The Old Man and His Big Book

Update: Robert Duncan Culver died February 7, 2015, at the age of 98.

It felt as though we were traveling back in time.

Snow was falling, the roads were icy, and civilization was in the rearview. Tony Reinke and I had landed an interview with a 96-year-old theologian tucked away in rural Minnesota, and now we meant to make good on it, despite the distance and wintry weather.

We knew we were in for a memorable day. Robert Duncan Culver is the only surviving founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society — and his mind is sharp enough to recall his membership number was 158. He taught a combined 25 years at Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and stirred up his share of controversy.

“I don’t mind disagreeing,” says Culver. “I can live without everyone’s short-term friendship.”

He knew evangelical stalwarts like Kenneth Kantzer (1917–2002) and Carl Henry (1913–2003) and John Gerstner (1914–1996) — especially Kantzer (more on him later). And he still remembers the details, down to the exact dimensions of the house of worship he built with his own hands while planting a church in Ohio in the early 1940s.

He’s an eleventh generation American, of certifiably Puritan descent. One of his ancestors came to the New World in 1630 with John Winthrop (1587–1649), who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And he’s a man who has known 37 years of marriage to each of two different women: Arlene (from 1937 until her death in 1974) and Celeste (from 1975 to the present).

Most notably, Culver is the author of the massive 1200-page theology published in 2005 by Christian Focus, Systematic Theology: Biblical & Historical, the book he moved to rural Minnesota to work on, and gave over a dozen years to writing.

Tony and I knew we were in for a treat, and Culver didn’t disappoint. It made for a seriously interesting lunch appointment and afternoon interview.

A Man from a Passing Era

Culver is one of the last men standing from an era of evangelicalism most Millennials can only read about. He was born 1916. He spent the bulk of his career teaching theology at Wheaton and Trinity and retired in 1975 — three years before D.A. Carson joined the Trinity faculty and five years before John Piper became pastor at Bethlehem Baptist.

At one point, he asked if we were aware of the new Calvinistic journal in the Southern Baptist Convention. New? We looked it up later and found that the Founders Journal started in 1990 — which must seem like new when you’re 96.

Ninety-six years old! This man was at home in another milieu of American evangelicalism — and is still living to tell about it.

Culver is now a little man, as you can tell from the pictures accompanying this story. He’s lost three inches in height and 65 pounds since 1990. We found it a humorous juxtaposition, this (now) little man and his ginormous 1200-page book of over one million words.

Finding Wobegon

Not only had I never heard of Houston, Minnesota — the municipality that appears on Culver’s address — but after nearly a decade in the Twin Cities, I hadn’t even heard of the nearest “big town,” Rushford. It’s out of the way for us big-city folk. Houston is in the southeast corner of the state, just a few miles west of Wisconsin. Follow the mighty Mississippi southeast of the metro about three hours and you’re almost there.

En route we found a Subway in Rushford that reminded us we were, in fact, still living in the 21st century — so we comforted ourselves. There we grabbed sandwiches for lunch with Culver and his wife. They welcomed us into their cozy home on the edge of 124 acres of farmland.

They were unusually kind and hospitable, and Culver’s mind is impressively quick for what you might expect at his age. Specific dates and details were easily within his grasp, and he was primed to talk theology and life with a couple young bucks.

We were in the middle of nowhere, and right at home.

Starting Out in Another World

Culver was born July 19, 1916, in rural Yakima County, Washington state. He was the oldest of eight. The following year his family moved (by ship) to a new town in Alaska, called Anchorage. His grandfather ran the general store for the railroad company building a line from Seward to Fairbanks, and his father worked as a locomotive engineer operating a crane constructing the railroad.

The family returned to rural Washington in 1920 when Culver was four, and his father returned to farming. Son was expected to follow in father’s footsteps and stayed an extra year after high school to work the farm.

