Who Narrates the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? The Church and Its Historians

John R. Muether

For a small denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has poured considerable resources in the study of its past.[1] But is it getting an adequate return on its investment? Challenges to the value of denominational history have risen in several quarters. Some academics wonder if it is real history. Denominational advocacy, they claim, is at odds with good scholarship. Beyond academic suspicion, there are more troubling ecclesiastical concerns. Critics allege that denominational self-consciousness inevitably fosters pride, and it derails the church's pursuit of Christian unity. A "global" ecclesiology should trump the study of denominational particularity.

If these claims are true, then is the OPC becoming more historically self-conscious to the extent that it is growing more idiosyncratic and even sectarian? That seemed to be part of the fear of the protest at the Fifty-third General Assembly in 1986 that followed the failure of the OPC to "join" and be "received" by the PCA (a much anticipated union vote that collided with a fiftieth anniversary celebration). We will return to that protest in due course.

Attention to OPC history is not, by itself, that unusual. Every denomination has had insiders and outsiders study it. But unlike most denominations, we have had a large number of interpreters who have left the OPC.

The burden of this presentation is to reflect (in a very brief fashion) on the interpretation of representative Orthodox Presbyterians who left the denomination and then to compare those insights with historical interpretation from within the church. These are two approaches to our history. I would identify the former as the prevailing viewpoint and the latter as the minority report.

In comparing these two approaches, I want to borrow rhetoric from an unlikely source. In 2008, theologian Robert Webber's latest book posed the question in its title: "Who Gets to Narrate the World?"[2] Webber urged readers to resist cultural accommodation and counterfeit narratives: Christians must tell the Christian story. I am not able to commend Webber's book. It is the narrative of social transformation, and anything less than that he seems to argue, is a culturally irresponsible betrayal of the church's calling in the world. And yet, the question in Webber's title calls for our reflection. The OPC struggle for identity is tied to this question: Who narrates the OPC? Are we a Reformed church telling a Reformed story or are we an Evangelical church abandoning its distinctively confessional identity?

Views from the Outside

A son of the OPC, George Marsden recently retired from a distinguished career that included posts at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame, Marsden first published on the history of the OPC when still a student at Westminster Seminary. His "Perspective on the Division of 1937" was a seminal treatment on the early history of the OPC, and has been influential in understanding the OPC as an essentially Old School denomination, distinct from the New School impulses that would come to characterize the fundamentalism of the Bible Presbyterians and later the Evangelicals who departed in the 1940s.[3]

When Marsden addressed an OPC pre-assembly conference in 2006, he shared some reflections on his first published work. Marsden suggested that his earlier interpretation might be losing its value because through time denominations become broader coalitions that absorb into them "a variety of heritages." He wondered whether the OPC's traditional eschewing of political stances (consistent with its Old School heritage) has survived the "political turn" of the recent quarter century with the rise of the religious right. "Today," Marsden noted, "in many churches, political stances are virtually confessionalized in the sense of becoming tests of true faith."[4]

In other words, if the OPC was established on Old School principles, it might be less so seven decades later. But Marsden did not necessarily view that as a bad thing. He expressed the concern, shared by many former OPC interpreters, that the size of the OPC remained (in Marsden's words) "a troubling question."[5]

Furthermore, Marsden is also known for popularizing, if not originating, the taxonomy of Reformed thought in America that divides the Reformed world into doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist camps. In this schema the OPC epitomizes the doctrinalist expression of this tripod. This classification has its strengths, including the way it reinforces the OPC's emphasis on doctrinal precision and underscores the OPC's connection to the theology of Old Princeton. But among its weaknesses is the implication that each of these points of view is, by itself, inadequate to embody Reformed faith and life; consequently each needs the supplement of the others to balance out its deficiencies. The temptation is to think, for example, that the OPC may have its doctrine right, but it must look elsewhere for sustainable expressions of the Christian life. Charles Dennison had a particularly insightful response to this argument.

