Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Remembering Dad

Dad in the early 1940s

Thirty-two years ago C. F. D. Moule, in the Introduction to a Festschrift honoring F. F. Bruce on the latter's 70th birthday, claimed that he had "never known a man in whom the virtues of grace and truth were so perfectly wedded" as in the great Scottish New Testament scholar. As one who had the privilege of meeting that great man and benefiting immensely from his work, I do not doubt it. But I would not hesitate to say that the venerable Cambridge professor, who died in 2007 just two months shy of his 99th birthday and himself was once dubbed "Holy Mouley" because of his piety, could never have made that claim had he known my father, the Reverend Dr. John F. McGahey, who died  could it possibly be?  twenty-six years ago today.

Dad at Winterthur, Delaware in the early 1940s

All these years later not a day goes by in which I don't think about him and his towering legacy. As a child, he was my hero  brilliant and athletic, yet kind and generous to a fault. In later years, he served as my role model and greatest teacher. Even though he was the first teacher at Philadelphia Bible Institute (later Philadelphia College of Bible, Philadelphia Biblical University, and now Cairn University) to hold an earned doctorate, he was chronically under-appreciated (one of his former deans, who later served as President of the college where I taught, referred to him as a "troublemaker" because he wouldn't simply do as he was told) and, ultimately, mistreated by that institution's administration (upon his 65th birthday, three weeks before his death, he was "informed" that he had to retire at the end of the year; what the ensuing events proved was that it was his teaching of the Bible that kept his long-failing heart alive). The same, happily, cannot be said of his family and students, both of which I can luckily count myself.

Dad receiving his Th.D. degree from John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie, May 1957

I inherited and learned many things from dad: the love of sports, books, and everything British; the importance of family  though I wish I carried through on the practical outworking of this as well as he did  and transparency of character; and the futility of both careerism and the quest for transitory material prosperity. Most importantly, however, I can confidently say that, humanly speaking, I am a Christian today because of him. Columbia historian Randall Balmer, himself the son of a prominent Midwestern minister, has said  correctly, in my view  that "conversionist" Evangelicalism's greatest problem is the passing on of the faith from generation to generation. Dad had his theology straight, of course (more on that anon). More importantly, however, he served as a living, breathing, walking embodiment of St. Paul's message of "Christ crucified." In a word, his life served as an embodied apologetic for the Christian faith. As one who has painfully experienced the "left foot of fellowship" from so-called "Christian" "leaders," it would have been easy to throw it all away, like Esau and his birthright. Indeed, I know plenty of people, both raised as Christians and lifelong unbelievers, who reject Christianity because of the behavior of so-called "conservative Christians," not least those who deem themselves "leaders" of "evangelical" "ministries." And they have a point. But I know what genuine Christianity is because I have experienced it firsthand, not just in my "heart"  emotions, after all, are fleeting and can deceive  but in the life of one who paid more than lip service to the notion of the Lordship of Christ. And for that I indeed thank the Lord each and every day from the bottom of my heart.

Yesterday, as I am wont to do on anniversaries of his death, I listened once again to my tape of the memorial service held in dad's honor at our home church of Grace Chapel in Havertown. At this stage I can almost recite the various tributes by heart  the pained testimonials spoken by my brother and me, as well as the words of dad's best friend, the Rev. Dave Haines, former student (and my college roomie) Matt Meeder, and esteemed colleagues like Julius Bosco and the late, lamented John Cawood, Gordon Ceperley, and Sam Hsu. Listening to these tributes once again brought tears streaming down my face as I reflected that these were all testimonials of a greatness that is rare in this world, a greatness to which I could aspire but never achieve. That night twenty-six years ago I chose to summarize dad's impact via the rubric provided by Professor Moule in his praise of Fred Bruce: grace and truth. Right now I would like to do so again.

Picture from 1965
(yearbook dedicatee)

When I reflect on what made dad special, my mind always returns to two characteristics of his that stand out. The first is his legendary zeal for the truth. This, I think, is the trait for which he is most famous among those who knew him only as a teacher or preacher. His nickname, which I later inherited for somewhat different reasons, was "the Snapper" or "Snappin' Jack." Indeed, anyone who ever took a course he taught can regale an audience with stories of dad's legendary (or infamous, depending on one's point of view) rants ("I get a kick out of these guys ...") against Arminians, charismatics, or the ever-popular covenant theologians ("Israel is not the church"). Writing about these brings a smile to my face even as I now disagree with his views on such matters as sanctification and salvation-history. For, like Luther and Calvin before him, dad took his stand on the Word of God as he understood it, and he was conscience-bound to proclaim only what he, through diligent study, believed to be true. Theology, in other words, despite the powerful pull of an anti-intellectual American pietism, mattered. And this meant, among other things, that truth, no matter how unpopular or inconvenient, must always trump the shibboleths of any human tradition, no matter how venerable or powerful. Today I honor his legacy, even if I don't always agree with his views, by adopting the same, entirely admirable stance, all the while realizing that doing so can result in having to pay the ultimate professional cost.

The second characteristic of dad's is one that his closest friends and relatives know best: his commitment to the doctrine of, and lifestyle determined by, grace. Dave Haines, his best friend from Newark dating back to the 1940s, said it best:
He was saved by grace and he never got over it. He knew that he was what he was by the grace of God; and if ever anyone ever spoke about anyone's failures, John would always say, "But for the grace of God, there go I" ... John was a personification of grace."
Indeed, I consider his commitment to the doctrines of God's sovereign grace, and the ramifications of these doctrines for how we must treat people, to be his greatest legacy. He embodied St. Paul's great principle of considering others to be more important than oneself (Phil 2:3) better than anyone I have ever known. And, as my brother said that night so long ago, he always thought the best of anybody. Never can I recall him ever saying anything negative about any other person. The reason for this is that he, in a way unparalleled in my experience, understood what St. Paul meant when he spoke of the grace of God. If indeed one is cognizant of having been dealt with graciously, one can never be an arrogant, condescending, or self-righteous person, for one will know in the depth of one's being that the favor with God she has received is entirely undeserved. The ramifications of this, as I learned from dad's example, are legion. But perhaps the two most important are as follows: (1) mercy and forgiveness ought to take precedence over strict justice, which can  and usually does  serve as a cover for vengeance and the assertion of control and power; and (2) people matter more than institutions and abstract rules, and thus one should always strive to be an advocate for the powerless. 

