Ordained Servant Online
Confident of Better Things: A Review Article
Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, edited by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger. Willow Grove, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011, 520 pages, $12.
A book worth re-reading! As I was saying (New Horizons, Oct. 2011), it's not easy to review, in short compass, a book with twenty-six authors. So I was pleased when Dr. Reynolds invited a longer review of Confident of Better Things. This is a handsome book, well-made and inexpensive, with substantive content that will reward. At this price, buy copies for your elders as well, plus one for the church library.
To begin with general orientation, the volume is arranged in five categories—history, theology, Christian education, missions and ecumenicity—appropriately chosen divisions, since these are also characteristic concerns of the OPC. Typographical errors were mercifully few in the volume and seemed to appear mostly in the last few chapters. A minor improvement might have been made to the order of articles in the Christian Education section had the more foundational Dennison article been first, followed then by Tyson on Catechesis, Gidley on preparation for ministry, Tracey on the importance of the languages, Pearce on internship and Reynolds on the true character of the Lord's herald, in that order. In that way the articles would have displayed a more logical progression. Finally, Tom Patete's article could have been moved to the History section, following Roger Schmurr's article, where their stories would form an interesting comparative.
Part One: History
1. "The Significance of Paul Woolley Today," by John R. Muether (7–23).
In the History section, the editors take point, writing the two opening chapters of the book. John Muether provides an enjoyable look back at the life and ministry of Paul Woolley, one of "lesser lights" of early Westminster, without whom the institution might have floundered. It could be argued that Westminster Seminary would never have come into existence without the involvement of Robert Dick Wilson, and in a similar way, that Westminster simply could not have continued but for the efforts of Paul Woolley. He was the faithful servant God used to keep things moving forward, yet without his taking center stage.
2. "How Evangelical Is Rome? Van Til, Strimple, and Roman Catholicism," by Danny E. Olinger (25–48).
With this chapter my eyes were opened to the OPC's long tradition of apologetics with reference to Roman Catholicism. Here Danny Olinger provides an overview of that tradition, briefly looking back at Loraine Boettner's work before giving close consideration of the work of Drs. Van Til and Strimple, the strength of whose apologetic rests in maintaining the primacy of "God and his revelation through Christ in the Scriptures, refusing to sacrifice the 'either/or' teaching of the Scripture, as affirmed in the Protestant Reformation, for a 'both/and' theology to justify a common cultural pursuit." This tradition continues with Olinger's own "Primer on Vatican II" (Ordained Servant, Oct. 2010) and most recently with David VanDrunen's article on "Inclusive Salvation in Contemporary Catholicism" (New Horizons, Oct. 2011).
3. "First—but Not the Last: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church over the Past Fifty Years," by Roger W. Schmurr (49–71).
Roger's chapter is told with a refreshing honesty which may strike some readers as at times a bit too honest. But there is value in having such honesty in print, even if others might occasionally tell a slightly different story. All of this forces us to search out the matter more deeply, and that is a positive thing. From his early years under the ministries of Al Edwards and Henry Coray, to his first pastorate on the other side of the country, to his long involvement with New Horizons and later with Great Commission Publications, Roger's chapter provides a walking tour and might well have been titled "A History of the OPC as I have lived it."
4. "The Legacy of Charles Hodge," by Alan D. Strange (73–84).
With two major biographies of Charles Hodge released in 2011, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, by Paul Gutjahr (OUP, March 2011) and Charles Hodge—The Pride of Princeton, by W. Andrew Hoffecker (P&R, Nov. 2011), Dr. Alan Strange's chapter provides some excellent reflection which should be brought to your reading of either of these recent volumes. Prior to these works, the last was Charles Hodge Revisited, edited by John W. Steward and James H. Moorhead (Eerdmans, 2002). Dr. Strange takes opportunity to spar with Moorhead on several points as he explores the question of Hodge's legacy and whether the OPC has remained true to that Princeton heritage of orthodoxy and piety.
5. "Confessing the Reformed Faith: Our Identity in Unity and Diversity," by Richard A. Muller (85–97).
