One day in the spring of 1990, I received a phone call from Professor Hendrikus Berkhof, a well-known theologian at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He was visiting Southern California and had a free day before flying out. “I would like to see Fuller Seminary,” he said. Having never spent time with Professor Berkhof, I was quite honored by his request. I had read and re-read at least five of his books, and his discussion of themes in Reformed theology had (and has) significantly influenced my thinking.
My first question upon meeting him was about what brought him to the West Coast. “I just spent three days talking theology with Robert Schuller,” he explained. The TV preacher had invited Professor Berkhof and the Evangelical scholar Clark Pinnock to spend a few days talking theology with him. I then asked Berkhof for his impression of Schuller’s ministry. His reply was memorable. Dr. Schuller had asked good questions, he said: about sin and salvation, guilt and grace, and a number of other basic theological topics. And Schuller had seemed eager to hear what his guests thought about his own application of theology in his preaching and writing.
“So,” I asked Berkhof, “what did you tell him?” The Dutchman smiled and replied: “In the end I told him, ‘Schuller, your theology is like the first rocket phase of a spacecraft going to the moon. It gets the ship in the air, but pretty soon something else has to take over if the flight is to be successful!’”
This struck me as an insightful assessment of the overall theological character of Robert Schuller’s ministry. The rocket image clarified some of my own impressions, since I had also spent some time talking theology with Dr. Schuller.
When I first arrived as a new faculty member at Fuller in the mid-1980s, I made a snide comment in the middle of a lecture about Dr. Schuller’s “possibility thinking” message. After class, two students, both Latino men, approached the lectern and asked me not to make flip remarks about the ministry of the Crystal Cathedral (where Dr. Schuller was the lead pastor). “We were drawn to the services there by the television program,” they said. “That’s where we came to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. We would not be studying for Kingdom service at Fuller Seminary if it had not been for how the Lord used Robert Schuller in our lives.”
I thanked them. Shortly after, when Dr. Schuller invited me to the first of several lunches together, I came to see my students’ shared testimony as providential. Each time we were together, Dr. Schuller brought up his love for John Calvin’s theology. He had studied Calvin’s writings carefully, he said, and he had even completed a major project in seminary focusing on the Institutes.
Dr. Schuller never quite convinced me that he was the consistent Calvinist that he professed to be—sincerely, I think. During one conversation I told him he was a gifted “contexualizer” of some of the principles of Reformed theology. He wasn’t familiar with the term “contextualization,” and he asked me to explain it. I told him that contextualizing the Christian message means taking seriously the nuances of specific cultural contexts. If I were going as a missionary to an animist village in an African country, I said, it would be important to prepare for my mission by studying animism, and by reflecting on the best means to bring the biblical message to that village, to frame the gospel so it could be received as “good news.” “You, Robert Schuller, “ I said, “have done precisely that for the popular therapeutic culture of Southern California. You have studied the context and found a way to speak to that context.” He grinned broadly. “Yes, you have me right,” he rejoined. But the smile faded when I went on to say that I questioned whether he was properly “contextualizing” a Calvinist understanding of sin and grace in his ministry efforts.
This conversation was one of many threads in the lively theological discussions between the two of us. In the wake of our theological exchanges, when following his ministry, I saw clearly how the two students with whom I spoke heard the call of the Gospel in his messages. Many people watched Robert Schuller on television, or attended “live” services at the Crystal Cathedral, and he launched many spiritual spacecraft into the air and moved in the right direction. Like any other kind of travel, spiritual journeys require breaking out of a state of inertia, and not infrequently that induces a sudden lurch forward. It was fitting, then, given the “first rocket stage” character of his ministry, that he chose to call his TV program “The Hour of Power”! He passed away two months ago, on April 2nd.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.