I was saddened, though prepared, to hear of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s passing yesterday afternoon. Dr. Sproul had a tremendous impact on virtually every Reformed person, including every writer and scholar, that I know, including myself, and his life and work are greatly to be celebrated as a gift to the body of Christ. Our prayers and thoughts are with his family and close associates as they grieve.
Like many young Reformed students, I cut my Reformed teeth reading R.C. Sproul’s books—now almost 20 years ago. Among the first books I read in the genre was Dr. Sproul’s famous The Holiness of God. I went on from there to read a score or so of his works, as well as to listen to many of his teaching series, including his lectures on the history of philosophy, The Consequences of Ideas.
In one of those lectures, Dr. Sproul mentioned a novel he had written. “R.C. Sproul wrote a novel?,” I queried myself. I later found it, Johnny Come Home (1984).
The novel carries a disclaimer at the front that says it is not autobiographical, but as the story of young man from Pittsburgh who studies philosophy, moves to Amsterdam to study, and moves back to become a conservative Presbyterian minister and sought-after speaker, I cannot help thinking that it had many autobiographical elements to it. It also spoke to me powerfully as a young aspiring Christian intellectual in my early 20s.
Here is one of my favorite passages from all of Dr. Sproul’s writings. When I read it again this morning, I realized it was even more powerful than it was when I first read it 20 years ago.
Some gradual changes were taking shape in Scooter’s aspirations, helped in part by the enthusiasm of his Sunday morning class. His grand passion, like most young theologians, was a modest one. He simply wanted to change the world, to be a catalyst for a new reformation of society where the triad of the good, the true, and the beautiful would gain the upper hand over the evil, the false, and the ugly. His strategy had been fixed in his mind; win the war of academia, capture the flag of the university world; restore the dignity of classical values at the theoretical level and the rest would take care of itself. Slay the hydra heads of existentialism, secularism, and a host of other isms, and allow the wind of the ages to bring in a new rush of classical truth.
Boy did I feel like that at the time! But what he would say next I would not understand until a while afterward:
But trying to make an impact in a university world so allergic to all things classical was like trying to stop a jet plane with a butterfly net. Besides, he was now past thirty and the generation gap was starting to tell with his students. He was spending more time with adults, more time in the marketplace and wondering if the universities were, after all, the real power structures anymore. Maybe the church door at Wittenberg was no longer the place to start a movement. Martin Luther King’s ninety-five theses were scribbled on the back of a bus.
For the first time since his college days Scooter allowed the possibility in his own mind that his destiny was targeted for some place other than the parochial confines of the scholarly world. He was starting to get an itch for the grass roots.
That point was certainly autobiographical for Dr. Sproul. He sacrificed his desire to be in academia, where he could certainly have excelled. He never published a paper, dissertation, or monograph in academic channels as far as I am aware. Again, he certainly could have. But he chose instead to pursue popular ministry, “grass roots” as he here says, and became the voice of Reformed theology to an entire generation of people like me—but also a generation of the revival of Reformed theology that is strongly international. He did an end-run around the university, and he succeeded at it.
A couple things about this passage still stand out to me in relation to Dr. Sproul’s influence. One of them is his commitment to “classical” learning. If I would have ever had the chance to sit down and talk at length with him (from which God almost certainly spared him, out of mercy), after thanking him I would have discussed this passage. One of the few disagreements I would have had with him would have centered on this issue of classical apologetics versus the presuppositional school of Van Til. I think the critique offered in Classical Apologetics was one of the more unfortunate treatments to which Sproul ever lent his name and hand. I would have noted that the very disappointment his character expressed here with the university being averse to all things classical was not of the specie he thought it was. It was in fact the natural outgrowth of the humanism inherent in classical civilization and thought to begin with. I would have argued (and it was Dr. Sproul who taught us that an argument need not be an emotional battle, but rather a reasoned discussion) that the very reformation of society he sought could not and never would happen on “classical” terms, for the problem was a derivative of it to begin with.
But enough of that, the second point which really leaps out at me now is his reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., in that passage. The new reformation, in other words, must be one of vital actions, not mere theses posted on academic papers. (Of course, Dr. Sproul would have been the first to say that the first Reformation was, too, and that’s why it succeeded.) It also will be social and real, risky and intense.
I would have loved to see Dr. Sproul be able to expand his ministry into such horizons with the same vigor and youthful passion that he always did the intellectual. There are glimpses of this in what he did accomplish. With Dr. Sproul’s core contribution of popularizing and mainstreaming Reformed theology essentially successful, I will be so bold as to say that by far his most important book that anyone can read today is not The Holiness of God, or anything else on that topic, but his book, The Last Days According to Jesus: When Did Jesus Say He Would Return? This work was Dr. Sproul’s revelation that he had adopted preterism and postmillennialism—two of the most important advances for any Reformed reader to build upon basic Calvinism. The latter would give some rocket fuel to the type of grass roots and real-life (MLK, Jr-level) reformation of which Dr. Sproul’s novel spoke.
But I think he was more generally called to lay a significant part of the intellectual groundwork for a generation of young Reformed folk in a revival of Reformed theology, and in that calling, he was faithful and successful. While we here at American Vision have sometimes offered criticisms on some points, for Dr. Sproul’s faithful calling and work, we are profoundly blessed, and we urge everyone to remember his contribution with gratefulness just as profound. I know I certainly will.