The Influence of Westminster Seminary on the RCUS

The Influence of Westminster Seminary on the RCUS

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States.

Rev. Howard Hart

THERE CAN BE little doubt that Westminster Theological Seminary has had a powerful and fundamental impact on our beloved Church, the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS). Since the late 1920s this orthodox institution has renovated the scenery of Reformed teaching in this country as well as some of the Asian domains.

Let us look at the history of this blessed place of Calvinistic instruction, and then see some of the impact it made on the RCUS.

HISTORY

Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) was founded in 1929 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The grand purpose of the seminary was to train and equip men to preach the Reformed Faith. The focus of the teaching was the Lordship and grace of Jesus Christ. When I attended the Seminary (1958-1961), I was impressed not only with the great learning of my professors, but with their profound piety and dedication to Jesus Christ. Their determination to be faithful to the infallible Word was experienced in every class session. I was in awe not only with the content in the lecture halls but also with the godly demeanor and dedication to Jesus Christ exhibited by the teachers. I was presented with Christ and His glory.

The seminary was founded by faculty members who had been teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Since 1812 Princeton was “the” seminary to attend. The high standards of scholarship and the quality of the professorship were the best offered on our continent, if not in the world. The seminary loved the Word of God and was dedicated to an orthodox Presbyterian faith. Princeton was “the” defender {160} and propagator of a rich Calvinistic theology. By the 1920s, however, Princeton was slipping into the camp of those who did not hold a high view of Scripture. The need of the day, for the Modernists, was a more popular and humanly acceptable gospel and ministry (not unlike the present day emphasis of church growth, new life churches, and “practical” Christianity). Several professors at Princeton were determined to continue the exposition of biblical truth which Princeton had been noted for in the past. The leader of this group of dedicated Christian teachers was J. Gresham Machen. He was determined to see the “old” Princeton survive in the midst of the blatant rejection of supernaturalism that had infected Presbyterianism and Princeton itself. Westminster Seminary was founded in the midst of the controversy caused by liberal higher criticism’s attacks on the true faith. In the past Princeton’s outstanding theologians and leaders had brought distinction to the faculty. Among them were Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, J. A. Alexander, B. B. Warfield, William Henry Green, Gerhardus Vos, Robert Dick Wilson, and J. Gresham Machen. It has been said that in the period just preceding its reorganization, Princeton stood at the very height of influence against Modernism and Indifferentism, which had long been at work in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Princeton stood in loyalty to the Scriptures against the New England and the New School theology of the day. “Old” Princeton met the serious challenge of the day and was an encouragement and assistance for the struggling forces of historic Christianity throughout the world. But opposition within the seminary and opposition without succeeded in overthrowing the “old” Princeton. The reorganization in 1929 meant that the old Princeton had come to an end.

With the passing of the old school it became imperative to begin a new seminary. Westminster Theological Seminary opened its doors in Philadelphia on September 25, 1929, as the real successor of the old Princeton. Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til, all of whom had been teaching at Princeton before the controversy of reorganization, along with R. B. Kuiper, Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Woolley, and Allan A. MacRae, formed the new institution, either as faculty or students, or both. The next year one of the finest theologians in Scotland and in the United States joined the above eminent teaching staff. His name was John Murray. He had received theological training at Princeton and had taught there.

The real continuity between old Princeton and Westminster Seminary was clearly stated by Dr. Machen at the opening of Westminster. He said:

Though Princeton Seminary is dead, the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary is alive. Westminster Seminary will endeavor by God’s grace to continue that tradition unimpaired; it will endeavor, not on a foundation of equivocation and compromise, but on an honest foundation of devotion to God’s Word, to {161} maintain the same principles that old Princeton maintained. We believe first, that the Christian religion, as it is set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church is true; we believe, second, that the Christian religion welcomes, and that it is capable of, scholarly defense; and we believe, third, that the Christian religion should be proclaimed without fear or favor, and in clear opposition to whatever opposes it, whether within or without the Church, as the only way of salvation for lost mankind. On that platform, brethren, we stand. Pray that we may be enabled by God’s Spirit to stand firm. Pray that the students who go forth from Westminster Seminary may know Christ as their own Savior and may proclaim to others the gospel of His love.[1]

The new seminary was founded because of the decline of many churches in the United States as well as in North America as a whole. Professor John Murray pointed out that Westminster Seminary was founded at a critical time in North American church history. He said,

The seminary came into being at a time when the very things for which it was established were being repudiated by a large section of Reformed churches in North America and in Europe. . . . When the enemy came in like a flood, God in His abundant mercy and sovereign providence raised up a standard against him.[2]

Faculty and students were drawn from many different Reformed and even liberal churches of the day. All were intent on the study of the Word of God and its application for the present evil world. Biblical Christianity was defended at the seminary. The teaching was Reformed and not fundamentalistic or baptistic. Westminster did not and does not reduce the gospel to a few “fundamentals.” What is sought is to prepare ministers who proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

Several years ago, after some years of discussion, Westminster was reorganized into two seminaries, one at the old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, campus and a new campus at Escondido, California.

