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John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America by Jeffrey S. McDonald

John R. Muether

John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America, by Jeffrey S. McDonald. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017, x + 263 pages, $44.00, paper.

In this life of John Gerstner (1914–1996), Jeffrey McDonald, pastor of Avery Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Bellevue, Nebraska, presents his case for seeing Gerstner as a key voice for “theological continuity” among conservative Reformed evangelicalism in the late twentieth century (18).

Converted improbably through a conversation with a professor while visiting the dispensational Philadelphia College of the Bible, Gerstner was mentored in the Reformed faith by John Orr (1893–1983) as an undergraduate at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. After studies at Westminster Seminary and Harvard Divinity School (PhD), he settled in the rich Presbyterian soil of Western Pennsylvania where he took on a brief pastorate before beginning a long and distinguished academic career, first at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary (1950–1960) and then at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (1960–1980).

Gerstner championed the cause of Old Princeton Seminary, especially in the work of B. B. Warfield. Gerstner regarded the presuppositional approach of Westminster Seminary’s Cornelius Van Til, with whom Gerstner engaged as a colorful and respectful antagonist, as an abandonment of the classical approach of Warfield.

Idiosyncrasies abound in the character that McDonald portrays: he describes Gerstner as alternatively gregarious and brusque. He would often come across to strangers as strident and gruff, an impression partially owing to severe asthma. If his views came across to readers as wooden and narrow (143), he was demonstrating his persistent loyalty to the Reformed faith.

This put him in the thick of many of the major battles in American Presbyterianism, fighting on the losing side of all of them. These include the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA)  union with the PCUSA in 1956. That merger created the redundancy of two denominational seminaries in the same city, which led to the 1960 consolidation of Pitt-Xenia Seminary with Western Seminary to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This more liberal environment isolated Gerstner to the point where he became “pretty quiet at faculty meetings” (100).

Next he led the opposition to the church’s adoption of the Confession of 1967.  However, last minute cosmetic changes to some of the language of C-67 persuaded him that it contained “some unmistakably alien, orthodox elements superimposed on its basic structure” (100). To the surprise of friends, he reported that “I seem to favor continuing with the church” (100).

The theological controversies involving Walter Kenyon (who could not get ordained in 1974, because he would not participate in the ordination of women) and Mansfield Kaseman (who was received as a minister in the denomination in 1980, even though he would not affirm the deity of Christ), pushed him to the point of declaring the mainline Presbyterian church “apostate.” But Gerstner was later encouraged when Kaseman embraced more Christologically orthodox language, enough to retract the charge of apostasy and to urge fellow conservatives to remain in the denomination. 

Even while he was marginalized at Pittsburgh Seminary and the mainline church, Gerstner secured alternative platforms to gain an audience. He served a long tenure as a founding contributing editor for Christianity Today and in the 1970s as an adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Arguably, Gerstner’s highest visibility among Reformed evangelicals came through a former student who eschewed the academic life, to his teacher’s regret. In 1972 R. C. Sproul appointed him Professor at Large at Ligonier Valley Study Center in Pennsylvania (later Ligonier Ministries in Orlando). Ligonier’s use of innovative media greatly expanded Gerstner’s voice.

For these reasons McDonald claims that Gerstner belongs on a short list of the major shapers of the intellectual life of American evangelicalism. He laments—rightly it seems—that since his death Gerstner has been “astonishingly overlooked” (11), as he “barely appears in the secondary literature on the history of American evangelicalism” (14).

At the same time, McDonald is candid in his assessment of Gerstner’s scholarship. He published voluminously for many outlets, and several of his books met with favorable reviews and impressive sales. But it was a bitter disappointment when his twenty-four-year project of editing Jonathan Edwards’s sermons for Yale University Press ended with Yale terminating his appointment, the editors frustrated over his failure to deliver material that met their expectations. Much of his research would be published in his three-volume magnum opus, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, which McDonald acknowledges was at times incoherent and disorganized. 

McDonald compares Gerstner to W. Stanford Reid, the Canadian church historian whom Gerstner met during his Westminster Seminary student days. But Gerstner’s career more closely resembles that of Richard Lovelace, retired professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Both Gerstner and Lovelace were WTS graduates but not true Machenites, as they set out to serve mainline instead of sideline Presbyterianism. Both loved Edwards, and each exercised significant influence on mainline evangelical students. Though Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life (1979) remains in print, he too is a largely forgotten figure. Perhaps the lesson here is that maintaining an evangelical voice in the mainline, as plausible as that may have been a half-century ago, appears in retrospect to have been a misguided strategy.

Only when he reached his seventies, “worn out from the ecclesiastical skirmishes he had waged” (174), did Gerstner conclude that the PCUSA was “not the true church,” prompting his transfer to the Presbyterian Church in America six years before his death. McDonald asserts (though does not explain) that Gerstner’s ecclesiology went through a “process of maturation” (198). But the life of John Gerstner might better suggest that he himself did not fully escape the “perils” of “evangelical accommodation” that he saw in others (108). His institutional loyalty did not always serve the cause of “theological continuity.”

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, April 2018.

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