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Dr. Robert B. Strimple: A Tribute

W. Robert Godfrey

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the reception of the Rev. Dr. Robert Benson Strimple into the ministry of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by the Presbytery of Philadelphia. It also marks forty-one years of his service as teacher and administrator at Westminster Philadelphia and Westminster California. It has been my privilege to work closely with Bob Strimple for over thirty-five years and to enjoy his faithfulness, keen insight, and good humor which has greatly encouraged me and many others.

Strimple has indeed served Christ in a wide variety of remarkable ways. He has been a minister, a teacher, a scholar, a churchman, an administrator, and an institution builder. All of these tasks he has undertaken as a Reformed Christian with a deep conviction that Reformed Christianity is biblical Christianity. Reflecting on his work at Westminster Seminary, he wrote: "We joyfully trace our theological roots to that understanding of the Bible, that understanding of the gospel message, which flowered at the time of the Reformation."[1]

Strimple was born, raised and educated in Delaware. His parents were Methodists, and he became a Baptist before studying at Westminster Seminary. He was still a Baptist at the time of his graduation from Westminster, but he had embraced most other elements of a confessional Reformed conviction.

Family has always been very important to Strimple, and his wife, Alice, has accompanied him faithfully on his spiritual and academic journeys, supporting him fully along the way. Early in their married lives they had hoped to serve the Lord as missionaries, and at least in some ways their move to the "foreign field" of California satisfied that desire. Their four children moved with them to California, and all four now serve Christ with their families.

At WTS he appreciated all his professors, but, like many others, he was significantly influenced by Cornelius Van Til, whose presuppositional apologetics helped Strimple in his scholarly work to look for the foundations of various forms of theology. The greatest influence on him, however, was Professor John Murray. Strimple was drawn both to the meticulous teaching and the godly character of Murray. Murray's lectures, which were written out, regularly revised, and read word for word in class, were a model of thorough scholarly preparation which particularly appealed to Strimple's own Germanic precision. In these lectures Strimple also experienced a scholar of great care and broad learning who grounded his theology clearly and explicitly on precise biblical exegesis.

Murray, of course, was much more than a fine theologian. He was a spiritual inspiration through the devotion to Christ that radiated from his life. Murray embodied the disciplines of Scottish Presbyterianism—including careful Sabbath-keeping and exclusive Psalm-singing—in a way that did not seem legalistic, but rather was filled with a biblical holiness. Indeed, the Rev. Geoffrey Thomas observed that John Murray was the holiest man he had ever known. For Strimple, too, Murray lived out an attractive holiness that encouraged others to draw near to Christ. And surely it is not too much to say that Strimple was Murray's truest successor as a Reformed systematician, blending faithfulness, learning, and piety.

After his graduation from WTS he taught one year at Eastern Christian High School in Paterson, New Jersey and then served eight years as Professor of Systematic Theology at Toronto Bible College (1961-1969). While teaching, he continued his formal studies, completing a Th.M at Westminster (1965) and beginning a Ph.D. program in systematic theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto (completed in 1972). During those years in Canada he continued his careful reflection on the Bible and theology, which led him to embrace paedobaptism. He began teaching at Westminster in 1969 and was received into the ministry of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1970.

In addition to his teaching, Strimple gave himself to the cause of Westminster by accepting a number of administrative positions: Dean of Students, Dean of the Faculty, Vice-President of Academic Affairs, and eventually, President of Westminster Theological Seminary in California (WSC). He brought rigorous discipline to these positions, which he fulfilled brilliantly and thoroughly. He clearly recognized that Reformed Christianity was more than an intellectual commitment. Biblical Christianity has an institutional form and expression.

Although an easterner, Strimple joined the many who heard the call to "Go West, young man." A number of Reformed leaders in California had become convinced that a Reformed seminary was needed in the West. They appealed to Edmund Clowney, the president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Clowney decided that founding a branch campus of Westminster in California would be a wonderful part of the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of WTS. So with the support of the Board of Trustees and the faculty, Clowney in 1979 with remarkable generosity sent his Vice President for Development, Robert G. den Dulk, and his Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bob Strimple, to Escondido, California to establish the new campus. Strimple worked particularly on gathering the new faculty, setting up the curriculum and academic life of the school, and promptly securing accreditation for WSC from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

Especially in constructing the new faculty, Strimple showed his generosity, selflessness, and commitment to excellence. He did not desire to find faculty who agreed with him at every point, but sought faithful, confessional Reformed scholars who would labor together beyond differences to advance the cause of Christ.

By 1982 it was clear that trying to have a single institution with campuses on two coasts was unduly cumbersome administratively. The decision was very amicably made for the western campus to become a fully independent institution with the name Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Strimple became its first president in 1982.

As an extension of his orthodox theology, Strimple was always forward and outward looking. At the tenth anniversary celebration of WSC he articulated this in his address entitled "For All People—One Christ, One Gospel, One Mandate." This passion for carrying the gospel into the world had already been expressed in his inaugural address as the first president of WSC, in which he reflected on the exciting opportunities before a seminary sitting on the Pacific Rim with all the peoples and cultures to which it could minister.

In addition to his critical work as a full-time teacher of systematic theology, as president he continued to bear a heavy administrative load. He not only oversaw the big picture of seminary administration, but also proof-read all communications and publications that went out from the seminary. By 1988 this load had become too heavy, and he gladly returned to teaching and scholarly pursuits as his full-time work at WSC.

As a churchman, he was active both in his local congregation and in the work of the higher courts of the church. His involvement with the OPC was honored by his election as Moderator of the General Assembly at its fiftieth anniversary gathering in 1986. After his move to California, he worked for the founding of an OPC congregation in Escondido.

