Skip to content

10 Questions with Peter Lillback

What this president loves about seminary, enjoys most about history, and misses most about pastoral ministry

You’ve been the president of Westminster Theological Seminary for many years now. What is it that you enjoy most about being a president of a seminary?

What I’ve enjoyed most about being a president of a seminary are all the things that happen because of the privilege of serving behind the scenes. Month after month things occur and even though I don’t try to explain how, I am aware that I’ve had the privilege to assist many of those things in coming to pass by making suggestions, encouraging people, helping to craft an idea, connecting people, and helping to raise funds or pray for God‘s provision and guidance. It truly is a joy to see God work and in this way bring him glory that I can delight in my personal prayers to God.

Having sent out generations of seminary students, what most encourages you as you look out and observe the state of the church in the 21st century?

Having had a role to see several generations of theological students graduate, what most encourages me as I look at the church in the 21st-century is that there still are young leaders who are committed to the truths of Scripture and who have a vision to impact their generation with the gospel of Christ. It is particularly exciting to see the opportunities for global ministry that are becoming available to every one of our students through the ease of travel, the international presence on campus enabling making friends and contacts, and the power of technology. Moreover, I am very grateful that those who graduated years ago from Westminster have risen to places of leadership and are making an impact for good and are seeking to finish well after a career of serving the Lord. We at Westminster have much to be thankful for as we look at the fruitfulness and faithfulness of so many of our graduates.

On the other hand, what most concerns you and what word of warning would you give those entering ministry for the first time?

First, it’s becoming easier and easier to fall into the competition and comparison struggle that so much mars our world. Just as it has been reported that Facebook and other social media are creating more and more of a sense of despair and depression among young people, the power of technology and the media are making it harder and harder to feel that one is competent and sufficient to serve in ministry, given the availability of so many gifted leaders, preachers and teachers. So we must be on our guard against despair through this problem of an excess of comparisons.

Second, I’m very concerned about the proximity of temptation that was unknown in my early years of ministry. Once, the opportunity to be exposed to pornography was rare and difficult if you were living a normal Christian experience. To be sure, it would find you in unexpected ways but it was not a daily reality. Now however, it is a moment by moment reality as the technological means that we all count on every day find countless ways to bring temptation and invitation into the most dangerous forms of pornography and spiritually challenging websites and materials. The need to be faithful and disciplined in this regard is becoming more and more necessary.

Third, as the culture becomes more and more accommodating to non-Christian ethics in so many areas such as drug use, divorce, premarital cohabitation and same-sex attraction, it is going to become harder and harder to be biblically faithful. We are going to need to begin to address whether there is a place for recreational marijuana in the life of the members of the church as it becomes more and more legalized. We’re going to have to have courage to know how to deal with sexual failure and wisdom to show both holiness and grace. We’re going to have to work harder and harder to help sustain marriages for the long-haul onto the glory of God and the good of the family as the family is the bedrock of the church. I’m concerned about the accumulating debt of students going to seminary and then entering into humble areas of service in the kingdom and striving to pay off that debt with beginning salaries. There certainly are many other items but those are some that come to mind.

You’ve written a book called George Washington’s Sacred Fire. What first drew you to a figure like George Washington?

I have had the privilege to write George Washington’s Sacred Fire which has become broadly known for which I am most grateful. What first drew me to George Washington was actually an incident that happened in my first pastorate. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1982 Ronald Reagan signed into law a proclamation that said that 1983 would be the Year of the Bible in America. No one was required to read the Bible but it recognized that Bible reading was the bedrock of the church and its message had impacted our country.

During that year the moderator of our session was a member of the Gideons and reported how the local school board had decided to prohibit the distribution of children’s storybooks based on the Bible. The ACLU said they would sue the school if it were to continue. When I heard that I was appalled inasmuch as it was the year of the Bible in America. So I did something I’d never done before, I wrote a letter to the local editor. I’d been encouraged at least in part to take action because I had read Francis Schaeffer’s book The Christian Manifesto. So I wrote about the fact that in American history, the early educational process in America had a long-standing appreciation for the Scriptures in its public life as well as within its churches. To my shock and amazement, the next week, as this was a weekly newspaper, a letter from an ACLU representative was published explaining how I knew nothing about the first amendment or the significance of the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on the issues of church and state. I was shocked, embarrassed and angry.

