Did God Rest In One Day?

Volume four of the Nicotine Theological Journal is now available at the back issues page. Here is a whiff, from the April number:

. . . [Morton] Smith’s study of John Murray is an example of how sabbatarian-creation logic fails. Murray understood as well as anyone the importance of creation for Sabbath-keeping: “The weekly sabbath is based on divine example,” he wrote in Principles of Conduct. “The divine mode of procedure in creation determines one of the basic cycles by which human life here on earth is regulated, namely, the weekly cycle.”

LET US CONCEDE, FOR argument’s sake, that Smith is right about Murray, and that the Scotsman “seem[ed] to have held to the 24-hour creation days.” (Smith acknowledges that this is not “expressly stated” in Murray.) So the world was created in 144 hours, according to Murray. Then what happened? “And he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he made.” But how long was the seventh day? Murray is very clear that that day was not twenty four hours. Here is more from Principles of Conduct: “In the realm of God’s activity in creating the heavens and the earth there were six days of creative activity and one day of rest. There is the strongest presumption in favor of the interpretation that this seventh day is not one that terminated at a certain point in history, but that the whole period of time subsequent to the end of the sixth day is the Sabbath rest alluded to in Genesis 2:2.”

From these citations we are forced to conclude that for Murray a literal six-plus-one creation sequence was unnecessary for the establishment of a literal six-plus-one Sabbath-keeping sequence. However symbolic God’s days were, Murray saw that creation was still revealed in such a way as to establish the weekly Sabbath as a creation ordinance. So the logic of Sabbath-creationism collapses. And if the seventh day is not literal, why do the first six days have to be?

Although Smith’s essay claims to survey American Presbyterian thought on creation, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it is largely focused on recent PCA debates, and he neglects OPC reflection on the matter except to speculate on the views of Murray and Cornelius Van Til. This is unfortunate because he omits the 1968 resolution of the OPC’s Presbytery of Southern California (comprised of Murray’s and Van Til’s students), which we believe has not been surpassed as a summary of the biblical and confessional teaching on creation. We republish those eight affirmations in hopes that they will gain a greater reading:

1. The one true and living God existed alone in eternity, and beside Him there was no matter, energy, space or time.

2. The one true and living God, according to His Sovereign decree, determined to create, or make of nothing, the world and all things therein, whether visible or invisible.

3. God performed His creative work in six days. (We recognize different interpretations of the word “day” and do not feel that one interpretation is to be insisted upon to the exclusion of others.)

4. That no part of the universe nor any creature in it came into being by chance or by any power other than that of the Sovereign God.

5. That God created man, male and female, after His own image, and as God’s image bearer man possesses an immortal soul. Thus man is distinct from all other earthly creatures even though his body is composed of the elements of his environment.

6. That when God created man, it was God’s inbreathing that constituted man a living creature, and thus God did not impress His image upon some pre-existing living creature.

7. That the entire human family has descended from the first human pair, and, with the one exception of Christ, this descent has been by ordinary generation.

8. That man, when created by God, was holy. Then God entered into a covenant of works with the one man Adam. In the covenant Adam represented his posterity, and thus when he violated the requirement, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him into an estate of sin.

CONTEMPORARY CRITICS OF these affirmations might charge them with sanctioning a “poetic” creation account. If so, it bears noting that, contrary to the slippery-slope fears of the Sabbath-creationists, neither Murray’s eternal Sabbath nor the presbytery’s interpretive openness have cultivated in the OPC, thirty years later, a “poetic Sabbath,” that is, observable decline in Sabbath-keeping. The lesson to be drawn, it seems, is this: if Sabbath-breaking is the ultimate concern of the watchdogs from Taylors, South Carolina, they had better look for causes elsewhere than in one’s interpretation of the days of Genesis one and two.

William Hayward Wilson


Debtors to Ireland

It was a soft landing mainly coming back from Dublin over the weekend. Encountering a Buffalo Wild Wings store — how could you possibly call that a restaurant — was certainly a reminder of how bizarre American culture must look even to other Westerners. Comparing a BWW to O’Neill’s pub in Dublin may not be fair. But I am not sure why one room needs what seemed like 67 television screens. Back in Dublin, not even all the screens were on even if a soccer match was available. And some patrons came to the pub to talk about the choral concert they had heard at the University, others were playing a friendly game of cards, and young men predictably were picking up girls (while also unexpectedly explaining Ireland’s strict divorce laws). Having the Fighting Irish on against U.S.C. did not make up for the difference.

