Presbyterians, Preparing for Battle

John Knox

Presbyterians, Preparing for Battle

Jeffrey S. McDonald, John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America, Pickwick, 2017, Pp. 263, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

John Knox (1514-1572), one of the founding fathers of Protestantism, did not eschew controversy. Preaching with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, he campaigned as if the soul’s stake in heaven depended on his efforts. Some commentators consider him the founder of Presbyterianism. His theological precepts persisted in the creeds of his followers.

Down through the ages, clergymen lamented any dilution of the founders’ convictions. The sword of the Spirit became their weapon of choice. Preach the Bible! – the clergy iterated. For laymen, surely, could not impede the renunciation of faith. Skepticism divorced people from their once firmly held belief in biblical texts.

The majority of adherents to Calvinistic views can no longer can read Luther, Calvin or other non-English writers in their original languages. The Enlightenment helped critical scholarship, but the flow of new information did not lead parishioners back to the textual sources of their faith. The Church drifted into the arms of secularists. One thing is certain though, in these days when the use of secondary literature prevails even in synods where Lutheran and Calvinian beliefs have been staunchly maintained, New Reformers were/are needed.

John Gerstner (1914-1996) was well known to the reformed communities on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. His aspirated voice, which developed on account of asthma, singled him out from other speakers. His pulpit presentations were animated and forceful. In general, Presbyterian ministers of old wrote useful monographs on the art of preaching, but in practice were (and in many ways still are) less adept in employing homiletic skills with positive effects on listeners. Gerstner was an exception.

Early on, Divinity was his particular study and profession. He was trained at The Philadelphia School of the Bible, Westminster College, and but briefly at Pitt-Xenia Seminary. Later, he matriculated at Westminster Theological Seminary. Through it all he became acquainted with wider forms of evangelicalism. The church historian Paul Woolley of the Westminster Theological Seminary encouraged him to go on to Harvard for his doctoral work. Gerstner became a philosophy major there. Apparently he took no church history courses, despite the presence of H.J. Cadbury (1883-1974) and the redoubtable A.D. Nock (1902-1963), who was one of his advisors.

Gerstner is known for his 30 year duties as a professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and for his publications treating of various apologetic issues. He is more popularly known for his academic work on the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. McDonald has supplied an interesting biography and assessment of the reformed culture in which Gerstner operated. Readers will be surprised how divisive Presbyterian movements tend to be. The number of splits in their churches and denominations over the last 140 years is astounding.[i] The reason for this is not difficult to discern. The urge toward the maintenance of 16th and 17th century doctrinal purity compels them to oppose modern views that challenge their beliefs.

This volume is a revision of McDonald’s PH.D dissertation, ‘John Gerstner and the Renewal of Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America’, presented to the University of Stirling in 2014. Overall, it is a notable contribution to biographical study; but the ‘Conclusion’ merely restates what is said in previous pages of the book, sometimes verbatim, and should have been omitted or rewritten. McDonald does a good job at tracing Gerstner’s historical heritage through his mentor John Orr (1884-1983) back to the Calvinist traditions of B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) at Princeton before the reorganization of the seminary in 1929. McDonald puts flesh on an audacious character.

Not every historian will agree with McDonald “that the Reformed tradition has its origins in Switzerland during the great sixteenth century Protestant Reformation and developed under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)” (p.4). Some other historical assertions on that same page are muddled. Did Gerstner’s noted son-in-the-faith R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) ever complete his doctorate degree, or, as is implied in a footnote on page 102, attained just a ‘doctorandus status’ at the Free University of Amsterdam? McDonald also proposes that Gerstner did not establish himself fully as a Church historian because his publications were of another genre. But a more balanced interpretation would be that his reputation as a ‘Church Historian’ is secure because of his three decades of classroom instruction and his diverse portfolio of books.

Jonathan Edwards

McDonald is surely correct when he says that another publisher should have been sought for Gerstner’s three-volume work (pp.189-190), The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. However, given Gerstner’s irascible temperament, it is unlikely that he would have found an amenable academic publisher. Therefore this work, with all its typos and problems of arrangement, is still useful. Yale has issued numerous volumes in The Works of Jonathan Edwards series whose editorial work is unassailable. But several editors’ individual estimations and judgments of Edwards’ religious ideas, which are limited to the introductory matter of the volumes each one edited, are inaccurate or misleading, if one may discern a difference. For that reason alone, Gerstner’s three-volume opus must be taken into account when Edwards’ theology is appraised.

Gerstner made no concessions to “Christian” liberalism. He thought it a sect with little Christian residue, seeing that its proponents rejected the Bible’s inspiration, dismissed supernatural events therein, denied the deity of Christ, his substitutionary work on the cross, and his bodily resurrection from the dead. He had no truck with neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Emil Brunner (1889-1966). He thought that they refused to speak plainly. Hence, to be labeled a Barthian by Gerstner was no complement. He predicted and resisted the coming vagaries of theological confusion. His books, articles and reviews were his weapons of war.

