The OPC was born in the midst of controversy. As we noted earlier, J. Gresham Machen wrote privately to one fellow minister that the greatest qualification for being a part of the conservative Presbyterian movement was that he “be a fighter.” In fact, Machen thought the cause of the OPC would “die of inaction” unless pastors and elders kept up the “ecclesiastical fight.”
These are not the sentiments we associate with ecumenicity, the effort to make visible the unity of the body of Christ. Machen’s words may strike readers today, as they did his contemporaries in the mainline Presbyterian Church, as narrow, intolerant, and mean—the exact opposite of those characteristics necessary for seeking closer ties between the various Christian communions. And it cannot be denied that Machen opposed the broad church policies which dominated American Protestantism during his life. But these policies which seemed to display tolerance and love, as he argued, actually stemmed from thorough-going indifference to the teachings of the Bible and the claims of the Westminster Confession.
Thus, from its inception the OPC has had the reputation of being anti-ecumenical. But this reputation has been based upon a false understanding of ecumenicity. The OPC has clearly opposed the kind of ecumenical relations favored by liberal Protestantism (and sometimes by evangelicalism), but it does possess a remarkable record of seeking fraternal relations with Presbyterian and Reformed bodies around the world. The OPC, as it turns out, has not been anti-ecumenical but rather has pursued ecumenicity for very different reasons from those of mainline Protestantism. It has sought fellowship with other communions not out of sentimental and vague ideals of good will and Christian brotherhood, but rather on the basis of its commitment to the Reformed faith. As Machen explained,
We do not risk losing our Christian fellowship with our true brethren in other communions if we hold honestly to our ordination pledge. Let us hold to it honestly; and let us not abandon in the interests of any vague inter-denominationalism or anti-denominationalism, that great system of revealed truth which is taught in holy Scripture and is so gloriously summarized in the Standards of our Church.
The chapters which follow demonstrate how the OPC has carried out this conception of ecumenicity. While its rigorous commitment to the Westminster Standards has often cut the church off (at least on a formal level) from other Protestants in the United States, both evangelicals and liberals, the OPC has consistently held cordial and deep relationships with Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the United States and in other countries. The OPC’s ecumenical policies make clear that doctrine or common confession is the basis for unity and fellowship with other Christians. Indeed, what unites the OPC with other churches is not a shared commitment to America’s well-being or to world order, as important as social stability is for the proclamation of the gospel. Rather, what unites the church to other Reformed communions is a common confession about the Lord of glory, the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and the nature and means of salvation offered in the gospel.
With the division of 1937, the OPC signaled that it was not a fundamentalist church. Though the denomination was born in the context of combatting modernism, the founders of the OPC had more in mind than merely fighting liberal theology. Equally important was the church’s Reformed identity. And as the decisions of the first three general assemblies made clear, the OPC was not merely conservative but resolutely Presbyterian. Indeed, as Machen had argued many times throughout the fundamentalist controversy, the surest safeguard against modernism was not some lowest-common-denominator conservative theology but rather a deep commitment to Presbyterian faith and practice as revealed in God’s Word.
While many would concede that the OPC is not a fundamentalist church, some might wonder whether it would be fair to describe the denomination as evangelical. After all, evangelical Christianity is also conservative theologically (i.e., suspicious of liberal Protestantism) and avoids the excesses of fundamentalism. Also, evangelicals tend to be conservative politically and socially, a characteristic that entails concerns about a number of social problems that also trouble Orthodox Presbyterians.
Much of the debate about whether the OPC is evangelical depends upon one’s definition of evangelicalism. The origins of the word “evangelical” date back to the Protestant Reformation when followers of Martin Luther designated themselves evangelical because they believed they had rediscovered the gospel (euangelion). To this day, Lutheran churches in Germany are still known as evangelical. In the United States, the evangelical label has had less to do with denominations or churches than with revivalism, itinerant evangelists, and the recounting of one’s conversion experience. Despite the Calvinistic theology which inspired the eighteenth-century revivals of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, the pattern of itinerant preaching and mass meetings that was set into motion during the First Great Awakening stamped American evangelicalism indelibly with its distinctive style. With the revivals of Charles Finney at the time of the Second Great Awakening, learning, tradition, formality, and ordination took a back seat to the sovereignty of the audience, charismatic leadership, and pragmatic know-how.
But while the evangelical tradition in America has such a long history, contemporary evangelicalism has a considerably narrower focus. The fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s severed the ties that bound mainstream Protestantism and spawned a few new denominations, numerous independent congregations, and a host of parachurch organizations that in the 1940s came together to constitute the movement we today call evangelicalism. Interestingly, though the OPC shared many of the aims of this new evangelicalism, it remained organizationally separate as church leaders declined invitations to join what would become the associations of the evangelical establishment. To some evangelicals, the OPC’s unwillingness to cooperate with other conservatives was as indicative of folly as it was of pride. But in the light of its Reformed identity, the OPC’s coolness toward the new evangelicalism made perfect sense.
Relations between the OPC and other conservative Protestant denominations and organizations was the background for perhaps the greatest theological debate that has ever occurred in the denomination’s history. This was the notorious controversy from 1943 to 1948 over the ordination of Gordon H. Clark, who was for much of his career professor of philosophy at Butler University and for a brief time a minister in the OPC. The doctrine at issue specifically was the incomprehensibility of God, or the degree to which men and women know God truly. But the sometimes obscure theological debates at work in this conflict were always bound up with the larger question about the OPC’s relationship to the broader evangelical community and the church’s Presbyterian identity. Would the church be narrowly Reformed or would it be an important voice in the larger project of restoring Christianity in America? The debates over Clark revealed two different visions for the mission and character of the OPC.
The controversy began in 1943 when Clark sought ordination by the OPC’s Presbytery of Philadelphia. From 1936 until 1943, Clark had been professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. J. Oliver Buswell had hired him to teach at the evangelical liberal arts college. But Buswell’s involvement in the Presbyterian controversies of the 1930s led college officials to request his resignation as president. And with Buswell gone, Clark’s Calvinistic teaching and strong views on predestination found few sympathetic ears. In 1943 the new president of Wheaton College, V. Raymond Edman, asked Clark to resign because his theology was said to undermine the school’s commitment to evangelism and missions.
With a view toward teaching at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia, Clark requested ordination from the OPC’s Presbytery of Philadelphia. Though he lacked formal theological training, Clark was a gifted philosopher, having earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and having authored several textbooks on various aspects of philosophy. He also had a reputation for being a scintillating lecturer who captivated students with his powers of reasoning. Furthermore, Clark had been an active elder in the church, and a frequent contributor to the Presbyterian Guardian. Consequently, the Presbytery of Philadelphia waived some of its ordination requirements and proceeded to examine Clark’s theological views. While the presbytery voted 15 to 13 to sustain Clark in his candidacy for the ministry, the OPC’s Form of Government requires that ministerial candidates be approved by a three-fourths majority. So Clark would have to face another examination by the presbytery, which occurred in July 1944. This time Clark passed. He was licensed to preach and ordained at the same meeting.
What emerged during debates in the presbytery over Clark’s views were two different perspectives, very similar to the ones which in 1937 had disrupted the OPC. Those who supported Clark comprised the party of “American Presbyterianism.”
After the departure of Carl Mclntire and the formation of the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the doctrines of dispensationalism and premillennialism were no longer at issue but other points of contention remained. Those in the Americanist party opposed the leadership which the faculty of Westminster Seminary exerted in the OPC. They blamed such Dutch and Scotch Calvinists as Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, and John Murray for giving the church an image of being overly doctrinaire and unnecessarily sectarian. American Presbyterianism, according to Clark’s supporters, had always made room for cooperating with Christians who were not Calvinists and promoted such social causes as Prohibition.
Differences between these two points of view came to the surface in an exchange in the Presbyterian Guardian. Dr. Edward J. Young, professor of Old Testament at Westminster, in the September 25, 1944 issue asked the question, “Is Arminianism the Gospel?” His answer was a definitive “no!” Young rejected Arminian teaching which gave man the final say in salvation and affirmed the characteristic Calvinistic notion that God alone is sovereign in redemption. To this article Dr. Robert Strong, minister to an OP congregation just outside Philadelphia, replied that Young was guilty of “loose reasoning,” argued that many Arminians did in fact preach the gospel, and warned lest the OPC define Christianity only in terms of Calvinism.
