Is the OPC the Church Calvinists Have Been Waiting For?

Darryl G. Hart

To borrow a line from the Talking Heads, how did the Orthodox Presbyterian Church "get here"? By here, I don't mean the destination, Sandy Cove Bible Conference, but instead the year 2011.[1] For instance, why do we conduct the OPC's business in the English language rather than Latin, Greek, or a modern European language? Part of that answer involves the ability of English colonists to prevail over French, Spanish, and Dutch competitors and eventually form a political body of English speakers. Or, closer to home, why does the OPC, as a Reformed church, use a variation of the Westminster Confession of Faith rather than the Second Helvetic Confession or the Belgic Confession of Faith? It wasn't because the OPC established a committee to arrive at the best confession for use in the new church. Instead, the adoption of the Westminster Standards is linked to the OPC's past as an American Presbyterian communion and ultimately to the reasons that led the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 to adopt the Confession and Catechisms as the doctrinal norm for new world Presbyterians.

The "how did we get here" question that David Byrne sang was also behind the overture that the Presbytery of New Jersey brought to the OPC's 1972 Assembly which called for a comprehensive history of the denomination. At the time, the OPC was engaged in merger discussions with the RPCES, a body whose roots went back to the Bible Presbyterian Synod. Some New Jersey presbyters were wondering about the 1937 split between the OPC and the Bible Presbyterians, about its nature, whether its issues were still relevant, and should answers to these questions inform the decision of whether to merge with the RPCES.

"How did we get here" is not the only question that informs historical inquiry. Many people read history for inspiration, and with this rationale comes a high estimation of the past's "great men." This accounts in part for the great fascination that Americans have with their nation's founders. The Presbyterian equivalent of this "great men" approach is the historical fixation on the Westminster Assembly which functions as Presbyterianism's founding moment. As such, the Westminster Divines become the equivalent of the Continental Congress, the Confession and Catechisms become Presbyterianism's constitution, and the writings of the divines function as the lens by which to read the Presbyterian constitution—akin to the way the Federalist Papers inform the reading of the United States Constitution.

A better reason for studying the past than either "how did we get here?" or "boy, weren't those guys swell?" is the question that J. Gresham Machen uttered after climbing to the top of the Matterhorn in 1933. He looked out over Europe, and asked, "Just how depressing is the history of mankind"?

There, in that glorious round spread out before you, that land of Europe, humanity has put forth its best. There it has struggled; there it has fallen; there it has looked upward to God. The history of the race seems to pass before you in an instant of time, concentrated in the fairest of all the lands of the earth. You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God's Word. And then you think of the present and its decadence and its slavery, and you desire to weep. It is a pathetic thing to contemplate the history of mankind.[2]

This approach to history calls for cautious sobriety rather than inspiration or archaeological digging.

To this end I want to survey Reformed Protestant history to see how other communions were faring when they reached their diamond anniversaries. The first churches to consider are the original national Reformed communions to which we are in greatest debt as those who fought and carved out a place for the Reformation in Europe. Next are the Reformed churches in the New World who were generally free from micromanaging civil magistrates while establishing these communions. Finally, come examples from Reformed churches that emerged, as the OPC did, out of protests against liberalism in their midst. These snapshots in Reformed Protestant history are indeed sobering. Ironically, they may also prompt a measure of hope, gratitude, and cheer about the OPC's short but significant past.

Old World Originals

Reformed Protestantism began the sixteenth century in the feisty cantons of Switzerland and by 1600 could account for churches as far east as Lithuania and as far west as Scotland. As far as the Reformed churches' reach was, the strongest and most influential communions were those in Switzerland, the Palatinate region of Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. The city churches of Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Geneva were the earliest Reformed Protestant communions and forged their presence within Western Christianity at roughly the same time—the 1520s and 1530s—that Lutheranism emerged among German speaking peoples. The national churches of Scotland, the Netherlands, and the territorial church of the Palatinate would not begin until the second wave of protest during the sixteenth century, almost four decades after Ulrich Zwingli led the establishment of the first Reformed congregations in Zurich.

