Robert Dick Wilson (1856-1930) was a brilliant, highly disciplined, godly man who dedicated his life to the defense of the Bible against theological modernism.
He was raised in a godly Presbyterian home in Pennsylvania, one of ten siblings, and was a literary child prodigy, reading Rawlinson’s Ancient Monarchies at age eight. When he was nine, his father took him and one of his brothers to a bookstore in Philadelphia, and they selected 50 works, many of which were serious reading such those by J.S.C. Abbott, historian and theologian and author of History of Napoleon Bonaparte and the History of Frederick II.
We haven’t seen Wilson’s testimony of salvation published anywhere, but we do know that he and a brother were involved in evangelism before he went to seminary, and there was “ample evidence of God’s blessings upon their labors in great numbers of souls led to Christ” (Philip E. Howard, Foreword, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly, 1922). From that time to his death, he remained concerned for the salvation of souls and for the furtherance of the gospel both at home and abroad.
Having graduated from Princeton University in 1876 and having taken two years of post-graduate work in Germany (at the Humboldt University of Berlin), he was very familiar with the critical approach to Scripture, which was coming into bloom at that time. As one fundamentalist leader of that day observed, “From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Malachi the Old Testament Scriptures were under fire” (Oswald T. Allis, “Robert Dick Wilson: Defender of God’s Word, Christianity Today, Dec. 1930).
While at Princeton, Wilson showed a propensity for foreign languages and could read the New Testament in nine languages before he graduated. Years later, when asked how he did it, he replied:
“‘Well, you see,’ he replied, ‘I used my spare time. 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. I made up my mind that I wanted to read the great classics in the originals, so I just learned the languages in order to do that. I would read a grammar through, look up the examples, making notes as I went along, and I wouldn’t pass by anything until I could explain it. I never learned long lists of words, but I would read a page through, recall the words I didn’t know, and then look them up. I read anything that I thought would be interesting to me if it were in English. I got so interested in the story that I was unconscious of the labor–as a man is interested in his roses, and doesn’t think of the thorns. So I learned Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Biblical Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and so on” (Howard, foreword, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly).
In 1883, at age 23, Wilson became Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary (later known as Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
At age 25, two years into his professorship at Western Seminary, he determined to devote the rest of his life to the goal of refuting the critics. Based on the longevity of his ancestors, he estimated that he might live to age 70, which would give him about 45 more years, so he divided his project into three 15 year segments, and by God’s grace he was able to complete it. (He died at age 75.)
The first 15 years he spent learning every language bearing on the text of the Old Testament. He already knew at least nine languages, and at the end of the 15 years he had mastered dozens, including Babylonian, Ethiopic, Phoenician, all Aramaic dialects, Egyptian, Coptic, Persian, and Armenian. Language study was merely a means to his real objective, though. Oswald T. Allis, who knew Wilson well, wrote in his eulogy of the professor in 1930: “But despite his rare linguistic talent Dr. Wilson's interest was never exclusively or even primarily linguistic. Languages were to him a means, not an end. They were the means of studying at first hand all those records of the past which could throw any light upon the Old Testament, which he was privileged to teach and to defend” (Christianity Today, Dec. 1930).
The next 15 years Wilson devoted to studying the text of the Old Testament itself. He examined every letter in the Hebrew text.
The next fifteen years Wilson spent writing and teaching and refuting the modernists. He published the following books, in addition to articles and works on Hebrew language and grammar:
The Lower Criticism of the Old Testament as a Preparation for the Higher Criticism (1901)
The Present State of the Daniel Controversy (1919)
Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly? (1922)
A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (1926)
A Radical Criticism of the Psalter (1927)
Studies in the Book of Daniel (2 volumes, 1917, 1938)
Wilson also contributed 25 entries to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is still used widely today, particularly in Bible software packages. His entries including Artaxerxes, Belshazzar, Daniel, Darius, Ezra, Merodach-Baladan, Nebuchadnezzar, and Nehemiah.
