John Gerstner’s Influence in Ascension Presbytery PCA: An Interview with Rev. Barry Woolner

ME: is chatting today with Rev. Barry Woolner, longtime PCA pastor in the Ascension Presbytery, and the guy who helped me find our new house in Pennsylvania! Barry is also a former student of Dr. John Gerstner, whose legacy still impacts many in the Reformed and Evangelical world to this day. Barry, before we talk more about Gerstner, give us a quick rundown on your own ministry career for those who don’t have the pleasure of knowing you. 

BW:  I was converted soon after I flunked out of Rutgers University.  I then attended Philadelphia College of Bible. They expelled me. I then attended Berkshire Christian College.  They threatened me with expulsion. I met Kathy at Berkshire; she had transferred from Wheaton College in 1971, before our Junior year. We were married in 1972.  We graduated in 1973 with B.A.’s in Theology. I attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary from 1973 through 1976. I finished the standard M.Div. degree and most of the work for my Th.M. (in Jonathan Edwards studies).  I was the pastor of Glade Run United Presbyterian Church in southern Butler County, interim pastor at Meridian Presbyterian Church in Butler; I left the mainline Presbyterian denomination in 1982. I was assistant to the pastor and ruling elder at Calvary Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Butler, founding pastor of Westminster Reformed Pres Church (became OPC) in Johnstown, and then, assistant pastor at Gospel Fellowship PCA.

ME: So when did you first come into contact with Dr. Gerstner, and what were some of your first impressions about the man? How did he strike you as a person?   

BW: I did not meet him until seminary classes started.  The course that I took was a class on Jonathan Edwards’s book, The Freedom of the Will.  Dr. Gerstner was intense.  He taught in a way that terrified some students.  It was called ‘dialogture’. He would lecture and then ask questions directed to the class.  He would then interrogate a “victim” for minutes at a time. Once, when he pressed me intensely for several minutes, I interrupted the verbal assault on my poor brain and asked if I might be excused to go to the bathroom.  I was not allowed.

Dr. Gerstner was consumed by the idea that he needed to be as godly as God called him to be.  He would push us to be as consistent in our walk with Christ as we could be. He opened to us a world of both Godly and academic rigor that was, for many of his students, truly challenging.

ME: Tell us a little bit about what he was like as a professor, and what it was like to be in his Reformed Study Group. 

BW:   Dr. Gerstner was a teacher who expected you to master the material presented.  He hoped that you would agree with him. However, your grade did not depend upon agreeing.  One day he stated that he prayed for all of the students in his classes. He also stated that he prayed that we would all become as Reformed as he was.

The Reformed Group was a ‘secret’ group that was intended to include only those who were Calvinists and members of the United Presbyterian Church.  The group was intended to educate, provide fellowship and support for those in the struggle against liberalism. (A few others outside the mainline church were included, like Dr. Jack White, President of Geneva College).   We were asked to produce serious papers on assigned topics. One’s paper would be presented and then discussed. Given the number of people in the group who had earned Ph.D.’s in a wide variety of subjects from theology to nuclear physics, the discussions were academically challenging.

ME: What do you think are some of the most lasting and important impressions that Gerstner made upon you as a Christian and as a minister? 

BW:   By his life and written thoughts, he convinced me that God’s calling involved the totality of who I am, every nano second of my time, every thought that drifted through my head.  He was consumed by trying to understand the full meaning of the glory of God. His respect and love for Edwards came from the fact that he had found a fellow traveler, one who pressed on to know, love and live God’s Truth.   On a different and somewhat more practical note, I appreciated his view of debating. He insisted that the basic rule of debate was that you must state your opponent’s view in a way with which he or she would agree. You could not erect a straw man and then feel good by knocking it over.   

ME: Did you have a chance to read the new biography on John Gerstner by Jeffrey S. McDonald, part of the Princeton Theological Monograph Series? If so, what were some of your impressions? Did McDonald capture the whole man or did he miss anything? 

BW:   As you know, it is impossible to please everyone in the audience.  I read both his doctoral dissertation and his book. I thought that the book was well planned.  It discusses Dr. Gerstner’s influence and life decade by decade. I believe that McDonald’s critique of Dr. Gerstner’s published books was accurate.  My major complaint had to do with his depiction of Dr. Gerstner as anti-social, withdrawn, cold, etc. This is an utterly false portrayal. I contacted McDonald and we spent over an hour chatting.  I have written, and, along with others, will be disseminating our memories of Dr. Gerstner. It will be, on a smaller scale, similar to Luther’s Table Talk.  I will send McDonald my notes in hope of changing his mind.  

ME: Since this website is devoted to Jonathan Edwards studies, did you find yourself becoming more and more interested in the Northampton revivalist yourself through Gerstner’s influence? Gerstner, as we know, dedicated much of his writing and lecturing to the famed Great Awakening preacher. 

BW:   If you met Dr. Gerstner, you met Rev. Edwards.  My interest in Edwards pre-dated meeting Dr. Gerstner.  I had read some of Perry Miller’s works. I also read Sydney Ahlstrom’s great book on religion in America.  When I was briefly homeless during college years, I slept in the Stockbridge (Massachusetts) Congregational Church building where Edwards pastored.  Surely a pure pedigree! Dr. Gerstner did dedicate his life to bringing Rev. Edwards’s thought to the modern world. Mrs. Gerstner thought he spent a bit too much time interpreting Edward’s ‘goose markings.’

ME: This area of the country (Western PA) is probably the main hotbed for Gerstner’s teaching and influence. Of course, Ligonier Ministries was founded not far from Pittsburgh and Gerstner himself eventually became part of Ascension Presbytery, where you and I are ordained. Is he in any danger of being forgotten here in this area? 

BW:   As you know Matt, we will all be forgotten.  “Only one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”  The hope is that the Reformed thought that he espoused will more and more grow for the glory of God.  Dr. Gerstner did not want his name attached to any type of movement. That is why several of us had to vow, to Dr. Gerstner, not to write his biography.

ME: Do you have any recommendations for some of Gerstner’s own works? Are any of his books still important to you? 

BW:   I really like his practical books.  His short books on Edwards, his Reasons For Faith, Primitive Theology,Theology of the Major Sects, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, and his Theology in Dialogue are quite excellent.  

ME: Barry, thanks for checking in with us and for sharing your thoughts on the late Dr. John Gerstner. It sounds like he had a great impact on your heart and your life. 

BW: Thank you for allowing me the privilege of discussing Dr. Gerstner with you.  He is one of the great gifts of God to His Church. As R.C. Sproul said at his funeral, when Dr. Gerstner died, he entered heaven and was greeted by Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and Edwards.  “Finally among his peers.” Amen.