All About Calvinism (and me)

Self-promotion alert!

Today Calvinism: A History is available in stores (including on-line sellers). To mark the occasion the good folks at National Review Online (courtesy of John Miller) have posted a podcast interview that John did with me a week or so ago.

And to sustain the Calvinism momentum, the editors of Engaging with Keller have encouraged us contributors to publicize the book’s publication. To that end, an excerpt from my chapter (I don’t have access to the others, really):

. . . Tim Keller would hardly be the first Presbyterian pastor not to follow the conventions or strictures of Presbyterian polity. But his popularity and especially his influence within the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) make his Presbyterian identity worth closer scrutiny. On the one hand, Keller has strong connections to leading figures in the world of young Calvinism through the Gospel Coalition. His presence among this mix of leaders, such as John Piper and D. A. Carson, greatly encourages evangelicals to think of themselves as Reformed even when they do not belong to Reformed churches. On the other hand, Keller’s highly visible parachurch activities and interdenominational cooperation has diminished the influence of Old School Presbyterianism, at least among younger ministers and church planters, within his own denomination, the PCA. In each of these cases Keller’s impoverished ecclesiology, combined with the success of his congregation in New York City, has encouraged many Protestants in the United States to conceive of Reformed Protestantism as something distinct from ecclesiology, an irony to be sure considering that the church government term, Presbyterian, always finds its way into Keller’s biography thanks to the name of his congregation.

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Fixing the PCA — Again

First came “good faith” subscription, then an proposal for women deaconesses, followed by the Strategic Plan. Now comes the National Partnership. It was a semi-private group of PCA pastors whose aim was to help the PCA out of the predicament that Tim Keller once celebrated — its diversity, that is, the inability of officers and members to agree on basic matters such as what constitutes Reformed Protestantism and a Reformed church. The Partners were a covert enterprise until their “confidential” letter went public at the Aquila Report. The Partners aims are three:

1. Greater participation in the Polity of the PCA through church courts. We keep our members informed on presbytery work (including key votes) across the denomination and provide resources for those presbyters seeking advice.

2. Greater dedication to the work of the Assembly through preparation, committee participation and floor debate. We seek to staff committees for healthy and effective denominational business.

3. Greater love for the Brethren through resourcing and communication. We share ideas and uphold our good faith subscription to the standards, preferring charitable and respectful dialogue over the action of courts in settling theological differences.

These aims will help in “preserving and advancing our beloved Church as the gospel-centered, pastoral, missional and reformed denomination our forefathers envisioned,” and “serve our denomination by active engagement in the church courts the Lord has entrusted to us.”

One question that arises from these aims is why the PCA’s current Presbyterian polity and standards for ordination and membership are incapable of serving these ends. Perhaps the problem is that the denomination is divided over whether or not to follow its standards of polity, theology, and worship. That might explain the language of love and dedication. You go subjective when the objective isn’t working.

Andy Webb interprets that Partnership as another effort to thwart the voices and efforts of conservatives in the PCA:

Despite the manifest failure of conservatives to move the PCA in a conservative direction in matters of critical importance like creation, the National Partnership represents the second major group formed by PCA liberals and moderates to attempt to overcome our supposed influence. If your objective is to force conservatives out of the PCA, you will probably succeed. Many of us are already teetering on the brink of leaving, and making it clear that we will never be allowed to influence the PCA to cause it to remain on what we believe to be a Biblical and confessional path or hold positions in the denominational leadership would probably be all that it takes to force us out.

I don’t presume to advise the PCA on its problems opportunities even if it was the first Reformed communion to have (all about) me as a member. But I can draw on experience in the OPC and make a couple of suggestions.

First, Webb talks about the gatherings of conservatives in the PCA in ways that resemble the after-hours activities of OPC commissioners to General Assembly:

When conservatives do meet, it is usually a casual smoker at an event convened for other purposes, such as the General Assembly, the GPTS Spring Conference or Twin Lakes. There is no docket, no moderator, no secret handshake and little or no consensus. Usually we sit around, catch up with old friends, discuss theology and politics, and engage in the conservative’s favorite past-time: complaining about the direction in which things are going both in the culture and the denomination. Occasionally solutions to perceived problems are offered, but there is hardly ever agreement on them and nothing is implemented.