Wilson’s method of dealing with Bible critics was described as follows by Oswald Allis:
“When he went to Princeton, the best and clearest statement in English of the higher critical position was Canon Driver's Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament. Here was an authoritative presentation of the views of leading critics. Dr. Wilson proceeded to test the stability of this imposing structure as a prospector might bore for oil. He would take an assertion here, a denial there, and subject them to an intense and searching scrutiny. He did not care how much labor this might involve. It might take months of study to settle a single important point. It might require twenty, fifty, a hundred pages of carefully collected facts and ordered argument to disprove a sentence or a paragraph of higher critical assertion. That did not matter. What did matter, what Dr. Wilson was supremely concerned to do was to show by example after example, test-case after test-case, that wherever they could be tested by the facts the allegations brought by the critics against the Bible were wrong and the Bible was right” (Allis, Christianity Today, Dec. 1930).
Wilson told Philip Howard:
"When a man says to me, ‘I don’t believe the Old Testament,’ " exclaimed Dr. Wilson, "he makes no impression upon me. When he points out something there that he doesn’t believe, he makes no’ impression upon me. But if he comes to me and says, ‘I’ve got the evidence here to show that the Old Testament is wrong at this or that point’–then that’s where my work begins! I’m ready for him!" And the professor laughed in his hearty way, in evident enjoyment of the prospect of such an encounter” (foreword, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly).
In 1900, Wilson became William Henry Green Professor of Semitic Languages at Princeton Theological Seminary, but in the late 1920s he left Princeton because of its theological liberalism and joined the faculty of the new Westminster Theological Seminary, which was a fundamentalist institution.
One thing that impresses me greatly about Robert Wilson was his courage to stand for the truth. This, sadly, is a rare quality. When Princeton compromised, Wilson was already an old man. He could have kept his mouth shut and left the battle to younger. He could have quietly retired and enjoyed his pension, but instead he took his stand publicly and left.
“Dr. Wilson might, indeed, have remained at Princeton. He was already past the age for retirement. He might have continued teaching for a year or so and then have retired to spend his old age in literary work, with a pension sufficient for his needs and one of the greatest theological libraries in America ready to his hand. The inducements and allurements he saw clearly. Who could see them better? He knew quite well that he would be misunderstood, that many would regard him a fool. But he believed that to remain would be to countenance and tacitly approve a reorganization which he held to be destructive of the Princeton which he loved and where he had labored for nearly thirty years. So in his seventy-fourth year and with the infirmities of age upon him he left the scene of his best labors and most abundant successes and went forth to begin again and to begin at the beginning, to lay the foundation of a new institution, which should, God willing, ever stand for that brave and uncompromising defense of the Bible as the Word of God to which he had devoted his life. It was the crowning act of a great defender of the faith. And it was one which Dr. Wilson never regretted. He loved Westminster Seminary and saw in the good hand of God upon her the evidence that his work of faith and labor of love had not been in vain” (Allis, CT, Dec. 1930).
Another eulogy commented on Wilson’s decision to leave Princeton as follows:
“Those considerations and many like them were no doubt presented to Dr. Wilson in very persuasive form. But he would have none of them. His Christian conscience, trained by a lifetime of devotion to God's Word, cut through such arguments with the keenness of a Damascus blade. He penetrated to the real essence of the question. He saw that for him to remain at Princeton would be to commend as trustworthy what he knew to be untrustworthy, that it would be to lead Christ's little ones astray. He knew that a man cannot have God's richest blessing, even in teaching the truth, when the opportunity to teach the truth is gained by compromise of principle. He saw clearly that it was not a time for him to think of his own ease or comfort, but to bear testimony to the Saviour who had bought him with His own precious blood. He did bear that testimony. He left his home at Princeton, and all the emoluments and honors that awaited him there. He cast in his lot with a new institution that had not a dollar of endowment and was dependent for the support of its professors upon nothing but faith in God” (“The Power of a Noble Example” Westminster Theological Seminary, December 1930).
