Details from Presbyterian church history about race relations in the United States are not pretty. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, for instance, saw members and officers leave when Mariano Di Gangi, predecessor to James Montgomery Boice, preached about racial prejudice, opened the church and session to African Americans, and served on the mayor’s commission on civil rights. At the time, Tenth Church was still part of the Presbyterian Church USA and did not join the Presbyterian Church in America until 1982; but that denomination had hurdles of its own to overcome. Sean Michael Lucas’s history of the PCA’s founding, For a Continuing Church (2015), includes stories of Southern Presbyterian conservatives who defended racial segregation on biblical grounds and sought ways to guard the church from important figures regarded as having erroneous understandings of racial equality.
The OPC herself debated the merits of civil rights during the 1960s in the pages of The Presbyterian Guardian that showed opposition to political reforms designed to end segregation. A black pastor in the church, Herbert Oliver, wrote an article about the positive contribution the Christian church had made to social reforms in the past and that supporting Civil Rights for African-Americans was another instance when Christians could be instruments of social change. Letters to the editor indicated that Oliver had failed to persuade some Orthodox Presbyterians. E. J. Young, for instance, wrote a letter to the editors in which he objected to both a view of egalitarianism that was clearly unbiblical and an understanding of the church’s role in society that failed to highlight the ministry of the gospel. If these instances seem inconsequential, perhaps J. Gresham Machen’s 1913 letter to his mother, strongly objecting to the integration of Princeton Seminary, will show how much ideas of white supremacy afflicted conservative Presbyterians who contemporary Orthodox Presbyterians esteem. If a black man were to take up residence in Alexander Hall, Machen wrote, he would consider moving out, which would have been “a great sacrifice to me.”
Owen Strachan is at a loss to explain why Princeton Seminary has decided to withdraw the Kuyper Prize from Tim Keller:
How odd that this fracas has happened at Princeton. Princeton Seminary is the ancestral home of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen. For a good long while, Princeton was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in all its gleaming brilliance, turning out thousands of Bible-loving, gospel-preaching pastors in days past. Princeton has long had ties to Abraham Kuyper, who delivered his famous “every square inch” Stone Lectures at the school in 1898. The Princeton-Kuyper-evangelical connection is alive and thriving at schools like Westminster Seminary, which produced sterling graduates like Harold John Ockenga.
Beyond thriving Westminster, as just one humble example, I will be teaching a July PhD seminar with my colleague John Mark Yeats at Midwestern Seminary on “Biblical Theology and Culture.” We will be discussing Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. Baptists like me are thankful for our brother Abraham and his insights. Over 115 years later, the Kuyperian tree yet blooms, and on numerous campuses, the “Princeton Theology” yet lives.
But mark the irony: today, Kuyper could not receive his own award, as Michael Guyer noted. Nor could Hodge or Warfield or Machen—strong complementarians all—win such an honor, or perhaps even teach at the school they did so much to establish and strengthen.
Does Strachan not see the irony that Machen had to leave Princeton for Old Princeton’s theology to thrive? Doesn’t he understand the irony of the anti-Machen Princeton awarding (the pro-Machen?) Keller with a prize associated with the Calvinist orthodoxy of Abraham Kuyper?
Strachan interprets this episode as another indication of how deep the antithesis goes:
Don’t be confused: this world hates the gospel, hates God, and hates Christ (Romans 8:7). It calls faithful men and women of God to sit down and fall silent. But, in love for fellow sinners, we graciously refuse to do so. We will preach the whole counsel of God, including biblical sexual ethics, which glisten with divine craftmanship. We will rise to praise Tim Keller, a man who received a weighty charge from God, a man entrusted with much, a man who did not drop the baton.
That’s pretty arch for a defender of Keller since that world-hating-Christ meme has never been prominent in Keller’s we-can-redeeem-this approach to the big apple.
But if the world is all that, why would Keller recommend Gotham the way he does? And if the world hates Christ as Strachan says, why would Tim Keller not look at Princeton’s effort to award him as an indication that he may not have been as clear in his communication of Reformed orthodoxy? After all, when E. J. Young received an invitation merely to serve on Christianity Today‘s editorial board, he refused to identity institutionally with the church for whom Princeton Seminary is the theological flagship:
As you well know, Carl [Henry], there was in the Presbyterian Church a great controversy over modernism. That controversy was carried on by Dr. Machen in part. There were many who supported Dr. Machen in his opposition to unbelief. On the other hand there were many who did not support him. When matters came to a showdown and Dr. Machen was put from the church there were those who decided it would be better to remain within and to fight from within. . . . Since that time I have watched eagerly to see what would be done by those who remained in the church. They have done absolutely nothing. Not one voice has been raised so far as I know to get the church to acknowledge its error in 1936 and to invite back into its fold those who felt constrained to leave, or those who were put out of the church. . . . What has greatly troubled me has been the complete silence of the ministers in the church. They simply have not lived up to their ordination vows.
