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An Interview with W. Robert Godfrey (Originally Published in 1997)

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   October 7, 1997   |  Type: Articles

CR: Dr. Godfrey, many if not most of the people in the conservative Reformed world know your name, but I suspect that few of them know your background.
GODFREY: I was born and raised in Northern California, I'm a fifth-generation Californian, and was raised in Alameda, CA which is a town east of San Francisco across the bay. My family were Methodists, my grandparents and great-grandparents were very active in the Methodist Church, my parents quite nominal in their attachment, so although I'd had some Sunday School involvement as a child, I really did not know much if anything of Christianity. As a junior in high school, through contact on a swimming team, I came to know a fellow student from the Christian Reformed Church in Alameda, and it was through his influence that I came to know Christian Reformed people, came to participate in the life of the Christian Reformed Church in Alameda, came then to be converted, and came to be introduced to Reformed Christianity.

CR: What has it been like being in the CRC being a California boy with no Dutch blood?
GODFREY: My experiences in the Christian Reformed Church, especially in local churches, has always been very positive. I found the Alameda church very warm and inviting and made me feel very much a part of things, very much included, and that's been my experience in the Christian Reformed Church most of the places I've gone. I've lived ten years on the east coast, the rest of my life on the west coast, so I haven't experienced the midwestern heartland of the CRC inclusive. I have been aware that the church is predominantly Dutch and I'm not, but nonetheless I've always felt very much welcomed and a part of things.

CR: Some might say that you are the sort of person that the CRC should be trying to reach through its evangelistic work. How would you respond to that?
GODFREY: I was a person reached by the evangelistic work of the Christian Reformed Church and through that work was taught to believe the Bible as the in errant word of God and taught that Reformed Christianity is derived from the Bible and that the confessional doctrines and the worship and life of the Christian Reformed Church sought in all ways to be biblical. I learned that lesson in the Christian Reformed Church and I learned it very well and that increases my distress at seeing the Christian Reformed Church that taught me those things now moving away from them.

CR: What would be your view of Reformed evangelism?
GODFREY: Well, I think that the Christian Reformed Church has at times had trouble in fulfilling the evangelistic responsibility of the church because many Christian Reformed people have lived in communities where there's a very large Christian Reformed population, where the Christian Reformed community becomes somewhat isolated through its institutions of Christian education, and a tightly-knit community of family and life in the church. It's hard then for some Christian Reformed people to identify with the unchurched who know nothing about the Bible, who know nothing about historic reformed ways of living and worshiping, and so I think the Christian Reformed Church has had difficulty, especially where it's strongest, in becoming effective in communicating to the surrounding community in developing what we might call a missionary sensitivity to the environment in which it finds itself. So Reformed evangelism has not always been as strong as it should be.

CR: What would you see as being the solution to that?
GODFREY: The solution in my judgment the Christian Reformed Church is trying is the solution of becoming less Reformed and adopting the evangelistic techniques of American revivalism and fundamentalism and pentecostalism, and I think that's tragic if one believes in the value of maintaining a Reformed church, which I do. I think what Christian Reformed people need to do to be more evangelistically successful as Reformed Christians is to become more self-conscious about what are some of the differences between being Reformed and being culturally Dutch and Christian Reformed, and to become somewhat more discerning on what are real essentials of a Reformed theology, church life, piety, worship, and so forth and what are simply traditional accretions that may culturally separate us from surrounding communities.

CR: What were the reasons you went to Gordon-Conwell instead of Calvin Seminary?
GODFREY: By the time I graduated as an undergraduate from Stanford I had been somewhat more influenced by Presbyterians as an undergraduate.  Most of the evangelical Christians at Stanford went either to a Bible church or to a Presbyterian church and I went with the Presbyterians. I suppose that the principal thing that kept me from going to Calvin or Westminster was my sense that all my Christian experience had been in Reformed circles and that I thought it might be valuable for me as a student to go to an evangelical seminary that wasn't as Reformed so that I could experience firsthand other approaches to Christianity and could evaluate from that exposure more the Reformed Christianity that I'd embraced. In that sense, I think going to Gordon-Conwell actually made me more Reformed than I had been by being able to see firsthand some other evangelical options.

CR: Could you tell our readers a bit about some of your activities as a Christian Reformed elder before you were ordained, and also some time frames on that.
GODFREY: I was in seminary in Cordon-Conwell in Massachusetts then returned to Stanford to do doctoral work in Renaissance and Reformation studies and when I finished that doctoral degree I went to teach at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. It was there in 1974 that I joined the Christian Reformed Church and we were in Philadelphia for seven years. I believe I served one or two terms there as an elder and was very much involved in the life of the local congregation although it was some distance from our home. We had about a 45 minute drive to church but it was a wonderfully warm and welcoming congregation and we profited very much from our involvement there.

CR: A 45 minute one-way drive to church is more than many people would drive, particularly in Philadelphia with many conservative Presbyterian options. What made you drive that distance to the CRC?
GODFREY: I felt that the Christian Reformed Church was my spiritual mother and that I wanted to deepen that connection with the Christian Reformed Church. It was not an anti-Presbyterian move, it was simply a matter of wanting to maintain and deepen that Christian Reformed connection and I thought it would be good for us as a family to have Christian experience beyond just the immediate environment of Westminster Seminary.