Dr. Muller's chapter was originally a NAPARC address delivered in 1993 and then published in New Horizons (March & April, 1994). Muller's denominational affiliation is with the CRC and as such he is the first of three ecumenical representatives included among the authors of Confident of Better Things, the other two being Tom Patete (PCA) and Dr. Robert Godfrey (URCNA). Muller's article is also one of only two chapters in the book which have previously been published.
The crux of his message is that "Reformed unity is a unity of faith represented as a spectrum of opinion—a unity within boundaries." Muller concludes his message with this exhortation: "I would simply commend to you our great heritage and commend to you as well the work of holding fast to what is most valuable in our tradition for the sake of our present and future work in the service of the gospel. Our unity will appear clearly in the declaration of our faith through our distinctive confessions and through the reflection of our confessional heritage in our forms of worship. Our Reformed identity depends on our willingness to declare our confessions and in so doing to confess the faith."
Part Two: Theology
6. "Is Classical Christian Education Truly Christian? Cornelius Van Til and Classical Christian Education," by William D. Dennison (101–25).
This was one chapter that left me wanting more. I'd like to see Dennison develop these ideas further. Perhaps something along the lines of a Van Tilian alternative to Doug Wilson's Repairing the Ruins. That project is suggested when Dennison summarizes Van Til in contrast to Wilson, stating in a footnote (p. 123) that "On the contrary, Van Til understood the demise of the nineteenth century as being rooted in the secular and pagan elements of autonomy carried forward from the classical world." Our schools need a curriculum such as Dennison hints at in his conclusion, a "method of education ... grounded in the self-contained and self-sufficient God of Scripture whose ontological triune Being knows the facts, interprets the facts, and creates the facts in accordance with his sovereign plan in revelational-history." Now, what exactly does that look like, and how does it work itself out in book-to-book curriculum?
7. "Ecclesiastes: Wisdom for a Pilgrim Church," by Stephen J. Oharek (127–46).
Oharek tackles the Book of Ecclesiastes, with a view to its application to the life of the OPC and her people. He concludes that "this book is Christ's story, which is why it is our story, the story of redeemed pilgrims making their way through a fallen world."
8. " 'The Lord and Giver of Life': Cessationism in Service of Catholicity," by Mark A. Garcia (147–67).
One of two chapters dealing with the subject of spiritual gifts, this chapter by Mark Garcia might be considered preliminary or general to the subsequent and more specific chapter by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin. We have here an excellent Reformed corrective on the ministry of the Holy Spirit today. Garcia quotes George Smeaton to good effect, "Wherever Christianity has been a living power, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has uniformly been regarded, equally with the atonement and justification by faith, as the article of a standing or falling church." Garcia concludes that "a sound biblical understanding of the ultimacy and the necessity of the Spirit's ministry of producing and cultivating God's glory in the church—the telos at the heart of covenantal cessationism—goes hand in hand with that unhesitating affirmation."
9. "Tongues Today?" by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (169-84).
As Garcia noted in his chapter, the covenant-historical form of cessationism that summarizes Gaffin's views has also come to characterize the OPC in this matter of spiritual gifts. Dr. Gaffin presents us with material originally prepared for publication, but by God's providence withheld until now and no doubt honed by further reflection. Brick upon brick, Gaffin carefully builds his case, yet with no intent to slight or demean those who differ. He concludes, "the New Testament passage that perhaps more than any other speaks of the full and mysterious dimensions of the Spirit's activity that searches out even 'the deep things of God' (1 Cor. 2:10) beyond our comprehension, makes clear at the same time that this profound probing of the Spirit elicits and produces in believers, and does so just as it engages our spirits (v. 11), conformity to 'the mind of Christ.' (v. 16)."
10. "The Gospel and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics," by Lane G. Tipton (185–213).
