Go Big or Go Home? The OPC and Evangelicalism

D. G. Hart

Orthodox Presbyterians have a long history—as long as their existence—with figuring out the relationship between being Reformed and being evangelical. This dilemma was baked in to the communion’s batter thanks to so many leaders of the neo-evangelical movement having ties to J. Gresham Machen as professor both at Princeton Seminary and then at Westminster. Important figures, like Harold John Ockenga, in the new institutions that gave organizational coherence to neo-evangelicalism—the National Association of Evangelicals [NAE] (1942), Fuller Seminary (1947), and Christianity Today magazine (1956)—had either studied with Machen or took inspiration from the conservative theology and tradition of scholarship that Westminster Seminary inherited from Old Princeton. As George M. Marsden observed in his history of Fuller Seminary, the first generation of evangelical scholars had a zeal for scholarship that owed to the influences of Calvin and Augustine, but, most notably, they had remained “vigorous in Princeton Seminary and Machen’s intellectual fundamentalism” (Reforming Fundamentalism, 51).

A Distinct Identity

Because of these affinities in the world of conservative Protestantism—that is, the churches and networks that perceived the mainline Protestantism to be unreliable (or worse)—Orthodox Presbyterians needed to decide whether to join interdenominational organizations like the NAE. If “evangelical” simply meant “being a conservative, Bible-believing Protestant,” who were Orthodox Presbyterians, with a church membership of under ten thousand, to be choosy? Yet, the OPC did refuse to join the NAE, but not necessarily out of feeling superior. Rather, Reformed orthodoxy as summarized in the Confessions and Catechisms posed a barrier to joining evangelicals in various evangelistic, missions, and educational endeavors. Because the NAE had a number of member denominations that were clearly Arminian in theology, Orthodox Presbyterians thought the better part of wisdom, not to mention of integrity, was to remain separate from organizations that defined evangelicalism as a broad alliance of conservatives who were not liberal.

Objections to evangelical alliances went beyond Calvinism versus Arminianism. The question of liberalism in the mainline Presbyterian Church, the battles that Machen and other conservatives had waged against modernist compromises, and the sordid church politics played to rid the PCUSA first of Princeton Seminary’s conservatism and then of Machen’s persistent efforts to shed light on the liberal drift of the denomination’s agencies, would not permit some Orthodox Presbyterians to jump on the evangelical bandwagon. For E. J. Young, for instance, the inspiration for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was sufficiently distinct from that of the evangelical movement for him to decline a position on the editorial board of Christianity Today. As he explained to Carl Henry, the presence of ministers from the PCUSA on the new magazine’s masthead was objectionable. By virtue of their ongoing standing in the mainline denomination, they were being negligent of their “most solemn” ordination vows that required officers to “defend the peace and purity of the church,” no matter what the opposition.

When Fighting the Good Fight appeared in 1995, memories of these earlier debates and decisions seem to have faded into the background for some who had grown up in the OPC. Also in the background was disappointment over the failure of Joining and Receiving with the PCA. In the foreground was a sense of the culture wars in the United States. Pervasive moral relativism called for alliances that might give conservative Protestants a bigger voice in national debates than a tiny denomination like the OPC could marshal on the strength of its Presbyterian convictions. Fighting the Good Fight had appeared just a year after the first initiative of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” an alliance led by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson and forged to promote a common set of conservative religious and cultural convictions. No one in the OPC advocated cooperation religiously with Roman Catholics. But at least, some assumed, Orthodox Presbyterians could find common cause with other conservative Protestants who of course went by the name “evangelical.” Critics of the book, which featured the Reformed (and polemical) character of the OPC, took issue with an interpretation that seemed to celebrate an isolationist, even sectarian, understanding of Reformed Protestantism. Those critics could well argue on the basis of recent scholarship on evangelicalism by George M. Marsden and Mark A. Noll that much of born-again Protestant history was Calvinist. By implication, Orthodox Presbyterians could enter the network of evangelicalism, let their Reformed convictions be heard, and recover the Calvinistic side of evangelicalism stretching back to Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans.