In other words, conservatives in the OPC don’t have to have special gatherings because they are already meeting to do the work of the church. No one really knows if conservatives dominate the OPC because the denomination’s ministry is generally confessional and those who belong to it sense intuitively and explicitly the boundaries of participation. Envelope pushers know when they have left the fold and do so.

Second, the OPC pitches in for all its ministries. To be sure, not every congregation contributes to the funds of World Wide Outreach which pays funds the work of foreign missions, home missions, and Christian education. Some congregations can barely afford a pastor. But the OPC has a strong sense of the collective ministry of the church such that denominational efforts are the business of the entire church. In contrast, the PCA, as Paul Settle’s 25th anniversary history shows, has operated much more along congregational as opposed to presbyterian models. Missionaries have to raise their own funding; agencies have to do the same whether through sales of materials or direct contributions from wealthy individual donors. The PCA is presbyterian formally, but does not function that way.

The lesson may be that the PCA needs to go from being the Southern Baptist Convention to a truly Reformed church where ministers (even celebrated ones), congregations, presbyteries, and agencies all recognize that they are already partners in a common enterprise regulated by Presbyterian polity, Calvinist theology, and Reformed worship.

Of Paper Popes and Parasitic Presbyterians

Perhaps the ruckus over Jason Stellman’s decision has passed but one response by Peter Leithart needs some attention, if only because it highlights a general problem in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. It is the way that Reformed Protestantism sits lightly with folks who are officers in Reformed and Presbyterian communions. Not to pick on anyone in particular, but also not to hide behind vagaries, this problem is not Leithart’s by himself. It is also part of the gift mix that John Frame and Tim Keller have bequeathed to many of their readers and fans.

The problem specifically is one identifying more with the Bible than tradition, relying more on exegesis than the common confession of a Reformed communion, exploring more existing church and intellectual concerns than mining paths trod by saints in the past.

Here is Leithart’s version of this impulse (in the context of Stellman’s decision):

Confessionalists, after all, place a great deal of emphasis on the tradition of Reformed theology, embodied especially in Reformed confessions. Throughout the debates of the past few years, I have presented mainly biblical arguments for my positions, and kept historical concerns subordinate. My opponents have typically been much more interested in testing my views by the Westminster Confession. The touchstone of their theology is a piece of the Reformed tradition as much as, and in some cases more than, Scripture. Confessionalists claim that the Confession provides standard exegesis of Scripture, to which Reformed theologians have to submit. Confessional Reformed theology thus has a natural affinity for Rome that biblicists like me don’t share. Confessionalists want the Confession to be a paper Pope. It’s not surprising that some find the paper Pope inadequate, and go searching for a live one. (If, as some will charge, Scripture is a paper Pope, it’s one whose ring I gladly kiss.)

Behind this Confessionalist elevation of tradition (in practice, over Scripture) is a broader tendency related to what I have critiqued elsewhere as “tragic metaphysics,” the notion that the original and old is necessarily preferable to the derived and the new. In its Trinitarian dogma, Christianity says the opposite: The Son, though He comes from the Father, is equal to the Father in every respect; in fact, there is no pure, unsupplemented origin, because there can be no Father without a Son. It says the opposite too in its eschatology: The golden age is not lost in the unrecoverable past but ahead of us in an eschatological future. Its Trinitarian theology and eschatology give Christian faith an open-endedness that can be unsettling. It’s unnerving to have to seek foundations in a city that is yet to come. (According to Fergus Kerr, this is exactly what Thomas says –Thomas is an “eschatological foundationalist.”)

When I read an argument like this I wonder whether someone like Leithart could just as easily minister in a Free Methodist Church as among Presbyterians. After all, lots of Protestants claim to be biblical and don’t let the past affect what is best for the church today. Or what about the Southern Baptist Convention? Is that set of congregations just as good as the United Reformed Churches? Or could it be that when push comes to shove, a fellow like Leithart really does identify with the Reformed tradition? That something really does differentiate Reformed from other Protestant communions?

I have no idea what Leithart’s response might be to a question about whether to minister as a Presbyterian or Lutheran. But I suspect, even hope, that he would say that Reformed Protestantism is superior in its teaching and practices to other Protestant churches.