Let me quote extensively from the 1995-1996 catalogue of Westminster Theological Seminary in California to give you a flavor of the past and present purpose, conviction, characteristics and doctrinal position of Westminster.

Westminster Theological Seminary in California is a Christian {162} institution of higher education offering instruction in biblical, theological, and ministerial disciplines with a view toward the intellectual and personal preparation of office bearers and other members of the church. The seminary is transdenominational and is committed to confessional Reformed theology. The purpose of the seminary is thus to bring glory to God as an academic institution that serves the Lord Jesus Christ both in the church and in the society at large by nurturing church leaders and members through graduate theological education and other instruction in the Word of God.

The present relationship of the RCUS and WTS is strained. There is an attitude among many of the brothers in the RCUS that WTS is not upholding the “old” Westminster’s apologetics and the high view of Scripture that the Church demands for herself. The Synod has sent representatives to talk to Westminster in Philadelphia. Let me quote a committee report adopted by our 249th Synod held in 1995 that deals with the “Doctrine of Scripture at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia)”:

The Special Committee to Study the Doctrine of Scripture at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) hereby amends its original report as follows. First, in place of the paragraph titled “Conclusions and Recommendations,” we submit the following:

Your committee concludes that there is a cause for concern about various forms of expression used by some professors at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), that, at the very least, obfuscate the historic, orthodox understanding of Scripture as defined by the Reformed Creeds. One, for example, describes the inspired writers as “editing” and “reshaping” the text. While we recognize that Moses and Jeremiah carefully chose words and phrases that would cast their accounts in a certain light, the proliferation of such phrases in this professor’s writing seems to suggest at times that the Biblical authors were more interested in creating history than reporting it. . . . Another professor espouses a theory of multi-perspectivalism, according to which he comes very close to asserting that man’s subjective and subtle perspectives provide the normative key to interpret Scripture. . . . In the course of time, this may end up destroying their understanding of the unity of the biblical message, which historically meant that the given sense of difficult texts can be known only as they are searched out in other passages that are more clear. {163}

The committee then recommends that the members of Synod keep a “weather eye open” as to the theology of the Word at Westminster (Philadelphia).[3]

THE INFLUENCE OF WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY ON THE MINISTERS AND MINISTRY OF THE REFORMED CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES

Your servant sent out a questionnaire to the present Westminster graduates in the RCUS to poll their opinions on how WTS influenced their lives and their ministry in the RCUS. We presently have thirteen WTS graduates in the RCUS; nine responded to the questionnaire. Questionnaires were also sent to several Elders in the RCUS who have been under the ministry of several WTS men and four of the five responded. From their and my observations I would like to present twelve basic influences this “grand old seminary” had on the ministers and ministry of the RCUS.

1. The WTS men brought and bring to our beloved part of the vineyard of Christ a militant commitment to the authority, infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures. The influence of WTS broke the back of the beginning of the inroads of neo-orthodoxy in the fifties and sixties in the RCUS. Today, the Church is “bullish” on Scripture. Other Reformed denominations have recognized our faithful stand on Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice.

2. WTS graduates brought with them a reformational theology into a Church that was in most of its theology and practice Reformed. At the same time there were indications that the RCUS was dying. New vigor was injected into the tiny RCUS. The present President of the Executive Committee of Synod, the Rev. Vernon Pollema says:

“I believe that WTS broadened the Reformed Church in the United States’ view of the Reformed Church and Reformed faith, moving it away from parochialism. WTS also stimulated the RCUS to get on with the task of missions, which is the life-blood of the church. Were it not for a renewed effort in home missions, what would the RCUS look like today?”