As it happened, Strong had stepped in at the beginning of the struggle over Clark’s ordination. For at the same time that Strong challenged Young’s defense of Calvinism, thirteen members of the Presbytery of Philadelphia objected to Clark’s licensure and ordination, led by Ned Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, R. B. Kuiper, Paul Woolley, and Edward J. Young. Their complaint pointed out that the proceedings of the July presbytery meeting were irregular and that Clark’s theological views should have prevented him from being ordained. Specifically, the complainants objected to Clark’s ideas about human knowledge of God. Even though they agreed that God could be known by men and women because of his revelation in Scripture and through the work of the Holy Spirit, they maintained against Clark that such human knowledge is never identical to God’s knowledge. Indeed, Clark’s opponents believed that Clark came perilously close to denying the qualitative distinction between the knowledge of the Creator and the knowledge of the creature. They also accused Clark of denying the difference between the knowledge of God which believers have as opposed to unbelievers (the effect of regeneration on the intellect), and of holding hyper-Calvinistic views about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the free offer of the gospel. To his credit, there can be no doubt of Clark’s sincerity and zeal to defend the truths of Scripture. But Clark’s claim to explain the great mysteries of the Bible appeared to lead to rationalistic qualifications of the very truths he had set out to defend.
Even though Clark was in no respect friendly toward Arminianism, his ordination became part of the larger struggle between the party of American Presbyterianism and the faculty at Westminster Seminary. The Americanists particularly believed that Clark sympathized with their goals. He was also known to oppose key elements in the presuppositional apologetics of Dr. Van Til. Hence, for Americanists in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, defending Clark was a key element in their cause. In fact, Dr. Strong in 1944 went so far as to issue “A Program of Action in the OPC,” a plan which involved four specific objectives: 1) the ordination of Gordon H. Clark, 2) affiliation with one of the larger interdenominational fundamentalist associations, 3) an official declaration against the sale and distribution of liquor, and 4) supervision by the OPC of Westminster Seminary and the Presbyterian Guardian. Clark’s ordination, therefore, was just one facet of a much larger effort to control the denomination.
In response to the complaint filed by opponents of Clark’s ordination, the Presbytery of Philadelphia appointed a committee of five, including Clark and Strong. Their task was to reply to Clark’s critics. The committee cleared Clark of the charges that he denied the distinction between the Creator and creature, that he held a faulty understanding of regeneration, and that his views on salvation deviated from the theology of the Westminster Confession. In effect, Clark, through the committee, denied all charges, and where the points at issue concerned philosophical differences he held that the Confession of Faith allowed for a diversity of views, especially regarding the nature of human knowledge of God. Clark’s response was not merely defensive. He also protested that his critics encouraged agnosticism and skepticism. If we do not know the things God has revealed in the same way as God knows them, he reasoned, then there is no connection between God’s and our knowledge and we are left with “unmitigated skepticism.” The committee’s report received close scrutiny and initiated a lengthy debate. Though it was not adopted by presbytery, it did allow Clark the chance to explain his views.
With the matter unresolved, the Clark controversy came before the General Assembly of 1945 by appeal. This body ruled that the Presbytery of Philadelphia had erred in ordaining Clark, not because of problems in his theology, but because the presbytery had not allowed for sufficient time between Clark’s licensure and ordination. The presbytery should not have decided upon Clark’s licensure and ordination at the same meeting. Still, the assembly did not overturn Clark’s ordination. The general assembly was, however, concerned about the doctrinal problems raised in the Clark affair and appointed a committee to look into this aspect of the debate, thus upholding the OPC’s reputation for theological and procedural precision. At the same time that other Protestant churches in America considered how they might best respond to the temporal crises stemming from World War II, the OPC pursued vigorously an issue which must have seemed an extraneous consideration to a world ravaged by war. But the OPC has always viewed questions of grace and eternal salvation as the most weighty of human considerations and has understood that the primary task of the church is to address matters such as this, even if unimportant by the world’s standards.
The majority report from the committee appointed by the general assembly to look into the affair sided with Clark. As the reports indicated, part of the problem stemmed from a flawed stenographic record of Clark’s examination before presbytery. It was not complete and in many instances communicated inaccuracies. This made the task of figuring out Clark’s views extremely difficult. The majority, taking into account the problems of the record, concluded that the complaints against Clark could not be sustained. While committee members may not have cared for some of Clark’s expressions and would have asked for further clarification had they been at the exam, they decided that Clark’s ideas did not contradict Scripture or the Westminster Standards.
One of the members of the committee appointed by the general assembly was John Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster. Until this time he had taken no direct part in the controversy because he belonged to the Presbytery of New York and New England. In comparison with other systematic theologians of his time, Murray was notable, if not unique, for his ability to derive clear doctrinal formulations from careful exegesis, thus showing that the truths of the Reformed faith come straight from Scripture. In the end, Murray was the decisive figure in the Clark controversy. His learned and faithful work in the areas of God’s incomprehensibility and the free offer of the gospel made a lasting contribution to twentieth-century Reformed theology.
In the minority report, Murray agreed with the majority in many respects, but was disturbed as much by the presbytery’s ordination of Clark as by his views. He did not think that Clark had contradicted the Bible or the Confession, but did believe that the presbytery should not have been satisfied with Clark’s answers and should have pushed him for a fuller expression of all his views before approving his candidacy. Murray viewed statements in Clark’s answers about the incomprehensibility of God as insufficient, not erroneous. Rather than describing God’s incomprehensibility in relation to the various ways that humans receive knowledge about God, Murray wrote, “the incomprehensibility of God should be stated in terms of the transcendent glory and mystery of the being, relations, perfections and counsel of God.” In other words, it was not so much that Clark’s ideas about the relationship between human and divine knowledge were in correct, but that Clark’s thoughts did not do justice to the majesty and glory of God. Murray sensed that Clark had not given a “satisfactory and unequivocal” expression of the magnitude and mystery of God’s glory. Rather than arguing that Clark should not have been ordained, the minority report asked for further examination of Clark before approving him for the ministry.
Both reports, then, typified the OPC’s high regard for Reformed confessionalism. The majority believed that as long as a candidate was in agreement with the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Westminster Confession, he should be licensed and ordained. Murray’s minority report, however, reflected the theological convictions at the heart of Reformed theology. As the first answer to the Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Indeed, Calvinist theology begins and ends with God’s glory. And because Clark did not unequivocally make the majesty and mystery of God’s glory the foundation for theology, Murray, who spoke for other critics of Clark, believed that Clark should be called upon to give a fuller and better expression of his views. This report confirmed what many had suspected, namely, that significant theological matters were at stake. In turn, the General Assembly of 1946 appointed another committee to study and clarify the doctrines of “the incomprehensibility of God, the position of the intellect in reference to other faculties, the relation of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the free offer of the gospel.”
The new committee, which included Murray and Stonehouse, labored diligently and prepared a report of fifty-four pages that was printed in the Agenda for the 1947 Assembly. But the report never made it to the floor of the general assembly owing to a dramatic turn during the proceedings of the 1947 gathering. The event which absorbed the attention of the delegates was the decision by the Committee on Foreign Missions not to send Floyd E. Hamilton to Korea. A veteran of missionary work in Korea, Hamilton had been invited to return and teach at a seminary. The Committee on Foreign Missions, however, which included John Murray, was unwilling to send Hamilton because of his advocacy and defense of Clark’s views.
Thus, the Clark controversy spilled over onto other aspects of the OPC’s work. And again, the “American Presbyterian” party took up the task of overruling the Committee on Foreign Missions. The same theological problems were debated afresh, but now they were clothed in the rhetoric of missions and the nature of the call to the ministry. Commissioners on both sides of the debate presented vigorous speeches, but the assembly could not reach a decision about whether to send Hamilton. What finally broke the deadlock was the reelection of Murray to the Committee on Foreign Missions by the margin of a single vote. At this point the coalition supporting Clark began to disintegrate. Hamilton withdrew as a missionary and others resigned from membership on various committees. This began a gradual withdrawal of significant ministers (e.g. Clark, Strong, and Hamilton) and congregations from the OPC. Clark, who in 1945 had become professor of philosophy at Butler University, would eventually join the United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Still, the great theological issues raised in the Clark controversy had not been resolved. To that end the General Assembly of 1947 appointed yet a third committee, again including Murray and Stonehouse. This body presented to the assembly the following year a ninety-six page document which was printed in the Minutes and contained a majority report and four minority reports. In the end, the doctrinal position of the faculty of Westminster Seminary prevailed, especially because of the strength of the majority report.
