Desert Bloom

Nourishing Westminster's Future
Front Cover of Westminster Today

a conversation with K. Scott Oliphint, PhD,
professor of apologetics and systematic theology

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;  2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God" (Isaiah 35:1-2; ESV).

Scott reflecting on Defense of the Faith by Van Til, "He realized that there was an inherent theological and methodological weakness in any thought, system or method that attempted initially to exclude God and his revelation in order to bring him surreptitiously at a later point. Because all things are 'from him, through him and unto him'...”

Well the first thing you probably know, my coming to Reformed theology and the OPC church were on two separate tracks that providentially merged. When I was in college I had become a Christian out of High School and then I was taking a philosophy course from a Christian philosophy instructor at West Texas State University that is now Texas A & M, a satellite campus. During that time in the Fall of 1977, Christianity Today did a cover article on Van Til.

I had been reading Schaeffer and read most of Schaeffer by that point for various reasons but one reason was this philosophy class required some Schaeffer reading which was very nice at a secular university. So I read this article and read that Van Til had taught Schaeffer, there was a mention there of his name. So I thought, well I might as well read the guy that taught the guy that I’ve been reading.

I went down to the local bookstore in Amarillo, Texas. And I had the title, Defense of the Faith and the author. The guy said, “I never heard of it.” So he looked in his little thing and he couldn’t find it. So he gets out the big tome Books In Print. “Oh yeah, here it is…South New Jersey. It’ll take a month to get here.” Scott says, “I don’t care.” So I paid for the thing. The Defense of the Faith came. I was probably the only guy that paid full price for that book. I couldn’t wait to get it. I was really excited about reading some of that just from what I read from the Christianity Today interview.

So I started pouring over that stuff. And during this time I was on Young Life staff. I was so-called Student Staff in college. And then became Full-Time Staff after college. So my Young Life mentor as Full-Time was David Brack (now pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church and trustee of Westminster).

So David and I were leading Young Life clubs and that’s what got me interested in apologetics; because I was doing evangelism in Young Life with unbelievers, and so I was getting questions that I wasn’t equipped to handle; and one thing lead to another and I found out that apologetics deals with some of these questions and issues. So interest in Schaeffer leads to interest in Van Til by way of Young Life.

So I started reading this stuff and obviously I didn’t get all of it at once. So I would take it to my philosophy professor and we’d sit over coffee and I’d say “Read this and tell me what it means.” And he’d say, “I’m not sure what that means.”  And I’d say, “OK”.

So now I’m in a quandary so I look on the back of the book and it says Westminster Seminary, P.O. Box 2709…so I write Westminster, “I’m really wondering if it is possible to ask Van Til any questions because I’m out here in Amarillo and no one is able to help me.” So they send me a little note saying, “Van Til is just retired and he’s happy to get mail and here is his address…And I’ll never forget it…16 Rich Avenue, Flourtown, PA 19118. Write Van Til whenever you want to at 16 Rich”, as Van Til called it.

So I wrote him a letter and I said, “You know I’m really struggling with some of the things you’re saying here this is great stuff BUT what do you mean by this, this and this…”

A week later pages torn out of a spiral notebook come in a envelope handwritten. “Here’s what I’m saying, please write anytime…” His wife had just recently died and he said, “I’m retired, and I have plenty of time. So please write…”

So we started corresponding, and I wrote about once per week for awhile. I’d just be reading along and I’d say, “I don’t get it.” So he’d write back and say, “Here’s what I mean…” And he’d start articulating things and at that point he was up in years so one thing would lead to another in his own mind, so I’d have to begin to interpret his letters like his writings.

The back of The Defense of the Faith had a list of all the publications that P & R did. So I started going down the list to see what interested me and I started ordering. And after a couple of years I had ordered and read every one of them. So after awhile I’m starting to get the whole pre-suppositional thing…

So, I am working on a Young Life talk around Easter. This was a weekly talk we gave to non-Christians. And Brack stopped by and said, “Why don’t you do something on Josh McDowell’s Evidences of the Resurrection?” And I said, “I don’t think I can do that.” And he looked at me like I had flipped out. He was just leaving the office and he says, ‘We’ve got to talk about this.’ And all I can say is, ‘OK’. So I did my talk. It was not on anything from Josh McDowell.

