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R.C. Sproul died Thursday at age 78. Months before the theologian’s final illness, WORLD founder Joel Belz interviewed him at Ligonier Ministries headquarters in Sanford, Fla. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
You said in a video series several years ago that everybody is a theologian. There are good theologians, you said, and there are bad theologians. But everybody's a theologian. So what's the distinction between a good theologian and a bad theologian?
Well, a good theologian has a correct understanding of theology—and a bad theologian has a distorted view. Everybody has some concept or understanding of God. Everybody who lives in America is aware, at least, of Jesus—if for no other reason than Christmas. So they draw conclusions and inferences about Jesus—and when they do that, they’re doing theology.
A lot of the inferences drawn about Jesus are wildly inaccurate. Bad theology has become an escape form for us. We all have to be engaged in some form of theology—and the question is: Are we going to be rigorous and open to being instructed by Scripture, and the truth of it?
So you’re pushing us back, as you always do, to the Bible. Tell us how you read it—and when you’re getting ready to preach, is it different from the way you read it for your personal devotions?
C.S. Lewis talked about his concept of devotions: It was sitting with his pipe studying as deeply as he could the text of the Bible. He said a true theologian never removes himself from a devotional study of the things of God. But when I’m preparing a sermon, I will go an extra mile of research on the text—more than I do when I’m just simply reading Scripture.
We never stand over the Bible. But the Bible does stand under us. I remember as a philosophy major and then a professor trying to learn for myself and to inculcate in my students the art of critical reading. But when I read the Bible, it’s criticizing me. I’m not criticizing it.
That’s a helpful distinction. So, when I get up every morning this week—and it’s really the case that I’m in the book of Leviticus—how do I read Leviticus devotionally?
As quickly as you can. You want to get that historical framework first, among other things. So many people resolve to read through the Bible. They read Genesis and Exodus. They get to Leviticus, and it’s so unfamiliar to them with all the details of various ceremonies, that they lose their resolve and give up. At some point you have to go and read Leviticus. But only after you have the framework, the larger scope of Scripture.
Then it’s like Luther said. He said the joy of studying the Bible is that first you see the forest—and once you see the forest, then you see a copse of trees, and you look at that copse of trees, and then you pick out an individual tree and you examine that. Then each branch, he said, but Bible study doesn’t really become fun until you’re turning over every little leaf, every little branch, of every little tree. You get down to the details of a book like Leviticus once you have the framework in which you see where that comes in redemptive history. It’s a treasure trove. Do you see it? Don’t you find that when you’re reading?
I’m only in Leviticus 4. I haven’t found it yet!
I promise you it’s there.
Whose inspiration was it to give the church Tabletalk, a monthly magazine that serves as a day-by-day guide and commentary?
Tabletalk started when we were in Pennsylvania and had our study center there in the mountains. Initially it was a newsletter to our constituents with a few theological articles. We derived the title from Luther’s pattern. He would sit around the table with his students and discuss Biblical theological matters, and we used to do that at our Pennsylvania study center.
When we began this ministry, we had been in conversations with Francis Schaeffer, who gave us insights on how to operate a study center. But we differed from L’Abri in that they were principally evangelistic: We were more focused on nurturing Christians. To that end, we decided to change the format and to go with a combination of theological articles as well as a daily devotion so it had a two-pronged outreach—to help people get into the Scriptures on a daily basis, and also to chew on some theological matters.
Last year, when my local church used your series on the book of Revelation, I couldn’t help thinking, “R.C. is not at all as dogmatic as his critics have said!” How do you decide which parts of Scripture can have different readings and which are absolutely clear?
Luther talked about the perspicuity of Scripture but qualified it by saying not all parts of Scripture are equally clear, and that one of the most important rules of hermeneutics is that you interpret the obscure in terms of that which is really clear—not the other way around. The other way around you’d turn the Bible into a wax nose that can be twisted in any way you want to. But, when you’re dealing with apocalyptic literature, you’re dealing with the most difficult genre to interpret with any final dogmatism at all. The book of Revelation is exhibit A.
Whatever you’re teaching, to me the cardinal sin is to bluff—to pretend you know something that you don’t know. I’d say one of the first things a teacher has to learn to say without choking at it is, “I don’t know.” It’s hard to say that because the students expect you to know, and all you need to qualify as a teacher is to know more than your students. Honesty and integrity demand that when you don’t know something, you say so.
Let’s leave the field of scholarship for a bit. What’s your counsel to somebody who is moving and wants to choose a church in a new community. What are one or two first tests to apply when looking for a new church?
Look for a church where Biblical exposition is the order of the day. Being fed by sacred Scripture is the single most important element.
What are a couple of trademarks of that kind of preaching?