Dr. Wilson also took a stand against liberalism on the mission field.
“As a result of his vigorous defense of the Old Testament in his classroom, on the lecture platform and through the printed page, Dr. Wilson came to be very widely recognized as the foremost living defender of the Old Testament. In consequence of this, he was much in demand as a lecturer at home and abroad. His most notable lecture trip was to the Far East in 1923 when he lectured in Japan, Korea and China. On this trip he did much to confirm the faith of missionaries and native Christians in the Sacred Oracles, but he was distressed by the inroads which modernism was making in the Far East. His unwillingness to ignore this issue brought him into difficulties with missionary leaders in the Church at home. But it was impossible for him to ignore on the mission field what he had been for years opposing and combating in the home land” (Allis, CT, 1930).
Wilson’s greatest influence was through his students. He had taught some 2,000 by the time he published Is Higher Criticism Scholarly? in 1922, and he taught another eight years. His students included Donald Gray Barnhouse, Allan MacRae, Carl McIntire, Cornelius Van Til, and David Otis Fuller.
Wilson spoke at some of the fundamentalist Bible conferences ---
When asked what he tried to do for his students, Wilson replied:
“I try to give them such an intelligent faith in the Old Testament Scriptures that they will never doubt them as long as they live. I try to give them evidence. I try to show them that there is a reasonable ground for belief in the history of the Old Testament” (Philip Howard, foreword, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly, 1922)
Wilson advised his students as follows:
“Build solidly. Prepare thoroughly. Never be satisfied with superficial answers. God’s Word can stand the most thorough investigation. Do not shirk the difficult problems but seek to bring the facts to light, for God’s Word and God’s world will never contradict one another” (Allis, CT, 1930).
Wilson described his conviction about the Bible as follows:
“I have come now to the conviction that no man knows enough to assail the truthfulness of the Old Testament. Whenever there is sufficient documentary evidence to make an investigation, the statements of the Bible in the original texts have stood the test” (Wilson, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly? p. 10).
Wilson divided men into two categories: big-godders and little-godders:
“One of the students of Princeton Theological Seminary professor Robert Dick Wilson had been invited to preach in Miller Chapel 12 years after his graduation. Dr. Wilson came and sat near the front. When chapel ended, the old professor came up to his former student, cocked his head to one side in his characteristic way, extended his hand, and said, ‘I'm glad that you're a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they're big-godders or little-godders. Then I know what their ministry will be.’
“His former student asked him to explain. Wilson replied, ‘Well, some men have a little God, and they're always in trouble with Him. He can't do any miracles. He can't take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn't intervene on behalf of His people. Then, there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear Him. You have a great God; and He'll bless your ministry.’ He paused a moment, smiled, said, ‘God bless you,’ and turned and walked out” (John Huffman, Who’s in Charge Here?).
Oswald Allis ended his eulogy of Wilson with these words:
“Living in an age over-proud of its ‘science’ Dr. Wilson matched a devout and believing scholarship with the best which "science" and ‘criticism’ could put forward and proved again and again that the foundation of God standeth sure. We who are still in the thick of the battle may find it hard to estimate rightly the strength of the adversary or the nearness and greatness of the victory which God is preparing for His people. But when the smoke has cleared away and the noise of combat has changed to the triumph song, the name of this Christian warrior will receive the honor it deserves. He fought a good fight, he finished his course, he kept the faith” ((Allis, CT, 1930).
