Reformed Pastor, President, Professor: An Interview with W. Robert Godfrey
Tabletalk: Your book An Unexpected Journey describes how you discovered Reformed Christianity. Please describe why coming to believe Reformed theology was an “unexpected journey” for you.
W. Robert Godfrey: My journey to Reformed Christianity was unexpected in that I was not raised in a Reformed church and was not particularly searching for Christ. In high school, I simply began to talk to a fellow student on our long walk home together after swimming practice. We initially talked of many things, but increasingly our conversation turned to the Bible, Christ, and church. He was a member of the local Christian Reformed Church, which in time I began to attend. Hearing the Bible preached there and studying the Bible in various classes increasingly convinced me that Reformed theology is what is taught in the Bible and drew me to Christ. Decades of study since then have only served to reinforce and validate that original conviction. I really experienced the grace of God leading me to Christ. The Lord unexpectedly used the simple witness and great love of Christians in the church to begin my journey.
TT: Why was Westminster Seminary California founded?
RG: Westminster Seminary California was initially founded as a branch campus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to provide an education particularly for students in the Western United States and to focus on a strong program of pastoral preparation. Since 1983, Westminster California has been an independent seminary serving students from many Reformed and evangelical denominations from around the world. Our faculty come from the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the United Reformed Churches, and are all committed to serious and faithful preparation of students for ministry according to the Bible and the Reformed confessions.
TT: As pastor, president, and professor, what are the qualities you most wish to see in graduating seminary students? How does Westminster California try to create and nurture those qualities in their students?
RG: My hope is that all our students graduate with a settled assurance that the Bible is the Word of God that provides all that the church needs for its faith and life, and all that the world needs to learn the message of salvation. From that assurance, my hope is that students will develop the abilities they will need for a lifetime of study so that they will continue to grow in the Word themselves and to teach others to do the same. Finally, I hope that assurance and those abilities will strengthen graduates to apply the Word faithfully and carefully at every opportunity. The great work of pastors, and the reason for the character of their seminary education, is to apply the Bible discerningly, interestingly, and helpfully to those who hear them. The seminary works hard to develop the various abilities that students need in Hebrew, Greek, exegesis, systematic theology, church history, and homiletics. That stress on abilities is always in the context of an assured confidence in the Bible and a reflection on the ways in which to apply the Word.
TT: Why is seminary education necessary today, especially when the Internet makes so many resources readily available?
RG: As you cannot learn surgery on the Internet, as you cannot have a church on the Internet, so you cannot get a good pastoral education on the Internet. The Internet is valuable for various kinds of information, but it cannot provide the kind of personal interaction and mentoring necessary for seminary education. The community of faculty and students and the community of students interacting with fellow students are both crucial for learning academic and interpersonal skills.
TT: Is seminary only for men seeking ordination as pastors? Who else should consider attending seminary, and why?
RG: While our seminary is focused vocationally on the education of future pastors, it also oers education in the Bible, theology, and church history to men and women who are interested in learning. They then can use that learning for their own personal edification, to teach in the local church, or to serve churches around the world.
TT: What are two ways that churches can better prepare young men for the pastorate?
RG: First, seminaries need the support of churches to do their work. Prayer and financial support from the churches are vitally necessary for the seminaries to do their work of pastoral preparation. We work for the future of the church, and we need the help of the churches to flourish. Second, churches need to take on seminarians as interns to give them experience and encouragement. Seminary can teach many things, but the actual experience of serving and working in a church can only happen in the church.
TT: What is the main challenge that U.S. Seminaries face today? How is Westminster California working to meet that challenge?
RG: A great challenge that seminaries face today is the increasingly poor preparation that many students receive in their undergraduate education. Too many are not prepared to read analytically, to write research papers, or to study a foreign language. Many also are far less familiar with the English Bible than was the case in earlier generations. So our seminary has introduced a series of entrance exams that determine whether a student needs to take specific remedial courses. We invest a great deal of time in the careful teaching of Greek and Hebrew because they are so foundational to everything else we do. We are excited by the emergence of a college like Reformation Bible College, which we hope will send us much better prepared students.
TT: How important is it for Christians to study church history? Why?
RG: You will not be surprised to hear me say that the study of church history is vitally and foundationally important. Church history helps us to see where we are and how we got here. It enables us to see ourselves and our churches from a dierent angle. Most of us look at the church either from our experience or from the teaching of the Bible. But church history helps us to see how our churches have changed over the centuries, shaped by their developing cultures as well as by theology. I do not want to shock you, but not everyone is motivated solely by theology.
TT: What is the most common misconception that modern protestants have about the Reformation?
RG: Probably the most common misconception of modern Protestants about the Reformation is that our modern churches are very similar to sixteenth-century churches. Especially evangelical Protestants would be very surprised at how comprehensive and detailed Reformation theology was in comparison to the theology of many churches today. They would be shocked to see the way Reformation worship was driven by theology, not by entertainment and evangelism. They would perhaps be uncomfortable with the fact that ministers were selected more for their learning than for their personality. In the Reformation, the institutional church and its public worship was the center and heart of Christian experience, and most decisions about the life of the church were made by the ministers, not the laity. Many contemporary Protestants would be very uncomfortable in Reformation churches.
TT: As a church historian, what would you say to Protestants who are starting to find other traditions such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox attractive?
RG: I would want to respond pastorally and sensitively, but my basic message would be: Stop! Don’t! Rome and Orthodoxy are not just alternative “traditions” or “spiritualities.” They are fundamentally different understandings of Christianity, based not on the Bible as the complete, final, and comprehensible revelation of God, but on the Bible plus their own traditions. One can be discouraged by much in contemporary Protestantism, and we need to see a real reformation in doctrine, worship, and church life in our time. But the solution is not to be found in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The traditions that they add to the Bible are not genuinely ancient and often stand in contradiction not only to the Bible, but also to the ancient church fathers. Their traditions add to, subtract from, and/or contradict the Bible. For example, the Bible says that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, but Rome declares that Mary also is a mediator. Elevating Mary in this way simply diminishes the centrality of Christ and almost certainly reflects a misunderstanding of His love and care for sinners. Our answers are in the Bible—as the ancient church fathers taught—not in some supposed holy tradition.
W. Robert Godfrey is president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California. He also serves as a teaching fellow for Ligonier Ministries and is a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. His many books include God’s Pattern for Creation, Pleasing God in Our Worship, and An Unexpected Journey.