The Rev. Paul Treick, a son of the RCUS, gives us similar sentiments:

“Without question, God providentially used Westminster to give hope back to the RCUS at a time when we had no theological seminary of our own. Here was a seminary that stood out in terms of scholarship, but equally important, an institution that virtually stood alone to train men to expound and ‘contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints.’ We are more consistently Reformed in our theology as a result of Westminster. Westminster did not have a denominational ax to grind. It was simply determined to instruct men in the truth of the Scripture so they could {164} preach it without compromise against the onslaughts of every false gospel. This gave the RCUS a renewed incentive, not simply to hold our own or relive the painful battles of the past, but through new mission works to bring the Gospel to the lost. In this, Westminster got us out of our shell so we realized that there were yet 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal.”

3. WTS gave to its students an appreciation for Biblical scholarship. This is an extremely important point. We live in a day of intellectual “pop and fluff.” Anti-intellectualism is rampant in our society and church world. There are some that exhibit the feeling that our denomination is “too careful” about her candidates for the ministry. It might even be said that seminary training is not necessary and possible even harmful to Christians. This mentality will bring the church back to the dark ages. An untutored or blank mind will only bring disaster. The knowledge of a few little fundamental facts about a given idea is very dangerous. We are to preach the “whole counsel of God,” and this means depth of understanding and knowledge of the Gospel. WTS men bring with them a sense that the congregation is not stupid but deserve the “meat” of the Word of God. Being a good theologian is a prerequisite for being a good pastor.

4. The courts of the church set up study committees to think through problems and present theological propositions and answers to the contemporary church that is continually being tested from without and sometimes within by errors. When one looks at some of the Special Study Committees’ members we see a great influence of Westminster graduates on the present beliefs of the RCUS. Study committees like: Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, Deaconesses, Ecclesiastical Divorce and Remarriage, Infant Communion, Ordination Vow, Reformed Church in the United States Ecclesiology, Right to Die, Theonomy, and Voting in Congregational Meetings, we see a Biblical approach by WTS men being faithful to the Word of God. The studies show the WTS depth and theological acumen that is appreciated not only by the RCUS but also by other Reformed bodies. These “studies” will, for the most part, survive the test of time and be an influence to the church at large.

5. WTS men are trained to preach the Bible. They are not storytellers or “topical” preachers. They tell the congregation the meaning of the text with which they are dealing. They take a grammatical and historical approach in the presentation of the Word of God and have a healthy understanding of the Biblical Theological approach to Scripture. The Rev. Steven Schlei says, “I have never regretted my decision to attend WTS. It gave me the tools to confidently exegete the Bible. In my opinion, it was the best theological seminary in the U. S. (and probably the world) when I attended, and it probably still is the number one seminary in the U. S. today. ” {165}

6. Without WTS there would have been in the 1950s until the 1970s a dearth of adequately prepared men for the ministry. The Mission House, then in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, had already lost its foothold on the Reformed faith. WTS filled in the gap. At the present time we have men from other Reformed seminaries. These seminaries have also been influenced by WTS and for the most part reproduce the scholarship and attitude of WTS. Many of the more recent seminaries have WTS men on their faculties.

Elder Clifford Mettler of our congregation in Menno, South Dakota states that WTS “was a place we could have men go to be taught the Calvinistic faith.” WTS has produced many fine Calvinistic pastors.

Rev. Robert Grossmann states.

“The Eureka Chassis had by 1955 engaged a healthy conservative reaction against theological liberalism. Conservative reactions however, become sterile and unhealthy if they continue only in reaction. To avoid these evils, reaction must be followed by biblical reformation. This reformation must ask and must be able to answer the question, ‘How can we be even more biblical and more Reformed than we have been in the past?’ The future must be built upon solid biblical ground, not upon human reaction. WTS trained for us a generation of ministers able to work for such a biblical Reformation. . . . The modern RCUS is very much a product of the stubborn adherence of our fathers to biblical authority and truth, and the competent ministry in that truth of the next generation, mostly trained at WTS.”

7. WTS men testify that they were influenced by a godly faculty. These pastors in turn influenced their congregation to live a life that was conformable to the example of Jesus Christ. The Rev. Robert Grossmann, a son of the church and third generation minister in the RCUS says.

“Can one not have been personally inspired and influenced by the Reformed dynamism of Van Til, the firm doctrinal standards of Murray, the passionate and gentle love for the Word of Young, the vast historical knowledge of Woolley, and the godly example of Christian manhood each exemplified? One of the first two or three privileges and treasures of my life was to study under these great but humble men of God.”