If Keller had been holding out for confessional Presbyterianism, Princeton never would have paid him attention. And if Princeton Seminary had ever checked Keller’s curriculum vitae, they’d have seen Westminster Seminary, the school founded by Machen, and wondered, “what were we thinking?”
If only the New Calvinists paid a little more attention to Old Calvinists, they might know that Calvinism is never sexy. As Mencken said for many mainstream media members, “Calvinism is but little removed in the cabinet of horrors from Cannibalism.” But instead, New Calvinists listened to Keller and thought, if he can make it in New York City, so can we.
World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations—a handful of which have sanctioned same-sex marriages or unions in recent years, including the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Meanwhile, same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, and federal judges have struck down bans in five other states (Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and—most recently—Michigan) as well as required Kentucky to recognize such marriages performed in other states. (All six rulings are stayed until the appeals process is complete.) . . . .
“Denominations disagree on many, many things: on divorce and remarriage, modes of baptism, women in leadership roles in the church, beliefs on evolution, etc.,” he said. “So our practice has always been to defer to the authority and autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith. We unite around our [Trinitarian beliefs], and we have always deferred to the local church on these other matters.”
The reason the prohibition existed in the first place? “It’s kind of a historical issue,” said Stearns. “Same-sex marriage has only been a huge issue in the church in the last decade or so. There used to be much more unity among churches on this issue, and that’s changed.”
And the change has been painful to watch. “It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church,” he said. “It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart. Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue. We’ve got to focus on our mission. We are determined to find unity in our diversity.”
Highlighting the church/parachurch distinction: Board member and pastor John Crosby, who served as interim leader when a number of churches split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA) after the denomination dropped a celibacy requirement for gay clergy in 2011. At a conference that laid the foundation of the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the Minnesota megachurch pastor stated, “We have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center.”
However, as a World Vision board member, Crosby didn’t have a problem voting for the policy change. “It’s a matter of trying to decide what the core mission of the organization is,” he said.
If World Vision’s leadership is largely worshiping in mainline Protestant churches, then this quotation on the organization’s reversal makes more sense, as in, “wow, we never considered that”:
“The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”
“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”
“We listened to [our] friends, we listened to their counsel. They tried to point out in loving ways that the conduct policy change was simply not consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives,” said Stearns. “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.”
Somewhere along the line, a lot of U.S. Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) gave up the battle with modernism. In my reading of the record, it started for Protestants with the neo-evangelicals of Billy Graham fame who wanted a kinder gentler conservative Protestantism. That neo-evangelical project ignored ecclesiology for the sake of a broader effort, and so it refused to rule out Protestants who were members of modernist churches. For Roman Catholics, it seemed to come with Vatican II, a time when Pius X’s oath against modernism looked like a quaint relic (can encyclicals be relics?) of an era different from the life and times of the 1960s church. (It is more of a mystery, given all that infallibility jazz, that Rome has gone soft on modernism. Evangelicals have long been confused.) Only where the battles with modernism are alive and well have the saints (Protestant) the capacity to see problems in World Vision even before their recent waffling.
Postscript: As an example of how modernism continued to haunt some confessional Protestants, here’s a quotation from E. J. Young’s December 6, 1955 letter to Carl Henry in which he declined serving on the editorial board of Christianity Today:
As you well know, Carl, there was in the Presbyterian Church a great controversy over modernism. That controversy was carried on by Dr. Machen in part. There were many who supported Dr. Machen in his opposition to unbelief. On the other hand there were many who did not support him. When matters came to a showdown and Dr. Machen was put from the church there were those who decided it would be better to remain within and to fight from within. . . . Since that time I have watched eagerly to see what would be done by those who remained in the church. They have done absolutely nothing. Not one voice has been raised so far as I know to get the church to acknowledge its error in 1936 and to invite back into its fold those who felt constrained to leave, or those who were put out of the church. . . . What has greatly troubled me has been the complete silence of the ministers in the church. They simply have not lived up to their ordination vows.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church turns 75 today. Festivities have so far included lectures, presentations from the General Secretaries of the Assembly’s standing committees, a banquet tonight, and the opportunity to purchase handsome coffee mugs. Thankfully, the Assembly’s organizers resisted the chief temptation of our time — t-shirts (which are fine to wear under shirts with collars but should be reserved for the boudoir or basketball court).
The OPC has also produced two new books to mark the event, Confident of Better Things, a collection of essays edited by John Muether and Danny Olinger, and Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945 to 1990 by yours truly.
The latter title covers a number of important episodes during the period when second generation Orthodox Presbyterians decided what to do with the legacy and heritage of Machen, Van Til, Murray, Stonehouse, Young, and Woolley. It includes chapters on the creation of the Trinity Hymnal, the formation of Great Commission Publications, Westminster Seminary’s relationship to the OPC, relations with the PCA and RPCES, and the demise of the Presbyterian Guardian.