The Mrs. and I spent the night in Illinois (having flown to and from O’Hare) and so worshiped yesterday at an area Orthodox Presbyterian congregation before driving back to Hillsdale. We were greeted by the invocation of a minister whose roots, according to accent, were in Scotland. I know that Ireland and Scotland represent distinct forms of resisting England, with Northern Ireland throwing an odd wrench into such patterns of resistance. But the Scottish accent was a pleasant echo of our previous Sunday’s worship in Belfast among the Evangelical Presbyterians. Helping the transition was singing the eighth-century Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.” Since only two days before we had seen a round tower at Glendalough, the site of remains from a seventh-century monastery founded by St. Kevin, the line, “Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight; Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower,” took on added significance.

One of the arresting aspects of Orthodox Presbyterian life is that we are ethnically a denomination of mongrels. Of course, the dominant ethnicity in the OPC is the one that comes to most immigrants after they have lived in the U.S. for generations. At the same time, since hyphenated Americans like John Murray and Cornelius Van Til were so crucial to the first thirty years of the OPC’s history, the denomination has always made room for European expressions of Reformed Protestantism in ways unusual among other American Presbyterian communions. This was particularly true of the OPC congregation where we worshiped yesterday. In addition to having a minister of recent Scottish origin, the session was composed of men all with Dutch names. Rare would be the mingling of Scottish or Scotch-Irish and Dutch Reformed constituencies in Ireland and Scotland. In the United States, it is at least possible if not common. Not to be missed is what the tensions among the various Reformed groups look like in North America. My sense is that the Dutch compete for dominance in ways unimaginable to the Scots and Ulster Presbyterians. Is that a function of ethnicity? Or is it the result of an intellectual tick in Kuyperianism compared to a tiredness among proponents of covenanting or the establishment principle?

The presence of pastors in American Presbyterian circles from Scotland and Northern Ireland does raise an important question about the United States’ relative hegemony in world affairs, not just politically but also ecclesiastically. Because this nation is one of the most powerful and wealthiest in the world, its congregations, even in sideline denominations like the OPC, can afford to pay pastors more than congregations can in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Carl Trueman sometime ago discussed the significance of a British invasion among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the U.S. What I worry about is the brain drain from other parts of the world. Of course, American communions should not refuse to call men from other nations — that would be remarkably provincial and prevent Christians in the United States from benefiting from insights from other groups of believers. At the same time, American openness to internationals can be naive to the toll that the transfer of gifted pastors from other nations has on the exporting churches. Americans may benefit from gifted Brits, but what benefit to the British churches receive from losing their leading pastors?

For that reason, I propose that every time a congregation in the United States calls a pastor from another country, that congregation (and possibly presbytery or classis) also send back some form of subsidy to the communion that lost its minister to the United States. Monetary assistance would be one form that this subsidy could take. If denominations in the United States were willing to assist foreign denominations financially, perhaps some gifted ministers would remain in their native lands. But U.S. Reformed and Presbyterians might also consider sending to other Reformed communions (and picking up the tab) young ministers who for a short tenure of two or three years would help to plant other congregations or assist busy ministers in established works.

These are a couple of thoughts off the top of a jet-lagged head that may need more clarity. Whatever these ideas’ merits, Christians in the United States should consider the balance of trade within international Calvinism as much as they worry about their nation’s trade deficit.

First Turkey, Now Ireland — Sheesh!

The better half and I are in the middle of a week-long trip to Ireland that now has me working away as part of a visiting-faculty assignment at Trinity College in Dublin. We began the week in Northern Ireland with new and old friends. The new ones are officers and members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (no relations to the communion of the same name in the U.S.) who were eminently kind and hospitable hosts during a day of interactions, both formal and informal. On Monday night I had the privilege of speaking at a rally to honor the 85th anniversary of the EPC. My topic was “Principle Presbyterianism Today.”

