An Interview with Ligon Duncan
A conversation with the newly elected chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary:
How long, and in what capacity, have you been associated with RTS?
I have been associated with RTS for 24 years. In May of 1989, Dr. Luder G. Whitlock, then President of RTS, asked me to interview for a faculty position in Systematic Theology. I was then in Edinburgh, Scotland, pursuing my PhD at the University under the mentorship of a widely respected scholar, David F. Wright. So, I came to RTS Jackson in the fall of that year (my first ever visit to Mississippi) to be interviewed and examined by the faculty. I was elected and called to be Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology. I returned to RTS Jackson in the summer of 1990 to begin teaching. It was my privilege to serve under Dr. Douglas F. Kelly, who was my Department Head. When Dr. Kelly subsequently moved to RTS Charlotte, I was promoted to Department Chairman, Associate Professor, and then appointed to the John R. Richardson Chair of Theology (my predecessors in this chair were John R. DeWitt, R. C. Sproul, and Douglas F. Kelly, and my successor Harold O. J. Brown—needless to say, they adorned this professorship). In the early 1990s it was my joy to help get the RTS Charlotte campus started, traveling there regularly to teach the whole cycle of Systematic Theology and other courses.
In 1996, I was called to become the Senior Minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS (founded 1837), but the call officially specified that I would continue to teach for RTS, which I happily did for 15 years under the title of Adjunct. In 2011 I was given the rank of Distinguished Visiting Professor, and in 2012 I returned to the resident faculty of RTS Jackson as a full Professor and was promoted to the John E. Richards Chair of Systematic and Historical Theology, which I still hold along with my duties as Chancellor.
Over the course of the years, I have had the privilege to teach in each of the divisions of study on the faculty of RTS (Theology/History, Biblical Studies, Practical) and in all departments (Systematics, Church History, New Testament, Christian Education, and Missions) except for OT and Counseling (but I married an RTS MFT graduate!). I have been on the faculty and present for half of the Commencement Exercises in the history of RTS Jackson, and I have taught at RTS Charlotte, Orlando, Memphis, and Global as well. I love biblical theology, and pioneered (at the behest of RTS Jackson Dean Richard Watson) the inclusion of Covenant Theology in the RTS MDiv curriculum—a course I have taught for RTS over thirty times.
This summer, I was elected and called to be Chancellor of RTS, which is the chief executive officer of the whole institution. For now, I will continue to reside and teach in Jackson, and regularly travel to and teach for our other campuses.
After many years in pastoral ministry, at a church you dearly love (and dearly loves you!), how difficult of a decision was this for you?
It was incredibly difficult. It was overwhelming even to contemplate leaving a place and work that I so dearly love (and people who love me far, far beyond my deserving), and to take up so weighty a calling. I have served First Presbyterian Church for over 17 years, almost a tenth of her 176 years of history. My children were born, baptized, catechized, professed faith, and first communed here. They love this church. I entered into a season of serious reflection, sought wise counsel, and asked the Lord to show me the way forward. This has been the most difficult vocational decision that I have ever had to make.
What finally caused your mind to change on this?
In the end, two things were determinative.
First among them was the almost universal counsel of friends and colleagues in ministry. It will not surprise you to know that friends like Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Derek Thomas, Kevin DeYoung, and others urged me to accept the call to RTS. Al, who has been enormously helpful to me in this process, was particularly insistent. He said: “You must do this.” One crucial correspondence I received was from my dear friend Sinclair Ferguson. I have known Sinclair since I was a teenager, and he has never given me vocational advice, but he wrote: “I hope it will be the Lord’s will for you to serve RTS in a new capacity. If not you, who? If not now, when? You are designed for such ministry to help our seminaries. . . . I know it would be sore to leave the flock . . . but the Lord is able to help.”
The second factor in my decision was the importance of RTS in particular, and theological education in general, for the work of the churches and the witness of the Gospel. RTS plays a significant role in theological education for the reformed and evangelical world in North America and internationally. RTS is now larger than Princeton (which would have boggled the minds of our founders back in the fall of 1966 when our doors first opened). Indeed, RTS is the largest conservative, Reformed seminary in North America. As such, RTS plays a critical role in the propagation of a vibrant, vital, Gospel-proclaiming Reformed Christianity here and around the world. A number of years ago, at the Calvin Colloquium that used to be held at Davidson College, I had a fascinating conversation with the well-known theological educator Dr. John H. Leith, who was at one time the Pemberton Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary. When he found out that I was a young assistant professor at RTS, I half-feared his reaction, but instead he looked me in the eye and graciously but poignantly said: “The future and hope of the Reformed Faith here in the United States does not lie with my church or her institutions, but with yours and schools like RTS.” The last two decades have proved him indisputably correct.
