Listening In: Ligon Duncan

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with the president of Reformed Theological Seminary, Ligon Duncan. Ligon Duncan leads one of the largest evangelical Christian seminaries in the country. In that role, he’s become one of the leaders in what might be called the reformed movement within the evangelical church. He’s an active churchman in the Presbyterian Church of America, having served in a variety of leadership roles there, from local pastoral staff to moderator of the denomination’s general convention, that denomination’s most high profile role. But his work has extended well beyond his own denomination. He is a past president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a broad coalition of evangelical Christians from various denominations. He also serves in the leadership of The Gospel Coalition.

I had this conversation with Ligon Duncan at the Sing! conference hosted by Keith and Kristyn Getty in Nashville, Tennessee, and a discussion of that conference is where we began our conversation.

Ligon Duncan, welcome to the program. We’re here in Nashville at the Sing! conference put on by Keith and Kristyn Getty. I have two key questions I want to ask you. One is why are you here? Why is it important for you a seminary president, a theologian, to be at a conference like this?

LIGON DUNCAN, GUEST: Well, as a seminary president and a pastor, I’m really, really concerned for the reformation of congregational singing. I really think that the greatest need right now in terms of the evangelical church here in North America especially is a Biblical reformation about — of how we worship together. And one of the most important parts of that is in how we sing and in what we sing. And the Psalms are so important. And I’m a huge fan of Keith and Kristyn Getty. They’ve been dear friends for years. I love singing their new hymns, and I love the fact that they, too, appreciate the importance of the Psalms. And so anybody who wants to promote the Psalms for the singing of God’s people, I’m their friend and I want to help.

SMITH: Well, I want to come back to why we need this reformation, how we got to where we are today. But before I ask that question, let me just ask, what did you tell the group? You are just off the stage just minutes ago, as you and I are having this conversation. What did you tell them?

DUNCAN: My job was simply to introduce the Psalms. And in that introduction I wanted to say several things: One, I made a claim that I’d have to back up with a paper or a lecture that for most history most Christians have mostly sung the psalms, but that that’s been lost in the last 125 to 150 years. Used to — Catholics, Protestants, free church folks, Eastern Orthodox, everybody used to sing the Psalms. And in the Protestant world, and especially the evangelical world, the Psalms have been more and more lost.

And so I set that as sort of the context statement of my talk and that I introduced them to the five books of the Psalms. I introduced them to different types of psalms: lament psalms, praise psalms, lyrical poetry in the Psalms, worship psalms, nature or creation psalms, and then I looked at some of the great themes in the psalms with them. And then tried to make some applications for the Christian life.

SMITH: Well, the fact that you had to give the church, and these were mostly pastors and worship leaders here, such a lesson, takes me back to the question that I deferred a few moments ago. It really speaks to a kind of a sorry state, I guess you could say, about worship and about the theological understanding and knowledge even of our pastors and worship leaders. How did we get here?

DUNCAN: I think partly all Protestants of every stripe starting in the Reformation of the 16th century were committed to one degree or another to having our worship guided and ordered by Scripture. And starting in the late 19th century, the late 1800s, more and more Protestants, again of every stripe, were influenced by things other than the Bible in how they did worship.

So for instance, I’m a child of the 1970s. I was born in 1960, and in the 1970s a movement started called the Church Growth Movement. And one branch of that movement had the premise that the reason that people aren’t coming to church, the reason that secular people are turned off by Christianity is because they perceive church as boring and irrelevant. And so if we’re going to attract those people, we’ve got to make church exciting and relevant. And interestingly, one of the things they decided that was boring and irrelevant was Bible preaching, and so they really evacuated the Church of Bible preaching and brought in sort of superficial moral pep talks in their place. Fifty years later, they realize, hey, you know, there are a lot of Christians that don’t know their Bibles. Um, why? Because the Bible had been taken out of worship. Same thing in singing. The Bible lost its influence on what we were singing and what we were doing with our singing and worship. And I think there’s a wonderful recovery of that today, but we’ve got a long way to go.

SMITH: Well, you mentioned the Church Growth Movement. Sort of almost simultaneous to that was the Contemporary Christian Music movement as well. And those songs began to infiltrate the church.


SMITH: It’s interesting to me that a lot of those — old hymnals were chosen by the leaders of that church. People with a deep theological understanding. The praise and worship songs that often infiltrated the church in the post 70s era were songs that were selected by Christian radio, often selected by folks that are not even Christians, just based on their popularity.