A more profitable approach to the doctrine/life problem is to realize that both [Old School and New School] carry within them what is perceived to stand opposite them. If both the doctrine and the life side are distinct temperaments in their approaches to Christian faith, they stand holistically, as "systems" complete in themselves. Therefore, the doctrine side has its own perspective on the Christian life; while the life side is not devoid of doctrine but possessed of doctrine essential to its character.[6]

Another influential outside voice is historian Mark Noll. Many readers remember the former elder at Bethel OPC in Wheaton for applying the metaphor, at the time of the OPC's semicentennial, of the OPC as the "pea beneath the mattress" of American Presbyterianism: the OPC "is very small, but it is rock solid and undeniably there." And the OPC has continued to be there. (It has even outlived the journal in which Noll published his reflections.) Noll goes on to point out, however, that the church has endured at the expense of remaining very small.

Among the most significant factors in establishing this feature of the church's identity, Noll asserts, was the change in the church's name in 1939. When the church went from becoming The Presbyterian Church of America to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the revised nomenclature redirected the church's place in American Protestantism. Noll describes: "Self-identity was now clearly in focus. This would be a purified, doctrinally precise remnant, not the great Presbyterian presence in America."[7]

 With this shift the church would abandon a role in the public sphere, and it would assume an antithetical approach to culture. This would allow the peculiar features of Van Til's apologetics to predominate in the young church. None of these features, Noll suggests, were characteristic of the founding of the church three years earlier but they were the largely unintended consequence of the new name: "This was to be a doctrinally rigorous, procedurally precise body. Its glory was its faithfulness to Scripture and the heart-moving, intellectually satisfying system of doctrine embodied in the Westminster standards. If this confessional loyalty led to obloquy from the wider world, if it sometimes encouraged a sectarian spirit, if it took the place of the desire to transform culture, all that was the necessary price to pay."[8] If this made the OPC safe for presuppositional apologetics, at the same time it rendered the church inhospitable for those desiring a broader connection to American Evangelical life.

The third voice I want to cite warrants some explanation. Theologian John Frame is not a historian, and he has been critical of what he regards as the domination of historical perspectives in contemporary Reformed theology. Yet that has not thwarted his own interpretive work. Frame published reflections on the recent Reformed past in his widely quoted essay "Machen's Warrior Children," a piece which may qualify him as the most influential of post-OPC interpreters.

In the essay Frame surveys twenty-two debates in conservative Reformed circles since Machen's death, from premillennialism to Federal Vision. While the OPC is not his sole focus, it takes a disproportionate hit on Frame's scorecard. Indeed, the deck is stacked in Frame's narrative to make the OPC look particularly bellicose. He writes, especially with the OPC in mind: "Once the Machenites found themselves in a "true Presbyterian church" they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on each other."[9] Moreover he makes this observation, also with the OPC in mind: "The various anniversary celebrations and official histories in the different Reformed denominational bodies have been largely self-congratulatory."[10]

Much of the argument of "Warrior Children" is based on Frame's skepticism toward denominations found in his 1991 book Evangelical Reunion. Here his starting point is his claim that "denominations are the result of sin." Thus it is foolish to celebrate them. And so Frame urges a wider vision in place of the turf-protecting myopia of Protestant denominationalism. Denominations are man-made substitutes for the courts and fellowship that God has ordained. If our priorities were rightly ordered, he argued, we would be good Christians first and good Presbyterians second.[11]

The misplaced energy that is poured into denominations and their maintenance has the effect of majoring in minors. It generates pride and chauvinism that become barriers to reunion, which is precisely what he argues took place in the OPC in 1986.

Stigma in OPC History

These three ex-OPC interpreters briefly surveyed are among others who left the OPC for different reasons and in different directions.[12] Generally, they left with their appreciation of Machen intact, claiming that the OPC had departed from its founder's broader perspective on Reformed faith and life. The OPC narrowed that vision at times even to the point of reveling in its separatism. All of them took note of the OPC's failure to see the growth that was reasonably expected of the church, and all of them predicted after they left the church that the OPC was a precarious institution facing an uncertain future.

My point in recalling these perspectives is not to gloat at predictions of the demise of the OPC that have proven to be somewhat premature. Nor ought we to overlook the ways in which these voices have described some of the tragedies, disappointments, and failures in our past.

But seventy-five years provides the vantage of reassessing the assumptions that undergirded these voices. These interpreters have imposed paradigms for interpreting the OPC that have dominated much historical reflection. We need to appreciate how deeply established this way of thinking has become. In particular, these writers collectively point to the role of controversy, and a particular way of interpreting controversy, in the story of the OPC.

