Setting a Course for Faithfulness: An Interview with Stephen J. Nichols
Tabletalk: What are your responsibilities in your new roles as President of Reformation Bible College (RBC) and Chief Academic Officer for Ligonier Ministries?
Stephen J. Nichols: First, I need to say how humbling these appointments are. And, it’s also rather exciting. Under the supervision and direction of the board of directors, the president of Reformation Bible College governs all aspects of the college from the staff and faculty to the students and curriculum. I will not be alone in this, as I will be working alongside Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., rector and chair of theology and philosophy, and Dr. Michael Morales, chair of biblical studies.
Ligonier is primarily a teaching ministry that delivers content in a variety of ways. As chief academic officer, I will be working with Chris Larson, Ligonier’s president, in maintaining the theological emphasis and voice of Ligonier, which has proven beneficial to so many in the church over these last four decades. In both of these positions, I will be reporting directly to Dr. R.C. Sproul.
So, as you can see, it is all rather humbling and exciting. Ultimately, the responsibility of both positions is to maintain theological fidelity. History abounds with tragic examples of ministries and colleges losing their moorings. Above all, institutions need God’s grace to stay true to Him, and they also need to be intentional and committed. Dr. Sproul has cast the vision and set the course. These two roles that I now fill, along with many other roles at Ligonier and RBC where others serve, are in place so that the next generation, and generations to come, may grow in their knowledge of God—to increase their zeal to serve God, and to glorify and enjoy God forever.
TT: What excites you most about the ministry of RBC?
SN: It would have to be both the potential of the faculty and the potential of the students. Gathered in Sanford, Fla., is a world-class collection of scholars. They are a delightful mix of seasoned and young faculty, all very capable. All are published, all have doctorates, and all are committed churchmen. Augustine once said that a good teacher is one who loves the subject, loves the students, and, above all, loves God. That is the RBC faculty, and they will be a substantial resource for the church for years to come.
Then there are the students. They will be taught the full range of biblical studies, the complete run of church history, doctrine, philosophy, and apologetics. On top of that, RBC has a great works curriculum, affording students the opportunity to engage classic texts from the early Greeks to the present day. And they are taught by godly men who love their subjects and are called to make disciples of their students. When you consider all of this, you can’t help but get excited about the potential of RBC.
TT: What would you like to see RBC accomplish over the next ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years?
SN: First and foremost would be faithfulness—faithfulness as an institution to the Reformed faith and to the particular theological emphases that have marked Ligonier Ministries since its inception forty years ago. That faithfulness also has to do with our students. They come to us, study with us, and eventually graduate. Commencement is not an end, however, but a beginning of a life of ministry, of work and vocation, and of family. What will be said of RBC students at the end of their life’s journey? If the answer is faithfulness, then RBC will have been used by God in their lives to accomplish something of lasting significance and of true substance.
TT: Why are you concerned with defending the doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy in this day and age?
SN: Defending inerrancy is necessary precisely because it is being challenged and even jettisoned by many who would claim to be evangelicals. The doctrine of inerrancy reminds us that the Bible is God’s authoritative and trustworthy Word to us. My concern is with alternative views, and especially with the consequences of those alternatives. If you do not hold to inerrancy, what do you have? Essentially, you have limited inerrancy. That has the Bible submitting to us—to our judgment. That has it all topsy-turvy. The doctrine of Scripture is the first domino, so to speak. If it falls in the wrong direction, the whole chain of dominoes falls in the wrong direction.
TT: Why is it important to express and defend a biblical Christology?
SN: Christology encompasses the person and work of Christ. As for His person, we must confess the God-man, the hypostatic union of both the divine nature and human nature in one person. As for Christ’s work, we must confess His sinless life, His perfect obedience, His atoning death as a substitute in our place, His burial, His resurrection, and His ascension to the Father’s right hand. Sadly, many of these doctrines are also being challenged and jettisoned today. Consider this: Can we have the gospel without a biblical Christology? The answer, of course, is no. And without the gospel, we cease to be the church. We are called to proclaim the gospel and live out its ramifications. The heart and soul of the gospel is a biblical Christology. We must confess it, teach it, and defend it.
TT: Several of your writings focus on Jonathan Edwards. Why do you return to this early American preacher and theologian so often?
SN: I never find the time I spend with Edwards to be wasted time. I come away from reading him being challenged and with new ways of thinking about and living the Christian life. Just the other day, I was looking at the letter Sarah Edwards, his wife, wrote to their daughter after Jonathan died. She said, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” She clings to God’s holiness and goodness in a time of turmoil and suffering. Sarah’s reaction reflects what her husband lived, taught, and wrote. I go back to Edwards because I so need that perspective.
TT: What are two major lessons that American Christians need to learn from Christians who lived in centuries past?
SN: Track down a copy of Augustine’s Confessions. You will see that the first word in Latin is magnus. God is great. He is transcendent, infinitely above and over His creation. The corollary is that we are not. We are finite. I don’t think we reflexively think of God as great and of ourselves as small. But we must.
The second major lesson concerns suffering. The vast majority of voices from the past offer a far different perspective than we do on suffering. Perhaps it’s due to our living in the “entitlement age,” or due to our sense of overcoming so many diseases and ailments that once plagued previous generations. Whatever the reason, we see suffering as abnormal and to be avoided. What does Paul mean by participating in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings? We learn more about what that means when we look to the past than when we confine ourselves to the present.
TT: In what major ways has American culture distorted our understanding of Jesus?
SN: American culture’s distorting our understanding of Jesus offers a clear case where culture rushes in to fill the vacuum left when we disdain tradition. The Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds mark out helpful boundaries regarding the person of Christ. The Reformers mark out helpful boundaries for thinking of Christ’s work. When we neglect these resources, we are overly influenced by culture. In America’s Victorian age, Jesus was “feminized.” He was seen exclusively as meek and mild. Even the images of this era portray Jesus as feminine. In our day, Jesus has taken on any number of personae. I’ve seen images of Him in a boxing ring with gloves on, ready to fight the devil.
Scripture presents Jesus as a rather complex person. We can distort that image, constructing a Jesus who looks like us, and is there simply to affirm us. The creeds and the Reformation solas can go a long way in helping us think clearly and biblically about Jesus.
TT: Name a few inappropriate ways to read church history.
SN: I can name three. The first would be to not read it. Why cut yourself off from the riches of the past? The second concerns reading history with judgmental and dismissive attitudes. We can easily do this because we tend to think so highly of our own age, and we tend to be unaware of our own blind spots. The counter is to read church history with humility, not hubris. Third, we need to avoid “hagiography.” Our church history figures don’t need halos. The Scripture writers show the faults and flaws of the biblical figures. There is only one who ranks as the true hero: Christ. We can be so thankful for leaders from church history who so clearly and persuasively point us to Christ. But we must ultimately look to the One to whom they are pointing and not to them.
Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla., chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow. He previously served as research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, Pa. He earned a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Dr. Nichols is author of several books, including For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, and The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.