Meet a 50-Year Graduate

June 17, 2014

Rev. James Reaves, M.Div. '64

At the 2014 commencement ceremony, Westminster honored several alumni from the classes of 1954 and 1964. One of those was the Rev. James Reaves, who graduated in 1964 with an M.Div. We sat down with Rev. Reaves before the commencement ceremony to talk about his time as a student and what he has done since then.

What memories do you have of your time here?

The first thought that comes into my mind is that I lived off campus. I’d drive onto campus and park the car, and John Frame would be out under the trees reciting Hebrew vocabulary, and I thought “No wonder he’s smarter than I am.” He was class of ’64, too.

What about the faculty? What do you remember about the faculty at the time?
John Murray comes into mind quickly. I remember the day he explained the foreknowledge of God. He broke it up very nicely. Fore, ahead of time – no problem. Then he said, “But let’s deal with knowledge.” I believe one of the early texts he used was from Amos where God speaks and says, “You only of all the families of the earth have I known.” Obviously, God knows everybody, but he knows Israel in a particular way. How did he know Israel? Well, the expression means he loved Israel, so foreknowledge becomes this interest, affection, and love of God for his people. I had no particular theological position before that; I had heard in college one way or the other; but when I heard this I thought “Wow, that’s just the way it is!” Of course he had his arm around us all at sometime during our time there.

I struggled with Van Til, but in more recent years, I realize how right he was. You either start with God, or you don’t, and his anthropology starts right there.

What attracted you to Westminster?
I studied at Nyack, so I was nearby in college. In the spring of my senior year, a representative from Westminster stopped at the college. He spoke at chapel, and he was going to be in one of the lounges in the afternoon. I said, “Fine, but I’ve got a paper to do this afternoon,” so I dug in. Well, a friend of mine stops and knocks on my door and says “Hey Reaves, I wanna hear this guy; come along with me.” And I put him off, “There are 200 guys in this dorm; find someone else; I’ve got a paper to do.” He disappears, and five minutes later he’s back again, “Reaves, There’s nobody around; you gotta hear this guy, come on.” And I told him, “Look, I’m working on a paper, and I’ve gotta get it done. Find somebody else.” Maybe five or ten minutes later, he’s back again! He had wheels, and I didn’t, and you have to consider these things, so I said, "Ok I’ll go along." I was tremendously impressed. I couldn’t even tell you the representative’s name, but he had the books of the faculty – Murray, Woolley, Stonehouse – all nicely displayed on the table there, and I thought “Wow, that looks like a good school.” I was quite missions-conscious at the time, thinking maybe that’s what the Lord had for me to do.

After I got out of college, I got into what you might call today a church-planting situation, and it was obvious that I wasn’t ready for it. So it turned into a disaster, and after six months I finally had sense enough to leave. And I wondered, What am I going to do? So I said, “I better get an education.” I wrote to three or four seminaries, one of which was Westminster. One or two of them would take me as I was; I remember another seminary said they would give me a reading program that would help me. Paul Woolley, the registrar at Westminster, told me I needed 30 more hours of credit, which was another year of college. So I did that.

It was a struggle, and the Lord taught me some real lessons that year, one that he is sovereign. I was hanging onto my Bible, and the Lord’s hanging onto me, but through it I learned that God is sovereign. Before that, my theology was a handful of independent pieces. Westminster sewed them all together for me and taught me about who God is, how he relates to us and his church and his people. That was 50 years ago, and it has sustained me all the way through.

What were some of the ways Westminster sustained you in your pastoral ministry?
One was the handling of Scripture when you’re writing a sermon. I always struggled with the languages, but I do try to translate the text; at the very least I do some word studies to make sure I’ve grasped as carefully as I can. Also, I make use of whatever tools I have on the writers and then rely on the Lord’s Spirit. The tools we were given were quite adequate for the job and kept us in the Scripture. "Pasa he boule tou theou" right on the seal of the seminary. That’s what it’s about, “The whole counsel of God.”

What were some of your pastoral positions over the years?
In those days, if you wanted to work with the Presbyterian Church, you went where they sent you. So I was sent to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and that was not a good experience. The Church was more of a social than a spiritual phenomena. So I was called to Bobcaygeon, Ontario, which had been served by a former Westminster graduate. We were there ten years and blessed with a wonderful experience. The elders were weak, but they supported me; and it was an opportunity to preach the Word, to preach Christ, and I believe God blessed us there. That’s where our four kids were born. 

We went to Manitoba for five and a half years. That was quite a different experience. My elders there turned out to be Arminian, and that didn’t work too well, so I followed that up by going to Crestwood Presbyterian Church in Edmonton that became PCA a year or two later. We had nine excellent years there, but the last year there was a lot of advocacy for change that came for a number of reasons, and I wasn’t too keen – I wasn’t persuaded that the changes were for the better. The congregation was divided right down the middle, so it was obviously a hostile environment. I had good relations with my Reformed brothers, and my wife is Dutch, so we moved to what was an OCRC congregation, now URC. It has been a wonderful experience. The elders and I were theologically one. They have been very supportive. I was going to retire in ’02; but, because the church is small, it was not able to come up for support for a young man, so I stayed on. On top of that, the Lord brought me through a brain tumor in ’07, and I felt that he had given me my life back. I can’t tell him that I don’t want to preach to his people any more!

What would you say as an encouragement to students graduating?
Keep preaching the Word. There’s been a poverty of scriptural truth. One lesson I’ve learned over the years that I think is significant for me, and really for most of us, is the balance between Spirit and Truth. I have met some guys that were very strong on truth, and then I’ve been in more liberal church settings and those guys were very weak on truth, but they loved you! If I had to choose my friends, it’s nice to have friends that agree with you, but if they don’t love you…I choose those loving friends. You might say, “That doesn’t fit with the truth,” but we have to have both. You can’t sacrifice one or the other.

Please keep Rev. James Reaves in your prayers as he continues to serve the Lord and preach the whole counsel of God.