Wayne Grudem reflects on his life's work
Newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the professor and theologian looks back on his accomplishments and to the work ahead
Wayne Grudem is a teacher, author, and speaker, but that description fails to describe the full scope of his work. His work translating the Bible into the English Standard Version, or ESV, and creating the bestselling ESV Study Bible would be a life’s work in and of itself for many people. His Systematic Theology, first published in 1995, weighs in at more than 1,200 pages. It’s not the sort of book that typically makes bestseller lists, but it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been enormously influential in the evangelical church. His book Politics According to the Bible has likewise been influential. Since 2001, Grudem has been a professor of theology and Biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona. Prior to that, he taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. He’s a founder of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and he’s also a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society. We had this conversation at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
I have heard other people describe you as evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic. How does that description fit, from your point of view? Those words or labels fit a lot of what I believe—the Charismatic one perhaps least well because I don’t agree with a lot of things in the Charismatic movement. I do think that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue today, and I’ve written about that. I’m broadly Reformed, in fact, specifically Reformed in my view of how the Bible should be understood regarding God’s sovereignty and human actions.
And evangelical? Yes, definitely.
What do you consider to be the fundamental tenets of Reformed theology? With regard to God’s sovereignty, I think that God’s decree, God’s ultimate hidden secret plan is the reason why everything happens in the universe. Even the details of you interviewing me here this afternoon on Jan. 28, 2016, I think God had planned from before the foundation of the world. That’s a strong view of God’s sovereignty, but I think the book of Ephesians says that “God works all things,” in chapter 1, “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Many other passages speak that way, which is in my Systematic Theology. I’m Reformed with regard to God’s sovereignty, and then with regard to salvation, I believe that it is ultimately God’s choice that determines whether someone is saved or not.
I think, consistent with the mainstream of Reformed theology, our actions matter, they make a difference. … It does make a difference what we do, and God has given us the ability to make voluntary, willing choices. I don’t think these are apart from God’s eternal decree, but they are part of how he has decreed the world would work. I don’t understand fully how those fit together, but I think they’re both true. We need to individually, personally repent of our sins and trust in Jesus as our savior and Lord in order to be saved. It isn’t true that people are saved no matter what they do.
You were the general editor for the ESV Study Bible. What should a Christian look for in a Bible translation, and what were you aiming for with the ESV Study Bible? I’m going to back up before the ESV Study Bible, which came out in 2008. The ESV Bible translation itself came out in 2001. … We began working on it as a 12-member translation team in 1998. There were preliminary conversations with Crossway Books and Lane Dennis, the president of Crossway, and Vern Poythress, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a lifelong friend. I was involved in [discussions] about what kind of translation we would do. John Piper was talking with Lane Dennis at that time, too. …
The origins of the ESV as a revision of the Revised Standard Version go back to 1967, the end of my freshman year at Harvard, when I asked a wise, mature Christian, who was a Ph.D. student in mathematics, “I’m getting so tired of the archaic language in the King James Version. Can you recommend what Bible version I should switch to?” He said, “RSV, Revised Standard Version.” There were some liberal tendencies in it in some of the messianic predictions in the Old Testament and some of the passages in the New Testament about the deity of Christ, but overall it was a word-for-word, essentially literal translation.
I switched in ’67 to the RSV. That was the recommendation of Vern Poythress, who is today the chairman of the New Testament translation committee for the ESV and a lifelong friend.
With your love for the Revised Standard Version and your fluency in it, was it those liberal tendencies that you were trying to correct with the ESV? The RSV still used “thee” and “thou” in speaking to God, in prayer and praise in the Psalmsparticularly, and that was archaic. Also, there were messianic predictions in the Old Testament, especially, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Immanuel,” in Isaiah 7:14. They had put, “A young woman shall conceive.” The Old Testament first came out in 1952 for the RSV, and that was coming on the heels of decades of controversy over the virgin birth with theological liberals in the Christian world rejecting the virgin birth and saying it’s impossible. Then they take the prediction of the virgin birth out of Isaiah 7:14. It outraged many, many evangelicals. That was a problem.
