An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology
R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols. Wheaton: Crossway, 2021. Hardcover, 371 pages.
Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students. This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian. That theologian was R.C. Sproul. As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name. A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works. I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God. I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order. I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness. Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.
Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone. When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively. This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:
The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul. Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise. As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.” This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell. I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.
Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime. One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s. Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic.
There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification. A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT). Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer. ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God. Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God. Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer. The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on. If justification isn’t worth it, what is?
It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul. I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after. That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for. Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him. Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics. This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity. Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics. This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible. This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.
On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions. According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner. One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul. Here’s the important thing to realize: presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology. You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics. That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following: “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed. It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia. Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.
That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme. In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics. You can find this debate online here. Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points. Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all. I’m left wondering: what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years? If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back? I’m perplexed.
Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime. One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2. Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today. However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.
I couldn’t put this biography down. It’s engaging and well-written. If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him. And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.