If so, it would be a welcome development if he would pay back a little into the Presbyterian heritage fund. I mean, it is one thing to teach and defend the Reformed confessions and another to sit back and let your professional colleagues do it, all the while benefitting from at least some of their labors. It is also one thing to seek unity and discipline in a Reformed communion (through the heavy lifting of service at church assemblies) and allow the efforts of others to provide a cushion for you to do your own work. Furthermore, it is one thing to build on insights of generations of theologians and pastors (after all, Leithart isn’t starting from scratch, not even with his exegesis) and not show some gratitude for what has gone before.

Not everyone has to do the same amount of work or heritage maintenance. But is it too much to ask for everyone to be pulling in the same direction?

It is a free country, of course, and we have Reformed communions that are more or less confessional. So Leithart doesn’t have to do anything to keep up with his teaching, preaching, blogging, and writing. But for the sake of truth in advertising, identifying with his Presbyterian credentials, communicants, and past would certainly be desirable. It would even be responsible.

Postscript: I hesitated to employ “parasitic” in the post’s title but wanted to maintain the alliteration. “Free-riding” is obviously less inflammatory but at least I (always gracious) didn’t use “bloodsucking.”

Cherry Picking Alert (and boy are those trunks sappy!)

The Gospel Coalition has launched a year-long series of blog posts about Princeton Theological Seminary, a school that celebrates its bicentennial this year. The first post introduces PTS by likening the institution to the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement.

Controversies swirl around celebrity pastors and their best-selling books. Evangelicals unite across denominational lines to share resources and strategize together for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. New thought emerging from Europe demands a response. Divisions arise between those who emphasize personal piety and others who prioritize the sacraments in the Christian life. Developments in science force Christians to reconsider their understanding of Genesis.

The author, Andy Jones, a PCA pastor in North Carolina, continues:

The seminary originally aimed to produce men of great learning and vital piety. The leaders of Princeton were men who advocated for Calvinism and the Great Awakening. They were Reformed revivalists. In the classroom, they introduced their students to the biblical languages and the Latin edition of Francis Turrentin’s Institutes. Yet they also emphasized the necessity of personal piety. Their goal was to produce ministers who were biblically grounded, theologically enlightened, and spiritually awakened. By establishing a seminary that linked together vigorous learning and piety, the founders hoped that “blessings may flow to millions while we are sleeping in the dust.”

Though governed by Presbyterians, Princeton Seminary welcomed students from diverse backgrounds. It graduated men who became leaders in Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist churches. Among Princeton’s first graduates was Charles Hodge, who would become the seminary’s leading influence in the 19th century. Another early graduate and Hodge’s best friend was John Johns, a leader among Episcopalians and ultimately the president of William and Mary. One of Hodge’s students, James Petigru Boyce, became the founding professor of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In the 19th century, Princeton was a leader among conservative evangelicals in America. It was the “grand central station” for the “young, restless, and Reformed.” Through The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, a prominent voice in 19th-century religious journalism, it apprised Presbyterians of the latest thinking among biblical scholars, engaged in controversies facing the church, and responded to challenges in the surrounding culture.

In other words, PTS was the Gospel Coalition of the nineteenth century — revivalistic, interdenominational, devout, and informed.

This is one way of interpreting PTS but it is highly selective since it leaves out the less reassuring bits about Princeton’s Old School tradition — Hodge’s criticisms of the First Great Awakening, Samuel Miller’s defense of something close to jure divino Presbyterianism, the seminary’s cultivation of polemical theology, its insistence on infant baptism, and its legacy in institutions like Westminster Seminaries and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Old Schoolers like myself have not ignored Princeton’s experimental Calvinistic side and some of us have even explored the tensions between revivalism and confessionalism that the Princetonians may not themselves acknowledged. But at least we have not denied the uncomfortable parts of PTS’ past. I would hope the Gospel Co-Allies would do the same.

Meanwhile, this is the second time in the recent past where GC advocates have appealed to historical precedents for their alliance. One commenter here invoked seventeenth-century British Protestantism and its kaleidoscope of Puritans, Independents, Presbyterians, and Baptists. He left out the Quakers and failed to acknowledge that these groups did not found a parachurch agency but went into separate churches. Now comes an attempt to draw parallels between the GC and PTS. Be careful with those pits.

