R.C. Sproul – A Former Protestant’s Gratitude
When I heard of R.C. Sproul’s death, my first impulse was to pray for his family and–since I am no longer Protestant but Catholic–for him. My second was to turn to my mother and say, “R.C. Sproul died two days ago.”
Death has a strange, self-assured touch. Everything stops in its tracks, but the fact of it won’t register. Not truly a shock, it is more a suspension, a cessation of movement in the vicinity of its arrival. The gasp of air I hear myself produce represents my feelings poorly. I feel more like I’ve let a breath go and can’t take in another. The pain of it builds slowly.
His loss feels like a death in the family. In our household, R.C. Sproul had the place of a father figure, partly because my own father relied so much upon his books. I remember their joyful, encouraging titles. They beamed from the spines on Dad’s bookshelf, next to the rich green leather of Hodge’s systematic theology and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Sproul lives in my memory as a jolly patriarch, warm and assuring in his great armchair, grinning with delight at some honest difficulty fielded to him. Now That’s a Good Question! is surely his reply.
The questions I had in my teens were many. My parents could never have prepared themselves for the challenges I brought to them, born of long and fruitful hours left unsupervised in public libraries. They were willing to say “I don’t know” and pause to better their own understanding before we took up the reins again.
During those pauses, R.C. Sproul provided many of their answers. When I was older my parents would often turn me loose on the bookshelf or hand me a specific volume. I left a trail of cracked bindings, the spidery lines obscuring many authors and titles, but he is truly the one I remember best. His writing was clear and deep, his voice fervent and clever. He was no ivory-tower Christian. He lived his faith and taught others to live it well. He put his trust in the power of God, and the joy of salvation was his strength.
I know that Sproul would have opposed the conclusions I reached in my spiritual growth. How I would have hated to tell him to his face that it was partially his arguments against Catholicism that spurred me on to accept the Catholic Faith! Yet as a Catholic, I am more grateful to him than I ever was as a Protestant. In the strange maneuverings of grace, this fierce opponent of the Church helped prepare me to join in her communion.
During my college years his lecture series on the history of philosophy, The Consequences of Ideas, introduced me to the world of non-Christian and anti-Christian thought. At the same time my father was listening to the lectures on CD during his commute, and I still remember the pleasure of our discovery that this was something we shared.
Without the defenses he gave, would I have succumbed to some assault upon my weak Christianity? I don’t know. But because he was there, because I did learn from him, my faith met with a horde of difficulties and did not fail.
Sproul was a keystone in my life. He championed the authority of Scripture and Christian doctrine, and the utter reasonableness of faith in Jesus Christ. It was because I understood Jesus to be God Incarnate that His commandments and teachings could bind me. Because I reverenced the Bible as the Word of God, it held my attention. So when I learned that all the fullness of my faith lay at the heart of the Catholic Church, I followed Jesus and found Him there.
It may seem inappropriate to take the death of a lifelong opponent of Catholicism as my occasion for these thoughts. But whether he recognized it or not, we are heirs to a common baptism. So we are family, and this is a family matter. In a family, even the most bitter quarrels don’t lessen the love its members share. It is the very deepness of their love that makes any division painful. The same deep love refuses either to ignore the dispute or separate because of it; only resolution will suffice.
One of the chief graces in my difficult conversion to Catholicism was the realization that, as a Catholic, I would lose nothing I had gained as a Protestant. Far from turning my back on the faith in which I was raised, I was entering much more fully into the unity of the Church. From within, the Church appeared to me as Scripture describes it: “the household of God” and “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
I wish that R.C. Sproul could have joined me in the assurance of this great defender, our Mother the Church. Honesty impels me to believe that he did not fully understand her, and so did not truly hate her. Fulton Sheen said it well:
There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church…If the Church taught or believed any one of these things [that they hate,] it should be hated, but the fact is that the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them. It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth. (Preface, Radio Replies)
It is odd, and hard to explain to those still on the other side of it, but all that ever made me choose to be Protestant has grown stronger as a Catholic. Only the things that made me refuse to be Catholic have gone. Everything in my belief has flourished. It is my disbelief that has been removed.
For the gift of my belief, I owe R.C. Sproul a happy debt. He was God’s instrument of grace in my life. I love him, and I thank God for him. As I pray for him, I ask him to pray for me also, until we meet where Love conquers confusion and establishes agreement, perfect and undying.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.