The Last Time a Pope Died

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

The Faith of Modernism

When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, some American evangelical observers of Rome referred to him as “J2P2.” About ten years later that nickname receded, an indication of a significant transition in his pontificate: this pope was becoming even more popular than Star Wars. It is easy to see now why American evangelicals fell in love with pope John Paul II. He was instrumental in the defeat of Communism, courageous in defense of traditional marriage, and relentless in his advocacy of the culture of life.

Why didn’t Paul VI a enjoy similar press? After all, a re-reading of his widely lampooned Humanae Vitae reveals it to be a brilliant, if flawed, critique of our technological age. But Paul VI’s tired and melancholy demeanor lacked the vigorous and telegenic charisma of John Paul II, a master of modern media.

Timothy George compared the winsome attractiveness of John Paul II to the ultimate American evangelical icon, Billy Graham. “Many of the things said of the pope you’d say of Billy Graham,” George recently told Christianity Today. “From an evangelical base he’s tried to reach out and be embracing and yet be faithful to the gospel. And you put those two together, Billy Graham and the pope, you have there the winsome, visible face of world Christianity in the last half century.”

Again, this is understandable, and there is much for Protestants to be thankful for in this remarkable 25-year pontificate. But can it be said from a Protestant perspective that John Paul II’s legacy was marked by theological progress? How ought we to evaluate what Mark Noll described as Roman Catholicism’s “dramatically altered relations with Protestant evangelicals”? Are we led to imagine that the Reformation is over? There are reasonable grounds for skepticism on the part of Protestant confessionalists.

This is not to question the pope’s openness to the theory of evolution, as some Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholic traditionalists have. John Paul II hardly endorsed Darwinism; he merely invited Christians to engage in legitimate scientific inquiry without succumbing to scientism. No, John Paul II was clean here, although it was left for his successor, Benedict XVI, to state the matter with greater theological precision when he emphasized that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.”

In following through with the work of Vatican II, John Paul proclaimed the church’s openness to the future. But should Protestants be encouraged when “aggiornamento” replaces the take-no-prisoners exclusivism of pre-Vatican II Rome with the universalism of Vatican II? A perusal of Crossing the Threshold of Hope should dispel any doubt that John Paul II is a modernist, especially with regard to his attitude toward other religions. John Paul II seems to articulate his own version of Open Theism here: salvation is open to all “people of good will” (though only Rome possesses the fullness of that salvation). Jews are older brothers in this vague and universal faith, and he goes on to make frightening concessions to the “deep religiosity” of Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems, reserving his criticism of the latter to the “fundamentalists” among them. “It will be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open,” he writes. “It cannot be accused of an ecclesiastical exclusivism” (emphasis original).

The old-style Protestant modernist Shailer Mathews insisted that Modernism was not liberalism. Modernists, he wrote, were evangelicals who use the scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons. Mathews’ call for Christian accommodation to modern times reads much like John Paul II’s. Perhaps there is no American Protestant he may resemble so much as Charles Briggs, who though conservative by inclination and committed to traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth, sought to bring American Presbyterians into the modern world, introducing them to confessional revision, higher criticism and doctrinal tolerance.

Another similarity between the recent pope and Protestant modernism was his reticence to apply church discipline to Roman Catholic dissenters. Rising to his defense, many have pointed out how imprudent excommunication would have been. Dissent was far too entrenched in the American Roman Catholic higher education, which had become a barren wasteland beyond correction. A crackdown would involve not just the prominent – he could not limit it to the likes of Hans Küng – but would have involved tens of thousands. So the pope was between a rock and a hard place, and his hands were tied.

Somehow that rings hollow for a pope credited with dismantling communism. Where is the sign of contradiction? And whatever happened to his slogan, “Be not afraid”? He’s the POPE, for crying out loud. A more plausible explanation seems to be that discipline was less beyond his power than contrary to his style. So the dirty work was inherited by his successor, Benedict XVI, and Roman Catholic conservatives have already appealed to him to take serious disciplinary action.

Where Noll’s “dramatically altered relations” is most evident is in ways John Paul II’s papacy has encouraged American evangelicals to collapse spiritual warfare into cultural warfare. Under the pope’s leadership and example American Roman Catholics and evangelicals have found common cause in lobbying for the culture of life. This has led to the confusing and divisive work of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 and its successors. To be sure, evangelicals argue that theological differences remain – there’s the whole Mary thing – but these are relegated to the theological periphery. “The disagreements that Protestants have with John Paul II are things that are in addition to the foundations of the faith,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land. In a more theologically literate age, confessional Protestants would call that doctrinal indifference.