The Lure of Breadth and Numbers

Questions about definitions aside, a feeling of inferiority because of small church membership has always been a factor among American Protestant communions that do not readily find a home in the Protestant mainline (whether liberal or evangelical). In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, German Lutherans and German and Dutch Reformed saw the direction in which evangelicalism was heading under the influence of Charles Finney and the moral reform agencies of the Second (so-called) Great Awakening and steered clear of involvement in those endeavors. The reason was that the awakenings and related organizations were indifferent to matters of doctrine, worship, and church polity. As nineteenth-century evangelicalism formed a big tent—running from low-church Episcopalians and Methodists to Baptists and Congregationalists (and Presbyterians)—Lutherans and Reformed saw evangelical breadth as a threat to the depth of witness and ministry won through the struggles of Reformation and post-Reformation church history. Some American Presbyterians, namely Old School, also worried about evangelicalism swallowing up Presbyterian convictions and remained on the borders of pan-denominational evangelicalism even while supplying some of the most explicit criticism of lowest-common denominator Protestantism.

The lure of breadth and numbers increased during the last decades of the nineteenth century as the interdenominational cooperation of the 1840s turned into the ecumenical movement and the Social Gospel. From 1870 on, the moral reform tenor of earlier evangelicalism provided inspiration for ecumenical agencies such as the Federal Council of Churches (1908). These cooperative Protestant endeavors explicitly embraced ideas of preserving a Christian America as a way to protect the nation from alien religious groups like Roman Catholics and Mormons. Part of the logic was that Protestant denominations on their own could not be as effective as Protestants pooling their resources in larger, national agencies. This ecumenical movement culminated in the 1920 plan to create a United Protestant Church of America—a plan that failed for lack of support, even though Canadian Protestants were successful when Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans formed the United Church of Canada (1925).

Many Orthodox Presbyterians may be surprised to know that the seeds of their communion are Machen’s discovery of these ecumenical plans at the 1920 General Assembly of the PCUSA and his efforts to defeat the plan for union. That opposition led to arguments against liberal theology and battles over denominational agencies that eventually in 1936 produced the OPC as a communion dedicated to maintaining a Presbyterian witness over against cooperative endeavors that inherently weakened such convictions. The result, of course, was a small denomination with few resources to sustain a Presbyterian communion. The lack of social, institutional, and financial capital was one reason to join other conservatives—the evangelicals—and cooperate in education, publishing, chaplaincy, and missions. When Paul Woolley tried to calm fears in 1944 about the OPC’s size by contrasting a church that could either have a “growing revival” of the Reformed faith or have “many members,” “much money,” and be in newspaper headlines, he was obviously aware of how insignificant the OPC seemed (and maybe was). What he likely missed was the question of how hard it was to go it alone. (Of course, the Christian Reformed Church, one of those ethnic Protestant communions ambivalent about evangelicalism—some of the Dutch called it “Methodism” for its methodical manner—supplied the OPC with great aid through personnel [i.e., Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til] and institutional resources [e.g., Calvin College as a home for Orthodox Presbyterians].)

Whither the Ones Who Stayed?

The need for allies and resources is partly the background for conservative Presbyterians who did not follow Machen but remained in the PCUSA. The recent publication of Reformed and Evangelical across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America (by Nathan P. Feldmeth, S. Donald Fortson III, Garth M. Rosell, and Kenneth J. Stewart) is indicative of the plight faced by those on the conservative side of the Presbyterian controversy who stayed in the church. The book is odd by Orthodox Presbyterian standards (see “One More Time: If Presbyterians Are Evangelical, Why Aren’t Evangelicals Presbyterian? A Review Article,” Ordained Servant, Oct. 2022) because the authors give more attention to Harold John Ockenga, who was Presbyterian for about one at bat, than to Machen, a lifelong Presbyterian. The authors do not even mention Christianity and Liberalism. This could be the consequence of not wanting to admit that the conservatives who left the PCUSA had a point. More likely, it reflects where evangelicals in the mainline church found comfort in a world dominated by either modernist or neo-orthodox theology (such that doctrine actually mattered). Conservative pastors and teachers in the PCUSA who needed support and assistance (fellowship and intellectual agreement) would have had trouble looking to Westminster Seminary’s faculty—it might mean leaving the church. A better source, one less threatening to claims that the PCUSA was a healthy communion, was to cultivate scholars who taught at evangelical seminaries like Fuller and Gordon-Conwell.