Several factors were at work in this controversy. One important difference between Clark and the faculty at Westminster, especially Cornelius Van Til, concerned divergent apologetical methods. Clark came from a tradition of Protestant apologetics that stressed the reasonableness of the Christian religion and the powers of human logic. He advanced the notion that the intellectual powers of fallen men and women still permitted the recognition of truth, even in spiritual matters. Van Til, in contrast, developed an apologetic for Christianity called presuppositionalism. This outlook took seriously the effects of sin upon human reason. Van Til posited a fundamental antithesis between the intellects of believers and unbelievers. In the same way that the fall caused the will to rebel and the emotions to hate God, so sin also incapacitated the mind from seeing reality truly. In effect, Van Til’s understanding of the effects of sin upon the intellect taught, contrary to the modern myth of objective science and disinterested observation, that the mind, as well as the will and emotions, was prone to distort reality in the interests of sinful human nature.
But the Clark controversy involved more than different schools of defending the faith. This explains why Murray, not Van Til, emerged as the chief critic of Clark. Indeed, it is significant, contrary to the impression created by referring to this conflict as the “Clark-Van Til Controversy,” that Van Til did not write about the affair until 1949, after the crisis had ended. Clark’s overestimation of the ability of the mind to see truth accurately apart from the work of the Holy Spirit had important and pernicious theological consequences. Not only did Clark’s views imply that regeneration was unnecessary for some true knowledge, but the idea that human knowledge, even that of unbelievers, was the same in some ways to God’s knowledge, appeared to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture and the Reformed confessions that an enormous chasm exists between the sovereign Lord of the universe and his finite creation, even those creatures who bear the divine image. Van Til’s apologetics, in other words, started with the fundamental Reformed teaching about the fall and the necessity of grace for all human endeavors. What is more, Van Til’s teaching underscored the Calvinistic emphasis upon God’s sovereignty and glory. God’s revelation and activity in removing the blinding effects of sin were at the heart of Van Til’s system, not the character and power of the human mind. As Murray wrote in 1946, the issue was not apologetical methods but rather “the place that the transcendent mystery of God’s being, perfections, counsel and will should occupy both in our thinking and in our theology.” In sum, Clark failed to express unequivocally a God-centered understanding of the Christian religion.
The OPC, therefore, emerged from the Clark controversy with firm convictions about certain biblical truths: that the incomprehensible God, who is always incomprehensible to finite minds, has revealed himself to us so that we know him truly; that while truth is one there is also a qualitative distinction between God’s knowledge and ours; that there is also a difference between the knowledge of the believer and the unbeliever because of the enlightening effects of regeneration in the former and the blinding effects of unregenerate human nature in the latter; that God in his wisdom has revealed profound truths which are beyond the capacity of human reason to reconcile, such as divine predestination and man’s free agency; and that the free offer of the gospel to all men expresses God’s true desire that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of him.
The irony that emerged during this controversy should not be overlooked. The OPC, because of its careful adherence to the Westminster Standards, has long been criticized as overly rationalistic and intellectual. The Reformed faith, according to its critics, does not properly acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit or the influence of the will and emotions in saving faith and knowledge of God. The typical caricature of Reformed theology is that salvation is the logical result of accepting certain rational propositions about God, Jesus, and the Bible. The Clark controversy demonstrates how far from the mark such objections are. For despite the OPC’s high regard for the Westminster Standards and the value of theological reflection for the church, throughout the Clark controversy came clear affirmations of the primacy of the Holy Spirit, the fallenness of human reason, and the inability of men and women to comprehend the mysterious ways of a righteous and holy God.
As much as the controversy surrounding Clark’s ordination concerned core convictions of the Reformed faith, it also said a good deal about the OPC. As indicated above, in the background of these debates was a battle over the denomination’s relations to evangelical churches and parachurch organizations. Clark’s most vociferous supporters wanted the OPC to be a church for all who opposed modernism. Evangelicals, from this perspective, were welcome in the church as long as they fought liberal theology. Clark’s opponents, however, wanted the church’s identity to be explicitly Reformed. While Reformed theology includes a firm rejection of modernism, defending and propagating the system of doctrine taught by the Westminster Standards was at the heart of the church’s mission. By provoking Clark’s departure from the church along with that of his most vocal backers, the controversy decisively shaped the OPC’s identity and relationship to other American Protestants.
Interestingly enough, almost at the same time that the ordination of Clark sparked lively debates in the OPC, the denomination was forced to consider its connections to a new presence in American Protestantism. In 1942 the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded to organize and represent the interests of conservative Protestants who were at odds with the vision of mainline Protestantism as represented by the liberal agency, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches). In a number of national affairs, military chaplaincy, access to radio, and documents for foreign missions, conservative Protestants had no means other than the Federal Council for addressing the federal government. In addition, the NAE sponsored a number of projects designed to promote a revival of Christianity in the United States and restore the nation to its religious and moral heritage. Though its leaders recognized that mainline churches were tainted by modernism, the NAE did not bar ministers and churches which were still members of a liberal denomination. After all, the conservatives who remained in the mainline Presbyterian Church also needed many of the services that the NAE would provide. The NAE’s first president was the nationally recognized pastor of Boston’s Park Street Church, Harold John Ockenga, a graduate of Westminster Seminary, an ally of Machen for a time in the 1930s and, consequently, well-known in the OPC.
The OPC was invited but refused in 1943 to join the NAE. A major obstacle was the NAE’s inconsistent position on modernism. How could a body that was opposed to liberalism allow its president, Ockenga, to retain his membership in a modernist denomination, the United Congregational Churches of Christ? By not opposing modernism in a consistent way, the NAE’s voice would always be compromised. Even more objectionable was the constituency of the new organization, which was composed of different Protestant theological traditions from Pentecostals to Presbyterians. Such a divergent assortment of doctrinal positions would weaken the NAE, forcing it to find a least-common-denominator theology for its activities. Finally, the OPC criticized the NAE’s plans to conduct evangelism and missions. These activities were properly a part of the visible church’s tasks and were not to be undertaken by a parachurch organization which had no system of oversight by or accountability to church officers.
At its Twelfth General Assembly in 1945 the OPC forged its policies on ecumenicity. In spite of doctrinal and governmental errors in non-Reformed churches, “churches other than Reformed communions” should be recognized as “manifestations of Christ’s body.” But because of these impurities, the OPC could not unite with denominations outside the Reformed faith. For this reason the church affiliated in 1948 with the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES). This fellowship had been founded in 1946 to maintain and defend the Reformed faith throughout the world and was comprised of Reformed and Presbyterian churches from Northern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, and America. The only churches to join the RES from the United States were the OPC, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Free Magyar Reformed Church in America. By seeking fellowship in an international community that was Reformed rather than merely conservative, the OPC stood apart from the evangelicals sponsoring the NAE whose theology was broadly conservative but whose purposes were informed more by the religious situation in America than by concern for theological consistency and a high view of the visible church.
It is hard to miss the concurrence of the Clark controversy and the OPC’s decisions about ecumenical relations. At the time the Clark controversy started, in 1943, the OPC was considering the NAE’s invitation. And at the time the OPC joined the RES, in 1948, the Clark controversy was ending. This timing was not coincidental.
Clark and his supporters wanted the OPC to join forces with other conservatives in the United States. The basis for this union was not the explicitly Reformed views of the Westminster faculty but rather the broad mission of opposing modernism and banding together for effective outreach. In 1943 Clark went so far as to invite all foes of liberalism to join the OPC. Ministers in the OPC who sided with Clark also hoped the church would become more evangelical than Reformed. Floyd Hamilton, for instance, said that instead of squabbling over extra-confessional points like the incomprehensibility of God, the OPC should be “fighting Modernism and unbelief in the world at large.” Despite desires to impact the world, Clark and Hamilton were suspicious of the non-American leadership provided by the Westminster faculty such as the Scotsman, Murray, and the Dutchmen, Van Til, Stonehouse, and Kuiper. Clark himself spoke of his desire to preserve “the American tradition in Presbyterianism,” and Hamilton accused Westminster’s faculty of leading the church into Reformed traditions from “other lands.” Most disconcerting to Clark and his defenders was the OPC’s diminished influence within the emerging evangelical movement. Instead of leading conservatives, Clark complained, the OPC had assumed the position of “an isolationist porcupine.” Hamilton concurred. He declared that the denomination had come to a fork in the road; it could either be a “small, circumscribed, obscure group,” or “a thriving, vigorous, militant, Bible-believing denomination,” playing “a definite part in arousing” America to “its deadly peril.”