RTS has a unique model. Is it one seminary with multiple locations, or multiple seminaries with a common vision and ethos? How would you describe who RTS is?
RTS is one seminary with multiple campuses. One faculty dispersed in various locations, all of whom share robust theological commitments and educational aspirations, and a common vision and ethos. From the beginning, it has been the stated purpose of RTS to serve the church in all branches of evangelical Christianity, by preparing its leaders— with a priority on pastors, and including missionaries, educators, counselors, and others—through a program of theological education on the graduate level, based upon the authority of the inerrant Word of God, and from the standpoint of the historic Reformed faith as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.
RTS is characterized by a commitment to biblical fidelity, confessional integrity, and academic excellence. We are evangelical, Reformed, confessional, complementarian, and happy. We are Gospel-animated. We want to see the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ proclaimed and lived out. We are unapologetically committed to the plenary verbal inspiration, and the inerrancy and final authority of the Bible. A high view of Scripture has been the hallmark of RTS from the beginning. We stand in the mainstream of historic orthodox Christianity, in the Reformed and Presbyterian branch of that family.
We are confessional, and our faculty joyfully subscribes to Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, while teaching students from more than fifty denominations and various evangelical traditions in a spirit of humility, love, respect, and service. We genuinely want to help them and their churches. We are firm in what we believe. And from a posture of humble orthodoxy our attitude is: “how may we serve you?” We love the spirit of Charles Simeon and John Newton.
We also believe that those who serve the churches must be equipped both intellectually and spiritually, hence our unofficial motto: “A mind for truth. A heart for God.” This emphasis on the cultivation of the Christian life and experience can be traced back in the Reformed tradition through Princeton (think B. B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students“), to Scottish Presbyterianism and English Puritanism, and right back to Calvin’s Institutes, which he called a “sum of piety.” Of course, the idea of a truth unto godliness comes from a much more ancient source that the magisterial Reformation: Scripture.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of RTS?
First, I want RTS to remain faithful. We live and minister in a day and age unfriendly to the commitments of confessional Christianity in the setting of higher education. RTS has stood firm in the storms of late modernity, and Gospel-believing churches and institutions here and around the world need for us to continuing standing firm. I want the students who attend to know that they will hear the truth taught right out of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. I want churches and our fellow evangelical universities and seminaries to know that they can count on us to hold fast our confession and stand on the word of God.
Second, I want RTS to remain missionary in its orientation. Another unofficial motto of ours is “Standing firm, but not standing still.” One of the things we mean by that is that we aren’t aiming to just hang on. We want to deploy our resources for the Savior. We want to be outward and forward looking. To “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.” This is exactly what Al Mohler was emphasizing at Southern Seminary in his two famous convocation addresses. The first was titled: “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!” It emphasized standing on the truth of the Bible. The second was called: “Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!” It emphasized deploying the truth in ministry and mission. That is what we want to do at RTS. When the PCA was formed one of our unofficial slogans was “True to the Bible, the Reformed Faith and Obedient to the Great Commission.” The PCA founders signified thereby that they stood not only for biblical faithfulness and doctrinal adherence, but for missionary boldness. Those aspirations are part of the RTS ethos.
It is clear now that all of us who share evangelical commitments are going to be sailing into stiff cultural headwinds. As Calvinists, that doesn’t surprise us. After all, we believe in depravity. People rejecting the truth isn’t a shocker. But we also believe in God’s sovereignty and so, instead of responding to increasing cultural resistance by filling up our moats with alligators and pulling up the draw bridge, we go forth with the blessing of the Father, in the name of Christ and in the strength of the Holy Spirit, and we expect the Gospel to work, because it is the power of God unto salvation.
I could share pages and pages of hopes and dreams for RTS, but one good place you could go to read my heart is “The Plan of a Theological Seminary” (1811) which was the founding document for old Princeton. You’ll find a copy in Mark Noll’s The Princeton Theology. If I may paraphrase one of its beautifully worded and biblically grounded emphases, at RTS, we want “to form men for the Gospel ministry who will truly believe and cordially love the biblical truth of Reformed Theology, and who therefore will endeavor to preach, propagate, and defend it, in its genuineness, simplicity and fullness” and “thus extend the influence of true evangelical piety and Gospel order.”