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New Horizons

Threescore and Ten: The OPC at Seventy

John R. Muether

"The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."

Psalm 90 instructs us that the human life span is about seventy years, a general rule yet to be overcome by modern medical and technological advances. Moses, the author of the psalm, reminds us that these are difficult years of toil and trouble. Moreover, we live sinful lives that are full of regret and short of accomplishment. This psalm underscores the precariousness of the human condition. However much we boast of our worldly attainments and deny that life is fleeting, wisdom reminds us otherwise.

Is this true for corporate life as well as individual life? If Moses' reflections on the sorrow and brevity of life apply also to institutions, we should expect that the story of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is drawing to an end. Has the OPC's "warranty" expired as it reaches its seventieth anniversary in 2006?

The analogy is even more chilling when we consider how our lives expire. Commentator Derek Kidner suggests that the psalmist's sigh that we fade and wither can be likened to the end of T. S. Eliot's poem, "Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." As has been observed on recent pages of New Horizons, many American Presbyterian denominations have been swept away into fading memories. Once sturdy and robust denominations can quickly fall away from their Reformed convictions. Some of them die a slow, painful death from theological liberalism. Others may experience numerical growth, although they are waning in their Presbyterian identity, as they succumb to the pressures of cultural accommodation. Reformed perseverance in the wilderness of American culture is a struggle, and life often seems, to quote another world-weary observer, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

In truth, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was even born with a whimper. The exodus of five thousand antimodernists from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1936 was numerically "inconsiderable," according to Presbyterian historian Lefferts Loetscher. These dissenters seemed to be extremists to mainline Presbyterians and evangelicals. The decades that followed were filled with controversy, and many frustrated voices within the OPC abandoned the cause, some refusing to call themselves Presbyterian anymore and others even wondering why they should continue as Protestants. Providentially stripped of cultural respectability, the OPC has remained, in the larger picture of American religion, a statistically insignificant denomination.

To be sure, these controversies have had a sharpening effect. During the past seventy years, the OPC has not been defined by dispensationalism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, the charismatic movement, or popular trends that have swept through conservative American Protestantism. Its resistance both narrowed and deepened its identity. In Mark Noll's words, the OPC has been "the pea beneath the mattress"—small, but solid and undeniably there.

And yet, the purging effect of its controversies and the decimation from prominent exoduses led some to despair that the OPC was a church without a future. This was pointedly stated by protesters at the 1986 General Assembly, which celebrated the OPC's fiftieth anniversary. That assembly's failure to unite the OPC with the larger Presbyterian Church in America was a deep disappointment to many in the church. In their judgment, the OPC had turned "backward instead of forward, inward instead of outward, ... [becoming] exclusive rather than inclusive."

William F. Buckley once famously remarked that a true conservative "stands athwart history yelling, Stop!" Might that sentiment describe the OPC? Has our denomination met the challenge of modern culture by just saying no? Describing our history in this way can reduce it to another form of triumphalism, one that glories in the denomination's isolation and standoffishness. Some critics have even suggested a connection between our militant origins and our contentious history. Is there just no pleasing the OPC? Are we so provincial that we become uncharitably critical of other expressions of American Presbyterianism? Have we been unfaithful stewards for failing to capitalize on cooperative invitations? If so, perhaps the church is suffering less from advanced aging than from arrested development. As one former minister put it, the OPC became an "isolationist porcupine" and a "sectarian oddity."

The Challenge Facing the OPC

The challenge for Orthodox Presbyterians, however, has been not to thwart progress, but to identify with its proper expression. On his deathbed, J. Gresham Machen urged the church to remember the grandeur of the Reformed faith. OP historian Paul Woolley elaborated on Machen's plea nearly a decade later by contrasting heavenly-mindedness with an earthly infatuation with cultural influence. Early frustration with the direction of the OPC took two forms, he noted: there was malignant discontent and healthy discontent. The former sought rapid numerical growth, especially by collaborating with evangelical organizations. The latter sought to develop greater consistency in the church's propagation and defense of the Reformed faith.

Woolley framed the choice in provocative terms: "Does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church want to have a growing revival of the preaching, teaching, and application of the Biblical and Reformed faith? Or does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church want to have many members and much money and read about itself in the newspapers?" Woolley focused his readers' attention on the nature of true progress. There was room, he argued, "for real progress in the completeness with which the faith is preached in our pulpits."

Similarly, Cornelius Van Til stressed that the only progress worth pursuing was one that raised higher the banner of the Reformed faith; he rejected any agenda in the church that lowered it. Contrary to popular impression, the OPC, following his cue, has been actively (if selectively) pursuing ecumenicity in the cause of American and international Calvinism. Although it declined to participate in the National Association of Evangelicals, it was a founding member of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. It helped to establish the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, but later withdrew when the RES compromised its Reformed testimony. Immediately thereafter, the OPC joined the International Council of Reformed Churches.

Van Til took pains to point out that OP distinctiveness was no cause for pride or chauvinism. In his reluctance to cooperate with American evangelicalism, he was quick to add that Orthodox Presbyterians were not better or wiser than other Christians. Moreover, he readily observed that "many evangelicals are no doubt better Calvinists in practice than other men who are officially known as Calvinists."

He also sought to point out that the denomination's "alien" identity was not so unhealthy after all; isolation could serve genuine ecumenicity. The OPC most clearly testifies to the world when it is most clearly against the world, and it most effectively serves the universal church when it is steadfastly and self-consciously Reformed.

Indeed, reports of our denomination's demise are exaggerated. Pilgrims continue to join the OPC after wandering in evangelicalism or mainline churches. Contemporary debates in the denomination reveal its ongoing commitment to the whole counsel of God. Issues before our forthcoming General Assembly—the character of Reformed worship, the principles of biblical stewardship, and the relationship between justification and good works—demonstrate that our church is eager to express the Reformed faith in its completeness.

It is comforting to note that Psalm 90 does not end with humanity's demise. We are not to fear history nor halt progress. Moses' sobriety turns to hope that is grounded in the sovereign God of the covenant. Geerhardus Vos observed that this psalm is "wide awake to the significance of history as leading up to the eschatological act of God. It knows that it deals with a God, who spake and speaks and shall speak, who wrought and works and shall work, who came and is coming and is about to come."

The psalm prompts our prayer for the OPC as we mark this year's milestone. "Numbering our days" means looking beyond what is fleeting and perishable in our earthly existence to the abiding glory of God's purposes. It is a healthy church that sees its calling in this life as the beginning of an eternal weight of glory. Herein lies our confidence that our labor is not in vain. God's work will endure. And so, with his blessing, shall the work of the OPC.

"O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."

The author is the historian of the OPC. He quotes the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.

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