Despite these criticisms of the OPC, the church, by remaining outside the new evangelical movement and by joining an international association of Reformed churches, rejected Clark’s vision for the denomination. The OPC was to be a distinctly Reformed denomination as defined by the Westminster Standards, not “evangelical” or “conservative” as defined by the new evangelical movement. Clark’s departure from the OPC, and that of several of his supporters, was indicative of the denomination’s stand. To be sure, the church would oppose modernism but it would not stop there. Positively, it would defend and propagate Reformed theology and adhere to Presbyterian church government as its faithful witness to God’s Word. Leaders of the OPC knew that its Reformed identity would not generate large numbers or huge buildings. According to Paul Woolley, the church could either have “many members and much money and read about itself in the newspapers” or it could promote “a growing revival of the preaching, teaching and application of the biblical and Reformed faith.” But it could not have both. In its deliberations during the Clark controversy, the OPC made clear that faithfulness was more important than influence.
Those who left the OPC with Clark were saddened by the church’s vision. They believed that the church had been founded to oppose “soul-destroying Modernism” and was now moving away from its original vision. But as we have already seen, the forming of the OPC involved far more than fundamentalist opposition to modernism. Machen was dedicated to maintaining and preserving a Reformed testimony. The 1937 split of the OPC indicated that the church was also committed to Presbyterian faith and practice, not for tradition’s sake, but to be true to God’s revealed Word. Far from repudiating its origins, the OPC, in the debate over Clark’s position and in its deliberations about cooperation with evangelicals, was actually being faithful to the convictions that brought it into existence. To be sure, the OPC’s Reformed identity has meant that it has been marginal to what many regard as important and powerful organizations and associations in American church life and culture. But the Bible teaches that God does not use the magnificent and mighty to achieve his ends. Rather, as the apostle Paul wrote, God uses “jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power” is from him only. As such, the OPC is always prone to failure and error. The weakness of human efforts and the sufficiency of God’s grace also mean that the church has a precious message and a unique task to testify to the wonderful truths of the Reformed faith.
One of the hallmarks of the OPC has been its effort to preserve and perpetuate Reformed piety. The church has been content not merely with defending and maintaining Calvinism as a theological system, but has also been concerned to serve and worship God, both on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week, in a way that flows from the great doctrinal truths expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. A characteristic expression of the OPC’s understanding of Reformed piety was found in the charter for Westminster Seminary: “The Christian life is the fruit of Christian doctrine, not its root, and Christian experience must be tested by the Bible, not the Bible by Christian experience.”
The Presbyterian and Reformed approach to the Christian life has throughout the church’s history in the United States been opposed and misunderstood by non-Calvinistic evangelicals. In fact, the history of modern evangelicalism can be written as a struggle to circumvent Reformed teachings about Christian experience in order to find what is thought to be a more satisfying and vital awareness of God and his mercy. To be sure, pietism and mysticism were present since the early church. But especially over the past 250 years, American evangelical longings for direct, immediate experience of God’s presence and for sure and certain evidence of grace have thrived at the expense of Reformed teachings about the centrality of God’s Word and the sufficiency of the means of grace. For instance, church historian Richard F. Lovelace has criticized churches like the OPC for putting correct theology above religious experience. He writes that “doctrinal fidelity has been given such primacy over spiritual reality that those with the wrong system or the wrong theory of inspiration have been read out of the kingdom as worshipers of a false and unbiblical Christ.”
While Orthodox Presbyterians may want to phrase that statement differently, the truth remains that the OPC has persistently swum upstream against the flood of popular evangelical ideas which put experience and conduct above doctrine. The church has been sharply critical of the charismatic movement’s teachings which over the last forty years have had broad appeal to believers searching for an intense and supernatural awareness of God’s power. The OPC, adhering to the Reformed tradition, has insisted, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, that the Bible is the “supreme judge” of all matters of faith, that with the formation of the canon of Scripture the operation of the Holy Spirit is always tied directly to God’s revealed Word, and that the “whole counsel of God” is set down in Scripture alone. Because the Reformed doctrine of the Word of God teaches that the work of the Holy Spirit does not occur apart from Scripture, it also directs the believer to look for signs of God’s power not in private illuminations or mystical experience but in meditation upon and through interaction with the Scriptures.
The OPC, because of its Reformed convictions, has also been critical of evangelical teachings which minimize the individual believer’s struggle with sin. Evangelicals under the influence of Arminian ideas about human depravity and grace have gained broad appeal by offering a variety of how-to techniques for living a good and moral life, and by suggesting that the avoidance of specific sins is proof of salvation. Again, Reformed teaching takes a dim view of such optimistic assessments of the Christian walk. On the one hand, the Westminster Confession states that believers’ sanctification will be “imperfect in this life”; our struggle with sin will never be finished this side of glory and, therefore, will never be easy. For this reason the Reformed have conceived of sanctification in terms of warfare. Through the Holy Spirit we do battle with the flesh, or our sinful nature. On the other hand, while admitting that sanctification is a battle, the Reformed tradition has also insisted that the good works done by believers are never entirely good. Even though good works do confirm and assure us of our faith, they are nevertheless, according to the Westminster Confession, “defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment” because of our lingering corruption. These convictions have nurtured an ethos within the OPC which is suspicious of the myriad of “become-good-soon” schemes that are so prevalent on the airwaves and in the popular religious press.
Thus the OPC’s understanding of the Christian life, in both its experiential and ethical dimensions, has made its relationship with mainstream evangelicalism lukewarm and at times strained. Evidence of tensions between the Reformed tradition and American evangelicalism, as we saw in the last chapter, surfaced early in the OPC’s history during the Clark case. And while the church emerged from that controversy with a clearer sense of its Reformed identity, by no means was there a uniform understanding of the OPC’s doctrine and worship. Instead, another controversy, the Peniel dispute, would follow right on the heels of the Clark case and would also be significant for establishing the Reformed character of the church and for inculcating within the OPC a greater appreciation for the edifying doctrines of the Reformed faith. Indeed, to understand conflicts like the Clark case and the Peniel dispute is to appreciate the denomination’s reluctance to enter into fraternal relations with other churches and to grasp its doubts about the wisdom and benefits of parachurch organizations.
The debates over the teachings of the Peniel Bible Conference began in 1948 just as the Clark debates ended, and they would last for two decades. But the origins of Peniel itself go back even before the founding of the OPC. In 1930, individuals from several modernist churches in Schenectady, New York, formed a Bible study. Two teachers from the nearby Albany Bible Institute, Susan Beers and Rhoda Armstrong, assisted in the teaching. Eventually the group met for summer retreats at Lake Luzerne, and organized under the name Peniel Bible Conference. Through the years the teachings at Peniel conferences took on distinct characteristics which some observers called “novel and strange.” These distinctives, as we shall see, focused on the process of a believer’s sanctification and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As the conference grew in size and influence, its leadership branched out to include members of several denominations, including ministers from the OPC. And in 1938, several members of the Bible conference would help in forming Calvary OPC in Schenectady. Early discussions of Peniel in the OPC, therefore, took place in the Presbytery of New York and New England. In 1952, however, discussions would shift to the Presbytery of Philadelphia when a licentiate named G. Travers Sloyer, who was associated with the Peniel movement, transferred to that presbytery. Since 1950, Sloyer had been supplying the pulpit of Redeemer Church in Philadelphia. In 1952 the Presbytery of Philadelphia voted (13 to 4) to revoke Sloyer’s license on grounds that his views on guidance and sanctification were “equivalent to new revelations of the Spirit,” a violation of the Westminster Confession (1.6). Sloyer appealed to the general assembly, which ordered his license restored while presbytery reexamined the case. (During this time Sloyer had, contrary to the desires of presbytery, continued to fill the pulpit of Redeemer.) The next year presbytery revoked his license a second time, again citing conflicts with the Westminster Confession. Sloyer’s supporters countered that his views on guidance were entirely in harmony with the Scriptures and the confession. They conceded that Sloyer had expressed himself in unguarded ways but claimed that he provided no evidence of holding erroneous views.