For all intents and purposes Reformed Protestantism began in 1523 when Zwingli persuaded the city council of Zurich to implement lectio continuo preaching, that is, preaching through a book of the Bible as opposed to following the lectionary. A year later, the city magistrates approved the removal of images and finally in 1525 Zurich said goodbye to the mass. The Swiss Reformation picked up pace when Berne adopted ten theses that articulated Protestant convictions. A year later, Basel's city council had also embraced the new faith. Thus far the Swiss Reformation was almost exclusively Germanic. But when Geneva called John Calvin in 1536, not only did the Reformed churches include French-speaking Protestants, but it also signaled the theological direction of the most recent addition to the Swiss confederation. Now Reformed Protestantism seemed to be a clean sweep running from Zurich in the northwest to Geneva in the southeast.

Instead, by the time Geneva called Calvin, Zwingli was dead and five cantons in Switzerland harbored strong allegiance to Rome. Religious and political antagonisms among the Swiss produced two religious wars, one in 1529 and the other in 1531, in which Zurich was a chief combatant. In the latter struggle Zwingli lost his life in combat. His death is also an indication of Zwingli's failure to unite German-speaking Protestants. The famous encounter between Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy was an attempt to see if Swiss Reformed and German Lutherans could work out a theological compromise that would allow for a Protestant alliance against Roman Catholics and the emperor. When compromise failed at Marburg, cities like Zurich were vulnerable to armed aggression led by imperial forces. One further indication of Zwingli's failure—which is not to say he was any less successful than Luther—was his inability to restrain German radical Protestants, also known as Anabaptists.

The Reformation in Geneva did not remedy the situation. Within two years of his call to the city, Geneva's magistrates were asking Calvin and William Farel to leave thanks to significant disagreements over the power of the ministers. Even after a three-year exile, Calvin's path toward a Reformed church was seldom straight. Native Genevans resented the comprehensiveness of Calvin's discipline. Only in 1555 did Calvin finally prevail over his enemies and enjoy enough support to become a citizen. But even then, discrepancies abounded among the Swiss Reformed churches. Calvin's doctrine of predestination was so objectionable that the city of Bern actually burned the French reformer's books. The Consensus Tigurinus, a compromise confessional statement drafted between 1549 and 1551, was supposed to help paper over some of the differences among the Swiss, especially between Geneva and Zurich. But divergent understandings of the Lord's Supper and church-state relations remained.

Switzerland is, of course, one of the better examples of early Reformed success. After the passing of Zwingli and Calvin, Theodore Beza provided vigorous leadership for the Geneva Company of Pastors as did Heinrich Bullinger among the churches in Zurich. By the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Zurich—1600—and of Geneva—1610, those cities possessed arguably the most stable Reformed churches in Europe. Still, during the seventeenth century Geneva and Zurich would catch up to the turmoil that aggravated the other Reformed churches. A major source of woe was the institution that had given life and shelter to the churches originally—the magistrate. Swiss Protestants were vulnerable to Roman Catholic forces during the Thirty Years War thanks to the ongoing inability to reconcile with Lutherans. Although the Swiss Reformed churches regained their independence along with the Swiss confederation in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, they were still under-protected. In 1656, the First Villmerger War saw Roman Catholic Swiss cantons triumph over Protestants. This was indicative of the defensive posture of the Swiss Reformed between 1650 and 1750, which was hardly the strong stance the churches needed to stand up to either the ridicule of philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau or the political muscle of Napoleon.

If the Swiss churches celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversaries free from serious misgivings about decline and contention, in the Palatinate, Netherlands, and Scotland celebrations would be impossible. In Prince Frederick III's city of Heidelberg, Reformed Protestants made remarkable strides thanks to the prince's growing appreciation for Reformed teaching. His faculty at the city's university housed some of the ablest Reformed theologians and supplanted Geneva as the leading provider of Reformed theological training. Frederick also approved laws that required church attendance and that punished blasphemy and superstition. He called for a liturgy and church order that followed the norms prevailing among Reformed churches. And he oversaw the production of one of Reformed Protestantism's instructional jewels, the Heidelberg Catechism.