One of the curious features of Presbyterianism in Northern Ireland is that the conservatives (the Evangelical Presbyterians) who have the most affinities with Orthodox Presbyterians also seem to be a bit despondent about their prospects. The EPC began in 1927 during a theological controversy which saw the Presbyterian Church of Ireland fail to discipline a professor at the church’s theological college for teaching views that were clearly outside the Confession of Faith and heterodox more generally. The EPC has always struggled as a small denomination. But now that the Presbyterian Church of Ireland has become increasingly evangelical itself (though it still ordains women — which would make the PCI more like the U.S. Evangelical Presbyterian Church), the Irish EPC lacks the rationale and clarity of vision that once animated the church. If your target no longer exists, you may appear to be shooting blanks.

Although the EPC is small — it has about 400 members with another 350 regular attenders — its size is proportionally much larger than the OPC. If Northern Ireland has approximately 1.6 million people, compared to a U.S. population of close to 300 million, the EPC within a U.S. numerical setting would account proportionately for almost 225,000 people (if my math is correct). That means that the EPC is almost seven times as large proportionately as the OPC which has a membership of roughly 30,000. Since Americans are never at a wont for overestimating their influence, the smallness of the OPC has not left the denomination with a sense of insignificance. Mark Noll’s image of the Pea Beneath the Mattress has generally typified the mindset of Orthodox Presbyterians. I hope the Evangelical Presbyterians of Ireland can find a similar diminutive vigor.

One other set of reflections worth making for now is the lack of a Dutch Reformed influence on Scotland and Ireland. On Monday morning I had a “lovely” time describing Calvinism in the United States to a small (how could it be large) group of EPC ministers and elders. I went through the classic threefold division of Reformed Protestants in North America — the doctrinalists (Machenites), culturalists (Kuyperians), and experimental Calvinists (Whitefieldians and Edwardsians). My EPC interlocutors were quick to point out that the Kuyperian tradition of transformationalism has never been a presence in Irish Presbyterianism.

Of course, that does not mean that the Scots and Irish don’t have other resources for trying to do what Kuyper did. Thomas Chalmers and the Free Church of Scotland have maintained a notion of the establishment principle that affirms in a different way what Kuyper tried to express when he spoke about every square inch. And not to be missed are the incredibly complicated relations in Northern Ireland between religion and politics, hence the sheesh in the title of this post. I had thought after visiting Turkey that the notion of a secular Muslim state was sufficiently complex to merit further consideration. But to read as I am this week about the various Presbyterian versions of church-state relations, not to mention the endlessly fascinating and troubling history of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations in Northern Ireland since the initial push for Home Rule, makes my head explode (in a good way, of course).

What is interesting to observe at this point, though, is that for all of their claims about the Lordship of Christ, whether over the church or over the state, the Scots and their Irish Presbyterian cousins have never seemed to put much stock in epistemological self-consciousness. Why do you need philosophy and the arts when law and authority are hard enough to conjure?

Why I Love My (all about me) Denomination

The Young Restless and Reformed may be surprised to learn that some Reformed Protestants do not consider the young and restless to be very Reformed. They might even be surprised to know that Reformed Protestantism exists outside Desiring God Ministries, The Gospel Coalition, and Acts 29 (but that is another matter). But the Old Settled and Reformed keep tabs on the younger crowd and the reviews are not encouraging.

Brent Ferry is an OPC minister who is not particularly old and since he is a husband and father is fairly settles. But as an avocation he plays drums for a band and has a feel for youth and restlessness. Despite his demographical profile and musical talent, he is not much impressed with the recent Crossway book by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (2010). The recent issue of the OPC’s magazine, New Horizons, has Ferry’s review of Driscoll and Breshears. Here is an excerpt:

Driscoll is sometimes identified as part of evangelicalism’s resurgent Calvinistic movement. Besides puffs and quotes from Reformed authors, however, the book does not reflect the contours of Reformed thought at all.

