The Theology of the Cross, and The Life and Times of John Rufus Eppler
by Mark Dankof
“Luther recognizes the inner relationship and even the identity of religious intellectualism and moralism. He shows that both are in opposition to the Cross. These are two of the deepest insights of his theology. The Cross simultaneously destroys both natural theology and the self-consciousness of man’s natural ethos. Luther’s statement ‘God is known only in suffering’ is an ambiguous statement or–more correctly–it points to the deep correlation between the suffering Christ, in whom God makes Himself known, and the suffering man, who is the only man able to enter into community with God.”
–Paul Althaus in The Theology of Martin Luther
The lives of a Texan, a Californian, and a Midwestern American Nomad initially intersected in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago in the fall of 1980. The venue was Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, then regarded by many as the academic and theological Mecca of America’s Protestant Evangelical Right. The Texan was a fellow named John Eppler. A professional musician, theologian, Latin-American missionary, and pastor/evangelist, his father had become the CEO of the largest independent stock brokerage firm in the Lone Star State--after surviving Anzio Beach during wartime Army service and subsequently prospering in the business world epitomized by the metal and glass canyons of Dallas.
The Californian was a guy named Bob Thompson. An exiled refugee from the liberalism that had moved the United Methodist Church well to the theological and political Port of Center position on the American ecclesiastical scene, he hailed from San Diego. His father was not only a successful dentist but an investment wizard who had cashed in heavily in the real estate and business boom of the California of the 1950s and 60s. Bob had spent a lifetime battling the ravages of Cerebral Palsy. His struggle continues to the present day, amidst a very effective ministry of teaching English in Southern California to 3rd World immigrants to the United States.
I was the third person in this trinity of personal friendship which has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune inherent in life in the last quarter of a century. My parents originally hailed from the confines of a small German-American agrarian town in southwestern Iowa, shaped by the ethos of hard work and both individual and collective sacrifice in the milieu of the Great Depression and the Second World War. My father’s collegiate football career at the University of Omaha was interrupted by Pearl Harbor and voluntary enlistment in the Army Air Corps in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack. 44 years and 65 countries later, he and my mother decided upon San Antonio–a major USAF retirees conclave–as the final stop for them in this temporal world.
The years between 1980-83 were heady times for all three of us while bunkered in virtual seclusion in the wintry confines of the Trinity campus. The howling winds of Lake Michigan did not fail to reach our lowly men’s dormitory--a place starkly noted as Upper West--on the south side of the sprawling collegiate and seminary campus adjacent to suburban Chicago’s Tri-State Tollway. In the many years that have passed since those days, the landscaping and building projects undertaken by Chancellor Kenneth M. Meyer and current TEDS President Gregory Waybright have brought the physical plant to a place somewhat commensurate with the prestigious academic names that have graced this famous institution and its storied past–evangelical icons like Carl F. H. Henry, J. Herbert Kane, Kenneth Kantzer, Paul Feinberg, Gleason Archer, Thomas McComiskey, Warren Benson, and S. Lewis Johnson. They are all departed souls now.
The times then were heady ones for a variety of reasons. The Texan, the Californian, and the Nomad were young men in the prime of life, buried in a mountain of academic work which spanned the spectrum from hours of graduate Greek and Hebrew to thousands of pages of required reading in Biblical commentaries, dogmatics texts, and history compendiums. The Texan was spared the necessity of secular work because of the personal wealth of his family. The Californian and the Nomad had added countless hours of worldly employment to the seminary grind, doubling as Chicago security guards for several different firms which guarded the industrial parks and gated communities near the campus. The incessant grind was cruelly grueling to the point of physical and emotional excruciation. Only faith in God and His Son enabled us to survive. Graduation brought both satisfaction and the hope of renewed life serving the Lord of the Church. There seemed to be only light, not darkness, at the end of the rigorous and seemingly endless tunnel that had been the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School of the early 1980s.
Mark Dankof at Trinity: Circa 1981
But the mysterious paradox was this–as the years flew by, the memories of the Trinity years became increasingly bright. The concurrent darkness of the pain and drudgery of that era had been mentally minimized, re-interpreted, or even erased from recollection as temporal distance from youth increased exponentially. The relentless, speedy movement of linear time in history had been the Balm of Gilead. Unfortunately, the increase in brilliant illumination of long departed days in the Windy City had often been accompanied by the worst vicissitudes of life and tragedy in the lives of three now middle-aged men who had been a small organic part of the American phenomenon once dubbed by author Richard Quebedeaux as The Young Evangelicals.
