Get to know our President Dr. Stephen Nichols and faculty members Dr. John Tweeddale, Dr. Keith Mathison, Dr. David Briones, Mr. James Baird, and Mr. Anthony Salangsang as they discuss their college experiences.
Dr. Nichols: Okay, so the first question is a very simple one. We just sang properly a hymn very meaningful for us, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” so let’s just go down through the line. Not necessarily another hymn that is your favorite, doesn’t have to necessarily be your favorite, but a hymn that you find very helpful, meaningful to you. We’ll start with you, Dr. Mathison.
Dr. Mathison: If we could sing “Be Thou my Vision” every week I would be perfectly content with that. So, “Be Thou My Vision.”
Dr. Nichols: I knew you were going to say that.
Prof. Baird: I think my favorite has to be, “All for Jesus.” I think that it captures the scope of our responsibility under His loving Lordship better than any other hymn I can think of.
Prof. Salangsang: The hymn I immediately think of is “Be Still My Soul.” I think as I reflect back on my academic experience at RBC and at Westminster, that hymn was always so precious to be comforted by the presence of God. And I recently thought of that hymn after surveying the book of Ezekiel and how comforting it is that God’s presence is with us in Christ. That hymn is very dear to me.
Dr. Tweeddale: I’m going to give a hymn and a Psalm. Am I allowed to do that?
Dr. Nichols: According to Paul, we should add a spiritual song to the mix.
Dr. Tweeddale: Right, well, Psalm 24 to the remarkable tune Saint Georgia’s Edinburgh is a Psalm that you probably don’t know but should. And it’s often sung in Scottish Covenanters circles after the Lord’s Supper, and it’s a regal Psalm. It pictures what it’s like to behold the majesty of Christ, and then that leads me to my second hymn, which is, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear.” It’s a hymn I want to be sung at my funeral.
Dr. Nichols: Which is hopefully a way off, Dr. Tweeddale. We hope so.
Dr. Briones: Yeah, let’s hope so. My favorite hymn is, “Oh, Sacred Head Now Wounded,” because it just captures the essence of the gospel and the beauty of Christ.
Dr. Nichols: I normally say, “Come Thou Fount,” but for some reason, I’m thinking, “How Firm a Foundation,” right now. So, I’ll say, “How Firm a Foundation.”
I’d like you all to recall a moment from when you were a college student. Whether it is a moment that gives us insight into you as a person, could be humorous, or whether it was a moment that was pivotal in your formation and development. Can be any of those, but a moment from your own college experience.
Dr. Mathison: There are a lot. If I don’t say meeting my wife, I’m going be in trouble, so meeting my wife at college was significant. My college experience was divided. The first half of my college experience was at a community college getting general credits. Then I transferred to Houston Baptist University, which I naively thought was going to be a Christian college, but at that time, the faculty was almost universally very, very left-winged, theologically liberal. And so, I think that impacted me at the time. It was miserable, but I think, you know, God used it for His purposes and taught me a lot of things through it. But going through it day-by-day, coming into class every day where it seemed like the sole purpose of the professors was to convince you that everything in Scripture was a fairytale. It was not pleasant to walk through, but it opened my eyes to some things and prepared me for some things, and I’m glad you don’t have to experience that at RBC. But, yes, in college one of the things that stands out the most to me was that hardcore, denial of Scripture that I experienced in college.
Prof. Baird: So, I can think of two things in particular. One is the first time that my now wife and I ever spent a significant majority of time together. We both stayed at school over Easter break and I didn’t have a car and the cafeteria was closed, so I had to find some way to get some food. And she was the only person I knew who had a car, so we drove down the mountain –I went to Covenant College, which is a college that is upon a mountain– so we went down the mountain together. We were going to the grocery store, and I put something in the buggy and she had waited for me to turn my head and she’d take it out, and say, “You can’t eat that.” So, I now know that spray cheese is bad for you because of Georgia, so that was a very significant moment in my college career; didn’t know that before.
