Derek Thomas saw R.C. Sproul as a brilliant theologian. Years later, they met and became friends. Today on the Open Book podcast, Stephen Nichols and Derek Thomas share stories about the founder of Ligonier Ministries and look at one of his most cherished books.
Get R.C. Sproul’s book Chosen by God: https://www.ligonier.org/store/chosen-by-god-paperback
Dr. Stephen Nichols: Welcome back to another episode of Open Book. I’ve really been enjoying this time with you. I was very glad that we finally got an American on the list—thank you for that. But we have another American on the list, and this is someone that both of us knew very well, and we need to say, both of us miss very much. This is a book by R.C. Sproul, and usually people come to R.C. with one of two books—it’s either The Holiness of God or Chosen by God, and you have pulled out Chosen by God.
Dr. Derek Thomas: It was probably the very first book by R.C. that I read, and this would’ve been probably in the ’80s, early ’80s. I didn’t actually meet R.C. until well into the late ’90s.
Nichols: Was it first speaking at a Ligonier conference?
Thomas: Yes, and Chosen by God was a definitive response to the whole issue of free will and the allegations of determinism, an understanding of election by a man who had really, really studied the Arminian-Calvinist debate, had actually been, perhaps, in his doctoral work at the very heart of where some of these debates took place in Holland—a man who studied and learned Dutch, but he was just an author and a speaker to me in the ’80s. Then I met him in the late ’90s, early 2000s.
My first formal meeting with him was at a Seattle conference, and he and Vesta were there. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. And I met this tender, warm, funny man who loved dogs, and we sort of bonded immediately.
Nichols: Very much, especially big dogs.
Thomas: I mean, there are scholars, and R.C. was a towering scholar—he’s one of the great scholars of the twentieth century.
Nichols: Yeah. No matter what the subject was, there were very few subjects he brought up that . . .
Thomas: He could talk about anything, but he didn’t make you feel dumb.
Thomas: He had a way of carrying his scholarship very lightly and only implying it when he saw an argument seriously going astray. And then all of a sudden, this information would come out of his head and you’d think, “Where did that come from?” And I think he had a photographic memory and recall about pages, and books, and sentences in books that if you have that facility, it’s disarming to be sure.
Nichols: You know, when we recorded some of these Open Books with him, I’d sit there. I’d have the advantage of having the book in front of me. He didn’t have the book in front of him. He knew exactly what was on the page that I was looking at.
Nichols: So, yeah, I think you’re right. I think once he engaged it, it stayed with him.
Thomas: I remember—you know, we’re talking about Chosen by God—but I remember him making fine, fine distinctions in the Calvinist-Arminian debate that, frankly, I didn’t think anybody made anymore, that he was completely on top of details of the Synod of Dort.
Nichols: Maybe he had just talked to Godfrey.
Thomas: And who said what.
Nichols: Right, amazing—and then to turn it into this book. I’ve run into so many people—I remember a friend of mine at one time said the first time he read this book, he threw it against the wall, and it sat there crumpled on the floor for a couple of days before he finally picked it up again.
Thomas: This is rather a cheap edition of Chosen by God, badly published.
Nichols: It is. In fact, it’s multicolored. It almost looks like Joseph’s coat here. You’ve got some sun damage on the spine. It is sort of . . .
Thomas: And I think because the book sat in my car for months, and I kept looking at it and reading it and putting it down and leaving it on the dash of my car, and I think it got sunburned.
Nichols: It definitely got sunburned.
Thomas: Because it’s an entirely different color.
Nichols: It’s got some funky colors here on the spine to the cover, and the pages are worn. It’s very worn.
Thomas: It’s that paper that doesn’t retain its whiteness for long and it becomes a sort of brown color.
Nichols: Foxing, is that what they call that?
Thomas: Foxing, yeah.
Nichols: But this, ultimately, very persuasive, winsome message—not to scholars, but the person in the pew can pick this up.
Thomas: And the photo on the back is that cool dude, when he was in his mid-twenties, and he is quite the looker.
Nichols: There you go. It’s the whole package. It was really the whole package. But what a great book, as he says on the back cover here: “If God is truly God, He is sovereign over all things, over all decisions. If God is truly God, then He chooses who goes to heaven and who doesn’t”—Chosen by God.
Thomas: And discovering as I did, I think in the ’80s, this Reformed apologist who wasn’t Van Tillian, which was the thing in the ’70s.
Nichols: That’s right.
Thomas: And certainly when I went to Reformed Seminary, and my professor did his dissertation with Van Til and wrote a book on Van Til—Greg Bahnsen—and did his dissertation on Wittgensteinian philosophy but was thoroughly presuppositional in his approach. And to meet R.C. was another world.
Nichols: Yeah, he was a voice in the wilderness . . .
Nichols: . . . because you had the evidentialist-types who tended to be more on the Arminian side of things. He wasn’t articulating that. But he wasn’t with most of those in the Reformed world on apologetics. He wasn’t presuppositionalist. He really was a bit of a voice in the wilderness there.
Thomas: And loved Aristotle.
Nichols: You know, you and I both, you and I were sitting together when we heard the last public sermon that he gave for a Ligonier event.
Thomas: It was beautiful because it was him.
Nichols: And it was the five-hundredth anniversary, and his topic is, “What Is the Gospel?”
Thomas: “What Is the Gospel?” And he talks about Aristotle.
Nichols: He talks about Aristotle and the types of cause, and it was brilliant and compelling.
Thomas: It was like nothing you’d ever heard before, and no one else could have given it.
Thomas: And you thought, “Is this going to land somewhere?” And it did.
Nichols: It did.
Thomas: He brought that huge jumbo jet and landed it.
Nichols: Sixteen minutes or something like that. I think that all of us had the assignment because there were six or seven in a short block speaking, and I think we had eighteen or sixteen-minute assignments, and he did it.
You know, there’s a little note in here, I’m sure this means a lot to you—a letter actually. And it’s R.C. Sproul letterhead, and he signed it with his initials, “R.C.,” and it’s dated October 31— speaking of Reformation Day—2005. So, you must have just spoken at the pastor’s conference.
Nichols: And he’s just writing you a note to thank you and mentioned that folks were uplifted, encouraged, and undergirded in their faith, and he was just grateful that you were there and you were able to minister.
Thomas: And that was the first of many letters that I got from him. But I think that was the first one I got from him and . . .
Nichols: It’s beautiful.
Thomas: . . . I put it in Chosen by God because that was the first book of his I read.
Nichols: There you go. Well, thank you for sharing this book. Thank you for sharing the letter. And thank you for sharing these memories of R.C. Appreciate it very much.
Thomas: Thank you.
Nichols: Well, that wraps up season four of Open Book. I so enjoyed that time with Dr. Thomas and spending time in books that truly influenced his thought and ministry. I hope you enjoyed it too. And I hope you go back and read some of those books for yourself.
Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped. You can find episodes of this season and past seasons wherever you get your podcasts, and also, you can find it all at openbookpodcast.com. Now that we’ve finished season four, we’ll go back into production. So, stay tuned, we’ll have season five coming soon. Open Book is a listener-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. You can find abundant teaching materials and our other podcasts at ligonier.org.
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