This was especially true for John Rufus Eppler. The first mentionable tragedy was his health. Complications from a surgical appendectomy, an amoebic dysentery obtained during missionary labors in Latin America years before, and ongoing neuropathological distress had forced early retirement as the previously dynamic pastor of Oak Hills Evangelical Free Church of Argyle, Texas. John Eppler had been the driving human force behind the creation and spiritual sustenance of this suburban Dallas congregation. His vision, dedication, creativity, preaching, Biblical teaching, and winsome personality were bearing fruit under God’s sovereign direction. But this apparently counted for little at a time when he desperately needed the love and support of his congregation in a fashion commensurate with his love for them. As is typical of the biodegradable cellophane-wrapper brand of American Evangelicalism prevalent today--which discards pastors with a Trump-like speed and sheer ruthlessness--the signs of disdain were conveyed to him with a brutal clarity reminiscent of Belshazzar’s writing on the wall. He got the message and quietly departed. The personal grief and quiet soul-bleeding were never arrested. They would continue to the literal end of his physical life.
The second tragedy grew out of the matrix of circumstances which prompted his quiet retirement from active ministry at a grossly premature time for the world at large. Oak Hills Evangelical Free Church hired his replacement, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate named Jon Warnshuis. “Dynamic” said the Elders of the congregation. “A Whole New Era at Oak Hills Evangelical Free” crowed the True Believers. They got that right–Warnshuis proved to be a predatory homosexual pedophile who victimized a number of the most vulnerable, impressionable young boys in the church. Thanks to the relentless investigative reporting of Darren Barbee of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Oak Hills Evangelical Free’s travails managed to receive full coverage and national exposure in Christianity Today. So did Dallas Seminary, which thanks to Mr. Barbee was proven to have commended Warnshuis to several congregations, including Oak Hills, with the full knowledge that the latter was a known pedophile. How much money exchanged hands in the aftermath of this sordid cataclysm may never be publicly known. The pastoral malefactor is appropriately in the Texas penitentiary for the remainder of his adult life. And if Dallas Seminary has asked for anyone’s forgiveness, I am unaware of it. The only omission in any of the justifiable publicity was the injustice done to the original and founding pastor--and the incessant pain from it that he endured for the remainder of his brief sojourn on the earth.
John Eppler called me countless times in Philadelphia in absolute heartsickness over what had befallen his beloved church. Despite the fact that his own hands and heart were provably pure, the tragedy compounded the tormenting sleep disorder originally created by the increasingly unbearable physical pain. “How in the world could this have happened?” he would repeat endlessly in nocturnal phone call after phone call. “Why did God allow this to happen?” he would inquire in precisely the same fashion as the countless number of bereaved souls who had sought his valuable counsel and pastoral encouragement in times past. “How do you spend years of your life building something of God, only to see its demise under circumstances you can’t do a damn thing about?” I only had one answer that I was sure of. I could not possibly know the answers to any of his probing, wrenching interrogatories save one–that the mysterious paradox of the love of God being revealed and conveyed in the suffering and shed blood of Jesus Christ was as true as ever (Hebrews 13:8) in the lives of believers crucified to self, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God.
There were more body-blow punches to the solar plexus yet to come. The last year brought them to a head. John’s mother, a famous humanitarian and philanthropist in Dallas, died in May. He and his beloved wife Tammy separated, with the wounded Shepherd locating an apartment in Denton out of the public eye and limelight that had characterized his life in the salad days of his public ministry. There was an additional burden to bear without the help of any human burden-bearers. He was now using a mountainload of medically prescribed drugs and painkillers to avoid a pain-inflicted insanity. The drugs, the pain, and the grim solitude were a cycle of perpetual incarceration, leading to a spiraling personal declension that proved ultimately inescapable. Many evangelical friends and colleagues simply evaporated. Phone conversations with Bob Thompson in San Diego; Pastor Perry Holmgren in Lincoln, Nebraska; and yours truly in Philadelphia were the only regular solace from past colleagues over a tortuous period of eight final, dreadful months. The calls would come in the late night, usually between 2 and 3 a.m.. His voice and mental clarity would vary from call to call. It reached a point where in the space of a single call, the voice would fade away, with the brain becoming a mass of jumbled, confused observations and faulty recollections. There were several times when I lost phone conversations with him in mid-sentence, when he lapsed into drug-induced sleep and unconsciousness.