The family was part of a German Baptist church, and Culver went off to the denominational school in Ashland, Ohio, at age 19. Ashland College and Seminary offered half off tuition for pre-seminary students ($150 per semester, instead of $300), and Culver chose the discounted track. He had sensed a call in the direction of fulltime ministry for several years and had preached at least a dozen times in nearby churches. Now the tuition break sealed the deal, and he gave up his childhood dream of being a rodeo performer.

At Ashland, Culver first met Kenneth Kantzer, who had grown up in a Lutheran home, but came to college an atheist. Kantzer quickly was converted at Ashland and went on to become a significant shaper of evangelicalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. Culver would meet up with Kantzer again at Wheaton and Trinity where both would teach theology. Kantzer preceded Culver to both institutions, and the two long-time associates, who shared so much past and so many friendships, sometimes found their instincts at odds.

Marriage, Seminary, and Church Planting

In late Spring 1937, fundamentalist-progressive tensions at Ashland led to the firing of two professors, who in turn founded the conservative Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. Meanwhile, Culver and his new bride Arlene (married in January 1937) went back to Washington, where he soon became pastor of his home church. On the trip home, they stopped at Yellowstone Falls and discovered Arlene had some serious heart defects when she couldn’t climb the 500-plus stairs there.

Two years later, they returned east, with their first child, for Culver to continue his education at the fledgling seminary from 1939 to 1942. Culver then led a church plant in Fremont, Ohio, for three years, until 1945, and built the church building with his own hands. He still remembers the dimensions (64 feet by 52), and says in those years he “spent more time as a carpenter-stonemason, working on the new house of worship, than sermon preparation.”

Becoming a Bible Professor

In March of 1945, World War II was nearing its end, professors were hard to come by, and Culver was given the opportunity to teach Old Testament at Grace Seminary. For the first six months of his time at Grace, he traveled back and forth weekly in his 1935 Chevy between Winona Lake, Indiana, and Fremont, Ohio — about 175 miles each way. He stayed at Grace until May 1951. (While teaching at Grace, Culver completed the Master of Theology degreee, and later finished the Doctor of Theology through Grace while teaching at Trinity Seminary.)

In 1951, Culver moved to Chicagoland, where he would be for the next quarter century. For three years, he taught Old Testament and theology at Trinity, and was part time at Wheaton during the 1953–1954 school year. Wheaton hired him on fulltime the following year, and he stayed there until 1962 (again teaching Old Testament and theology — especially the doctrines of salvation, church, and last things), until returning in 1963, at dean Kantzer’s request, to the newly reorganized Trinity (now named Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), where he served until the end of 1974.

Battling Kantzer

He had an interesting relationship with the Trinity dean. The two not only met in college (they were in freshman Greek together), but overlapped again at Wheaton and Trinity. Kantzer taught at Wheaton from 1946–1963 and served as academic dean at Trinity from 1960–1978. Kantzer was at the center of the effort to grow Trinity from a small denominational seminary into a major evangelical institution of national and international reputation. Culver often found that a tough pill to swallow, as he was more the local-church man and less the cosmopolitan.

Culver remembers in particular the watershed of April 9, 1968. It was the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral, and the school was under progressive expectations to shut down for the day in honor of King. Kantzer and the Trinity president chose to shut the doors, to Culver’s disappointment. Such seemed to epitomize the varying instincts of Kantzer and Culver toward external pressures and possibilities.

But age seems to have sweetened Culver. He admits to a wider heart today. Looking back on Kantzer’s effort to expand the appeal and influence of Trinity, Culver would say that, while he didn’t agree at the time, it was probably the right move.

Arlene’s Early Death

Culver’s tenure at Trinity was coming to an end when he lost Arlene, mother of his three children. It was October 26, 1974 — the culprit, her fragile heart uncovered in their first year of marriage.

That fall Culver was interviewing as pastor for the Evangelical Free Church of Lincoln, Nebraska. Arlene fell very sick, but she insisted he travel to Lincoln for the weekend. He was gone all weekend, flew in Monday morning just in time to teach, and returned home at the end of the day. Here’s the gut-wrenching account in Culver’s own words.