For example, the authors omit the covenant of works (p. 177). They argue against limited atonement in favor of hypothetical universalism (p. 267). They condition regeneration upon faith and repentance (pp. 317, 436). There is no clear affirmation of unconditional predestination. The book excludes the fourth commandment from the abiding moral law (pp. 198-99), yet has a high view of the Lord’s Day (pp. 381-84). It also contains pictures of Christ (pp. 208, 244). . . .

In short, Doctrine is a hodgepodge of various theological trajectories. When the authors compare Noah’s drunkenness to “a hillbilly redneck on vacation” (p. 184), they reveal the nature of their contextualization project, which is to promote a Christianity that embraces irreverent adolescence. Theologically, this book does does rise above that standard, but not by much.

Old Life Yeast

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.

Orthodox Presbyterians Rival Gospel Co-Allies Enthusiasm for Enthusiasm

General Assemblies are not always like this but the recent OPC GA did assume more the character of a national preaching conference (of course, minus the celebrity pastors) than a regular meeting of the church’s highest judicial body. All of the presentations from the OPC’s standing committees included historical overviews as well as substantial edification and exhortation from God’s word. Don Poundstone, a retired minister and home missionary, rounded out the proceedings with his address at the Saturday night banquet in which he argued, based on Christ’s responses to Pilate (John 18), that the OPC at its best had been a witness to the truth of Scripture and had affirmed that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Video recordings of most of the presentations are available here. (Foreign missions talks are unavailable because of the sensitivity of information regarding several fields of ministry.)

Arguably, one of the most moving parts of the Assembly came on Saturday morning during the presentation by the Committee on Christian Education. Part of the proceedings included a talk by Rev. John P. Galbraith, a 98-year old minister who actually studied at Westminster when Machen was still teaching and went on to serve in a variety of capacities, including General Secretary of both the Committee on Home Missions and the Committee on Foreign Missions. Even before speaking — which revealed a man with a mind still sharp and a tongue still eloquent — Galbraith received a standing ovation from commissioners and guests. The first words out of his mouth were those of the apostle Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Galbraith then added, “And you applaud me?”

As near as I could tell, Galbraith’s deflection of applause characterized the week of presentations, devotionals, and sermons. Orthodox Presbyterians were glad to have reached the seventy-fifth birthday, but but they also knew that their history was not sensational or the product of their own faithfulness. (Self-promotion alert: see this point expressed in a different way here.) As cliched as it may have sounded, the truth that human accomplishments were less responsible than God’s grace for the OPC’s “success” was overwhelming sense among all those gathered. Part of the reason must have been that the last time the OPC met to throw a birthday party — in 1986 at Tony Campolo’s Eastern University — the church also voted itself out of existence. That is, the OPC accepted the invitation from the PCA to join and be received into the newer Presbyterian denomination. The proposal did not receive the super-majority of votes needed to be sent to the presbyteries for ratification. But a majority of commissioners in 1986 were willing to hitch their own and longer story to a communion that was less than fifteen years old. After twenty-five years of developments in both denominations, hardly anyone, at least in the OPC, regrets the rejection of J&R.

And so with quiet resolve and restrained joy Orthodox Presbyterians reflected on their past and heard preachers and missionaries recount the mighty deeds of God throughout redemptive history. It was by most accounts a time of great blessing for all who attended, and even prompted some to think that the OPC should sponsor its own national conference. Its speakers, like its history, would not be famous. And so the turnout would be light, insufficient to cover expenses. But those preachers would know their Bibles. Perhaps, just as important, they’d know their place — that the power of their words depends not on their own accomplishments or celebrity but on the God who gave them the word to proclaim.

Alliances, Ecumencity, and Being Reformed

The OPC’s 75th anniversary also coincided with the regular meeting of General Assembly. My pastor, whose energy consumes more calories in a day than I devour in the course of a week, wrote the daily report and perusing his summary reminds me of an important point about communions like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The pastor’s notes on Friday’s sessions included the report from the OPC’s Committee on Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Relations (CEIR), with a list of the various denominations with which the OPC has a relationship.

