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Podcast | 22 Minutes

R.C. Sproul, Advice for Potential College Students, and more! | Dr. Stephen J. Nichols

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
R.C. Sproul, Advice for Potential College Students, and more! | Dr. Stephen J. Nichols

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Is your student looking to continue their classical education after high school? The classical Christian curriculum at Reformation Bible College may be just the place to start their undergraduate studies! Today we chat with Dr. Stephen J. Nichols, historian and President of RBC. Plus, learn a little about the person and ministry of the late R.C. Sproul and get some behind-the-scenes stories from Dr. Nichol’s journey in writing the biography of this renowned theologian.

Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode for better readability.

Marlin Detweiler:

Hello again. This is Marlin Detweiler with Veritas Press. This is Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Today we have with us, Steve Nichols. I've known Steve a long time, long before he did what he's doing now. Steve, welcome.

Stephen Nichols:

It's good to see you again. That's right. We go back to my Lancaster days.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, give us a little background on you. That's a good lead-in. Tell us a little bit about your personal circumstances and maybe career path and what caused you to end up where you are now.

Stephen Nichols:

Sure. I was Keystone State. My whole life I grew up in Western P.A. My dad was a Baptist pastor and of course, an independent Baptist if you're going to be a Baptist. But I grew up in the church, grew up surrounded with God's word, and people of faith and church was an important part of my life. Wasn't necessarily the reformed tradition that's going to come in a little bit later, but very grateful for that. And exposure to God's word early in my life ended up studying over in the Philadelphia area, ended up at Westminster Seminary. So now you could see where –

Marlin Detweiler:

Did you do undergrad work in Philadelphia, too?

Stephen Nichols:

I did at what was then known as Philadelphia College Revival. But now Cairn. And actually, yeah, our time, my wife and I dated all through college and our time at, at PCB, we would go down to 10th Presbyterian and hear James Montgomery Boice. So that was probably our true baptism into the reformed faith then ended up in Lancaster and taught at Lancaster Bible College, and worshiped at Westminster Presbyterian church there in Lancaster.

Got to know you all over at Veritas Press and really enjoyed our time. And then we moved down here to Florida to come be part of Ligonier and part of this college that R.C. started.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. So you are the President of Reformation Bible College, which is a college that is on the same campus as Ligonier, it's a beautiful campus for those that have not ever been– I highly recommend I don't know if they're if it's opening during the week to just go walk around it.

Stephen Nichols:

It is.

Marlin Detweiler:

Certainly recommend to go worship at St Andrew's Chapel, and of course I learned a little bit about RBC at Ligonier all in one place there. What a beautiful place it is. So you are now the president of Reformation Bible College. Tell us a little bit about the college, how old it is, and really what it set out to do purpose-wise.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, it was founded in 2011, and it was founded by R.C. So he was the first president and, you know, that's enough to say, make you a little feeble in the knees when you think about it. But it was a trip to Geneva that R.C. was on and, you know, the old city is behind the reformation wall and R.C Would say, “I don't even have to close my eyes. I could just see it!” And he was reflecting on how Calvin had the academy there at Geneva, which of course grew now into the University of Geneva. But he was, Luther was a college professor at the University of Wittenberg. He looked at how the reformers were engaged in theological education and didn't want to do seminary.

So, you know, he taught at the seminary for years, reformed seminary, taught at the Old Temple Seminary there, Thornwell Theological Seminary on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. He said the problem with seminarians is they know everything you know, you can't teach them anything. But undergrads. You know, he would say it. “I want their minds.” And undergrads are like sponges. And if you give them attention in time, they'll respond to that.

So he had the vision to start a college, and it's a Bible college, because he wanted Bible as core to the curriculum. But as R.C. is unique, the college is unique. And so it does have a full course of Bible, has a full course of theology, eight semesters of systematic theology.

But as you know, and we'll get into this, R.C. was a firm believer in classical education, so he wanted a true liberal arts, a true humanities education. And so he put into the curriculum eight semesters of great works. And also, of course, it's R.C., So it's going to be histories of philosophy and ancient history, Greco-Roman history, and Latin.

So he gave us a Bible college with a wonderful classical education and humanities, true liberal arts education, as a bonus.