One of the more interesting parts of this middle period was the OPC’s desire and protracted effort to merge with the Christian Reformed Church. To honor the anniversary and whet readers’ appetites, the following is an excerpt from chapter seven, “The OPC and the Christian Reformed Church, 1956-1973”:
The OPC’s dependence on theologians and churchmen from immigrant backgrounds characterized its first three decades of existence and gave to the denomination a unique character and international outlook. Westminster Seminary was the source of this foreign presence. Names such as Cornelius Van Til, Ned B. Stonehouse, and R. B. Kuiper were not common fare among American Presbyterians. And even though John Murray’s name was more common than Dutch family names among Presbyterians whose ties to Scotland and Ireland were apparent in the colonial era and first half of the nineteenth century, even his Presbyterianism — the Scottish Free Presbyterian Church — differed in important respects from the American tradition out of which the OPC came. Yet, the OPC did not simply find a place for these foreign Calvinists, as if the church were a haven for the world’s Reformed masses struggling to be free. If anything these Dutch and Scottish Calvinists helped to preserve the conservative Presbyterianism they had learned at Princeton Seminary and that Machen had established at Westminster. In turn, these hyphenated Presbyterians helped to define the the OPC. Because the denomination had emerged from the northern Presbyterian mainline church, it was obviously American in its formal expressions. But because of the presence of foreign leadership — a point that the OPC’s critics never tired of making — the church was also un-American.
The Dutch-American connection was particularly strong and a significant influence upon the OPC’s ecumenical relationships before 1970. Here the ties went back again to Old Princeton. Geerhardus Vos’ decision to complete his theological studies — after transferring from Calvin Seminary — at Princeton Seminary and Princeton’s subsequent appointment of Vos in 1892 as professor of biblical theology established a unique kinship between conservative American Presbyterians and Dutch-American Calvinists of which the OPC was practically the sole beneficiary. Of course, the relationship also benefitted the Dutch communion. As an ethnic religious body on the margins of Anglo-American culture and Protestantism, the CRC was naturally looking for ways to assimilate. Conservative Presbyterians at Princeton and Westminster were particularly attractive half-way houses from ethnic isolation to mainstream respectability. But again, not to be missed in this relationship is the leadership of Dutch-Americans within the OPC. The church did not merely provide a comfortable home for ethnic Calvinists who hoped to be successful in the United States on American terms. In fact, the situation was almost the reverse. The OPC became a comfortable home for Reformed orthodoxy and Presbyterian practice because hyphenated Calvinists assumed positions of leadership in the denomination.
The downside of ethnic leadership, as disaffected critics never ceased to mention, was the OPC’s difference from other conservative Protestants who followed the ethos and piety of American Christianity more than a Reformed faith less encumbered by United States developments. The upside was an ability to see the Reformed faith without the blinders of national pride or patriotic civil religion. So appealing was this international Calvinism that the OPC almost decided to unite with the Christian Reformed Church. In fact, at a time when American Protestants were increasingly identifying Christianity with the American “way of life,” the OPC was contemplating ways to establish closer ties to Dutch-American Reformed Protestants.
This verse (Is 53:6) is a veritable compend of life-giving theology. Here is the doctrine of total depravity â€“ we had gone astray, we had turned each one to his own way. These words set forth the fact of our sinfulness. We had already sinned and were gone out of the way. This is to say that we were in no condition to save ourselves. If one has gone astray, he is lost and needs to be found.
Here too is the doctrine of Godâ€™s sovereignty â€“ for He is the ultimate cause in the Servantâ€™s suffering. Up until this point the LORD is not explicitly mentioned in Isaiah fifty-three. Now, however, it appears that it is He who causes our iniquity to strike upon the Servant. It is well to consider the thought carefully. The Servant was a righteous One, with no sin of His own. His death therefore must have been the work of evil men. It was an unjust death, for He did not deserve to die. Yet even this unjust death could not have occurred apart from the Lordâ€™s so decreeing. The LORD does reign supreme in the heavens, and He foreordains all things that come to pass upon this earth.
In this verse there is also found the doctrine of salvation by grace, for the Lord, by causing our iniquity to light upon Him, has done that which was necessary to save His people. This verse, therefore is in perfect harmony with the remainder of the Bible, for everywhere throughout the pages of Scripture, salvation is set forth as the work of God and not of man. It is His free gift and all of grace. Here too is the doctrine of a vicarious punishment, for the terrible wrath of God which we deserved, struck Him in the stead of us. How clearly the Scripture sets before us the vicarious or substitutionary nature of the Servantâ€™s death! If we do not believe, it is because the blindness of our hearts which is a result of our fall in Adam, still remains, and the veil has not been taken from our eyes.
Here too are the doctrines of satisfaction and expiation. It is the Servant who by His death offers a sacrifice to put away sin. It is He who sprinkles many nations. The iniquity which meets in his Soul is expiated by His death and that death satisfies every accusation that can be brought against the sinner, for it is because of His suffering that we are made right with God. And lastly, here is the comforting doctrine of Divine Providence. The Servantâ€™s suffering was not accidental. It was brought about by God Himself who ordereth all things according to His own will. (E. J. Young, Isaiah 53: A Devotional and Expository Study, pp 57-58)