Theology 101

R.C. Sproul: Master Teacher, Theologian, and Apologist

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It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without R.C. Sproul (and Dr. John Gerstner who mentored both of us). A gifted teacher, theologian, and apologist, Dr. R.C. Sproul went home to be with the Lord on December 14th.

I had the privilege of working with R.C. Sproul in the early years of his ministry at the Ligonier Valley Study Center and was deeply impacted by his teaching.

As I reflect on R.C.’s life, one of the most important takeaways is the immeasurable value of being exposed to people like him, who provide excellent and theologically-robust Christian teaching that leads to personal, whole-life transformation.

One time, over dinner at the Study Center, R.C. and I were talking, as we often did, about Dr. Gerstner. We shared a similar story that we both learned “to think” in a class Dr. Gerstner taught on Jonathan Edward’s Freedom of the Will. As we studied a chapter each week, Gerstner would play an opponent of Edward’s and we were each put on the spot, “the hot seat,” to answer the objection decisively. You had to not only give an answer but decisively put down the objection in terms of the question—not only demolish it but “dust off the spot where it stood.” No half-baked answers allowed.

R.C. taught me further how to think, adding to the learning from Dr. Gerstner, by giving me content that has shaped my life and teaching.

Master Teacher

I worked at the Study Center for six years and heard R.C. teach at least 3 to 4 days a week. In those early days, the talks were all one hour in length. Invariably, R.C. would set up the talk, develop it, then apply it. The second half hour was the best part of the talk—where he was most passionate, and he always ended with a decisive conclusion exactly at the hour limit.

Because R.C. had such a mastery of theology, tremendous memory, and fluency of speech, he could often talk brilliantly without notes and without preparation. One time in John MacArthur’s church in California, I was backstage with R.C. and asked him what he was talking about. He said that he didn’t know, but that he had two or three themes in mind. The subsequent talk was fantastic.

Another time at the Study Center, he arrived at the Wednesday morning lecture and said he hadn’t had time to prepare. He said he would speak for the next hour on the first theological word that someone in the audience gave him. Someone said loudly “Amen,” so he proceeded to give a fascinating and powerful talk on that theme—for the full hour. I remember the content to this day.

R.C. was not only a fantastic teacher but he was able to fashion his talks so that they would be memorable. One time he told me the philosophy behind his approach. He said it was based on John Locke’s idea that we remember best that which is made most vivid to our senses. Harvard scholar Perry Miller called it “the rhetoric of sensation.” John Edwards approached his talks this way and so did R.C. He wasn’t concerned with just packing content into the talk, but finding stories, pictures, and metaphors to help drive home the content. He said less, but you remembered the content more.

C.S. Lewis said that “reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.” R.C. made truth vivid to our senses.

R.C.’s talent was not only giving brilliant, memorable talks but he also had an incredible ability to answer theological questions. After every talk he gave at the Study Center, he had an hour “Gab Fest.” Hearing him answer questions taught me at least as much as his talks.

Master Theologian

R.C.’s content was, of course, a full development of the Reformed perspective. However, his emphases were also notable. His priorities were: (1) catholic (meaning universal), (2) evangelical, and (3) Reformed—in that order. He also called himself a Calvinist with the emphases of Luther—often referring to the five “sola’s”: scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, to God alone the glory. Calvin is called by some “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” In a similar way, R.C. studied the work of the Holy Spirit extensively, had deep experiences with the Spirit, and an undoubled anointing of the Spirit.

Master Apologist

R.C. had a background in philosophy and could argue clearly and cogently. I had the privilege of co-authoring the book Classical Apologetics with Dr. Gerstner and R.C. It still is, to my knowledge, the fullest exposition of that position, and still is unanswered. It is often rejected but not refuted. It remains the guide for many people, including the most famous apologists. Ravi Zacharias once told me that Classical Apologetics was very influential in his life and ministry.

R.C. was one who, at his best, could blow you away with a talk. One story he told was about a talk he gave at the chapel services at Grove City College. A young man came up to him and said “R.C., that was the best talk I ever heard.” R.C. replied, “OK, but what did I say?” He was more concerned with the truth of the message being communicated than the applause he received.

R.C., in spite of his inherent human brokenness, like all of us, was a great man, a once-in-a-generation talent. We will miss him.

Above all, I will miss him.

Photo: Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

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  • heartsandmindsbooks

    Thanks, Art. I was hoping you’d write something soon, alongside the many other tributes to RC. I’m grateful for your insights and your stories.

  • heartsandmindsbooks

    By the way, have you seen the new book about Dr. Gerstner, “John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America” by Jeffrey McDonald? There’s blurbs on the back by D.G. Hart, Mark Noll, Kenneth Stewart and others. It looks really good. You’re mentioned a time or too, as is “Classical Apologetics.”

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