More significantly, I remember one time a local pastor came in and talked about his struggle with depression, how that impacted his ministry and a conversation that he had with his daughter, who he realized had the same struggle that he did. He was trying to help her see that just because she struggled with depression didn’t mean she wouldn’t serve a valuable purpose in God’s Kingdom. And so, what he did was he brought two cups into her bedroom and one was a wine glass and one was a styrofoam cup, and he picked up the styrofoam cup and he threw it at the wall and she laughed, she was about 9, I think, at the time. Then he picked up the wine glass and reeled back to throw it at the wall, and she was like, “No, Dad! No, don’t do it! Don’t do it!” And he said, “Why not?” And she said, “Well, it’ll break.” And he said, “That’s right, it will break. It’s fragile, but you know, they hold the same amount of water.” And that had a huge impact on me; that no matter what I’m going through personally, that I’m still useful. I’m still useful as any other participant in God’s Kingdom, and that He uses all of us in our uniqueness to accomplish His purpose.
Prof. Salangsang: Well, it’s an interesting providence to be asked this question today, because my wife, Noelle, sitting in the back, it’s actually six years today that we started dating, when our dating relationship began. I met her in college and I’ll mention two things that formed me into the person I am today through college. Most importantly, it was my freshman year of college that the Lord called me to Himself through hearing the preaching of the Word. It was my freshman year, where meeting a friend at a college that I was studying at in California and through that friendship, he invited me to hear the gospel, to hear the preaching of the Word. And through that friendship, the Lord called me to Himself through hearing preaching in the book of Acts, and there I began being discipled. And at that same congregation is where I met Noelle, and that’s when our friendship began and our dating relationship began. And I’m deeply grateful for her friendship and what began there. We found Reformed theology together after two years at a liberal arts college; we found RBC and I’m very grateful for the friendship Noelle and I had, and our dating relationship to decide together to transfer across country and come to RBC. And I’m grateful, especially, for RBC. Especially, for these dear professors here who formed me. And another theme that I value and I’m deeply grateful for is their friendship, even when I was a student. It is so dear, as I reflect back, their friendship, as professor to student, inside the classroom and outside the classroom. And I’m so grateful for the culture of friendship here at RBC that formed me and formed my wife, Noelle, and that is the one thing that I really remember. It’s a common experience at RBC, finding deep friendships with peers and professors; that’s formed me to know God, to know how to live with theological wisdom, how to love my neighbor, and how to love my wife. And so, that is one thing.
Dr. Tweeddale: So, the summer of 1998, I was going to be transferring to William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as a newly minted, licensed-to-preach Baptist. They will, oh boy, they will ordain the boy behind the plow. And 1998 was a significant moment for me, I had sensed a call to gospel ministry, I had read the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “The necessity is laid upon me. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” And few words have ever had a more important impact on my life. It’s that time, as well, I also watched for the first time R.C.’s teaching series, “Hath God Said?” and it gave me a love and a passion for Scripture. I also went to a conference in Pensacola, Florida, at a PCA church, where I heard a Welshman by the name of Derek Thomas preach on the book of Job. So, I went my sophomore year to William Carey in 1998, with a passion for the Word of God, for Reformed theology, and for preaching. And so, you can imagine my joy when a backwoods Baptist Church in Mississippi asked if I wanted to come and lead a revival sermon series at their church, because, you know, in backwoods Baptist settings you can actually put a date on when revival is coming to town. And so, they asked me if I wanted to do it, and, of course, I was reading to preach. And so, they asked me if I would be willing to come up with a blurb for the bulletin and everything, and so I gladly did it. And I remember having this nice bulletin laid out, you know, “Come to a revival service on this day with John Tweeddale from William Carrey College.” And so excited, I get to the church, and low-and-behold, the bulletin is spread out and I see, “Come and hear, backwoods Baptist Church, John W. Tweeddale to a revile service.” And it would ever cement in my mind, not only the importance of preaching for revival, but the importance of editing for the task of ministry, and so that event encapsulates my life as a preacher and my life as an editor.