So a week goes by and he says, “We need to go to lunch.” So we go to lunch, and I’ll never forget where we were sitting in Amarillo [where were they sitting?]. David says, “What’s the deal?” So I say, ‘Well I’ll tell you what I know right now; this is the deal. We’re in the business of communicating the Gospel. I don’t think what I’ve been saying is true to what the Gospel is. Here are some of the problems. So I started to lay it out.

For me it had to do with the authority of Scripture…it wasn’t just Five Points, even though that had something to do with it. It was a bigger picture of the authority of Scripture and how do we think about evidences…and do we really appeal…you know one of McDowell’s things that I’ll never forget, he says, “Anyone with moral honesty will admit…da da da da”…and I said to Brack, “Unbelievers don’t have moral honesty…that’s part of the problem. There is not any moral honesty there.” So he was going, “Yeah, I think that might be right…I need to talk to Betty about this...”

{So he was going away to talk to his wife. And I told Jonathan, David’s son and (presently) a Westminster MDiv candidate, about this in another context. It was David’s sixtieth birthday party. And Jonathan was interviewing me about memorable things about his dad. And this was one of those memorable things.} He goes home to talk to his wife about it. And he comes back into the office the next day, and while passing my desk, and he goes. “Betty gets it!”

It was laughable because David was still sort of struggling with some ideas, but Betty was getting it! So Brack orders a book…almost picked at random…but kind of on some of the stuff we had been talking about. It was a book by a guy named Arthur Custance. Whose background I have no idea. I think he was Reformed Baptist. The title of the book was The Sovereignty of Grace. So Brack is over in his office reading this book. I am in Van Til on Epistomology or Christianity and Bartianism or whatever was next in his series.

And we start having this interaction. And we’re talking Reformed theology. We are both in the Scriptures all the time because we are doing Bible studies in Young Life. We are giving talks all the time. And we are talking to each other about what our lessons are all about.

And all of this is starting to come together. So we decide to start teaching our Young Life volunteer leaders from the Packer book, Knowing God. We were thinking let’s start with the doctrine of God and start with a classic. We read this book and we realized it was loaded with all kinds of Reformed stuff too. So we were circulating all of this stuff.

And we were getting significant opposition from the powers-that-be in Young Life nationally. They didn’t want us involved. I remember my regional Director didn’t live in Amarillo but he was over all of Texas. He comes up to Amarillo for a visit and he says, “You’re not about theology. You’re about kids. You need to leave this stuff alone.” And I replied, “I really can’t leave it alone.” To which he responded, “You better be sure you are doing your job.” And I said, “Look at my Young Life club. Look at my numbers.”

Amarillo had hundreds of kids involved. We had some good interaction because the ministry had gone so well there. Partly Brack had been there since 1974, and he had been leading and doing a good job, getting things moving.

Right around 1980, here is the remarkable providence. Brack and I are having all these conversations. I’m writing Van Til regularly. And one day we decide over lunch, “Let’s bring Van Til to town. Let’s see if he’ll come to Amarillo.” So I write him a letter.

January 1980

Dear Dr. Van Til,
All of this has been really helpful, but we have so many questions.
Would it be possible for you to come to Amarillo?

Sincerely yours,
Scott Oliphint

Dear Scott,
I will be happy to come to Amarillo.
In His service,

Dr. Oliphint poses under portrait of Dr. Van Til.

So, Brack and I funded his trip to Amarillo. Our plan was simple. “It is worth it for us to bring him to Amarillo for a weekend. We’ll do a weekend seminar. Then we will have him preach on Sunday.”

At that point, I was going to a Bible preach, so I called the pastor if Van Til could preach. He says, “I guess OK…depending on what he does. Remind him that we are dispensational.” I write Van Til again and ask him if he’d do all this for us. He replies, “I will be happy to do this. I’ve done this before and it’ll be great. Love to do it.”

