The “Shepherd Case”
Some time ago I reported on the dismissal, without prejudice, of Professor N. Shepherd from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. His dismissal apparently was involved with his position on justification and on the covenant. Comments have been appearing in some Reformed periodicals—comments both pro andcon. Several letters to the editor have appeared in theBanner. One writes in the Feb. 8, 1982 issue:
. . .Shepherd is not only an outstanding and well-versed theologian, as your editorial so well indicated, but also a loving and humble Christian gentleman, as has been illustrated in his conduct before the board and elsewhere these past six years. Moreover, he is one of the ablest teachers in theology today, having an ability to impart to his students both an understanding of, and his own enthusiasm for, Reformed Truth. My greatest grief is that future classes at Westminster are by his recent dismissal robbed of his teaching, teaching that built so solidly on that of such predecessors as Murray and Van Til.
J. Faber writes in the Canadian Reformed magazine,Clarion, Jan. 29, 1982, about the same subject, and in a series of articles, criticizes the dismissal in no uncertain terms. His support goes to Prof. Shepherd. Among many other things, he writes:
. . .Professor Norman Shepherd is well-known in the Canadian Reformed Churches. As a member of the Committee on Ecumenicity and inter-Church Relations of the OPC he attended some sessions of our General Synod in Orangeville, 1968, the same Synod that decided to establish the Theological College, now located in Hamilton. In November, 1980 he was the first official delegate of the OPC to visit one of our synods. He was well received at the Synod of Smithville. . . , and during his stay in Hamilton he presented a lecture of our College community. His knowledge of the Dutch language—he even speaks it fluently—gives him an easy access within the circles of our immigrant churches. But more important than ethnic pride is our recognition of a fine scholar who has acquainted himself with the Reformed theology of the Europeon continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and who knows the confessional tradition in which the Heidelberg Catechism has a dominant place. . . .
Apart from a single expression—is “state of justification” not too static?—I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Shepherd’s covenantal approach. Here I see him in line with Dr. Klaas Schilder, and, what means more, in line with the Form of Baptism that the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands received from the Heidelberg theologians in the Palatinate. . . .
. . .The Reformed confessor who listens to Shepherd’s tapes about Life in Covenant with God recognizes his form of Baptism in the way in which the speaker describes the Covenant as a relation between God and man, a relation of union and communion, a relation comparable to that of husband and wife with mutually binding ties of love and faithfulness. The Covenant is a relation with a promise and with a demand. I was filled with gratitude and even thrilled when I heard how Prof. Shepherd makes an eloquent plea for parental Christian schools based on the doctrine of the Covenant of God with us and our children. Westminster Theological Seminary cannot fulfill its historic function without such Reformed teaching. It is needed, more than ever, in the Presbyterian sector of America, that is influenced by a broad evangelicalism of Baptistic brand. The danger is that now the Reformed doctrine of the Covenant will no longer be heard. Where was covenantal teaching in the synodical churches in The Netherlands after Dr. Klaas Schilder and others had been silenced?. . . .
And again from the Banner quoted above, W. Robert Godfrey, professor of church history at Westminster, writes from an opposite viewpoint:
As a minister in the C.R.C. and a faculty member at Westminster. . .since 1974, I read your editorial with considerable interest. I wish to respond to some aspects of your presentation and to clarify some of the facts of the case.
First, the discussions with Mr. Shepherd did not begin because he had said “that saving faith is never without the works of obedience.” That is the position of everyone in the discussion as far as I know. The discussion with Mr. Shepherd began because in 1975 he taught in class that works along with faith were the instrument of justification. Mr. Shepherd later said that he regretted making the statement. But the discussion continued because several faculty members believed that while Mr. Shepherd had changed some of his original expressions, the same theological error was still present in some of his other writings and statements.
Second, while discussions have also centered on Mr. Shepherd’s view of the covenant, I do not see that these discussions have resulted from differences between Reformed confessional theology in Britain and on the Continent. Except on the issue of the Sabbath, I do not see that the Westminster Confession represents “restricted covenant theology” in comparison with continental theology.