Barry Hankins, historian at Baylor University, recently penned a thought-provoking article on the effect of controversy on religious identity. He writes: "Historical events, especially bad ones, and especially religious bad ones, take on a life of their own. Turned into stigma, such events seem to become the causes of more history," at least in popular impression. Hankins explains that "one event or a few events close together can snowball into a negative image that is almost impossible to root out of public consciousness."[13] He cites three "religiously stigmatizing historical events" of notoriety: Munster, Salem, and Waco. And then he also looks at the turn in American fundamentalism with the Scopes trial, the disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson, and the murder trial of J. Frank Norris, episodes which combined to alter the public impression of fundamentalism.

To be sure, the OPC has experienced nothing as scandalous as these episodes. Yet Hankins invites us to see that on a smaller scale, it has suffered stigma that has distorted its history. Let me cite two examples of "religiously stigmatizing events" in OPC history. First, the Gordon Clark controversy is often referred, even in scholarly contexts, as the "Clark heresy trial." It was no such thing. Nor was it the case of the church held hostage to a debate between two theologians talking past each other. This episode began as a complaint in the Philadelphia Presbytery regarding the irregularity of the procedure by which Clark was ordained in 1944. It expanded into concerns about Clark's views on the incomprehensibility of God, but at no time were charges pressed against Clark. That it is frequently labeled the "Clark-Van Til" (elevating Van Til's role in the affair) reveals how distorted is the popular impression of the controversy. Since Clark left the OPC in 1948, the church has been stigmatized with the perception of narrow-mindedness.[14]

Another example returns us to the 1986 protest. The context of this vote was the sense of a unique ecumenical moment before the church. With the unexpected growth of the thirteen-year old Presbyterian Church in America, the OPC was at last going to join a nationwide Presbyterian witness. It was deeply traumatic for advocates of union to see that the extended courtship failed to result in marriage.

The logic of the ensuing protest reveals how the expectation was shaped by an Evangelical framing of the OPC story. The vote, argued the protestants, confirmed a "shift" in OPC identity:

Our distinctive no longer seems to be that which our founding fathers stood for in 1936, i.e., that we serve as the spiritual successor of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and a voice against liberalism. Rather, our rationale for separate existence (at least from the PCA) now appears to be that these Reformed and Presbyterian brothers are less Reformed in practice than we.

The protest concluded:

The crossroad has been reached and the Assembly has chosen a course. In our judgment this course looks backward instead of forward, inward instead of outward, and is exclusive rather than inclusive. Our deepest concern is that this course may not be altered in the future.[15]

So it came as little surprise in the years that followed that many of the protestants left the OPC and "voluntarily realigned" with the PCA.

Re-Telling the Story

The Clark controversy and the failure to unite with the PCA are two episodes in our history when the denomination has been stigmatized in popular impression. How does one "destigmatize" the OPC? That requires a retelling of the story.

Let us now turn our focus briefly on three voices among those who stayed in the OPC: Paul Woolley, Charles Dennison, and Darryl Hart. We can call them resistant fighters, because they have each, in different ways, challenged what I have described as the dominant Evangelical narrative about the OPC.

Paul Woolley was the first church historian on the Westminster Seminary faculty, and accordingly he had the effect of shaping the thinking of the early ministers of the church. Woolley extended Machen's plea for the centrality of doctrine in a healthy denomination by contrasting heavenly mindedness with an earthly infatuation with cultural influence. Early frustration with the direction of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church took two forms, he noted: there was malignant discontent and healthy discontent. The former sought rapid numerical growth, especially by collaborating with broader Evangelical organizations. The latter sought to develop greater consistency in the church's propagation and defense of the Reformed faith.

Woolley framed the choice in provocative terms: "Does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church want to have a growing revival of the preaching, teaching, and application of the Biblical and Reformed faith? Or does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church want to have many members and much money and read about itself in the newspapers?" Woolley's point was to focus his readers' attention on the nature of true progress. There was room, he argued, "for real progress in the completeness with which the faith is preached in our pulpits."[16]

Consistent with the plea from that provocative article, Woolley made, throughout the course of his life, a sustained effort to remind the church of its calling to be a doctrinal church in an anti-doctrinal age. What was particularly perceptive in Woolley's approach was his identification of doctrinal indifference. Beyond the liberalism of a "broadening church," Woolley saw in Evangelical churches a pragmatic orientation. In a context that privileged size and influence, theology was dismissed as impractical and restrictive. And so doctrine lost out to two versions of Christian moralism, from both the left and the right in American Protestantism.

