Book review: Stephen J. Nichols, R. C. Sproul: A Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.
I enjoyed reading this comparatively brief biography of the Reformed preacher, theologian, and commentator R. C. Sproul. As one of the better-known evangelical theologians of the late twentieth century, he left a large imprint on the Christian scene. The book details his early life in Pittsburgh, including his athletic prowess which led him to Westminster College. It details his conversion from nominal Christianity to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It also describes his academic journey from history major to philosophy graduate. He was mentored by Thomas Gregory, who instructed him in the rudiments of Calvinism. He then furthered his graduate education at the by-then liberal Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he was further mentored by the famed Reformed thinker John Gerstner. This led to doctoral work in the Netherlands under another celebrated theologian, G. C. Berkouwer. Studying high level theology and philosophy in a complicated language – Dutch – with which he was previously unacquainted demonstrates the intellectual talent and the persevering mindset of Sproul.
After some years of teaching in evangelical college and seminaries, Sproul turned toward the broader Christian community in the pew, founding the Ligonier Study Center in western PA, teaching doctrine and Scripture to believers from a wide swathe of society. I was touched by Nichols’ account of Sproul’s friendship with and encouragement of “Harvey,” a disabled believer who had never been referred to as “a man,” until the subject of this biography did so in prayer on one occasion. Throughout the book, Sproul comes across as an engaging individual who had a genuine interest in and care for people. He cultivated friendships with other preachers like James Montgomery Boice. What is more, he was a faithful husband, devoted father, grandfather, and great grandfather.
Out of love for the Church, Sproul developed a teaching ministry designed to equip believers to grow in their faith and defend their beliefs against the attacks from skeptics. He wrote books, produced audio and video messages, founded multiple Bible conferences, and the Reformation Bible College. The emphases of his ministry included the Gospel (with Reformed assumptions), classical apologetics (as opposed to Van Tilian presuppositionalism), God’s holiness, and the inerrancy of Scripture. He was a key organizer of the conferences and books that led to The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy. He vehemently opposed the Evangelicals & Catholics Together document, defending the biblical gospel against this misguided attempt at spurious unity (In actual fact, ECT was egregious compromise that muddied Gospel waters. In standing for the truth, Sproul wasn’t afraid to contradict longtime friends such as J. I. Packer.) All of these things are remarkable contributions to the Church, and continue to outlive R. C.
Prior to reading the book, I had some fear that it would be tainted by hagiography. Since Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College and was closely associated with Sproul, I expected him to give an overly rosy-account of his subject’s life. Happily, this doesn’t happen very much. The author discusses Sproul’s professional and private lives in a consistently even-handed style. While he is not critical of R. C., nor is he overly flattering towards him.
There are some interesting asides in the biography: for instance, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Sproul was a fellow classmate of Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood fame; or that R. C. played a round of golf with Alice Cooper. the shock rocker, who was an avid reader of Sproul’s books. He also survived a devastating train wreck. Despite my personal disagreement with some of Sproul’s views (e. g. Calvinist soteriology, Reformed eschatology, and Presbyterian church government), I deeply appreciate his faithful life and labor to make known the almighty God and His holy Word. I recommend this book as an encouraging biography, encouraging the reader to imitate the subject in the areas where he imitates Christ.