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Between the Times: A Review Article

Donald J. Duff

Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990, by D. G. Hart. Willow Grove, Penna.: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011, xi + 340 pages, $10.

The early history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been fairly well covered by personal memoirs or by historians. Anyone interested in the question "Why the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?" can find much in the way of an answer. After seventy-five years of existence the question is "What has the Orthodox Presbyterian Church become?" Between the Times seeks to give a partial answer to this question. It is a partial answer as it is the story of the church between 1945 and 1990. As the book says:

It attempts to examine in greater detail than any existing account the representative events, decisions, and efforts of the OPC from the rise of neoevangelicalism during the 1940s down to the debates over and fallout from Joining and Receiving with the Presbyterian Church in America during the 1980s. The book is also a partial answer in that it "looks primarily at the OPC through the lens of its main institutions (both formal and informal)—the General Assembly's deliberations and activities, Westminster Seminary, and the Presbyterian Guardian. (8)

Of course, there are another twenty-one years of history of the church that are not covered. The period of the church's history that is covered, however, is an important one.

Between the Times covers three periods in the life of the OPC from 1945 to 1990.[1] This first period covers up to around 1967 as the first generation continued the battle against liberalism, while at the same time engaged in establishing the new church. While this generation kept the best of Old Princeton and that branch of American Presbyterianism, it sought to combine this tradition with insights of Reformed traditions outside America, thus forming a unique church (30). This was a period during which the early faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary had a great influence in determining the nature of the new church. While Westminster was an independent institution, everyone recognized it was closely associated with the OPC. In fact, as Hart says, "To say the Orthodox Presbyterian Church could not exist without Westminster Seminary is an overstatement but not by much" (121). Its professors were among the founders and subsequent OPC churchmen who served on all the important committees of the general assembly. They "constituted the first generation brain trust" (131). These men led the new church through many struggles in shaping a church "too reformed for evangelicals, and too non-American for evangelical Presbyterians" (30). They did so early on by taking a stand against the fundamentalism of McIntire and Buswell. They also led the charge against attempts by men such as Robert Strong in the Clark case and Edwin H. Rian with the Committee of Nine to broaden the message and methods of the church to meet the American church scene. The new church refused to join the American Council of Christian Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals but looked beyond American Protestantism to forming ecumenical ties with Reformed and Presbyterian churches outside the United States.

All the while the church was defining itself as it wrote a new hymnal and wrestled with the questions of Masonry and even Boy Scouts. During this time, the church kept up a militant attack on the modernism and neo-orthodoxy of the mainline Presbyterian Church. This came to a head when the UPCUSA was considering the Confession of 1967. A great deal of effort and money was spent in pointing out the direction the UPCUSA was heading and hoping that some would see the light and leave for the OPC. When the Confession of 1967 was adopted by the PCUSA Hart says:

For three decades the OPC had defined itself over against the liberal church as part of a struggle for the legacy of American Presbyterianism; but now that the adversary against which it had struggled was no longer so, what would become of the OPC? (97)

Now the UPCUSA no longer pretended to be following the Westminster Standards and was a new kind of American Presbyterian Church. "Now the old frame of reference was gone—conservative verses liberal successors to American Presbyterianism" (97). From this point on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church would not be spending much of its time on what was happening in the old church but was free to look to its own future.

The second period in the church's history, which goes to around 1986, is the one in which the second generation of church leadership saw the battle with liberalism as essentially over and were willing to "consider innovative practices in church planting as well as formerly suspect ecumenical relationships as a way to grow numerically" (10). This is a period in which, to some extent, the OPC lost its way, even to the point of considering ceasing to exist by being swallowed up in another church.

In 1960, Robert S. Marsden, executive secretary of Westminster Theological Seminary, died at the age of fifty-five, and in 1962 "Ned B. Stonehouse, only sixty years old, died suddenly and ended a lifetime as a significant New Testament scholar and arguably the Orthodox Presbyterian Church statesman with the greatest stature in ecumenical circles" (139).[2] In 1968, E. J. Young died, also only sixty years old. John Murray retired in 1967 and Cornelius Van Til in 1972. "Within roughly a decade Westminster and the OPC had lost the wisdom, conviction, and scholarship of men who had defined both institutions. Obviously neither would be the same without them nor would the relationship between the seminary and the church" (139). In 1968, Edmund P. Clowney became the first president of the seminary. Under his leadership of the seminary, the changes that occurred in the 1960s at Westminster accelerated, with the seminary having less and less influence upon the church. The Presbyterian Guardian, which had been so important in the controversies and convictions that had brought the OPC into existence, and had been especially devoted to the seminary and the OPC, changed and ultimately ceased publication in 1979 (259). The church began to speak on social and political issues, such as abortion and race relations. The early influence of the Christian Reformed Church on the OPC waned, but, with the beginning of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973, there was a new, and for many, a very attractive player in the picture. The Christian Education Committee found a partner in the PCA in forming Great Commission Publications in 1975. That was also the year that the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) held its first meeting as well as the year that the OPC and the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) voted on a Plan of Union. Cooperation with other churches and merger talks were the big things as the OPC looked to others for help, increased size, and importance. In 1975, the OPC voted for the Plan of Union with the RPCES (95 to 42), but it was rejected by the RPCES. In 1981, the PCA, OPC, and RPCES voted on a joining and receiving invitation (J&R) from the PCA. The OPC (90 to 48) and RPCES accepted the invitation, but the PCA voted against receiving the OPC. Another J&R invitation was extended to the OPC in 1986, and this time the OPC voted against it (78 to 68).