His first love, however, remained systematic theology. While interested in historical and logical questions, his greatest concern, like Murray's, was to ground theology firmly and clearly on the Scriptures. His lectures showed, in response to liberal and evangelical challenges, how Reformed theology was not the product of a desire for a logical or rational system, but rather was developed out of the careful exegesis of biblical texts.

We can all be thankful that those lectures have been preserved in three CD courses available from Westminster Seminary California. The first course is seventeen lectures on theological anthropology, entitled "God's Created Image." The second course is thirty-nine lectures on Christology, entitled "Christ Our Savior." The third course is forty-nine lectures on soteriology, entitled "Salvation in Christ." These CDs have been provided free of charge to a large number of seminaries around the world, another way in which the Strimples' desire to be missionaries has been fulfilled.

In the best tradition of Machen and Van Til, Strimple was concerned not only to present biblical truth positively, but also to relate the theology of the Bible to some of the contemporary expressions of thought in his time. He taught a course on atheism, tracing its modern forms and attractions, while presenting a clear Christian refutation. He also studied the twists and turns of the modern search for the historical Jesus, following various developments of Gospel criticism and providing a biblical evaluation. This study led to the writing of his book, The Modern Search for the Real Jesus (1995).[2]

Another element of contemporary thought that he studied over many years was the development of modern Roman Catholic theology. His interest in this field of study was first stimulated by courses he took for his doctoral work at the University of Toronto. Those post-Vatican II days were a powerful stimulus to theological reflection and reformulation in the Roman church and colleges. At the University of Toronto he presented a seminar on one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians of the day, Bernard Lonergan, whose 1957 book, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding,[3] was widely discussed. He also studied with the Roman Catholic Leslie Dewart whose 1966 book, The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age,[4] was predictably retitled by conservatives as The Future of Unbelief. Strimple was impressed that these professors and the Roman Catholic graduate students with whom he studied were far from the Tridentine Romanism that most Reformed theologians knew. Rather he encountered a theology much more like the Protestant liberalism against which Westminster had been founded.

Those experiences in Toronto led to decades of study of contemporary Roman Catholicism, including membership in the Catholic Theological Society of America. He also regularly taught an elective course in this subject.

Most helpfully and incisively Strimple summarized the fruit of his extensive study of contemporary Roman Catholicism in an essay, "Roman Catholic Theology Today," published in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, edited by John Armstrong (1994).[5] This essay remains an excellent introduction to the character and foundation of modern Roman Catholic academic thought. It shows the parallel developments in Protestant and Roman Catholic theology among those theologians convinced that they must accommodate Christianity to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking.

Interestingly Strimple's analysis of contemporary Roman Catholicism has been carefully studied by the Roman Catholic scholar William Shea in The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America, (2004).[6] In a section of the book entitled, "Hard Evangelicals and the Apostate Church," Shea recognizes Strimple as "a serious student of contemporary Catholic theology." Shea is remarkably familiar with the Princeton and Westminster tradition, commenting learnedly on Charles Hodge, Loraine Boettner, J. Gresham Machen, and Cornelius Van Til, as well as Strimple.

In 2001 Strimple retired from full-time teaching. In his letter announcing his plans to retire, he wrote: "Alice and I praise God for the life and ministry he has given us together, and for our four believing children and nine [now twelve!] grandchildren. The highlight of that ministry has certainly been these years at Westminster in California, especially those exciting, satisfying, early years seeing a new Reformed seminary for the preparation of men for the gospel ministry established here on the West Coast. How thankful we are for the wonderful faculty, trustees, staff, and students who have made up the very special Westminster California family!"

Strimple remains active in retirement. He continues to give lectures in a variety of courses and faithfully mentors a number of WSC alumni around the world via email. He has been honored by his academic colleagues with a valuable collection of essays entitled The Pattern of Sound Doctrine (2004).[7] He was also honored—in quite an extraordinary way—when anonymous donors, through a one million dollar donation, established the Robert B. Strimple Chair of Systematic Theology in appreciation for all the ways in which he had contributed to the establishment and continuation of WSC.

Robert Strimple has served Christ in remarkable ways, and his friends, colleagues, and students hope that the Lord will spare him for years to come so that he may continue offering wise counsel and encouraging the service of others. His wisdom and passion resound in many of his writings, but an excellent closing example can be found in his concluding words to an essay he wrote on open theism entitled "What Does God Know?" in The Coming Evangelical Crisis (1996):

The Reformers, on the basis of their biblical doctrine of God, presented a biblical doctrine of salvation. A Socinian view of God leads inevitably to a Socinian view of salvation, which is not the good news of salvation by God's free grace—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone—but rather a message of salvation by one's own efforts, a false gospel that is not good news at all. It is the gospel that is at stake in this debate.[8]

Endnotes

[1] Robert B. Strimple, "Our Reformation Heritage," The Bulletin of Westminster Theological Seminary (Spring, 1982): 1.

[2] Robert B. Strimple, The Modern Search for the Real Jesus: An Introductory Survey of the Historical Roots of Gospels Criticism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995).

[3] Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957).

[4] Leslie Dewart, The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966).

[5] Robert B. Strimple, "Roman Catholic Theology Today," in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 84-117.

[6] William M. Shea, The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America (New York: Oxford, 2004), 156. See also 157 and 170.

[7] David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004).

[8] Robert B. Strimple, "What Does God Know?" in John Armstrong, ed., The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel (Chicago: Moody, 1996), 150.

W. Robert Godfrey is a minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America serving as president of Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, October 2010.

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