An Encomium for Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) and the Reformed Tradition

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, October 7th, 2013

Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland

Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland

Evangelicals have a tendency to cannibalize. There is a strong tradition of self-criticism within the broader movement and it manifests itself in just about every sector, usually along the lines of “you’re disavowing the faith.” In this kind of discourse, ancient heresies serve as “types” that evangelical writers utilize to consign other positions to a doctrinal purgatory.

Evangelicals also like to pit one part of the movement against another without recognizing the contributions of each part to the larger whole. I have certainly been guilty of this kind of partisanship. This is not to say that there should not be a vigorous discussion about the differences, but such discussions should occur with a spirit of generous orthodoxy that says, “OK, we’re different, but we’re still family, even if you’re the cousin I rarely see and sometimes don’t want to be around.”

In this spirit, I want to express my appreciation to Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL, for the training I received there from 1992 until 1995. To be clear, I am speaking of the “Maitland-RTS” as opposed to the “Oviedo-RTS” mainly because I graduated before the Oviedo campus had been built. My own memories are of the set of office buildings in Maitland, FL, that provided the temporary housing for a seminary in its infancy. It was a close-quartered and intimate setting in which every building opened to a small common area.

When I arrived at RTS in the fall of 1992, I was not sure what to expect. All I knew was that I was a Pentecostal who wanted to broaden my own theological horizons. I had chosen RTS because I was from Florida and I wanted to know more about this Reformed animal. RTS proved to be a good place for such an expedition.

At RTS, I learned about the rich diversity within the Reformed tradition, which to that point had appeared homogeneous to me.

I encountered up front the difference between presuppositional apologetics and classical apologetics (there were some vigorous debates over these points). Richard Pratt was clearly in the Van Till mold and he had us read John Frame, another ardent Van Tillian. R. C. Sproul, on the other hand, co-authored the book on classical apologetics.

I was exposed to debates over what made an individual Truly Reformed (the TRs). I recall one debate between a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian over paedobaptism that became pretty heated. I was exposed to the cessationist trajectory within Reformed thought by Reggie Kidd, but also had Mike Glodo, a member of the charismatic Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). Most people don’t realize that Regent School of Divinity has a Reformed heritage with Rod Williams, it’s first systematics professor, being a member of Kempsville Presbyterian, a local EPC congregation.

I even learned Reformed alphabet soup: PCA, PCUSA, OPC, EPC, CRC, RCA, etc.

I learned about the issues that were important to Reformed theology and the debates over those issues

After reading Herman Bavinck in Doug Kelly’s Systematic I class, I started to understand the depth and breadth of the Dutch Tradition and its divergence from the Old Princeton trajectory, the Puritan trajectory, and the Swiss German trajectory. R. C. Sproul saw himself as an Edwardsian and at one point even said he had no problem with synergism in sanctification as long as one held to monergism in justification and regeneration. This did not sit well with some faculty, which opened my eyes to the fact that there were a variety of positions one could hold on predestination and election within the Reformed camp.

And, there were extremists. I recall one time John Muether, a member of Machen’s remnant Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), getting attacked in print by Theonomists because he was not sufficiently covenantal in his understanding of the application of God’s law to political and economic realities. I thought to myself then, “well, it’s good to know that Pentecostals and Holiness folks don’t have the corner on intramural fighting.” RTS saw itself as standing between the theonomists and the dispensationalists and thus holding a middle ground in its view of covenantal theology within the Reformed camp. This was in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos filtered through Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson (for those in the know).

Muether and Sinclair Ferguson, who taught me Systematics II, both held the position that Psalms should be the primary form of worship. In a class on the church and the world, Muether asserted the position that contemporary worship songs were too subjective, too focused on the self and not theologically rich enough. One student immediately replied, “Aren’t the Psalms focused on the self with their use of I,” at which point the class exploded into debate.

While Muether represented a small corner of the Reformed world, Charles MacKenzie (“Sherry”) represented the Presbyterian Church USA. A philosopher by training who wrote on Pascal and former president of Grove City College, MacKenzie taught a course on contemporary theology in which I read continental Lutheran and Reformed theologians like Barth and Pannenberg.

A well-known secret was the way RTS utilized Florida as a retirement mecca to attract a lot of “elder statesmen” in Reformed circles. Make no mistake, Luder Whitlock, now an elder statesman himself, was a savvy man.

MacKenzie helped me to see that not all Reformed folks were happy with the continental Reformed tradition in the twentieth century, especially the Swiss German Reformed thinkers. There were some, like Van Till, who saw German Reformed (Neo-Orthodox) Christianity as not even Christian even though the Niebuhr brothers had rejected the naive postmillennial optimism of an earlier generation of Congregationalist Reformed thinkers.

Thanks in part to my colleague and fellow RTS alum, Scott Pryor I have begun to think recently that this intramural struggle between German Reformed and American Reformed traditions goes back at least to the debate between Princeton theologians and the Mercersburg theologians (again, for those in the know).