I do not understand why GC historians don’t liken themselves to the most obvious precedent — the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s. Leading that group was Harold John Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham. They too set up non-denominational institutions to draw in “conservative” Protestants of all stripes. And they also drew inspiration from Princeton Seminary. As George Marsden shows, PTS was very much on the minds of Fuller Seminary’s founders.

The trouble with appeals to Old Princeton like the neo-evangelicals and GC’s is that they ignore the side of the seminary that spooks pietists — the polemics not only against liberals but also against “conservatives.” PTS did welcome students from all churches. But you cannot find a bigger critic of Finney, holiness, Wesleyanism, perfectionism, New School Presbyterianism, Taylorism, biblical criticism, and Darwin. Old Princeton knew how to say “no.” Does the Gospel Coalition?

One way to answer this question without long reflection is to compare Mark Driscoll to Charles Hodge. Puhleeze. If Hodge were living today, he would take Driscoll to the woodshed (that is, unless Driscoll’s powers of clairvoyance alerted him to Hodge’s approach).

The Freedom of Ecclesiastical Vows

In the question from the Christianity Today interview about Tim Keller’s new book on marriage, the New York pastor explains a notion of freedom that if applied to ecclesiastical vows and relationships might put a crimp in organizations like the Gospel Coalition.

Q. One of the paradoxes you talk about is how the commitment of marriage actually produces freedom: the freedom to be truly ourselves, the freedom to be fully known, the freedom to be there in the future for those we love and who love us. Why do you believe that the commitment of marriage is viewed as largely anything but freeing today?

A. Our culture pits the two against each other. The culture says you have to be free from any obligation to really be free. The modern view of freedom is freedom from. It’s negative: freedom from any obligation, freedom from anybody telling me how I have to live my life. The biblical view is a richer view of freedom. It’s the freedom of—the freedom of joy, the freedom of realizing what I was designed to be.

If you don’t bind yourself to practice the piano for eight hours a day for ten years, you’ll never know the freedom of being able to sit down and express yourself through playing beautiful music. I don’t have that freedom. It’s very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for people, with the diminishment of choice. And since freedom now is defined as all options, the power of choice, that’s freedom from. I don’t think ancient people saw these things as contradictions, but modern people do.

Here is how Keller’s answer might sound in the voice of a confessional Presbyterians (italics indicated changes):

If you don’t bind yourself to the practices of a Presbyterian pastor for eight hours a day for ten years, you’ll never know the freedom of being a Presbyterian churchman. I don’t have that freedom. It’s very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for ministers, with the diminishment of choice to participate in parachurch organizations. And since piety is defined as possible in all sorts of pious environments, the power of choice, that’s freedom from. I don’t think the old Reformed clergy saw these things as contradictions, but evangelical Protestants do.

Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

Speaking of matters missional. . .

I am struck by the motivation that missions proponents sometimes use to justify their efforts. Having grown up in a faith mission environment, I have some familiarity with the ploys designed to generate gifts for missions and even cajole youth into full-time Christian service. As a kid even I thought some of the tactics were manipulative. But recent reading in the work of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was the first modern Presbyterian missionary, the Church of Scotland’s own ambassador to India — Presbyterianism’s William Carey as it were, has prompted me to think that much of the modern movement for overseas evangelism has employed what appear to be dubious arguments. The following comes from Duff’s Missions The Chief End of the Christian Church (1839):

It thus appears abundantly manifest from multiplied Scripture evidence, that the chief end for which the Christian Church is constituted—the leading design for which she is made the repository of heavenly blessings—the great command under which she is laid—the supreme function which she is called on to discharge—is, in the name and stead of her glorified Head and Redeemer, unceasingly, to act the part of an evangelist to all the world. The inspired prayer which she is taught to offer for spiritual gifts and graces, binds her, as the covenanted condition on which they are bestowed at all, to dispense them to all nations. The divine charter which conveys to her the warrant to teach and preach the Gospel at all, binds her to teach and preach it to all nations. The divine charter which embodies a commission to administer Gospel ordinances at all, binds her to administer these to all nations. The divine charter which communicates power and authority to exercise rule or discipline at all, binds her to exercise these, not alone or exclusively, to secure her own internal purity and peace, union and stability; but chiefly and supremely, in order that she may thereby be enabled the more speedily, effectually, and extensively, to execute her grand evangelistic commission in preaching the Gospel to all nations.