In his tenure as OPC historian, Charles Dennison wrote extensively on the subject of Orthodox Presbyterian identity. For Dennison, identity extended beyond confessional commitments to an embrace of a biblical theological approach to Scripture. This is the "heart of our Reformation heritage," he urged, because here "we find ourselves, not so much by describing the biblical text or even by 'applying' it, but by living in and from it."[17]

A biblical theological orientation had consequences that Dennison urged the church to accept. "Such an approach to Scripture is painful," he conceded, "since it demands the giving up of our life in this world for the sake of Christ and the heavenly world confronting us in the Word. … Surrender to the biblical perspective and to Christ's call sets before us a basic dimension of the church's identity. We are a pilgrim people."[18]

The metaphor of pilgrimage forms a particular calling for the OPC in its American context. It is positioned to point the church catholic to its heavenly identity. Dennison spells out what this means:

We must lovingly, but persistently, direct Christians away from ethnic and cultural restrictions. We must serve the churches of the world, churches that are faced with the most serious, even life-threatening, circumstances because of political, nationalistic, and racial pressures. Our effectiveness will be measured by more than our words; we must communicate our very life, the essence of what we are."[19]

Dennison entertained personal doubts that the OPC would live up to its unique calling. His abiding concern was that the OPC would become increasingly establishmentarian, that it would follow the Protestant American pattern of becoming a bureaucratic and administratively top-heavy denomination. This fear was so deep it even led him to wonder whether an OPC archives, to which he devoted so much of his time and energy, would unwittingly contribute to the rise of centralized power and denominational tyranny.

Finally, Darryl Hart has contributed much to help us rethink how we tell the OPC story from his prolific and iconoclastic pen. I want to focus on his biography of J. Gresham Machen, first published in 1994. This book rescued Machen for the OPC from his exile in the clutches of interpreters who have abstracted Machen from his ecclesiastical context.[20]

The Protestant controversy of the 1920s and 1930s has been popularly miss-titled as the fundamentalist-modernist debate. That very language assumes a two-party approach to American religious conflict. As Hart ably explained, Machen was an ill-fit in either category. What the categories of "modernist" and "fundamentalist" obscured was the profound dissent that Machen expressed against the impulse, represented in both the left and the right, for a socially active church that would crusade to reestablish Christian America. If anything, Machen resembled fellow Baltimorean H. L. Mencken in the latter's withering critique of the sentimentality of American idealism. The church should have no part in this, Mencken so argued, because he was a secularist. Machen agreed for a different reason: to defend the uniquely spiritual character of the church. Church obsession with social transformation and its focus on the temporal was an abandonment of the church's true calling to witness to the things that are eternal.

As Machen's sentiment took root in the OPC, the church proved reticent to join social movements conducted by the like of the National Association of Evangelicals. But this was not the venting of denominational pride. "Orthodox Presbyterian narrowness," Hart argued, "looked back on Old School Presbyterian practice rather than fundamentalist belligerence."[21]

The OPC as Big and Small

The OPC is a doctrinal church in an anti-doctrinal age, according to Woolley, a culture of dissent in an establishmentarian age, per Dennison, and a spiritual body in a politically-saturated and culture-obsessed age, writes Hart. If this is a countervailing narrative to the broader and more popular telling, it is not a new story that is being narrated. Rather, this is an echo from our Presbyterian past.

Let us return one more time to 1986 and the failed union vote. As we noted, the vote was perceived as looking backward not forward, inward instead of outward, exclusive rather than inclusive. What is striking about the rhetoric surrounding the union that didn't happen was its similarity to arguments that accompanied a union that did happen, a century earlier in American Presbyterian history: the 1869 reunion between the Old School Presbyterian Church and the New School Presbyterian Church that healed the breech that took place in 1837. That reunion was also accompanied by a pervasive sense that Presbyterians were confronting a forward-looking ecumenical moment that had to be seized. The Civil War had just ended and the fractured Union needed a united Presbyterian witness. Both camps, New School and Old School, generally expressed hopefulness over this opportunity.