Bob Thompson and John Eppler in Happier Days (Dallas)
I decided I had to go to Dallas personally. After an Election Evening at a Baltimore country club with Constitution Party Presidential candidate Michael Peroutka and Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips, I made the short trip by car to Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI). I spent the night in the terminal watching Presidential election returns and discussing the dubious state of the world with an African-American maintenance man at BWI. He was more insightful than any of the Establishment pundits on television reading scripts from cue-cards. The next morning brought me safely to Dallas via Southwest Airlines. A 45 minute cab ride from the airport at the hands of a Jordanian immigrant ushered me to the front door of John Eppler’s apartment in Denton.
His appearance had not changed since our last personal meeting in Texas in 1994, save for some additional bloat to his face and a slight paunch in the middle. By his own admission, he had given up his lifelong dedication to daily aerobic exercise in the year previous.
Eppler The Clown Eppler the Expositor of God's Word Eppler the Musical Artist
Our final week together was a good one. Despite the fact that he was spending a disproportionate time each morning in drug-induced sleep, we managed to log quite a few miles around Dallas in his spanking brand new, bright yellow sports car. I would spend the mornings alone, researching and writing articles at the North Denton Library next door to his apartment complex. Our daily meals after his awakening were a weird configuration of Jack-in-the-Box, Outback Steakhouse, and fast-order pizza. The daytime highlight of my trip was John’s concert for his beautiful daughter Jennifer’s second-grade class at Denton Middle School. The guitar style was as mesmerizing, and the voice as definitively resonant that day as they had been 25 years before in Chicago. His style was a hybrid mixture of Eric Clapton and James Taylor, reminiscent of the Pastor’s long-dormant past as a back-up musician for some of the biggest names in the rock-folk recording industry in bygone days of yesteryear. I had the feeling he had reached back for something extra that special day, not believing he could possibly find the range, communicative charisma, and magical chemistry ever again in a public performance. Miraculously, he did for what proved to be the last time. The kids–and their music instructor–were with him completely from start to finish. He had them in the palms of his hands and he knew it. The love and adoration was mutual. Somehow I suspect it brought him back to feelings of old when occupying the pulpit of his own congregation in the days of his preaching prime now yesterday past. The gifts of God were still visible and evident in the unique way he touched the hearts of the children whose hearts were open and enshrouded in love, not yet hardened by the world and the cynical secular American culture irrevocably entwined with it .
Our nights were occupied by DVD movies like Gods and Generals, the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris nostalgia flick “61,” and the recent remake of The Alamo. Our conversations occasionally dealt with Trinity nostalgia, but were more often laden with John’s cogent observations about the malignantly corrupt state of American Evangelicalism and his constant worry about the long-term future of daughter Jennifer. We were in complete agreement about the cancerous state of Institutional Christianity in America–the greed, the Church-Growth hucksters, the TV evangelists, the false teachers, and the Revelation-From-God-A-Minute practitioners who had contributed to the wholesale jettisoning of expository Biblical preaching, historic Church liturgy, and a proper understanding of the Theology of the Cross. He was especially sickened by the false national pride and jingoism that had permeated once-orthodox Christian pulpits in the land. Had the Gospel of Jesus really been preempted by the Gospel of George Bush, the iconography of Corporate America, and the doctrine of America Uber Alles? Were we all back in the era of Jeroboam II again? And had the Dispensational heresy endemic to most of the denizens of the American Religious Right finally managed to make the Confessing Church of Christ a mere parenthesis in history? Was the racist, physical, geographic, and militarist “Gospel” of Zionism the final witness and testimony of allegedly Bible-believing Christians in the homeland of our birth? And was the Sacrament a mere memorialization of the Son of God, or an ongoing and real encounter with His blood and the promise of forgiveness of sin attached to it? These questions, along with his own personal conflicts with the demons of any given night in his Denton apartment, would continue to haunt what remained of his analytical mind in the final days this side of eternity.
But what was most striking about the final week we would ever spend together in this life, was the all-encompassing love John had for his daughter. As an objective observer, I will affirm that this young lady of seven is one of the most intelligent, emotionally intuitive, and loving children I have come across in many a year. I got a particular kick out of the way in which she would continually refer to me in classic Southern Deference to the Elder as “Mr. Dankof.” Nobody knows me as “Mr. Dankof.” I made her father laugh by remarking that most people who know me refer to me simply as “Mark,” or with invectives both unmentionable and unprintable. I flew back to Philadelphia with the comforting knowledge that at least for one significant week in time in The Lone Star State, I was known to the immediate world as “Mr. Dankof.” It seemed like something special.
