The Six TR Points

TR: Whence? What? Wither?

I am fairly confident that the term originated on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary sometime during my student years, 1969-72.  My guess is that it began to be used during the 1970-71 term.


I was there when the term TR was invented. At least I think I was.


Experts tell us that our memories of the past are not nearly so accurate as we think. In fact not only do we misremember; we can invent memories. Perhaps that is one reason that parents and adult children have such different memories and perceptions of family life as it was. Take that into account as you consider my memories of the genesis of the termTR.

I am fairly confident that the term originated on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary sometime during my student years, 1969-72.  My guess is that it began to be used during the 1970-71 term. I have a specific memory (and the research suggests the vividness of a memory is no guarantee of its  accuracy) of student banter in the bookstore then housed in the little white building behind the “White House” on campus. Something was said to the effect of “We are truly Reformed” or “We are thoroughly Reformed.” The point was that not everybody was. But it was one of those insider jokes – people laughed – a joke that was funny only because it reflected a reality.

A little background: RTS came into existence in a time of great upheaval – social, cultural, political, ecclesiastical. It as the time of the Viet Nam War, civil rights, Woodstock, San Francisco flowers in your hair, “God is dead,” the PCUS Covenant Life curriculum, PEF, The Presbyterian Journal, The Pensacola Theological Institute, the conservative caucus in Central Mississippi Presbytery. Belief that the seminaries had liberalized the ministers and that the ministers had liberalized the churches (and the feeling that many ministers did not have sense enough to come in out of the rain) meant that the ruling elder founders of RTS determined the institution would remain free of denominational control and firmly under the control of ruling elders.


The seminary began offering classes on the Jackson campus in 1966. The first class of three men graduated in the Spring of 1969.* By 1970 there was an enrollment of about 100. Those who came to seminary from college were draft deferred as divinity students (4-D) at a time when college graduates came to the end of their student deferments.   The “generation gap” was manifest, if only mildly, even at RTS. For instance, older students sometimes expressed dismay about such things as the younger students wearing their hair longer and socks not at all.


In those days the “traditional student” graduated from college, often with a B.A. degree, and then enrolled in seminary. It was primarily that group who had some prior grasp of the Reformed faith. Most of those  were graduates of Belhaven College with degrees in Bible and several years of Greek.  Other younger students came to seminary from secular colleges and had little, if any, exposure to Reformed theology. For instance the background of some was Campus Crusade for Christ, the Four Spiritual Laws, and the carnal Christian teaching of “Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?”


There were also the first of what would become a trend – non-traditional students, older students with families, some of them ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church US. Most of them came the world of business, and some struggled with thinking “theologically” rather than “practically.” They were conservative men from conservative churches. Evangelism Explosion was an important part of the experience of some. This was a time, however, of very little preaching and teaching of Reformed theology in the churches. The theology of the churches was fundamentalist-evangelical and oriented to evangelism.


What did it mean to be TR in this context?
1. Calvinistic Theology. These men held enthusiastically to Reformed theology as they learned it from the Westminster standards, Berkhof, and professors who had studied at Westminster Theological Seminary with Murray (e.g. Morton Smith and Palmer Robertson). Dr. Morton Smith’s lectures were dry, but his three volumed syllabus and class discussions gave students who “got it” the framework of a working theology. TRs grasped, could articulate, and saw some of the practical implications of Calvinism.


2. Biblical Theology. Probably the most exciting courses offered were the young Dr. Palmer Roberston’s Old Testament and New Testament theology courses. Dr. Robertson had studied with John Murray, Meredith Kline, and Ed Clowney, understood Vos, and was in the process of constructing his own contributions to the field of Biblical theology (later published as The Christ of the Covenants). Dr. Robertson gave students a framework for understanding the Scriptures, particularly the unity of the covenants, the progressive nature of revelation, and the Christ-centeredness of the Scriptures.


3. Pre-suppositional Apologetics. Some faculty came from the Dutch theological tradition (e.g. DeYoung, Kistemaker), others had studied under Van Til (e.g. Smith, Robertson), and others were familiar with Schaeffer (e.g. Killen).  TRs were convinced Van Tillians. They did not trust reason, rejected the theistic proofs, and did not believe there were any “brute facts.” They pre-supposed the Bible and the whole Christian faith as the foundation for all thought. They thought they would demolish strongholds of unbelief and take every thought captive to Christ.


4. World-and-Life View. There was Dutch influence from Christian Reformed faculty members and from Kuyper’s Stone lectures at Princeton. There was the Van Til influence from Westminster trained faculty. But, ironically, the primary shaper of students’ understanding of a Christian world-and-life view, was a Biblical theologian, Palmer Robertson. Dr. Robertson’s unpublished paper on the kingdom and the church combined a Southern Presbyterian theology of the spirituality of the church with a sphere-sovereignty view of the kingdom. The church has a limited mission but the kingdom is bigger than the church. Christians could advance the kingdom by bringing Christ’s rule to bear on everything.


