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.