Psalm 2 said, “Kiss his feet,” instead of, “Kiss the son lest he be angry.” Psalm 45 said, “Your divine throne endures forever and ever,” instead of, “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever,” which is addressed to Jesus in the New Testament. There were passages like that. Then in the New Testament, the word “propitiation,” which was in four key texts that talk about Christ’s death for us, was removed from the Revised Standard Version because many of the translators didn’t believe that God had individual, personal wrath against people’s sin. Propitiation was a word that meant Jesus’ death bore the wrath of God against sin and paid the penalty for us. They had changed it to a word that was kind of neutral, called expiation. That upset many evangelicals as well.
How do you feel about the effort? Are you happy with the result? Very happy and thankful to God after many years of working as a member of the translation committee. We knew there were things wrong with the RSV, but we knew it was based on excellent translation derived from the King James Version and representing many of the translation principles that had made the Revised Standard Version so great, readability and accuracy in detail, in particular. We took out all the traces of liberalism and updated the RSV. We changed about 8 percent of the text or about 60,000 words. “Wouldst” went to “would” and “couldst” went to “could” and some things like that. In the end, we were happy.
It turned out when we began to talk to people there were many, many evangelicals who were in the academic world who had been using the RSV as their personal Bible for 20 or 30 years as I had and who were eager for the chance to have a revision. John Piper was one. I remember talking to J.I. Packer when he had come for a visiting lectureship at Trinity Divinity School where I was teaching. I said to him, “Jim, would you be interested in working on an evangelical revision of the Revised Standard Version?” He didn’t bat an eye. He said, “Absolutely.” Instantly, he was on board. Of course, it was a tremendous blessing to have his support.
You memorized a lot of Scripture in the Revised Standard Version. Whenever you quote verses today, do you go back and forth? I’m afraid a jumble comes out that’s part ESV and part RSV. If I make an effort, I can get the ESV exactly right, but it’s too close. Could I say something about the ESV Study Bible? Right here in my office, I worked for three years as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible. It was the product of the work of 95 specialists—people who had written commentaries on individual books of the Bible and were writing notes on those books, interpretative notes, and then specialists in the history of the canon and ethical questions and other things that went into essays in the back.
More than once when I was sitting here editing the work that had gone first to an Old Testament expert and then to our Old Testament editor, Jack Collins, or our New Testament editor, Tom Schreiner, and then had come to me, I was just overwhelmed with the expertise. I remember reading the notes on Ezekiel and thinking, “There’s no way in my lifetime that I will ever know as much about Ezekiel as the author who wrote these notes,” and so it was with me. It was a privilege just to oversee and edit the work of 95 specialists who love God and believe in the total inerrancy of the Bible.
Define “inerrancy” from where you sit. What does that mean, and how can we explain inerrancy to a skeptical world? Inerrancy just means that the Bible always tells the truth, means that what it affirms is truthful. Now it says some things that aren’t true, like there is no God, but it prefaces that with, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.” It tells you, “You don’t want to believe that.” Where it affirms something is true, I think every detail of the Bible is absolutely truthful and reliable. That’s based on the conviction that God is an unlying God. He’s “the God who never lies” in Titus 1:2, and Hebrews 6 says, “It is impossible for God to lie. In His nature he cannot lie.” The Bible is the product of human authors, but also under the direction of the Holy Spirit. God protected what they wrote so the result was also God’s words to us, and I think we have a complete obligation to believe and obey everything in there that we read and obey what is rightly understood to apply to us today.
