Christian theologian R.C. Sproul, an influential teacher who took seminary teachings to homes, walking trails, cars and churches, died Thursday at 78.
During decades of ministry, Sproul led a resurgence of what is called the Reformed Christian faith, which emphasizes that God has sovereign control over everything. While he was not as famous as some of the leaders of the religious right such as James Dobson or Pat Robertson, he deeply shaped many evangelicals' beliefs about the Bible.
Conferences featuring Sproul and other less-well-known teachers attracted thousands of people and prompted a movement within evangelical Christian faith, chronicled by author Collin Hansen in his book “Young, Restless and Reformed.”
As an admirer of French theologian John Calvin, or a Calvinist, Sproul believed people are more sinful than Christians tend to think. As Sproul and others made Calvinism more popular and understandable, some churches, including the large Southern Baptist Convention, have been divided over his strain of theology.
Sproul's influence emerged in the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s, people had been coming to Christianity through all kinds of ministries mostly launched after World War II. Evangelist Billy Graham's “crusades” were the most influential, but other young people were embracing Christ through Young Life ministries for high schoolers, Youth for Christ clubs, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Campus Crusade for Christ.
The young R.C. Sproul thought the Christian movement was too shallow theologically. People were not thinking deeply enough about the Bible, he felt, so somehow they needed to go to seminary.
Affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, Sproul could have taught at plenty of seminaries. Aspiring pastoral candidates were inspired by his capacity to teach systematic theology and apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith.
Sproul worried about the man or the woman in the pew, the layperson as opposed to the clergy who had seminary training. Those people needed what the seminaries were teaching, he thought, and he sought to make big words and complicated concepts understandable to them.
After a short time as a teaching pastor in a Cincinnati church, he launched the Ligonier Valley Study Center in 1971 near a small Pennsylvania town called Stahlstown. Men and women started flocking to weekend seminars or week-long classes on “the Enlightenment” or “the doctrine of Christ” or “the sin nature of humanity.”
The ministry eventually moved to Orlando, Florida, and Sproul started traveling more, teaching in churches as a kind of one-man visiting seminary. Sometimes he teamed up with other pastors and seminary teachers, but he was usually the star, his name drawing crowds of several thousand.
He offered his lectures and classes on cassette tapes for audio listening. He pioneered Bible teaching on VHS tapes for TV viewing. He was figuring out distance learning many years before people would take online classes or listen to podcasts.
He launched a popular radio program called “Renewing Your Mind.” Keeping up with new waves of technology, he took seminary education into homes, cars, churches and later on podcasts for walking and jogging.