If, then, any body of believers united together as a Church, under whatever form of external discipline and polity, do, in their individual, or congregational, or corporate national capacity, wilfully and deliberately overlook, suspend, or indefinitely postpone, the accomplishment of the great end for which the Church universal, including every evangelical community, implores the vouchsafement of spiritual treasures—the great end for which she has obtained a separate and independent constitution at all,—how can they, separately or conjointly, expect to realize, or realizing, expect to render abiding, the promised presence of Him who alone hath the keys of the golden treasury, and alone upholds the pillars of the great spiritual edifice? If any Church, or any section of a Church, do thus neglect the final cause of its being, and violate the very condition and tenure of all spiritual rights and privileges, how can it expect the continuance of the favour of Him from whom alone, as their Divine fount and springhead, all such rights and privileges must ever flow? And, if deprived of His favour and presence, how can any Church expect long to exist, far less spiritually to flourish, in the enjoyment of inward peace, or the prospect of outward and more extended prosperity? (pp. 13-14)

I am not convinced, as valuable as foreign missions are, that threatening the church with a revocation of God’s favor is wise. Worse, I don’t believe it is true. But it is curious to see how old this kind of appeal is.

What is also worth highlighting is Duff’s account of Reformed Protestantism several pages later, since he has to acknowledge that the Reformation did not show an interest in non-European pagans and so did not measure up to the ideal of the true church. Because the Reformation was “itself a grand evangelistic work” by which the Spirit “put it into the hearts of an enlightened few, to arise and make an ‘aggressive movement’ on the unenlightened many, by whom they were every where surrounded,” Duff is at liberty to approve of sixteenth century Protestants. But when it comes to efforts of the Covenanters and the remnant of Presbyterians who tried to avoid compromise with the politics of episcopacy, the crown, or parliament, Duff (who was a student of Thomas Chalmers and would take sides with the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843) is not so approving:

When, after the Reformation, the Protestant Church arose, as by a species of moral resurrection, with newborn energies, from the deep dark grave of Popish ignorance and superstition,—then, was she in an attitude to have gone forth in the spirit of her own prayers, and in obedience to the Divine command, on the spiritual conquest of the nations,—and, in the train of every victory, scatter as her trophies, the means of grace, and as her plentiful heritage, the hopes of a glorious immortality. But instead of thus fulfilling the immutable law of her constitution,—instead of going forth in a progress of outward extension, and onward aggression, with a view to consummate the great work which formed at once the eternal design of her Head, and the chief end of her being :—the Church seemed mainly intent on turning the whole of her energies inward on herself. Her highest ambition and ultimate aim seemed to be, to have herself begirt as with a wall of fire that might devour her adversaries—to have her own privileges fenced in by laws and statutes of the realm—to hare her own immunities perpetuated to posterity by solemn leagues and covenants. (p. 22)

I’m not sure what the point of this is other than to suggest that since 1800 we have always had the missionally minded and manifesto affirming with us. But because of the ways in which proponents of missions can threaten by inducing guilt, those with questions about the methods, if not the content, of foreign missions (especially non-denominational kinds) have to prove their innocence before raising their concerns.

Comity of Errors


A minor kerfuffle broke out last week at Reformed Forum thanks to remarks I made during an interview about the history of American Presbyterianism. This subject invariably leads to questions about the historical differences between the OPC and the PCA and how these factor into their current relationship. And discussion of current OPC-PCA relations inevitably brings up the potentially delicate subject of the comity agreement that determines how each denomination should consider the other when planting a congregation. The current policy that guides OPC and PCA church planting endeavors is as follows:

Comity has meant different things to different people. We representatives of the home missions agencies and committees or boards of our denominations resist territorial statements on comity in the light of the social and cultural complexity of North American society and the great spiritual need of our many countrymen who are apart from Jesus Christ. Out of a concern to build the church of Jesus Christ rather than our own denominations and to avoid the appearance of competition, we affirm the following courteous code of behavior to guide our church planting ministries in North America:

1. We will be sensitive to the presence of existing churches and mission ministries of other NAPARC churches and will refrain from enlisting members and take great care in receiving members of those existing ministries.

