David Filson, Adjunct Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, recently sat down with Rob Pacienza, a current DMin student at Westminster Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL. In this interview, they discuss the vital importance of public theology, the notion that the gospel is a public truth, and how Westminster has continued in the public theology tradition set forth in Old Princeton. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Filson: Rob, tell us about yourself and your ministry. How did you come to know the Lord?
Rob Pacienza: As a teenager, I moved from the Philadelphia area to Fort Lauderdale, where I encountered the message of the gospel for the first time through the ministry of Coral Ridge. We were typical Northeast nominal Catholics. But when we moved to Fort Lauderdale, in the providence of God, God brought my family and me to Coral Ridge. And it was there that I heard the lifesaving and transforming message of the gospel for the first time. In a way, I am a son of the church, one who was mentored and discipled by Dr. D. James Kennedy. I met my wife there while I was in high school. So, she is a daughter of the church, and it is a very sweet thing to be home at Coral Ridge and be leading in this God-given capacity.
DF: I once heard Dr. Kennedy speaking about “Evangelism Explosion,” and he said that someone came up to him and said, “I really don’t like this program of evangelism, and that you do this Evangelism Explosion.” And Dr. Kennedy said, “Well, tell me what kind of evangelism you do.” And the other fellow said, “Well, I really don’t do a lot of evangelism.” And Kennedy said, “I like the way I do evangelism better than the way that you don’t do evangelism.”
RP: That was vintage Kennedy!
DF: When did you start sensing a stirring in your heart for the ministry?
RP: It was during my senior year of high school. I had the opportunity to share my testimony in a Sunday morning service at Coral Ridge. Dr. Kennedy pulled me aside and asked if I had ever considered full-time vocational ministry. I was honest with him that I had never considered full-time vocational ministry, but that one conversation after the service began a 10-year mentoring and relationship where he regularly guided me in pastoral ministry, Reformed theology, and what’s become my love and my passion, namely, public theology. With respect to public theology, I am particularly interested in how the cultural mandate gets worked out and manifested in the life of the church.
DF: Tell us more about your interest in public theology. Dr. Kennedy left a robust legacy and distinct interest in public theology. What are some of your own interests in public theology, your own involvement, and how does that color your own ministry commitments?
RP: I soon began reading Lesslie Newbigin and Abraham Kuyper. I started to fall in love with the idea, which I believe is biblical truth, that good theology should be public theology. Jesus came not only to preach a gospel of personal individual salvation, but he came declaring and sharing the gospel of the kingdom. And so, it’s understanding the reality that Jesus has come not only to be the Lord of our lives personally and individually, but he has come to be the cosmic King. The question then becomes, how does this truth influence and impact all public life?
My wife calls me the eternal optimist. I don’t think it’s a vain or unrealistic optimism, or being overly idealistic. It is simply grounded in the idea that Christians should be the most optimistic people on the world. We have a message to tell the nations. And I believe that the gospel of the kingdom is the only true hope of the world. We’ve seen it in church history for the last 2000 years. I shudder to think what this world would look like if it did not have strong Christians exercising their faith in the public square.
DF: Amen. And is that not just at the heart of a thorough Reformed theology? There’s a certain natural segue into public theology, especially from the view of a Van Tilian apologetic. Abraham Kuyper, as you noted before, is important, too. The notion that Christ is the cosmic King appears in both these thinkers. What is your response to this intriguing idea of Christ walking a cosmic road, and the cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive work?
RP: It’s brilliant. My only regret from my time at Westminster is that I didn’t have the opportunity to attendwhile Van Til was still teaching. I think Van Til really understood the totality of the message of the gospel. He understood that the curse was cosmic, and that the sin, when it entered the world, affected every facet of the world. Christ came to be the cosmic Redeemer, and Van Til, it seems to me, really understood that in his teaching and in his writing.
DF: As you think about your own ministry, what are some of the areas that you think are of a special urgency for those of us in ministry and academics? What are some of the areas that are of a special urgency as a public theologian and pastor?
RP: I was interviewed by a secular network radio program a few months ago. They asked me what thing concerns me the most about the current state of affairs in our country. I said that I am surprised by the state of the church. I said that we as pastors and as Christian leaders can’t really control society, the nation, and the media, but we can control the message that’s coming out from our pulpits. And I think we see a missing voice in the public square, namely the voice of the prophetic witness that has existed for centuries prior.