Marlin Detweiler:

I have known a lot about RBC, but I did not know that commitment to the elements of classical education that we tend to focus on, at least as directly as I might have known.

Stephen Nichols:

R.C. – Well, you know more than I, his conversion to classical education and reading Dorothy Sayers and recognizing it and being involved in the formation of a classical Christian school was his first foray into formal education, and then he brought that with him into RBC.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, we have some real fond– I love telling the story that the Geneva School. That came out of a conversation he and I had when he recommended reading Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. We read it. We went to school like that. So it was May 26, 1992.

Stephen Nichols:

I heard about this - wasn’t this at a Memorial Day picnic? A Memorial Day party or something?

Marlin Detweiler:

You know, that's a good question. It wasn't. But around Memorial Day, I don't remember. I had to look at the calendar. I remember sitting in our family room and talking about – we had an evening with four couples, including the Sprouls and the Detweilers, and we talked. It took us about 10 minutes to discuss whether or not to start a school.

The rest of that was planning the school because we'd already committed to it. And exactly three months later, we opened with, I think, 38 students, and it was benefited very much by having R.C. as the speaker at parent nights when we were having recruiting nights for parents, and there were lots of fun stories that could go off on that. But that's not what we're here to talk about. So I'll go stop and talk about RBC.

So it is a truly liberal arts and Bible college. But I want to ask a question about college because one of the things that I see in the work that we do is that if you get students who are poorly educated coming there, isn't it a little bit like trying to make somebody who's handicapped get to be a world-class runner? I mean, doesn't it really handicap you? You know, our market is the K-12 market. And so that's who we're talking about in introducing them to RBC. And one of the things I'm trying to communicate with this question, and I want to hear you talk about it, is how badly handicapped are you if the student comes poorly educated?

Stephen Nichols:

So for our entrance, we put a heavy stock on three elements. One is a pastoral or a teacher reference. We're a Bible college. We have a defined scope. We only have one degree. It's a Bachelor of Arts in theology. We're not looking to be all things to all people. We're not looking to throw the gates open and have thousands of students.

R.C. gave us the mandate to stay at 200, a nice, small, intimate college. So we want people who are aligned with us. So we put a lot of stock on the testimony of the student and on the reference. But then the other thing is the writing sample. So reading and writing is very important to the curriculum. All the freshman courses, you're reading 1,000 - 1,200 pages per course, and you're writing papers all through your four years of your tenure. So so we put a premium on the writing, and those are the things we look for. Then, of course, as we bring them into freshmen, we do have a communication class where we emphasize thinking well, writing well, and speaking well as a sort of foundation for everything you're going to do. And we have the advantage here at Ligonier. We have an editorial team that puts out a monthly magazine called Table Talk that some of your folks might know about, and they publish books, and we put out all sorts of things. Every word goes through the editorial department here.

Well, the entire editorial team also has their master's degrees. They all are adjuncts for us, so it's helpful to put them in the community. These are professional writers and editors that we're putting our freshmen in front of so that they can gain some skills. So we put a premium on it. Now we will come alongside and help students and help them if they have the desire, we'll help them develop those skills. But we need to see something to start with.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's really neat. With 200 students, obviously, you're able to be fairly selective and probably don't have as much the problem as I was suggesting because of your ability to have enough to pick from. But it has always struck me, and this is something you might further comment on, maybe even beyond RBC. When we think we're going to fix educational problems at a collegiate level, fixing– it's a little bit like trying to nurse a dead plant, and it won't work.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, I mean, it's habits, it's disciplines. It's its grooves in the mind that are being set. And if they're in a different trajectory, it is hard to carve out new grooves. You need something there. You’re going to deepen the groove but you need something there to land into. So it is, it is a challenge.

And you know, I haven't always been at RBC, I've been at other places, and you sort of sense it in the classroom, the lack of good rhetorical skill. But even just it's reflected in the writing skills, it's also the thinking, and problem-solving skills that are just difficult to nurture. You want to hop right into it at college, but it's difficult if you don't have that.

Marlin Detweiler:

I remember a pastor of mine talking about the advantage of preaching to a well-educated congregation being a whole lot easier to move them. Same kind of thing. How does RBC relate to the broader community there of Ligonier?

