Seven particular authors have had a profound [influence on my thought and life: three theologians, two historians, an apologist, and a sociologist. I thought that sharing them with our readers might be somewhat helpful. I distinguish this brief treatment from books that have most influenced me — that list would be somewhat different and would include such delights as Harold O. J . Brown’s Heresies, Gerhard Ebeling’s The Problem of Historicity, Daniel Fuller’s Gospel and Law, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, and A. “W. Tozer’s Born After Midnight. Here, I am concerned with authors as such.
Cornelius Van Til
The apologist, Cornelius Van H I , had an early and massive influence on me. I read his book. The Defense of the Faith, when I was twenty or twenty-one years old; and it dramatically reoriented my approach to the Bible and the Faith in three main ways.
First, I learned from Van Til that Christianity is a system, not a collection of doctrines and practices, but a system of truth set forth in the Bible, comprised of necessarily interrelated doctrines and practices. You can’t really believe or defend the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ, for example, without believing and defending the inspiration of the Bible, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, God’s all-controlling providence in human history, and so on. You can’t isolate certain beliefs or practices and expect them to stand on their own. Christianity is a system of truth, and, while not a “logically penetrable system,” as though man could read the mind of God, it is a truthful system nonetheless, adapted to our creaturely limitations (he believed that theology was a human construction and not a reproduction of the Bible or, more incorrect yet, of the mind of God). For Van Til, this system of truth was best expressed in the Reformed Faith, without implying that other inferior systems (like evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Arminian) are anti-Christian. They are Christian, though compromising, perspectives, he asserted. They are not the most accurate expressions of the system of Christianity. Calvinistic Christianity is not something you accept bit by bit, or build up to. You affirm the whole thing together; it is a seamless garment, and to excise one part is eventually to unravel the entire cloth.
Second, I learned from Van Til the crucial lesson that the great divide among men is between covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers. These religious premises, to use Abraham Kuyper’s language, split mankind in two. Some worship and serve the Creator, and all others worship and serve the creature. While there may be different gradients of believers and unbelievers, all are either believers or unbelievers.
This difference leads to what is perhaps the most significant lesson I learned from Van Til — that there can be no neutral epistemological ground between covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers. In principle, covenant-breakers always think like covenant-breakers and covenant-keepers always think like covenant-keepers. Of course, because all covenant-breakers still bear the image of God, and because all covenant-keepers still bear the residue of the sin of Adam, there can be no absolute covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers in this life (that scenario is reserved for the eternal state). Nonetheless, the differences are strikingly real within time and history. When we observe the greatest conflicts of history and of our contemporary world, at the root of all is the war between covenant-keepers and covenant-keeping, on the one hand, and covenant-breaking and covenant-breakers on the other hand. In principle, the unbeliever will always attempt to interpret the God-given reality surrounding him and within him in terms of sinful, rebellious, covenant-breaking presuppositions. Conversely, the covenant-keeper will, in principle, attempt to interpret the God-given reality surrounding him and within him in terms of covenant-keeping (Biblical and Christian) presuppositions. There is no aspect of created reality about which both the covenant-keeper and the covenant-breaker could both point and say in principle, “We agree as to the nature of this reality.” When God saves man, He radically (though incrementally) changes how that man perceives created reality. While justification eternally alters sinful man’s standing before God, regeneration equally alters man’s sinful estimate of himself and the rest of created reality.
It is only fair to mention that Van Til’s robust defense of both natural revelation and, in particular, common grace tends in practice to mollify his relentless emphasis in principle on the antithesis. This I consider a real asset. God has called us to live in the world He has created, not one that we would prefer.
All of Van Til’s works (some of them still in class syllabi) are worth reading, but I will mention only two besides The Defense of the Faith — A Christian Theory of Knowledge, and Christian Theistic Ethics. All of his works are worth reading. Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and R. J. Rushdoony have written excellent works introducing and explicating his thought.
Rousas John Rushdoony
Speaking of Rushdoony, he too has greatly influenced my thinking. He reoriented my thinking, first, on the authority of the Old Testament, and specifically on Old Testament law. Rushdoony was anti-dispensational to the core, and his exegetical and theological arguments against dispensationalism and in favor of the abiding authority of the Old Testament are devastating. These arguments are presented most forcefully in his classic work. Institutes of Biblical Law.