After deciding that I should not speak anymore on these things until I had done further work since my field had been Reformation studies and not American history studies, I went to the local university library as soon as I was able, and I went to the section that spoke about the early founding of America. I found a book that addressed the question of George Washington‘s religion. I knew I needed to read that book and have my views corrected by an accomplished historian. My heart sank as this author argued that George Washington, allegedly like most of our founders, was a deist and that he had no interest in the Bible and no real practical Christian faith. Although disappointed, I knew I needed to take seriously his argument and get my facts straight.

But as I began to read his book, I noticed again and again how in the quotations of Washington there were biblical allusions and phrases that jumped right off the page at me. After reading a substantial part of the book I finally understood that the author had never read the Bible and thus could not see the Scripture coming right out of George Washington’s own words. It was then and there that I determined I would begin the long arduous process of reading through Washington’s writings which happens to be some thirty-seven volumes (thankfully computers helped a lot in this) for the purpose of finding out what he believed about God, Christ, salvation, the church, Providence and the Bible. As a result of that, George Washington’s Sacred Fire was born.  To get it all in some twenty years later required about 1,200 pages.

What major point are you trying to make in this book?

The major points that I was striving to make in my book is that George Washington’s faith must be determined by his own words and his own context not by what scholars, media, or pundits say. All historical figures are at the mercy of those who come after them, who seek to use them for their own purposes. I carefully defined what a deist believed. Then I compared that definition to the facts of Washington‘s life and his own words to find out if he could be identified as such. After going through his works, I can say emphatically that Washington claimed to be a Christian and he critiqued deism and never embraced it. He was not the strongest Christian to be sure, but the facts and the evidence show that he was a low church Anglican or Episcopalian from Virginia. His Christian faith was authentic.  It was not showy but it shows up throughout his life and his writings. It was a great honor to write that book.

You’ve also written on the separation of church and state. In your estimation, what is the most common misconception about the separation of church and state today?

The most common misconception I see about this issue today is that when the First Amendment speaks of the establishment of religion that we realize first of all that “religion” in the context in which it was written was about a specific denomination of churches. The “establishment of religion” in England was the Anglican church. Our founding fathers did not want to have a national church.

Secondly, I think a misconception is the fact that the amendment addresses “Congress” not the American people, local states or school boards per se. We have stretched the word Congress to include the public and all government. In so doing, it means that we diminish the importance of the second religion clause of the First Amendment. That clause shows we are to have a “free exercise of religion.”

So that brings us to another major misconception and re-interpretation. A number of leaders in government today are trying to argue that religion belongs behind the walls of the church. And they do so by developing the phrase “freedom of worship.” In doing this, they are denying that religion and worship have anything to do with our daily lives or public service. In this process of redefinition, they are forcing the Christian faith into a cloister and a conventicle contrary to the original view that our religious beliefs have a free exercise to influence all of our lives.

These issues are critical and they will continue to escalate as we face not only a more and more multi- cultural context, but also a cultural Marxist and secular environment that is philosophically and principally opposed to the Christian faith. We will need to become experts in the area of the freedom of conscience and the proper understanding of church and state. So to summarize, I believe the separation of church and state is not a phrase found in the Constitution but rather in a private letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists. The separation should be understood, if we’re going to use that language, as a friendly separation not a hostile separation. The government and church have different purposes and different missions, and thus they should not usurp each other’s functions. Therefore they are to be distinct and separated. But just as a fence separates good neighbors in a backyard, this separation should allow communication with each other as well as the possibility to work together on those occasions when necessary.  To continue the analogy, each should be able when mutually agreeable to open a gate in the wall so that they can come together to help each other accomplish a mission that both teams deem critical that will also not harm other neighbors in the community.

John Calvin, the Geneva reformer, has been featured throughout your writings. What is it about Calvin that continues to pull you back to his Institutes?

Calvin continues to pull me back to the Institutes regularly because of some of the major ideas and themes that he developed. First, as historian, I realize that Calvin is the fountainhead of so many key ideas that helped shape the Protestant and Reformed tradition. So I go back to read him to understand where we started in terms of our organized intellectual history.

Also, I do so because of my love for the covenant, a key idea of the Bible that Calvin explicated in varying significant ways.   I find myself looking at this theology that I hold and discover in the Bible through Calvin’s unique insights of organizing the concept of the covenant.  In doing this, I’m building on my doctoral research that I did at Westminster for my PhD many years ago.