There are different kinds of expository preaching. Some preach topically but use a text, and really stick with it and expound it. That’s a legitimate form of expository preaching. My preference is the preaching that goes verse by verse through a whole book. I do that—and the main reason I do it is that our duty as preachers is to preach the whole counsel of God.
Our normal human tendency is to preach our favorites and avoid texts that are controversial or difficult to handle from the pulpit. Whereas when I’m preaching through Luke, as I am right now, next week’s sermon is right there in front of me. It’s the next verses after the ones I preached last week. I can’t duck it—I have to preach what’s there. With the exception of Christmas Eve and Easter, my preaching schedule just follows sequentially.
So let me put you on the spot: Why do people love to hear you preach and teach? What gifts has God given you for it?
That assumes that they do like to hear me preach.
That’s pretty evident.
I really don’t know. For one thing, I preach extemporaneously. That doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. A lot of people think that “extemporaneous” means you’re just winging it.
When I first started to preach, I would write out my sermon, type it up in full, and have my manuscript with me while I preached. One day Dr. Robert J. Lamont, the senior minister at First Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, said to me, “You’ve got to throw away that manuscript; it’s a barrier between you and the people.” He said you’ve got to learn how to preach extemporaneously.
“What’s that?” I asked. He answered: that the minute I’m done with one sermon, begin to think about the next one: Immerse myself in it, get it in my bloodstream, think about the pieces, and then formulate the message in my mind. His point: You don’t need a manuscript to talk to me here in my office. He said we are able to think on our feet, and clearly.
There are, of course, a lot of people who preach from manuscripts that their people love to hear. And there are people who don’t preach from manuscripts that people don’t like to hear, so it’s got to be more than that.
Part of it too is that by training and by profession I’m a systematic theologian. So when I’m dealing with the text, I’m always alert to the theological concepts in the texts. I try to unpack those for the people in a way they can understand. When you read the Bible, you’ve got to read it existentially. You look for the drama—because in every text there’s drama. I try to look for it and land on it and have a visceral reaction to it. Before other people have any passionate response they’ve got to hear that passion from me.
Let me put you on the spot again. Looking back over these 30 years plus, if you could go back and do something differently, what would it be?
My first reaction is to say, I don’t think we have enough time to go over all the things I’d like to do differently.
Could you pinpoint one?
Instead of traveling to teach, I’d have a pulpit a lot earlier than I did. Preaching at St. Andrew’s has been the most joyous thing I’ve ever done in my life in my ministry. So as much as I was prepared and trained to teach, and I was ordained to teach …
That was your call, to teach …
Yes, it was my call and I did it for many, many, many years. But my greatest joy has been preaching in the same sermon series, in the same pulpit, to the same people, week after week after week. I certainly love systematic theology and all of that. But there’s nothing that kindles my soul like the Scripture.
You asked if I were to do anything different. Maybe I might be a Biblical scholar instead of a systematician, although I have the kind of mind that fits systematics.
If a layman wants to know the critical difference between systematic theology and Biblical theology, does your book Knowing Scripture go there?
No, but the difference is this. In Biblical theology, you’re looking at the text of Scripture and the themes of Scripture and seeing how they tie together. Systematic theology does that but also deals with the history of the development of doctrine. It’s not that you impose a system on the Bible—but you try to see the system that’s there.
Do you come to the end of a sermon and say, “I’ve got to have an application here?”
No. I’ve been criticized more than once for not having more specific application to my preaching. Some of the greatest preachers, like Edwards, would always have a section of application. I haven’t done that. I see the Scripture as a lion in a cage—and I’m just letting the lion loose.
Let the lion apply it. The Spirit will take the content of the Word of God and show the implications personally to the people there. That’s my hope and I trust in that because I’m just not good at it. What I’m trying to do is tell people what the Word of God says—and then say: Now look, what are you going to do about it?
How much of the church’s energy ought to be directed toward cultural issues as opposed to a focus on gospel truth issues?
We have two sides taking very strong positions. There’s not usually a whole lot of doubt on where I stand, but on that particular issue I really am in the middle. I care about cultural issues, and certainly ethical issues like abortion. But I don’t believe for a minute that the culture is going to be our salvation. I’m never going to wrap the Bible in the American flag—as much as I love my native land and everything we try and do. There’s a difference between the kingdom of God and this country. My particular responsibility is to preach the Word to people.
It has implications for abortion and for marriage. I point out those implications. We’re facing today pretty much what the first-century Christians were facing, living in a pagan and barbarian world under the Roman Empire. They were civilized in one sense. But ethically, they weren’t, and that’s where we are now. So the chief responsibility of the Apostles was to proclaim the Word. That’s the difference between revival and reformation. Revival has to come first—and then you see new changes in the forms and structures of the culture in which you’re living.