8. “Dr. Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic, which begins and ends with the Triune God, is certainly foremost in my mind and has most influenced my ministry” (The Rev. Paul Treick, a son of the RCUS). The Rev. Steven Schlei testifies that, “This giant of the faith (C. Van Til) gave me an absolute confidence in the truth of the Christian religion. He taught me how to defend the faith against all challengers. He steered me away from rationalistic hyper-Calvinism and taught me to understand Scriptures from a paradoxical perspective. “

When we examine men in orthodoxy and purity of intent, for licensure, or for ordination, we have a separate section on Apologetics. If a man does not know {166} and believe in a presuppositional apologetic that is gathered from the Word of God, the man is rejected. Apologetics is the defense of the faith against the modern mentality that causes a large brood of tensions for the Christian, since the credibility of the Christian faith is always under attack.

Apologetics takes the defensive and offensive posture to build up the Christian in his faith The RCUS is becoming one of the last bastions in this country for the biblical apologetic. In keeping with presuppositional apologetics, we are a self-consciously Calvinistic denomination. We make no excuses for our position on the historic Christian faith.

9. Influence on a son of the church is best illustrated by the words of the Rev. Lloyd Gross, now retired from the active ministry. Here are excerpts from his testimony:

The influence of WTS on my theology is immeasurable. I shifted in my own theology from a latent antinomianism to the view of the law of God as articulated in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Confession. Before entering WTS I held an incipient orthodox Lutheran view of the law which is that it mainly shows us our sinfulness. WTS held up clearly for me the Reformed view of the law that it indeed shows us our sinfulness, drives us to Christ, and that we earnestly strive now to keep all the commandments of God to show our thankfulness to God for our redemption. The emphasis on the Third Part of the Heidelberg Catechism became more apparent to me at Westminster. Also, at Westminster I shifted from a Neo-Kohlbrueggian theological emphasis to a more Calvinistic emphasis. . . . I brought the Kohlbrueggian perspective to WTS. . . . When I studied at Westminster the first year I did not receive the teaching of Kohlbruegge. Instead the professors kept giving me Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, Warfield and Hodge. Except for Calvin these men were new to me, but I had studied Kohlbruegge in my pre-seminary days and read his works in German. Some of the older elders and ministers in the RCUS recommended Kohlbruegge to me . . . . I was much disturbed upon entering Westminster in 1955 that those professors never quoted him or referred to Kohlbruegge. One day, toward the end of my first semester, I encountered Professor Young, for whom I had developed great respect. I asked him his view of Kohlbruegge. His reply stunned me. He said, “Who?” I went to WTS thinking I would study Kohlbruegge only to find that one of my very respected and learned professors had not heard of him. This drove me to serious {167} reflection, study and prayer. It was the theology of Murray and Van Til in my second year at WTS that convinced me of the Calvinistic Reformed Faith as articulated in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession.

Strangely, I was influenced to go to Westminster through my pastor, the late Rev. Walter Grossmann. Rev. Grossmann in God’s providence is perhaps the single reason I attended Westminster. Even though he was a strong admirer of WTS, he was influenced by Kohlbrueggian theology. However, so strong was Rev. W Grossmann’s influence on my life, that when I indicated I might attend Mission House Seminary instead of Westminster he threatened to cut off all communication and friendship with me. To quote him, he said, ‘Unser Freundschaft ist Ÿber,’ meaning, our friendship is over if I attended Mission House instead of Westminster.

In my judgment that was a turning point in the old Eureka Classis. A very dear friend of mine had already entered Mission House. Had I, along with him as an RCUS student, also attended that institution it is not all improbable that the pendulum would have swung to neo-orthodoxy in the RCUS. . . . After I, as the first native son of the Eureka Classis attended WTS, a number of WTS graduates were received into the RCUS and the Neo-Kohlbrueggian theology and the neo-orthodoxy of the Mission House gave way to the theology of Calvin and the Scottish and Dutch reformers.

The Rev. Norman Jones, a WTS graduate and former editor of the Reformed Herald, says, “Apart from Westminster men coming into the RCUS, our denomination would probably have gone Barthian, liberal or fundamentalistic, or perhaps just melted into the UCC (United Church of Christ).

10. The Rev. Norman Hoeflinger. Again to quote the Rev. Lloyd Gross. “The steady influence of Rev. Norman Hoeflinger, the first WTS graduate to enter the RCUS is incalculable. I can not overstate his influence upon me when I entered the ministry in 1958 three years after his arrival. He brought with him the clear Westminster theology. . . .” Other ministers of the RCUS have reported similar sentiments. The author of this chapter has had contact with Norman for over twenty-eight years. He brings with him all that is right with the RCUS and Westminster Seminary. He was president of the Eureka Chassis for many years. He served on numerous committees with me.

