Muether on Van Til: A Review

John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Audio Interview with John Muether

It is hard to overstate the influence of Cornelius Van Til on confessional and conservative Reformed theology since the early 20th century. I’ll use myself as an an example because I think that what I experienced is fairly representative of what others experienced who became Reformed in the 20th century. My entire experience of Reformed theology is completely intertwined with the work of Cornelius Van Til. When I first entered a Reformed congregation in 1980 his name was one of the first I remember hearing. My pastor, Vern Pollema, was his devoted student. I think I read his Case for Calvinism and The Defense of the Faith as an undergraduate. I am sure I would not have survived my undergraduate education at a large state university without the influence of Van Til on our college group which was strongly oriented to Reformed apologetics. When, during that same period, a member of the philosophy dept was converted and when he became Reformed and began to attend our college group he gave a series of apologetic lectures that drew sizable crowds to our little group. He defended the faith from a Van Tillian approach. Hearing a professional philosopher set forth a militant defense of Christianity which began unapologetically with Christian theism as its starting point, was a seminal point in my education.

I chose to attend Westminster Seminary California because my friend Chuck Hill, who was a couple years ahead of me, reported that I would learn Van Til there and do so in the sunshine! As a pastor in Kansas City, when I came into contact with a large fundamentalist creation science society there I was asked to give lectures on apologetics and I endeavored to wean them from their rationalist approach to apologetics and to introduce them to Van Til. In the years since 1980 I have read most of the major books on Van Til and I have read a good bit of Van Til himself. Those students who have had me as teacher in our Christian Mind course and in even in historical courses where the connection to Van Til might not seem as direct, will tell you that Clark frequently exhorts the students to “read Van Til” (CVT).

Nevertheless, anyone who has read CVT can testify that he is not always as easy to read as he might be and thus a good introduction is useful. The other introductions to Van Til have their virtues. White’s earlier, hagiographical biography of CVT is fun and edifying and initiates the newcomer into some famous CVT stories. Halsey, Pratt, and Rushdoony are clear and generally easy to understand. Bahnsen communicates the main ideas while mostly resisting the urge to make over CVT into a theonomist. Frame is helpful in some ways and is reasonably clear about where he parts company with Van Til.

Most volumes on CVT, however, are written by those with more or less purely philosophical and theological interests. The result usually is that Van Til is usually reduced to a talking head. In a way this is appropriate because, in his syllabi, CVT often did the same to his subjects. Muether, however, has drawn the reader into Van Til’s own world in order to help the reader understand CVT on his own terms. This is no dewey-eyed portrait, two-dimensional, medieval stick figure. Here we have a portrait, painted by a sympathetic but skilled and critical historian, of CVT as human being in his social-historical context and perhaps most importantly, in his ecclesiastical context.

We live in late modernity, a post-Christian time when most of the culture is or seems to be hostile to the Christian faith. Thus, apologists are highly valued and most necessary. CVT made a great and important contribution to the defense of the faith, chiefly by defending it in a way that is consistent with the faith itself. Some other approaches to defending the faith do not really defend the Christian, Trinitarian faith as much as generic theism. Other approaches attempt to defend Christianity by trying to make it seem reasonable or probable to modern autonomous man. Van Til defended Christianity come to its own. He defended the Reformed faith and he did it as a Christian. As simple as that sounds it was fairly revolutionary when he began to propose it.

This volume is interested in that revolution but it is just as interested in the apologist himself. There is a sort of mythos that surrounds Old Westminster and Old Princeton that works against telling the history of those places and people. Because of the aura that surrounds them it is easy to see them as saints but harder to see them as flesh and blood people. Perhaps the best thing about this volume is that Muether succeeds in humanizing Van Til.

He does that by deliberately setting CVT not only in his social-historical context but by situating him in his ecclesiastical context. First the former. Van Til was not born in the USA. He was an immigrant raised who came to the USA and who had to learn English after he arrived. He was raised in, what is to many of us, a relatively unfamiliar world of cultural-linguistic isolation. In many ways he was raised in a pre-modern, pre-technical world. There probably was not much difference between the immigrant community in which he grew up in Indiana and the Netherlands in which he was born.

Van Til not only adopted a new country, as it adopted him, but he also adopted a new church. Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, by virtue of his call to WTS, he became, as much as a Reformed Dutchman can, an American Presbyterian. Muether traces his roots to the Afscheiding (separating) of 1834 and the sense of alienation from the mainline that necessarily accompanied that separation. Van Til was not raised in the mainline. That background and inherited memory of the suffering of his forebears was a sort of preparation for the the suffering that would be entailed by his identification with another separating body, the Orthodox Presbyterians.

Muether does a very good job of telling the story of Van Til’s adaptation of his mixed theological heritage: Kuyper, Bavinck, Vos, and Warfield. Just as he represented a synthesis of the Dutch Reformed and American Presbyterian church traditions, he also synthesized continental and American Reformed theology. Thus, though his groundbreaking work in apologetics should not be underplayed neither should it be overplayed. In many respects, CVT did not see himself as an innovator. He was the heir of streams of Reformed orthodoxy inherited by those four giants and mediated to Reformed theology around the turn of the 20th century.

Van Til was “ahead of the curve” in diagnosing the fundamental weakness of non-confessional evangelicalism. In the 1930s he was warning the Reformed community about the necessity of an antithesis not only with unbelief but also with revivalist evangelicalism. In the current discussions about what it is to be Reformed there is an adjective that well describes CVT that also should describe genuine Reformed theology, piety, and practice: confessinalism. Van Til was the original warrior children of Machen.

