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Continuing the Legacy of Old Geneva

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   July 19, 2017   |  Type: Articles, UPDATE Magazine

by W. Robert Godfrey

In September 1974 I began to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. As a young Californian many things in Pennsylvania were a little strange. One oddity for me was that the lunch break at seminary began at 1:00 p.m. That seemed late to me (and I was hungry by then). So I asked someone why lunch was so late. 

The shocked reply was “because that was the way they did it at old Princeton.” In time I would discover that that was the answer to many questions, and, for me as a historian, it was a very satisfying answer. 

J. Gresham Machen, and those who stood with him, envisioned the Westminster enterprise to continue the great mission and work of Princeton Theological Seminary as it had existed before 1929. Machen wanted a seminary that was staunchly biblical, confessional, academic, pious, and pastoral. As I thought about Machen’s model, old Princeton founded in 1812, I realized that in a profound sense Princeton had sought to continue the work of “old Geneva.” Charles Hodge had for many years used as his text in systematic theology the Institutes of Francis Turretin, professor of theology in Geneva. Turretin had promoted and defended Reformed orthodoxy there about a century after Calvin had founded the Genevan Academy. 

As early as his return to Geneva from exile in Strasburg, Calvin had written of his desire to found an academy there for the education of future ministers. In 1541 he wrote, “The office proper to doctors is the instruction of the faithful in true doctrine, in order that the purity of the Gospel be not corrupted either by ignorance or by evil opinions.” In this one sentence Calvin lays out his program of seminary education. Doctors, that is, learned men, will teach the truth of the Bible to those in the community of faith who wish to be ministers. Such teaching is necessary because the Christian community is prone to being misled into various forms of corruption. That corruption can arise either from an ignorance of the truth of God’s Word or from wrong understandings of that Word. 

Calvin finally was able to open that academy in 1559 under the gifted leadership of Theodore Beza. It accomplished exactly what Calvin had hoped, providing for many years faithful preparation of ministers who knew, believed, and preached God’s Word. That great vision of Calvin and Turretin, of Hodge and Machen, continues today at Westminster Seminary California. And I am very thankful that I have been privileged to be a part of that faithful work. 

WSC opened its doors in 1980 and I joined the faculty here in 1981, after seven years in Philadelphia. Initially I taught all the required church history courses as well as various electives in history. In 1993 I became president while continuing to teach half-time. In recent years I have taught less which has been a real regret for me. Now at age 71 I believe that it is time to retire from full-time work at WSC. The spirit is willing to go on but the flesh is a little weak. Certainly my passion for and commitment to the work here continues unabated. 

Over the years I have found some of my energies going to trying to protect the faithful from various corruptions – indeed more of my energy than I would have wanted. But as Calvin saw clearly, that work of protecting is a necessary part of education and ministry. I have seen many challenges to our Reformed convictions and to the very idea of a confessional Reformed education for ministry. Some of those challenges were faddish and fleeting. Others were profound and perennial. All had to be considered and answered, in one way or another.

 The major controversies in which I have found myself were important to the life of the church. First, I think of the work I did with others to defend the inerrancy of the Bible against those who have in various ways compromised its truthfulness, authority, and relevance. If we do not have confidence in the Bible and look to it for a clear revelation of God’s will for us, we will be tragically adrift in a world of evil opinions. Every generation must understand for itself that true faith begins with this confidence: “a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism 21). 

The great Reformation doctrine of justification has been another central concern of mine. This truth stood at the center of the Reformation because the Scripture taught it, because it glorified the complete work of Christ, and because it brought unspeakable comfort and encouragement to the people of God. Where the doctrine of justification is lost the church declines into either legalism or lawlessness. We see again that justification has been attacked both by those who want to change the doctrine itself and by those who argue that the doctrine is not as important as the Reformers thought. Both of these contentions are not only wrong but spiritually dangerous at a profound level. 

The third struggle of my life has been to maintain disciplined, confessional Reformed churches. The church as an institution is at the heart of God’s work in the world to gather and edify his people. That church needs the truth, and we find a rich heritage of truth preserved for us in the great confessions of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. A constant temptation for us is to think that we are wiser than those who have gone before – and that is very seldom the case. We continue to need our confessions to guide our churches because they rightly teach the truth of Scripture and rightly prioritize for us those essential truths which must unite us. 

"A constant temptation for us is to think that we are wiser than those who have gone before – and that is very seldom the case."

These three issues are all crucial to knowing and serving Christ. The Scriptures point us to him and teach us the truth about him. Justification shows the completeness of Christ’s work for us as our substitute and sacrifice so that we might have peace with God. The church is the body of Christ in which he is gathering his elect. 

The joy of my work, however, has been in my ministry as a teacher of students and a preacher and speaker for the church. My time in class, helping generations of students to see the work of God in the history of Christ’s church, is the most precious memory of my ministry. My goal was to help students appreciate the wisdom of the thought, experience, and life of the church. I also wanted to help them see the errors and dangers that have beset Christians through the ages and develop a discriminating insight to hold to the good and avoid the wrong. My hope was that they would gain knowledge and humility from that study, making them better ministers and teachers for the church. Of course, I always knew that I was just one part of a faculty laboring together to educate effective, well-rounded ministers and teachers. 

In addition to the joy of that work, I think of the opportunities I have had to preach and teach in many settings and circumstances. I have especially enjoyed my 35 years of teaching adult Sunday School at my church here in Escondido (Escondido URC). That experience has helped greatly in reminding me that we as Christian scholars ultimately serve Christ through his people in the local church. 

My work at WSC has been greatly aided by my family. Mary Ellen has encouraged and worked with me at every point, always wiser than I. We have had the joy of seeing our two sons graduate from WSC and enter the ministry of the United Reformed Churches. We have also had the joy of seeing our daughter marry a seminarian (Mark MacVey) who now works at WSC. All of our family can testify to the blessing that the faithfulness of the seminary has been to us. 

One of the great blessings of the Lord on WSC over the 36 years I have been here is the remarkable unity that the faculty, board, and administration have had in their commitment to the mission of the seminary. Together we have loved the Lord, the students, the Reformed truth, and one another. There have been a few painful issues and partings, but on the whole the harmony and joy we have had in our work has been extraordinary. WSC has truly been a community of faith, scholarship, and service. 

Westminster Seminary California has done its teaching for the present needs of the church and for future generations of ministers. But it has done that with a profound sense of its heritage and its responsibility to be faithful to its Reformed convictions. 

Over these years of study and teaching, I can joyfully record now that I am more convinced of the truth and practical value of our Reformed heritage than ever before. I believe that each member of our community and WSC as a whole are committed to preserving and spreading that great faith. Yet as a historian I am intensely aware that institutions can change if those with responsibility for them are not vigilant. Ultimately, only the Lord can keep us faithful, so I appeal to you to join me in regular prayer for WSC. I pray with confidence as taught by God himself who promised (one of my favorite verses, Ps. 9:10): “And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you."

This article was originally published in the 2016 Fall issue of UPDATE MAGAZINE

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