Author Interview – Robert Duncan Culver

As we move into the new year, there will be some new regular features appearing on the Christian Focus Booknotes blog.  One of these recurring features will be “Culver’s Theology Corner”, where we will explore topics of theology as discussed in Robert Duncan Culver’s Systematic Theology: Biblical & Historical (Mentor, 2005).  We thought our readers would appreciate this blog series even more after getting to know more about the man behind the book.  What follows is a written interview where Dr. Culver answers a series of questions related to his background, the importance of systematic theology, advice for aspiring pastors and his literary influences. Let’s begin with this commendation from Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. from the book’s foreword.

“I am deeply grateful to my teacher, colleague, and long-standing friend for giving to all of us this extraordinary work that represents the fruit of a lifetime of studying God’s word and teaching theology to collegians, seminarians, and the body of Christ. May our Lord use it to further the work of the gospel around the world in this new century when new believers are coming into the family of God at the phenomenal rate of two new believers every second, especially in the two-thirds world.”

Q:  Your entire career has been focused on teaching and ministry, what was the catalyst that got you moving in this direction?

A:  My life “went public” for first time when at the age of six years I stood all by myself on the platform of a Presbyterian Church and in pajamas sang “Wee Willy Winky: in the Sunday School Christmas program (Tieton, Washington). I made public confession of Christ as Saviour and received baptism at about the age of ten.

About six years later in another rural village (Harrah, Washington) the youth of two congregations regularly met an hour before the Sunday evening service for “Christian Endeavor.” This was organized across many Protestant denominations. With guidance from the national organization the youth themselves (with an older adult sponsor-chaperon) rotated leading the meetings. There was vigorous hymn and chorus singing and a study led by members on rotation. Almost everyone led a meeting. I was usually a song leader. We also had a “gospel team” or “deputation group” as some called it. On these “deputations” to churches within 20 miles I was frequently the “preacher” on these visits. My first sermon was entitled “What Will You Do With Jesus? I remember the examples cited: Caiaphas (hate), Peter (denial), respect (the soldier in charge of the crucifixion), delay ( Felix), almost persuaded ( Agrippa), saving faith (repentant thief).

I was “eased” into “the ministry” though not without resistance. I thought I wished to be a farmer like my father and all his Puritan ancestors for ten generations. But when I went off to college I made up my mind (no epiphany or overwhelming experience of calling). What really was the decisive step, I signed up for the “pre-seminary course.” There were twenty seven of us in the four year college and in the three year seminary course of study. I was ordained at graduation from seminary and three years later returned as professor of Old Testament and Hebrew.

All my college and seminary years were during the Great Depression and WWII. It was a different world.

Q:  Why is the study of theology important?

A:  Everything studied in a thorough education for the pastoral ministry is “theology” in a general sense. Systematic theology collects all the fruits of the history of biblical exegesis, exposition, debate and formulation into carefully stated and organized form from all ages of the church until the present. Systematic theology has already organized that body of truth in treatments small and large. Earliest formal instruction comes in catechisms and lessons for children, but “pastors and teachers” need to know the whys and wherefores.

The program of instruction should be systematic simply because “God is not the author of confusion” (I Cor. 14:33). If God wills that in the Church all things must be done “decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40) then certainly our thinking and teaching about divine truth should also be in some systematic arrangement.

Interviewer’s note:  As a young pastor, Robert began to understand the need for a good grasp of systematic theology, which he explains in the prologue of Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical.

“Very early in my ministry as a pastor I found I had not achieved competence to do what these and similar passages demand. My college education had been interrupted by prolonged and acute hard times. There was no money to move a pastor from the center of things to our rather remote church. So when our young pastor resigned to finish seminary education the congregation invited me and my bride to move into the parsonage, preach, teach and shepherd the flock at the tender age of twenty-one! Things went fairly well. Youthful enthusiasm and a strong voice in a community of many loyal friends old and young carried quite a distance. The congregation was even attracting a few new people.