So we got Van Til coming in March 1980. About a month before this, late January, early February, David Brack is teaching Sunday School at a PCUSA church in Amarillo. He is completely disgruntled. And we both had come to the conclusion that we cannot go to the worship services. The pastor is at best Barthian, if not outright unbiblical. I remember the sermon that made me decide to never go back to the church was entitled, “The Myth of God’s Omniscience.” He wasn’t an open Theist. It was way before that.

Brack’s Sunday School was the most populated part of that church. People were literally going to the church to be able to go to that Sunday School class alone. There were 300 plus people in there. It was packed.

So before he goes to teach on Sunday morning, he sees an ad in the paper for a church called Orthodox Presbyterian. Now at this point, you have to remember we’re in Southwest Texas, so not all the connections are obvious.  Neither of us had ever heard of this denomination. So Brack says to himself, “I’m going over there. Their service starts after my Sunday School.”

He goes over to this little, vacant house that the church has rented with a total of twelve people in the congregation with folding chairs in the living room. And the fans are on. One of those kinds of places. And he goes to the worship service there. The church had been in existence for about a year at that point. They started in 1979.

He goes to the worship service. And Brack is listening and thinking, “Boy. This guy preaches the Gospel.” When he’s leaving, he introduces himself. Brack says, “I’d thought I’d come visit. I saw your ad in the paper. Glad you guys are here.” Pastor John Hilbelink starts telling him a little bit about the church. And David says in passing, “Oh by the way, we’re having this guy Van Til in next month. Have you ever heard of him?”

Hilbelink’s mouth dropped to the ground as he gasps, “Ever heard of him!? He was my professor at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia.” David says, “What!? You went to Westminster!?” Hilbelink is completely befuddled, “How in the world…do you know Van Til!? I would have thought we were the only ones in Texas that knew Van Til.” So Brack starts telling him the story…

“Oliphint was doing this…and there was this article…”

Meanwhile, I send a book by J.G. Machen called What Is Faith? to Steve Cairns (former Alumni Relations Director now in the Westminster’s Development department working in the Southwest) who was doing Young Life stuff in Lubbock. He worked alongside me as a student leader with Brack in years prior. I tell him, “You have to read this stuff. Brack and I are talking about this. This is fun stuff.”

And I am talking to other Young Life guys, most of which were reticent saying, “Don’t get involved in this.” One of these guys, Del Ferris, was on Young Life staff during that time in Odessa, Texas. I saw him in the PCA General Assembly in June 2009. He is a PCA minister now.

All these kinds of connections are starting to crop up. Hilbelink says, “My goodness. Van Til is coming to town. Can we come? Can our church come to hear Van Til speak?”
Brack says, “Sure. The more the merrier.” We were having his seminar actually in a Bible church, because it was the only church that we knew that strictly taught the Bible. The PCUSA wouldn’t have fit Van Til. Hilbelink asks me if Van Til would preach in the Sunday evening service at his church. And Van Til wholeheartedly agreed.

Scott muses, of course he had no idea about the connection of Van Til and the OPC. My interest in Van Til, Brack’s connection and the OPC all merged in the March of 1980. Van Til came and stayed in my home with Peggy and me. Jared (Westminster MAR, 2005, and current Westminster director of admissions) had just been born. Jared has a picture of Van Til holding him as a baby during this visit in his office here.

Lane Tipton (current Westminster associate professor of systematic theology) got involved thereafter. At first he came out to Young Life a little bit, but he was the macho football player, so he was too cool for that. But he came back from college his first summer and hooked up with Brack. And he had been converted through Swaggert’s televangelism. He says to David, “Hey, I’ve become a Christian. What should I read?” And Brack hands him Berkhof’s Systematic Theology which some people wouldn’t even recommend. Tipton reads it cover to cover. And he’s calling Brack, “I need to know this and I need to know that…”

Lane plows through it in two weeks. So he asks Brack to get together to ask a few questions. Brack sits him down and says, “So, how many questions do you have?” Lane looks down at his jostle of handwritten questions on torn off note pads, “I have 190 questions.” David’s aghast, “You’re kidding, right!?”