By the end of the year Sloyer would be reinstated again, and in July of 1954, he was ordained and installed at Redeemer Church. The controversy did not end at this point, however. It erupted again in August of 1957, when thirteen members of Redeemer Church complained that the session had been delinquent “in its failure to protect the members of the congregation from false doctrines of guidance and sanctification.” In their statements the complainants referred to deep discord which had been the result of an attitude of “spiritual exclusiveness” displayed by Peniel supporters. The “cancerous sectarianism” of Peniel had motivated many of the complainants to go so far as to remove their children from Sunday school.
When the complaint was denied by the session an appeal was sent to presbytery. Later in the fall of 1957, the Presbytery of Philadelphia declined to find the session “delinquent” but directed it to engage in “active resistance to these practices.” When Sloyer and the session refused to accept this directive, the presbytery voted to dissolve the pastoral relationship between Sloyer and Redeemer Church. Sloyer eventually resigned from the presbytery and, with twenty members of the congregation, withdrew from the OPC. To the very end Sloyer insisted that he had no basic disagreement with the church’s confessional standards. In his letter of resignation he charged his opponents with “the disposition to destroy anything or anyone associated or sympathetic with the Peniel Bible Conference.” Eventually Sloyer would join the Reformed Church in America.
His departure did not bring an end to the Peniel dispute. In fact, the controversial teachings of Peniel would continue to draw the attention of several general assemblies. In 1961, the Twenty-Eighth Assembly eventually ruled that the Peniel teachings represented “a deviation from the doctrine set forth in the Word of God and our subordinate standards.” OP ministers who were members of Peniel were further in structed to “disavow such erroneous views.” The next year the assembly followed up this decision by appointing a committee to study the matter of guidance. This committee ultimately produced three reports, the final one being submitted in 1969. Six years earlier, the small remnant of the Redeemer Church had disbanded.
Peniel must be understood against the backdrop of larger developments in American evangelicalism. When Machen articulated that Christianity was “a way of life founded upon a doctrine,” he was primarily championing the primacy of doctrine over against the triumph of experience in religious modernism. But similar thinking was taking root in evangelical circles. Twentieth-century evangelicalism has increasingly focused on the self. David Wells locates the sources of this fascination with experience in the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century, where a concern for soul-winning eclipsed a Calvinistic passion for truth and the glory of God. “Evangelicals, no less than liberals before them whom they berated,” Wells writes, “have abandoned doctrine in favor of life.” They have tended to reduce piety to technique and make the exercise of specific disciplines (such as quiet time) the key to spiritual growth.
The OPC saw in Peniel teachings just these sorts of subjective approaches to the life of the Christian believer. Peniel thrived upon a series of steps which would assist believers in the process of sanctification, such as “meeting the cross” and “denying Satan.” The OPC (contrary to Peniel countercharges) never challenged the role of the believer in appropriating the benefits of salvation. Yet it charged that, according to Peniel teaching, these steps automatically produced the intended results, thus displaying a mechanical and perfectionistic understanding of sanctification which oversimplified the complexity of the wrestling with indwelling sin to which Scripture calls all Christians. Further, the OPC claimed that Peniel teaching formalized “the relation of the believer to the Holy Spirit, as if the work of the Spirit were dependent on the will of man.”
From the perspective of the OPC, Peniel also asserted a distinct way in which the believer could enjoy communion with the Holy Spirit, and this aspect of the controversy moved debate toward the doctrine of guidance. The assembly stated that the sufficiency of Scripture had to be guarded in any affirmations about the guidance of the Holy Spirit: the Bible was, according to the confession, “the only infallible rule of practice.” Defenders of Peniel contended that they taught no new revelations of the Spirit. However, by asserting that the Holy Spirit provides to believers some direct feelings or impressions, or convictions, Peniel was in effect teaching that the Holy Spirit gives special revelation. The Spirit’s work, in other words according to Peniel, is not mediated to us through those means which God has ordained for the believer’s guidance. In essence, Peniel teaching abstracted or divided the work of the Holy Spirit from the infallible and sufficient rule of the Bible.
In a paper on guidance, John Murray acknowledged that believers, as subjects of the Spirit’s work, do have “feelings, impressions, convictions, urges, inhibitions, impulses, burdens, [and] resolutions.” But these states of consciousness themselves are not the “direct intimation to us of the Holy Spirit’s will.” To say so is to commit oneself necessarily to the notion of special revelation. Murray wrote, “The only way whereby we can avoid this error is to maintain that the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit is through the means which he has provided and that his work is to enable us rightly to interpret and apply the Scriptures in the various situations of life and to enable us to interpret all the factors which enter into each situation in the light of Scripture.”
Peniel advocates responded by accusing Murray of limiting and restricting the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Sloyer wrote that Murray’s position “raises the sovereignty of that which is written above the sovereignty of the Writer, and fails even to allow the Holy Spirit the right to make that which is covered by the general principles of Scripture specifically applicable to concrete situations.” Furthermore, he argued that Murray made the believer’s deductions from the Bible, rather than the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, the final authority in the Christian life. Still, the OPC stuck by Murray. Its leaders believed that Peniel taught views about deduction from the Bible and the illumination of the Holy Spirit in a way that was contrary to Scripture. According to Reformed teaching, the work of the Spirit and the Word of God are inseparable. Only through illumination by the Spirit working with the Word may believers deduce truth from God’s Word.
The Peniel debates were complicated by the parachurch status of the Peniel Bible Conference. Peniel was from the start an interdenominational organization whose leaders believed they could best carry out their work by remaining free from ecclesiastical control. While the general assembly did not question the loyalty of OP ministers who were connected with Peniel, it did raise the question “whether more or less unconsciously the commitment to Peniel may not involve them in positions and practices which, in effect, do now or in the long run will weaken their proper commitment to the church."
To be sure, many of the teachings of Peniel were modified and, to an extent, clarified as the debate went on. By their own admission, the leaders of Peniel had grown self-consciously Reformed since the founding of the Bible conference, a process that corrected many erroneous views. And the gradual development of Peniel’s theology helps to explain somewhat the charges and denials of Arminianism and perfectionism that were exchanged throughout the debates. Some of the more sensational charges arose from sloppy formulations by lay teachers, and were denied by the Peniel ordained leaders. In fact, many observers felt that each party talked past each other, and defenders of Peniel claimed that the strengths of the work were lost in the focus on the sensational aspects of the movement.
In its response to the Twenty-Seventh General Assembly in 1960, the Peniel Bible Conference reminded the assembly that it was “an independent organization incorporated under the laws of the State of New York” and was “not officially answerable to any other group for its doctrines and practices” nor was it “constitutionally bound by any standards other than the Word of God.” An eight-member “Prayer Council” had oversight of Peniel’s spiritual affairs. Critics argued that the conference’s structure would divide the loyalties of OP ministers who were also members of the Prayer Council, and that Peniel promoted, in the case of the Redeemer congregation, what some labeled as an elitist “church within a church.”
While not bound by the Westminster Standards or OP church order, leaders of Peniel insisted that the conference was Reformed. “Let the Orthodox Presbyterian Church understand that Peniel has come to rejoice in the Reformed faith as Christendom’s most faithful formulation of Scriptural doctrine.” But because of its parachurch status, the movement was free to embrace the Reformed faith selectively. So, for instance, figures within the Peniel Conference asserted that there were distortions in the development of the Reformed tradition. Specifically, some noted the failure to develop the doctrine of sanctification, accusing the Reformed faith of extinguishing the “flame of personal holiness.” The Reformed “dull-hearted complacency,” Peniel defenders added, needed the healthy corrective provided by the holiness movement and the Methodist tradition. Thus, in consistency and vagueness plagued Peniel’s commitment to the Reformed faith. And OPC critics rightly lamented the “serious lack of clarity and precision” in the theological formulations of the Peniel movement.
For years Peniel leadership urged the OPC to work out these theological difficulties through a joint study committee. The OPC’s refusal was judged an “action unworthy of Christian brethren” which “bespeaks little zeal for truth or justice.” Yet the church was justifiably reluctant to work with a parachurch organization not subject to ecclesiastical discipline. The church always insisted that its interests in Peniel were limited to ministerial members of the OPC who taught Peniel distinctives and to the peace and purity of OP congregations under Peniel’s influence.