I learned further from Rushdoony that world conditions will nor increasingly worsen before Christ’s Second Coming. Rather, we can expect a gradual, but glorious, world reformation before that great history-ending event. Rushdoony was the first thoughtful postmillennialist I had ever read, and he inspired me with spiritual hope where before had been only spiritual gloom. Postmillennialism pervades most of his works, but it comes out most clearly in his booklet, God’s Plan for Victory.
I think, however, that the most important way in which Rushdoony influenced my thought was to convince me that the Bible and Christianity are designed for all of life. Some earlier Reformed writers had asserted this (Abraham Kuyper, for example), but no one said it as comprehensively and cogently (and frequently) as Rushdoony; and no one so emphasized the importance of the Bible in all of man’s thought. In this regard, perhaps his most important work is also one of his less frequently read — The One and the Many. I believe this work is even more significant than his Institutes of Biblical Law, because it sets forth in a dramatic fashion that Biblical Christianity alone is the answer to mankind’s sinful dilemma in every area of life — spirituality, psychology, history, science, civil government, and on and on.
The second theologian who has greatly influenced my thought is Leon Morris, the Australian evangelical. It is doubtful that in the twentieth century any man put more words on paper in English on the topic of Christ’s death and atonement than Morris. At a small German restaurant in northeastern Ohio, as a young pastor I consumed his The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross as I consumed Rueben sandwiches and onion rings (my theological knowledge expanded right along with my waistline). I later encountered his books. The Atonement, The Cross in the New Testament, The Cross of Jesus Christ, and others; and my own book The Full Gospel would have been impossible without Morris’s influence. Morris also has written some excellent commentaries on a number of New Testament books John, Romans, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, for example); but for me, his greatest contribution was his patient, careful, exegetical defense of the historic, Protestant view of Christ’s death — a penal, judicial sacrifice for man’s sin. He demonstrates convincingly that in Christ’s death God does not set aside His own standards of justice but, rather, fulfills that justice in the highest order. I think it would be hard for any conservative pastor or theologian or knowledgeable layman to read Morris’ views of the atonement without being deeply moved to the core of his being. This man’s writings are imbued with the monumental significance of Christ’s death. If you can read only one of his books, read The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Humanly speaking, I hold a firmly Western (largely judicial) view of the atonement because of the work of Morris.
A third theologian who has most influenced me is Oscar Cullmann, a Swiss Lutheran, who defined the New Testament message in terms of what he called “salvation history.” His most popular work is Christ and Time, but his magnum opus is Salvation in History. Other (translated) works include Early Christian Worship, The Earliest Christian Confessions, Prayer in the New Testament, Baptism in the New Testament (contra Karl Earth’s denial of infant baptism), and The Early Church, I should warn immediately that Cullmann is not orthodox on every point (notably his bibliology), but prominent liberals like David Tracy class him with the orthodox (in contradistinction to Barth, whom Tracy considers modernistic!).
While I learned from Van Til that Christianity is a system of truth, I learned from Cullmann that Christianity is not a philosophical or intellectual system. His classic, sweeping utterance is: “The basis of the New Testament message is the narration of interpreted events.” Christianity is basically a message relating to certain space-time, historical events occurring in Israel about two thousand years ago, namely, the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Cullman was probably the greatest nemesis to Rudolf Bultmanhs “demythologization” of the New Testament. Cullmann believed that the New Testament is God’s inspired revelation, and that it relates genuine, historical, events, which Biblical revelation interprets. In fact, Cullmann notes that the Scripture itself is an historical, revelational event.
To many twentieth century neo-orthodox like Bultmann and Barth (and even many evangelicals), the message of the Bible is basically existential— it is about man’s relationship to God and man’s existence. To many twentieth-century liberals (and even a few Calvinists and many fundamentalists), on the other hand, the Biblical message is principally ethical — God is essentially setting forth a new “human behavioral pattern” for “misguided humanity.” Cullmann, however, recognizes that the Biblical message is essentially about history. Like Rushdoony, he is a dogged opponent of Gnosticism and Marcionism, both ancient heresies which devalue and dismiss the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a profoundly historical book, and those interested in religious matters other than history will not find it attractive.
Today there is renewed emphasis on the literary dimension of the Bible, even among many conservatives, who generally (one would assume) might consider such emphasis a threat to its divine, verbal inspiration. To the extent, however, that it recognizes the significance of different literary genre in the Bible (law, narrative, epistle, apocalyptic, and so on), this emphasis is helpful — the Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology! To the extent that it diverts attention away from the message about God’s work in history that the text is overwhelmingly conveying, to the structure and nature of the text, it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Bible itself. While the Bible, like any writing, bears literary features, it is not fundamentally a “pretty book of divine literature.” Rather, it is a book of powerful, infallible, and often concrete and brittle historical revelation. Its narratives are not “pleasant literary stories” designed for astute readers of literature; and it is not mostly an aesthetically palatable book. Rather, its narratives are accounts of God’s concrete work in history with His covenant people. The Bible is a Book about what God has done and is doing in the interadvental era to advance Christ’s Lordship in the earth — all springing from Christ’s great redemptive work on the cross and in the empty tomb.