Stephen Nichols:

In business terms, we’re a subsidiary. We were very much reflective of Ligonier’s emphases. As I said, R.C. basically gave us our mandate and our curriculum and defined us as a college that will focus on theology. We talk about being in the historic Christian faith. We talk about being in the reformed classical tradition. All that's going to reflect the emphases that people have been paying attention to around Ligonier for decades.

They know it's the doctrine of God; they know it's the doctrines of grace. They know it's the value of church history. They probably know R.C.'s book, The Consequences of Ideas, and know that that's going to be something we're going to talk about. If you want to understand the current moment, let's back up to modern philosophy and see the font of some of this.

So all that's going to mark what we do, even the esthetic, you know, R.C. would say, why do we just have to settle for truth and let the Episcopalians, the Anglicans, and Catholics have beauty, right?

Marlin Detweiler:

I think that's a good admonishment to the reformed community.

Stephen Nichols:

Exactly. God is a God of truth. He is a God of justice and goodness. And he's a God of beauty. It is interesting in The Holiness of God, R.C. talks at the end about sacred space and sacred time. And in our application, we think of academic space. So we're very intentional about our campus to create a space, especially our library, its old world, its wooden bookshelves.

We even created in the center a circular bookshelf. And we put our sets from the Church Fathers through Aquinas and some of the medievalist, the reformers, Edwards post-reformation folks, Princeton folks. And we say to students, this is the tradition. This is the hub of the wheel. You are entering into this tradition, and then this tradition goes out like spokes.

Marlin Detweiler:

Theology being the queen of the sciences, the hub metaphor is illustrated in the library. That is is that is too cool!

Stephen Nichols:

And even when we do tours with prospective students, we take them right into the center of that bookshelf, and we tell them this defines who we are. So all that is Ligonier. You know, Ligonier definitely is about truth well told. And intentionality in the presentation, not just the content, but intentionality presentation. So thankfully, a lot of that has defined us, and, you know, we're just grateful here because how hard is it to start a college from scratch?

But we had Ligonier here, as I affectionately call it, the mothership who comes alongside us and helps us. And it's great. But the flip side is people at Ligonier love seeing what's going on at the college, and when they see our students like we had our choral sing at the national conference. There are 60 kids up there wearing capes and dresses and singing beautiful choral music.

I told everybody watching, like, burn this image into your head. So when you're back home watching the news and ready to give up on this next generation and just want to cash it all in, remember this, that there's a remnant coming. There's something to be hopeful here.

Marlin Detweiler:

There is another question. How have you all had to deal with the challenges in the last couple of years of some of the issues surrounding gender discussion and racial issues at a college level? How have you dealt with it?

Stephen Nichols:

So, we want our students to be aware and equipped. So in apologetics, we talk about this. In the doctrine of humanity, we talk about this very extensively, but more to just equip them. These are not conversations that we're having. And actually, because they're not conversations that we're having, I find this kind of interesting.

You know, there are Christian colleges who have totally capitulated and have been defined by these cultural moments. But there are also some colleges that ironically are allowing this cultural discussion to define them by being so focused on being against it. And what we've always said, what R.C’s always said is, “The most timely education is a timeless education.”

So if we just focus on who we are and our identity. This is going to help students. So we definitely engage these things, but we don't have to define ourselves as against them because we define ourselves theologically, which puts us against them. And again, our students, they're self-selecting. They know who we are, they know what they're getting. So we have a good sense of alignment here.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good. So you started in 2011. Are you at full capacity now? 200 students?

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, we have a headcount of over 200. Our Full-Time is around 170. That could pop up a little bit.

Marlin Detweiler:

So you say 200, you measure that in FTE, full-time equivalent?

Stephen Nichols:

Well, it's a little bit of it depends because we're still trying to figure it out. We've got to we've got the capacity of the campus that is actually defining. So we're trying to figure that out. And now that we're getting closer to 180’s FTE, that's probably our capacity, but that'll put our headcount or, you know, up over the 200. So we say around 200 is the number we want to be.

And we're very close to that. I think another cycle or two we will be – a total admission cycle or two we will be at max capacity.

Marlin Detweiler:

Where do you find the students head out to?

Stephen Nichols:

So we, of course have students who head out to seminaries, and we've got great relationships with about eight seminaries.

