A Memory of Robert Lewis Thomas (June 4, 1928 – September 6, 2017)
A Loyal Soldier Reports To Headquarters Following Active Duty
“I have fought a good fight, I have kept the Faith” (2 Tim 4:7)
F. David Farnell, PhD
Professor of New Testament
The Master’s Seminary
On September 6, 2017 one of God’s finest, if not the finest, top commanders in the field of New Testament studies, Robert Lewis Thomas (1928-2017), was called home to God’s heavenly headquarters after his Lord summoned him home for final report on his duty station in this life. He served since 1959 to 2009, fifty years of service. I received much of my training in New Testament boot camp from General Thomas. I remember him so very well. I not only trained under him in boot camp for my New Testament training, but I also fought with him in sustained battle for 12 years at The Master’s Seminary as he rigorously, fearlessly, unrelentingly conducted an unwavering defense of the absolute integrity and inerrancy of the Word of God against all opponents, foreign and domestic. No one was ever able to out-maneuver or out-fight him in battle field engagements that he chose to engage. His battle acumen was “precision” and constant refrain of perfect execution of orders. His standards for soldiers in training never countenanced weakness, laziness but due diligence. A watchword from him was “discernment” of the implication of issues. If ever was the epitome of a soldier of Jesus Christ, Thomas fit that profile perfectly. His loyalty of devotion to the Lord never wavered.
I look back my first days in the training camp of seminary at the old Talbot Theological Seminary (now, Talbot School of Theology). It was 6 February, 1979 in the early morning hours on the campus of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at the headquarters of Myers Hall. Classes began promptly at 07:30 hours and were characterized by the need for supreme focus and discipline to surmount the challenges presented by the General. Of all the New Testament commanders I have been associated with, General Thomas was quite unique. No exaggeration. Class began promptly, with a laser-like focus on learning. I learned the rigor of study and execution of orders from him. I studied for both my Master’s of Divinity and Master’s of Theology. No one that I studied with before him or after, ever commanded the subjects taught as he did; no one had thought through battle field maneuvers, tactics and results as he did. The rigors of his training caused many sore intellectual “muscles” for many in his boot camp. The stress of those days still echo in my mind and haunt my thoughts. The discipline needed to surmount a successful completion under him resulted in many returning from seminary to civilian life, some with “honorable discharge” and others with “dishonorable discharge” because of a failure to develop and/or maintain the high standards that he insisted upon without exception, without wavering. How many times I heard the general inform a candidate in his office in boot camp that they were being discharged or held back because they did not surmount the standards he expected!
Of all the memories that I have of General Thomas, one stands out above all. I have served under many New Testament soldiers before, and especially after him. None equaled him in one area. I have attended other “boot camps” in my training to the level of “PhD.” All others did not come even close to an area in which that General Thomas surpassed them all, hands down, no question, no doubts in my mind; no exceptions; no comparison. What was that qualitative distinction? The exceptional quality of General Thomas that no one ever was able to equal or surpass his unwavering, absolute devotion to the Word of God as a soldier of Jesus Christ. How so; why so? His rigor for the absolute authority and absolute inerrancy of God’s Word had no equals. Indeed, General Thomas stands out in these two areas above all others that surround the Christian’s training manual, God’s Word. His belief in the absolute authority of God’s Word is seen in his being the finest champion of plain, normal interpretation or the grammatico-historical hermeneutic as specialists in his field would say. Truly, he wrote the book on it (Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New vs The Old). He took the God of the Bible, the Commander and Chief, at His Word. Plain, simple. What God said, God meant in Thomas’s thinking. For General Thomas, God did not play games with the text. Only those who interpret, understand the Word of God plainly, normally in its words truly understand the authority of God’s Word, for they take what it says at face value without attempting to accommodate its contents to the subjectivity, whims of current popular views of capricious culture that come and go over time or the intellectual fads of hallowed halls of the hallowed halls of vaunted academic pride. Indeed, “Thus says the Lord” for General Thomas signified that the Lord meant what he said and said what he meant. No other soldier held such devotion; he stood out as an example to his students in training to take God’s Word as absolute truth. His students knew that he played no games here; he set the highest example clearly for this in all of his training of those under him. He fearlessly went against anyone who would dare vaunt man’s thinking about God’s Word. For this reason, many disliked and also feared him. He angered many, yet never was backed down in battle, not even once. No one was ever able to out-argue or maneuver him. How often many tried. His opponents often fought together in a unified effort to defeat him. They failed miserably. How often I laughed when opponents were bested by his tactics and logic in both his writing and oral debates. To have General Thomas array hardened battle tactics against your thinking meant a formidable defeat for your cause. He defeated all enemies; took no prisoners; countenanced no fools. He was often victorious because the evidence of God’s Spirit informing his thinking stands out as plainly evident. He was God’s man; God’s devoted soldier.
One other area stands out. Not only did General Thomas champion plain, normal interpretation, taking God seriously at His Word, General Thomas also rigorously fought for and championed the inerrancy (no errors) of God’s Word. For Thomas, God’s Word was sure. This was an absolute more sure than any other principle. His students never faced any lesson from him at any time wherein this belief in the absolute integrity, truthfulness and unerringness of God’s Word was questioned or discounted, for clearly this stood out as the central focus of Thomas’s belief. Indeed, evident in his example to his students was General Thomas’s belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the scholarship of men. Never did Thomas compromise in this belief. For Thomas, dialogue and compromise on the inerrancy of God’s Word for the sake of gaining academic respectability or “a say at the table” with those in influence was “GOD FORBID” (me genoito). His loyalty to his Commander in this regard was never equaled by anyone in New Testament that I ever came across after him. WOE to anyone who compromised here, for Thomas would well be quick to launch an excursion by anyone who overstepped these bounds. He never, ever once attempted to change the meaning of “inerrancy” to “limited inerrancy” or “inerrant according to ancient standards” away from the plain understanding that the Bible is “without error” so rigorously maintained in both the OT (Ps 119) and NT (2 Tim 3:16). He knew that God’s Holy Spirit of truth (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:4-6) produced that document that testifies of the true God. Any error would render God a liar and to say the Word has error would be to insult (blaspheme) the Spirit of God who authored it. Indeed, God’s Word that is alive and active (John 4:12) because it comes from the Spirit of the Living God. Sadly, so many today in New Testament scholarship are attempting en masse to move away from its orthodox understanding. Why did Thomas firmly maintain this standard? Because He knew that God cannot lie and would not therefore let His Word fail. He knew that Jesus said, “heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away” (Matt 24:35) Indeed, He fought along many other soldiers in the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy both in its championing of inerrancy (1978) and also its championing of grammatico-historical, plain normal hermeneutics (1982). I remember him flying out to Chicago in my seminary days as he fought for the rigors of these historical documents. His discussions in class about these events and their importance. How his warning in “boot camp” to maintain integrity in these two areas as essential to soldiers of Jesus Christ echo in many today.
In ancient times, a warrior often was buried with his armor. As we remember a fallen soldier who has reported to headquarters, Robert Lewis Thomas, who was “always faithful,” we lay beside his memory the testimony of his defense of both the inerrancy of God’s Word and plain, normal interpretation of what God said and meant what He said. We also know that what he taught in the classroom, he practiced in his work outside the classroom. May God raise up soldiers that are surrendered and subservient to the Word of God; fully devoted to God’s glory and not the praises of men (John 12:43).