Stronger Than Steel.
He offered his lectures and classes on then cutting-edge technology of cassette tapes for audio listening. He pioneered in VHS tapes for TV viewing. Those younger than 35 might find some of the old cassette or VHS tapes in their parents’ basements.
By 1984 Sproul saw the limits of the campus approach, with people coming to stay in homes and dormitories in western Pennsylvania. The ministry moved to Orlando, closer to a big airport, and Sproul started traveling more, teaching in churches as a kind of one-man visiting seminary. Sometimes he teamed up with other pastors and seminary teachers, but he was usually the star, the name drawing several thousand to learn more about God, the Bible and Jesus Christ.
The content of his teaching was controversial in the larger American culture. He believed the Bible was true, and he was a key leader in a movement to defend the Bible as having no errors. As a Calvinist, he could be controversial in asserting that God sovereignly calls people to salvation in Christ, under the assumption that we are morally responsible, but God is still Lord of it all. Nothing gets out from His control. He believed we are more sinful than our natural instincts would suggest, or total depravity. In other words, he was outside the mainstream of popular American life and even a big section of the growing evangelical movement.
At a personal level he had a pastor’s caring heart for people. He avoided the fiery televangelist style. He thought the Bible has answers for the world’s problems and wanted to offer them in a winsome manner.
I still remember introducing him to Dr. Roy Blackwood when R.C. was speaking in Cincinnati in the early 1980s. With Roy as pastor, Second Reformed Presbyterian Church became one of Ligonier’s best customers in buying the VHS theology tapes. Somehow the conversation turned to Reformed Presbyterians, and Dr. Blackwood must have said something about being a Covenanter. R.C. knew his church history and was friends with Reformed Presbyterians in the Pittsburgh area. He also liked to define words carefully.
R.C. quickly declared in a friendly and booming voice: “I’M A COVENANTER!”
In contrast to other more well-known Christian leaders, he stayed away from politics, generally sticking with his gifts in theology, apologetics and philosophy.
His gifted skills in communication blossomed in a new way in his later years. He had written plenty of top-selling serious books, but for grandchildren he started young children’s books. He would still teach big concepts like the imputation of Christ’s righteousness or justification by faith through simple stories, such as The Prince’s Poison Cup or The Lightlings. Along with Pilgrim’s Progress and the Narnia series, Sproul’s books are some of the best I have found for pre-school grandchildren. He’s right up there with John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald.
Whether he was writing for children or speaking to adults, Sproul brought the theology of the Bible to the common person. Theology can be abstract and hard to comprehend. R.C. Sproul made it easier to comprehend and taught us to love God not only with our hearts and souls, but also with our minds.
He could have played a bigger part in the story Owen Strachan told so well in Awakening of the Evangelical Mind, An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement. Strachan traced how Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry led a small army of Bible-believing Christians to get their doctorates and be very serious in academic and intellectual pursuits. They led a post-World War II movement following in the great tradition of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Alexander Henderson, Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Gerstner and so many others. R.C. Sproul was a second generation leader in that awakening. To our lasting benefit, he gave his life to sharing those spiritual riches with those of us who would never make it to full-time seminary.