Life, Ministry, and More with Dr. Robert Picirilli

by Zach Maloney & Jarred Taylor

The Helwys Society Forum is pleased to have Jarred Taylor contribute a special interview this week. Jarred attends Tippett’s Chapel FWB Church in Clayton, North Carolina. Jarred and his family are actively involved in music and youth related activities at Tippett’s Chapel. Jarred and his brother, Logan, also make up a cellist team that performs on a regular basis.

Back in March, congregants at Tippett’s Chapel were blessed to have Dr. Robert Picirilli for a weekend. Robert Picirilli spent his career teaching Greek and New Testament studies at Welch College. He is the chairman of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission. Picirilli recently authored a book entitled Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith (Randall House, 2013). Jarred had the privilege of spending some time with Picirilli during this time, and he has provided us with this interview.

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Jarred Taylor (JT): What led you to Welch College (formerly Free Will Baptist Bible College) to become a student and then later a faculty member?

Dr. Robert Picirilli (RP): Well, it’s not hard to answer the first part, especially, because the short answer would be that my mom was what led me to Free Will Baptist Bible College as a student. I was in high school and thinking about college and loved things like math and science, so I had the idea that I wanted to be an engineer. Of course I lived in South Carolina, and on the east coast Georgia Tech stands for engineering, so I had the idea that I wanted to go to Georgia Tech. My mom learned about Free Will Baptist Bible College, which was very young in those days since the school was started in ’42, and it was only seven years old at the time. So, she learned about it, thought it was very appealing, and she really wanted me to live for the Lord. So she made a bargain with me. She said, “Bob, if you’ll go to the Bible College for a year I will pay your way through Georgia Tech.” I thought that was a pretty good deal. I figured I could stand most anything for a year, whether I liked it or not.

So I went to Free Will Baptist Bible College for a year. Somehow during the fall semester of ‘49, I remember in one of the hall prayer meetings one night I started seeing other young people who really wanted to live for the Lord. I didn’t see much of that growing up. The Lord had been dealing with me about living for Him already. So in that night, in that hall prayer meeting, I surrendered to the Lord do whatever He wanted me to do. From that point on of course, I stayed at Free Will Baptist College and graduated. It really turned my life around. I appreciated the work of the College so very much in what it did for me. I began to feel that I would like to be a part of the College and have an impact on lives of young people. So I decided, when I graduated, to go on to graduate school. I went to Bob Jones University graduate school. At that time, Bob Jones University was about the only place we could go because there was no accreditation involved. A couple of the men at the College, Dr. L.C. Johnson and Bro. Thigpen, had been to Bob Jones University; so that made it appealing to me. I found myself really stimulated in my thinking in the master’s program and continuing on into the Ph.D. program.

So I began to feel that my calling was to go back to Free Will Baptist Bible College and teach. After two years in graduate school, the financial situation was getting desperate. My mom’s finances were limited and of course, I didn’t have any financial resources to draw on. I was married and already had three children during this time. So, I felt it was time to pursue a teaching position. I had learned at that time that Laverne Miley, who was teaching Greek, had decided to leave the College and go to graduate school to become a medical doctor and later a medical missionary. So I wrote to Dr. Johnson and applied for a position to teach at Free Will Baptist Bible College and was accepted. We moved there in the summer of 1955. I’ve been in Nashville, TN ever since.

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JT: What areas of study did you teach at Welch, and what were some of your goals as a professor?

RP: Mainly New Testament. My Master’s program was in Theology, but the Ph.D. program I was working on was in New Testament with a concentration in the Greek text. So Greek and other New Testament courses I always considered my main areas of teaching. I taught first and second year of Greek. Then I taught some Bible courses like Pauline writings, which was one of my favorite courses, along with Greek, to teach as a professor. Also, while I was graduate school, I had some philosophy courses. So I asked the administration at the College if I could start some introductory courses in philosophy, and they agreed to let me do that. That also was one of my favorite courses. Later on I went to work in administration and I was only teaching two courses a semester then. Greek and Pauline writings and philosophy would be the most important courses to me, but all through the years I would teach various Bible courses as needed.