In a commonly misunderstood section in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen suggested that Presbyterian orthodoxy had more in common with Rome than with Protestant liberalism. Machen’s predicament was that if forced to choose between Protestant modernism, which had all but abandoned the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and Roman Catholicism, a faith that in the 1920s was still affirming that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, the decision would have been to side with the Christian though flawed expression. That choice took on a different dimension after Vatican II when in its effort to engage the modern world the Roman Catholic hierarchy embraced modernism. So with the magisterium of John Paul II, who fleshed out Vatican II’s modernism, Machen would not have been confronted with a choice. For all of his gifts and virtues, John Paul II was a theological modernist. Evangelical adulation of his papacy gives every suggestion of a dance with modernism.


Orthodox Presbyterian Lady

At one point in our church life the missus and I were part of a missional work whose name we might have a hand in choosing. To avoid the common and somewhat tired names such as Redeemer or Calvary, I wanted to invoke the name of saints and was thinking especially of a set of Presbyterians with the name John — Muether, Machen, Witherspoon, Knox, and Calvin. To claim their names, I wanted to use Sts. Johns Church, a name that reflected a debt to these Presbyterians and that also acknowledged the Protestant conviction of the sainthood of all believers.

Needless to say, Sts. Johns was an epic fail.

A recent sermon on 2 (two?) John reminded me of this old idea. The epistle begins with this odd construction:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever

Our pastor plausibly argued that this was not an individual communication between the apostle John and a certain woman in the early church. Instead, “lady” was a word synonymous with a congregation or set of congregations in a city. (I also perked up that John referred to himself as an elder — “hey, that’s my office!”)

The last two verses of the epistle also make sense of this rendering of “lady”:

12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your elect sister greet you.

If John were simply writing to one person, then this would be an odd communication to reach the status of canonical writing. And if it were also about one lady, then John was apparently writing to a set of sisters akin to Jane and Cassandra Austen.

So if lady does refer to a church, then it’s time (#metoo) that we put the word to ecclesiastical use.

No Assembly Required

Another batch of back issues from the Nicotine Theological Journal has been posted. The July 1999 issue proves just how cutting edge the NTJ is. Well before Keller or Piper were debating multi-site congregations, other technologically driven pastors were conceiving of an entirely different understanding of gathering with the saints and angels. Here is an excerpt:

“I will tell of thy name to my brethren,” David vows to God in Psalm 22. “In the midst of the assembly I will praise thee. From thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” David understands that redemption has consequences. His praise must not be private or domestic, but it must be public, in the presence of fellow God-fearers. Not until we worship solemnly with the saints do we express adequately our gratitude to God for our deliverance.

Unlike the psalmist, evangelical Christians today seem terribly confused as to why they are to gather for worship. Consider this metaphor, popularized by Chuck Swindoll. Worship is still important, we are assured, and it is as vital for the church today as the huddle is for a football team, for in both cases that is where the players gather together to learn the plays. The flaw in this metaphor is obvious. The huddle is not the action in football. It is the lull in the action, a moment so uneventful that the well-conditioned TV viewer can use it to race to replenish his beer. So to compare worship to a football huddle is to encourage the mistaken notion that the real world is “out there,” and that the church gathered for worship is somehow something less.

As bad as that is, far worse yet is the increasingly popular conviction that Christians can engage the world with a no-huddle offense. As far as assembling together, more and more are encouraged merely to phone it in. This is not entirely new. As early as the 1950s, dial-a-prayer services were as popular as phoning for the time or the weather or for movie announcements. In a 1964 article in Christianity Today, many pastors were extolling the efficiency of this automated ministry. Said one, it was the only way he could talk to 200 people a day. What is more, his church could minister this way to people at two in the morning without waking up the pastor. Beyond efficiency, its popularity owed to parishioners enjoying anonymity without feeling lonely.

AND THEN CAME THE INTERNET. Any surfer knows that religious communities are thriving in cyberspace. We visited one recently, the First Church of Cyberspace (found at “”). Characteristic of an age that cannot distinguish between profession and self-promotion, the website opens not with a description of its beliefs but with positive comments from recent visitors. Guest book kudos come from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Universalist circles, from as far away as Germany and Japan. Much of the enthusiasm is brief and to the point: “Wow!” or “Cool!” Perhaps what impresses visitors most is the non-fundamentalist character of First Church. From the church’s home page, the surfer is but a couple of hyperlinks from what is euphemistically described as “Adult Christianity.”

