Those were the days.
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 AS BIG AND SMALL
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.