Travers Sloyer died in March of 1976 at the age of fifty-seven, a premature death provoked, friends claimed, by his struggle with the OPC. Ironically, in the next month the church would be forced to reexamine the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture which had been at the heart of the Peniel dispute. This issue resurfaced when the Presbytery of Ohio sat as a trial judicatory to consider four charges of error against one of its members, Arnold S. Kress, an OP foreign missionary who grew up in the Peniel movement. Three of the charges focused on Kress’s views about the gifts of tongues and prophecy in the church. While serving in Japan, Kress had several “tongues speaking” experiences. The Committee on Foreign Missions brought him back on special furlough to discuss the matter with him. Kress held mildly charismatic views and was careful to distance himself from popular charismatic views, such as the idea of “second blessing.” While he did believe that the gifts of tongues and prophecy may be found in the church today, he denied that new infallible revelation accompanied a tongues-speaking experience.
Kress willingly submitted to the strenuous judicial process, recognizing the need for a judicial trial in order for the church to address the issues. After hearing the case, the Presbytery of Ohio found him guilty on one of the three tongues-related charges; it determined that his claim that the gifts of prophecy and tongues may continue in the church was “contrary to the Word of God.” Contrary to the way that it was widely reported, the presbytery delivered a verdict of “error,” not of “heresy.” The presbytery also found Kress guilty of the fourth charge of asserting that the church ought not to exclude ministerial members who “hold serious doctrinal errors such as Arminianism or the denial of infant baptism.”
Kress appealed to the general assembly that met the next month, marking the first judicial case to come before the assembly in the forty-year history of the OPC. After more than a day of debate, the assembly voted 72 to 39 to deny Kress’s appeal on the tongues-related charge. The assembly also overwhelmingly sustained the presbytery on the other charge. It then passed a resolution affirming the value of Kress’s gifts to the church and urging his submission to its decision. Kress eventually left the OPC to join the Christian Reformed Church.
In sustaining the Presbytery of Ohio in its judgment, the assembly affirmed the cessationist view of the gifts of tongues and prophecy, an increasingly unpopular position even among conservative Presbyterians. To put the matter briefly, cessationists teach that tongues and prophecy were designed for imparting revelation to the apostolic church. These gifts therefore ceased with the close of the apostolic office and the completion of the New Testament canon.
Like Peniel’s teaching, Kress’s views had implications for the doctrine of the Christian life as well. The assembly saw problems in Kress that it had also seen in Peniel. The experience of tongues was irreconcilable with the church’s understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. As Murray noted in the earlier debate, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is always with and through God’s revelation in the Bible. The practice of tongues-speaking, Kress’s denials to the contrary notwithstanding, inevitably entails new guidance from the Holy Spirit. Interpreted tongues are, as Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., expressed it in his book Perspectives on Pentecost, “functionally equivalent to prophecy,” and a claim to prophecy in this age compromises the authority of the Scriptures as the church’s only rule for faith and practice.
The distinctive teachings of the Peniel Bible Conference began as a reaction against a perceived sterility in the Christian life. As the debate developed within the church, Peniel advocates believed that such sterility characterized the OPC. In his letter of resignation to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Sloyer charged that the church was “long on theory, heavy on intellect, and short on warmth, Christian love and evangelistic zeal.”
But Sloyer’s critics were rightly sensitive to this charge and denied its substance. As Ned Stonehouse put it, “there is assuredly great need among us to lay stress upon true experience and life. Churches or groups concerned for orthodoxy, as history has often taught, may succumb to dead orthodoxy…. In rejecting certain conceptions and procedures as not being biblical let us not lose sight of the goal of genuine holiness and spirituality towards which we must press with great earnestness and faithfulness.” The issue of the relation between doctrine and experience went back to the controversies that led to the founding of the OPC. Liberal Protestants and some evangelicals judged doctrine by the criteria of experience. But for Machen and the OPC, as the Peniel dispute makes clear, experience is always to be judged by correct doctrine, by the teaching of God’s Word. True and genuine experience flows from true and biblical teaching. The problem the OPC and other Reformed believers have witnessed is that Calvinistic piety is not flashy or obvious. Rather, the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the Word make their mark in incremental and often hidden ways. In sum, because Reformed believers do not do all of the things that other Christians believe to be “spiritual” does not mean that the Reformed faith hinders a warm and vital relationship with God. Just as the Reformed rejected many of the practices of Roman Catholic spirituality, so they have also been critical of the excesses of evangelicalism.
It also needs to be said that the OPC evaluated Peniel in the context of its earlier struggles, namely, the battles that led to the formation of the OPC and those which prompted the Clark controversy. For Peniel supporters, this perspective prevented the church from focusing adequately on the real issues. Don Mostrom accused Murray in 1961: “I have watched with growing apprehension the appearance of coldness, withdrawal, stubborn insistence on thinking evil of us, unwillingness to know us and what we actually believe, angry oratory, and inflexibility on your part.” If the OPC engaged in angry oratory, it was often returned in kind. One Peniel sympathizer suggested, in a letter to the Presbyterian Guardian, that an ulterior motive of Peniel’s critics was to “have the OPC remain small.” In a sense, this accusation had a point. The OPC’s concerns about spirituality and the Christian life were out of step with broader developments in the evangelical world, and the church correctly saw, as it did in the Clark case, that if it was to retain its Reformed identity it could not worry about numbers or larger spheres of influence.
In the end, the church insisted that genuine holiness cannot be obtained apart from Scripture, the only infallible rule for faith and obedience. The Peniel controversy and the related Kress case testify to the OPC’s fundamental commitment, of a piece with the Reformed faith, to the sufficiency of Scripture. It is significant that these cases came on the heels of the Clark debate. Just after the church faced the accusations of irrationalism (in the Clark case), Peniel prompted accusations that it was drifting toward “cold dead rationalism” (in Sloyer’s words). In truth, the church was seeking to defend the sufficiency of Scripture against both rational and mystical impulses that would usurp biblical authority. Against both threats the church determined to remain biblically Reformed.
The Peniel controversy also says something about the way the OPC resolves theological disputes. Altogether, the debate in its various forms lasted over two decades, taxing the energies of four churches, two presbyteries, and several general assemblies. Although the Peniel movement had disrupted other churches and Christian institutions over these years, in no other setting had the conflict been as protracted. As the Presbyterian Guardian commented, “It seems that the OPC has almost leaned over backwards to avoid any semblance of hasty or careless judgment before taking final action.” What the Guardian perceived as patience, others saw as unbearable delays, and there have been subsequent suggestions for how the church should speed up the judicial process.
Unlike sister denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the OPC has deliberately avoided the establishment of judicial commissions to adjudicate theological disputes speedily. Similarly, at the general assembly there is an unspoken antipathy toward taking parliamentary steps to “close debate” on matters on the floor. Perhaps the church is haunted by memories of Machen and the bureaucratic tyranny that he experienced during his trial.
By executing its task through the deliberate procedures of Presbyterian polity, the OPC seems out of step with a culture that thrives upon speed and immediacy. Without a doubt, the OPC’s unattractive features contribute to the church’s bellicose image: it has been called, as noted earlier, the “little church with the big mouth.” Yet its deliberateness allows the OPC to reflect more thoroughly in theological debate. The experience of the church seems to confirm the point that Dr. Machen made so eloquently: if Christianity is “a way of life founded upon doctrine,” then no amount of time debating that doctrine can be considered wasted.
When the commissioners to the Forty-Second General Assembly of the OPC convened on May 29, 1975, there was no doubt about the main item on their agenda. Meeting concurrently with the general synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, the assembly was prepared to debate and vote on a Plan of Union that would unite the two churches.
The RPCES itself was the product of a 1965 merger of two denominations, the Reformed Presbyterian Church (General Synod) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The former included Gordon Clark and other ministers who left the OPC in the 1940s (Clark himself having left the United Presbyterian Church of North America after its merger with the PCUSA in 1958). The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was the product of a division in the Bible Presbyterian Church in the 1950s, and so included many who had left the OPC in the split of 1937. Among the RPCES leaders was Francis Schaeffer, who had studied with Machen and Van Til and who, after leaving the OPC, became a colleague of Carl McIntire.