I could say also, in four years at Harvard, then three years in seminary, but then another three years in doctoral work at Cambridge University in England, and then since then, I’ve come across many alleged errors in the Bible where people have said, “Oh, here’s a contradiction. Here’s a mistake. This isn’t accurate.” My experience is, when you look in detail at those objections, they unravel. I don’t know of any passage in Scripture where there aren’t at least reasonable, plausible explanations showing how the passage of Scripture is still true. After going through some of the great universities of the world and facing some challenges to inerrancy, and then after teaching on inerrancy for 35 or 40 years, my confidence in the complete truthfulness of everything the Bible says is stronger than it ever was.
How did you decide to write your book Politics According to the Bible? God makes everybody different. One thing he put in my heart and my mind from a very early age was an interest in politics, I think because of a sense of how much government affects everybody’s life and the course of the world. I was a 12-year-old campaigner for Richard Nixon in 1960. That was my early introduction to politics. … In high school, I was involved in student government. I was president of the student council, in fact, in my high school. If you had asked me when I went to college what I wanted to do, I would have told you that I wanted to go to law school after college and then go into politics. That’s where I was headed. Then God had a different plan. I sat under the preaching of Harold John Ockenga at Park Street Church in Boston during my college years and was amazed at his 45-minute expository preachings Sunday morning and then Sunday evening, and I thought maybe God was calling me to teach the Bible.
That preaching, that involvement there turned you from a life of politics to a life as a theologian? God just put on my heart, I think, that he wanted me to go into becoming what I thought then would be a pastor. I took some Hebrew and Greek still in college and ultimately graduated from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. In the middle of my seminary studies, a friend of mine who was doing doctoral work in New Testament at Cambridge said, “Wayne, you really would enjoy this doctoral work,” so I applied to Cambridge and was accepted and did a Ph.D. there.
You have chosen this political campaign, this election cycle, to engage in partisan politics. You have been named to Marco Rubio’s advisory group on religious and theological issues, and I believe you’ve even endorsed Marco Rubio. The Rubio campaign asked if I would give an endorsement of Senator Rubio. My own opinion is there are several very, very strong candidates in the Republican primary field right now. Yet, I think for several reasons that I mentioned in that endorsement that I think Rubio is the one that I would most highly favor. I thought, it’s an important time in our nation. God has given me a stewardship of various things, and one of the things He’s given me a stewardship of is the reputation and credibility that He has entrusted to me. If I can use that reputation and credibility to influence the direction of the nation for good, then it seems to me that I have a responsibility before God to use it in that way, and that was why I issued the endorsement.
Why not just stay independent and say to other Christians, “Use these principles to make your own decision?” Both would have been good choices, I suppose, but it seemed to me that Marco Rubio is more articulate than any politician that has come along in maybe 100 years. He’s unbelievably fluent and knowledgeable and well-informed about issues. I agree with him on everything that I’ve heard him speak about. He was here in Phoenix. I had an opportunity to just talk to him for a minute or two, and I gave him the book Politics According to the Bible. I said, “Senator Rubio, I think you will agree with most of the positions in here.”
He looked at it, and he said, “Politics According to the Bible. Well, if it’s in the Bible, I’ll agree with all of it,” and he smiled. Then he said, “Well, I’m flying on airplanes a lot. I may have a chance to read some of it now.” I don’t know what happened. His position on immigration, when I’ve heard him say what he believes, sounds suspiciously like the position in my Politics According to the Bible book. I think it’s a compassionate and wise and yet just position that protects the nation as well as cares for the immigrant.
What is your position? Build a fence first, and then everybody’s tempers will settle down a little bit. Then second, people who have committed crimes and are here illegally should be deported, no question. Then I think that the nation as a whole will have a compassionate and wise solution to the immigrants who are here illegally and who remain here. I do think there should be a difficult but possible path to citizenship, and I outline in the book some steps that include fluency in English and knowledge of American political system and things like that.