The OPC reserves the category of ecclesiastical fellowship for fifteen different churches, which include:

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC)
The Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRef)
The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CRCN)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales (EPCEW)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland (EPCI)
The Free Church of Scotland (FCS)
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
The Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin) (PCKK)
The Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ)
The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ)
The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS)
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland (RPCI)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA)
The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

According to the OPC’s rules for ecclesiastical relationships:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is a relationship in which the churches involved are Reformed in their confessional standards, church order and life though there may be such differences between them that union is not possible at this time and there might be considerable need for mutual concern and admonition. It is to be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of fraternal delegates at major assemblies
Occasional pulpit fellowship (by local option)
Intercommunion, including ready reception of each other’s members at the Lord’s Supper but not excluding suitable inquiries upon requested transfer of membership, as regulated by each session (consistory)
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the fellowship
The exercise of mutual concern and admonition with a view to promoting Christian unity
Agreement to respect the procedures of discipline and pastoral concern of one another
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the major assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Runner up to ecclesiastical fellowship is a corresponding relationship, an OPC category into which eleven churches fall:

The Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Free Church of Scotland Continuing
The Free Reformed Churches of North America
The Heritage Reformed Congregations
Independent Reformed Church in Korea
The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated)
The Presbyterian Church of Brazil
The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
The Presbyterian Church in Japan
The Bible Presbyterian Church
The Reformed Churches of South Africa

According to the rule book, a corresponding relationship is one in which:

. . . mutual contact with another church is undertaken to become better acquainted with one another with a view towards entering into Ecclesiastical Fellowship at some time in the not-too-distant future. It shall be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of official representatives at major assemblies
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the relation
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the broadest assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Finally, the last level of relationship is ecumenical contact and the OPC puts ten churches into this category:

Confessing Reformed Church in Congo
Presbyterian Free Church of India
Free Church in Southern Africa
Free Reformed Churches in South Africa
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi Calvinis
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi di Indonesia
Reformed Churches of Brazil
Reformed Churches of Spain
Reformed Presbyterian Church of India
Reformed Presbyterian Church North-East India

An ecumenical contact is a status reserved or denominations that belong to the International Council of Reformed Churches and .reflects an effort to follow the ICRC’s stated d purpose, “to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the member churches.”

It shall be implemented, as appropriate, by:

Meetings, both formal and informal, of delegates to the quadrennial meeting of the Conference
Welcome of official observers at the broadest assemblies
Communication on issues of joint concern
Mutual labors as members of the Conference in discharge of the purposes of the Conference

A couple of matters are worth highlighting about these lists and terms: 1) The OPC is often characterized as narrow and idiosyncratic but her ecclesiastical relationships extend well beyond the United States and (even) North America to places which U.S. parachurch agencies and alliances have no presence. 2) The list and definitions extend not to celebrity pastors but to actual churches.

All the more reason to associate the word, “reformed,” with another word, “church.” Without church, reformed makes no sense.

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.

Al Mohler, the Gospel Coalition, and Me (about whom it always is)

Name-dropper alert: Al Mohler and I have been friends for over two decades. (The Harts used to be on the Mohler’s Christmas card list until the former’s nomadic way of life prompted USPS to stop forwarding those attractive greetings from the president’s house in Louisville.) Al and I met when we were participants in a Lilly Endowment project for young Protestant leaders. Because Lilly has historically been most interested in mainline Protestant communions, the religious leaders in Al’s and my group were mainly from the mainline. But because Lilly was aware of the growing prominence of evangelicalism in the United States, they included so-called conservative Protestants, which left Al and me the beneficiaries of mainline Protestant affirmative action. We held hands (not literally) and commiserated over the social justice orthodoxy that continued to prevail among mainliners, and we expressed mutual surprise at how little the Trinity of race-class-gender had come in for revision among those Protestants ever looking for excuses to revise. When a couple years later I was looking for a co-editor for a book on evangelical theological education, Al who had been recently appointed president of Southern Baptist, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, was a natural for the book project.

All of this is to say that Al and are friends, we are co-authors, and we also affirm the five points of Calvinism.

