Review: John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America

John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Jeffrey S. McDonald. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Summary: A biography of church historian, apologist, and theologian John Gerstner exploring his impact on theological education, the Presbyterian denominations of which he was part, and the wider evangelical and Reformed movement.

I heard John Gerstner speak over 50 years ago at the youth Bible Studies of the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. This gruff scholar spoke with passion about the parables. I cannot say I remember what he said, but it was clear that here was someone who was passionate about the Bible. Years later, I listened to him on tapes from the Ligonier Valley Study Center, arguing for the inerrancy of the Bible at a time this was an issue under much discussion. He was also a strong influence on two of the ministers of the church in which I grew up. I have to say I’ve not thought much about him since until reading this biography, which both impressed me with the reach and impact of his scholarship and underscored the journey away from an evangelical faith of the PCUSA, from which, late in life he resigned his membership.

The biography begins with some of the formative influences in his life: the UPCNA (United Presbyterian Church North America) church in which he grew up, one adhering to evangelical doctrine, his conversion and early formation at Philadelphia School of the Bible, his studies under John Orr at Westminster College, which persuaded him of the importance of rational, evidentialist apologetics. After a brief stint as a student at Pitt-Xenia Seminary, then associated with the UPCNA, he went to Westminster Seminary, still reflecting the influence of J. Gresham Machen, the modernist versus fundamentalist “Presbyterian Controversy,” where he was shaped by the Old Princeton theologians who had shaped Machen’s resistance to liberalism.

The subsequent chapters of the book trace Gerstner’s career by decades. The 1950’s witnessed his rise as an evangelical scholar, both at Pitt-Xenia and more broadly. He led a movement, along with Addison Leitch to renew the evangelical stance of the seminary. This was interrupted by the merger of the UPCNA with the United Presbyterian Church to form the UPCUSA. Gerstner opposed this merger on theological grounds, as well as the subsequent merger of Pitt-Xenia and Western Seminary, both in Pittsburgh, to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS).

In short order, the moderates and liberals from Western asserted their influence at PTS. McDonald traces the disillusionment Gerstner felt when Leitch abandoned ship. Throughout the 1960’s, he continued to defend an evangelical faith, supporting a group of evangelical students, while continuing to work as “loyal opposition” within the denomination. Two cases in the 1970’s gave him pause, even as he advocated unsuccessfully in both instances. One was the Kenyon case, denying ordination to a pastor who did not believe in the ordination of women to church leadership positions and the other, the Kaseman case resulted in the ordination of a pastor who denied the full deity of Christ. For a time, Gerstner considered the denomination apostate.

As Gerstner failed his efforts to preserve orthodoxy within his denomination, his ministry broadened in other ways. He taught courses at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, exposing a broader audience to Reformed thought. He spoke increasingly about his Jonathan Edwards scholarship contending for a direct line between Edwards and the Old Princeton Theology. And his teaching, particularly about biblical inerrancy spread widely through the influence of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Ligonier Valley Study Center, led by one of his former students and mentees, R.C. Sproul. Sproul championed Gerstner’s work and brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. One failure that marred his scholarship was his inability to transcribe the texts of Jonathan Edwards sermons as editor of for that volume of the Yale edition of Edwards’s works, resulting in his removal from the project in 1977. At least part of the issue was his inability to do the critical work necessary, given his high estimate of Edwards.

In the 1980’s, Gerstner retired from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary but spoke and lectured widely. Despite being removed from the Yale project, he brought attention to Edwards in a variety of settings and helped shape the growth of Presbyterian and Reformed evangelicalism in the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, joining the latter denomination in 1990. He kept up an intense schedule of teaching and also edited a three volume work on Jonathan Edwards. McDonald describes this as poorly edited and flawed in many ways but also offering many original insights into Edwards work.

I always pictured Gerstner as a theological pit bull. This biography offers a much more nuanced view. He was beloved as a teacher by many of his students and deeply shaped many including Sproul. It is clear that he was shaped by the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1930’s and determined all his life to preserve the theological integrity of the church, a losing battle in his own denomination. What is striking from this biography is that he remained a faithful churchman and theologian in that denomination so long despite the losses, remaining the gentleman, even though he could be fierce in debate.

It strikes me that he was both teacher and apologist for an evangelical faith and one wonders what might have happened had he devoted, or been capable of devoting greater energy to his Edwards scholarship. Yet even so, he prepared the way for the resurgence of Edwards studies that we are seeing to the present day. Likewise, he offered theological sustenance to the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, two bodies that offset the decline in mainline Presbyterianism. McDonald’s biography offers a great service in remembering this distinctive voice who left his mark in so many Presbyterian and Reformed circles and in the wider evangelical community.

2 thoughts on “Review: John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America

  1. I loved and respected Dr. Gerstner in spite of his gruff manner, or as you well described him: as a “theological pit bull” and “fierce in debate.” Dr. Roger Nicole once described listening to him preach at a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology as “watching a basketball bounce down stairs.” This was apparently due to Gerstner accelerating to get all of his content in within the allotted time limit without losing any of his passion or elocution in doing so! I can still recall where I learned of his passing. It was from another soldier at Fort Indiantown Gap, PA while we were attending a course there. I treasure the opportunities that I had to hear him and converse with him in person, both at Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology, and in local churches near where I live.

    Two distinct issues with his gruff “pit bull” manner come to mind, both involving his opposition to dispensationalism.

    The first was during the 1986 PCRT, “Our Blessed Hope: The Doctrine of Last Things.” Because Dr. Boice was premillennial Gerstner publicly accused his friend of being a dispensationalist during a discussion on the platform. Boice’s face reddened, and he denied that he was.

    The second had to do with Dr. Charles C. Ryrie. Gerstner told me on more than one occasion during our conversations about Ryrie. At one point they were together for a meal. During their discussion he accused Ryrie of being an antinomian since Ryrie’s dispensationalism in Gerstner’s view was inherently and inextricably antinomian. He really respected Ryrie as a scholar, and felt that he was the only dispensationalist worthy of debating him. Gerstner invited Ryrie to a public debate on the issue. Ryrie said if Gerstner wrote to him about this he would respond. Dr. Gerstner wrote to him, and Ryrie never responded. In Gerstner’s ethic it was inexcusable not to keep your word. He regretted to his dying day that he never got to publicly debate Ryrie on this issue.

    This may explain what led to Gerstner’s worst exhibition of “pit bullism.” It came out in a book I wish he had never published, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991). In my humble opinion, the difference between this book in its various editions, 2nd rev. ed. (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), and 3rd ed. (Draper: Apologetics Group Media, 2009), and all of his other published works was his unresolved issue with Ryrie. It came across to me as though he was venting in a very personal way against this “thorn in the flesh.” It produced multiple critical reviews, three of which he attempted to respond to in the 2nd edition.

    Despite sharp disagreements in theology I miss him to this day, and ponder what it must be like now that Ryrie joined him in glory six years ago.

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  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2022 | Bob on Books

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