DUNCAN: And teenagers and twenty-somethings. It’s a product of the youth culture movement that really started in the 1950s. As America became more affluent, people who sell things realized that teenagers and young people had an inordinate influence on what was purchased in homes. And especially on things like music. And so they started targeting music to that particular market. That flowed over into those early days of the so-called Christian Contemporary Music.

SMITH: Well, so that’s the bad news. The good news though, as you just said, is that you think the pendulum may be swinging back.

DUNCAN: Everywhere you turn, there’s all this encouragement. There’s Stewart Townend. There’s Keith and Kristyn Getty. There’s Matt Merker, there’s Matt Boswell, there’s Kevin Twit. I mean, just go, a long list of these, these folks that are — they’re recovering the great treasures of the church. And they’re trying to help a new generation embrace deep, Biblical, substantive singing in our worship.

SMITH: Well, that’s right, and just to be clear, you’re not “old is good, new is bad.” That’s not what you’re about here, it doesn’t sound like.

DUNCAN: That’s exactly right. Yeah. I mean, that’s the wonderful thing about it is — I always tease Keith and I said, Keith, if you had been around in the 1970s, I don’t think we would’ve had worship wars. Because what you have done your tunes are lyrically beautiful. The melodies are just wonderful. And he’s even produced harmonies. You know, that’s another thing that was lost in the contemporary music years. Everything was unison, basically. We lost the harmonies of the church. Keith is beautiful lyrically, but they have a quality, you immediately say, okay, I know what era that song is from. That song was written recently, even though it has some, it’s drawing on the Irish Celtic tradition. You can feel it’s contemporary flavor, but it’s substantive and rich and reverent and joyful. So it’s not “old is good, and new is bad.” It’s, there’s some new good and there’s some new bad and you’ve got to discern the difference.

SMITH: Yeah, a mentor of mine once said that there’s great books. He was a literature professor. He said, there are great books being written today, we just won’t know what they are for another 50 years because the old ones were the ones that have stood the test of time. They were writing bad songs 100 years ago, too. They just didn’t last.

DUNCAN: Absolutely true. That’s a C.S. Lewis point as well. You know, he said, hey, I write books so I want you to buy new books. But he said, if you have to only read old books or only read new books, I recommend that you read the old ones. And Keith has a very similar philosophy about singing. He says, look, I write new songs. I want people to use them. But I don’t want them to forget this great treasury that has been passed down to us in the generations. If we do, we forget the songs of our ancestor’s soul singing.

SMITH: Well, Ligon Duncan, I’d like to pivot a little bit in our conversation because we haven’t been talking about theology. You are a seminary professor in fact, seminary president. You’re the president of one of the largest seminaries in the country as a matter of fact, Reformed Theological Seminary. And if the church is in a sorry state theologically, the seminaries are not blameless in that and I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit to that issue. I mean, what is the state of Christian higher education in this country now, particularly seminary education?

DUNCAN: Well, again, there’s good news and bad news, just like we were talking about in our previous discussion. On the one hand, in liberal and Roman Catholic seminaries, there’s a tremendous decline in students and there are a lot of reasons for that, and evangelical seminaries alone, Bible-believing seminaries alone, are holding their own. Now, even we aren’t growing as fast as our nation’s population is growing. But what is very interesting is the only seminaries that are thriving now are seminaries where the word of God is believed. If you had picked up an ATS handbook 50 years ago, ATS is the Association of Theological Schools, it accredits about 273 seminaries in North America. If you had picked up that handbook 50 years ago, all of the largest seminaries would have been liberal. Today, all of the largest seminaries are Bible-believing and that’s a really good thing because the seminaries fed for many, many years bad theology into the churches. But now there are wonderful seminaries. Southern Seminary in Louisville is a wonderful seminary. Westminster Seminary, Covenant Seminary. I could go down a long list of really good seminaries that are out there now. And they’re feeding Bible-believing preachers and church workers into the churches.

SMITH: Well, I’m wondering if you can confirm or refute what I’m about to say, which I think supports, at least in part what you just said is that there are some denominations and I think of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for example, relatively small Presbyterian denomination where in fact the older pastors are more liberal than the conservative pastors that are coming into that church. And I think the same might be true with, say for example, the Methodist church where you’ve got some solid — Missouri Synod Lutheran, for example, where in many cases it’s the younger folks that are coming out of these conservative seminaries that are more conservative than their liberal fathers and grandfathers within the same denomination.