After Brack gets pummeled with question after question, he throws up the white flag and says, “I’ve reached my limit. Call Oliphint.”

Another Van Til disciple was born.

So Lane and I link up and by that time, I’m pastoring the Christ Covenant [OPC] Church. We had become involved in 1980. We go through Communicant’s class. By the Fall of 1981, the Cairns and I leave for Westminster. So we pulled out in August of 1981. So I was in the church not very long.

It wasn’t even a particular church. It was still a home missions work when we left. Hilbelink did a marvelous job of getting the church started and keeping it together while he was there. He actually tutored me in Machen’s Greek textbook.

So that by the time I got to Westminster I had already done a part of it. We were here from 1981 to 1984. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get out. And Cairns isn’t sure what he’s going to do. Cairns decides the last year he gets an offer that he’s going back into Young Life. I knew I didn’t want to do that, so the Spring of 1984 I get a proposal from somebody that in town that they’ll fund me for awhile if I will teach Bible studies in Amarillo. Just kind of a Christian Bible study. We called it Pursuit Ministries. I told him I’d do that only if it was linked with the church.

So what happened is Steve is back in Young Life in Amarillo. And I start this ministry and I start my ordination. So I am ordained in the Fall of 1985. From 1984 – 1987 I’m teaching Reformed theology in the Bible studies out in the community without all the labels. Because in Amarillo there are certain things you can say and certain things you can’t say. And I knew that having grown up there.

And in 1987, Hilbelink decided he’d take a call to Portland, Maine as a pastor; and he stayed there until 2009. I had been the associate pastor at Christ Covenant pastor at Christ Covenant. And in 1987 I took over the pulpit for a few months so they called me as pastor. I was doing the Bible study and the pastoring. Steve Cairns came on as a counselor. And Brack was still doing Young Life. So by the time I left in 1991 to come to Westminster, David Brack pursued ordination and he became the next pastor. In the midst of that the OPC Presbytery enabled Cairns to be ordained as an Evangelist and work in Young Life.

During that time the branches from Christ Covenant toward Westminster grew. Of course, there is Van Til- Hilbelink-me-Cairns-Brack-Tipton, then Larry and Mary Ellen-Puls, now a trustee, became members when I was an associate. Larry Puls and I had long walks over by the medical center. We discussed infant baptism and the Reformed view of sanctification and the reality of sin. We had great discussions. At that time John Mainerd, Westminster trustee, became a ruling elder during that time. I just heard about two years ago there was a guy from my Bible study that is a PCA elder in North Carolina, Larry Liedtke, PhD in astro physics; he operated the electron microscope that the Harrington cancer center operated in Amarillo.

The tentacles just go out and out in the people that came out of the Amarillo church that now impact Westminster. It is true that the Amarillo OPC church is kind of a small, no nothing, no where church that for some reason has been instrumental in a lot of stuff around Westminster and a lot of Reformed thing. It is a sending ministry.

It is the Reformed-Revolving door. Amarillo is that way. You go there and then you get something bigger elsewhere. People don’t stay there for a long time.

We had a lot of good talks. It was intense in a good way…a lot of intense discussions. We realized, “Hey, we’re doing evangelism. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the Gospel! Yes we should.”

We were studying these things…Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. And we were trying to figure out how all these things fit. This is the book where Packer says, “Everyone is a Calvinist on their knees!” And we’re thinking, “Yeah. We sure are. Why would we pray if we didn’t think God is in control of all of this?”

It was a fun time in a lot of ways, but the upper echelon had no sympathies for us at all. There was a training institute in Colorado Springs, a boy’s school in Fountain Valley, that Young Life had leased for a couple decades. I think Prof. Paul Wooley, Westminster professor, had even taught there in the late 40’s. Different professors were brought in to train the young leaders. The guy that was running the Young Life Institute was named Daryl Guter; he translated Otto Weber’s Foundations of Dogmatics, so he was pure German Barthian, neo-orthodox. And he’s linking us up with Fuller Seminary. And they had let go of their inerrancy statement and were talking about infallibility. J. Grimstead with Fuller and had been with young Life. So he starts the Council of Biblical Inerrancy because he says, “We need to think about this. So he brings all the guys in like Packer and all the gurus.”