The 1975 Plan of Union, therefore, was an attempt to heal the wounds of the past decades. In the words of the plan’s preamble, “We do not claim to have achieved unanimity of opinion on all the issues that led to that division, but in effecting this union we do confess that the unity of Christ’s church should not have been broken as it was in 1937….” The document went on to express regret that neither party had pursued reconciliation and the hope of “the joy of restored fellowship” that would result from reunion.
The agenda for the general assembly informed commissioners of the carefully orchestrated way in which the vote would take place. On Tuesday evening, the two bodies would convene in the Geneva College field house for a joint worship service where they would hear Schaeffer preach. Then at the twilight of his ministry as director of the L’Abri Fellowship of Switzerland, Schaeffer exhorted the combined assemblies to put to rest the animosities of the past and “fix the chasm in the right place” by uniting and fighting common enemies, such as secularism and theological liberalism.
On the next day, after a full day of debate, each assembly was to vote at 4:15 p.m. on the question “Shall the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod be united to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church on the basis of the Plan of Union submitted herein?” The OPC met in a cramped lecture hall in the basement of the Geneva College science building. The RPCES met in the chapel of Old Main, barely fifty yards away. After the simultaneous vote, the stated clerks of each denomination were to meet halfway, and exchange the results.
Following spirited debate, the OPC commissioners voted 95 to 42 in favor of union, securing by a margin of four votes the necessary two-thirds majority. No one was expecting the shock that soon followed. Stated clerk Richard Barker returned to announce to the commissioners that only fifty-seven percent of the RPCES delegates approved the merger, falling far short of a two-thirds majority. For many in the OPC, this vote was a devastating blow; for others, a narrowly averted mistake.
This would not be the only time that the OPC almost voted itself out of existence. In 1981, the general assemblies of the OPC, the RPCES and the eight-year-old Presbyterian Church in America all approved a plan of “joining and receiving.” By this procedure the OPC and the RPCES would both join and be received by the larger PCA, a process designed to simplify the complications of lengthy merger negotiations. Having secured the assent of all three assemblies, the proposal was sent to each denomination’s presbyteries, where it had to secure three-fourths majorities. The PCA presbyteries approved a joining and receiving with the RPCES, but they narrowly rejected the proposal with the OPC. Needing a 19 to 6 favorable vote, the proposal received a 17 to 8 majority (one presbytery voted 20 to 20, with the tie considered a no).
The PCA soon re-extended an invitation, and so the OPC debated “joining and receiving” again, this time at its 1986 Assembly. After sixty-seven speeches, the assembly voted 78 for and 68 against “joining and receiving,” considerably short of a three-fourths majority. The next day a protest signed by thirty-eight commissioners was circulated which claimed that the decision was “a serious setback to our hopes for a united, vital, biblical and nationwide Presbyterian church” and that the vote communicated an “attitude of superiority” on the part of the OPC. Several of the commissioners would return to their churches frustrated with the OPC’s failures of the past decade to join with other conservative Presbyterian denominations. Some of these pastors and elders persuaded their congregations to withdraw from the OPC and “voluntarily realign” with the PCA.
There are perhaps as many explanations for these actions as there were different reasons for the commissioners’ votes. Advocates of the merger efforts of 1975, 1981, and 1986 argue that the OPC should unite with bodies that hold the same confessional standards. Refusal to do so is backward, inward, and exclusive not biblical, charitable, and wise. Opponents were not convinced that these sister institutions affirmed the Westminster Standards in acceptable ways. At the heart of this concern was the question of what it means to be “Reformed”; e.g., would a Reformed church tolerate Arminian and charismatic office bearers? The heated debates on the floor of the OP general assembly brought to light questions about the theological identities of the denominations involved in discussions.
On the other hand, the OPC has been left at the altar of church union because its suitors have perceived the church to be theologically narrow. John Mitchell, editor of the Presbyterian Guardian, speculated that the 1975 vote may have been the result of RPCES fears that the battles of the 1930s and 1940s would be fought again in a united church. Much to the surprise of the synod, Schaeffer, the day after his impassioned speech for merger, reversed himself and spoke critically of union with the OPC shortly before the vote. If the prospect of merging with a contentious church dissuaded some, it was a feature for which many in the OPC refused to apologize. According to OP minister Robert Graham, “It is clear from anyone who knows the history of the OPC that our denomination is not popular because it has consistently been a Machen-type of contending church. Call it ‘theological expertise’ if you will; but I say, ‘Thank God for it.’ The OPC has never shunned doctrinal issues thrown at it.”
Ironically, the OPC has been blamed in two ways for failing to merge with other denominations. On the one hand, the church’s strict Reformed convictions established a difficult set of criteria for finding suitable partners. And on the other hand, those denominations closest to the OPC regarded those very same Reformed convictions as too exclusive and parochial.
One of the lingering criticisms of the OPC is that Machen and his allies, upon leaving the PCUSA in 1936, did not join another Presbyterian denomination already in existence. This question has been raised recently by John Frame in his book Evangelical Reunion. Frame, a former OPC member, claims that the founders of the denomination erred by not joining existing bodies, such as the Christian Reformed Church or the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod. Such a charge, however, reveals a good deal of ignorance about OP history. For as Lawrence Eyres correctly observes, in its early years the OPC was an ecclesiastical orphan. No other church would have it.
The OPC’s first serious union conversations were with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (as noted above, one of the predecessors to the RPCES). Union talks were commissioned by the Twelfth General Assembly of the OPC in 1945. A committee to explore union reported that while significant differences in doctrine and practice needed to be worked out, “the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a solemn obligation to seek to effect the visible manifestation of the unity of the body of Christ.... It is incumbent upon us to explore every avenue which may lead to union.” Talks continued for several years, but ended when a disappointed committee reported to the 1949 General Assembly that the RPCGS was “unwilling to give serious attention to the question of union of the two churches.” At that point the special committee was dissolved.
The church then began extensive merger discussions with the Christian Reformed Church. Although the CRC sent a telegram of greetings to the OPC’s First General Assembly in 1936, it would be ten years before the CRC sent a fraternal delegate to the OPC assembly. In the early years of the OPC’s existence, many in the CRC were suspicious of whether the young church would be willing to take strong stands on such issues as membership in lodges. Others wondered whether the church would prove faithful in exercising church discipline.
Gradually, though, the CRC warmed up to the OPC. The CRC magazine, The Banner, praised the young church for having “engaged in heroic warfare against the forces of liberalism in this country.” It went on to claim that “there is no denomination in this country which has so many things in common with our own” than the OPC, and that the two churches were “getting closer together.” Especially encouraging to the CRC were the OPC’s emphases on catechetical instruction and Christian education. Another tie between the two denominations was the forceful and wise leadership provided to the OPC by Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, and R. B. Kuiper, members of Westminster Seminary’s faculty who had roots in and strong connections to the CRC.
In 1956 each church established a committee to deepen their ecclesiastical relationships, and in the following year both committees passed a joint resolution that read:
In view of the unity of the body of Christ and in view of the basic community that exists between the Christian Reformed Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in doctrine, polity, and practice, it is an obligation resting upon these two Churches to make every endeavor to bring this unity and community to their consistent expression in the organic union of the two denominations.
No one predicted that the task would be simple. Union talks faced the difficulties of harmonizing different doctrinal standards, since the CRC holds to the “three forms of unity” of the continental Reformation: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort. There were also questions about harmony between CRC and OPC standards of polity and worship.
Up until 1966 progress toward union appeared to be going apace. Both churches had begun to cooperate in home and foreign missions, youth programs, a system of pulpit exchange, and publishing efforts. However, concerns began to arise in the OPC about the CRC, and in 1967, the OPC general assembly gave a mandate to the committee on ecumenical relations which called for an investigation into “trends toward liberalism” in the CRC, especially with regard to biblical infallibility and the doctrine of creation. Some in the OPC felt that the CRC was departing from its creedal commitments, and they drew parallels between developments in the CRC and the history of modernism in the Presbyterian Church. Many in the CRC, however, felt betrayed by what they perceived was a sudden and unwarranted change of direction in the OPC. Union discussions cooled significantly and ended completely in 1972.
Altogether, the OPC has had serious discussion with four different denominations. What is important about all of these episodes is that they betray a commonly held but false impression of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, namely, that it is an isolated collection of theological precisionists. Those that lodge such charges are unaware of the church’s many efforts throughout its history to explore union with other denominations committed to the Reformed faith. Since its founding the OPC has had an ongoing interest in ecumenicity, and its failure to unite with other churches is as much due to the refusal of others as to any stubbornness of its own.
