Desert Bloom in Amarillo
K. Scott Oliphint
(Editor's note: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church will be celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary in June of 2011. In anticipation of that milestone, New Horizons is running a yearlong series of historical remembrances.)
I came to Reformed theology and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on separate tracks that providentially merged. I had become a Christian out of high school, and in college I was taking a philosophy course from a Christian instructor at West Texas State University. During that time, in the fall of 1977, Christianity Today did a cover article on Cornelius Van Til. At that point, I had been reading Francis Schaeffer. In the Christianity Today article, I read that Van Til had taught Schaeffer. I thought I might as well read the guy that taught the guy that I'd been reading. I went down to the local bookstore with the title Defense of the Faith. The guy said, "I've never heard of it." He looked it up and couldn't find it. Finally, he got out the big tome, Books in Print. He said, "Oh yeah, here it is. South New Jersey. It'll take a month to get here." I couldn't wait to get it.
During this time, I was on the Young Life staff, and my Young Life mentor was David Brack, now pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, Texas. Brack and I were leading Young Life clubs, and I was doing evangelism with unbelievers and getting questions that I wasn't equipped to handle. After Defense of the Faith arrived, I started poring over it. Obviously, I didn't get all of it at once. I would take it to my philosophy professor, and we'd sit over coffee and I'd say, "Read this and tell me what it means." And he'd say, ‘‘I'm not sure what that means." That put me in a quandary. I looked on the back of the book, and it gave the address of Westminster Seminary. And so I wrote to Westminster: ‘‘I'm really wondering if it is possible to ask Van Til any questions, because I'm out here in Amarillo, and no one is able to help me." They sent me a little note saying, "Van Til is just retired and he's happy to get mail and here is his address"and I'll never forget it"16 Rich Avenue, Flourtown, PA 19118."
I wrote him a letter: "You know, I'm really struggling with some of the things you're saying here. This is great stuff, but what do you mean by this, this, and this?" A week later, pages torn out of a spiral notebook came in a handwritten envelope. "Here's what I'm saying, please write anytime." His wife had just died, and he wrote, "I'm retired, and I have plenty of time."
I wrote about once a week for a while. I'd be reading along and I'd say, "I don't get it." He'd write back, "Here's what I mean...." He would start articulating things, but at that point he was up in years, so one thing would lead to another in his own mind. I'd have to begin to interpret his letters, like his writings.
I was working on a Young Life talk around Easter that we gave to non-Christians. Brack stopped by and said, "Why don't you do something on Josh McDowell's Evidences of the Resurrection?" And I said, "I don't think I can do that." He looked at me like I had flipped out. He said, "We've got to talk about this." And all I could say was, "Okay." I gave my talk. It was not on anything from Josh McDowell.
A week went by and he said, "What's the deal?" I replied, "This is the deal: We're in the business of communicating the gospel. I don't think what I've been saying is true to what the gospel is. Here are some of the problems.…" For me, it had to do with the authority of Scripture. It wasn't just the Five Points of Calvinism, though that had something to do with it. It was the bigger picture of the authority of Scripture and how we think about evidences. McDowell argues, "Anyone with moral honesty will admit … da da da da." So I said to Brack, "Unbelievers don't have moral honesty. That's part of the problem." Brack replied, "Yeah, I think that might be right. I need to talk to Betty [his wife] about this." He came back the next day and said, "Betty gets it!" It was laughable, because Brack was still struggling with some ideas, but Betty was getting it.
So Brack ordered The Sovereignty of Grace by Arthur Custance. He was over in his office reading that book, while I was in mine reading Van Til on epistemology or on Christianity and Barthianism or whatever was next in his series. Brack and I started talking about Reformed theology. We were talking to each other about what our lessons were all about, and all of this was starting to come together. We decided to start teaching our Young Life volunteer leaders from J. I. Packer's Knowing God.
By then we were getting significant opposition from the powers that be in Young Life nationally. The regional director came up to Amarillo for a visit and said, "You're not about theology. You're about kids. You need to leave this stuff alone." I replied, "I really can't leave it alone." To that he responded, "You better be sure you are doing your job." I said, "Look at my Young Life club. Look at my numbers." Amarillo had hundreds of kids involved.