Our home was in Libertyville, Illinois, eight or nine miles from Trinity. When I drove up I noticed all window blinds were drawn and doors locked. I expected the worst, broke the window to the basement level door, reached through and unlocked the door, walked through the main level to our bedroom on the second floor. There I found Arlene in our bed, cold and dead, hair dressed for Sunday church. So I knew she had died Saturday evening after bedtime. It was now late Monday afternoon, she had been dead for part of Saturday, all of Sunday, and part of Monday. The funeral was late in the week.

He was 58 and a widower. At the interment, Kantzer asked him to stay on at Trinity, but his mind was made up to take the pastorate in Lincoln.

Celeste and Life After Trinity

Culver served as pastor in Lincoln until 1977. There he met and married Celeste Knipmeyer in late 1975. In 1977, they retired to the 124-acre farm near Rushford, property Culver had purchased in 1974 — “bought very cheaply,” says Culver — in the hopes of settling there someday to make headway on his writing projects.

“I moved to rural Minnesota deliberately to get off the beaten track to write the systematic theology volume,” he says. He did some irregular work as a visiting professor until 1990. Since then, he has mainly given himself to writing.

The Farm and the Big Book

When Culver and his second wife moved to the farm in May of 1977, they spent the first six months constructing the house, just in time for winter. Culver initially had some loose ends to tend to with two writing commitments. Preaching regularly and being a visiting professor kept him busy, as did building a “writing cabin” adjacent to the house, for storing his books and giving him a place to craft his sentences. By the time he was done being a visiting professor at various places in the States and Canada, he was ready to make some headway on the book to which he would give the next twelve-plus years of his life.

Throughout the 1990s, his typical day involved waking early for coffee, working on the theology book until mid morning, when Celeste would bring him a meal. Then he’d return to writing until mid afternoon and use the rest of the day for chores around the farmhouse and other odds and ends. He wrote out his chapters on lined tablet pages, and Celeste did the arduous work of putting every line into type — sometimes two or three times.

After a decade of laboring away at his magnum opus, it was Christian Focus that stepped forward in 2001 and agreed to publish his manuscript. He attended to “odds and ends,” and worked back and forth with a circumspect editor for the next two years. The 1200-page, small-font book (about 900 words per page) finally saw the light of day in 2005. Culver says, “The volume was written and copyrighted in the United States, edited in England, printed and bound in Germany, published in Scotland, and ‘providenced’ in heaven before the foundation of the world.”

Strangely Encouraged

As Tony and I said our goodbyes and left the warm farmhouse for our long winter’s drive back to the 21st century, we were strangely encouraged. It was hard to put a finger on exactly what it was that was so strengthening about our couple hours with this senior saint. But the more I’ve given it thought, the more Hebrews 13 has come to mind.

Not only did the Culvers “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2), but they impressed on us the beauty and truth of Jesus being “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Along with evangelical pioneers like Kantzer, Henry, and Billy Graham, Culver and his generation kept the faith and trained up the generation of Baby Boomers that has largely trained so many of us “young, restless, Reformed” types. “Remember your leaders” (Hebrews 13:7) is a fitting charge to those of us so prone to chronological snobbery, so prone to forget that the gospel truly is an old, old story that has transformed not only our peers and parents, but Culver’s generation, and then 1900 more years before him.

Culver is 64 years my elder, and one of the last surviving members of a generation different from mine in many ways, and yet as we talked, our hearts were profoundly knit together in the Scriptures, the gospel, the absolute sovereignty of God, and the one who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

It’s deeply comforting to know that the truths about God we hold dear aren’t only held by a group of born-again Boomers ahead of us, but were held by men like Culver, born 30 years before the Pipers and Carsons. And Culver’s still living to provide evidence — at least for Tony and me — how an age difference of over six decades can be bridged so quickly by having the unchanging Jesus in common.

And it was beautiful to see a saint who it seems has grown warm and gracious with age, rather than narrow, cold, and stern. May God increase his tribe.