CR: How were you ordained without going to Calvin Seminary?
GODFREY: I was licensed to exhort by Classis Hackensack not long after we'd been in Philadelphia, so I got to know some of the churches and some of the pastors and after several years in Philadelphia some of the pastors came to me and said that they would really like to see me get ordained. I said I'd like to do that but I could not, because of my work at the seminary, go to Calvin Seminary for a year, and they said they thought that perhaps the synod would exempt me from that since I had done my doctoral dissertation on the synod of Dort and was well-acquainted with Dutch Reformed tradition generally as well as with Reformed theology. One of the ministers contacted John Kromminga at Calvin Seminary and John Kromminga was very helpful in smoothing the way for me to be exempted from that year of study. I was then examined by the faculty of Calvin Seminary and the board of Calvin Seminary in the  traditional way and recommended for candidacy by them and then was ordained to the ministry in 1979.

CR: Tell me a bit about your experiences as a Christian Reformed professor at Westminster. You certainly were not the first but at times that must have meant that you had a foot in two worlds.
GODFREY: Westminster since its founding has been an independent seminary, although many people in the Christian Reformed Church think of it as an Orthodox Presbyterian seminary that's never been true, and in that sense Westminster, while having certain historical connections to the movement, in fact being at the center of the movement that produced the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, nonetheless has always been an independent seminary and always had ministers from a variety of different  denominations. It's never been any sort of problem or difficulty. Obviously each faculty member has his own denomination and is involved to one extent or another with the life of that denomination and therefore we're not always precisely experiencing the same things of difficulty or blessing, but it's never been any sort of problem.  Westminster Seminary's always appreciated its high level of support and encouragement from Christian Reformed people throughout the years.

CR: How did you become the President of Westminster in California?
GODFREY: I have no idea. [laughs] To be less facetious, I had had a brief time as dean of the seminary, about 18 months, and that convinced me that I did not want to be involved in administration, and when we began the process of searching for a new president, I was put on the presidential search committee as a faculty representative.  I had no thoughts about the job whatsoever, and yet as the process went along, a number of people that I respected encouraged me to think about becoming president, and I very much resisted the idea, but by a whole series of small steps, I felt that I was moved along towards allowing my name to be considered and towards accepting the job when it was offered.   lt had never been something to which I aspired or planned for and I remain somewhat surprised that I am where I am. Sometimes I fear that I'm a little too outspoken to be a president, but I think one of the ways in which academic institutions have lost the confidence of churches and of laypeople generally is a sense that something secret is going on in educational institutions, that educational institutions aren't straightforward with the church.  I think Westminster's always been an exception to that but I guess I feel that it 's very import ant for the seminary to be somewhat outspoken and to be candid and honest with people about where it stands and what it believes and what it's trying to accomplish in its work. As a result I think we have a constituency that trusts and respects us a great deal, and I'm very thankful for that.

CR: The founder of Westminster in Philadelphia is, of course, a person about whom no one has many doubts on his stance. In what way do you see yourself as similar to or different from J. Gresham Machen?
GODFREY:  I don't compare myself to Dr. Machen at all, he was a man of great brilliance and experienced the tragedy of seeing not only his denomination increasingly deviate from Reformed and biblical truths but also saw the institution that had been at the center of Presbyterian orthodoxy crumble around him. I think Dr. Machen was formed to a great extent by his experiences at Princeton both as a student and as a professor before the founding of Westminster Seminary. He was at the center of an institution and a church that had great cultural as well as religious influence in America, and so the founding of Westminster and of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was a profound experience of disestablishment and loss of status and place and I don't think I've experienced anything like what Dr. Machen knew. But he experienced great struggles for the truth and I don't think I've experienced anything like what he had gone through.

CR:  Tell me a bit about your vision for the Reformed faith and what role you see Westminster in California playing in that?
GODFREY: I think California is a state of tremendous diversity, and a state often little-understood by the rest of the country. California is probably the richest agricultural state in the union, something many people forget.  It has some of the most varied topography and geography and wonderfully varied kinds of natural beauty. It has great cities with amazing diversity ethnically, religiously, and in almost any other way. And of course, what people tend to know is that California is often at the cutting edge of our pop culture in America. As a result, California is a place where you sense yourself as a Christian missionary, even if you were born and raised in California. There 's no temptation to see Christianity as established in any sense in California, and therefore it's a great challenge that forces you to try to think through how do you communicate Reformed Christianity in this kind of environment.  In that sense, I think it's a very, very healthy place to be. You can't hide from the world in California, it's all around you. Therefore I think it's a great challenge for us to say how do we carry on the ministry of Reformed Christianity, how do we spread Reformed Christianity in the 21st Century. Therefore it's a great  laboratory, and our vision is then to plant Reformed churches. to graduate students who are committed to the Reformed faith and are eager to find ways of effectively communicating it to our time.

CR: Why is the Reformed faith important?
GODFREY: I think as Dr. Cornelius Van Til always used to say, Reformed Christianity is Biblical  Christianity. I believe that Reformed Christianity is the most faithful expression of Biblical Christianity and its value is then in bringing rich, deep, profound biblical truths to a very needy world . We live in a world that by and large is unthinking, undisciplined, and I think that the thoughtfulness and discipline of Reformed Christianity is precisely what is needed in our time.

CR: How do you think your role can help the denomination that brought you to Christ?
GODFREY: I've tried in the last few years to work within the denomination, I've done that by serving as an elder for at least three terms in two different congregations, I've preached widely in the churches, I've spoken at conferences, I've written regularly in the Outlook and the Banner when asked. I've tried to make clear the dangers in the Christian Reformed Church and what needs to be done to correct those dangers. I grieve now to see Synod 1996 fail even to wrestle very seriously with the call of conservatives to repent of past synodical actions. I'm looking forward to the South Holland conference and hoping that some unified action can be taken in light of the present crisis in the Christian Reformed Church. I fear very much that the church is ceasing to be the church that led me to Christ and taught me the Reformed faith.

Previously published in Christian Renewal October 7, 1996

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