The emergence of the Dutch Reformed churches was not as smooth as the Palatinate church. Reformed Protestantism in the Low Countries was initially much stronger in Belgium—hence the Belgic Confession (1561)—but liberation from Spain came more readily among the northern provinces and eventual home of the Dutch republic. Consequently, when Reformed Protestant congregations in the late 1550s and early 1560s formed they had to do so clandestinely. Only when the Dutch gained political independence during the rebellion of 1572 and made William of Orange their ruler did the United Provinces of Zeeland, Holland, Friesland, and Utrecht gain autonomy with the Reformed churches as the official faith. Still, the good order of the churches depended on civil authorities and Dutch Reformed Protestantism was never as vigorous or as pure as later Dutch Protestants would lead American Presbyterians to believe.

In Scotland again the cause of church reform depended on political intrigue. But once the Scots were able to rid themselves of French influences and enjoy England's favor under the pro-Protestant Elizabeth, the parliament convening in Edinburgh in 1560 did for Scotland what city councils had done thirty years earlier in Zurich and Geneva. It formally abolished the mass and all other forms of idolatry, adopted a confession of faith, and approved the First Book of Discipline as the polity responsible for ordering the church. Worship would await the work of the church's future assemblies.

In 1635, roughly seventy-five years after their birth, the situation facing Protestants in the Palatinate, Netherlands, and Scotland was at best risky. In the Palatinate, a region in the crosshairs of the Thirty Years War, Swedish Lutherans ruled Heidelberg and Roman Catholics vied for legitimacy. The latter would eventually see a Roman Catholic prince rule over the city and threaten to make the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism illegal. A pre-assembly conference and a sumptuous banquet was not an option for German Reformed wanting to celebrate their church's origins since the consistory of Heidelberg could not even meet. In the Netherlands, where the Synod of Dort had prevented the Arminians from dominating the churches, universities, and government, a policy of religious tolerance prevailed. This made the Low Countries attractive to as diverse a population as Quakers, Spinoza, Descartes, and Lutherans. Meanwhile, within the churches coherence was impossible and some Reformed Protestants resorted to meeting in conventicles. Meanwhile, in Scotland in 1635 the Kirk was trying to figure out its best response to a hostile monarch in London and archbishop in Canterbury. The Solemn League and Covenant of 1638 proved a successful tool for cooperating with the English parliament against King Charles, but it prefigured a bloody civil war which would see episcopacy restored in Scotland, at least for a season.

New World Copies

As much as the magistrates affected the capacity of Reformed churches in Europe to celebrate their histories, when similar communions emerged in the New World, free from magisterial interference, circumstances were not necessarily any better for anniversary observances. Take the case of the Dutch Reformed churches in North America. The Dutch colonial enterprise that led to the founding of New Netherland in 1614 went without a ministerial presence until 1628. By mid-century Dutch Reformed churches were operating in five locations around the mouth of the Hudson River under the oversight of the Classis of Amsterdam. When the English defeated the Dutch in 1664, and turned New Netherland into New York, the Dutch Reformed churches retained a privileged position and even enjoyed tax support from the English government. But the Dutch Reformed in the New World would not acquire authority to regulate their own affairs until 1772 when the Classis of Amsterdam allowed the formation of a North American body with most of the powers of a classis. Only in 1792, almost 175 years after the first Dutch Reformed congregation in North America, did a separate Reformed communion come to fruition with the formation of the Reformed Church of America.