Right around 1980, there was a remarkable providence. Brack and I were having all these conversations. I was writing Van Til regularly. One day over lunch we decided to see if Van Til would come to Amarillo. So I wrote in January 1980: "Dear Dr. Van Til, All of this has been really helpful, but we have so many questions. Would it be possible for you to come to Amarillo? Sincerely yours, Scott Oliphint." I get a simple reply: "Dear Scott, I will be happy to come to Amarillo. In His service, Cornelius."
Brack and I funded his trip to Amarillo. Our plan was simple. We would do a weekend seminar. Then we would have him preach on Sunday. I wrote to Van Til again and asked him if he'd do all that for us. He replied, "I will be happy to do this. I've done this before and it'll be great."
So Van Til was coming in March 1980. About a month before, Brack was teaching Sunday school at a PCUSA church in Amarillo. He was completely disgruntled. We both came to the conclusion that we could not go to the worship services. The pastor was at best Barthian, if not outright unbiblical. The sermon that made me decide never to go back was entitled "The Myth of God's Omniscience." Brack's Sunday school class was the most populated part of that church. People were literally going to the church simply to go to that Sunday school class.
Before he went to teach one Sunday morning, he saw an ad in the paper for a church called Orthodox Presbyterian. Brack said to himself, "I'm going over there. Their service starts after my Sunday school." He went over to a little vacant house that the church had rented. There was a total of twelve people in the congregation, sitting on folding chairs in the living room. The fans were on. As he listened to the sermon, he thought, "Boy, this guy preaches the gospel." As he left, he introduced himself. He said, "I thought I'd come visit. I saw your ad in the paper. Glad you guys are here." The pastor, John Hilbelink, started telling him a little bit about the church. Brack said in passing, "Oh, by the way, we're having this guy Van Til in next month. Have you ever heard of him?"
Hilbelink's mouth dropped to the ground as he gasped, "Ever heard of him!? He was my professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia." Brack replied, "What? You went to Westminster?" Hilbelink was completely befuddled and said, "How in the world do you know Van Til? I would have thought we were the only ones in Texas who knew him." Brack started telling him the story. Hilbelink said, "My goodness. Van Til is coming to town. Can we come?" Brack replied, "Sure. The more the merrier." Hilbelink asked if Van Til would preach in the Sunday evening service at his church. Van Til wholeheartedly agreed. Of course, I had no idea that Van Til was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. My interest in Van Til, Brack's connection, and the OPC all merged that March.
In the fall of 1981, I left for Westminster, but returned in the spring of 1984 when I received an offer to teach Bible studies in Amarillo. I was ordained in the fall of 1985, and in 1987 I took over the pulpit for a few months, so they called me to be the pastor. I stayed in Amarillo until 1991, and Lane Tipton got involved during those years, too. When he first came out to Young Life, he was the macho football player, so he was too cool for all of it. But he came back from college his first summer and hooked up with Brack. He said, "Hey, I've become a Christian. What should I read?" Brack handed him Berkhof's Systematic Theology, which some people wouldn't even recommend. Tipton read it from cover to cover. He called Brack and said, "I need to know this, and I need to know that." Brack sat him down and said, "So, how many questions do you have?" Lane looked down at his pile of handwritten questions on torn-off notepad sheets and answered, "I have 190 questions." After getting pummeled with question after question, Brack threw up the white flag and said, ‘‘I've reached my limit. Call Oliphint." Another Van Til disciple was born.
We had a lot of good talks. It was intense in a good way. We realized, "Hey, we're doing evangelism. Shouldn't we be concerned about the gospel?" We were trying to help the Young Life leaders to understand that when you get into the decree of God and God's will in terms of what he's revealed, these things are not going to come together in our own mindsand that's okay, because that is the way God is. During that time, branches from Christ Covenant grew toward Westminster. The Orthodox Presbyterian church in Amarillo may be a relatively small, seemingly unimportant church in the middle of nowhere, but for some reason it has played an important role in Westminster Seminary and in a lot of Reformed thinking. It is a sending ministry.
Scott Oliphint and Lane Tipton are OP ministers and professors at Westminster Theological Seminary. David Brack, pastor at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Amarillo, Tex., is a member of Westminster's Board of Trustees. John Hilbelink is pastor of Providence OPC in Rockford, Ill. This article is adapted with permission from Westminster Today, Winter 2010. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2010.