There are certain similarities between Cullmann’s “salvation historical” approach, and the “redemptive-historical” perspective of Vos, Ridderbos, and Gaffin. The latter see soteriology (salvation) as eschatology. Cullmann also stresses history, but comes from the opposite direction: the eschatology is contained in the history itself, Christ’s earthly redemptive work Cullmann, like Rushdoony, influenced me deeply against all Gnostic approaches to the Faith and against “literary” Bible reading. Most importandy, Cullmann taught me that history generates doctrine, not vice versa.
The first of the two historians who have influenced my thought is Christopher Dawson, the timid Englishman. Dawson, initially an Anglican, converted to Rome; but I daresay you will never find a less sectarian Roman Catholic than Dawson. Dawson was much less interested in the theology and ecclesiology of Rome than he was in the nature, emergence, and impact of Christian culture — East and West, Protestant and Roman Catholic, ancient, medieval, and modern. I have told several people that in some ways Dawson is a Roman Catholic Rushdoony. He recognizes the inescapably religious basis of human life and culture, and with unnerving calmness lays bare the ferocious effects secularization has wreaked on the modern world. I especially recommend his Religion and Progress, The Making of Europe, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, The Formation of Christendom, and The Cods of Revolution (this last is the best work on the French Revolution I have ever encountered). His prose is some of the most beautiful I have ever read, and he has an uncanny way of understating the most incendiary concepts and arguments. I also highly recommend his biography, drafted by his daughter, Christina Scott: A Historian and His World. It was Datvson who helped convince me that contributing a small measure to restoring Christian culture must be my life’s main work. For this I will be eternally grateful to him.
The second historian who has most significantly influenced my thought is Jaroslav Pelikan, for many years Lutheran and now Eastern Orthodox. Pelikan’s historical work rivals that of the great nineteenth-century liberal, Adolf Harnack. In fact, he, Harnack, and a few others may rightly be classified with Eusebius as the greatest historians in the history of the church. His five-volume set, The Christian Tradition, exceeds, in my view, Harnack’s History of Dogma in content, if not in scope, as it does Philip Schaff’s fine work. Pelikan’s knowledge of the patristic Greek and Latin (and other) original sources is massive, and he lays out in a scholarly and uncontroversial way the development of dogma over the last two thousand years in the history of the church. The abysmal ignorance of history on the part of modern society has deeply infected today’s Christianity, and Pelikan’s work is a saving antidote. I thought years ago, “If I am going to spend my life preaching and teaching and propagating and defending Christianity, I should at least know the course which Christianity has taken during its history.” If you are going to give your life to the tradition, at least learn the tradition! In the history of the development of doctrine, Pelikan is the master, exceeding, in my view, even John Henry Newman. I also highly recommend Pelikan’s Development of Christian Doctrine, The Vindication of Tradition, and Obedient Rebels. If today I cannot read the Bible without the specter of dogmatic development hovering nearby (a condition for which I offer no apology), it is chiefly because of the influence of Pelikan.
The sociologist who has been profoundly influential in my thought is Robert Nisbet, former professor at Columbia. He has written a number of book, but the best, I believe, are The Quest for Community, The Social Philosophers, and The Present Age. Nisbet was a libertarianconservative, libertarian in that he was deeply distrustful of the modern state, and conservative in that he recognized the vital importance of human community — family, church, small businesses and associations, and so forth. An avid foe of Marxism, he nevertheless recognized its psychological appeal — the state (or what amounts to the same thing, the Party) became the new community for atomistic individuals passionately looking for human commitment and companionship. Nisbet was no friend of the radical individualism of eighteenth-century Enlightenment; for he recognized that such individualism, which liberates man from intermediate associations like family and church, is the precondition of totalitarianism, which values individuals as cogs by which to erect the Perfect Society. The family, church, guilds, businesses, and other “private” institutions and associations, however, compete for the individual’s allegiance, and thus must be wiped out by a rapacious state. Nisbet made me a convinced communitarian (covenantalist!) sociologically.
It is hard to overstress the importance of this man’s work.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).