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New Horizons

John Skilton: The Missing Portrait

Thomas J. Sorkness

Periodically, I have occasion to run over to Westminster Seminary. Entering Machen Hall, I am always impressed by the large portraits of the early professors of the institution—an august assembly, to be sure—Machen, Murray, Van Til, and others. These men are important to our denomination and to the broader church as well. They defended the faith during a time when it was under attack both from without and from within. It is important that their images hang on those walls. They give us pause to thank God for their providential work at such a crucial time in the history of the church.

There is a portrait missing, however, in my estimation: the portrait of Dr. John Skilton. I’m sure that name is familiar to many readers—but to the younger set, maybe not. I have found that few of the younger generation know who he was.

I have a confession to make at this point. Once in a while, when over at the seminary, I’ll wander into one of the offices in Machen Hall, and taking note of the portrait hanging in that department, I’ll ask one of the young, unsuspecting workers where Dr. Skilton is. Silence. Blank stares. Somebody may pipe up, “Oh yes, he’s the guy that …” “Well, no, that was somebody else.” More silence. Blank stares. Yes, when I engage them that way, I am baiting them—baiting them for the opportunity to tell them a little bit about this wonderful man of God. I always end the conversation by saying that there ought to be a portrait of Dr. Skilton hanging in those hallowed halls as well. So who was Dr. Skilton?

Diaconal Visionary

Dr. Skilton was one of the early professors of the seminary, but he is probably best known for his visionary and ecumenical diaconal work among the poor in Philadelphia. It was through his efforts that Skilton House Ministries was established. Skilton House, in the Olney section of Philadelphia, was a beacon of light to the lost for many years. It was there that Dr. Skilton lived, taking care of his infirm mother.

I first set foot in the Skilton house when I was taking an evangelism class with Dr. Jack Miller. We would do street preaching (exhorting) at Broad and Olney. Just before heading up the street to our usual spot, we would meet for prayer at the Skilton house. The first time there, I recall Dr. Skilton telling us that on every Thursday night, the entire city of Philadelphia was invited to come for dinner. This was always an open invitation, and I believe that he trusted that if everyone did show up, the Lord would provide. (And since he was not a respecter of persons, if someone from the suburbs had shown up at the door, he would not have turned him away!) Although some may chuckle at the thought, I believe this invitation characterized the tremendous gift of hospitality he possessed.

But it went well beyond that. Dr. Skilton had a love for the lost. This was deep-seated in him. Over the years, he was actively involved in evangelism, nursing home ministries, and aid to Vietnamese refugees in the Logan section—all this through Skilton House Ministries. The most recognizable of his achievements in diaconal efforts was Operation Brotherhood, an ecumenical work among gospel-believing churches in the city. The capstone each year was, and still is, the Thanksgiving Food Basket Drive. Each year thousands of households around the city receive a Thanksgiving food basket as well as a printed gospel message from their neighborhood churches, all through the coordination of Operation Brotherhood.

Dr. Skilton was the visionary behind all this. He had a tremendous capacity to love the dispossessed of the world and evidenced this in very practical ways. This legacy continues through the ongoing work of Skilton House Ministries. He was tireless in his efforts, pouring himself out like a drink offering.

Eminent Bible Scholar

There was another side to Dr. Skilton, however—a side that those who were the recipients of his diaconal and evangelistic efforts knew little if anything about. Dr. Skilton was an eminent scholar, a scholar of the New Testament. He started teaching at Westminster in 1939 and taught for many years. As a matter of fact, as indicated on the seminary’s website, he served in that capacity longer than any other professor—until 1997, the year before his death. Having been born in 1906, he was still teaching at age 91! He taught for fifty-eight years!

Dr. Skilton’s knowledge of the New Testament was almost unbelievable. I say unbelievable, unless one sat under his teaching. It was rumored that he had the entire Greek New Testament memorized, and it may have been so. Sitting in advanced Greek class, I can recall him reciting major portions of the text, then asking us to translate. Always gracious, he was ever patient to help the novice along in the text. But he also had the great and scholarly mind to deal with the textual criticism of the day. He was gracious, but certainly held his own against the most virulent attacks on the Bible, following Paul’s lead in demolishing arguments set up against the knowledge of God.

Dr. Skilton’s ability to memorize is legendary. The best story surrounds his doctoral dissertation. One day the draft of his dissertation was either lost or stolen on the Route 23 trolley. Discouraged to be sure, but not undone, he was able to reconstruct the entire document from memory and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961. His dissertation was entitled “The Translation of the New Testament into English, 1881–1950.” For a time, Dr. Skilton was the chairman of the New Testament Department and was also the editor for the Westminster Theological Journal. He contributed scholarly works and even toward the end of his life was still traveling and delivering addresses around the country. For Dr. Skilton, there was nothing of greater importance than the preservation and transmission of the Word of God.

Churchman

Dr. Skilton was also a man of the church. An ordained pastor in the OPC, he preached whenever he had the opportunity. And he was a great preacher: always earnest and adamant, and clearly presenting the Word of God, long passages of which were always included in his sermons. He took great delight in hearing young children recite Bible verses and catechism answers. He always showed deference to young people and children. (I can remember him playing with our kids when he would come over for haircuts from my wife.) Always a gentleman, one of his colleagues related to me a standing joke about Dr. Skilton. It was said that if you ever met John at a doorway and waited for him to pass through first, you would be waiting until the Lord returned. He was pleasant, always had a smile, and remembered your name.

All of these stories paint a picture of Dr. John Skilton. There is so much more that could be said about him, but space does not permit. Dr. Skilton made a tremendous impression on me. I wish I had known him better, but the few encounters I had with him have left indelible images on my mind. There is no portrait of Dr. Skilton at Westminster Seminary, so far as I know—and perhaps he would prefer it that way—but there is a portrait of him nonetheless. It is a portrait that hangs in my mind, if not my heart. It is a portrait presenting a very interesting juxtaposition: picture a man laboring over a scholarly paper designed to defend the Word of God and then getting up to deliver a bag of clothes to a household of Vietnamese boat people. That was Dr. John Skilton. It is his portrait: love for the Word of God and love for the lost. It is the portrait of Christ, evidenced through his life.

As I reflect on this a bit, I think that maybe one of these days, I’m going to take a little jaunt over to Westminster again, stroll into Machen Hall, find some young, unsuspecting office worker, and ask where Dr. Skilton is. You know, they ought to hang a portrait of him around there somewhere!

The author is a ruling elder at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pa. New Horizons, October 2015.

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