Founders Journal

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Founders Journal · Spring 2005 · pp. 6-9

Curtis Vaughan

A Tribute by Personal Testimony

Tom J. Nettles

During my junior year in high school (in 1963), at a valentine banquet held at First Baptist Church in Brandon, Mississippi, my Presbyterian friend Wayne Herring asked me if I believed in predestination. I really had never heard the word but pretty quickly figured out what it meant. “Why ask me a question like that at a valentine banquet?” was my first but silent reaction. After only a brief pause, “Of course not!” rolled out the words in all the southern oratorical skill that three words could muster from a mind innocent of all pertinent knowledge and equally as unintimidated by the importance of the question.

One year later, the January Bible Study book for Southern Baptists was Ephesians. I loved those occasions in the church. The teacher, a professor of philosophy, came from the near-by Baptist college, Mississippi College. The textbook came in the very familiar form. Several people I knew had very neat little libraries of these January Bible Study books. Published by Convention Press, the text was a little gray hardback book, suited for about a ten-session study with appropriate study questions at the close of each chapter. The title stood against the gray printed in black along with the author’s name, Curtis Vaughan. Quickly I learned that my friend’s question of a year ago was not merely an idle provocation from him, but had origin in Bible words. My King James Version, right there in the first chapter of the book, said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.”

The philosophy professor helped us understand that that did not mean that God already had selected individuals for salvation, but just that he had chosen that he would save anyone who would consent to believe in Jesus. The writer of the textbook, however, said, “It is God’s gracious and sovereign choice of individual sinners to be saved in and through Christ.” He went on to explain that “the doctrine of election is often vigorously opposed.” Sometimes the opposition comes from misunderstanding, sometimes from its presentation in a harsh and forbidding manner, but most often, so Vaughan explained, “the prejudice against election is an expression of imbedded conceit, for this teaching deals a crushing blow to human pride. It is indeed a leveling doctrine, stripping away all trust in flesh and bringing men to see that their only hope is the grace of God in Christ.”

How many of those words I actually read at the time, I don’t recall, or if all of them were actually in that particular text, because presently I am reading the Study Guide edition (originally published by Zondervan, 1977, and now available from Founders Press, 2002). I do recall, however, that a clear difference in interpretation stood boldly before the entire group, some alarm at the viewpoint of the writer and a great deal of relief when it was explained softly and gently by the teacher.

I clearly received two impressions: First, I would love to spend my life studying theology and trying to sort out some of these things. To me it did not seem that the teacher had done justice either to the Bible or to the writer of the text. Second, the ideas in Vaughan’s explanation intensified a sense of spiritual insecurity in my soul that had been developing since the summer of 1963. This was to grow in intensity for the next six years.

In 1968, my new bride, Margaret, and I moved to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I vaguely knew that Curtis Vaughan taught there but went simply because it had a reputation among some of my friends for being the most conservative of the six Southern Baptist seminaries. About one year from the time of arriving at Southwestern, my six years of struggle culminated in the experience of the new birth manifest in a clear sight of my sinfulness and the sufficiency of Christ as my only hope for forgiveness. That next semester I enrolled in second year Greek under Curtis Vaughan. Through other reading, I already had basically embraced the doctrines of grace that had been so perplexing, confusing and a source of insecurity [rightly so] years earlier. Now I would be able to study immediately under the person whose writing had played a part in troubling my mind toward truth.

The class was no disappointment. Not only did we go through the rigors of learning Greek syntax, theological ideas that emerged from the text often occupied class attention. In studying the syntactical uses of participles in 1 Peter, Curtis Vaughan made sure everyone dealt with what it means to be “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” He suggested an etymological study of “foreknowledge,” and I found that its biblical use includes much more than mere pre-cognition. The translation that Dr. Vaughan emphasized was one he included in his 26 Translations edition of the New Testament from James Moffatt’s translation: “whom God the Father has predestined and chosen.” When the noun form appeared in Romans 8:29, he liked the Williams translation, also included in 26 Translations, “For those on whom he set his heart beforehand.”

This experience of a semester’s baptism in the exegetical study of the New Testament under one of the Southern Baptist evangelical masters of the twentieth-century gave a solid textual basis to my developing theological convictions.

A PhD seminar expanded my admiration of Vaughan and increased the benefits I received from his teaching. He clearly disliked studying the New Testament from the standpoint of engagement with all the critical theories. He assumed the authenticity, integrity and inspiration of the text and really believed that its study should give spiritual maturity and equip the man of God for every good work. He recommended books in which the class could engage all the critical issues concerning our appointed study, but he focused the attention of each class session on the literary and doctrinal meaning of the text. He saw no point in spending time with that that was speculative, unedifying, and skeptical.

When I went to Southwestern to teach in January, 1976, Curtis Vaughan welcomed me in his low-key, friendly, almost shy manner. Much to my pleasure and sense of true privilege, we began to develop a friendship. More mature men on the faculty were closer to him in many ways, but eventually he and I would speak about theological issues that he was normally hesitant to introduce in more diverse company. In a small group in the teachers’ lounge, he recommended The Forgotten Spurgeon. The following conversation amounted to a rebuke of his admiration of Spurgeon since Spurgeon proved to be divisive. With gentle grace, Dr. Vaughan issued a call for such theological courage in the context of Southern Baptist life. When Baptists and the Bible came from the presses of Moody in 1980, Curtis Vaughan as a minority of one, along with Dean Huber Drumwright, expressed to Russ Bush and me his sincere appreciation for its contents.

One of the great personal losses of my departure from Southwestern in 1982 was the opportunity to expand and enrich my friendship with Curtis Vaughan. He was a careful and reverent scholar. He was a man of true piety and earnest zeal for godliness. Theologically and experientially he reveled in the Puritans and Spurgeon. He lamented the loss of purity, discipline, and doctrinal robustness in the churches. He loved teaching the Bible and gained the devotion and admiration of hundreds of students. His influence was for good and Southern Baptist churches have received great blessings through this singular gift of God’s grace.

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I remember Dr. Vaughn with great admiration and fondness. He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential voices in my theological development.

I remember sitting in his class in 1977 and having him give explanation of Romans 8:28–39. As he completed the section on 8:28–30, I raised my hand and politely said “Dr. Vaughn, when you explained those verses you sounded like a Calvinist!” To which he calmly replied, “That may be so, because I am one.” At which point, I became a bit disturbed and said, “But you can’t be—you believe in missions and evangelism.” He very graciously spent the next half hour explaining to this pitiful head full of mush how the two are not in conflict. This was the first explanation I had ever heard by a man that I respected as a scholar. He didn’t convince me at that point . . . that didn’t come until 1980 . . . but that class probably set my mind to re-thinking old assumptions that had no foundation in the Scriptures, only in oral tradition I had grown up in.

Bill Haynes, Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church
Somerset, Kentucky

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I have fond memories of sitting in Dr. Vaughan’s Greek class. He was a godly man; one I admired greatly. Last summer Sarah and I went down to Texas and he let us stay with him at his house. He was working on commentary work even then. He never stopped his biblical studies, and that spoke wonders to me. I am grateful to God for the blessing he gave in Dr. Vaughan.

Jay T. Collier
Reformation Heritage Books
www.heritagebooks.org

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