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JT: Tell us how the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission is beneficial to our denomination, and what work in particular are you focusing on right now as chairman of this agency?

RP: The Historical Commission falls under the structure of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. Commissions are not as important or as large as the boards. The boards really conduct the main business of the National Association. The commissions are smaller groups that consist of five members. They’re charged with studying various things or producing things in certain areas under their given field. The Historical Commission is charged with preserving and promoting Free Will Baptist History. So the whole purpose of the commission then is to provide incentives to our people to learn more about Free Will Baptist history. As you may know, there were two main Free Will Baptist denominations. One existed in the north, starting in 1780, founded by Benjamin Randall in New Hampshire. The other existed in the south, starting in 1727, by Paul Palmer in North Carolina. The folks in the north did a pretty good job of keeping up with their history. They did such things as writing books and preserving their history. Folks in the south didn’t do a very good job at all to preserve their history. The Historical Commission tries to include both: writing and preserving Free Will Baptist material.

One area the Historical Commission is working on is to sponsor and oversee the work of the Free Will Baptist historical collection. The collection is maintained on the campus of Welch College, in the library. The collection has a goal to gather anything written by anybody who is a Free Will Baptist. So the collection involves books, minutes of various organizations, periodicals, artifacts, and papers that have been published within the denomination. This has grown, over the past few years, to quite a large collection. One of the things I do personally is to serve as the curator and maintain the collection. It is volunteer work that I am not paid for. So the idea of the collection is to keep the kinds of materials that are needed so that people can do research into Free Will Baptist History. In addition to maintaining the collection, the commission also sponsors a website that is called fwbhistory.com.

The website has the same purposes as the collection does in promoting the understanding of Free Will Baptist history. That website has only been up and running for two or three years. It really has grown and contains a lot of material available to everyone. One of the projects we’re especially involved in right now is to have all of the minutes of all the organizations in the Free Will Baptist denomination scanned into .pdf files that are word searchable. Those are available on the computer in the history room at the College, but they are also available on the website. For example, we already have all the minutes from the meetings in Alabama going all the way back into 1800’s. That includes the state association, district associations. So from your computer you can go look at all those minutes if you want to. We don’t have complete sets for some of the district associations, but again that is part of our work to try to gather those sets. As you know, one concern for today is technology. That is the way our generation and culture is going. So the Historical Commission is trying to make material available by the use of technology just as quickly as we can. We have made tremendous strides in doing so.

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JT: In your most recent book, Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith, in the first chapter you say, “We must not make Paul a ‘canon within the canon.’”1 Can you elaborate on what you mean by this statement?

RP: Well, when I speak of the canon, I speak of the completed Scriptures: the 39 books in the Old Testament and the 27 in the New Testament. I think sometimes people can become so occupied with Paul’s epistles, which are very theological and teach us very much of what we know of Christian theology, that they let that become the whole of Christian thinking and theology and almost ignore the rest of the New Testament, especially the teaching of Jesus. I don’t think we should let Paul’s approach to justification by faith overwhelm things that Jesus said or what James might have said. I think we have to take the whole New Testament into account and try to determine the best comprehensive view of teaching in terms of theology.

We must do this rather than just letting Paul’s teaching, justification by faith, dictate the terms by which we understand everything else. Each of them has an important contribution to make. They don’t contradict one another, but I think they do compliment one another and we have to look at the whole rather than just look at Paul.

So that is what I mean when I say we must not look at Paul as a canon within the canon. It is the whole Bible and particularly the whole New Testament. The reason this is important is because it is certainly clear that Paul teaches salvation by grace through faith alone and all of us believe in that, and yet when you look at what Jesus said about salvation, or the writer of Hebrews, or James, then you begin to realize there are other aspects of this that we need to include in our thinking. Once you do that, you can find some of that in Paul too. So it helps to look at the whole.

Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Picirilli will post on Thursday this week.

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1 Robert E. Picirilli, Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2013), 7.

Author: Zach Maloney

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this article. I have always been a big fan of Dr. Pic. I am also appreciative of the regular material that this forum produces.

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