DUNCAN: That’s absolutely—I’ve seen that pan-denominationally. RTS is—it primarily has educated Presbyterian and reformed pastors and church workers over the last 50 years, but about a third of our student body is nondenominational. And then after that the next largest group are Baptists and then Anglicans, and then about 38 other things. So I’m exposed regularly to Anglicans, to Methodist, to Baptists, to Assemblies of God, and get this, even Seventh Day Adventists who are embracing reformed theology. And so you will find young people generationally in all of these different groups that are grasping hold of deeper, sounder Orthodox Christian theology. They might not agree in all of the particulars, but they really believed the Apostle’s Creed. They believe historic Protestant doctrine and they tend to be more theologically conservative than that older generation you were just talking about.

SMITH: Well, again, that’s the good news. The other news is, though, you’re not growing as fast as the population. I don’t mean you specifically, but all of you and there is kind of a demographic bubble where we are likely going to see young people, young adults of the age that would be going to seminary, that age cohort is likely going to get smaller and the—what are you doing to respond to that?

DUNCAN: Well, and part of that, as you know, you just—you put your finger on it, there’s going to be fewer and fewer 18 year olds for the next 50 years unless there’s some big turnaround. Although I’ve often laughed. There’s a very significant Asian immigration to the United States. So that I think most of us know that maybe in the next 20 years we’ll be a majority Hispanic country, and then in the next 40 years will be a majority Asian country. And Asians do not have the proclivities towards rationalistic, secularized thinking when it comes to religion in the same way that people descended from white Anglo Saxon populations have. And so I’ve often laughed to myself. I wonder if God is going to bring about revival in North America through Hispanics and Asians and immigration in the cultural turnover that comes with that, but it is true. Demographically right now, there’s a population that’s shrinking. So one thing that I want to do is I want to make sure is—we want to grab a larger market share of that population for the Bible and for God and for Christian service.

SMITH: And just from a business point of view, you’ve either got to go big or go home.

DUNCAN: That’s exactly right.

SMITH: I want to pivot just a little bit, again, Ligon Duncan, in our conversation and talk about the—we’re here in Nashville. A couple of months ago, I guess maybe a few more than a few months ago now, you signed the Nashville Statement related to human sexuality. Tell me why you signed that document.

DUNCAN: I think there’s a lot of confusion in the church on that issue today and I think that a lot of people in the name of love are wanting to ignore truth. And I think it’s vitally important right now in this current cultural setting where if you question LGBTQIA affirmation, you are looked upon in the culture like a white supremacist. I mean, you’re in the same moral location as far as the culture is concerned if you are not LGBTQIA-plus affirming, full bore affirming, you are viewed as, you know, essentially a racist and a bigot. And because of that, a lot of younger Christians are scared away from this issue. And then in the name of love rightly wanting to reach out to and ministering to people that are struggling with gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction and a million other things with regard to sexuality. There has been a tendency to downplay the clear teaching of the Bible on that. And the message that I want to send today is no, we’ve got to double down on the truth. The Bible’s crystal clear about this. If the Bible’s wrong about this, the Bible is wrong completely. And so we’ve got to affirm our allegiance to the Scripture while at the same time determining to love our neighbor and to care for those who are struggling with this particular group of sin problems. We’re all sinners, we all have our issues, but we want to stay faithful to the Bible as we reach out in love, ministering to people that are struggling with same-sex attraction.

SMITH: Well, I think you articulated very plainly that the Nashville Declaration was one that affirmed a Biblical view of sexuality and that’s why a lot of conservative theologians and churches have signed it, and why a lot of liberals opposed to you and the other signatories of that document. However, there was some pushback from conservative circles as well. And I’m thinking it might be a little dismissive or reductionist to say that their objection was that it didn’t go far enough. I mean, I think they—you might at one level be able to say that, but I think that they thought it wasn’t theologically as robust as it could have and should have been relative to say a Biblical anthropology.

DUNCAN: Well, we had a pretty robust discussion at the meeting in Nashville about those points. Peter Jones, for instance, wanted a more full orbed articulation of creation in the statement. There were others that said, can we have a more full orbed affirmation of anthropology. But statements can only be so long and so there’s no perfect human statement. If you and I—the Westminster Confession of faith is maybe my favorite theological document. Does it say everything? No. Does it say everything perfectly? No. Only the Bible does that. And so yes, I mean, there’s all sorts of things that we could have said more of, set the framework for better. But I think the things that the Nashville Statement did affirm were really helpful to the church in anchoring us in a time where there’s a lot of confusion on these issues.

