John Robbins Remembered

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.  Jude 1:3

Someone wrote after John’s passing last month that he had “never before met a man who personified the spirit of John Knox of whom it was said that “he neither feared nor flattered any flesh.’” I can’t think of a better description of John.  Of course this didn’t endear him with many in the effete and anemic mainstream of modern Presbyterianism.  Men who frankly like to think of themselves as scholars and intellectuals, but in reality are just fellow sinners who just happen to have a greater proclivity to having their ears tickled.  Men like the “Rev Dr” Rowland Ward who said on the Warfield list a few years back:

Let’s leave Robbins and his Trinity Foundation to themselves. They do us no good, not because they never say anything right, but because they are loveless, sectarian and separatist in approach.

Not to pick on the Reverend Doctor, but his assessment of John and the work of the Foundation is all too typical, even if completely unfounded and uninformed.  Just a few days ago Vern Crisler attacked a contributor on the Greenbaggins blog saying, “you appear to be trying to fill the mantle left by John Robbins, another man given to making mean-spirited comments about other godly men in the Faith.” Of course, Crisler cites no examples of John making any such comments against any “godly men in the Faith,” but insinuating that he has will more than satisfy most of the men on that blog.   After all, Crisler’s slur garnered no warning from any of the moderators charged with policing blog contributors, yet the man to whom his attack was addressed is about to get the proverbial left foot of fellowship out the door for being too direct in his criticism of Vantilian and nonsense monger, John Frame.

There is no doubt John made some enemies over the years, not least of which with those well connected professional religious types who have a vested interest in keeping the myth of Cornelius Van Til alive.  Which brings up an interesting point about John that I have always admired, he never seemed impressed by titles or pedigrees even though he had his Masters degree at the age of 21 and was only 24 when he earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and Political Theory from Johns Hopkins and could have easily run rings around a team of Reverend Doctors had he wanted to waste his time. Sadly for those of us who loved and appreciated John, wasting time wasn’t something he could afford, and, thankfully, was something he rarely seemed to do. OK, he did waste some time years ago running rings around Vern Crisler, which perhaps explains why Crisler is still smarting.

I will say, and even before his diagnosis with cancer, you could tell that time was a precious commodity to John. This might explain the no-nonsense approach he took with some of his critics over the years and there were many.  It might also explain why rather than engage some of his critics he would on occasion respond by simply saying, “Read Clark.”  While there are those who took some of his remarks as being harsh or simply “loveless,” I was always impressed by how economical he was at cutting right to the heart of an argument and the sheer precision by which he could expose error.  Something that might take someone a page or two to reach, if at all,  John could sum up in a sentence or two.  Maybe it’s just the New Yorker in me, but I have always preferred someone who just “tells it like it is.”  Sugarcoating, while perhaps pleasing to the ears and sensitive palates of some, takes too much time.

Recently, I went back and combed through the archive of the old “Clark” list on Yahoo groups from back in January 1999, shortly after the list was started. The list was supposed to be for the purposed of discussing the work of Gordon Clark, but immediately became a podium for Clark’s most vocal, annoying, and, not surprising, Vantilian critics. Rereading some of those exchanges again I was struck by how dispassionate John was in answering some of the most debased and vitriolic personal attacks against him along with more general baseless attacks against the Scripturalism of Gordon Clark. Here are just a couple of his replies from that period that I think exemplifies the succinctness of his approach and style :

Its seems to me the entire debate over contingent and necessary truths in the context of Christian theology hinges on the assumption that we know what God’s “nature” is, and that it does not include his will. But there is no Scriptural support for such an assumption. Because God is immutable, all truths are necessary, from truths of logic to truths of astronomy or botany. This is the only possible world. All truths are also contingent, that is, they all depend on God’s will. God’s will, his sovereign power, is his nature. Those who persist in using the word “nature” in some undefined sense contribute nothing useful to the argument. The problem in philosophy is a problem manufactured by philosophers who do not pay sufficient attention to the Biblical data.
Robbins

Suppose I take a doorknob to be before me and reach for it. Does my action show that I must presuppose the reliability of my sense perception? Show me the argument. Even assuming, arguendo, that I have such a presupposition of the reliability of sense perception, I, that is my presupposition, might very well be mistaken.

A scientist performs an experiment because he has a theory (that there is a doorknob and it will open a door). Therefore, we must conclude, according to your argument, that his theory is true or reliable. This is simply a non sequitur. Even if the scientist were to get the results his theory predicted, it would not show his theory to be true. Your view seems to be nothing but vulgar pragmatism. If that is the transcendental argument, it is worthless.
Robbins

For those who may have read and are familiar with Clark’s The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, the second quote nicely encapsulates Clark’s entire argument against the misguided belief that science is a cognitive enterprise along with the problem of induction in just a few words.  John had a gift for packing a lot into a little space. Of course pointing out that the position of his (Vantilian) opponent was “nothing but vulgar pragmatism” probably didn’t win him any new friends, but that kind of frankness never does.