The desire to unite with other confessionally similar bodies stems from the “ecumenical imperative” of Scripture. This imperative is not a recent development within the OPC. Since its founding in 1936, the OPC clearly understood that it was not, from its small corner of the Reformed world, the sole possessor of truth and wisdom. On the contrary, it has sought diligently the wisdom of sister denominations. Much of the ecumenical leadership came from the faculty of Westminster Seminary where a number of the members, due to their ecclesiastical backgrounds, were a constant reminder of the witness to the Reformed faith in other parts of the world and in other churches in North America.
For many Christians, the word “ecumenical” connotes the negative image of liberal churches in the World Council of Churches. Ned Stonehouse insisted, however, that it was an important word in the vocabulary of Christian orthodoxy. “The difference between the orthodox and Modernists in their striving for unity,” he wrote, “is that the former insist that the unity must not be sought or achieved at the expense of purity in doctrine and life as judged by the standard of the Holy Scripture.”
The New Testament speaks often of the need for Christians to manifest visible unity. In his prayer in John 17, Jesus sought a visible unity of the church that reflected the perfect unity between him and God the Father. In Ephesians Paul speaks of one body and one faith, a unity of the Spirit in the faith. This unity transcends all cultural diversity, according to Galatians 3:28. While this unity may be thought by some to refer exclusively to the invisible church, a 1945 OPC report entitled “Scriptural Principles of Cooperation with Other Churches” stressed that the “visible church must manifest in particular the unity of the invisible church.”
At the same time this report added that “in no case may the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in its cooperation with other churches sacrifice, or even compromise, its distinctiveness.” What, then, is the OPC’s distinctiveness? It is not merely its Reformed standards but its zeal in adhering to those standards, according to the report. The tension between theological distinctiveness and ecclesiastical union is not easily solved. All contemporary denominations, the OPC included, have arisen out of unique ethnic identities or historical circumstances. These have in turn produced healthy traditions that bind members with a sense of common identity. But can these traditions impede faithfulness to the ecumenical imperative? It is likely that the 1986 vote against union with the PCA was influenced by the celebration, at that same assembly, of the OPC’s semi-centennial. The sustained reflection on the church’s first fifty years and the reminder of the sacrifices of the first generation probably dissuaded some commissioners from joining a larger and more diverse body. Was this a case, as critics accused, of theological inwardness? Or does tradition give communities a “binding address” in an increasingly fragmented world?
It has been said in jest that the OPC stands for the “Only Pure Church.” But the OPC has always recognized that it is not the church, not the only true church on earth. It believes the Westminster Confession that teaches that all churches—including the OPC—are “more or less pure” and that “the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.” Sharing the perspective of historic Presbyterianism on the “pluriformity” of the church, the OPC acknowledges that the visible, universal church consists of “all those persons in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and promise submission to his commandments” (Form of Government, II.2). Thus conservative Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist churches are, despite their errors, churches of Jesus Christ.
The OPC’s 1945 statement on cooperation insisted that the church “is in sacred duty bound to seek organic union with these churches.” Further, “complete unanimity on every detail of doctrine and practice” is not “a prerequisite for union.” Yet unity cannot come at the price of the truth. And so, as John Galbraith has written, the OPC has “endeavored to walk the fine line between indiscriminate ecumenism and indiscriminate sectarianism.”
In light of the church’s ecumenical efforts since its founding, it seems hard to believe that, nearly sixty years later, it is still a small denomination. God has sovereignly chosen to frustrate the desires of many in the church for a larger denomination with more visibility and recognizable influence. But the church should not be discouraged by its size or its limited stature. As John Galbraith wrote in the New Horizons,
This we must do: be humble, be patient, bear with one another, teach one another, learn from one another, grow in grace, work for unity and pray for unity. We have this assurance: when we, by God’s grace working in our hearts, do his will, he will bless us, he will bless his church, he will glorify his own name. And God will see to it in his own way and his own time that we and they will become us.
The 1945 report on cooperation did not reduce the “ecumenical imperative” to efforts aimed at achieving ecclesiastical union. Instead, it urged the church to pursue other sorts of relations with truly Reformed churches in the interest of spreading the Reformed faith. At the 1975 General Assembly, which saw plans for union with the RPCES fail, the OPC took another significant step in expanding its ecumenical efforts. In that year, the OPC helped to form NAPARC, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Along with the OPC, charter members included the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Present membership now includes the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Korean American Presbyterian Church. All of these churches expressed full commitment to the infallibility of the Bible and to Reformed confessional standards.
NAPARC was founded to “advise, counsel, and cooperate in various matters with one another and hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of the churches that are of like faith and practice.” The work of the council includes the reaching of a comity agreement for church planting and consultations on Christian education and missions. Recently, NAPARC has discussed members’ concerns over doctrinal issues in the Christian Reformed Church.
Extending beyond American borders, the OPC has assumed a role of leadership in international Calvinism. In 1948 the church sent a representative to the inaugural meeting of the International Council of Christian Churches, a conservative alternative to the World Council of Churches. But after a four-year effort to steer the constitution of the ICCC in a Reformed direction failed, the OPC withdrew from participation.
The church established a more fruitful relationship for international ecumenical relations with the founding in 1946 of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. The OPC sent a representative to the RES’s first meeting, and soon thereafter it joined. From that first conference, with delegates from three churches in attendance, the RES grew to include thirty churches in eighteen countries. Its goal was to strengthen member churches and to assist them in maintaining soundness of faith and practice. Unlike the ICCC, it sought to preserve a distinctive Reformed character through shared commitments to Reformed confessions. As Stonehouse enthusiastically described it, the RES “serves to take churches out of their isolation and absorption with their own problems and perspectives and affords an opportunity for a contemplation of the world-wide mission of the church of Jesus Christ.”
For these reasons, the OPC joined the RES enthusiastically and sent delegates faithfully to meetings every four years. For most of these years there were opportunities for the OPC to exert international leadership within a body representing a total membership approaching five million. It was the OPC, for example, that initiated RES discussions in the church about apartheid (see chapter twelve).
Conflicts developed in the 1970s, however, regarding the wavering commitment of some of the RES member churches to the Reformed creeds and over the synod’s failure to exercise discipline over its membership. For instance, as early as the 1950s the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), a member of RES, joined the World Council of Churches. The OPC sought to persuade the synod to regard such membership as incompatible with RES membership, but was unsuccessful. The GKN proceeded into further theological difficulties, and in 1972 the OPC sent a letter to all RES churches, challenging the creedal fidelity of the GKN. Specifically, the OPC expressed concerns over the GKN’s ordination of women, its interpretation of early chapters of Genesis, and its doctrine of Scripture. In 1979 the GKN again pushed the limits of fraternal relations in the RES by permitting homosexual relationships in the church. Because of the RES’s unwillingness to address these matters, and after nearly a decade of debate, the OPC resigned its RES membership in 1988.
Still committed to strengthening the bonds of international Calvinism, the OPC sent observers to the International Conference of Reformed Churches (a smaller body that was founded in 1982). Here the OPC was warmly received as a church that zealously defended the Reformed faith. Both its longstanding commitment to ecumenicity in the RES and its eventual withdrawal from that organization earned for the OPC the immediate trust of this new body. The ecumenical ties with other denominations, especially in Third World settings, have in turn opened mission doors for the church. Recently the Committee on Foreign Missions sent Brian and Dorothy Wingard to Kenya, through contacts that were originally established by the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations with the Reformed Church of East Africa.
Ironically, it could be argued that the OPC’s small size has enhanced its international ecumenicity. Humbled by its cultural marginalization in North America, the church has not had to defend the claims or the status of a large national denomination. Providentially kept from the temptation to glory in size and influence, the OPC has been blessed to work with international denominations as full partners. Presently, international ecumenicity has spread to the point where the sun does not set on the churches with whom the OPC shares ecclesiastical fellowship. But unlike the British empire, the OPC has not pursued a policy of imperialism. It seeks to respect the integrity of the established churches in other lands, which is as much a commitment to the unity of the church as any talk of denominational merger. As Jack Peterson has written, the OPC consists of “separatists but not isolationists.” It is fully committed to the vision of establishing and maintaining relations with other churches, no matter what their nationality or size, of “like precious faith.”Back to Index
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