Hey TD, we have an exclusive treat for you. In this honest, candid, and real conversation with RC, you will get a unique look at one of the Christian giants of the last 40 years. He has had a profound influence on my life, and unbeknownst to you, he has influenced your life too. He is known to many as America’s most influential theologian; yet, while influential, he possesses a sense a humility and authenticity that is endearing, as you will see.. Some of his answers will surprise you. Please read on and glean. – Arthur
RC: When I left teaching in the seminary and started teaching at the study center (called Ligonier Valley Study Center) in the middle of the mountains 50 miles east of Pittsburgh … the closest town was two miles away, with a population of under 200 people … I thought that by doing that, that I had actually committed academic suicide; that I had basically really sentenced myself to everlasting obscurity (starts laughing).
Arthur: Why did you do it?
RC: Ahh, because I love to teach and people were asking me to do it. People wanted me to do it and they wanted to learn.
Arthur: So, basically you’re telling me that if you wanted a fast track to notoriety, that wasn’t going to be the way to do it.
RC: Nooo, hardly! (begins laughing loudly and heartily) …
Arthur: So, you did it for the purity of it, like how athletes talk about the love of the game.
RC: It WAS the love of the game … the love of the students … and got us back to the experiences we had when I was teaching in the college, where students were living in our house, eating meals with us, and learning
Arthur: Did you have a vision for the Ligonier Study Center, or for the students that you taught, as to what this would emerge to?
RC: We were called there to help educate staff members who were there, like for Young Life, Intervarsity, the Coalition for Christian Outreach. These were all people who were college educated but did not have the benefit of seminary. And the leaders of these organizations got together and asked me to come and start a study center, where these lay [leaders] could come and get sort of a shorthand view of seminary theological education while they were in the field. I considered myself what I called a “battlefield theologian,” not an ivory tower theologian. I liked that. These guys were involved on the college campuses with people around the city and they needed to be equipped with theological understanding of their ministry. That was my vision. I was trying to help them become knowledgeable and articulate Christian leaders … lay leaders. That was it. I didn’t think of Cecil B. DeMille and a cast of thousands or anything like that.
Arthur: So, that has expanded and now is reaching the local church. But now you’re far removed from reaching the personal side of [the ministry]. You were a pastor for a little while, right? Then you quit or something? You mentioned many times in messages or in conferences that, “I didn’t have the stuff to become a pastor. It’s the pastor that’s the hero.” But then you went back to the pastorate.
RC: Well, I had a student pastorate when I was in seminary for a year. Then I had two years of experience of being on the staff of a church, and I was happy to be on the staff and not be the senior pastor, because my job was as a minister of theology; I just taught, that’s what I did. What I thought I lacked to be a pastor was the skin … I mean people, they eat you up, they eat you alive; pastors are chewed up and thrown out. They get very little respect. They have power in the church but they don’t have any authority … I was just too thin-skinned, I was too sensitive. My feelings got hurt too easy doing that. (laughing)
Arthur: Did you toughen up to a point where you thought you could do it with St. Andrews (the current church he’s pastoring)?
RC: St. Andrews is another horse that got away. It was called St. Andrews Chapel because there was a handful of people that didn’t have a church to go to that they were happy with. They asked me to start a church, and I said no a few times. Finally, they asked me to pray about it. I finally said, “Well, if all I do is preach and teach, I can do it but I cannot be your pastor. I already got a full time job. We started with a handful of people and that was the understanding, and I just preached and taught, and then we got someone to take care of congregational life and the pastoral life of the church. Burk’s done that. Burk’s really the pastor at St. Andrew’s. All I do is preach and teach. We called it a chapel because the idea was to keep it small … you can’t really do that necessarily
Arthur: The personal aspect that really drew you to teaching … has that somewhat returned since you’ve been there?
RC: Well, I’m not really teaching that much any more. At first, I did a lot of teaching and preaching, but then I had health problems. I used to teach an hour Sunday School class and then I would preach, and then preach again in the evening. Now, I don’t have the Sunday School class anymore and I only preach once in the morning. I was preaching twice in the morning and then once in the evening; but now I’m down to one service a week. It’s all I can handle, health-wise.
Arthur: Winding down here, let’s start with that Young Life group in Saranac, New York. People have their signature series, the one that launches [careers] – like Ravi really got his explosion … the Harvard series was there, but it was when he came to Ligonier conferences repeatedly over a couple year span there that really exploded his ministry. I always tell people that if RC were worried about gate keeping, he wouldn’t have sent those [messages of Ravi out to RC’s supporters]. You sent it out and said that this was the #1 requested message from the whole conference and you wanted us supporters to hear it. I always thought how neat that was that you were not gate keeping. I only found out about Ligonier through John MacArthur, when he was speaking at a Ligonier conference and let his supporters know about it. He was not gate keeping. I thought it was really neat.
With respect to the Holiness of God series, that was so pivotal for you … Can you tell us what was going on in your life and what you were experiencing during this time of forming your messages. What was going on in your life that burst through, that the Holiness of God was borne out of?
RC: Well, the first thing was … I was teaching at a conference that the evangelist, John Guest, was preaching at, and he preached a message from Isaiah 6 … and I had never heard anything like that before. That was the greatest sermon I’d ever heard in my life, and in fact my first sermon in The Holiness of God series on Isaiah 6 … is heavily influenced by John’s treatment of it, as well as by Alec Matire who was John’s professor in England, who wrote the commentary on Isaiah. So, that helped. Then I fleshed it out and expanded it beyond it. Another impact that had a big impact on me was reading Rudolph Otto, the German critical theologian, and his study on the idea of the Holy.
Putting those things together, also with the impact of Edwards and Luther and Calvin on my understanding of the justice of God and the grace of God, that all fit together.
Arthur: Were there things going off in your soul as you were discovering and reading these things – epiphanies and things that made you go, “Wow!”?
RC: (laughing heartily) I tell you what! My whole study of theology has been an epiphany, Arthur … I have had sooo many epiphanies in that sense of the word.
Arthur: Were you moved in studying that topic in such a degree that it just shook you, because every time I listen …
RC: The thing that frustrates me, and you’ve probably heard me say this, was that my study of the holiness of God really … I mean I already knew it … really overwhelmed me in terms of revealing to me how unholy I am and we are. Isaiah’s experience was my experience – “I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips.”
One of the things that annoys me about that signature series is that because I’m so interested in the holiness of God, people jump to the conclusion that I must be exceedingly holy myself, and it’s just the opposite. What attracted me to the holiness of God is that I realized that my tendency as a sinful person is to shield myself from that vision of God; and what I needed if I was going to go anywhere in the Christian life, what I needed to keep in front of me at all times is a clear understanding of who God is. Does that make any sense?
Arthur: Oh, totally, totally. I think that’s what it does for a lot of us …