Dr. Briones: That was awesome. My undergrad was mainly, primarily humiliating. We talk about the humiliation-exaltation pattern of the Christian life, you’ve heard me say this. It’s characteristic for the lives of those who are studying in academic context. So, I skateboarded my life away as a non-Christian, and I graduated high school with a 2.3 GPA. And then I found out after becoming a Christian that you could actually study the Bible, and so, I got really excited because it was the only thing I ever wanted to study, pretty sure. And I found out that there was a school down the way that Chuck Smith went to; I don’t know if you are familiar, for those of you who aren’t from California, it’s dominated by Calvary Chapels. Chuck Smith is the founder and they just go verse by verse, and I appreciated that ministry. And so, I found out there was a Calvary Chapel Bible college nearby; I went there for a semester. Then, during that time there was a little moment of significance where I was under the Word of God and listening to this person teach me, and he just treasured the word. And I read James 3:1 shortly thereafter, “Let not many of you become teachers, for you will be held to a stricter judgment.” And it was at that moment I knew I wanted to study God’s Word, I wanted to do as much study as possible, and to teach God’s people. Then I went over to the Pentecostal Bible college where Chuck Smith attended; I didn’t know it was Pentecostal until I moved in. Saw lots of Pentecostal books in the library, and said, “Is this a Pentecostal school?” The librarian said, “Yes, it is.” I said, “Oh, interesting.” Didn’t know much, but coming in, I had my first class and had a ten-page paper due; I decided to start writing it the day before. Maybe you’ve had this experience, it doesn’t work out very well. I was stressed out, time-management skills were terrible, my wife reprimanded me. And from that time forward, I had this work ethic that I could say, maybe, given by the grace of God, but I also didn’t want to disappoint my then girlfriend at the time, that I wanted to marry, and now my wife. And during the moment of stress, during that ten-page paper when I was stayed up all night long writing it, I realized that I couldn’t live this way. And it really generated within me a work ethic, and one that wanted to glorify God even in the little matters. And for me, that sort of inflamed me to work ahead and to be prepared, and it ultimately shaped me. So, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have humiliating moments even with that kind of work ethic; I certainly did, I can share several others.
But one last thing that was really significant for me was that this professor at this school told me something, he said, “If you want to be a college professor then you really have to know college students, and the best way to do that is to be in the life of the Church.” And I remember taking that advice at seminary, and I was a college pastor and it was fantastic. To do life with college students helps you to understand college students in the classroom and how to communicate God’s Word to people who have issues just like you do. That was one significant moment in my college career.
Dr. Nichols: I met my wife in college, as well, so certainly need to start there. I loved college, I was in a Bible college. I loved it, I loved everything about it; I loved the curriculum, I loved that I was able to study these things. But the thing that I come back to is, there was a particular professor, I think it was my junior year, I was thinking about different seminaries and I was thinking about maybe Trinity Evangelical Divinity School out in Deerfield, Illinois. And we had a professor on the faculty who had done his doctorate of Missiology at TEDS and I didn’t have him for anything. He was a missions major and I was not a missions major, but I saw him. I went up, made an appointment in his office, and said, “I’d love to talk with you about TEDS sometime, because I might be interested in going there.” And nice meeting together and then he said, “Let’s get together for lunch.” and I said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.” You know, if a faculty member is reaching out, I’m going to take advantage of that. So, we ended up having lunch every week the rest of my junior year and all through my senior year; never had him for a single class and probably of all the faculty that I had there, he had the most impact on me. And every Wednesday, we’d just meet for lunch and I’d enjoy that time with him so, and then kept up with him through seminary. So, that was a very impactful moment.
There was one other, I’ll tell you this. So, don’t do as I do. There was a Wycliffe bust in the library. Beautiful, wooden Wycliffe bust in our library, and my roommate and I thought that it was under-appreciated in its space in the library and that it should spend the weekend in our dorm room. So, it did.
Alright, the next question is not your favorite biblical book. How can you pick a favorite biblical book? But what’s a biblical book you find yourself just liking to spend time in? So, we’ll go down the line again.
Dr. Mathison: Most recently, Proverbs.
Prof. Baird: I’d have to say Colossians. I think it comes out so clearly how Paul connects his doctrine of Christ to the ethic of the Christian life and heavenly-mindedness. So, Colossians.
Prof. Salangsang: Well, in recently teaching the prophets, one book right now that I happen to just be dwelling in and meditating in is Obadiah. Obadiah especially because of just that prophetic interpretation of that historical moment of exile and how to hope amidst judgment. And how it ends with the Kingdom of God, and what it means that Yahweh reigns in grace. And so, I think Obadiah is a book right now that’s dear to my heart.