SMITH: So net-net at the end of the day, even taking into account the criticisms that have come out afterwards from conservative Bible-believing people, you’re glad you signed the document?

DUNCAN: Absolutely. And I think the events of the last summer have just proved why it was so timely and important. And in fact, Danny Burke and Russ Moore and a lot of the people that were involved in producing that knew that those issues were coming down the line and wanted to speak about it clearly. And boy, have they been vindicated in that.

SMITH: Final sort of set of questions for you, Ligon Duncan. I’m going to sort of—we’ve gone from the specifics of the Sing! conference and now we’re sort of keep getting bigger and bigger. From sort of a 30,000 foot view, are you hopeful about the state of evangelicalism, generally? We’ve got a president in the White House that claims to be closely allied with evangelicals. We’ve got evangelicals that are, I guess you could say, much more involved in the political arena aligning with this president. Others that are not and in fact are actively trying to be clearer about what the word evangelicalism means. What’s your take on all of that?

DUNCAN: I am optimistic, and I’m optimistic just for a couple of reasons and totally apart from my theological commitment that this is my Father’s world and God is sovereignly in control of things and Jesus is reigning at the right hand of God, ruling this world by His word and spirit and He’s working his purposes out. Two things in particular encourage me: One is, I get to be on every continent about every 12 to 18 months. And there is an explosion of Bible-believing Christianity amongst young people everywhere I go: Brazil, South Africa, all over the continent of Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world has seen maybe 500,000 conversions from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism to Christianity over maybe the last 40 years. Now, that’s a country of 240-250 million people, fourth largest country in the world, largest Muslim country in the world, and you’ve got a massive turning to Christ. Now, 500,000 is a small slice of the population, but there hasn’t been that kind of turning to Christ in the Islamic world ever. We’re seeing the same thing in the Middle East. People reckon somewhere between 100,000 and a million people have become Bible-believing Christians in Iran.

So everywhere I go, I am encouraged. Now that there are smaller signs, not as big, not as flashy, in Europe and America. It’s true. Europe and America, we see more secularizing, but I still see glimmers of real hope and substance when I’m in Europe and in America. So, one thing is I go around the world and I see younger generations rejecting materialism, rejecting rationalism, rejecting atheism, and embracing a robust Christianity.

The second thing that I note amongst younger generations is they are not captive. I was born in 1960, which puts me at the end of the Baby Boomer era and a lot of my contemporaries were about the good life now. And there is a generation of young people that they are not looking for their best life now. In fact, a lot of them know that probably they’re not going to be as well off as their parents materially, but they also know that your, your hope in life, your joy in life doesn’t come from those things and they’re looking for bigger things. And so they’re doing really risky, dangerous things, going to foreign countries where their lives are in danger for the gospel or serving in areas where they’re never going to be as well off, not looking for a cushy job in the suburbs. They’re willing to go work in a bombed out area of an undeveloped, needing redevelopment downtown area. I see young people doing that all the time. Those things really encourage me.

One other thing on the cultural trend, I have to think that there’s going to be a reaction to the current administration and the current cultural moment. It has been really disorienting for me to look at what’s happened to evangelicalism during this era. Really from 2014 to now and especially from 2016 to now. There’s got to be a backlash against that. It won’t be a pro-Christian, pro-evangelical backlash. The backlash may be just what we need.

SMITH: Dr. Ligon Duncan, I hope you have many years of ministry left ahead of you, but you’re enough of a Bible scholar to know what the Bible says, that it is appointed unto man once to die. And after the judgement we’re all going to die one day. How do you want to be remembered?

DUNCAN: A saying by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the great Moravian leader—the Moravians were so important in the world missions movement. They had the hundred year prayer meeting for world missions. He wrote Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness. He had a saying that has profoundly affected my view of calling and my goals in life and how I want to be remembered and the saying is this, “Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.” And that really has become a life motto for me that I want Christ to be remembered, I want Christ to be exalted, Christ will handle me. I’ll be in his hands. I’m fine. Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten. That’s my aspiration.

SMITH: Dr. Ligon Duncan, thank you so much for being on the program. I’m so grateful.

DUNCAN: Really good to be with you, Warren. Thank you so much.

SMITH: That brings to a close my conversation with Ligon Duncan.

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The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. The executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host, Warren Smith, and you’ve been listening in.

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