Marlin Detweiler:

Wonderful.

Stephen Nichols:

That will take our students three years instead of four. So they do three years here, go off, do a year at seminary. We backfill the credits, and they get their degree. And, of course, they've had their Greek and Hebrew. So that gives them an advantage once they get to seminary. The other thing we find, which is part of this conversation, is our students are getting jobs teaching in classical Christian schools.

Marlin Detweiler:

I don't doubt that.

Stephen Nichols:

Because it's a classical education. And we're hearing from headmasters and heads of schools that it's difficult to find students who've had a college education that's classical. They hire them, and they sort of got to unwind some of the things they've they've learned– the way in which they've learned some things, to have more of a classical, integrative approach. And so, even as an unaccredited college, we've got at least a dozen students out there teaching in classical Christian schools.

We just brought on a reformed classical education minor to help them even more, be equipped to do that. So we have students in the mission field. And then the other thing is, this is the reformed doctrine of vocation, right? We want our students, we want theologians in the pulpit, and we want theologians in the pew. So we have students who leave here and go off and live. Some will come here for a year or two and go off and do an engineering degree or nursing degree or whatever the case may be. So we're happy to put our students all over the place.

Marlin Detweiler:

Interesting. One of the things that I find myself, this is not quite the right word, but wanting to see what can be done to fix it– is to make the role of pastor far more valuable to the marketplace. More like it would have been right a hundred or 200 years ago.

Stephen Nichols:

Exactly. Yes.

Marlin Detweiler:

I suspect that what you're doing educationally contributes to a solution there.

Stephen Nichols:

You know, I think about this all the time. Marlin, I went to Westminster Theological Seminary, and I sat alongside people who are coming out of Penn State with an engineering degree. So, you know, they weren’t getting necessarily a liberal arts humanities program in philosophy, literature, and history. And they get their M-DIV and then go and pastor it.

So these students are getting a classical education and an education in the English Bible. So there's like eight semesters of Bible survey. They really know the English Bible, and then they're getting their Greek and Hebrew so they can leave here and read Greek in Hebrew. So they're starting seminary, not learning Greek in Hebrew, they're starting seminary, able to read Greek and Hebrew, and we read von Maastricht and Turton and Calvin as our theological textbooks.

They're just going to be reading them for the second time in seminary. And so I just think what a great one-two punch with this as an undergraduate education that as a seminary. And then the other piece to it is our faculty are just great models for them too. Like, really invested in them and care about them and want to see them go off and be successful in this.

And so they're also getting their mind is being well cared for, but they as a person are also being well cared for. So I'm very excited. Chris Larson, Ligonier’s president, as we talk about all the time, we think it's almost like a flywheel effect. And when you think about what the impact of these students will be over time.

Marlin Detweiler:

It is really amazing to think about how we might see the culture reclaimed in America. And these I hesitate to call grassroots because it's not quite that as it relates to RBC. Ligonier has got a million-person mailing list. You get the students, it's very different, and it's leveraging those people very differently. Those students.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, we talk about Ligonier is a regular army. We're special forces.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's good. I like that.

Stephen Nichols:

And when Chris you know, again, the President of Ligonier – when Chris Larsen talks, it's always “to as many people as possible” – that's the Ligonier mission. To as many people as possible. We're either at the bottom or, if you flip the pyramid, we're at the very top of the pyramid, that 200 elite forces that are specially trained and can be deployed.

Marlin Detweiler:

So that's great. Well, let's change the subject here for just for the last part of this, you wrote a book on R.C. It's called R.C. Sproul: A Life, which I got the name of that, right? Yeah. What possessed you? R.C. passed away, goodness. Eight years ago or so?

Stephen Nichols:

It was 2017.

Marlin Detweiler:

‘17. Okay.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah. December 2017.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, I'm curious, was this something that you'd given some thought to for a long time? How did it come about?

Stephen Nichols:

Well, I wrote mostly church history, and just before I came down here, I came down here in 2014. It was about 2012, 2013. My friends at Crossway, I was talking to them about a biography that I could do because I thought, you know, I've done all these people who are no longer with us. It might be interesting to do a 20th-century figure.

