“We have what people need—the Word of God…They cannot hear if you won’t go,” pleaded Dr. Stephen Lonetti to the seminary chapel filled with students, faculty, and guests. And he pushed further: “Do we really believe we have the Word of eternal life, men? Or is it just an exercise to us?”
The room sat in silence as the seasoned missionary recounted his years of church planting and translation work in a small, previously unreached people group in Indonesia. He urgently called those sitting before him to give their lives to reach the unreached with the Gospel, preaching and translating the Word.
While ministering in a remote corner of Indonesia, Dr. Lonetti shared that he received a journal article from a New Testament scholar he had never heard of, but who he would never forget—Dr. Robert L. Thomas. Dr. Thomas’ article encouraged Lonetti in his work and eventually helped lead him to attend The Master’s Seminary. It wasn’t just getting God’s Word right to get it right; it was getting God’s Word right because that’s what changes lives.
When Dr. Thomas passed away on Wednesday, September 6, 2017, The Master’s Seminary established an annual lecture series, the Dr. Robert L. Thomas Memorial Lecture in Bible Translation, to honor this founding member of the faculty. Last fall, Dr. William Barrick gave the first lecture; he had taught alongside Dr. Thomas for 11 years.
For the second lecture in the memorial series on September 18, 2018, it was only fitting that Dr. Lonetti would speak. Lonetti’s testimony was another reminder of the impact of the ministry of Dr. Robert L. Thomas. Over the course of 50 years, Dr. Thomas taught Greek and New Testament at the seminary level, training many future pastors and missionaries to handle the Word with precision.
Dr. Lonetti was not the only guest with a special relationship to the late Dr. Thomas. Barbara Erselius, Dr. Thomas’ daughter, was present with her son, Pastor Jason Erselius. Pastor Erselius knew Dr. Thomas as both his grandfather and his professor when he attended TMS.
Reflecting on his grandfather, Pastor Erselius said, “He loved The Master’s Seminary. He was so thankful to be a part of the faculty here.”
After the chapel, Pastor Erselius, his mother, and others from the seminary faculty and staff gathered for a lunch to further honor the memory of Dr. Thomas. Dr. Lonetti spoke more about the impact of Dr. Thomas on his life and answered questions about missions and translation.
Dr. Barrick also presented a gift to Barbara Erselius and the Thomas family to demonstrate the seminary’s thankfulness for the life and ministry of their father and grandfather—a leaf from the 1549 Matthew Bible. The Matthew Bible consisted, in large part, of the portions of Scripture translated by William Tyndale. Although Tyndale was arrested and executed in 1536, his friend and fellow translator, John Rogers, published the Matthew Bible to disseminate Tyndale’s work. Later translations, especially the King James Bible, were heavily indebted to Tyndale’s translation.
Unlike many in the room, Barbara Erselius could remember the years that her own father devoted to the task of translating the Bible into English. Beginning in 1960, Dr. Thomas served on the team that translated the New American Standard Bible (NASB). He started as one of the New Testament translators, and then was asked to assist in coordinating the translation of the Old Testament.
The commitment to precisely translate God’s Word out of devotion to Jesus Christ continues at TMS. The Tyndale Center for Bible Translation at TMS is an expression of the seminary’s resolve to train a new generation of translators who, like Dr. Thomas, will combine scholarship and devotion for the strengthening of the church and the advancement of the Gospel.
“He was a scholar, but he was a scholar with a purpose,” said his grandson, Pastor Erselius. “It wasn’t just getting God’s Word right to get it right; it was getting God’s Word right because that’s what changes lives.”
“Dr. Thomas loved God’s Word with a passion and was dedicated to training his students to handle it with precision. It was so honoring to Dr. Thomas’ memory, and to his daughter and grandson, to hear how TMS is continuing to honor God’s Word ” shared Christine Dixon, who served as Dr. Thomas’ secretary.
Each September, the seminary will anticipate the Dr. Robert L. Thomas Memorial Lecture in Bible Translation. “We hope that these memorial lectures,” explained Dr. Shryock, director of the Tyndale Center for Bible Translation, “are an occasion to remember Dr. Thomas and to encourage the next generation to follow in his footsteps.”