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.”
The current issue of Ordained Servant has an exchange between David Noe and Benjamin Miller about Christian education. Miller is critical of Noe’s original piece in the April issue in which he raised questions about what actually constitutes a Christian education. Noe’s response is here.
What is worth recalling is a small remark that Noe made in his original piece. In his concluding paragraph he wrote: “the most we can say about “Christian education” is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians. This, of course, is not an unimportant claim.” In fact, it is a very important feature of Christian schools that they are populated by believers.
The reason is that in a Christian school it is possible and even encouraged for students and faculty to reflect on what a believer might think about Andrew Jackson’s policies on native Americans or Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminism. That kind of consensus is hard to come by in many colleges and schools and it creates an environment where students are freer (conceivably) to ask questions than they would be an a private secular or state institution. Such a consensus also works in not overtly Christian settings like Hillsdale College where faculty may presume that most students consider themselves politically conservative or culturally traditional. It is much easier to teach when you can take some ideas for granted rather than having to start from scratch or assume that any kind of normative assertion is contested. At the same time, the answers come to Hillsdale students from a variety of directions — libertarianism, Straussianism, paleo-conservatism, neo-conservatism — such that a shared conviction will not necessarily yield intellectual agreement. That kind of diversity actually encourages students to think and faculty not to become complacent. Even so, a Christian school or college has real value if it creates a setting where students are free to ask questions about important convictions.
The problem — there is always a black cloud in the blue sky at Old Life — is that faculty and teachers at Christian institutions often have merely a Sunday school understanding of the faith which is supposed to integrate their academic expertise. In which case, students may often hear moral arguments that come across as the Christian position on banking policy or aesthetics when in fact the idea is mainly the opinion of the professor with a patina of religious conviction. Such a college has as many potential problems as Godless State University if students are not sharp enough to discern when their professors are merely teaching and when they are exhorting. Most undergrads, in fact, do not have that kind of intellectual discretion. But a pious older adolescent does have enough sense to be concerned that what he is hearing from his professor may not always conform to Christian convictions.
Be that as it may, Christians schools at their best play a useful role in the education of Christian children and all the controversy around Noe’s article should not let this point be missed.
The April issue (online) of Ordained Servant is out and the theme is Natural Law. It features two articles that have 2k fingerprints all over them, David VanDrunen’s on natural law in Reformed theology and David Noe’s on the differences between redemption and culture and the implications of this difference for so-called Christian education. Here are a few highlights.
. . . a Reformed theology of natural law should be grounded in a theology of nature, which in turn should be grounded in our covenant theology. When thinking about a theology of nature, it makes sense first to consider Genesis 1 and the original covenant of works. Genesis 1 makes immediately clear that God’s creating activity instills the entire natural world with order and purpose. His creation is objectively meaningful. Another thing Genesis 1 explicitly teaches is that God made human beings in his image, and this image entailed knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Human beings were thus subjectively capable of comprehending and acting upon the truth communicated in nature. To say that the natural order is objectively meaningful and that human beings are subjectively capable of apprehending its meaning may seem like obvious assertions to many Christians, but they are crucial foundation to a theology of natural law, and they emerge already from Genesis 1. We also observe in Genesis 1 that God made man in his image for the purpose of exercising dominion in the world. God had exercised supreme dominion in creating the world, and man, according to his likeness, was to rule the world under him. If man was to rule the world in God’s likeness, he had to rule it not aimlessly but toward a goal, for God himself worked, then passed through his own judgment (Gen 1:31), and finally rested. As taught in our doctrine of the covenant of works, God made man to work, then to pass through his judgment, and finally to join him in his eschatological rest. Genesis 1, I believe, does not allow us to separate our doctrine of the image of God from the covenant of works, as if the latter were simply added on at some point after man’s creation. God made human beings by nature to work in this world and then to attain eschatological life. Thus the original order of nature communicated not only man’s basic moral obligations toward God but also the fact that God would judge him for his response and reward or punish him accordingly.
In light of the fall, however, we cannot simply view natural law now through the lens of the original creation. Accordingly, I suggest that it is helpful to view natural law in the present world through the lens of the covenant with Noah in Genesis 8:20–9:17, for this is the means by which God now preserves and governs both the cosmic and social realms. This covenant makes clear that God still orders the cosmos and makes it objectively meaningful, though its purposes have been obscured, and that he still deals with all human beings as his image-bearers, though they are fallen. God gives human beings responsibilities adapted for a fallen world, but these responsibilities resemble those under the original creation order. We are to be fruitful and multiply, to rule the animals responsibly, and to pursue justice (Gen 9:1–7). God did not impose these obligations arbitrarily; they correspond to the nature with which he created us. The very commission to do justice is grounded in human nature: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (9:6).
I teach Classics for the glory of God. I do this because he has saved me from my sins, and reconciled me to himself through the vicarious atonement of his Son freely given for me. This makes what I do Christian, but it seems that this is only because I seek, Dei gratia, to do it for his glory.
I use in this instruction a vast array of books, tools, terms, and skills, the overwhelming majority of which were produced by men and women whose motivations are likely different than mine. Moreover, while their motivations sometimes differ from mine in ways that are un-Christian, I as a Christian am utterly at a loss to find a better, or sometimes even different way to do the things they did despite my having a motivation that is sanctified. In fact, efforts to find a uniquely Christian way to teach Classics, for example, seem both vain and futile, as well as ungrateful in that they risk denying the common grace God has given the wicked, the rain he has sent on us both, and by which he has apparently intended to bless me also.
