Pilgrimage to Calvinism

One of the more moving episodes in what arc often routine meetings came for Classis Grand Rapids East when it had to question Rev. Virgil C. Patterson in what is still called among us by the barbarous-sounding name, a “Colloquium Doctum.” Rev. Mr. Patterson, a Presbyterian minister who had been serving the Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church as assistant pastor for a year, was examined with a view to becoming the regular pastor of the Madison Square Christian Reformed Church. The fascinating account which he gave to the Classis of the way in which the Lord had led him to this point suggested a further interview with him and brought out information which may prove of more than ordinary interest to our readers.

Rev. Patterson was born and reared in a religiously-conservative Christian home in Indianapolis, Indiana, in which the faith was taken very seriously as an integral part of people‘s lives. Of mixed Methodist and Baptist background, he grew up and was converted at the age of sixteen in the Methodist Church. A sense of calling to the Christian ministry, which in a way had been with him as far back as he could remember, coming to a head in his third year of premedical study at college, led to his decision to turn toward the seminary.

Rev. Patterson described the way in which the liberal (Methodist) seminary training at Boston University, in his words, “stripped you naked” of all you hold dear in the Christian faith in order to reconstruct everything in a very liberal manner. After seminary he entered the ministry in the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. He recounted the unhappy experience of trying to serve as a minister in the liberal tradition, often looking back with longing toward the lost faith in the Bible, in God, and in the Deity of Christ. Hc experienced the profound frustrations and ultimately, the impossibility of continuing to serve in the ministry from this kind of religious perspective.

In the course of his pastorate in the Lawndale area of Chicago, the Lord in His Providence, brought Rev. Patterson into contact with two CRC ministers, Rev. James Lagrand and Rev. Richard E. Grevengoed, when he sought a better education for his son than that found in the local public schools by sending him to the DesPlaines Christian school. Using these Christian Reformed contacts as a significant influence, the Lord led him back to the faith of the gospel, and eventually toward ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. What especially attracted him to the Christian Reformed Church was the way in which he saw the gospel exemplified in some of its members as they tried to follow its direction in facing the exceedingly difficult racial and social problems of the community.

Rev. Patterson recalls two fearures as especially prominent in the spiritual revolution through which the Lord was leading him. First was the growing, if reluctant, realization of the depravity of man. He found that the liberal optimism about man‘s goodness and ability to virtually save himself just doesn‘t work in practice either in Boston or Chicago, either in the slums or in the suburbs. Sin could not be ignored in the lives of the poor and outcasts and it was just as evident in the lives of the well-educated and wealthy. Going through the whole “blackpower” struggle, he came to see more and more clearly that both white and black, all have sinned and all need Christ. The other outstanding feature emerging in his spiritual change was his growing realization of the lack of and the need for security. Without the Word of God man has nothing but changing human opinions as a guide. As he came back to the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the infallible rule of faith and life Rev. Patterson once more discovered certainty and security for himself and for his message to others.

This change brought with it a rediscovery of the importance of preaching. Instead of considering it as secondary to other pastoral activities, such as counselling, Rev. Patterson came to appreciate it as central and he became convinced that what the church and the community need is good, sound, biblical preaching. And seeing this, drives the minister to careful Scripture study and exegesis. What does one do with the problems of “higher criticism” of the Bible, so prominent in his seminary training? Although these arc not easy to handle, what does not harmonize with acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God just has to be discarded. If we have to admit the existence of some unanswered questions and mysteries regarding God‘s dealings with men, that should not trouble us. Even Paul had to say, “We know in part.”

The Christian‘s role in the world, Rev. Patterson has come to sec as delineated in the Lord‘s injunction to be “in the world but not of the world.” His observations of what distinguishes Reformed church order from others arc sharp and clear. Instead of a top-heavy ecclesiastical structure imposing decisions from above, he sees decisions among us as a Christian consensus arising from “the grass roots.”

The Lord has often in the history of His church used people who themselves have had to go through deep and difficult struggles with error to be especially helpful to others who faced the same problems. And He has at times given those who have come to the biblical or Calvinistic faith by such a pilgrimage as this a deeper appreciation of its truth and power than that which is found among many who have grown up in it.

May the Lord abundantly use our brother whom He has led to such a deep appreciation of the depths of man’s need and of the riches of His grace to lead many in his congregation and beyond it to realize that need and to experience that grace. Welcome Rev. Virgil Patterson!

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.