Third, it is surely an exaggeration to say that the PCA dominates the Westminster Board of Trustees. At the time of the vote on Mr. Shepherd’s dismissal, six out of twenty-four members of the Board were PCA. Seven members were OPC and six were CRC. Mr. Shepherd has been opposed by CRC, OPC, RCA, Canadian Presbyterian, and other members as well as by PCA members of the Board.
Our struggle for orthodoxy at Westminster has been “tiresome,” and some may feel “fruitless.” But the struggle for orthodoxy is an obligation the Lord lays on His people. Our country is full of dead institutions and churches that have given up the struggle. I do not believe that Westminster has rejected the insights of the continental Reformed tradition or has narrowed its position in its struggle. It has only tried to be responsible in preparing men for the gospel ministry. Pray for us.
So two viewpoints are expressed concerning the decision to release Prof. N. Shepherd. Strong feelings are involved. It will be worth following the developments in this case
One of our ministers from the West sent a magazine,Pulpit Helps, April, 1982, with some interesting comments on reasons why many children (and adults) find it increasingly difficult to listen to a sermon. This writer places much of the blame on television. Consider for yourself the accuracy of the statements:
. . .Pity the poor pastor who has to try to convey the Word of God in mere words and who has to wean the flock from milk before being able to present the “strong meat.” On TV each night the world’s “strong meat” is readily accessible in just about any strength one cares for! And it is all served up in a way that requires no hard work or diligent study to comprehend. Just sit and watch. It isn’t surprising that the sermon comes off second best in comparison with what Johnny has just seen on TV.
A third point Postman makes is that television commercials are the modern equivalent of the ancient morality play. By the time an American child
years old he will have seen approximately 1 million commercials, easily making these the most numerous learning experiences he has. And, says Postman, TV commercials are about products “only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales.” Commercials, according to this media expert, are really miniature parables in which the problem is stated in the first few seconds, resolved in the middle segment, and concluded with a moral in which the actor(s) fade ecstatically from the screen. Ostensibly a commercial may be selling mouthwash, but in reality it is selling acceptability to the opposite sex. Likewise, automobile and motorcycle commercials are actually selling freedom and independence. And these commercials teach children three interesting things, says Postman: (1) All problems can be solved; (2) all problems can be solved quickly; (3) all problems can be solved quickly by means of some technology.
Little wonder Johnny (or his parents) becomes disenchanted with the pastor who can’t wrap up a problem, prescribe the proper pill or machine or prayer that will solve it quickly, and exit smiling all in 28 seconds. The people on TV do it all the time; why can’t the pastor? Why does he have to spend 30 boring minutes talking about long-term solutions to life’s problems—solutions that require something more than technological answers?. . .
So if Johnny can’t seem to listen to the sermon (or if Johnny’s father and mother have the same symptoms) a prime cause could’ be no farther away than the beautiful color TV set in their living room.
And in another article on a similar subject, found in thePresbyterian Journal, March 3, 1982, other impressive claims are made against television:
My concern about what is happening in our country has led me to the area of television. Why television? Because it is the most pervasive and persuasive medium we have. At times it is larger than life. It is the only true national medium.
Network television is the greatest educator we have. It tells us what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable, whom to believe and not to believe, whom to trust and not trust, and whom we should desire to emulate. In a recent interview most teenage boys said they wanted to be like Burt Reynolds! The medium sold them.
We speak of educational television as if it is a separate channel. Not only is PBS educational television, but so are CBS, NBC, and ABC. All television is educational. That being true, what is it teaching?
It is teaching that adultery is an acceptable and approved lifestyle. It is teaching that violence is a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals or to resolve conflict. It is teaching that profanity is the language of the respectable. But these are only surface messages. The real message is deeper.
It is teaching that hardly anyone goes to church, that very few people in our society are Christian or live by Christian principles. How? By simply censoring out Christian characters, Christian values and Christian culture from the programs. It is teaching that people who claim to be Christian are hypocrites, cheats, liars, or the like. It does that by characterization.
The article continues by giving many concrete examples of the above. It points out further the godlessness evident in the actors and actresses on TV. And it continues by advocating a certain boycott in connection with the worst of the offenders. All of this does give pause for thought. What are we, and our children, being taught daily? How are our own attitudes and morals fashioned by what is shown on TV? And, does it interfere with our religious duties and responsibilities? The answers are troubling indeed.