Ralph G. Turnbull (1901-1985) served the Word of God as pastor and preacher, teacher and writer. Born in Scotland, he served churches in Great Britain, Canada and the United States, the last being First Presbyterian Church of Seattle. Prior to taking up labors in Seattle, he taught homiletics for a decade at Western Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh. In “retirement” he was Professor of Religion in Residence at Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon, and Adjunct Professor of Preaching, Bethel Theological Seminary, San Diego, to name but two of his many involvements.
Turnbull is perhaps best known as a prolific author of books useful to ministers, chiefly evangelicals. This busy pastor edited numerous books in the fields of New Testament study and practical theology, and he authored a number of books and articles of his own. While some of his writings went through his pulpit first, others started as lectures at various conferences for ministers.
The title of one of his books, The Preacher’s Heritage, Task, and Resources, can guide our overview of his career. We understand a man best when we discover what he loves most. Turnbull loved the preacher’s heritage, task, and resources.
1. Turnbull was a lover of the preacher’s heritage. His appreciation of and expertise in the history of preaching are evidenced in what he called a labor of love, namely, the completion of Edwin Charles Dargan’s History of Preaching. Dargan published the first two volumes of this massive undertaking in his lifetime, covering the history of preaching from its origins through the nineteenth century in Europe. Turnbull contributed a third volume which picked up where Dargan left off, covering preaching’s history in the twentieth century and in the United States from the colonial period to the present. The breadth of this work is amazing, especially when we recall Turnbull did the research and writing while continuing to serve as the pastor of a busy city church!
Within the history of preaching Turnbull’s favorite subject was Jonathan Edwards. As soon as Turnbull arrived in the United States, he made a special study of Edwards in an attempt to learn more about American preaching. In 1958 he produced Jonathan Edwards the Preacher, a book analyzing Edwards’ preaching methods. References to the man of Northampton and Stockbridge appear throughout Turnbull’s other works as well. Though he had a particular affinity for Edwards, he also made constant appeal to John Wesley.
Along the way it was Turnbull’s desire to be used of God to keep alive the memory and message of key servants from other years who have yet something of value to offer moderns. This desire motivated him to do work of two kinds. He read the sermons of favorite luminaries of the past, selected representative messages and edited them into what he called treasuries. Working in this way he brought out volumes on Alexander Whyte, Andrew Murray, Dwight Moody, Campbell Morgan, and Graham Scroggie. He also labored to reissue important but out of print books, often supplying new introductions. Such emphases indicate how Turnbull lovingly worked to keep the present nourished by the past.
Turnbull’s research into the history of preaching was not for purely historical purposes and still less for shallow anecdotal purposes. He was interested in learning how to preach, and he felt the masters showed him how. The Puritans and eighteenth century evangelicals were his special models. From them he learned the importance of a plain style and sturdy structure. He knew and appreciated that these ideals call for a certain commitment to preaching these heroes from the past were not afraid to give, a commitment characterized by serious study, solid thought and careful writing.
Related to this commitment is the Puritan conviction that the sermon is God’s appointed means of working conversion in the hearer. In keeping with his Puritan mentors, Turnbull believed we should preach for a verdict. Thus he thought a plain style and a sturdy structure should be combined toward leading the hearer to an encounter with the living God through which grace is operative and whereby the human soul is moved to make a decision for Christ.
2. Turnbull was a lover of the preacher’s task. The work of ministry invigorated him even more than history inspired him. Here we have in mind the aims God hopes to accomplish through the pastoral office and, more particularly, through the pastor God has called into ministry.
Proclamation ever receives the first place in Turnbull’s estimation. The work of the pastorate is large, encompassing much by way of the sacraments, pastoral care of individuals, and the various demands of parish administration. But preaching comes first. It is Turnbull’s perception that the pulpit should receive the minister’s best efforts if not the bulk of his or her time. In keeping with the Scottish tradition in which he was raised, he places the minister’s expository lecture at a weekly Bible class in a close second to preaching.
When he spoke of what sermons are to accomplish, Turnbull appealed to Acts 26.18: “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (KJV). In classic expository fashion, he divided the passage into main points each of which signals the minister’s aim when preaching: (1) to open eyes, (2) to turn persons, (3) to offer forgiveness, and (4) to confer an inheritance.
Thus far we have witnessed a strong evangelistic note in Turnbull’s approach to the ministry and especially to preaching. It should come as no surprise, then, that he devoted a book to this subject. Ever the man of humility, he did not presume to write the whole thing but brought together some of the best minds on the various dimensions of evangelism and had them contribute chapters. He himself wrote only one, the last, which was something of a concluding encouragement to the reader. In it he uplifted models from the past and called for new vigor in proclaiming the good news:
If preaching were restored to its former state and given honor in all our churches, we would witness a revival of vital Christianity. The fault for the decline in the church lies in the downgrading of the Christian message, and here the pulpit must take responsibility. A strong pulpit makes a strong church.