The third period in the history of the OPC up to 1990 is one that overlaps the second period. This third period is one in which, as the OPC considered aligning with other conservative Presbyterian communions, the OPC became more interested in its past and what the church had stood for. Thus, "an effort to recover the OPC past was also responsible—not solely but substantially—for a shift within the church from a stance of flexibility and openness to one of greater caution and resolve. The study of the OPC's past prompted this change because historical study revealed an Orthodox Presbyterianism that was more than simply conservative in opposition to liberalism. The OPC also represented a historically Reformed witness that took seriously Presbyterianism's theology, polity, and worship" (30).

As early as 1966, the possibility of union with the RPCES had been suggested, and for twenty years there were efforts at mergers, first with the RPCES and then with the PCA. As Hart points out, "conversations between the OPC and the RPCES did have the unintended effect of promoting greater awareness within the OPC of the Church's history" (298). This interest was greatly accelerated when Charles G. Dennison became the historian of the OPC in 1981. His

efforts as the OPC was turning fifty did raise an interest, neglected perhaps for the better part of two decades, in the church's founding and historical development. Over the lectures, essays, and books produced for the semicentennial was this important question: what did the founding of the OPC mean for the church fifty years later? Were the battles that contributed to the early stance of the OPC simply part of a particular time and place or did they create a tradition of belief and practice that contemporary Orthodox Presbyterians need to perpetuate to be faithful to their forebears? (305)

By 1986, the church which had twice voted to dissolve had regained a sense of who it was and was ready to answer this question by voting to continue as a church distinct from other American Presbyterian expressions. Not everyone agreed with the decision. Thirty-eight commissioners signed a protest against the decision concerning J&R in 1986. In the four years after 1986, there was a voluntary realignment as congregations left the OPC for the PCA.

Hart's contention is that by 1990

the OPC had become exactly what its founders had hoped—a disciplined Presbyterian communion that carried out its mission of proclaiming the good news through the biblically prescribed means of Presbyterian polity and discipline. (320)

The commitment of the OPC to biblical Presbyterianism was a source of frustration to the Bible Presbyterians in the 1930s, to the neoevangelicals in the 1940s, and, for some, in the late 1980s, who felt compelled to leave for better, friendlier, or less restrictive expressions of American Presbyterianism (218). It was a church which, having gone through a series of merger talks with other Presbyterian bodies, came to recognize itself as a unique Presbyterian church in America with a specific reason for its continued existence as a separate church among the varieties of American Presbyterianism.

The church that almost voted itself out of existence at its fiftieth anniversary has now celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. In looking over the developments in American Presbyterianism of the past twenty-five years, there is reason for thankfulness for the vote in 1986 and the continued existence of the OPC. To a large degree the church has built on its heritage and continued to remain faithful to its founding principles. Today, in the American Presbyterian church scene, there is even more reason to be thankful for the existence of a church such as the OPC.

This does not mean that the OPC can boast in anything other than the fact that the Lord has raised up this church and made it what it is. At one point in its history the church seemed to have somewhat lost its way. It will only be by his grace that it will remember its history and the lessons it has learned and will not be tempted by the many forces which would pull it away from its calling. The OPC must always walk on a tight edge. It must be narrow in matters of Reformed doctrine and Presbyterian polity but it must also be broad minded in those things which make for true Christian liberty. It must not relax its Reformed stand to broaden its appeal, but it must also not become so ideological as to unnecessarily give offense to others.

Perhaps one of the strengths of the OPC is that its ministers have continued to come from all kinds of backgrounds, thus bringing in new blood. At the same time this will be a great weakness, unless these ministers read books like Between the Times and other books put out by the Committee for the Historian, so that they are acquainted with the history of the church and what has shaped the nature of the church.[3] As Hart says at the end of the book:

The history and identity of the OPC are bound up with each other; they cannot be separated. The OPC's history looks different from that of other Presbyterian churches because of its understanding of Reformed Christianity. At the same time Orthodox Presbyterianism arose from specific struggles and traditions within Presbyterianism in the United States. When the OPC has been most aware of its history she has been most keen to preserve her Reformed heritage, and when she has been most zealous for what Machen called the grandeur of the Reformed faith she has been most attentive to her history. If the OPC is going to maintain her strength as a Reformed communion, of if her officers and members decide to refashion or modify her identity, they will need first to consider the church's past. Without that history Orthodox Presbyterianism makes no sense. (328)

Endnotes

[1] Hart does not specifically designate these periods, but I think they are there in the book.

[2] I was a student at Westminster and I remember the death of Dr. Stonehouse as a real blow to the seminary, as he was one of the original faculty members.

[3] I say other books as, for instance, Hart does not mention the Peniel controversy in this book.

Donald Duff is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who has served as a pastor and stated clerk of the general assembly. He resides in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2011.