And so, I pray that God continues to inspire seminaries like Westminster to train men in pastoral ministry so that they are bold enough to preach this public truth. This truth really is the hope of the world. The church, as it were, is the hope of the world. If it wasn’t for Christians declaring the gospel as public truth, where do we think the rights for orphans and widows came from? The ending of slavery?
I just think it’s so important in this hopeless age, where the effects of secularism are ubiquitous, to declare this message. But we have compartmentalized our faith, and thus, compartmentalized the gospel. The gospel has now become a message that tells me how I can get to heaven but does not tell me how it brings flourishing to society and how it extends God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
DF: Amen to that. Can you tell us a little about your own doctoral work, and how it relates to this field of public theology?
RP: My project is entitled, “This is My Father’s World: An Equipping Plan for Churches to Raise up Kingdom Citizens.” And the DMin application or the ministry model will involve the establishment of the Institute for Faith and Culture at Coral Ridge. This will be a training center for lay people, not only at Coral Ridge, but God willing, at other churches across north America. It will be specifically geared to equipping Christians for this cultural moment, giving a much-needed biblical theology of culture. This will cast a vision for cultural engagement guided by the meta-narrative of Scripture that God created the world and has a plan for history.
I am really excited about the research that I’ve done establishing a biblical theology of culture. The research also considers the historical precedence of Christian cultural engagement from the first century to the present day, with special reference to Westminster, of course, particularly Machen and Van Til. Additionally, I’ve really grown to love the writings and teachings of R. B. Kuiper, who taught at Westminster in the 1940s and 1950s. One of the more popular quotes from R. B. Kuiper is “the local church is the outpost of the kingdom of God.” I write extensively about this notion, which Kuiper first articulated in 1952. Kuiper maintained that the church today, which is supposed to be the outpost of the kingdom of God, representing and reflecting the glory of God, is thickly veiled.
From this, an indictment against us follows, namely that we don’t look like the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. We have turned this glorious public truth of the gospel of the kingdom into a privatized truth. So really the DMin work outlines historically what the church has been called to, but also, and unfortunately, what the current condition of the church is today. Hopefully the ministry model of the Institute for Faith and Culture can serve as an encouragement and a model for pastors everywhere who love the Lord and love the word of God so that they can not only speak truth into this cultural moment, but also help equip their people be a priesthood of believers.
DF: Tell us what you think about the importance and the place of Westminster Theological Seminary today for pastoral training for preparing women and men for various forms of ministry.
RP: I think Westminster has such a rich history and rich legacy. In many ways, I think that you can link what is happening today at Westminster, as well as in its founding, to Old Princeton. I think that Westminster, in many respects, is carrying forward the thought of Vos and Warfield. I mean that in the most glowing way, because that Old Princeton tradition is, in my estimation, the most consistent theologically speaking. It is our Reformed covenantal theology that has a sovereign God at its center, Jesus Christ, who is cosmic king and Lord over all. I could not think of a better place to study to do my doctorate work. It’s been a blessing for me to be a part of such a rich tradition and such a rich legacy. The work that Westminster continues to do, raising up men and women who love the Lord and love to proclaim the gospel is public truth, is needed now more than ever.
DF: One final question. Would you tell us briefly about how we can pray for you, your family, and your ministry at Coral Ridge?
RP: My wife, Jennifer, and I have been married for nineteen years this summer. We have two children, aged nine and eleven, Preston and Lydia. Three years ago, we experienced a personal tragedy. We lost our three-year-old daughter named Lily. We are confident in the Lord that there will be a glorious reunion one day. So, you can pray for our family, that God would use that very dark season and that tragic situation to continue to be used for his glory. Also, do pray for our church. I am not sure if your readers are familiar with the recent history of Coral Ridge, but we went through a dark season after the passing of Dr. Kennedy. It was a very stormy season for the ministry and for the church. But I have to say, the last six years have been nothing short of a miracle as God has brought revival back to a church that was split in half, a church that was struggling with identity, vision, and mission. In addition to these prayers, I ask that people would praise God along with me that God is faithful to his church and his bride.