Aligning with evangelicals was not merely a question of numbers, though evangelical institutions could marshal more resources than small places like Westminster because evangelical constituencies were (and remain) bigger than Presbyterian ones. As the authors of Reformed and Evangelical assert, “It is a simple matter of fact that myriads of evangelical Christians have called themselves Presbyterians, and as many Presbyterians have called themselves evangelicals!” Presbyterians looking to evangelicalism as opposed to a small denomination was also a way to identify with a Protestantism wider than the Westminster Confession, church polity, and the Directory for Public Worship. For these authors, biblical authority, cultivating spiritual awakenings (i.e., revivals), sending out foreign missionaries, and cultural transformation have been hallmarks of “Presbyterians as evangelicals.” The authors also include “theological seriousness,” though they would likely concede that Presbyterians have been more so than evangelicals (think Charles Finney or Billy Graham). To back this observation up, the authors point to the influence that Princeton Seminary had on generations of American Protestants. “Presbyterian thinkers and biblical scholars at Princeton and beyond earned the trust of Christians in American and elsewhere,” they write. The words “and beyond” are key because, in addition to Hodge and Warfield, they add the Protestant modernist who taught at Union Theological Seminary, William Adams Brown. Blurring lines and even rewriting history happens when you combine Presbyterianism with evangelicalism.

A Grand Faith

Feeling small and marginal can be part of the motivation for finding a home within evangelicalism. On the other hand, few evangelicals, from Pentecostals to Baptists, are going to resonate with Machen’s quip at the end of his life, “Isn’t the Reformed faith grand?” He was thinking, of course, not about numbers, since the OPC at the beginning of 1937 was tiny (about five thousand members). Machen was considering Christ’s work of redemption and the clarity with which Reformed theologians and churchmen had interpreted and defended the gospel and the importance of church polity for nurturing faithful witness.

But he could have also had in mind, as Orthodox Presbyterians still can, the many communions in the world of Reformed Protestantism. That branch of Protestantism is a many-splendored thing. Presbyterianism itself has a rich heritage that ranges from England and Scotland to Ireland and Canada, from Thomas Cartwright and Andrew Melville to Samuel Rutherford and Henry Cooke. Beyond Presbyterianism, the French, Swiss, German, and Dutch Reformed communions also comprise vigorous and learned expressions of the Reformed faith.

Orthodox Presbyterians know this better than many other American Presbyterian communions, if only because of the strong ties between the OPC and Dutch-American Reformed churches. The recent publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal with the United Reformed Churches attests to the OPC’s historic ecumenism (though not in flashy ways). If Presbyterians prefer to align with evangelicalism, a branch of Protestantism not known for its commitment to Reformed theology, reverent worship, or rigorous church polity, it could be that they have lost sight of how rich, old, varied, and wide the Reformed tradition is.

This does not mean that evangelicalism is a corruption that Presbyterians need to avoid (though certainly some evangelicals would qualify as such). It does, however, remind Presbyterians that the places where people will understand and support convictions about catechesis, keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the need for oversight through elders and assemblies are among Reformed and Presbyterian believers.

For a Presbyterian to be an evangelical is a little like immigrating to the United States from Geneva. The new arrival to America will have to speak English, learn American customs, and obey state and federal laws. She may well hold on to certain authors, recipes, decorations, and personal ties to the old world. But the culture and practices of Geneva will not make much sense to her American neighbors or coworkers. Presbyterians more often than not experience a similar form of dislocation among evangelicals, for which numbers cannot compensate.

The author is an OP elder and professor of history at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, January 2023.

New Horizons: January 2023

Go Big, or Go Home?

Also in this issue

Reformed Confessionalism v. The Genius Theologian

Learning from Mars Hill

The Present Challenges to Orthodox Protestantism

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