2. We will communicate with the equivalent or appropriate agency (denominational missions committee or board, presbytery missions or church extension committee, or session) before initiating church planting activities in a community where NAPARC churches or missions ministries exist.

3. We will provide information on at least an annual basis describing progress in our ministries and future plans.

4. We will encourage our regional home missions leadership to develop good working relationships.

I raised concerns about the failure of each side to abide by the terms of the comity agreement. I illustrated my worries by mentioning two cities where conservative Presbyterian churches already existed and the other denomination went ahead anyway with a plant of its own. I did not mention “sheep stealing,” but that was how some interpreted my remarks. Since the PCA is a lot bigger than the OPC, some may have also inferred that I was taking issue more with the PCA than the OPC. Taking members in good standing from another congregation is a legitimate reason to object to a church plant, but not really the one I had in mind when I more or less made an off hand remark about comity agreements and also illustrated the point with examples my fading memory scanned and found.

The difficulties surrounding comity agreements have less to do with the transfer of members between communions than with the state of church planting among conservative Presbyterians. One concern first has to do with the market mentality that seems to go with home missions in the United States, the second with the branding of churches that follows said mentality.

In the good old days, denominations planted churches when a group of families (usually from the home denomination) found themselves in a new setting without a congregation from their communion. If the families numbered as many as five, the home missions committee would designate funds and find a church planter to minister to the group in hopes of establishing a settled work. To be sure, and the OPC has some examples of this, home missions executives would think about “strategic” locations for new churches in order for the denomination to gain a reputation and presence among a larger section of the American public. But generally speaking, home missions leaders went where groups of people wanted their services. No core group, no church plant.

Today, the model appears to be different and more like a business. Certain locations are highly desirable, these places have no Presbyterian churches, and denominational leaders decide to start a work or two there. This mentality would appear (I know nothing about business and marketing) to follow the logic of companies who have a product and are looking for ways to increase patrons and profits. Granted, we live in a voluntary church setting, so every congregation needs to “market” itself to gain members who will then pay for the church “services.” At the same time, a strategic outlook has led conservative Reformed denominations to look more at the potential for growth and visibility as a reason for home missions than a duty to send pastors to those places where existing church members can find no church.

Another aspect of contemporary home missions logic is the idea that Presbyterians should be able to plant as many churches as there are Americans. I am not sure anyone actually has a manual of population density, roads, health of the local economy, zoning regulations, etc. before thinking about planting churches across the USA. But because home missions is in the business of evangelism, and because the logic of the Great Commission is to take the gospel everywhere, home missions types tend to equate church planting with evangelism and the mandate to leave no soul unturned.

The problem is that as much as every American (and resident of the earth, for that matter) needs to hear the gospel, not every place can sustain a Presbyterian church. Once the novelty of being missional, for instance, wears off, and once denominational funding runs out, a church plant finds itself in the surprising position of being a settled congregation in maintenance mode, no longer being cutting edge but adjusting to the routine if not the boredom of the same people, each Sunday, year after year. Maintenance is a good thing. After all, sheep in a flock need to be fed and prepared for slaughter (read: die a good death). Shepherds who run off to new flocks and abandon old ones are not what our Lord had in mind when he taught about the Good Shepherd.

So missional inevitably morphs into maintenance and then denominational leaders need to consider how many congregations a locale can sustain. Actually, they should have thought about this before thinking strategically about a city or region and planting missional churches. But it is a serious question. Can a city of 300,000 support seven Presbyterian congregations, all of them conservative? Does a city of 500,000 have enough unchurched who might come to four Presbyterian churches? I know this may sound like Finney, trying to calibrate the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Calvinists have a pretty good sense that not everyone is elect, and know there are ordinarily limits to the sovereign working of the Spirit. They also have a sense of stewardship and recognize that pastors and their families need to eat, and that ordinarily the Holy Spirit does not do home delivery. In which case, church planters might do well to turn to sociologists at least to understand the dynamics of communities, churches, and their sustainability. Meanwhile, the agrarian in me says that if farmers should know what the carrying capacity of a certain kind of soil is, church planters need to consider a similar dynamic. If an area like New England, that has not had a history of supporting Presbyterian churches, becomes the strategic place for church planting, shouldn’t the denominational executives consider why the soil in the North East is harder than the mid-Atlantic region when it comes to Reformed seeds?