I already had a fair grasp of the historical structure and literary content of the Bible and was thoroughly familiar with all the notes in the most popular study Bible of the time. Some college courses in Bible, Church history, Christian evidences and twenty semester hours in Greek enabled the aspirant pastor-teacer to ascertain the surface meaning of the text of the Epistle to the Ephesians and some of the depths. But in the very first chapter he came up against election, the Holy Trinity, the sovereign will of god, a present reign of Christ in heaven and a seemingly complicated doctrine of the church. Nothing in his background had provided definition and a logical structure of doctrines whereby these grand truths of revelation could be defined and related to one another and to the ‘whole counsel of God.’ The ancient church used katholikos (catholic) both of the whole church through all the world and the canon of faith, or scheme of beliefs – in other words, systematic theology. What this aspirant pastor-teacher desperately needed , in America, is usually called systematic theology.”

Q:  Christian Focus published your Systematic Theology book in 2005.   How many years did it take you to complete this lengthy volume?

A:  Printers ink entered my blood stream very early with an article on authority in the church a few months before I took my first position on the faculty of a theological school. Much of that first effort appears again in Systematic Theology: Biblical & Historical, pages 948-955. In God’s good providence in 1977 I was able deliberately to limit involvement in regular pastoral and seminary work in order to spend more time on the book. Then beginning in 1988 and on through 2003 devoted the best hours of most days to research and writing systematic theology. It was all produced in handwriting of 50 sheets of 8 ½ X 14 lined yellow pads. I do not know how many there were but they filled a large file box tightly. My wife, Celeste entered them all in to a computer as I produced it.

Q:  What specific contribution does your systematic theology offer that makes it differ from other systematic theology titles available today?

A:  I am aware of seven major works of systematic theology and several smaller first published while I was writing my volume. All the authors were evangelicals and most members of the Evangelical Theological Society. So even though I probably began to write my volume before most (if not all) of them began their travail, I finished last—after the field was crowded. Each has his own emphasis to make. I read all or almost all of each major work and their names are in my footnotes and bibliography. Two came out while I was putting on finishing touches, doing proof reading and responding to editors. So in my scramble to avoid anymore delays I gave them no attention at all.

Each of these volumes reflects issues and ideas of personal and denominational views and interest as well as conviction and interest. We all strive for biblical Christian consensus but one seeks in vain for treatment of some very controversial areas of doctrine in most of these volumes. We do not wish to exclude readers who might have contrary views of the six days of creation (Gen. 1,2), the millennium (Rev. 20), the future of Israel as “the chosen people, the depravity of the “natural man,” etc.

I strive to deal as conclusively as possible with every issue and to exclude nothing of any importance. This together with large biblical support and tracing development of every doctrine from earliest times to the present perhaps set my work apart and account for the immense size of the work.

Q:  Why did you decide to write a systematic theology book?

A:  When I began teaching in a theological seminary, there was a dearth of scholarly literature in any department of the seminary curriculum. Since I was then a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew I set out immediately to produce a volume of both general and special introduction to the Old Testament. When early in my career as teacher I shifted from Old Testament to theology, there was not a single recent solidly “fundamental” comprehensive work to recommend to my classes. So I shifted my writing effort to correct the vacancy in systematic theology literature. My first published book was not strangely a volume of Old Testament theology: Daniel and the Latter Days, first published by Fleming H. Revell (1954) and then by Moody Press (1957) revised and enlarged in 1977.

Q:  What advice would you offer to aspiring pastors and professors who are still in seminary or graduate school?

A:  There is an abundance of good counsel in print to assist the aspiring pastor or professor, but little on choice of seminary and curriculum.

Unless your theological convictions suggest a change from cradle faith, look for a school where the faith and practice that nurtured you is at least respectful of the faith and ways of the godly folk who sent you off to school. It’s a lonely world out there with only new friends and natural family. Believe me. This is important especially for pastoral ministry.

Check the list of faculty and curricula of the seminaries now competing (sometimes a bit boastfully, I think) for your presence in their classes. Where did the professor of New Testament and of Old Testament get his training. Did he spend any time under guidance of soundly orthodox-evangelical teachers? Is there evidence he skipped seminary training altogether en route to his doctoral degree and does not likely know the “pattern of sound words” and what “the traditions you received from me” (Paul) are.

Apologetics or Christian Education counseling, etc. are important, but if they dominate a curriculum the enemy is setting the agenda of training. Specialize only after sound and comprehensive knowledge of what Christianity is in all its aspects.