I do think also that the immigration system that we have in the United States should be completely transformed because it should be one that allows the United States as a nation to admit the people we think will be most beneficial to admit and most helpful to the nation, not just people based on extended family and then their relatives and their relatives, which is the system today. I do think the number of immigrants that we legally allow into the country could be greatly expanded, because it’s a great country, and people who come here are primarily producers, not takers.
I’d like to shift gears and talk maybe about your personal life just a bit, if you’re willing. You recently announced that you have Parkinson’s disease. When did you first start noticing symptoms and how long did you go before you felt like it was important or necessary for you to make the public announcement that you did? Probably in October 2015, I noticed that my handwriting wasn’t as legible as it used to be and it had gotten smaller, and I didn’t know quite what to think about that. Then, actually, I preached a sermon at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, John Piper’s church that he’s now retired from, in late October. My wife, Margaret, was there and my son and daughter-in-law, Oliver and Sarah, and their children. Afterward, they said to me I seemed monotone and not very animated, and what was wrong?
Then in November, we went to the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting in Atlanta, with over 2,000 professors who teach New Testament, Old Testament, and theology at different evangelical institutions. During the course of those sessions over several days—and Margaret was there with me—some very longtime old friends, three different ones at least, said to me, “Wayne, something seems wrong with you. Your movements are slow, your voice is not as animated. Is something wrong?” … We went to the doctor. He thought, “Is this a stroke?” Sent me for an MRI. No evidence of stroke. I had a detailed list of symptoms, and when he saw that list, right away, he said, “These symptoms are consistent with Parkinson’s.” That was Dec. 18. On Dec. 20, he got me an appointment with a neurologist, and she said, “It’s definitely Parkinson’s. It’s early. The symptoms are not significant now.” I’m not sure if you would notice symptoms just by sitting here with me over a half hour. …
You certainly do not present like a person who is ill or has Parkinson’s disease. On Dec. 20, I sent out an email to a few hundred people in the adult Sunday school class that I taught at Scottsdale Bible Church for 11 1/2 years. I don’t teach it anymore, but I still had the mailing list. Then people were aware of it. Then I have a list of people that I send prayer requests to every once in awhile, and John Piper was on that list. He called me quickly and prayed with me on the phone, which I appreciated very much, and then said, “Wayne, could I put this on the Desiring God website?” Once he put it on there, thousands of people knew about it. …
The upshot is that many, many, many people around the world have sent me emails and letters and many have not, but all of them also are praying for me. … I am so thankful to God for that. Margaret and I have—we’re just aware of a great peace from the Lord. David says in Psalm 31, “My times are in your hand,” and I believe that as far as the Lord’s direction is concerned. I want to be faithful in tasks that he’s entrusted to me from now forward.
You don’t have any fears? You’ve got work ahead. Do you have any concerns about not being able to do it? I’m 68 in two weeks. I feel in good health, Warren. I’m thankful to God for that. I don’t know how long that will continue, but the prognosis for people who have Parkinson’s five years, 10 years down the road is sobering. We don’t know. Honestly, I’m ready to die today if God wants to take me. I know Margaret would miss me, and I’d be sad for that. I’m just thankful for His giving me any days at all and enabling me to do any ministry of the Word at all and enabling me to have any teaching career even for a year, and it’s been, I think, 39 years of teaching now. I have great thankfulness to God, no complaints.
However, I am under contract with Crossway Books to write a textbook on Christian ethics. I’ve been teaching ethics for many, many years now, and those lectures are going into a textbook on the whole range of how to live the Christian life. That’s the current project that you see here on the computer behind me and stuff on my desk. Then I’ve also signed an agreement with Zondervan and InterVarsity Press in the U.K. to revise Systematic Theology and publish a second edition of Systematic Theology. I think the ethics book will take me about the rest of 2016 to get it in form, and then maybe another two years for revising Systematic Theology, not changing anything, I believe, but adding topics that weren’t covered in supplemental material. If the Lord would enable me to finish those tasks in the next three or four years, I would be very grateful.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Wayne Grudem on Listening In.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.