11. Many of the men that attended WTS were from different personal and {168} ecclesiastical backgrounds. There were men from Orthodox Presbyterian backgrounds, Christian Reformed backgrounds, Baptist backgrounds, etc. coming into the RCUS. Most of them were from WTS from the 1950s through the 1970s. Some were school chums and had the same training in the Reformed Faith. They melded very well together. There were five sons of the church with WTS training with eight others who have assorted backgrounds. They became a very close knit group. Their fellowship was jovial and warm hearted. There were times when they thought they had all the answers, but in general they were careful expounders of the Bible. There is still a deep respect among the WTS graduates for each other.

The Rev. Robert Sander states, “To a larger or lesser degree all the men of the Synod have an influence on the thinking of each other both in stated meetings and in our relationships on less formal occasions. Surely, our trend in thinking is governed by our theological depository. This comes from the tremendous influence Westminster has upon us in the things of God. How can we, knowingly or unknowingly, do otherwise than influence our brothers in the faith. So, we are driven back to our days at Westminster.” It must be said that up until this day the Westminster men that are left from the 1950s to the 1970s have solid friendships.

“Even though WTS has slipped away somewhat from its moorings, it is still known, nationwide, as a seminary staunchly and vocally committed to the defense of the inerrant, infallible, written Word of God,” says the Rev. Robert Sander.

12. Professor John Murray. During my years at Westminster (1958-1961) this man was the greatest influence on my life. He taught me how to love systematic theology, biblical interpretation and knowing what the texts of the Bible said by a thorough examination of the words and construction of the verse. Professor Murray was the foremost lecturer of Systematic Theology in the world. All his lectures began with prayer. They were short but powerful supplication to the Almighty God. The lectures were earnest and moving declarations of the Word of God. He had been lecturing for thirty years on some of the content of his presentations, yet Murray’s style was lively and alive. To him the truth was a wonderful and living thing.

I remember asking him a question in class, a rare occurrence in his classroom. He did not give me an answer. A few days later I met him in one of the narrow hallways of Machen Hall. He said, linking my arm to his, “Mr. Hart, the question you asked the other day. . .,” then he gave a full answer to my query. He had thought the question through. No instant theology with Professor Murray. He taught me that scholarship is to bring wisdom. His profound insight and teaching has had a tremendous impact on the Reformed Church in the United States WTS graduates. We learned to be exact in our study of the Bible. Professor Murray wrote:

But what I am going to stress is the necessity for diligent and persevering searching of the Scripture; study whereby we shall turn {169} and turn again the pages of Scripture; the study of prolonged thought and meditation by which our hearts and minds may become soaked with the truth of the Bible and by which the deep springs of thought, feeling and action may be stirred and directed; the study by which the Word of God will grip us, bind us, hold us, pull us, drive us, raise us up from the dunghill, bring us down from our high conceits and make us its bondservants in all of thought, life and conduct. The Word of God is a great deep; the commandment is exceeding broad; and so we cannot by merely occasional, hurried and perfunctory use of it understand its meaning and power.[4]

The theology of John Murray was in every respect thoroughly Reformed. The model of his work was the Institutes of John Calvin. Calvin was a theologian of the Holy Scriptures as well as a commentator of the Bible. Calvin noted that the service of his life was for the covenant people of God. The same may be said of Professor Murray. Our dear professor taught us Reformed orthodoxy out of the Scriptures, and in so doing he taught us how to be Reformed theologians who love and live the Word. That is his legacy to the RCUS through his students.

In closing this chapter, allow me to look to the future of the RCUS and the influence of Westminster Theological Seminary.

In recent years our ministers have not been coming to us with Westminster backgrounds. They are good men and sound in the faith. I hope that this book and this chapter will help them understand the “Westminster mind.”

The “old” Westminster is gone. Her influence, however, is still with us. It will not be very long and “old” graduates will be gone as well. Let us pray that we will thank God for Westminster Theological Seminary and her students who made an impact on the contemporary church scene.

Postscript: Here is a list of WTS graduates that are still serving the RCUS. Messrs. Scott Clark, Lloyd Gross, Robert Grossmann, Howard Hart, Norman Hoeflinger, Norman Jones, Vernon Pollema, Robert Sander, Steven Schlei, Paul Treick, Herman Van Stedum, Jim West, and Steven Work. {171}



[1] Christianity Today, Sept. 1930, p. 4.

[2] The Presbyterian Guardian, July 10, 1944, pages 197-98.

[3] 1995 Abstract, Reformed Church in the United States, p. 75.

[4] The Presbyterian Guardian, February 25, 1945.

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