For many years, he was a professor in an institution with liberal inclinations. Obviously, he held turn-of-the-20thcentury fundamentalist views. No wonder Gerstner was marginalized by faculty members; maybe he insulated himself from their outlook. He was an adjunct professor in several other graduate-level schools. A cadre of students was loyal to him. He fought battles over the changing of the Presbyterian Confession. He opposed the merger of his seminary with a thoroughly progressive one. He did not want to see women ordained to the ministry, or any candidate ordained in his denomination who did not uphold the tenets of the Westminster Confession. And he did not want Arminianism to win out over Calvinism. In the Reformed community, he was a hero. His fame continues.

Articulate in ways that were inimitable, his literary scholarship was questionable. Gerstner seemed to shun the minute of analyses of texts that are needful to support one’s thesis. He never did acquire that crucial diagnostic equipment even though he spent four decades investigating the writings of Edwards, who had a thorough command of analytic researches. Any objectivity toward Edwards’ work was absent in Gerstner’s writings. To him, Edwardsean theological principles were wholly unobjectionable. For this reason, among others, Gerstner was removed by the Yale project committee as editor of the Yale volume on Jonathan Edwards’ sermons (p.128). Moreover, in some publications, his English Puritan style of discussion in print, with point one to point nine etc. – was tiresome.

Speaking in Waverly Kansas two weeks before he died, Gerstner advised his audience to pray for the Yale committee as they did not believe in Edwards’ theology. McDonald takes that as a sign of “lasting bitterness” on Gerstner’s part (p.196). I think McDonald mistook the meaning of the prayer request. He may have genuinely wanted them to be converted. Although I believe there was momentary disappointment, it may not have troubled him as much as McDonald contends. Except for two or three persons, the bulk of the committee members were specialists in late colonial and early federal periods of American history. According to Gerstner, all of them were secularists. In accordance with their academic standards, they held similar views on how to depict Edwards’ ideas. In his book Reasons for Faith (1960; rep. 1995: p.26-27), Gerstner comments,

“… we must go into a more thorough discussion of skepticism…  Proceeding from the true statement that it is a mark of a scholar at times to suspend judgment, many have jumped to the conclusion that the certain way to intellectual glory is to be uncertain about everything. Many modern scholars have no definite opinions on anything  except the definite opinion that one should never have a definite opinion. They seem to live in mortal fear of coming to a conclusion—“ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth.” As a dog will chase a cat until he is about to catch it and then turn tail and run, so they love the pursuit of wisdom so long as they are sure that they can never catch up to it. “I disbelieve,” they say; “help thou my belief.” And this attitude they describe as “detached,” “impartial,” “objective.”

“…the skeptic maintains, no one can know anything (except, of course, the skeptic who knows this much). And then finds himself concluding that since no one knows anything, everyone’s knowledge is as good as everyone else’s… . It therefore comes to pass that because no one knows anything, everyone knows everything… . (and we hope that the reader does not fail to notice that the skeptic is never skeptical of his skeptical notions)… . This theory is self-contradictory… .This position is manifestly untenable. For if we accept the skeptical conclusion, we have to be unskeptical to do so.”

Evidently, to Gerstner, the word ‘objectivity’ had a different meaning. He could find no legitimate reason to criticize Edwards’ ideas; and this fact remained true later when he later used lively expressions publicly to describe his dealings with members of the Yale committee. Gerstner often tied Edwards to Old Princeton theologians. He thought that the assumed association was beneficial to both parties. But it is not too difficult to find essays written by old rock-ribbed Princeton [type] professors of the 19thcentury who did not esteem Edwards’ theology as highly as Gerstner. Several of them certainly are on record saying that Edwards’ beliefs were pivotal to the formation of unusual ideas that soon appeared in the preaching and writings of late 18thcentury New England Theologians.

The Patriarchs of the Protestant Reformation formulated their beliefs on the basis of the original source texts in the original languages. That was their forte. A close scan of any of Gerstner’s books shows that exhibiting control of biblical languages was not his. When I studied at Knox Theological seminary in Fort Lauderdale Florida, Gerstner’s name came up regularly, but usually in regard to the articulacy of his taped lectures. Nonetheless, all that he wrote was not bad. His writing was clear and expressive. Each paragraph stated his views unmistakably. His strength was synthesis. Gerstner’s ability to combine elements of Church History with his interest in the foundations of ideas ensured that admirers of an Edwardsean philosophy and apologetic would remember him.

Indeed, Gerstner was a fierce warrior for a reformed predestinarian faith of the Old Princeton Seminary sort. That persuasion holds less sway than it did when the tenets of English Puritanism reigned supreme in Great Britain and the early American colonies. Few people today find those dogmas congenial. The modern mind has too many questions on free will, fate and inevitability etc that Calvinists cannot answer effectively.

Gerstner, however, helped spur a resurgence of belief in Reformed thought. An excellent debater and lecturer, his incisive retorts could leave people speechless. What John Knox was like as a person, who can know? But as a reformer, his Protestantism abided unquenchably in the heart of John Gerstner.


[i] Whenever conventional beliefs came under attack, discord ensued. These tensions are recorded with remarkable assiduity in David A. Young’s, For Me to Live is Christ: The Life of Edward J. Young (OPC 2017). E.J. Young (1907-1968) was eminent in his field of Old Testament studies and a native of San Francisco, CA. He studied classical literature, majoring in Greek with a minor in Latin (at Stanford University).

Darrell Sutton is a Pastor who resides in Red Cloud, Nebraska (USA). He publishes widely on ancient texts, both biblical and secular 

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