Last week Dr. Robert Thomas went to be with the Lord. In his 89 years of life he fought in the Korean War (US Army, 2nd Lieutenant), attended Moody Bible College, Faith Seminary, Dallas Seminary, and then served the Lord as New Testament Chair at Talbot for nearly thirty years. In 1987 he left that position to join the faculty at the newly formed Master’s Seminary, where he would teach for another three decades.
He was on the council that formed the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. He was on the translation committee for the New American Standard Bible, and long before electronic Bibles he edited the NASB concordance—although rumors that he did so from memory could never be substantiated. He edited a harmony of the Gospels, which would later serve as the basis for John MacArthur’s book One Perfect Life, and he was the executive editor for The Master’s Seminary Journal.
He was a preacher’s theologian. He became the leading advocate for the Independence theory of the gospels, editing numerous journal articles and books on the topic. One of his main arguments in favor of this view was simply that contrary views (such as Marcan priority) made preaching the Gospels boring and commentaries on them practically unreadable. He maintained an extremely high standard in class, with the constant reminder that if a preacher was going to open the Bible with a word from God, he better have confidence in the details of the text before him.
Pastors who never studied at The Master’s Seminary likely know Dr. Thomas through the NASB or his commentaries on Revelation. I recently finished preaching through Revelation at my own church, and can attest that his two-volume commentary on the book is incomparable.
But for those who attended TMS, Dr. Thomas was more than an author and more than a scholar—in many ways he personified the ideal that TMS strove for. He was rigorous, precise, and demanding. He had an eye for detail, and demanded that other develop the same. He firmly believed that the higher the standard was raised, the more students would excel. If some struggled to keep up and ended up dropping out, well…that’s the cost of excellence.
His quizzes were legendary—the footnotes were fair game—and his exams were intimidating. Very few institutions are fortunate enough to have a professor who becomes an icon, but that’s what Dr. Thomas was for The Master’s Seminary. New Testament Introduction was a rite of passage. In Senior Testimonies students would say their plans after graduation, but often add an aside: “assuming I pass NTI.” Other students would laugh nervously, knowing that until you completed NTI nothing was certain. Dr. Thomas, always sitting toward the front, would smile. He took those laments as compliments.
This is not to suggest that he was a heartless task master, although he delighted in being perceived that way. The truth is, he loved his students. For the twenty-five years he taught at TMS, he commuted from La Mirada. He would arrive at 6 am and hold court at Norms, a diner down the street from campus. Any TMS student was welcome to join him there. I often did. Sometimes students would come to debate the textual transmission of the Gospels. Other times they would come looking for help on an exams. But mostly students came looking for wisdom.
I remember one morning a group of single students showed up asking for dating advice. “How do you know when you’ve found the right one?” they asked. Dr. Thomas answered that question with the same precision and convictions which drove his handling of the NT. It was clear that his love for the truth was actually a love for people. He was a professor not because he loved Greek, but because he loved the people who would be under the pastoral care of his students, and he sincerely believed that sheep would be best fed if their pastor knew exactly what he was talking about.
One chapel, I believe it was in 2002 or so, Dr. Thomas and John MacArthur had a friendly exchange on 1 Thessalonians 4:4. Pastor John held that “control his own vessel” spoke of self-control over your own body, and he laid out his case for that view. Dr. Thomas did not concur, and simply quipped, “I don’t think you listened to a word I taught you in Greek class all those years ago.”
Now it’s possible to read that quip and take it as pride or even as an insult to Pastor John. But for the students, it actually caused our respect for Pastor MacArthur to increase—after all, even he had to survive Dr. Thomas’ classes.
The Master’s Seminary style guide prohibits the use of academic titles in scholastic writing. So it is proper to refer to Charles Feinberg, but not to Dr. Feinberg. But there always was an unspoken exception to this rule. It just feels wrong, even for me today, long removed from the classroom, to call him “Thomas.” “Bob” is unthinkable. If it turned out his legal name was “Dr.,” I don’t think many of his students would be surprised. It just fits him.
The Master’s Seminary will miss Dr. Thomas. His work ethic, dedication, and pursuit of excellence came to be traits embodied by the institution. There are certain men who God has used to make the school what it is—men who were born to compel weaker men to excellence. Those kind of men don’t get to live forever, and the Lord was kind to let Dr. Thomas teach for sixty years. Though he is no longer in this world, his legacy of effort and accomplishment still echo through the halls, and still serve as a reminder that precision with the Word of God is an expression of the love of God to the people of God.