In other words, you can have revival without reformation—but you can’t have reformation without revival. Every day of my life I pray for an awakening to God and to the gospel. That’s what drives me.
Here’s a question from a friend whose uncle had recently died and she didn’t know where he was spiritually: “Ask Dr. Sproul what he would say if he came upon an accident and it was clear that the person in the accident didn’t have much time left.”
I have come upon people in accidents like that. But more often they are unbelievers I might be visiting in the hospital on their deathbed. I say to them quite simply that I’d like to talk them about Jesus.
Part of the problem we have in the evangelical world, Joel, is that pastors don’t know what the gospel is. They say they’re gospel preachers but they’re not. They don’t know what the gospel is. The gospel has a definite content. It’s the person and work of Jesus—and then faith is the necessary instrument of appropriating to yourself the benefits of the work of Jesus. So I just sit there and tell them about Jesus. I tell them that they need Jesus and that Jesus, if they confess their sins, will give them everything that He has and everything that He is. Prepare them so that when they stand before God they’ll be clothed in Jesus’ righteousness and not their own.
I’ve had some, although I haven’t done a lot of it because I don’t do a lot of hospital ministry—but I have seen people embrace the gospel like that in the last hours of their lives.
What do you think are the two or three greatest threats to the evangelical church right now?
Probably the greatest threat to the evangelical church right now is the evangelical church—because it’s not very evangelical. I mean the term itself has almost died.
What does it mean, Joel? I knew what it meant 50 years ago. What does it mean now? Historically, every conceivable brand of evangelical has walked the earth—and particularly in America. Brethren, dispensationalists, fundamentalists—we had all different kinds of doctrines and nuances but two doctrines tied all the groups together: They all believed in justification by faith alone, and they all believed in the inerrancy of Scripture.
Those two doctrines were the points of unity. Now both of these critical, central, core doctrines of evangelicalism have come under significant attack within the evangelical world over the last 30 years.
What is the most vivid example of the forfeiture of justification by faith?
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together [the 1994 ecumenical document].”
That was painful for you as well as distasteful, wasn’t it?
It was the most painful part of my whole career.
Because it cost you personal friendships?
Yes, but it was more what it cost the church. All of a sudden justification by faith alone was up for grabs. In the wake of that came the New Perspective and the attack against imputation. Then later came the attack against the active obedience of Christ. These basic bottom-line core doctrines of the faith that were being compromised.
I’m probably still in shock. Of course, the erosion of inerrancy antedated all of that. That evangelicals started to cave in on inerrancy was not all that surprising to me, because the academic world was so militantly opposed to it. In the academic culture, even for evangelicals, it was a liability to affirm inerrancy—a doctrine said to be held only by backwoods primitive people who had no education and no academic training. The higher critics painted that portrait. That guys collapsed under the pressure was disappointing, not shocking—but I never dreamed in a million years that sola fide [faith alone] would be an issue within evangelicalism.
Are there important players in the debates about inerrancy and faith alone who in God’s providence got pulled from the scene—people like John Gerstner and James Boice? Are there two, three, four such people about whom you might say, “Lord, why did you take them when we needed them for this discussion”?
Certainly Boice and Gerstner. We lost [Francis] Schaeffer, [Martin] Lloyd-Jones and John Murray. I knew all those people. Jim Boice was one of my closest friends.
Carl Henry is another for sure. When we lost those guys it was a scary thing for me. I feel like now I’m the dinosaur.
Yeah, I’m not the young buck anymore at all. But God always brings up people to defend His truth. J. Gresham Machen died before I was born.
We’re left to wonder—not worry—to wonder about God’s providence in letting Machen go to Dakota and get a head cold.
A head cold that ended in bronchitis that they mistreated. I talked to the son of the doctor who treated him. The son, who was also a physician, said the protocol in that day actually killed people. In the providence of God he got the worst of all possible care, and you wonder about that, but you know about his famous telegram back to the faculty.
Tell it again.
He said how grateful he was for the active obedience of Christ.
Theologian J. Gresham Machen died on Jan. 1, 1937, shortly after sending a telegram to Professor John Murray: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”
Pastors sometimes speak of Christ’s willingly going to death on the cross as His “passive obedience.” Shortly before Machen’s death, he explained on his radio program active obedience: “Christ took our place with respect to the law of God. He paid for us the law’s penalty, and He obeyed for us the law’s commands. He saved us from hell, and He earned for us our entrance into heaven. All that we have, then, we owe unto Him. There is no blessing that we have in this world or the next for which we should not give Christ thanks.” —Marvin Olasky