Tipton's chapter is one of three that employ the original languages, leaving the book still well within the reach of any serious reader. Even in these articles where the languages are used, the alert reader should be able to follow the author's arguments. Yet I expect lay readers will find Dr. Tipton's article among the deepest waters in the book and so would advise they pick it up at the end before starting the article. Get this well in hand before beginning: "It is time to proclaim clearly and without reservation that Christ enters the Old Testament through its front door, so that biblical symbolism in the Old Testament both communicates the saving truth of Christ's person and work and that truth runs organically through to its fulfillment in Christ's death and resurrection."
11. "Was Adam Historical?" by Robert B. Strimple (215–22).
Truth is by nature timeless. Dr. Strimple's contribution to this volume has been published three times previously but could not be any more appropriate for inclusion, particularly in light of recent debates over this past summer. The inevitable unraveling effect of error is explored to its end. "If the historicity of the first Adam is considered irrelevant to us, why then should the historicity of the second Adam not also be irrelevant to us?"
Part Three: Christian Education
12. "Biblical Languages and the Art of Gospel Preaching," by Stephen J. Tracey (225–44).
For all the time, money, and heartache spent learning Greek and Hebrew, are you amazed at how quickly it slips away? Most pastors maintain their skills at some minimal level, enough to get by, but Stephen Tracey builds his case that first, our faith rests upon the very Word of God, and second, quoting Luther, that "it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish." Or as Samuel Miller exhorted, "be ready, on all occasions, to explain the Scriptures ... not merely to state and support the more simple and elementary doctrines of the gospel; but also to elucidate with clearness the various parts of the sacred volume, whether doctrinal, historical, typical, prophetic, or practical ... be ready to rectify erroneous translations ... to reconcile seeming contradictions; to clear up real obscurities ... in general, to explain the word of God, as one who has made it the object of his deep and successful study."
13. "Faith and Learning in the Presbyterian Ministry, by James S. Gidley (245–65).
Presbyterians have always sought an educated ministry, but what constitutes adequate preparation? The MTIOPC program has been one successful approach to augmenting the seminary curriculum, the requirement of an internship is another. Perhaps we might argue the church's burden for the careful preparation of her ministers should begin in grade school! But above all our author would remind us that it is God who calls ministers, and that institutional training is secondary to God's preparation of the man.
14. "Fulfilling the Great Commission through Pastoral Internships," by Ronald E. Pearce (267–76).
Ron Pearce sketches the outlines of a well-designed internship program, and the proof of this discipleship program has been displayed over the years in the number of men equipped to stay in long-term, fruitful ministry. As we stand on the shoulders of other saints, it should be noted that Pearce himself interned under the Rev. George Scipione.
15. "Catechetical Instruction in the OPC," by Thomas E. Tyson (277–87).
In this chapter Tom Tyson lays out the goal and duty of catechesis, a brief history of the practice in the early church, the "what" and "how" of teaching it, and then concludes with a review of the practice of catechesis within the OPC. Keep in mind that the practice shouldn't just be limited to our children. Getting parents to catechize their children is also a clever way of educating the adults.
16. "By the Grace of God It Was Done! Reflections on Great Commission Publications," by Thomas R. Patete (289–309).
Patete is the second ecumenical author for our book, and the PCA author presents a concise, readable history of Great Commission Publications, from the OPC origins of GCP on through the organization's thirty-six year history. The Trinity Hymnal has been central to this story and deserves its own fuller account, if someone will write that someday.
17. "A Medium for the Message: The Form of the Message Is Foolish, Too," by Gregory E. Reynolds (311–34).
Having attended Westminster Seminary with Greg Reynolds as a classmate, and watching his career over the years, it is particularly interesting to read this chapter as something of a capstone to his doctoral dissertation. The foolishness of the herald as messenger forces the message of Christ to the forefront and reminds us that salvation is the Lord's monergistic work. As regards a proper humility before the Lord, there is a great consonance here with the editors' opening note, that "the way to Christ is found through the conviction of sin." (1).
Part Four: Mission of the Church
18. "The World Is Not Enough: The Priority of the Church in Christ's Cosmic Headship," by A. Craig Troxel (337–65).