For those already in seminary and graduate school I suggest you evaluate the prescribed or required core of your studies in view of above suggestions.

We are all, including professors and school administrators as well as students, caught in a rapidly changing culture. The world is not only “out there” but up to varying degrees in school, church and ourselves. No advice of mine will fit perfectly to any situation. “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). This wisdom is often filtered through the counsel of those who have been through the fire before.

Q:  Outside of the Bible, what books and/or authors have significantly influenced your life and ministry.

A:  I met no very persuasive literature of theology until I enrolled in “Introduction to Apologetics” in my freshman year at Ashland College. The professor (A. J. McClain) prescribed two amazing and then rather recent but forever timely books: Christianity versus Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen and The Christian View of God and the World by James Orr. Machen laid out in sharp lines the issues which within the organized churches were leading in two opposite ways. James Orr’s classic work gave frame to everything in life and learning I have learned about our faith since.

Both these authors were Presbyterian and my teacher had received his training for the ministry at the most highly recommended (i.e. by conservative, evangelical Presbyterian seminary of the time. “Old” Xenia later merged with Pittsburgh Seminary. Yet the volume recommended by McClain in seminary was Systematic Theology by A. H. Strong. I spent several years to finish reading this 1,000 plus pages of fine print. All three of these volumes remain in print today and are still influential. Strong (Baptist) influenced the theology of Professor McClain more than I knew until I read Strong. This melding of the two chief forms of reformed theology is not lost in what I believe, confess, teach and write today.

About Robert Duncan Culver:
Robert Culver was born in rural Yakima County, Washington. It was there that he became, along with parents and family, part of a new small village congregation of believers, that has sent many of its sons and daughters into various missionary and pastoral careers. Early education was in the public schools. He is a graduate of Heidelberg College (A.B.), Grace Theological Seminary (B.D., Th.M., Th.D.) and did post-doctoral theological studies at Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary and ancient Near-Eastern languages at the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Culver received formal ordination to the ministry immediately after graduation from seminary but has been a preacher, pastor and teacher all his adult life, to the present.His career as a professor has taken him to Grace Theological Seminary (Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew), Wheaton College and Graduate School (Associate Professor of Bible and Theology), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Professor and Chairman of Theology). He was annual director of the Near-East School or Archaeology at Jerusalem (1962). He has been special or visiting lecturer at schools in Canada, several states in the USA, Jordan, Hong Kong, France, the Netherlands and Argentina. Among his several publications, perhaps best known are The Life of Christ, Civil Government: a Biblical View, Daniel and the Latter Days and the section on “Daniel” in the Wycliffe Commentary.

Books by Robert Duncan Culver:

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  • James L Reinlie Jr

    During 1953-1954, Dr Culver, while at Wheaton College as a professor, was the interrim pastor of Bethel Community Church, Chicago, Illinois. My parentts were both elders and of ourse, our entire family attended from our very early ages. On April 24th, 1954 as a 13 year old boy, I was “Confirmed in the Faith” by Dr Culver, after attending his weekly confirmation class beginning the previous fall. He may have thought that I was just another kid talking and fooling around in class but . . . every word he spoke and taught was impregnated into my heart by the Holy Spirit. God Reins ! Years later, I found Dr Culver living in Canada and sent him a letter to which he responded. I have since lost the letter . . . At the Confirmation ceremony on that Sunday morning in April, Dr Culver presented to me with a bible signed by him. (I also had two of my sunday school teachers sign this bible.) This was not a particularly expensive or quality bible and over the years, it literally fell apart. About 1987-1988, I took it to a book restoration shop. They diassembled it, rebonded the backing, and bound it in quality black leather. This bible has always benn special and precious to me. I have scanned the autograph page but am unable to attach it to this contact messagge. If you contact me via email, I shall be happy to send you a pdf file containing the image. It would be terrific to contact Dr Culver once again and tell him personally how much he impacted my life, how the Lord has always forgiven and rescued me, and how his (Dr Culver) teaching has always resided and rose within my heart to the occassion ! God bless and keep you all . . . James L Renlie Jr, DeBary, Florida.

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      James,

      Thanks for much for sharing this story about Dr. Culver!