Dr. Tweeddale: I’d say the Gospel of John and it’s portrait of the glory of Christ.
Dr. Briones: That’s so hard. I was about to say Philemon simply because people would be like, “What? Is there anything good in Philemon?” Philemon, yeah, I would probably say that’s a good one, but it’s not one that I continually go back to. The Psalms, Psalm 119 is one and Psalm 32. Just the Psalms in general.
Dr. Nichols: I’ll take the Psalms, too. I’ll go back to the Psalms again and again.
I will reference a line from that Jonathan Edwards’ Spider Letter, written October 31st, 1722. And as Edwards trying to get this piece for publication, “The Flying Spider,” in New England, he’s got a line at the back. He’s drawing from his scientific corollaries about the “Flying Spider,” and one of the corollaries is, “The exuberant goodness of the Creator in providing recreation for all of his creatures, even for his insects.” And that line, “The exuberant goodness of God,” is a line that I think meant a lot to Edwards, as he lived his life. How do you, in times of pressure, challenge, disappointment, and failure maintain some sort of glimpse and hold on the exuberant goodness of God in your life?
Dr. Mathison: The time that stands out most to me, a time of pressure, was five years ago when my wife was going through the cancer treatments, and the way we maintained that exuberance and trust in Christ was reading the Scriptures together, praying together, just reminding ourselves that this is what we believe, this is who God is, and he has brought this providence into our life; we don’t know what the outcome will be, but we have to trust him. So, it’s staying in Scriptures, staying in prayer, those things. If you haven’t suffered, you will. You know, we will all go through suffering, so we have to be preparing for it ahead of time, too, don’t let it surprise you and sneak up on you. And there was an element of surprise with that, given her age at the time she was diagnosed. Just staying in prayer, staying in the presence of God, it really drew us closer together because it’s something, you know; she’s the one who dealt with all the physical pain but it has concentric circles, ripple effects, in a family. And anybody who’s had family members dealing with that knows that, you know. I have to pick responsibilities that she can’t do anymore, and the kids have to do things in different ways, and so that’s tricky. But it’s just deliberately keeping your eyes focused on Christ, and staying in the Word, and staying in prayer.
Prof. Baird: Yeah, I’d definitely say everything that Dr. Mathison said, staying in prayer, staying in the Word, staying engaged in the local Church. Also, for myself, I try to take the time –cause I tend to try and cram as much as I can into a day to do as much as I can, and be productive– but to find intentional space for rest. Intentional space for reflecting on the small things, making sure I enjoy the rest that the Lord gives me at night and that I don’t cut that blessing short by watching too much Netflix. Or make sure I go for walks, or enjoy dinner with friends or with my wife, and really, in a sense, trying to enjoy the presence of God in all the small things; not taking those for granted or trying to keep myself constantly entertained with media, but pausing and enjoying how God expresses Himself in daily life.
Prof. Salangsang: Well, in times of chaos and stress, the means of grace have always been a central: word, sacrament, prayer, fellowship, and the Church. And as I think back, just in the recent years of chaos and stress, and, especially, uncertainty, one way I’ve been refreshed in those times is, as suffering causes us to turn in on ourselves and to be alone and to, perhaps, be so alone, despair and forget God, forget his Word and forget His grace. But it’s beautiful how in marriage or in friendships outside of marriage, how good friends can bring us outside of ourselves in times of chaos and suffering. So, not being alone, having those friends who you can call on to be with you face-to-face, to listen, and to speak to you. And so, friendship has been something that has helped me appreciate the exuberant goodness of God, and how God gives people in our lives, and in His providence, to be near us. Whether it’s a roommate or whether it’s a fellow member in the Church, whether young or old, it’s wonderful to consider the people who in God’s sweet providence He has placed around you for those times of stress and chaos and uncertainty. And so, learning to rely and to cast myself on others in their friendship has been a constant refreshment in suffering.