On the last day of my brief sojourn in Dallas, John Eppler drove me to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in his beloved yellow sports car. We pulled up to the drop-off zone, where by pre-arrangement I would get out with my bags, in order that he might successfully speed to a Thanksgiving festival at Jennifer’s school. I had insisted the previous night that he attend this event faithfully.
The tires came to a screeching halt in perfect symmetry with curb-side check in. As I hastened to get out of the car, his right hand grabbed my left arm with strength and conviction. His left hand was reaching inside his coat for what proved to be a white business-sized envelope. His eyes met mine with a clarity and singleness of purpose I’d not seen since our days in Chicago light years before.
“This is yours,” he intoned in complete seriousness. “You’re not to open it until I’m out of here. It isn’t a loan. It’s yours with the condition that you go back to Westminster Seminary and finish your teaching degree and credentials, and get your wife in computer school. You have to finish the race you began when you left Texas for Philadelphia 7 years ago. I know God still has some incredible plan for you in helping and teaching other people. My call in the ministry is now over. You have to finish–for both of us. I’ll see you soon.”
It seemed to be no more than an instant after the physical passage of the envelope and the final instructions to an old friend that he and his beloved yellow sports car roared out of sight, and out of the confines of DFW. I lingered at curbside until he was gone. There were several phone conversations with him that followed after I returned home to Philadelphia. Bob Thompson also contacted me from San Diego to say that he and John had talked by phone once more. Bob reported to me a most curious statement by our old friend before the line in Dallas went dead for the evening. John told Bob that he would like nothing more than a final engraved epitaph on his tombstone which would read:
Here lies John.
John loved Jesus.
John loved Jennifer.
It proved to be a prophetic premonition of things to come with the swiftness of the speed of light. On December 18th, his fine wife Tammy contacted me by e-mail with the following note:
Subject: Visitor from MarkDankof.com
Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 11:06:03 -0600
I could not find your other email address or a phone number for
you so this was the only way I knew to get in touch.
I had not heard from John since late Thursday night and I had
been by his apartment several times only to find his car gone.
When he did not show up to pick up Jen from school on Tuesday I was
even more concerned. On Wednesday morning I called the apartment
complex to see if they had heard from him and they had not so they
sent someone over to knock and see if he was there. There was no
answer and the apt was locked from the inside so they called the
police to get into the apt.
When they did get in they found him in bed. I saw the back of
his head and his back and thought he might be asleep, but the
officer said he was not asleep and he had been there for a few
The funeral will be on Monday December 20th at 1pm.
I am glad you guys got to have a visit before this. I am also
thankful that he is finally at peace and out of pain. If you want
to call me, my cell number is . . .
The magnitude of the impact of these few lines continues to sink in day-by-day and night-by-night, in the immediate aftermath of his passing through linear time and this physical cosmos to a secured eternity won by the Crucified Christ in suffering and isolation. The stark reality of his swift departure and subsequent absence is made bearable only in the confident knowledge that his salvation has been secured by the willing passive and active obedience of Jesus Christ to God the Father. The Second Coming of Christ in time and space draws ever nearer with relentless speed, to the glory of the Father, and for the eternal edification of every believer who basks in the glorious presence of the Holy Trinity in the Kingdom of God that is without end.
John Eppler lived the reality of Luther’s observations in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The true theologian is indeed one who “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” John was a true theologian, pastor, friend, husband, and father. The Theology of the Cross that he lived and preached to the faithful has now carried him into the presence of the Resurrected Christ. We will see his like again, but only in the life that is to come. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
(Mark Dankof is a Lutheran pastor and free-lance journalist, occasionally contributing to Iran Dokht, Al Bawaba, Nile Media, CASCFEN, PersianMirror, DixieInternet.com, and other Internet news sites. Once a 3rd party candidate for the United States Senate in Delaware , he maintains the web-site Mark Dankof’s America while pursuing post-graduate theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His commentary may be found regularly on SARTRE's Old American Right and Republic news site, Breaking All the Rules. His interview with 3rd party American Presidential candidate Michael Peroutka of the Constitution Party is widely available on various sites on the World Wide Web.)
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