So I write Van Til and let him know, “These guys had dropped inerrancy what I should do?” Van Til said, “It’s your call. I understand you have got a lot of issues. I wouldn’t spend my time learning a man who didn’t understand the authority of God’s Word.” And that’s all I needed to hear. And he was very gracious about it. So once they linked up Fuller that’s when I decided I’m not going to be able to do this long term.

I knew of Steve Cairns. We ran in the same circles in Amarillo. But we were never close until Young Life.

Cairns, Brack and I were the Young Life trio that stayed close during all of this…went through everything together, our families were friends, having kids around the same time doing the same sort of stuff, having the same kinds of interests.

We were constantly either talking on the phone or coming together for our Young Life meetings. I remember doing a Young Life Conference and the Regional Director, the Big Guru Guy, asked me to do one of the seminars. I think it was his way of saying, “I still like you” kind-of-thing, even though he really didn’t. But I did a seminar entitled, “God’s Desire and God’s Decree.”

And it was one of those things in trying (meant) to help the leaders who lead the kids, trying to help them understand when you get into the decree of God and God’s will in terms of what He’s revealed; these things are not going to come together in our own minds and that’s OK because that is who God is.

So it was an attempt to say “we can’t say that because God takes no delight in the death of the wicked that He hasn’t decreed such things.” You can’t make that jump because then you take away from God’s true character. I was just trying to do this sort of thing. Some people very much appreciated it but the upper echelon were saying “stay out of this.”

I actually wrote a letter to the head of Young Life, Bob Mitchell, at one point because it was mainly a personal thing. He was a fantastic speaker but his theology wasn’t so good. I was struggling as to whether I was going to stay with Young Life. I said, “Mr. Mitchell, we cannot lose the inerrancy of Scripture without losing our ministry. We’ve got to be able to proclaim this loudly as an organization.”

And my Regional Director got a call from Bob Mitchell, he was known as ‘Mitch’ because of (his status). Mitch called him and said, “Talk to this guy.” So the Regional Director wrote me a letter and I threw it away. It made me furious. Now you know I don’t remember it well but there is every possibility that some of the things that I said in there I shouldn’t have said. I was in my mid-twenties.

But I was just trying to say, “Don’t lose inerrancy. We have nowhere to go if we lose inerrancy.” And he didn’t respond to me except to call the Regional Director and say, “We have to deal with this guy.” And the Regional Director came up to Amarillo from Dallas/Fort Worth and said, “You don’t need to be writing letters to anybody.”

{Laughter} But you know in the providence of God those were just things that had to take place in the transition.

{INTERVIEWER How did you take that discipline when it came down? You had a young family…this was your livelihood…}

This was sort of my last ditch effort and if Mitch had said, “You’re right. Let’s regroup” or if he had written back to say, “We’re always going to hold to inerrancy,” then I would have been…you know…OK let’s think about that but that (in light of what really happened) it was just another way of saying, ‘I don’t belong here.’

If I think inerrancy is important, I don’t belong in Young Life. That was just the bottom line. And that doesn’t mean everyone in Young Life. It was a diverse enough organization as a para-church ministry where people had all kinds of views. It was obvious to me. I didn’t want to waste my time with Fuller anymore. I didn’t want be dealing with just kids where you don’t talk about the content of what you are giving these kids. And Young Life was by definition was very anti-ecclesial.

So when kids were converted you know the big dilemma we had was “Now what?” And it was not a good thing to recommend a church to these kids, because then they’d go home and say, “Hey Mommy. Mr. Brack said that I should go to First Pres…or this Bible Church.” And Mommy is at First Methodist. And it was one of those things that the tensions there were significant in terms of what we do with kids when they’re really converted. So one of the things we do is we have Bible studies with them. But then what about when they’re gone? Who takes care of them? So it was the typical struggles of para-church ministry. But all of this worked to move us into a Reformed ecclesiology.


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