June 08, 2023

Derek Thomas on Murray’s The Epistle to the Romans and Studies in Theology

Stephen Nichols & Derek Thomas
Derek Thomas on Murray’s The Epistle to the Romans and Studies in Theology

John Murray was a towering figure for the advancement of Reformed theology in the 20th century. Today on the Open Book podcast, Stephen Nichols and Derek Thomas look at Murray’s influential commentary on Romans and theological writings.


Dr. Stephen Nichols: Welcome back to another episode of Open Book. We are continuing our visits with Dr. Derek Thomas. We should probably give you a proper introduction now that we’re, what, seven episodes into this?

Dr. Derek Thomas: Yeah, who is this guy?

Nichols: Who is this? So, you have many roles. You are, first of all, the senior minister here at the church where we are: First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina—a very historic church.

Thomas: And we are in an office that looks out on the 180-foot tower . . .

Nichols: That’s right. It’s an impressive building.

Thomas: . . . steeple of a church that is mostly pink and dates from the early 1900s because the previous building was burnt down in a lightning strike.

Nichols: And somewhere I read the church was founded in 1795, I believe, and somewhere I read the initial meetings were in the State House.

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: Which is right across the street.

Thomas: Right across the street. And then they met in a building, a wooden building, which is where we are now located. There is a picture, which we tried to find and haven’t been able to find, of horses or maybe mules pulling that wooden building from where we are sitting across the road to where the church is now.

Nichols: Amazing. Yeah.

Thomas: And that picture exists somewhere.

Nichols: Oh, it’d be great to find.

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: So you’re senior minister here. You are chancellor’s professor for Reformed Theological Seminary. You’re a Ligonier teaching fellow. We also have you as a visiting professor for Reformation Bible College. I’m sure there’s other things you do.

Thomas: I am the chief walker of Luther and Gracie, my two dogs, and guardian of a somewhat paranoid cat called Chloe.

Nichols: And maybe those are the occupations that take up most of your time. No?

Thomas: No, no.

Nichols: Well, let’s get to books. You have pulled off of the shelf some Murray. We talked about Murray already with his baptism book. You have here Romans. I also noticed—we were just talking about Lloyd-Jones last time we were together—I noticed you have a very well-worn, almost worn out copy of Lloyd-Jones’ set on Romans, which is a wonderful set. But go ahead.

Thomas: Let me say something about that.

Nichols: Of course, please.

Thomas: There are about twelve volumes. I can’t remember exactly how many volumes that the Banner produced.

Nichols: Of the Romans commentary?

Thomas: Of the Romans commentary.

Nichols: That sounds about right.

Thomas: These were Friday night lectures that Lloyd-Jones gave in London over a period of thirteen or fourteen years, and then he finished somewhere in the middle of chapter 14 or maybe 15, but he didn’t actually complete the series on Romans.

But I bought these books as they emerged. So, the first one emerged when I was a college student, and I bought it, and then they would come out every Christmas. Every year there’d be a new volume, and they were hotly anticipated.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: And I remember reading these sermons on Romans and for a long time was influenced by them. What I didn’t understand at the time was that these were lectures rather than sermons. They were given to a very specialist audience that gathered on a Friday evening, and they really did not illustrate Lloyd-Jones’ preaching style. And I mistook that for a while and was perhaps influenced in a direction about what preaching looks like and sounds like that actually wasn’t illustrative of Lloyd-Jones’ normal preaching style.

Nichols: That’s fascinating. Well, this book was not intended to be sermons. Murray wrote this as a commentary on Romans. You have, as usual with your books, I’m finding, these are stocked full of all sorts of interesting things. There is a sermon here and a series, the Berry Street Pulpit, volume 1, number 1. This is Berry Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast. It was from December of 1964. It cost six pence.

Thomas: And the preacher?

Nichols: The preacher is Glyn Owen, J. Glyn Owen.

Thomas: Yes, who lived in Canada in his retirement years, in Toronto—a very famous preacher in Belfast and a very fine, fine preacher of the sort of Lloyd-Jones style of preaching.

Nichols: So you have a sermon of his. You have an article from the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society on “Reading Romans Theologically” by Tom Schreiner. And you have an article on Christian freedom and entertainment. Is this still trying to make a case for the legitimacy of Wagner? Is that what we’re doing here?

Thomas: It’s that.

Nichols: And I love this: a program for the thirty-fourth commencement of RTS, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. This would be back from May 18, 2001. You had to sit through many commencements, didn’t you?

Thomas: And the text was probably from Romans. I think it’s on the back.

Nichols: Romans 15:1–13.

Thomas: Yes, so that’s why. And I think it was Ray Ortlund.

Nichols: It was. “The God of Hope,” by Dr. Ray Ortlund.

Thomas: I see I took notes of the sermon.

Nichols: You did. You took notes. You were up there in your gown, sitting with your colleagues and the faculty, and you were really into the commencement address. He quoted C.S. Lewis.

Well, let’s go back to Murray on Romans. Again, this is a book that’s numbered “179” and you’ve got your stamp: “This book belongs to Derrick W.H. Thomas,” and you have it dated May 1975.

Thomas: So this book was purchased before I went to seminary. So I’d graduated from college. And John Murray came and spoke at the university. It’s the only time I ever saw him, met him. He’s a gigantic figure in the twentieth century in Reformed circles, in the history of Westminster Seminary.