But all of this coalition potential would not generate a second look at my candidacy if Southern Seminary had an opening in church history and I applied for the job. As Calvinistic as SBTS may be, it is also an agency of one of the conventions (Southern Baptist polity is so Byzantine) within the SBC. That means that my membership and identity as an Orthodox Presbyterian is a non-starter at Southern Seminary. What may be strike-two against me is my disbelief in evangelicalism. Strike three is a less than winning personality (though the Harts’ felines, Cordelia and Isabelle seem to enjoy my ornery companionship). Even aside from these other drawbacks, not being Southern Baptist is enough of a strike to count me out – like those backyard wiffle ball versions of home run derby which dispense with all three strikes.

So big an obstacle is my ecclesiastical identity that even if I joined the Gospel Coalition Al would still not have enough approving material in my dossier to recommend me to his board for a faculty appointment. Indeed, joining TGC would arguably deconstruct my efforts to deconstruct evangelicalism, and might even send the message that I am a kinder and gentler warrior child of J. Gresham Machen. But Gospel Coalition status still would not be enough for me to clear the hurdle of Southern Seminary’s faculty requirements.

For what it’s worth, when I was academic dean of Westminster California, if we had had an opening in theology and if Al had been interested in a change of scenery, his Calvinism and courageous and commendable stands against various theological and cultural ills would not have been enough to get him to the interview stage. His Southern Baptist credentials would have failed to meet the requirements for Westminster faculty. And in case this is not obvious by now, Al’s identity as a Southern Baptist would also disqualify him from holding office in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

This leaves us with the following set of memberships and identities:

The Southern Baptist Convention rejects D. G. Hart because he is Orthodox Presbyterian.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church rejects Al Mohler because he is Southern Baptist.

The ‘Gospel Coalition accepts Al Mohler and D. G. Hart no matter what their ecclesial identities (if they choose to join).

This picture would seem to make the Gospel Coalition a commendable organization in that it looks aside from seemingly petty ecclesiastical differences in order to unite seemingly conservative Protestants together in promotion of Christ as revealed in the gospel. And set of allegiances would also seem to depict the Southern Baptist Convention and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as narrower and more divisive than the simple gospel of Jesus Christ and its proclamation.

Beneath this picture’s warm and alluring hues is the downside of the Gospel Coalition, namely, that they run their affairs as if the church does not matter, as if the gospel is independent of every church affiliation and membership (Protestant, that is). That may sound strong but ecclesiastical membership and ordination pose no apparent barrier to working with, attending, or speaking at the Coalition. The reason for setting up an organization free from denominational norms apparently is to get around the difficulty that confronts administrators at denominational seminaries and officers in churches: ecclesiastical standards are divisive and the creators of the Coalition seem to think that the gospel should not nurture such separation. For a confessional Protestant, this logic is a huge problem since confessionalists believe that the gospel not only inevitably produces good works but also is inevitably embodied in a disciplined ecclesiastical body. This is not, by the way, simply the oddity of hard-core Missouri Lutherans or vinegary Orthodox Presbyterians. It is also the outlook of Southern Baptist institutions like Southern Seminary (such as I understand it).

But an even deeper problem for the Gospel Coalition is that its cultivates its appeal through religious stars who have established their reputations not in parachurch ministries but through the churches themselves. In which case, the Gospel Coalition wants the results of the hard work of ordination and pastoral ministry in church settings without the baggage that comes in those ecclesiastical institutions. (And as long as the Gospel Coalition is an exclusively Protestant outfit, it will implicitly rely on differences that divided the Eastern and Western branches of the church, and on the churches that broke with Rome in the sixteenth century. Short of the new heavens and new earth, we can’t have Christianity in this world apart from the visible churches who translated the Bible, interpreted its teaching, established forms of worship, and determined qualifications for membership and office.)

Most if not all of the figures who attract the hearers and viewers of TGC materials and events are ministers. Their credentials come either from denominations or congregations. These communions are responsible for creating the spiritual capital that gives credibility to the Coalition’s speakers and authors. These pastors in turn add value to this capital by conducting successful ministries (leaving aside that thorny question of what constitutes success in the kingdom of God). The Coalition then assembles the most successful pastors, shorn of their denominational or congregational ties, either during the minutes it takes to conduct a Youtube video or over the course of several days at a conference. The Gospel Coalition adds no inherent value to the capital that these pastors and their churches have created and invested. No offense to Justin Taylor or Colin Hansen, but American evangelicals are not signing up to attend the Coalition conference because those young and restless editors and bloggers are speaking.