In addition to being the consummate student of Clark, John very much personified the ideals outlined in the Trinity Foundation’s manifesto written thirty years ago, particularly this quote from Clark:

To echo an early Reformation thought, when the plough man and the garage attendant know the Bible as well as the theologian does, and know it better than some contemporary theologians, then the desired awakening shall have already occurred.

While certainly not always providing an “easy read,” much less the kind of material that you would find lining the shelves in most ersatz-Christian bookstores, the work of the Foundation has nonetheless been geared for the benefit of average Christians desiring to come to a greater understanding of the truth along with the tools to defend it. Unlike many who view the pastorate or eldership or even a seminary degree as something akin to admission into some ruling class or private club, John was interested in arming ordinary Christians with the means by which they might be able to judge truth from falsity for themselves based on the only standard and source for truth — the Word of God alone found in Scripture alone.  In this sense John was also very much following in the steps of Gordon Clark, who, even in some of his most difficult works, always expressed his ideas clearly and in a way that could be grasped by any student willing to put in a little effort.  While Robbins and Clark wrote in a way that could be understood no matter how difficult the subject, many today confuse nonsense dressed in pious sounding verbiage with profundity.

Needless to say, I will miss seeing John’s name on a new Trinity Review or book release. I have no inside information, but I confess to secretly hoping there might be a Robbins Speaks From the Grave waiting in the wings. I also confess to have been bugging him on and off over the years to put his lectures on economics in book form, something he said he had hoped to do someday. His lectures on economics were simply brilliant (the lecture series is free for download at the Trinity Foundation website) and in expanded book form would have filled a huge gap in any Christian’s arsenal. John was clearly an expert in the field and in those lectures he provided the much needed epistemological foundation for an uncompromising and completely defensible Christian economics.  Anyone who has read either Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System or Freedom and Capitalism already have a good idea what a first-rate philosopher and economist John was in his own right (I recommend reading the customer reviews posted on Amazon concerning his deconstruction and handling of Rand. Pro or con all realized that John was a first-rate philosopher to be reckoned with).  Sadly, a book on biblical economics from a Scripturalist perspective was not to be. God in His providence had other plans.

One of those plans was to transform Trinity Foundation over the past decade into a virtual clearing house for books and papers exposing the twin heresies of the Federal Vision and New Perspectives on Paul along with the main players behind these movements. I recall a number of years ago John asking me if I would be willing to be on the board of new organization he was putting together dedicated to exposing the FV/NPP. Naturally, I jumped at the offer. However, and as it turned out, rather than starting a new organization John decided that the Trinity Foundation would play that role and has been in the forefront of the fight against the FV/NPP ever since. John clearly saw that this is where the battle for the gospel was going to fought.  Actually, if you go back and read some of the early Trinity Reviews dealing with theonomy or the fevered thoughts of men like charlatan James Jordan, you can see how and why John was so far ahead of the curve on the Federal Vision even before it had a name. Unfortunately, rather than paying attention to what John was saying over the past decade, too many churchmen simply ignored the work of the Trinity Foundation and are now paying the price.

The one thing I will always remember about John, besides his obvious love for the Lord and his uncompromising devotion to the defense of the truth, was his sense of humor.  While some seem to have a view of John as a nasty mean Calvinist curmudgeon, I have always found him easy to talk to and quick to laugh. The church is in desperate need of more men like John Robbins.

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5 Comments on “John Robbins Remembered”

  1. tbftgoggi Says:

    Sean,
    Thank you so much for this post. I also miss John very much. His work with the TF has been life changing for me and I am eternally grateful. I never met John in person but I corresponded with him over the years. Just before his diagnosis with cancer we were planning to have a conference with him as the speaker, but God had other plans. I do regret never having met him but I look forward to the day when I’ll meet him in heaven. Sean, I also appreciate your stand for Truth in the face of the same persecution which John and Gordon Clark had experienced. I hope you and others like you will continue to contribute to the TF with Trinity Reviews and books.
    Soli Deo GLoria!
    In Christ our Righteousness,
    Jim Snyder


  2. Sean,

    Could you please provide a link where we could go back and read those Clark archives you speak of, that Yahoo discussion group you mentioned? I would love to read more of Dr. Robbins exchange with Clark’s opponents. I’m a relatively new convert to Clark’s philosophy, and I’m trying to get as much “fuel” as possible. It’s amazing the number of Christian empiricists you have to fight off in the process of arguing with the atheists. With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?

    Thanks

    Sola Fide, Paul

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/van-til/

    It was a “Clark” list, then it was switched to a VT list. It is and was completely unmoderated.


  4. Jim,

    I was blessed to not only meet John Robbins, but also Gordon Clark. I had Dr. Clark for my apologetics prof. at Sangre de Cristo Seminary. It was during my first semister that I was blessed to meet John.

    We will surley miss him.

    Mike Waters

  5. Diana Yovanovich Says:

    Thank you you for this genuine and sincere understanding of Robbins and the Trinity Foundation. I have personaly experienced much of what you have declared in your article, and it could not be more truthful. The Lord will rein supreme and the Trinity Foundation’s work will not be in vain; as the blindness progresses further into the world; aided by those exclusive club members you mentioned; only the faith of sola scriptura and the Lord will keep us safe.

    Blessing
    Diana Yovanovich


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