When I transferred my ordination credentials from the EPC to the PCA, and moved from Florida to Western Pennsylvania, I began my new life and ministry in the historic Ascension Presbytery. In doing so, I took up residence in a cultural milieu quite different from the Bible Belt. The Pittsburgh area is, after all, significant in the world of Reformed theology for several reasons. First, it is the birthplace of the Ligonier movement with its most famous leader, R.C. Sproul. Second, it is the host city for two historically significant seminaries, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
But the name that I heard most often when I moved here wasn’t Sproul, it was John Gerstner. As a Jonathan Edwards scholar myself, I was vaguely familiar with Gerstner, but not necessarily through my Edwards studies. I had heard the name of Gerstner through the mouth of Sproul himself throughout the years. Now, however, I was hearing it from virtually every member of Ascension Presbytery. Posthaste, I realized I had better study up on this legendary Reformed stalwart about whom I admittedly knew almost nothing.
For this reason, I picked up Jeffrey S. McDonald’s excellent 2017 biography on the great Commonwealth Reformer, John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America. The reader is treated to a very well researched study on the life and ministry of one of the 20th Centuries most important, if somewhat forgotten, conservative crusaders. McDonald does an able enough job introducing the reader to Gerstner’s early life, education, defense of the orthodox Reformed faith, and denominational struggles. I especially related to Gerstner’s love of Jonathan Edwards and his journey from the mainline Presbyterian denomination into the more conservative PCA. We endure with him as he battles respectably along both fronts.
McDonald explains in one chapter why I never encountered Gerstner much in my Edwards studies even though I read vigorously through the official Yale Editions; Gerstner’s position as editor of the sermons volume was rescinded for (gasp!) too earnestly advocating for and agreeing with Edwards’ own theology! McDonald takes the reader through this and other cultural-theological battles as Gerstner fought on behalf of a robust and orthodox expression of Reformed Calvinism. Sympathetic readers will find themselves clenching their teeth alongside the stone-faced Yinzer, as Gerstner experienced the frustration of grinding his knuckles repeatedly against the advance of liberal machinery, especially in the seminary and publishing worlds.
At the same time, young pastors like myself will greatly appreciate encouragement from Gerstner’s steely resolve to keep advancing an expressly Biblical religion, even as necessity forced him to innovate. For instance, McDonald invites us into Gerstner’s dusty, worn minivan (stocked with his Edwards library!) trekking all over the Midwest to teach adjunct courses at various conservative institutions, at Ligonier, while speaking at any church willing to permit his gravely “repent or perish” message.
One critique of the work can be heard in the reminiscences of those who knew him most closely. (McDonald, the author of the work, suffers from the sole disadvantage of never having met Gerstner). But members of Ascension Presbytery who studied under him at PTS, or with him in his elite “Reformed Group,” will say that the book does not capture the fullness of Gerstner’s personality; his uproarious laugh, his humor and wit, or the way he dominated a room by his mere presence.
Imagine, then, the joyful serendipity I experienced when I learned in reading this work that Gerstner was examined by Ascension Presbytery in the very church I now pastor! Men like Gerstner stand like marble statues casting a shadow over our pulpits, reminding us to preach the true gospel no matter the cost.
Dr. Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA. He is a Jonathan Edwards scholar, and his published dissertation on Edwards is entitled A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (JESociety Press, 2018).