American Presbyterians, by contrast, possessed autonomy from the beginning when Francis Makemie moderated the first meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1706. The new presbytery was an example of spontaneous order emerging from the needs of ministers in the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Valley regions. Autonomy did not prevent division, of course, as the 1741 split between the Old and New Side Presbyterians demonstrated. The reunion of 1758 achieved a compromise that reunited American Presbyterians. What was even more unifying was the common enemy of King George and the English Parliament. As such, the War for Independence produced a zealously patriotic Presbyterian Church. But by the time of the Presbytery of Philadelphia's diamond anniversary in 1781, the church showed signs of fatigue. Many ministers were not attending synod, and the American church was a loose collection of congregations, presbyteries, and synods. To restore a sense of mission, church leaders devised the creation of a general assembly, which first convened in 1789. But this national body did little to inject a Presbyterian self-consciousness within the American church, as the 1801 Plan of Union with the Congregationalists, for the purpose of church planting and home missions in places like Michigan, attested. Only with the establishment of Princeton Seminary in 1812 did signs of zeal for Reformed Protestantism surface in a substantial way.

The coming of the German Reformed Church to North America displayed similar problems. The German Reformed communion was entirely the ex nihilo creation of German settlers northwest of Philadelphia. Their first pastor, John Philip Boehm, functioned for the better part of a decade during the 1720s without being licensed or ordained. And once the consistory of Heidelberg started to send properly ordained ministers, Boehm received a steady barrage of challenges and ridicule from rival pastors. Only when the Dutch Reformed lent a helping hand did Boehm receive formal credentials and the German Reformed communion began to take shape. Having once experienced autonomy, after 1750 the German Reformed were under the oversight of the Dutch Reformed. In 1747 the Germans held their first classis but did not hold their own synod independent from the Dutch until 1793. Even so, the new German-American denomination was in no shape for celebrations. At the time the German Reformed Church consisted of roughly 15,000 members, 178 congregations, and twenty-two ministers. In fact, the first German Reformed anniversary celebration came in 1863 during an international conference to observe the three-hundredth anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Conservative Resurgents

One last group of Reformed and Presbyterian communions to consider are those most like the OPC, churches that were formed to protest the rise of harmful forces within the existing communions. The two examples with which most Orthodox Presbyterian are familiar, so not a lot of comment is necessary, are the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKN), led by Abraham Kuyper and the Free Church of Scotland, which looked to Thomas Chalmers for inspiration. The formation of the Free Church was a breathtaking event in the life of Scotland when the ongoing objections to patronage led to the Disruption of 1843. One third of the Kirk's ministers, and as much as half of the laity, left the Church of Scotland for the Free Church, finally growing tired of the church being subordinate to the laws of Scotland and the United Kingdom. But by the end of the nineteenth century the Free Church was in a shambles. In 1893 it experienced its own disruption, a split that produced the Free Presbyterian Church. And then in 1900 the church union talks that had surfaced throughout much of the Free Church's history with the United Presbyterians finally found enough support to take effect. A majority of the Free Church approved the merger which led to the start of the United Free Church. The Free Church's minority needed to petition the House of Lords to retain rights to their original name.

In 1886 Abraham Kuyper led seventy-five ministers out of the Dutch Reformed Church (HNK) over state policies that forced officers to tolerate ministers who would not subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity and to promote the interests of the Netherlands. Like the Free Church's Disruption, Kuyper's establishment of the GKN resonated beyond ecclesiastical politics and extended to the realms of journalism, education, and politics. But, before the GKN could celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary, it witnessed the rise of higher criticism and loosened subscription requirements. It also experienced a split within its ranks, when in 1944 it disciplined Klaas Schilder, who led in founding the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Liberated). These theological shifts were partly responsible for the OPC's own wariness about the Christian Reformed Church's tolerant attitude toward the GKN. By 1961 the GKN was not the voice of Reformed conviction that it had promised to be at its founding.

Pathetic Church History

This all too brief tour of the first seventy-five years of other Reformed communions is a good reminder of the dangers that lurk in church history. If Machen thought the history of western Europe circa 1933 was depressing, one reason was his own struggles in the ecclesiastical part of the West's history. The OPC's own history is further evidence of the difficulties that Reformed churches have experienced since the Reformation. The question is whether these difficulties are part and parcel of Reformed history or an aberration. If part of being the church militant means always experiencing contention, disloyalty, and departure, then the OPC's own struggles are no worse than those that Reformed Protestants have experienced before.