So if part of my concern about comity agreements is about what seems to be the naivete of “strategic” church planting (I put it in quotes because it doesn’t seem very strategic to be ignorant of a place’s capacity to sustain Presbyterian churches), the other goes to the techniques necessary to plant a “Presbyterian” church in an over saturated church market (I put it in quotes because often the methods are not Presbyterian).

If part of the basis for a comity agreement is the notion that the communions entering the agreement are “of like faith and practice,” it does not make a lot of sense to establish a church in a community with an abundance of churches if it is going to offer the same goods and services as the existing congregation. Of course, this is not a problem for Starbucks or McDonald’s where consistency of product is precisely what makes a franchise work. Someone back at headquarters needs to calculate how many frappucinos can be sold in a day within a city of 350,000 potential drinkers, but once the math is complete, the companies’ engines are finely tuned up to deliver the same fructose, burnt coffee, and whipped cream to every single Starbucks store.

The demands of franchising and the consistency of brand, however, do not appear to apply to Presbyterian churches. One congregation may be traditional (read: 1950s United States), another neo-Puritan, another contemporary, and still another blended (read: incoherent). In which case, a town may support a new Presbyterian home missions work if it offers a liturgical recipe different from the existing church. This is even true for congregations within the same denomination. Within the metropolitan Philadelhpia area, the OPC has almost as many flavors (the high-church topping is somewhat beyond the finances of the average Orthodox Presbyteiran) as the PCA.

The variety of approaches to being and worshiping as a Presbyterian is likely the greatest challenge to comity agreements. Many a church plant can justify its existence by saying that its product and delivery will reach a demographic different from an established work. As true as this may be (although the cultural diversity of OPC and PCA churches would strike a modern-day Tocqueville as extraordinarily thin), this diversity seriously undermines claims to be “of like faith and practice.” John Frame and I swatted this one around almost fifteen years ago and I am still convinced that Reformed theology and ministry normally assumes an appropriate form that should prevail in all churches claiming to be Presbyterian. I am also convinced that congregations that vary greatly from the sobriety, decency, orderliness – not to mention the reverence – implied and explicitly stated in the Reformed creeds and catechisms are letting their practices alter their faith.

These reflections may explain the comments made during the interview at Reformed Forum. The latter were the tip of an iceberg that may be responsible for sinking the good ship Conservative Presbyterian, U.S.A. The worship wars and church growth theories – from McGavren to McLaren are sucking the vitals from Reformed confessionalism in North America. But I need to live with it because the current flavors of Presbyterianism – like the menus of Applebees and Cheese Cake Factory (why would anyone eat at a factory?) – are what the Reformed market place will bear.

If Reformed Needs To Be Distinguished from Puritan, Why Not Presbyterian?

Some historians of seventeenth-century British Protestantism are dismissive of attempts to distinguish between Puritans and Presbyterians. Part of the problem, of course, involves definitions and categories. When it comes to politics, differences between Presbyterians and Puritans do not become clear until the 1650s with the regime of Oliver Cromwell since Puritans in Parliament joined forces with Presbyterians to do battle with the Stuart monarchy partly on the basis of the Solemn League and Covenant. When it comes to religion, Puritans and Presbyterians shared an intense and introspective piety that again makes differentiating them seemingly pointless.

I was surprised to read, then, in his treatment of John Owen Carl Trueman’s distinction between Puritan and Reformed. On the one hand, he argues that Puritan, at least with reference to Owen, is an unhelpful category.

First, . . . there is little consensus on exactly what constitutes a Puritan, let alone the reification of that elusive essence in the phenomenon known as Puritanism. Second, whatever else Puritanism is, it is fairly minimalist in terms of theological content – if John Milton, the quasi-Arian counts as a Puritan, for example, we can scarcely include even that most basic of Christian distinctives, the doctrine of the Trinity, in our definition. Third, Puritanism has, on the whole, far too parochial a range to allow us to see the full context of Owen’s thinking. . . . Thus, the use of a category like “Puritanism,” which brings with it all manner of narrowly parochial connotations, really needs to be deployed very carefully and in very specific contexts if it is to be at all helpful in our understanding of [Owen’s] thought.