The following is the conclusion to Wilson’s book Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly:
“Notwithstanding this evident plan and purpose of a divine redemption which runs all through the Scriptures, there are today many professedly Christian writers who treat of the Israelitish religion as if it were a purely natural development. They diligently pick out every instance of a superstitious observance, or of a departure from the law, or of a disobedience to the divine commands, as if these represented the true religion of ancient Israel. They cut up the books and doctor the documents and change the text and wrest the meaning, to suit the perverted view of their own fancy. They seem to think that they know better what the Scriptures ought to have been than the prophets and apostles and even the Lord Himself! They tell us when revelations must have been made, and how and where they must have been given, and what their contents could have been, as if they knew more about such matters than God Himself. Imagine a man’s writing the history of the last eighteen hundred years and denying that the New Testament had been in existence during all that time, denying that the Christian church with all its saving doctrines and benevolent institutions and beneficent social system derived from the New Testament had been active and, in a sense, triumphant for at least fifteen hundred years, simply because he could select thousands of examples of superstitious customs, and hellish deeds, and impious words, and avowed agnostics, and Heaven-defying atheists, that have disgraced the pages of history during this time!
Let us not grovel for the beetles and the earth worms of almost forgotten faiths which may perchance be discovered beneath the stones and sod of the Old Testament, while the violets and the lilies-of-the-valley of a sweet and lowly faith are in bloom on every page and every oracle revealed within the Word of God is jubilant with songs of everlasting joy. The true religion of Israel came down from God arrayed in the beautiful garments of righteousness and life. We cannot substitute for this Heaven-made apparel a robe of human manufacture, however fine it be” (Wilson, Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly, 1922).
The following are excerpts from Wilson’s book A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament:
“The Hebrew Scriptures contain the names of 26 or more foreign kings whose names have been found on documents contemporary with the kings. The names of most of these kings are found to be spelled on their own monuments, or in documents from the time in which they reigned in the same manner that they are spelled in the documents of the Old Testament. The changes in spelling of others are in accordance with the laws of phonetic change as those laws were in operation at the time when the Hebrew documents claim to have been written. In the case of two or three names only are there letters, or spellings, that cannot as yet be explained with certainty; but even in these few cases it cannot be shown that the spelling in the Hebrew text is wrong. Contrariwise, the names of many of the kings of Judah and Israel are found in the Assyrian contemporary documents with the same spelling as that which we find in the present Hebrew text.
“In 144 cases of transliteration from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Moabite into Hebrew and in 40 cases of the opposite, or 184 in all, the evidence shows that for 2300 to 3900 years the text of the proper names in the Hebrew Bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy. That the original scribes should have written them with such close conformity to correct philological principles is a wonderful proof of their thorough care and scholarship; further, that the Hebrew text should have been transmitted by copyists through so many centuries is a phenomenon unequaled in the history of literature. ...
“The proof that the copies of the original documents have been handed down with substantial correctness for more than 2,000 years cannot be denied” (Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament, 1926, pp. 64, 70-71, 85).
“For neither the assailants nor the defenders of the Biblical text should assume for one moment that either this accurate rendition or this correct transmission of proper names is an easy or usual thing. And as some of my readers may not have experience i investigating such matters, attention may be called to the names of kings of Egypt as given in Manetho an on the Egyptian monuments. Manetho was a high priest of the idol-temples in Egypt in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, i.e., about 280 B.C. He wrote a work on the dynasties of Egyptian kings, of which fragments have been preserved in the works of Josephus, Eusebius, an others. Of the kings of the 31 dynasties, he gives 40 names from 22 dynasties. Of these, 49 appear on the monuments in a form in which every consonant of Manetho’s spelling may possibly be recognized, and 28 more may be recognized in part. The other 63 are unrecognizable in any single syllable. If it be true that Manetho himself copied these lists from the original records--and the fact that he is substantially correct in 49 cases corroborates the supposition that he did--the hundreds of variations and corruptions in the 50 or more unrecognizable names must be due either to his fault in copying or to the mistakes of the transmitters of his text” (A Scientific Investigation, pp. 71-72).
“In conclusion, we claim that the assaults upon the integrity and trustworthiness of the Old Testament along the line of language have utterly failed” (A Scientific Investigation, p. 163).
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