Dr. Tweeddale: Oh man, I think one thing that you have to remember is not to be surprised by suffering. I’ve always been a fairly chipper person, fairly optimistic person, and a fairly happy person. The Lord’s given me a remarkable life and I think for many years, especially as a young man, I thought life is happy and it’s occasionally punctuated by sorrow. And I think that perspective was not always helpful because so many people in the Church endured tremendous suffering. And it is, I think, the more you grow as a Christian and the more you become aware of sin both in your own heart and in the life of the Church, you recognize that suffering is actually a means that God uses to further sanctification in your own life. It’s important to remember that Romans 8:28 doesn’t say that “all things are good,” but that “all things work together for good.” And that good is conformity to Christ. So, suffering presents a refining of the Christian and the Lord uses suffering to conform you more and more into the image of Jesus. So, the Christian is actually characterized by suffering and life is punctuated by resurrection hope, so that Peter can actually say to us, as Christians, and these are to suffering Christians who have been dispersed all throughout the region, “We’ve been born again to a living hope through the resurrection so that as Christian we do not have an empty hope in a dead Savior but we have an active and living hope in a living Savior.” And so, that as we face suffering, as we let the Savior down, as we get surprised by disappointment, we don’t have to be in despair, we don’t have to “catastrophize.” It’s a great word that James introduced to me. As Christians, we don’t “catastrophize” but we increase in hope as we look to the resurrection that gives us fixed hope amidst immense pain, and realize that suffering is the means that God uses to conform us into the image of His Son.
Dr. Briones: I can agree with everything that’s been said. I’d like to camp out a little bit more on the idea of suffering in Scripture. 1 Thessalonians is really interesting how it switches the order that is found –faith, hope, and love– in 1 Corinthians 13, but in 1 Thessalonians 1 it says faith, love, then hope, because it’s the Church that is encountering much suffering, and it’s the hope of waiting for the appearing of Jesus Christ to come from heaven and to save His elect and to administer judgment upon those who have oppressed them. And so, suffering is, first, Philippians 1:29, a gift has been granted to you not only to believe but to suffer. And it’s a gift because it draws you near to the Savior, and what’s beautiful, just to amplify what Anthony was saying, the idea that suffering can deepen our union and communion with Christ, Philippians 3, but it can also deepen our union and communion with one another. And I think of 2 Corinthians 1 where comfort comes from the God of all comfort who comforts us with the comfort we’ve received. And so, you’re sharing this comfort in the midst of suffering, and that’s why I think that when you’re suffering the best thing to do is let brothers and sisters know that you’re suffering; so that they can be mediators of God’s comfort to you when you can find no comfort in your life, but you know that it’s there. God has given you people as gifts to be present and to give you something that you need for ultimate salvation, to make it to the end, to persevere – it’s an ordained means that God has established.
Dr. Nichols: I appreciate all these answers, and I think in terms of whether it’s suffering or just your sort of caught up in that swirl of business, and you almost feel like you sort of don’t have that ground, you know, beneath you; when it’s just one thing, and the next thing, and anxiety. So, for me it’s perspective. I have those sort of go-to texts, historical texts, I know the page in the Confessions, I know the page in A History of the Work of Redemption, I know that paragraph; I just like to go back there. It’s sort of helpful perspective for me and then I’m back to the beloved Psalms. And it’s the go-to Psalms and it’s these texts. And you know, even for me, it’s the physical, so it’s the particular Psalms that I like to use, and the particular texture of the page, it’s the particular copy of Confessions. There’s something about that for me that just helps me sort of pull-out from my moment and get perspective. Be helped, encouraged, ultimately, by those who have gone before, our teachers, but ultimately by the Word of God, and that is our comfort and our hope and our anchor.
I’d like to thank you all, I really would.
Dr. Tweeddale: Can I add one thing to that?
Dr. Nichols: Yes.
Dr. Tweeddale: Thank you, it’s a great reminder to kind of remember the great passages that you’ve read. And it’s a great, also, reminder to do hymns. Hymns serve in that same way.
Dr. Nichols: Hymns, that exact same thing. Yeah, there are certain hymns that you find yourself going back to. Even the tune, let alone the lyrics. And even Saint Georgia’s Edinburgh. Thank you, I hope this was helpful for you. Learn a little something about the person behind the lectern. But also, I was encouraged by this and I hope as you listened to this, you found some things that are encouraging for you. I want to close us in prayer and then we’re dismissed.
Transcripts are lightly edited.