"The biblical truth of the headship of Christ was key to the Reformers in their systematizing of a coherent ecclesiology, and it continues to receive its due in the Reformed family as the 'first principle' and the 'keystone' of Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiology. In a very real sense, the Reformation was an attempt to recover the headship of Christ in the church." And so it continues today, where to cite but one example, debate over biblical worship and the regulative principle is at heart a debate over Christ's headship.
19. "Called to the Ministry," by Bryan D. Estelle (367–75).
The Lord watches over each of his dear children, guiding and enabling them, to his greater glory. The calling and responsibility of ministry is too daunting but for the fact that Christ is at work in your life, that you might have fellowship with him and that you might lift up his name, drawing others to the table in sweet communion.
20. "Power in Weakness," by Mark T. Bube (377–409).
Building from Thornwell and Piper, Mark Bube presents his case "that worship lies at the heart of missions, that a right zeal for the glory of our God is what drives the hearts of his people in missions."
21. "Church Planting in the Presbytery of the Southwest," 1997–2010, by Gary W. Davenport (411–23).
"A new congregation earnestly prays for the Lord's provision for the many obvious needs in a young body. One regular prayer is for the Lord to give the people the eyes of faith to see his provisions come to pass. Nothing happens by accident or coincidence. All motions of creation and the actions of men are governed by God's most wise and sovereign hand. As we ask, seek, and knock, the Lord does attend to even the most incidental details." Would that congregations continue to earnestly pray and seek his face, imploring the Lord to save a dying world.
22. "The Ruling Elder in Church Planting," by John S. Shaw (425–43).
Where would the church be without its ruling elders, without mature leadership? "The growth of the church depends on ruling elders uniquely equipped with these qualities: a heart for the extension of the church; a recognition that the gospel is the first priority of the church; experience as an elder in other churches; an ability to think conceptually (and flexibly) about the church; the heart of a servant; and a willingness to suffer and die for the sake of Christ and his church."
Part Five: Ecumenicity
23. "The Glorious New Zealand Experiment," by Jack W. Sawyer (447–70).
An interesting story and worth telling. Sawyer traces the often parallel paths of the OPC and the Reformed Church of New Zealand. The ties have been so close that an account of the OPC would be incomplete without reference to the RCNZ. I would like to see a comparable account of the work in Uganda. One profitable, humorous aside, on page 461: "Van Dalen, a Dutch speaker himself, also figured out that the key to reading Van Til was to understand that he seem to be 'thinking in Dutch but writing in English.' "
24. "The Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel," by Robert B. Needham (471–84).
Along with Tom Patete's telling of the history of GCP, I greatly value Bob Needham's account of the Joint Commission. These are important stories that bear witness to the Lord's work in what are often difficult places. The final pages of Needham's article are useful for their scriptural defense of chaplaincy. My archivist's heart has me hoping someone is carefully preserving a set of the monthly Prayer Plea.
25. "Reflections on the OPC and the URCNA," by W. Robert Godfrey (485–94).
Dr. Godfrey's ecumenical concern for the larger Reformed community is near legendary, by way of his essay "A Reformed Dream." He quotes Machen and reveals his own heart as well: "Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus' name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world." It is a dear, sweet picture of the earthly refuge that is the church, and I fear the coming years will only make that refuge all the more precious and rare. May we all, as God's people, be a humble, praying people.
26. "The Audacity to Be Reformed: The OPC and the Next Twenty-five Years," by J. V. Fesko (497–510).
Dr. Fesko offers an apt word which is at once a reflection on the OPC's past as well as her future challenges: "The church is not built upon adiaphora. Fundamentalism is not the way to promote the gospel or protect the church. On the other hand, we need not dilute the message of the Reformed faith; nor can we make the truths of Scripture less offensive if we simply ignore or hide them ... We must not allow internecine discussions over debatable matters [to] distract us from the more fundamental and crucial mission of spreading the gospel to a lost and dying world." (510).
If God has so equipped a little church with a big mouth (cf. 466, fn. 38), may her voice always be full with the pure gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. To God alone be all glory.
Wayne Sparkman is director of the PCA Historical Center and a ruling elder in Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Missouri. Ordained Servant Online, January 2012.