This leaves the Coalition with a product that is worth only a percentage of the ecclesiastical currency that the ministers (and the communions they represent) have created. To be sure, the gospel is of incomparable value. But Christ did not complete the gospel merely by his death, resurrection, and ascension. The last I checked, he commissioned apostles, inspired authors of sacred writings, ordained means of grace, gave instructions for planting churches, and included rules for those churches’ government and discipline. The reason would apparently be that sheep need shepherds, that believers need to hear the gospel longer than an evangelistic sermon lasts and learn of its implications for a longer time than at a two-day conference. They need to hear the gospel their entire life, and that means they need pastors and overseers who will be faithful, hence all the mechanisms to insure the creation and maintenance of sound pastoral ministry, and the rules governing how those ministers conduct worship and oversight.

Yet, the Gospel Coalition seems to regard all of this ecclesiastical work as incidental to the gospel, as a mere appurtenance. How else can one explain the indifference to the communions from which their speakers and leaders come? How else to explain that those speakers and leaders could not hold jobs or receive calls in the other speakers and leaders’ communions? For the sake of the Gospel Coalition’s gospel, those differences and separations are unimportant compared to the gospe.

But at institutions like Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Seminary they do. For that reason, I’d rather live in the real world of respectful differences between the SBC and the OPC in their diverse efforts to follow all of Christ’s Great Commission (word, sacrament, and discipline) rather than the la la land of the Gospel Coalition where speakers and audiences act as if such differences don’t matter and where members of different communions are tempted to forget about the ecclesiastical vows and think that what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.

Postscript on fellowship: Readers may be thinking that the point here about the church and the parachurch here make sense, but is there no room for pastors and members from different churches and denominations to fellowship together? Should the Banner of Truth stop offering conferences?

Part of the answer depends on what we mean by fellowship. If a Southern Baptist pastor cannot minister in the OPC without rejecting his former views on baptism and polity (for starters) and subscribing the OPC’s confession of faith, then it is fair to conclude that the OPC and the SBC are not in fellowship. And if a Southern Baptist transferring his membership into the OPC has to go through the same examination as someone who is a recent convert, then again fellowship is not the word we would use to describe this relationship.

Was it fellowship that I had with my parents when we prayed before meals, even though they were Baptists and I an Orthodox Presbyterian? Probably, but not in an ecclesial sense.

In which case, why do paraecclesial ideas about fellowship trump ecclesial ones? Why is a gathering of ministers at a Banner of Truth Conference more “sweet” than the relations among pastors and elders at a presbytery meeting? Or why is a Gospel Coalition conference (or a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, for that matter) more moving and invigorating than an ordinary Lord’s Day sandwiched by two preaching services?

It could be that the conferences are subjectively more moving than worship. Or it could be that spiritual standards, like the decline of cultural standards from watching too much television, have declined thanks to the prevalence of revivals, conferences, and retreats – all of those man-made devices for generating devotional excitement.

Of course, it is a free country. We do not have a federal agency regulating spiritual life (I don’t think they have one even in Moscow, Idaho). So parachurch agencies are free to have their conferences and American evangelicals are free to flock to them and feel warm and filled. At the same time, confessional Protestants are free to wonder what good these extra-ecclesial forms of fellowship are doing to the means that we do know God ordained through the clear teaching of his word. If the experiential Protestants are really serious about biblical inerrancy, wouldn’t you think they would want to be faithful to what God has inerrantly revealed about the means he has promised to use to save his people (even when they don’t feel “it”)?

If Justin Taylor Gives to the OPC’s Thank Offering, I’ll Contribute to the Gospel Coalition (maybe)

Golfers know the adage that you drive for show and putt for dough. The translation for non-golfers is that 300-yard drives don’t matter if you three-putt the green on to which you’ve chipped because of your impressive – u-dah-man!! – drive. In fact, if you don’t sink your birdie putt (one under par for the golf challenged), you are not going to be much more than a duffer.