Nichols: Sure, a fixture there.

Thomas: In British evangelicalism, John Murray figures very, very largely and profoundly when he retired back to Scotland.

I remember having a conversation with Sinclair Ferguson seven years ago. He was retiring—five years ago—he was retiring.

Nichols: From this church?

Thomas: From this church.

Nichols: You were the associate, he was the senior?

Thomas: Yes. And it wasn’t at all clear whether I would become the senior minister, although that was the plan, but we’re Presbyterians, not Episcopalians. And it was within two or three weeks of his retirement, and we had gone down this street, Lady Street, which runs into town, into the heart of the city. And we had gone to the Lunch Box, which is half a block down here to get some lunch, which, for him, often was a sort of hot, cheese, ham sandwich. It’s nothing fancy. It’s very plain. And we were coming back, carrying these white bags with our lunch in them. And I asked him what writing and by whom had most influenced him in the course of his life: “Give me an example of a turning point in your thinking.” And he was instantaneous in his response, and he said, “Well, it was John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, and it was the chapter on obedience, the obedience of Christ—the active and passive obedience of Christ.” But that category of obedience, he said it opened up . . .

Nichols: A new way of thinking.

Thomas: Yeah, a paradigm.

Nichols: Yeah. You know, Murray had that effect on Machen. That was the famous last telegraph that likely grew out of a conversation that Murray and Machen had before Machen left Westminster and headed out to the Dakotas and would die there.

Thomas: And it read, “Thank God . . .”

Nichols: So yeah, “No hope without it.” “So thankful for the act of obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” But it was to addressed to John Murray, and that’s fascinating.

Thomas: So you have two of Murray’s books.

Nichols: I’ve got the Romans commentary, which interestingly, this is in that series, New International Commentary, that they were replacing, but they still publish Murray. They’ve replaced it, but they still make Murray available because he’s almost irreplaceable, in one sense, on Romans.

Thomas: Yes. I mean, in one sense, Murray does not touch New Perspective on Paul.

Nichols: Yeah, you’re going to need someone to help you navigate things that have happened between . . .

Thomas: And you certainly need to understand what has happened in the interpretation of Romans since the 1970s.

Nichols: Yeah. In ’59, he published this, and then the second volume, and when they were published together as one was ’65, so a lot has transpired since then.

Thomas: But it’s more than just a commentary on Romans, and it’s more than just a Reformed commentary on Romans. It is almost a systematic theology.

Nichols: It is. He smuggles a lot of theology into here.

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: It really is very helpful, which is interesting because then the other volume you have here is from the set that the Banner of Truth published: the four-volume collected writings of Murray, and you’ve got volume four here, which is specifically, Studies in Theology. And again, you have all sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t even have time to begin to review all of the stuff that you have shoved in here.

Thomas: I tell my students, “There are occasions in the year when your mother says to you, ‘What can I buy you for a gift?’”

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: Anniversary, Valentine’s, birthday, Christmas, whatever it is, and I say the answer: “You need to have this answer immediately: you want the four volumes of the_ Collected Writings of John Murray_.”

Nichols: Not a bad gift.

Thomas: Because it’s a lifetime’s reading.

Nichols: And you can dip in and out of them, the four volumes.

Thomas: Volume four is dense.

Nichols: Yeah.

Thomas: They comprise some of his most sophisticated deep thoughts on lots of topics.

Nichols: Some of these were articles he had published.

You wanted to make mention specifically of what is in here as chapter nine: “The Weak and the Strong.”

Thomas: Yeah, so Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, and the argument for—I think I have in the margin I saw when I was looking at it a few minutes ago—alcohol.

Nichols: I see a lot of margin notes. You have, “Who are the weak?”

Thomas: Yeah.

Nichols: Yes, I see it: alcohol.

Thomas: And it’s still, it’s an issue that troubles the church. What can Christians do and what they can’t do. And what can they do, but do in excess? And what are they entitled to do, but shouldn’t do?

Nichols: Yeah.

Thomas: For the sake of whom? And when is it right for the weak to be dictating all the policy?

Nichols: Yeah. It’s difficult, and there’s a lot of abuses out there of Christian liberty. And we’ve always had this antinomian on the one hand, legalism on the other hand. Seems like there’s just not a lot of thoughtful, biblically informed thinking.

Thomas: I have never read anything on this issue more theologically astute and precise than Murray’s article in this book.

Nichols: That’s very helpful. I think most people thinking through this issue—because it’s always there, it seems like it’s always there, it’s not just new to this moment in the church, that Christian liberty issue—probably most people don’t realize there’s this resource there for them to help. So, we will make sure they know about the weak and the strong.

Well, we’ve got Murray on Romans. We’ve got Murray’s Studies in Theology. We’ve added now a Scotsman to all these figures.

Thomas: But we still haven’t had an American or a Dutchman.

Nichols: If we take away the email, that’s correct. Well, we’ll see what is yet to come. Well, thank you Dr. Thomas. It’s been a pleasure sitting with you and being in your library and talking about these books. Thank you.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols, and that was another episode of Open Book. Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they have shaped. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, consider checking out my other podcast, 5 Minutes in Church History, which you can find in your favorite podcast app or at 5minutesinchurchhistory.com. That’s the number 5minutesinchurchhistory.com. Please join us next week as we’ll be back in the library for another episode of Open Book.