The category that Trueman prefers to apply to Owen is Reformed Orthodoxy since it “is at once both more easily defined and less limiting that the category of Puritanism.” By Reformed Orthodoxy Trueman means:

. . . the tradition of Protestant thought which found its creedal expression on the continent in such documents, as, among others, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, and in Britain in the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Historically speaking, the immediate roots of this tradition are to be found in the work of Reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer and, a generation later, such men as John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr and Pierre Viret. (Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, pp. 6-7)

This is helpful, but it does raise a couple questions. First, since the Parliament that called the Westminster Assembly was dominated by Puritans, is it so easy to distinguish the Puritanism of Parliament from the Reformed orthodoxy of the Westminster Assembly, especially since Puritans were not in short supply at the Assembly?

The other questions concerns the original oldlife effort to distinguish Presbyterianism from Puritanism. If Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Standards as their church’s confession, then that would appear, following Trueman, to make them not Puritan but part of Reformed Orthodoxy. In which case, if Puritanism lacks substantial theological content and is not synonymous with the work of the Westminster Assembly, is distinguishing Presbyterianism from Puritanism really so peculiar?

Presbyterians and Puritans Apart?

Some say it is nonsense to posit any difference between Puritans and Presbyterians. Others put it more delicately and argue for essential agreement among British Calvinists. The URC pastor, Mike Brown, has given some attention to this subject through the lens of Calvin and Owen on worship. He writes with some surprise that “the likes of Horton Davies and J. I. Packer . . . see a gap between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (at least) on worship practices. The piece of evidence that stands out is that John Calvin used and advocated a liturgy. John Owen opposed liturgies. To bring the Presbyterians into the debate, John Knox developed a liturgy for the kirk that became part of the early Presbyterian experience.

But Brown is unconvinced. He sees essential agreement:

Where one witnesses obvious discontinuity between the Continental Reformer and the English Puritan is in the use of liturgies. For Calvin, the liturgies he put to use in Strasbourg and Geneva displayed his understanding of a worship service that was spiritual, simple and in complete accordance with what Scripture alone prescribed. On the other hand, Owen clearly reveled great disdain for liturgies. In his Discourse Concerning Liturgies, Owen made many statements that suggest he believed liturgies somehow quenched the Spirit and obscured the simplicity of worship. Understood in its context, however, Owen’s Discourse is a polemic primarily against the imposition of liturgies. While Calvin knew well the difficulties of having a Protestant state make certain impositions upon the order of worship (such as the Genevan city council denying him his request for weekly communion), he never faced the type of situation which Owen and his fellow Nonconformists faced in England during the 1660s. This must be taken into consideration when evaluating any discontinuities between Calvin and Owen and their theologies of worship. Both Calvin and Owen were men of their times. Yet, both of these towering figures in the Reformed tradition firmly and unwaveringly believed that worship must be biblical, spiritual, and simple.

One question that lurks behind assessments like this is whether Puritans like Owen opposed all liturgy all the time, or simply the liturgy coming down from on high in the Church of England. Sure, most state-imposed measures are unwelcome, but Owen seems to go beyond this when he argues that liturgies restrain the free operation of the spirit.

This leads to an additional question, which concerns the way that Puritanism and Presbyterianism played out in the United States. New England was more receptive to revivalism than were the most Scottish segments of the Presbyterian Church (the Old Side and the Old School). This raises the further question, again for some unthinkable, whether Puritanism encouraged enthusiasm and spontaneity in ways that Old World Presbyterians regarded as a threat to confessional subscription and church polity. After all, if you can accept the word of others for creed and church order, why not in the prayers and forms of worship. (And, by the way, the Westminster Standards reveal much more detail on the interiority of Christian devotion — i.e. the ordo salutis — that The Three Forms of Unity or the Scottish Confession of Faith.)

One way to illustrate that these intuitions as more realistic than hypothetical is to remember that Presbyterianism started out in Scotland with liturgies (from Knox) and that arguably the greatest Puritan theologian, John Owen, wrote an essay against liturgy.

It may not prove the point about differences between Puritanism and Presbyterianism. But the different ways that those traditions played out in the United States do make you wonder.