Still, making the case that the OPC is a worthy successor to Reformed history requires being clear about the nature of Calvinism and the Reformation's significance. For the better part of two hundred years the Corinthian temptation has been to regard Reformed Protestantism's importance in cultural and political terms. This was a perspective held not only by Reformed believers. Think of Max Weber and his theory about Calvinism and capitalism, or of Alexis de Tocqueville and Calvinism's contribution to democracy, or of Robert Merton on Calvinism and the rise of modern science. These older arguments do not have the force they once did, but even a couple of years ago at the academic conference in Geneva that marked the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin's birth, most of the scholarly presentations explored not the sorts of ecclesiastical reforms that characterized Reformed Protestantism but the way that Calvinism shaped the modern world. Such assessments have prompted Reformed believers to think of Calvinism less as a churchly movement than as a religiously-based source for social transformation. Of course, the rise of neo-Calvinism and the inspiring words of Abraham Kuyper have contributed mightily to this estimate of Reformed Protestantism.

But even before Kuyper, the temptation to regard Reformed Protestantism for its political and cultural significance was constant for Presbyterians. How could it not be since the rise of Reformed Protestantism was bound up with European politics. Indeed, the division of Western Christianity that split the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican communions from the Roman Catholic Church was also part of the confessionalization of western Europe. After 1600 individual nations could be identified by the kind of church and confession they sponsored. This process helped to secure the creation of the nation-state, a form of government that greatly centralized the economic, legal, educational, administrative, and even linguistic features of territories that had previously been decentralized and diverse. However we estimate the size, scope, and power of the modern nation-state, the reality is that Reformed Protestantism was on the ground floor of the construction of modern Europe and its colonial proliferation, a period that ran from 1600 at least to World War II. No wonder, then, that conservative Reformed believers pine for the days when their faith mattered to the mission of a particular nation. Scottish Presbyterians still long for the days of the National Covenant. Abraham Kuyper endeared himself to Reformed believers by evoking a golden age of Dutch history. Meanwhile, American Presbyterians have their own version of this nostalgia and attempt to construct a Christian founding of the United States even though the very point of the new nation was to bring an end to the pattern of confessionalization that had torn apart Europe (and especially England) during the seventeenth century.

Yet, the question remains whether Reformed Protestants were hoping to remake Europe or reform the church. Thanks to a host of Holy Roman Emperors, from Constantine and Charlemagne to Charles V, thinking about Europe apart from the church was impossible. Even so, the reforms that the original Protestants initiated were overwhelmingly ecclesial and bore directly on doctrine, liturgy, and church polity. Only because the church was part of the established political order did church reform translate into broader social and political developments. The Reformation was first and foremost a religious effort and only secondarily did it affect politics and culture.

If Reformed Protestantism was chiefly an instance of ecclesiastical reform and renewal, then against that measure the OPC may be a worthy heir to the mantle of Reformed Protestantism, even meriting a celebratory toast. To be sure, the history of the OPC is strewn with believers who still want the church to be more than the church, to be at the forefront of maintaining and promoting social righteousness. But just as important to the OPC's history has been a growing contentment with the church as simply the church. The word "simply," of course, understates this sense because the church's mission is hardly simple or ordinary. But to recognize that the church has a responsibility that no other institution does, and that God has instituted the church uniquely for his redemptive purposes, is the start of a broader sense of restraint and resolve that the OPC, while lacking many of the attributes and features that impress the Corinthian minded, is doing a good and important work no matter how quiet or routine.


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

[2] "Mountains and Why We Love Them," in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2004), 435.

Darryl G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and a member of Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August-September, 2011.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2011


Also in this issue

Harold Leonard Dorman, Spokesman for Almighty God: An Interview

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

To Render unto or Baptize Caesar: Is that the Question? A Review Article

Counsel from the Cross

The Kingdom of God

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