And I thought about R.C., and then, you know, Crossway said, “Sure.” We contracted it. I think it was contracted in like 2012. Well, then I moved down here and started as president and that was 2014. And you know, the first two years of writing– I wrote little books, but a big biography was not going to happen.

And then, you know, with R.C., I wasn't sure how to end it, wasn't sure what the final chapter was going to look like. You know, he didn't know. Was he going to have another decade? And what next thing is he going to do? That was R.C. You know, honestly, he would finish something like I remember when I got down here, we finished the Reformation Study Bible. A massive project overhaul of that thing.

Put the latest edition out in 2015. We get it back, the first copy back, and we call everybody over there to the admin building. 15 people are in the room. Put in front of R.C. He looks at, he goes, “That's great. What's next?” Ha!! We had all of 15 seconds of celebration. But then, of course, R.C. was dramatic. So he's going to go out in the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. So 2017 was a providentially timely year for R.C.’s passing.

Marlin Detweiler:

I'd never made that connection before. You're absolutely right.

Stephen Nichols:

And actually, the last Ligonier talk he gave we did over at St Andrew's Chapel on Reformation Day, we did a 500th-anniversary event and that was R.C.’s last talk.

Marlin Detweiler:

So that was like the 31st.

Stephen Nichols:

It was, and it was on justification, but of course, it was on Aristotle, on the five types of causes so that we can understand what is going on in justification and the instrumental cause and the efficient cause. And he did all that in 18 minutes. And it was his last talk.

No, I wanted to do the biography. Everyone knew to the platform, R.C. made it look effortless. He stood there without notes. He recalled nuances of Emmanuel Kahn's moral argument. Aristotle on cause, made the direct application to a biblical text and also made you feel like he was your long-lost friend. He made it effortless.

And what I wanted to show was a lot of work went into that. There were decades of feet under the desk, piles of books slogging it through. And so I had fun in the fifties, sixties, early seventies, study center years, and then, of course, the R.C. we all know.

Marlin Detweiler:

So you didn't answer the question that you left on the table, did you not finish the book until he passed?

Stephen Nichols:

Right. I didn't. I was starting it before he passed, I'd go over to his house, and we would do interview sessions, which were delightful, I mean, absolutely delightful. And my best memories. He'd sit in a chair, and I'd sit next to him. Sometimes Vesta would be running an errand, sometimes she'd be there.

To tell you a quick story, Marlin, that you'll appreciate. In the middle of one of our talks, he got a call and, of course, always stopped. And he did the call. Well, an investor was sitting there. We're listening. It was obvious it was the golf course. The pro shop called him to tell him his driver was ready. And R.C. says, “Oh, yeah, I'll pick it up tomorrow.” He finishes up the call, and the investor goes, “Hmm! A new golf club!” and R.C. goes, “Well, it's my money.”

But if you know the Sprouls as you do. That's just sort of banter that they would often do with each other. But just to be part of that and have that time with him was really wonderful. But no, honestly, it was COVID. COVID allowed me to hole up in my home and get the book done.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, that's great. There aren't many people whose timing allows them to interview the person about writing and then finish it with the last chapter being their last chapter on Earth.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah.

Marlin Detweiler:

Remarkable opportunity, quite frankly.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, it really was. I didn't put a lot of this in the book, but it helped me understand, oh, like evangelicals and Catholics together, historians can write about that. But that was, that was a really hard moment in R.C.’s life. Like this is decades later, and he's saying that is “The hardest thing I ever went through.”

Marlin Detweiler:

I actually remember living some of that as his friend. That was the time at which we had the most connection.

Stephen Nichols:

Mid-Nineties.

Marlin Detweiler:

I was not involved in that. But that's not the stuff that I have been qualified to be involved with. But what was interesting was to hear him talk about the struggles that had put him through, and the challenges and clear thinking was always a wonderful thing to witness and to experience as he talked through those things.

Yeah, great stuff. See, this has been wonderful. A little bit of memory lane for me. Great to hear more about the college. It's great to visit with you again. Thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Nichols:

Yeah, it's been my pleasure. Thanks so much.

Marlin Detweiler:

Folks, you have been with us today at Veritas Vox with Steve Nichols. And this is the voice of classical Christian education. Thanks for joining us.