Although I never met John Murray, his influence was still palpable at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia when I joined the faculty there in the fall of 1974. Stories about Mr. Murray (he was always Mr. Murray!) still circulated regularly among students and I was never quite sure whether they were true or apocryphal. Did Mr. Murray actually calm student antics in the lounge by taking out his glass eye and reaching it through the door of the lounge? (Mr. Murray had lost one eye serving with the Black Watch in the First World War.)
One story I heard from W. Stanford Reid, the eminent historian. Reid was a student at the seminary in the 1930’s. Mr. Murray lived on campus on the third floor of Machen Hall and he was reputed to enjoy a little Scotch whiskey from time to time. The seminary had a policy prohibiting alcoholic beverages on campus and students speculated as to where Mr. Murray might keep his whiskey, certain that he would abide by the letter of the law. Reid was living in one of the gate houses on the seminary property and one day was nearly asphyxiated when the furnace malfunctioned. Mr. Murray paid a pastoral call on Reid and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Reid, thinking that he could resolve student speculation, said that he would feel much better if he could have a “wee dram.” Mr. Murray’s (glass!) eye twinkled and he responded, “Ach, Reid, you’re no man enough for that.”
While the stories were legion and often humorous, they were always told with the greatest affection and respect—even by those who had never met Mr. Murray. The stories usually also were told to demonstrate some aspect of his character. Mr. Murray was a strict Scottish Presbyterian which meant that he kept the Sabbath carefully, sang only Psalms in public worship, and rejected the church calendar as Romish. One December he was invited to the home of a newly married student. The new wife showed Mr. Murray their first Christmas tree. He refrained from comment, but the wife unwisely asked what he thought of it. He is reported to have said simply, “Pagan bush.” He was scrupulously honest. He would laugh enthusiastically at a joke he thought funny, but would not even smile at one that was not.
More important than these anecdotes, he was remembered for his careful work at the seminary. He wrote out his lectures and revised them with great seriousness. He preferred not to entertain questions in class believing that the important matters would be covered clearly in his lectures. He was also remembered for his prayers. The gravity and passion of his prayers left a profound impact on all that heard him.
October 14, 1998 marks the 100th anniversary of John Murray’s birth and it is appropriate that the Reformed community pause to remember one of its outstanding theologians of the twentieth century. He was born in Badbea, Bonar Bridge, Scotland to a pious Free Presbyterian family. He was a child of the covenant and grew as a child of faith. The Free Presbyterian Church was the strictest of Scotland’s Presbyterian denominations.
He studied in Glasgow and then, feeling called to the ministry, studied at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1924–1927. He experienced the American struggles of fundamentalism against modernism first hand. In 1927 he returned to his beloved Scotland hoping to be ordained to the ministry. His preaching was well received, but ordination was not possible as he did not accept the judgment of his denomination that the use of public transportation to get to church on Sunday was a violation of the Fourth Commandment. In 1928 he studied historical theology at New College, Edinburgh and in 1929 accepted the invitation of Caspar Wistar Hodge to teach systematic theology at Princeton Seminary. The following year he went to teach for Westminster eagerly supporting Dr. J. Gresham Machen in his efforts to promote Reformed theology and to build a Reformed church. He remained there until his retirement in 1966. In 1937 he was ordained to the ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The careful, thorough scholarship that characterized his lectures are found in his writings as well. The Banner of Truth Trust has gathered four volumes of his collected writings: articles, lectures, reviews and sermons. These materials show the breadth of his theological interests and reading. They are also a good introduction to his clear, penetrating theological work. He also wrote a number of very distinguished books. We mention several. He wrote Christian Baptism (1952) exploring the nature of the sacrament and defending infant baptism In 1955 Redemption – Accomplished and Applied appeared, examining the work of Christ and how a person receives the benefits of that work. His Principles of Conduct (1957) explored the ways in which a Christian should use the Scriptures to make ethical decisions. In 1959 he investigated with great care the full meaning of Adam’s sin and original sin in The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. He also wrote a very important commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, appearing in two volumes in 1960 and 1965.
Mr. Murray’s theology always rested on clear and thorough exegesis of relevant Biblical passages. He was not given to proof-texting if that means simply stringing a list of Biblical citations together. He wanted as a theologian to know what God had said in His Word and so he studied that Word with all the faithfulness and diligence of which he was capable. He was no traditionalist. content simply to repeat the conclusions of other Reformed theologians. He wanted to convince his hearers and readers from the Bible that Reformed theology was true. His approach to theology was an approach very much needed for Reformed theology in the twentieth century. He effectively combated the oft-repeated criticism of Calvinism that it was the product more of logic than of Scripture. He showed clearly the Biblical basis of our faith.
After his retirement Mr. Murray returned to Scotland and his family home. In 1967 he married Valerie Knowlton. (He was following a pattern in his family of late marriages.) They had two children, Logan born in 1968 and Anne-Margaret born in 1971. Mr. Murray remained active in preaching and lecturing until cancer made such work impossible. He died strong in his faith May 8, 1975.
The stories about Mr. Murray sometimes almost make him sound quaint. They certainly remind us that he came from a different culture and time. But as we remember the 100th anniversary of his birth, we should celebrate his legacy by reading again the fine theology that he wrote, and reflecting on the example of Christian living that he left us. He was careful and disciplined. He loved the Christian Sabbath and the Psalms. His life was suffused with an earnest desire to know, teach and live God’s Word. May that legacy help us to live out that same Reformed faith today.
Dr. Godfrey is president of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA where he also teaches Church History. He serves as contributing editor of The Outlook.