Additionally, I find Calvin balanced, bringing together nuances of ideas that must be held in tension. This is a remarkable gift of his theological method. Just as the human body has muscles to pull in opposite directions and by that tension… Click To Tweet Examples are Calvin’s understanding of human responsibility and God’s sovereign and providence, the duty to preach and obey the gospel yet also to recognize God’s sovereign predestination. As a Presbyterian, I am appreciative of his wrestling with his teaching on the structure of the church and sacraments and the way he developed the roles of church and state for the glory of God. Of course, there are many other theological themes that I find myself reviewing in Calvin.  He stands as one of the church’s great theological teachers. The nameInstitutes means instruction. He continues to instruct as we think about the Bible.

Besides Calvin, if there is one other figure in the history of the church that Christians, pastors, and students must read, who would it be and why?

Besides Calvin, there are other figures in the history of the church that Christians, pastors and teachers should read. Clearly in this list are names such as Augustine, Luther, Edwards, Hodge or Machen.  Having just observed the  500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I cannot help suggesting that Luther would be one to read. Luther’s powerful, ever fresh and deep engagement with the Scriptures continues to be a blessing. He inspires us to love the Bible and to be bold in its proclamation. His insights are filled with creative descriptions and illustrations that enhance preaching and challenge us to be faithful.

You’ve not only taught in the seminary, but you’ve been a pastor in the local church. As you look back on those days, what did you enjoy most about ministering in the church?

I have served as an OPC and PCA pastor for some thirty years, both as an associate pastor and senior pastor. As I look back on those days, I most enjoyed ministering in the church in the context of my weekly preaching on Sundays. I truly miss that now that I labor as an administrator and my preaching takes me from place to place. This means I lose the continuity of seeing God shaping families through generations in the differing circumstances of their lives. I enjoyed leading the faith community in helping to shape its vision, equipping people to engage that vision, and seeing it come to pass whether it was an evangelism program, a missions conference, a new building, a missions trip or an educational effort. It has been a privilege to serve the people of God as a pastor. I like to remind younger pastors never to forget what a great privilege it is for them to minister on behalf of God to His people. I often remind them time will fly by much faster than they think. Here I am at 65 looking back on my pastoral ministry that’s now largely completed unless the Lord delays long in calling me home.

Let’s be honest, what has been your most embarrassing experience in the pulpit or in the lectern?

I’m reluctant to speak about my most embarrassing experience in the pulpit, but here it goes.  Probably my most embarrassing experience was on a Saturday morning when I was relaxing in my brand new pastor’s study when our new church building was finally built in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I was the only one in the church and it was so enjoyable just to relax in my sweatshirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes and study, pray and prepare for Sunday. While I was there, my cell phone rang, and I received a call from one of my elders. With a sense of urgency I heard him ask, “Pete, aren’t you coming to this wedding? You’re leading it aren’t you?”

A sudden terror gripped my heart when I realized that I’d forgotten that that Saturday morning was going to be a garden wedding at a place a few miles from the church. The rehearsal had been at an earlier time and I had forgotten it!  There was no one there to remind me.

I told my elder I would be there soon. And I realized I had no time to run home to put on a suit and tie. I wondered what I was going to do.  Could anyone imagine doing a garden wedding in the main line of Philadelphia in a sweatshirt , tennis shoes, and blue jeans? It was then I turned my eyes to my Genevan robe that my elders had required that I preach in. I hadn’t resisted preaching in that robe, but it had never been my custom before this ministry.

On that morning I realized what a great blessing it was to preach in a robe. I put on my robe and ran off to the wedding arriving just in time with my Bible and worship book to lead in the wedding.

I looked very distinguished.  But some asked, “Why are you wearing those shoes to such a fancy wedding?”  And of course I was able to say, “You can’t be too careful in a garden wedding!  You have to have sure footing.”  While that’s true, the truth is this was one of the great ministry faux pas. By God‘s mercy I was spared. It’s only taken me twenty years to have the courage to divulge that embarrassing moment.  We all need to remember not to take ourselves too seriously. It is the Lord alone who is worthy of honor. We are but his footstools, his humble servants, who are only able to serve by his amazing grace that takes sinners and foolish people at heart and calls them to serve in his kingdom. Soli Deo Gloria!

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the editor-in-chief of Credo Magazine, director of the Center for Classical Theology, and host of the Credo podcast. He is professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Simply Trinity, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in Theology/Ethics. His new book is called The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. He is currently writing a Systematic Theology with Baker Academic.

Back to Top