Thursday, November 20, 2014

Remembering Dad

(Note: This is an updated revision of my post dating 20 November 2012.)

Dad in the early 1940s

Thirty-four 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-eight 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. Dartmouth 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-eight 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, and less praiseworthy, 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, graceDave 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-eight years have passed remarkably quickly. Sometimes it is hard for me to appreciate how short life is, and that I am now only 7+ 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