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Response to Trueman Review of Seeking a Better Country

Darryl Hart and John Muether

By his own admission Carl Trueman has written a negative review of Seeking a Better Country. Criticism is unpleasant but when warranted it nurtures better comprehension of a contested subject. Trueman charges us with

promoting a distinctive modern idiosyncratic American form of confessional Presbyterianism which does not actually enjoy quite the deep historical genetic precedents and antithetical categories which the authors claim for it.

To be accused of idiosyncrasy from a historian who writes books that have Friedrich Nietzsche on the cover and that feature quotes from Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, and John Owen could be a compliment, since such an author seems to know idiosyncrasy first hand. But in the case of Seeking, idiosyncratic is not a blessing in disguise; it is a defect in reality.

The nature of Seeking's idiosyncrasy is apparently two-fold. First, Trueman faults us for a peculiar reading of seventeenth-century British Calvinism, and then for applying that interpretation to current realities in the OPC and PCA. According to Trueman, our claim that the interests of Puritans and Presbyterians were "different" is "meaningless." He explains that certain Presbyterians were just as much opposed to liturgies and desirous of mystical experience as certain Puritans. No doubt, this is a fair point and the authors would be the first to acknowledge Trueman's knowledge of seventeenth-century Calvinism. But Trueman also knows enough British history to understand that the point of saying that Presbyterians and Puritans were different could have more a political than a devotional reference. To simplify a very complex political situation that involved the fortunes of two national churches, Puritans were in the Church of England and Presbyterians were in the Kirk of Scotland. Scottish Presbyterians thus had different concerns for maintaining a Reformed church in Scotland than did Puritans in England. The reality of these differences became apparent during the Commonwealth Era under the rule of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell when English armies carried out policies against Presbyterians in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In point of fact, throughout the seventeenth century, the Kirk was a yo-yo in the rivalry among the English Parliament, the Stuart Monarchy, and the Puritan Commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell, not to mention Scotland's own effort to remain sovereign.

On the basis of these political struggles, to say that Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans had distinct interests is hardly peculiar and we tried to point out the complexity of church-state relations in the context of seventeenth-century British politics. Perhaps we can be faulted for doing so too hastily. Some readers may presume uniformity of British Calvinism at the time of the Westminster Assembly and then imagine the emergence of an American Presbyterian church as a branch of British Reformed Protestantism. To situate American Presbyterianism within these complicated alliances and antagonisms is to be reminded at least of the diversity of Reformed Protestantism. Furthermore, to call attention to the continuing rivalry in America between the descendants of the English Puritans and their Scottish and Scots-Irish peers, is to try to comprehend what has been arguably the most significant tension within American Presbyterianism.

The second idiosyncrasy of which Seeking is apparently guilty is a peculiar reading of the relationship between doctrine and experience. Trueman contends that we define Presbyterianism and Puritanism in such a way that we take a "contrast between a piety rooted in confessions, catechisms, and the church, and a more experiential piety which tends towards a formal ecclesiastical pragmatism," and then read this into the rest of the American Presbyterian history, thus pitting "the pragmatic, evangelical PCA (according to the authors)" against the "Old School OPC in the present." According to Trueman, Seeking advances an agenda that "can be read in terms of struggle between two kinds of Presbyterians—the experiential ones, whether revivalists or, that most dreaded of titles, pietists, and the high church, Old School variety."

Trueman might have a point if we had made up the splits between the Old and New Side Presbyterians during the First Great Awakening, between Old and New School Presbyterians during the Second Great Awakening, and between fundamentalists and modernist in the 1920s. But we did not invent these episodes or their consequences for American Presbyterianism. In each of these divisions within the PCUSA, doctrine and experience really were sources of antagonism, though Seeking shows that other factors contributed to the controversies. Even so, we did not read these episodes back into our starting point for evaluating American Presbyterian history. Our working definition of Presbyterianism went like this: As the word Reformed suggests, Presbyterians, like their Reformed siblings, were intent on reforming the church according to the word of God. In theology, this meant an emphasis on human sinfulness, the complete sufficiency of Christ for salvation, a singular conception of the place of good works in the Christian life, and the elevation of Scripture over church tradition as the authority for determining ecclesiastical controversies. In worship, Presbyterians and Reformed simplified services, eliminated practices that did not have direct warrant from Scripture (such as reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two), and devoted greater attention to the proclamation of the Word through preaching. In polity, Presbyterians and the Reformed established the rule of elders through a series of graded courts, from the session at the local congregation, presbyteries and synods regionally, to the General Assembly as the body representing the whole church. These teachings and reforms took shape in the confessions and catechisms that Presbyterian and Reformed churches adopted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as in directories for public worship and church government.

Compared to other books and articles we have written, this understanding of Presbyterianism does not seem idiosyncratic but fairly vanilla.

We go on to add how difficult abstract definitions are when it comes to history because identities like Presbyterianism do not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, we wrote:

If this book has a lesson, this may be the most important, namely, that Presbyterianism understood apart from history is an abstraction bordering on fantasy.... Presbyterianism did not fall from the sky with instructions on how to start a seminary, create committees, and serve communion. The elements and character of Presbyterianism have always been contested. This is especially true of the Presbyterian communion that emerged as the most numerous and influential in the United States. (4)

Oddly, if Trueman is correct, Seeking imposes its own ideal on the history of American Presbyterianism. It is as if Trueman used a review of Seeking, not to understand better how peculiar and idiosyncratic all Presbyterian history is, going back to the Scottish Presbyterians' complicity in the regicide of Charles I, but to instruct the book's authors about problems in other things we have written. This is a peculiar way of reviewing books.

Consequently, Trueman himself appears to be afflicted with the very problem he identifies in Seeking, namely, starting with a preconceived idea of the authors' argument and then reading it into the entire narrative. His complaint that we took a cheap shot at the PCA is an example of this affliction. Trueman writes:

The description of the PCA on page 253 cries out for documented justification, given its highly generalized and apparently pejorative nature. Without such evidence, the authors' overall narrative of decline and fall becomes non-falsifiable: any success is most likely the result of selling out.

Again, our narrative was not one of decline and fall since we argued throughout that "no golden age" of Presbyterianism exists. Even so, our claim that the PCA "is more concerned with being on the cutting edge of culture-formation‚ than fostering Presbyterian consciousness, and its growth often requires the disguise of its Presbyterian identity" (252), was not a criticism pulled out of a hat but based on a prior observation: "Assessment centers find experts subjecting ministerial candidates to intense psychological profiling, bureaucratic caucusing has replaced Assembly deliberation, and ministries of mercy trump the spirituality of the church" (252-53). These aspects of PCA church life may submit to another interpretation than the one we offered. Thus, we are curious how Trueman, who is not too shabby at spotting problems in the contemporary Protestant world, would interpret them. But for whatever reason, the three PCA ministers who endorsed the book were not upset by the remark.

So instead of acquiescing to the charge of idiosyncrasy we wonder if the word better applies to Trueman's review since his own judgment of a book about American Presbyterianism seems to be based more on his own understanding of seventeenth-century British Calvinism than on what actually transpired later among Presbyterians on the other side of the Atlantic. Again, we would gladly take instruction from Trueman on the era of Cromwell and Owen. But we would ask him to return the favor and allow the experience of Witherspoon, Hodge, and Van Til to inform his assessment of Presbyterians in the United States.

Darryl Hart and John R. Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC: Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania and Mr. Muether at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Mr. Muether is the Historian of the OPC. Ordained Servant Aug./Sept. 2009.

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