Amid the enthusiasm Charles Hodge sounded his dissent, fearing that Old School Presbyterian identity would be lost for the sake of national expedience. Hodge's fears proved accurate. In Lefferts Loetscher's words, the reunion of 1869 produced the largely unintentional consequence of a "broadening church." Within twenty-five years of the reunion, northern Presbyterians began serious efforts at creedal revision, setting the stage for the Presbyterian controversy of the 1930s.

This is not to suggest that a similarly catastrophic future would have confronted the OPC had it merged with the PCA. But what is noteworthy in this comparison is that Hodge refused to concede that opposition to union relegated him to a position of sectarian isolationism. Hodge believed that the Old School Presbyterian Church had a unique role to fulfill. His plea was not a call for an inward, backward, and exclusive church. On the contrary, he believed that Presbyterians could best serve other denominations first by being faithful as confessional Presbyterians.

As reframed, the OPC's "alien" identity, for all its reputation for being isolated and uncooperative, may point in the direction of genuine ecumenicity. The OPC serves the universal church when it is steadfastly and self-consciously Reformed. When we narrate the OPC in this way, we can appreciate better the Reformed catholicity of our small church. The OPC continues to serve as a leader in shaping Reformed faith and witness for several emerging Reformed churches throughout the world. It is possible for us to imagine, along with Hodge, Machen, and Van Til, a vital ecumenical role for a confessionally precise church.

So who narrates the OPC? This is not a call to silence any voices either within or beyond the church. It is an appeal to listen carefully to all speakers, taking note of the assumptions of the narrators. And it suggests an answer to the protest of twenty-five years ago: the OPC did not lose its story. American pilgrims continue to discover the OPC in their wanderings through the wasteland of Evangelical or mainline Protestantism. Contemporary discussions in the denomination reveal its ongoing commitment to the whole counsel of God. Issues before our recent General Assembly—the character of Reformed worship, the principles of biblical stewardship, and the relationship between justification and good works—these reveal a church making the progress that Paul Woolley was actively promoting.

At seventy-five, the OPC still displays a willingness to proclaim to other churches and to a watching world the Reformed faith in all its fullness. To invoke the words of R. B. Kuiper, the OPC on its seventy-fifth anniversary is still very small. But it continues to stand for something very big.


[1] This article is an edited version of the pre-assembly lecture given at Sandy Cove, Maryland, on June 8, 2011.

[2] Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008).

[3] Originally serialized in the Presbyterian Guardian in 1964, it was reprinted in Pressing toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), 295-328.

[4] George M. Marsden, "Perspective on 'Perspective on the Division of 1937' " Mid-America Journal of Theology 18 (2007): 177-78.

[5] Ibid., 175.

[6] Charles G. Dennison, History for a Pilgrim People, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2002), 145.

[7] Mark A. Noll, "The Pea beneath the Mattress: Orthodox Presbyterian in America," Reformed Journal 30:10 (October 1986): 15.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] John M. Frame, "Machen's Warrior Children" in Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology: A Dynamic Engagement, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 143.

[10] Ibid., 145.

[11] John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). While it is not my purpose to debate the merits of Frame's argument here, one might point out at least in passing that it is just as legitimate to argue that denominations are the result of discipline. Discipline faithfully administered is a cause for celebration.

[12] In the case of Marsden, Noll, and Frame, it was the CRC, the EPC, and the PCA, respectively. If we expanded the study, post-OPC destinations extend from the BPC (Carl McIntire) to the mainline Presbyterian Church (Edwin Rian).

[13] Barry Hankins, "The (Worst) Year of the Evangelical: 1926 and the Demise of American Fundamentalism," Fides et Historia 43 (2011): 13.

[14] I described some causes of that confusion in chapter 4, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 100-113. The best treatment of the Clark controversy is the essay by Michael A. Hakkenberg, "The Battle over the Ordination of Gordon H. Clark" in Pressing toward the Mark, 329-50.

[15] Minutes of the 53rd General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1986), 39-40.

[16] Paul Woolley, "Discontent!" Presbyterian Guardian 13 (July 23, 1944): 213-14.

[17] Dennison, History for a Pilgrim People, 202.

[18] Ibid., 202-3.

[18] Ibid., 203.

[19] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[20] Ibid., 166.

John R. Muether is the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a ruling elder at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Ordained Servant Online, August-September, 2011.

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