5. Experimentalism. Calvinistic experimentalism (or an emphasis on Christian experience) was not a great emphasis of the original faculty. It certainly was not taught in the Practical Department by those responsible for homiletics and counseling courses. Exposure to experimentalism came through one Congregationalist, two Baptists, two Presbyterians, and one publishing house. The Congregationalist was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Some had heard him “live” in the summer of 1969 at the Pensacola Theological Institute, but his primary influence came via  books (especially The Sermon on the Mount) and taped sermons. The two Baptists were Ernie Reisinger and Al Martin both of whom preached on campus. The Presbyterians were Edwardsian John Gerstner and Puritan Dutchman John R. DeWitt. The publisher was The Banner of Truth with its books and monthly magazine. TRs got from these emphasis on self-examination and conversion, searching sermon application, and a longing for revival.


6. Nouthetic Counseling. Like experimentalism nouthetic counseling came from an outside source, Dr. Jay Adams and his book Competent to Counsel.The book was assigned reading but the counseling courses were not nouthetic in orientation. However, Dr. Adams’ book changed the way TRs understood pastoral counseling. Whatever the “presenting” problem the underlying problem, unless there was brain injury or disease, was sin. Once the sin was discovered, confronted, and confessed the counseler could guide the counselee through a program of behavioral and attitudinal change. Change could be effected in a relatively short time. Even long standing problems like depression and life-dominating sins like homosexuality would give way to the nouthetic approach. Identifying the primary problem as sin  meant there was hope for the counselee. The nouthetic approach gave confidence to the pastor who made good use of his Bible. Adams also shaped the TRs’ understanding of marriage, children, and family life with loving husbands, submissive wives, obedient children, and happy outcomes.


A couple of notes to close:


1. TRs thought all six things formed a harmnious whole. For instance, they did not see the tensions between Biblical theological preaching and nouthetic counseling on the one hand and experimenalism on the other. Clowney and Adams are not compatible with Reisinger and Martin. There were conflicts and contradictions among the things they embraced.


2. TRs were young, sometimes unwise, often naive. They really believed the things they had learned in seminary and were ready to go out and change churches through their diligent preaching, pastoral work, leadership of sessions, and involvment in presbyteries. They believed churches would welcome their ministries. They were optimistic about the results that would follow. They had an “us and them” outlook toward faculty members, fellow students, and ministers who were not TRs. They were viewed as “young whipper-snappers” by seasoned ministers. For the most part they were not mean-spirited. But they made a lot of mistakes.


3. There was inevitable chagrin on the part of the RTS Board of Trustees ruling elders and ministerial advisors when the TRs got turned loose on the church. These members of the conservative establishment had no concept what it would mean for students to be taught, embrace, and to go out and try to be truly and thoroughly Reformed. It is little wonder that the Board of Trustees experienced  buyer’s regret, wished they could recall some of the products early off the line, tried to reign in TRs, and made corrections to try to fix the manufacturing process.


4. Some of those who today hold to many of the things the TRs held and who are able to practice a Reformed minstry are themselves at best unappreciative of and at worst disdainful of the original TRs. Perhaps the originals were John the Baptists for the more wiley and political savvy contemporary Reformed men. The originals certainly found the mountains and rough places. I guess it can be debated whether they made them low and plain. But, it is my view that had those original TRs not been willing to go into the kitchen and take the heat, some today could not cook and serve up their Reformed minstries unmolested.


5. Monikers often become hard to define over time. What is a Republican? Democrat? Puritan? What is a TR as it is used in the recent internet article “Who Won the PCA?” (BTW that article is wrong on several counnts, not least of which are that the TRs ever had a key to the “big house” or that the moderate middle hijacked the PCA. The moderate middle had the keys to the house and controlled the PCA from the get-go.) It seems to me that TR today, if it means anything, means hardline conservative. For some a TR is a theonomist, or a 24-6 young-earther, or a strict subscriptionist. Most of the original TRs have moved on, some for political and practical reasons, some for theological and pastoral reasons, many for maturity and growth reasons. Most of the original generation of TRs did not attain places of influence and are approaching retirement. The young TRs of today don’t necessarily recoginze the original TR’s as truly TRs, and the orignals may look at the young and feel about them the way they were once felt about by others. It’s probably time let the term TR die because it lacks any defining significance.


Perhaps we old TRs can say with General MacArthur:
Old TR’s never die
They just fade, fade away.




Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Roanoke, VA. This article  first appeared at his blog, The Christian Curmudgeon, and is used with his permission. To read more on the anatomy of “TR” go here.