Last month saw the final days of American Presbyterian theologian R.C. Sproul, longtime champion of Reformed theology and vocal critic of atheism and Catholicism alike. It is doubtful that many of our readers know anything about Dr. Sproul, but his radio program through Pennsylvania-based Ligonier Ministries was a staple of my formative years. This program served as my introduction to systematic theology and scriptural commentary, and it was far more substantial than most of the material generated in Evangelical Protestant circles.
Dr. Sproul was unafraid to remind his listeners about the theology of Sir Luther—Calvinist though he was—and what still separated them from the Catholic Church. He was a brutal opponent of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) about which he once said, “Somebody is preaching a different gospel and when Rome condemned the Protestant declaration of justification by faith alone, I believe that Rome when placing the anathema on sola fide placed the anathema of God upon themselves.” He was no respecter of persons nor of niceness, though his behavior could hardly be called base or rude. He simply knew where he stood and was unafraid to preach the conclusions of that stance.
The Young Reformed (aka New Calvinist) movement that peaked in the early 2000s bore some of Sproul’s influence, though perhaps more from John “Desiring God” Piper and Mark Driscoll. The early American Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a brief resurgence, and the movement’s proto-hipster population also attempted to appropriate G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor to supplement Calvinism’s noticeable lack of non-homiletic literary culture.
When Sproul was not singing the praises of early Reformation luminaries, he was pretending that St. Augustine’s theology was harmonious with Calvin’s. He also spoke highly of St. Thomas Aquinas, although he was slightly more honest about the latter’s peculiarly Catholic theology.
The primary concern of Sproul’s theological exegesis was the sovereign holiness of God, and the infinite terror engendered by the realization of the utter otherness of Divinity. His popular series The Holiness of God included lectures on “The Trauma of Holiness” and “The Insanity of Luther.” This separatist view of the divine nature was at the root of Sproul’s so-called “doctrines of grace” (i.e., Calvinism), and worked its way through doctrines of predestination, of the limitation of God’s love to the elect, of the “divine rape” of grace, all the way to the admission that on the Cross the divine nature of the God the Son “turned his back” on the human nature. (Protestant theology has always been uncomfortable with the intimacy of God with humanity that the Incarnation necessarily implies, and Sproul was more open than most about how much of Luther’s thought leads to Christological heresy.)
I lost track of Sproul after my reception into the Church, but by all accounts he continued to preach and publish until his health failed him in late 2017. He was well read in literature, philosophy, history, and science in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of Protestant theology. He was a great practitioner of the art of rhetoric. He possessed an undying and irrational devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of his like one cannot find among his peers, and I have no doubt he could preach circles around the vast majority of American Catholic priests. He was not given to sentimentalities nor to shielding his flock from harsh truths.
In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me. He was heroic; I shrank from his words in cowardice. I could not face what he had to face. I pled ignorance as I only understood enough of his words to recoil from them. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”… My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die.On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the feast of the poet-saint Venantius Fortunatus, Robert Charles Sproul died surrounded by family and by his fellow pastors and elders. Once he wrote, “As fearsome as death it is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God.” How fearsome it must have been for him to come face to face with the God about whom he had taught so many heresies, after he had actively prevented so many baptized persons from entering into the Church Catholic. “You go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides.”
There is a harsh truth, indeed.