. . . it seems to me that, as with cycling, philosophy, and music, the most we can say about “Christian education” is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians. This, of course, is not an unimportant claim. But when we say that, however, we are once again talking about dispositions and motives and saying nothing distinguishable either about the process or the result of that process. In short, it seems there may be no such thing as Christian education after all, at least not in the sense in which it seems often used, and that grand adjective which indicates a special closeness with the divine Son of God ought, perhaps, to be confined within a much closer compass: to persons whom Christ has saved, the worship such persons offer, and the study and promulgation of the divine Word on which that worship is based. If by “Christian education” this is what is meant, the term seems quite apt.
Critics of 2k will no doubt conclude that the OPC is lurching toward theological confusion by giving a hearing to such views. But the OPC’s stance could very well be an indication that 2kers are fully within the bounds of the church’s confession. If that is so, then 2k’s critics are the radical ones.
As I mentioned, the current issue of Ordained Servant features the talks that John Muether and I gave at the pre-General Assembly conference that was part of the 75th anniversary festivities for the OPC. Here’s an excerpt from my presentation, “Is the OPC the Church that Calvinists Have Been Waiting For?”:
This all too brief tour of the first seventy-five years of other Reformed communions is a good reminder of the dangers that lurk in church history. If Machen thought the history of western Europe circa 1933 was depressing, one reason was his own struggles in the ecclesiastical part of the West’s history. The OPC’s own history is further evidence of the difficulties that Reformed churches have experienced since the Reformation. The question is whether these difficulties are part and parcel of Reformed history or an aberration. If part of being the church militant means always experiencing contention, disloyalty, and departure, then the OPC’s own struggles are no worse than those that Reformed Protestants have experienced before.
Still, making the case that the OPC is a worthy successor to Reformed history requires being clear about the nature of Calvinism and the Reformation’s significance. For the better part of two hundred years the Corinthian temptation has been to regard Reformed Protestantism’s importance in cultural and political terms. This was a perspective held not only by Reformed believers. Think of Max Weber and his theory about Calvinism and capitalism, or of Alexis de Tocqueville and Calvinism’s contribution to democracy, or of Robert Merton on Calvinism and the rise of modern science. These older arguments do not have the force they once did, but even a couple of years ago at the academic conference in Geneva that marked the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth, most of the scholarly presentations explored not the sorts of ecclesiastical reforms that characterized Reformed Protestantism but the way that Calvinism shaped the modern world. Such assessments have prompted Reformed believers to think of Calvinism less as a churchly movement than as a religiously-based source for social transformation. Of course, the rise of neo-Calvinism and the inspiring words of Abraham Kuyper have contributed mightily to this estimate of Reformed Protestantism.
But even before Kuyper, the temptation to regard Reformed Protestantism for its political and cultural significance was constant for Presbyterians. How could it not be since the rise of Reformed Protestantism was bound up with European politics. Indeed, the division of Western Christianity that split the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican communions from the Roman Catholic Church was also part of the confessionalization of western Europe. After 1600 individual nations could be identified by the kind of church and confession they sponsored. This process helped to secure the creation of the nation-state, a form of government that greatly centralized the economic, legal, educational, administrative, and even linguistic features of territories that had previously been decentralized and diverse. However we estimate the size, scope, and power of the modern nation-state, the reality is that Reformed Protestantism was on the ground floor of the construction of modern Europe and its colonial proliferation, a period that ran from 1600 at least to World War II. No wonder, then, that conservative Reformed believers pine for the days when their faith mattered to the mission of a particular nation. Scottish Presbyterians still long for the days of the National Covenant. Abraham Kuyper endeared himself to Reformed believers by evoking a golden age of Dutch history. Meanwhile, American Presbyterians have their own version of this nostalgia and attempt to construct a Christian founding of the United States even though the very point of the new nation was to bring an end to the pattern of confessionalization that had torn apart Europe (and especially England) during the seventeenth century.
Yet, the question remains whether Reformed Protestants were hoping to remake Europe or reform the church. Thanks to a host of Holy Roman Emperors, from Constantine and Charlemagne to Charles V, thinking about Europe apart from the church was impossible. Even so, the reforms that the original Protestants initiated were overwhelmingly ecclesial and bore directly on doctrine, liturgy, and church polity. Only because the church was part of the established political order did church reform translate into broader social and political developments. The Reformation was first and foremost a religious effort and only secondarily did it affect politics and culture.
If Reformed Protestantism was chiefly an instance of ecclesiastical reform and renewal, then against that measure the OPC may be a worthy heir to the mantle of Reformed Protestantism, even meriting a celebratory toast. To be sure, the history of the OPC is strewn with believers who still want the church to be more than the church, to be at the forefront of maintaining and promoting social righteousness. But just as important to the OPC’s history has been a growing contentment with the church as simply the church. The word “simply,” of course, understates this sense because the church’s mission is hardly simple or ordinary. But to recognize that the church has a responsibility that no other institution does, and that God has instituted the church uniquely for his redemptive purposes, is the start of a broader sense of restraint and resolve that the OPC, while lacking many of the attributes and features that impress the Corinthian minded, is doing a good and important work no matter how quiet or routine.
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.