‘Pleading for a Reformation Vision’ – A Review by Roy Middleton
A review by Roy Middleton of Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson (1897-1982).1
William Childs Robinson was a minister of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. This was the Church formed in 1861 by men like J H Thornwell and R L Dabney. He was minister in Gettysburg for six years until 1926, when he was appointed Professor of Church History and Polity at Columbia Theological Seminary. Robinson began his teaching career at the same time as the Seminary moved from Columbia in South Carolina to Decatur in Georgia.2
During his career he saw his beloved Southern Presbyterian Church move toward a more liberal theological position. This led to a major secession in 1973 that resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America. The secession was led by many of Robinson’s former students. David B Calhoun observes that, during his career, Robinson gave himself to preserving the old Calvinism of the Church’s founding-fathers; he writes, ‘His voice was heard in seminary classrooms, in pulpits across the South and beyond, and in the courts of the Southern Presbyterian Church, “pleading for a Reformation vision” based on faithfulness to Scripture’ (p xix).
The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first is a 126-page biography of Robinson by Dr Calhoun; the remainder of the book contains selections from Robinson’s extended body of writings. Calhoun ably sketches Robinson’s career – his childhood, his preparation for the ministry at old Columbia and then at Princeton under B B Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Gresham Machen. At Princeton he was particularly impressed by Warfield’s affirmation of the deity of Christ. Calhoun then outlines his 40-year career as a seminary professor, when he taught almost 1500 students.
In 1938 the Southern Presbyterian Church debated confessional revision. A lengthy report of proposed changes was drawn up; Robinson regarded it as liberal and rationalistic in its theology and one that would move the Church away from its historic Calvinism. His colleague, James B Green, defended the changes. For an entire year Robinson and Green, living side by side on the campus and teaching across the hall from one another, debated the issues in the journals and papers of the Church. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the President of the Seminary then called on Robinson to desist from writing articles opposing his next-door neighbour. Robinson replied that he had taken an ordination vow to defend the Westminster Confession of Faith and he would not desist from honouring his commitment.
As the Southern Church descended into modernism, Robinson was baited by the liberal students. Calhoun notes, ‘Occasionally, a student was bold enough to ask Dr Robinson if he thought the Westminster Standards were perfect. He would reply, “No, but their exposition of the faith is better than yours, and you can improve yours by studying theirs”‘ (p 70).
Calhoun, as a biographer and historian, has the ability not only to detail the historical account but at the same time to bring out what is heart-warming and edifying. For example, Robinson’s father, a Southern Presbyterian elder, had been told by his doctor that, to prolong his life, his right leg would need to be amputated. When the doctor left the room, the father and son, who was now a minister, repeated together Psalm 23. ‘As we did so,’ Robinson later wrote, ‘the voice of the minister shook, but the voice of the father never quavered’ (p 4). The account given by Calhoun of the conversion of Manford Gutzke, one of Robinson’s colleagues on the faculty of Columbia Seminary, will undoubtedly stir the heart (pp 44-47).
Robinson’s 40-year career of teaching and writing as a seminary professor means that much of Calhoun’s account is inevitably taken up with summarising his extensive writings. To readers who love reading Reformed theology and its practical application to the Christian life, these chapters are both interesting and useful. In a declining church it is, sadly, not unusual for children brought up in godly homes to forsake the faith of their parents. This seems to have happened to Robinson’s two sons. When one of his students remarked on their many academic accomplishments, Robinson quietly and sadly replied, ‘Pray for my boys’.
The second section of the book contains 23 short selections from Robinson’s writings. It is impossible in a short review even to outline their contents, though it is clear from these writings that Robinson was called upon to defend the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ3 and to proclaim in a backsliding church the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrine of justification.
It may be of interest to our readers that Robinson was one of the speakers at the Calvinistic Congress held in Edinburgh in July 1938 when he gave a paper on ‘The Law of God: the Touchstone of a Calvinistic Ethics’. Later in the year Robinson delivered in Edinburgh a series of lectures on ‘The Word of the Cross’ that were subsequently published, with an introduction by Principal John Macleod.4 Robinson stayed with Dr Macleod during his stay in Edinburgh and spoke of the ‘time-honoured Scottish piety . . . of morning and evening worship, of thanks after, as before meals’.
He also remembered the account Dr Macleod had given him of his wife’s faith as she came to die. She spoke of herself ‘as sinful all through, waiting the touch of the Great Physician’. Robinson in recounting this added, ‘Blessed be God, the same precious Saviour who convicts us of sin, says, “Son, Daughter, be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee”‘(p 35). When Robinson later reviewed Macleod’s major work, Scottish Theology, in the Westminster Theological Journal he wrote, ‘Dr Macleod is writing as a lover who has clothed the story of Scottish theology in the vestments of romance and the majesty of truth’.5
Just before his death, Robinson was in an infirmary and was visited by one of his former students. As his visitor was about to leave, Robinson said, ‘Wait, I want to tell you what I understand by the meaning of justification’. The student said, ‘I listened as he explained what he had taught in his classes at the Seminary. He asked if that is what I understood to be the meaning of the doctrine. I refrained from saying, “Yes sir, that is exactly what I learned in your class”. I simply said. “Yes sir, that is exactly what I understood it to be”. He leaned back on his pillow and with a smile said, “Good. That is what I am dying on”‘ (p xvi).
It seems to this reviewer to be an oversight that Calhoun does not explain why Robinson did not leave the Southern Church in 1973 along with so many of his former students. It is also a pity that the volume does not have an index or a detailed bibliography of Robinson’s writings. If the volume is reprinted this should be corrected. It goes without saying that the book is produced to the usual high standards of the Banner of Truth.
The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson
A review by Roy Middleton of Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson (1897-1982).1 William Childs Robinson was a minister of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. This was the Church formed in 1861 by men like J H Thornwell and R L Dabney. He was […]
- For accounts of the history of old Columbia Seminary and its professors see, David B. Calhoun, Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927) (Banner of Truth Trust, 2012); William Childs Robinson, Columbia Theological Seminary and the Southern Presbyterian Church, Decatur, 1931. The latter book is the substance of Robinson’s Harvard thesis in partial fulfilment of his doctorate.
- See his fine volume, Our Lord: An Affirmation of the Deity of Christ (Eerdmans, 1949).
- William Childs Robinson, The Word of the Cross (Sovereign Grace Union, 1940).
- Westminster Theological Journal, vol VII:1 November 1944, p 48.
From the Free Presbyterian Magazine for November 2014, with permission.
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