Along with longing for ministers who would evangelize, Turnbull hoped for ministers who would teach and thus help Christians grow in both faith and discipleship. While we should never look down upon our parishioners as though from some position of lofty superiority, Turnbull believed we can never assume our people are at their highest level of development. There is always a need for solid teaching of both Bible and doctrine.
He did not limit teaching to the pulpit but he expected there to be a great deal of teaching from the pulpit. With an eye on the Reformers who opened the Bible to their people through systematic exposition of the scriptures, Turnbull believed sermons should be loaded with solid content. He saw this as the pathway to sturdier churches, as well as stronger Christians. He also believed this regular exposition of Bible books and Christian doctrine was the key to a lasting ministry.
Turnbull gave due consideration to the hearer when he reflected upon the minister’s aims in preaching. He thought of the plight of modern men and women, and spoke of their fears and frustrations. As he did so, he often appealed to contemporary fiction for its description of, if not insight into, the condition of persons today. He found anxieties and insecurities abound, as do feelings of lostness and spiritual hunger. He believed the preaching ministry could offer much in the way of healing, chiefly by addressing such maladies bravely and with the language of faith as that language is shaped by Bible and doctrine. Much of this is a matter of interpreting life in terms of sin and of God’s proffer of grace. Thus we bring healing and comfort not merely by showing sympathy but by imparting strength and hope.
3. Turnbull was a lover of the preacher’s resources. All the above makes the work of ministry seem large, and so it is. Nevertheless, Turnbull believed God supplies every pastor with the resources necessary to accomplish these tasks insofar as results are within the minister’s ability. He was at his best when he was discussing these resources.
Chief among the resources is the Bible. Effective preaching of the gospel calls for serious study of the scriptures. As in everything else, Turnbull’s models in this are his heroes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He speaks admiringly of Edwards, who spent thirteen hours a day in his study, and of others who studied regularly and systematically to gain knowledge of the Bible, a knowledge both deep and wide. This is such an essential element in ministerial work that Turnbull speaks of the minister as being set apart by God and congregation for the special kind of study required for gospel preaching.
Along with systematic study of the Bible, there should be study of other books as well. Here Turnbull referred to books of all sorts, though with preference given to ones more directly theological. Even so, he stressed the merits of reading fiction, too, and especially classic literature. He rather expected a minister’s library to be first-rate and much used. If financial con-straints make book ownership difficult, lending libraries should be exploited for all they are worth.
Just as important as books were in Turnbull’s estimation, so was one’s plan for study. A methodical and hard-working man, he believed the best study happens according to plan. Thus could patient preparation lead to permanent power. He suggested devoting a month to a major book in a particular field, or else to study a single subject for a three month period. Another way of working is to concentrate for as much as a year on the works of a selected writer. Turnbull himself followed this latter plan with the writings of various preachers such as Whyte, Morrison and Jowett.
Among the minister’s most precious resources is time, and it needs to be used with the utmost care so that it is not merely used up but put to use. All this calls for discipline, which was a major theme for Turnbull and a hallmark of his own life and work. Discipline means the conscientious use of time, and it is the reason Turnbull was able to be a busy pastor and such a prolific writer at the same time. To be sure, he would give the credit to God and not to himself, but, if pressed beyond that for his estimation of the secret of his success, he would credit discipline rather than genius, work habits rather than innate ability.
“Diligence and not genius,” he wrote in A Minister’s Opportunities, “explains the secret of those who have accomplished much. It is not good fortune, but regular concentration at a predetermined hour and a weekly output.” Thus he would advise those of us who wish we could do more never to underestimate the power of plodding faithfully along a prearranged plan.
None of this can be sustained without a strong devotional life which makes the most of every opportunity to pray, and so Turnbull put heavy emphasis on the pastor’s internal communion with God. On the human level, this is a key area in which we exercise discipline to show ourselves faithful, daily turning to the Lord in a spirit of prayer to seek out the things of God. In truth, our devotional life is a gift of grace. It is by God’s mercy that the ear, heart and help of God are available to us wherever we are, whether in life’s routines or crises.
Nothing so prepares the servant of God as the cultivation of the devotional life. Academic excellence, however worthy that goal and supportive of ministerial excellence, is not sufficient for proper effectiveness in the service of the Lord. By way of prayer we grow in holiness and increase in integrity of character. “Let integrity and industry intertwine,” wrote Turnbull, “and God will have a servant ready to use.” Such a statement was not merely prescriptive for others; it was descriptive of Ralph G. Turnbull.

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