MacKenzie and Ron Nash not only taught me philosophy, they represented unique trajectories with Nash holding down the Reformed Baptist wing. A lot of people did not get Ron Nash, for obvious reasons if you knew him. He had a sardonic wit, which he combined with forceful views for maximum effectiveness. Those who heard Nash could easily be offended. Nash could also be an odd bird. He wrote my recommendation for Oxford University and also told me he thought Pentecostals were a bunch of irrationalists. He never minced words. Yet for all this, he “felt” deeply about his faith, coming to tears in class on more than one occasion when discussing an issue close to his heart.

Nash saw himself as standing within the broad Augustinianism of Logos Christology represented by Gordon H. Clark, who he thought was treated unfairly at Wheaton and during the “Clark-Van Till” controversy in the OPC over Clark’s ordination. Like Carl F. H. Henry, it was the Logos Christology of Clark that prompted him to embrace propositional truth as an important epistemological commitment. One important trajectory in Baptist thought, then, came from the Presbyterian Gordon Clark.

At one point, R.C. Sproul brought the old evangelical warrior John Gerstner to campus. Gerstner was in his final years and Sproul wanted to expose his students to the man who had shaped him. Some of us who did not have R.C.’s class on Edwards piled into the back of the room just to hear Gerstner speak. His lecture turned into a sermon on the wise and foolish virgins. Right before my eyes, I saw a living embodiment of the Puritan tradition, a man who told us seminarians that we should make our calling and election sure, that we should be wise, not foolish. Having come from a holiness tradition in which sermons on hell were part of the furniture, I quickly realized that the Reformed tradition had its own speakers who could preach hell fire at the faithful because, after all, you could never presume the eternal election of anyone.

Of course, not all was sweetness and light at RTS. I struggled to maintain my Pentecostalism and had my own share of discussions over why I could not simply be Reformed. Ironically, one of the most intense discussions came from a fellow member of the Holiness movement, himself a graduate of Nyack College from the Reformed wing of the Christian Missionary and Alliance church. People familiar with the CMA world will tell you that Nyack represents the Reformed wing and Simpson College and Tozer Seminary the Arminian wing. My fellow student was an ardent proponent of Reformed theology and he wished to share his enthusiasm with me although at the time it felt more like he was trying to infect me with a virus that he knew would consume my Wesleyan and Pentecostal commitments. I remember thinking that if he deluded himself in concluding that I had not been sufficiently exposed to all of the arguments at RTS, there was little else I could say to convince him otherwise.

I also struggled over what happened to the man who impacted me more than anyone else, Frank James. I won’t go into details, but, you know that cannibalism I mentioned earlier, well, it happens too much. Frank was a gift of grace to me. He increased my love for the history of Christianity, introducing me for the first time to the diversity of views in the Reformation, including a diversity over justification. He loved Peter Martyr Vermigli and for this reason showed me that Reformed Christianity could never be reduced to “Calvinism.” It was always a big tent, and without a Peter Martyr, a Martin Bucer, or a Johannes Oecolampadius, there would have been no John Calvin.

Frank not only wrote my recommendation to Oxford, he connected me to Oxford profs and dons (there is a difference!) and guided me through the process. When I was accepted, he rejoiced with me.

I never became Reformed, and have no plans to do so. Moreover, I need to make it clear that as a faculty member at Regent I’m not saying go to RTS, mind you, because I think everyone needs to come to Regent.

I can say, however, that I have a strong appreciation for the Reformed tradition and its great variety, which explains in part why I attack it so fiercely when I feel like some in the Reformed camp don’t get that variety and equate their version of Reformed theology with the whole; or, when they equate Reformed theology with the best in evangelicalism as though the story of the latter is really the story of the former. If you listen to B. B. Warfield, for example, there is virtually no common ground between the Reformed tradition and evangelical revivalism. Thank God Warfield is one trajectory while John Owens, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield are another. If all I knew was Warfield, I would have little hope of any convergence between the Reformed and Wesleyan wings of the evangelical world, but then. . .the Reformed tradition is much richer than Warfield, and RTS taught me that.

 

 

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Dale M. Coulter
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3 Responses to “An Encomium for Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) and the Reformed Tradition”

  1. Scott Pryor says:

    And thanks to you for alerting me to the varieties of diversity among Pentecostal/holiness folk.

  2. Bill Haynes says:

    Dr. Coulter, I thoroughly enjoyed your “reminiscing” of your days at RTS (in Maitland). I did a DMin at RTS and then pastored in Longwood, FL about 5 miles from the RTS campus. I really appreciate your comments on Ron Nash . . . I had the joy (yes it was) of being his pastor as well as Roger Nicole’s during those days. I remember being told before meeting Ron, “you won’t like him.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Luder is a friend, as well as many that you mentioned in the post (including Scott Pryor).

    While I tend to be in line with Reformed Theology it was good to hear a “fair & balanced” assessment from someone outside that tradition. I’m glad that Scott pointed to your post. May God bless your work/ministry at Regent.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for the response. I’m sure you have quite a few stories yourself. You are right about Nash–a wonderful Christian man once you got to know him. I have to confess, also, that I almost mentioned Nicole’s vast library, which at the Maitland location had its own separate room. God’s blessings upon you as well.