OF COURSE, A CYBERCHURCH IS admittedly unconventional, and that is its great advantage, boast its afficionados. One church website designer has claimed that “all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet,” including the sacraments (don’t ask). And all the while – and here is the real virtue – it is in the “real world.” By contrast, a church gathered traditionally is mired in the past, with members who are missing the action. We know of one Presbyterian megachurch that recently appointed to its large staff a “Minister of Technology.” This minister is urging his church to make room for technology, lest it become “too painfully obvious that we have become completely irrelevant.” (He omits the other painful reality of ecclesiastical technophobia: that ministers of technology will find themselves unemployed.)

This then is the church in the technological age – no assembly required. We can forgo the gathering, because technology has conquered the restraints of time and space. One megachurch in Central Florida is explicitly making this claim. Recently this church changed its name from a “Community Church” to “a Church Distributed,” because it had discovered a “new form” of the church (which will eventually become the norm, it predicts). . . .

If You Need Some Ecclesiology to Go with Your W-W

The OPC is seeking applications from college students and seminarians for its Summer Institute. This year’s sessions will be conducted again at Shiloh Lodge from June 19 to 21 in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Successful applicants will have their travel and lodging expenses covered.

The Summer Institute offers a glimpse of Reformed ministry as understood and practiced in the OPC. Instructors include John Muether, Greg Reynolds, and (all about me) D. G. Hart. Students will spend several days considering the following topics:

The OPC’s distinguishing characteristics and continuity with the Reformed tradition.

The centrality, nature and benefits of being a confessional church.

The importance of the means of grace in the church’s mission.

The church’s calling as a pilgrim people.

The work of a minister of the Word in an organized church and a mission work.

For more information, go here. The application deadline is April 16 but extensions may be granted.

Speaking of Conferences

That tears it! John Muether and I have co-authored three separate books, one on the history of the OPC, one on worship, and one on the history of American Presbyterianism. We have at least one more book in the works, a defense of Protestantism against Roman Catholicism. And we have plans for many more. We even thought about a series of books on Presbyterian eldership, entitled Ruling Elders Rule! Sequels include How Ruling Elders Rule! Where Ruling Elders Rule! When Ruling Elders Rule! You get the point.

But now I see that Mr. Muether has turned on his old friend. Last week I spotted a new book by James McGoldrick, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches: A Global History (published by Reformation Heritage Books). This was a shock and horror to someone who has just completed a first draft of a global history of Calvinism. I had thought that I had a corner on the market.

And to make matters worse, Mr. Muether has endorsed the book. He calls it a “remarkable achievement.” He should have written, “don’t bother with this book since Hart’s forthcoming volume is a remarkable achievement.”

I’ll be seeing Muether this week at OPC Christian Education Committee meetings and I’m not planning on buying him a drink. No matter that I cannot remember the last time I picked up a check.

Old Life Leaven

The new issue of Ordained Servant features the addresses that John Muether and I gave at the pre-General Assembly this past June. Here is the conclusion from Muether’s talk about the different interpreters — from Marsden and Noll to Woolley and Dennison — of Orthodox Presbyterian history:


The OPC is a doctrinal church in an anti-doctrinal age, according to Woolley, a culture of dissent in an establishmentarian age, per Dennison, and a spiritual body in a politically-saturated and culture-obsessed age, writes Hart. If this is a countervailing narrative to the broader and more popular telling, it is not a new story that is being narrated. Rather, this is an echo from our Presbyterian past.

Let us return one more time to 1986 and the failed union vote. As we noted, the vote was perceived as looking backward not forward, inward instead of outward, exclusive rather than inclusive. What is striking about the rhetoric surrounding the union that didn’t happen was its similarity to arguments that accompanied a union that did happen, a century earlier in American Presbyterian history: the 1869 reunion between the Old School Presbyterian Church and the New School Presbyterian Church that healed the breech that took place in 1837. That reunion was also accompanied by a pervasive sense that Presbyterians were confronting a forward-looking ecumenical moment that had to be seized. The Civil War had just ended and the fractured Union needed a united Presbyterian witness. Both camps, New School and Old School, generally expressed hopefulness over this opportunity.

Amid the enthusiasm Charles Hodge sounded his dissent, fearing that Old School Presbyterian identity would be lost for the sake of national expedience. Hodge’s fears proved accurate. In Lefferts Loetscher’s words, the reunion of 1869 produced the largely unintentional consequence of a “broadening church.” Within twenty-five years of the reunion, northern Presbyterians began serious efforts at creedal revision, setting the stage for the Presbyterian controversy of the 1930s.