As I said, not a day passes that I don't think of dad. These twenty-six years have passed remarkably quickly. Sometimes it is hard for me to appreciate how short life is, and that I am now only 9+ years younger than dad was when he passed into the presence of his Lord. But that means one thing: it won't be long until I too leave this earth to be with Christ, which, as Paul himself said, is "better by far" than remaining in this world (Phil 1:23). And, as that day approaches, I increasingly anticipate that day when we both can sit together at the feet of the one who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20). Marana Tha!

Dad shooting baskets in Persia while in the
Army in WWII

The two most influential men in my life: Dad and his brother Bill, Havertown, 1985
(photo by author)

Dad and family, Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, Early 1950s


  1. I wish that I got to know him. Everything I've ever heard about Grandpa was that he was an amazing man. Its also evident that he was your father because you personify the tales I've heard about him. You are also so strong in your belief or God and the virtues of Christianity and it is very admirable. I hope you know that I am a Christian and will always be because of your faith and leadership with me. You are a wonderful teacher and a fantastic man. I also feel like even though I never got to know Grandpa, I see him through you and I thank you for that. Love you, Dad. -John

    1. John - our family was playing a game once and Rachel had to answer the question "if you had the opportunity to meet and talk with anyone from history, who would you choose?". She blew me away when she responded, "my grandfather John". There are many things in life that are inexplicable; my father's early death is one of them. I am happy to say however that one day you will have plenty of time to talk with him. I think he would be very proud of his namesake. -
      Uncle Dan

    2. Thanks so much, John. It grieves me that you never got to know him, and that Lauren and Brynn only knew him when they were very little. My how he loved them, and he would have been so proud of you and Uncle Dan's kids as well. The thing I admire most about him is that he accepted everybody as they were, warts and all, and always looked for the best in people. I can only hope to emulate that. Love you son.

  2. Jim-
    We sure loved and appreciated your dad! He guided me to DTS and always had time for me!
    Dave Sutter

  3. I just came across this post today. I'm a former student of your Dad's from the early 80's. He and Dr. Cawood remain, in my memory, the towering figures overshadowing my time at PCB. I remember always being a bit uncomfortable around him!
    My most vivid memory of him was an incident that took place outside of the PCB context which is why it sticks out. I was good friends, in High School and after, with Jeff Grant and his family, and one night, as I entered into the Grant family home there in Piscataway, NJ, I'm stopped in my tracks as I look around the room and who do I see but Dr. McGahey! It took me a few moments to get my bearings. None of the Grants had ever mentioned that they were related to him! Not being a great student at the time, there was actually a moment when I irrationally thought he was there for me! Well, aside from that, I have fond memories of your Dad. lol
    I am especially thankful for the strength with which he taught the doctrines of grace. Like you, I'm not sure he'd agree with where I have gone theologically, but I am grateful for the role that he played in the years I sat under him.
    Blessings to you and your family.

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  6. I just stumbled across this while researching for a Bible lesson, and I'm glad I did.

    I too had the pleasure and privilege of studying under Dr. McGahey at PCB in the early 1980s. In three decades of preaching since I have quoted him many, many times. His encyclopedic knowledge, coupled with passion and humility, never failed to impress me.

    Permit me to share a few happy memories:

    One time I was having lunch in the snack shop when someone came in and asked about a car that had been left running outside. Dr. McGahey recognized the description, and went out to get it. Apparently he'd gotten into a conversation with someone and left the car there.

    Another time I was taking an exam in the Bible Department office while he was chatting with Mr. Ceperley in the next room. The secretary walked in on them and said, "Dr. McGahey, aren't you supposed to be teaching this period?" He jumped up and ran off to class, saying, "Oh! I was talking with Cep here and lost track of the time..!"

    And then there was the time he walked into one of my classes, opened with prayer, and then launched into a lecture that bore no relation to what we'd been studying. Seeing our confusion he caught himself, and said, "This is Church History, isn't it?" He then effortlessly switched to the appropriate lecture.

    What never failed to impress me was this: While such things might have suggested that he was something of an "absent minded professor," the fact of the matter was that his knowledge of his subject matter-- the Bible and Christian Theology-- was truly remarkable. Time and again I saw him speak without notes, often quoting not only large portions of Scripture from memory, but extensive passages from commentaries as well.

    His lectures were amazing performances, and if filling his mind with the eternal meant that some mundane matters were a bit crowded out, well, so be it! I for one wanted very much to be like Dr. McGahey!

    One more thing: Not only did he know his subject matter thoroughly, but he knew his students as well. One day while he was lecturing he happened to notice, out of the corner of his eye, a visitor passing the room. He paused, went out to greet said visitor, then returned to us. A minute or two later he paused again to tell us about the visitor, a former student. He knew the man's name, his year of graduation, his wife's name, how many kids he had, and what kind of ministry he was involved in.

    It was very moving, as it showed me his heart. My pastor had told me I should focus on the only two things in this world that last forever, which are the Word of God and the immortal souls of people. To my eyes Dr. McGahey exemplified this beautifully.