Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Who Narrates the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?

Recently I read a thoughtful piece
penned by OPC historian, Dr. John R. Meuther. In it he raises the question about who is best qualified to narrate the history of the OPC – Those who have left the denomination or those who remain in it?

The article begins by discussing three well-known figures who were once in the OPC but have left - George Marsden, Mark Noll, and John Frame. Of these three only the third was familiar to me as having once been in the OPC. Meuther does a fine job summarizing these men and their opinions of their former church. Let me provide an overview.

George Mardsen, first wrote about the OPC in 1964 while still in seminary and his perspective that it was founded as an "Old School" church held sway for many years. This opinion was reinforced when his original paper was republished in 1987 for the 50th anniversary of the OPC. One lasting result of his scholarship is the distinction used to classify different reformed denominations as "doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist" (scholars debate whether he coined these terms or simply made them popular). With this in mind the OPC is usually understood as being chiefly a "doctrinalist" church.

Mark Noll, shares a similar perspective. He has argued that the denomination's name change in 1939 from the Presbyterian Church of America to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church led, perhaps unwittingly, to a sectarian spirit. Thus, to be in the OPC requires doctrinal precision along with a fairly healthy skepticism toward broader evangelicalism. Noll also expressed concern about the small size of the OPC fifty years after Machen's death.

John Frame, whose influence continues to grow in the PCA, has also written about his former denomination. His paper, "Machen's Warrior Children," while not solely dedicated to the OPC surely implicates that denomination in theological controversy. This paper summarizes twenty-two doctrinal debates in the world of reformed churches that have taken place since the death of J. Gresham Machen. His analysis of these issues is rather telling: those who stand opposed are the problem. With that broad brush he condemns not only the OPC but many in the PCA and other reformed churches.

After discussing these three former members of the OPC Meuther, moves to discuss the views of three important figures who stayed in the OPC – Paul Woolley, James Dennison, and D.G. Hart.

Woolley, was the first historian at Westminster Theological Seminary helped train the first generation of OPC ministers. Following Machen's lead he focused on doctrine and a renewed interest in theology. He sought to find a middle way between "liberalism" of the mainline church and the "pragmatism" of the newly emerging evangelical church. Neither movement had much interest in doctrine: the former denied many key propositions while the latter down-played doctrine for the sake of bigger influence.

Dennison, an OPC historian, is noted for his emphasis on biblical theology. In particular he argued from Scripture that God's people have always been a pilgrim people. This was embraced by the OPC and, as such, it ought to be embraced by all Christians.

Hart, a prolific author, has had great influence through his 1994 biography of J. Gresham Machen. In that work Machen is presented as a man of his times who was simultaneously against both the "modernist" and "fundamentalist" camps. Machen wanted nothing to do with a socially active church whether loyal to the political left or right. He argued for the spiritual nature of the church.

Meuther writes in an irenic style that is suited for the 75th anniversary of the OPC, the occasion that prompted this paper. His aim is not to point fingers as much as to clarify the various opinions of his denomination. He writes, "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." With this in mind he addresses some of the issues that have clouded the history of the OPC: the Clark – Tan Til controversy and the 1986 failed vote to unite with the PCA. Both, he argues, stigmatized the OPC as narrow and stubborn. He also notes that those events led a good number of people to leave the OPC.

In recent years I've become sympathetic to the OPC, perhaps in part because of the on-going battles in the PCA. I should also add that I've met some of its ministers here in Michigan. Additionally, over the last year or so I've been privileged to spend time with men like D.G. Hart, Carl Trueman, and Steve Baugh.

What I took away from this article was that there is a prevailing view of the OPC that has been largely created by those who left it: the OPC is narrow, doctrinally precise, small, and irrelevant. That's the perspective I've held for years. However, there is also another perspective, drawn from those who continue to labor in its midst: the OPC is an "old school" church, more concerned with faithfulness than numbers. This article asks its readers to give the OPC another look, particularly from the perspective of those who belong to it. In light of its 75th anniversary that is an entirely reasonable expectation.

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