Defender of the Faith

by Bernard R. DeRemer

As a man is interested in his roses and doesn't think of the thorns," so he studied languages. That was how Robert Dick Wilson answered Philip E. Howard of the Sunday School Times who expressed amazement at the range of his linguistic explorations, covering some 45 languages and dialects.

Dr. Wilson distinguished himself in the field of Semitic philology and Old Testament criticism. This notable scholar's "attainments were broad and deep," and "he devoted all of this vast learning to the defense of Holy Scripture."*

Wilson was an outstanding apologist for the faith once delivered to the saints; his writings continue to challenge and instruct many.

Born at Indiana, Pa., in 1856, he could read as a lad of 4, started school at 5, and by 8 had mastered a number of books.

In Princeton University, young Wilson majored in language, psychology, and mathematics, utilizing spare time for his prodigious studies. "When I went out for a walk I would take a grammar with me, and when I sat down to rest, I would take out the book, study it a little, and learn what I could." He wanted to read the great classics in the originals, so he learned the languages, mastering Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, biblical Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, plus others.

In all these crowded years, Wilson was still not clear as to his life calling. At first he was inclined to evangelism and in a year and a half of such service, large numbers of souls were led to Christ.

But  studies at Western Theological Seminary caused him to feel the great need for a "type of biblical scholarship that was not so subjective as much of the teaching he heard, but objective and thorough in dealing with facts that could be known only by exhaustive research over the whole range of the ancient [biblical] languages.

He could not at that time study Babylonian in America, so he went to Heidelberg, determined to learn every language that would enable him to understand Scripture better, and to facilitate his investigations in original documents.

He planned to spend:

15 years in language study;

15 years in biblical textual study in the light of the findings of his studies in philology; and then, God willing,

15 years writing out his findings, to share them with others.

A single glimpse of his thoroughness "startles the superficial and the scholarly student as well." In order to answer one sentence of a noted destructive critic, Dr. Wilson "read all the extant ancient literature of the period under discussion in numerous languages, and collated no fewer than 100,000 citations from that literature to get at the basic facts, which [proved] that the critic was wrong."

According to Henry Coray, his book Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament "is rated a classic in that important branch of theology. One of his pamphlets, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly? struck a devastating blow at the position of the destructive critics of the Bible, and has been published in nine languages.

"His greatest contribution to Christian scholarship is on the Book of Daniel. Two volumes contain a compilation of a dozen treatises on that prophecy, assembled from former articles.... They represent scholarship at the very highest levels."

Wilson contributed to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia as well as numerous theological reviews, and wrote several textbooks.

But when modernism took over Princeton in 1929, Dr. Wilson faced a real crisis. He was in his 74th year; an honorable and advantageous retirement awaited him whenever he desired. He had a good salary, a comfortable home, and a circle of friends made during nearly 30 years at that institution.

But he did not hesitate to join with J. Gresham Machen, Oswald Allis, Cornelius Van Til, and others in withdrawing to establish Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia—an institution completely faithful to the Word of God, "though by foes of truth surrounded."

Shortly before his death in 1930, he was engaged in an answer to a notable monograph published at Oxford, which had recently devoted itself to a consideration of his views.

Wilson was "greatly beloved as a teacher and friend. With the simplicity of a true scholar he was always ready to cast reserve aside and receive students into his heart."

He once declared: "What we need in the church today are more men that are able to follow the critics up to their lair, slaughter them in their den. It makes me sad to hear these old ministers of the gospel and Christians lament all the time about the attacks being made here and there upon the Bible, and they never do one thing to train the men to fight their battles for them.... I tell you, the day is at hand when the church, instead of cowering and seeming...to rejoice in the supposed victories over the Bible truth, will demand that anyone who attacks the Bible will produce the evidence."

Robert Dick Wilson gave his life to the strong defense of the faith, inspiring many others to follow in his train.

*Quotes are from "Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly?" in a 1922 issue of the Sunday School Times.

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