This is not to suggest that a similarly catastrophic future would have confronted the OPC had it merged with the PCA. But what is noteworthy in this comparison is that Hodge refused to concede that opposition to union relegated him to a position of sectarian isolationism. Hodge believed that the Old School Presbyterian Church had a unique role to fulfill. His plea was not a call for an inward, backward, and exclusive church. On the contrary, he believed that Presbyterians could best serve other denominations first by being faithful as confessional Presbyterians.

As reframed, the OPC’s “alien” identity, for all its reputation for being isolated and uncooperative, may point in the direction of genuine ecumenicity. The OPC serves the universal church when it is steadfastly and self-consciously Reformed. When we narrate the OPC in this way, we can appreciate better the Reformed catholicity of our small church. The OPC continues to serve as a leader in shaping Reformed faith and witness for several emerging Reformed churches throughout the world. It is possible for us to imagine, along with Hodge, Machen, and Van Til, a vital ecumenical role for a confessionally precise church.

So who narrates the OPC? This is not a call to silence any voices either within or beyond the church. It is an appeal to listen carefully to all speakers, taking note of the assumptions of the narrators. And it suggests an answer to the protest of twenty-five years ago: the OPC did not lose its story. American pilgrims continue to discover the OPC in their wanderings through the wasteland of Evangelical or mainline Protestantism. Contemporary discussions in the denomination reveal its ongoing commitment to the whole counsel of God. Issues before our recent General Assembly—the character of Reformed worship, the principles of biblical stewardship, and the relationship between justification and good works—these reveal a church making the progress that Paul Woolley was actively promoting.

At seventy-five, the OPC still displays a willingness to proclaim to other churches and to a watching world the Reformed faith in all its fullness. To invoke the words of R. B. Kuiper, the OPC on its seventy-fifth anniversary is still very small. But it continues to stand for something very big.

An Anniversary that Deserves More than a Mug

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.

Make My Joy Complete?

After last night’s Phillies’ 1-0 victory over the Braves — their tenth in-a-row — it is hard not to feel down-right gleeful as a Phillies fan. Not only have the Phils seemed to work out many kinks from an injury ridden season and a poor first half, but they are doing this without Jimmy Rollins who was 2007 MVP of the National League. (Does Phil’s GM Reuben Amaro get enough credit for acquiring Wilson Valdez, even while receiving accolades for picking up Roy Oswald to make up for the indiscretion of giving up Cliff Lee?)

The problem with my joy is that it comes with knowledge of friends’ grief. Back in 2008 when the Phils won it all, they owed part of their success to the Met’s failure. Granted, the Metropolitans’ September ’08 performance was not as bad as 2007 when the Phils came from 7 1/2 games back to win the division (and then get crushed by the Rockies in the first round). But the Mets did have a 3 1/2 game lead in 2008 with three weeks to go. Normally, a Philadelphia fan gets a huge kick from seeing the home team win and any New York team lose — yes, Philadelphia does not always wear its inferiority complex with aplomb — who does? But in this case, my sidekick at Old Life is a Mets fan. So I couldn’t celebrate as heartily as I wanted because I could well imagine some of John Muether’s pain. By the way, one way I have found to like Mets fans — it is very hard, after all — is to remember that these are New Yorkers who decided not to root for the Yankees. That makes their value go way up.

This year the Metropolitans have not been a factor since the All-Star game, so my mirth could find outlets even in the company of Mr. Muether. But now comes my empathy for a friend who is a fairly strong Braves fan. He will remain nameless, but knowing his own hopes for the Braves and how the Phils may have seriously hurt Atlanta’s chance to make the playoffs, my step today has been a little heavier than it would be if say the Phils had just swept Blue Jays. (Does Canada even deserve a baseball franchise? Why not Canadian baseball with only 2 outs per inning and bases 100 meters apart?)

It may be a stretch, but I find an analogy here in the realm of debates about 2k. The opponents appear to be very quick and ready to celebrate apparent contradictions, failure to answer questions, and departures from Reformed worthies. The spirit that informs anti-modern 2k proponents is one of a Philadelphia fan after an Eagles defeat of the New York Football Giants — strident and ungracious. I am not one to play the 1 Cor. 13 card. Sometimes debate gets personal and feelings get hurt. It comes with the territory and certainly the blogosphere encourages bluster. But I cannot figure out why anti-2k folks feel the urge not only to win but to subject the other side to humiliation.

Of course, they haven’t won any more than another Phillies pennant will somehow make up for the losingest franchise in professional sports history.