This adage would seem to apply to the Gospel Coalition, though it needs to be adjusted to this – join for show and withhold the dough. According to Justin Taylor, GC is in the midst of a year-end fund-raising effort in which supporters who contribute the most will receive ten free registrations for the GC annual conference, along with ten free nights at the conference hotel in Chicago. (Since I doubt W. C. Fields would have been much of a fan of GC, I wonder if his joke would be that second-prize is 20 free conference registrations and 20 free nights in the hotel – 30 if in Philadelphia.) And so that everyone can benefit from the effort, anyone who starts a campaign page at his or her blog or website will receive a copy of Tim Keller’s DVD curriculum, Gospel in Life.

To what purpose do contributions go? So far GC amounts primarily to a website/blog presence and a national annual conference. To accomplish this, the Coalition employs three full-time people. According to Taylor, “The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is not a church, but it does exist to serve and honor the Church. TGC is ultimately ‘a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.’” He adds that the Coalition is more than just a set of blogs or a conference sponsor but “ a place where ‘humble orthodoxy’ is modeled, thoughtful arguments are made, people are loved and honored, conversation is advanced, and the gospel is applied—all to the glory of God.”

Among the benefits of belonging to the Coalition is the Ordinary Pastors project. Since the link that Justin supplied for this endeavor is defective, either GC attracts no ordinary pastors or they need another staff member.

Another feature that caught my eye was GC’s directory of churches (which again has a defective link at Tayloy’s blog). This is a nifty device that shows where GC congregations can be found across the greatest nation on God’s green (and warming) earth. But the directory comes with this warning: “Disclaimer: The Gospel Coalition does not endorse all churches in the directory. We are not able to fully vet all churches.”

This is a remarkable concession and points to the relevance of applying the golfing adage about putting to GC. Apparently, churches will join GC but will not give. The advantage of this strategy is obvious – you get some free publicity and can draft off the celebrity of John Piper and Tim Keller, but you don’t have to find any money in your budget for membership dues. At the same time, why wouldn’t a coalition committed to the gospel be willing to vet anyone that joins its ranks?

So Taylor’s pitch for GC could be improved if the Coalition offered a better product. In fact, better products exist and they are called not parachurch organizations but churches. In my own case, the OPC can vouch in some way for all of the congregations that belong to its fellowship. Not only that, the OPC can vouch for all its church members who are in good standing. We also have a website with a church directory that allows people to find an OP congregation. We also have lots of publications that are widely available to anyone, whether they belong to the Gospel Coalition or to the Southern Baptist Convention or to Redeemer Presbyterian Church. And we have way more than three full-time employees – just look at our directory and see all the pastors, missionaries, and teachers. And we also have a relatively uniform product – all of our officers agree about infant baptism and follow the Westminster Confession on the Lord’s Supper. And don’t talk to me about the sovereignty of God. The OPC has the sovereignty of God coursing through its spiritual veins, from Van Til’s apologetics to its commitment to the ordinary work of proclaiming the gospel in the United States and foreign lands. For those interested in a conference, can anyone beat a visit with presbytery or an all-week’s paid trip to General Assembly?

By the way, the OPC is also having a year-end fund-drive, called our Thank Offering, which solicits offerings for the General Assembly’s programs and agencies.

If the OPC is a better philanthropic value than GC, why does Justin Taylor want his readers (including Orthodox Presbyterians like me) to give to the Coalition without mentioning better options like the OPC for spiritual investing? And a related question is why do parachurch organizations have no problem looking far and wide for contributors while churches don’t expect non-members to give to denominational or church causes? I wonder, for instance, what kind of budget Keller’s Redeemer church has allocated for the Coalition in this fiscal year? Or Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist? Shouldn’t a fund drive for GC start with GC members, especially those congregations that have more than others? Meanwhile, shouldn’t the Coalition be circumspect about raising funds from believers who should be giving to their own churches?

Of course, in that case, if church members gave to the local churches or denominations, then GC would have no budget. But since we have churches that need money, and churches that provide services superior to the Coalition, why does GC actually exist? I know such questions might seem mean spirited, further evidence of Machen’s Warrior Children’s instincts. But the parachurch folks only consider such questions impertinent because they have no sense of propriety. They have no idea that they are duplicating the work of the church and then taking energy and support from the very churches that they supposedly seek to serve.