Prof. pursued doctorate to defend pastor’s reputation
By Ben Bradbury ’09
There are times throughout life when circumstances and conviction lead to paths one could never have anticipated.
Such was the journey for Ian Hewitson ’85, Ph.D.
Born to missionaries in Jos, Nigeria, Hewitson spent his formative years in the United Kingdom, which has left him with an accent enjoyed by those who hear him speak. He arrived at NWC in the winter of 1979 to study commercial art and design and now teaches in the Department of Biblical & Theological Studies at NWC.
Finding Northwestern and the Word
While studying art and Bible at NWC , Hewitson fell in love with God’s Word. “Towards my senior year, I became increasingly interested in the Scriptures,” he recalled, “realizing that the Scriptures were going to be the discriminating factor in my life.”
Hewitson’s growing love for the Bible was also fostered by Rev. Norman Shepherd, his church pastor during college. So, without having any inclination to be a pastor or teacher, Hewitson attended Westminster Theological Seminary (Penn.), earned an M.A. in Pastoral Counseling and began work as a pastoral counselor at Pastor Shepherd’s church.
“It was really a work of God’s doing,” he said. “There was a compelling need—not necessarily in ministry—but there was a compelling obligation for me to tell [others about the Scriptures].”
Hewitson’s work as a pastor continued for nearly two decades, serving as a pastoral counselor and eventually as a senior minister in Minnetonka (Minn.). Throughout this time, however, Hewitson became concerned about the reputation of his longtime mentor, Shepherd.
As a graduate student at Westminster, Hewitson learned that Shepherd had taught there for 17 years. Seven of those years were controversial, but it is a little-known fact that during that time Shepherd was exonerated five times of all allegations by the faculty and board, as well as by his presbytery.
At the end of the seven years, Shepherd resigned his teaching position at the seminary because he had lost confidence in the institution’s ability to resolve the controversy. But the controversy continues up to the present day. This perplexed Hewitson, as he believed Shepherd was orthodox in his teaching.
Hewitson’s concern reached a pinnacle when he attended a conference with Shepherd in 2001 and saw a book that referenced this controversy once again—more than two decades after it occurred. Hewitson asked Shepherd if he could write on the controversy.
Hewitson recalled that Shepherd didn’t respond immediately, but some time later called him and asked him if he was still willing to do this. “I couldn’t say no to him,” Hewitson explained. “He was my pastor; he was my friend...so I said yes.”
Decision, dramatic action
Hewitson believed that to defend Shepherd’s reputation, he needed to write a book to illuminate the full situation. “The ninth commandment tells me that we are not to bear false witness against our neighbor,” he said. For him that also meant preserving the name of the neighbor, if falsely accused.
“So, when I heard all that was taking place over these past 25 years against Shepherd, I was obligated to [do something].”
However, he knew that in order to be taken seriously, he would have to conduct thorough research and present it in an objective, academic manner. “To have it scrutinized academically, I needed a Ph.D.,” Hewitson said.
Thus, at 47 years old, Hewitson, his wife and two young boys moved to Scotland so he could pursue a doctorate. “I figured I couldn’t do it in the U.S., just because of the prominence of [Shepherd’s] name,” he said.
Hewitson’s dissertation delved heavily into the administrative angle of this controversy, evaluating the last of seven Commissions that assessed and approved Shepherd’s doctrinal beliefs. This work was published in his book entitled Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd & the Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary .
Hewitson bears no illusion that the writing of his book puts an end to the issue, but he is optimistic that it will in time make a difference. “Although [the book] might not bear fruit in my lifetime,” he reflected, “if it’s out there and if it’s in the libraries, history—and I believe the Scriptures—will be on [Shepherd’s] side.”