Some final thoughts. WTS (Phila) is a large institution today but for most of his career, WTS was a small to medium-sized school. That fact makes Van Til’s influence even more remarkable. He did not have the platform that he would have had at Princeton or some other institution. By leaving Princeton he faced potential obscurity. He also identified with a small denomination and to do so he had to walk away from his church. Today Van Til’s original church, the CRC is a little less than 10 times larger than the OPC. It is also interesting to learn that CVT often struggled to write and to communicate in a way that could be understood by those who did not share his background. Van Til was not a myth. This volume is a worthy introduction to a remarkably useful flesh-and-blood minister of God’s Word (VDM).

On Being Black and Reformed: A Review

Part 1: Overcoming the Musical Divide

There is an interesting discussion at [Ed. note: this discussion is no longer online] on what it means to be black and Reformed. This is a question of great importance to the Reformed churches. 11–13% of the population of North America has African roots. After a long hiatus between reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Reformed theology is beginning to penetrate this community again—this time voluntarily. How it receives the faith now will likely determine the relations between the African American community and Reformed theology for a long time. For example, if Reformed theology is received and understood primarily as being “the five points,” then the Reformed movement among black evangelicals will become just as truncated as the Reformed movement among white churches has been for most of a century. Reformed theology is much more than the five points of Dort.

Of course this is part of a dialogue stimulated by Anthony Carter’s, On Being Black and Reformed and Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity and by a number of websites and blogs. All of this is encouraging. One of the central questions raised in the discussion linked above is how to relate North American, urban “black culture” to Reformed worship. That discussion leads to conversations about how and what Reformed congregations in black should sing.

In one review, by Eric Redmond, black Reformers are called “neo-radicals.” Here’s an even more radical idea than some of those put forward in the discussion at Rather than discussing which traditional “white” and “black” hymns and songs to use in black churches, why don’t black and white churches together abandon ALL the extra-canonical hymns? I told you it was a radical idea.

Of course every non-canonical hymn is just that, non-canonical and bound to a particular post-canonical cultural setting with all of its assumptions and baggage. There is a divinely inspired song-book that is also situated in a time and place. but that songbook is canonical, inspired, and not bound up with the post-canonical history of oppression or reaction to oppression. It reflects the experience of all of God’s people in all times and all places. There is not a single worthy objection that can be made against it because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is the Word of God, and it is intended for use in public worship. Where do you find this amazing, divinely inspired songbook? It’s in the Old Testament just after the book of Job and just before the book of Proverbs.

Should we want songs about deliverance from oppression, let us go to the Psalter. Should we want songs of ecstatic joy, let us go to the Psalter. Should we want reflections of the deepest, saddest, and most tragic human suffering, let us go to the Psalter. There we find songs about the Savior, about his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. If we want to sing the name of Jesus we should go Psalter since every time we sing the name Yahweh, we sing the name of Jesus. His name means, “Yahweh saves.” If we want genuine (as distinct from Roman) catholicity, let us go to the Psalter, the songbook of God’s people in all times and places.

The way beyond the impasse presented by the necessary culture clash created by trying to choose between “your” extra-canonical hymns and “their” extra-canonical hymns, between the “good” contemporary songs and the “bad” ones, between the old hymns and the new, between the fast songs and the slow, is to sing the Word of God to appropriate tunes from yesterday and today.

Part 2: Review

This is an important book that needs to be read. It especially needs to be read by those who are most remote from the experience of African-American Christians in North America. Let me be even more direct, it needs to be read by the NAPARC groups. There are some confessional efforts to reach African-American communities but it does not appear to be a major focus. This fact alone justifies getting this book, putting it in church libraries and into the hands of elders and other leaders.

Is There Such a “Black Theology”?

There is no question whether all theology is culturally and historically situated. Everyone does theology in some language. Nevertheless, I do not think that it follows that because one does theology in a given time, place, language, and culture that therefore that culture is so determinative of the theology that, as a result, it must be qualified by the culture in which was written. For example, when we speak of Luther and Calvin we think of them as Protestant theologians. When we think of Calvin and Beza we would speak of Reformed theology. Luther was definitely German and Calvin was decidedly French but we do not speak of their theologies as German or French or even European. The universals “Protestant” and “Reformed” or “evangelical” (in the old sense) transcend national and cultural boundaries. Indeed, the adjectives “Christian” and “catholic” transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries. Even though I am a middle-class, middle-age, middle-American (a pilgrim on the West Coast of the USA), I have the much the same faith as the North Africans Tertullian and Augustine, Europeans such as Bernard, and Englishmen such as Anselm, Perkins, and Owen.

Carter asks the important question (p. 3), “Do we need to speak theologically within the African-American context?” The answer, of course, is “Yes,” but it is less obvious why that means that we need a “black” theology. When we go to Africa, do we need a “black” theology? When we go to Asia, do we need an “Asian” theology? The question of contextualization is difficult, but it is not obvious that we have helped ourselves by Balkanizing Christian theology by racial or national or ethnic sub-groups. Can apply this same sort of Balkanization to the biblical authors? I does not seem so. Scripture is nothing if not multi-ethnic in context but the message, the theology that unifies it transcends particular cultures even as it arises within particular cultures.

Perhaps one might respond, “Well, that sounds a like a typical member of the dominant social class speaking. You’re a white, middle-class male. Of course you do not want to speak of a ‘black’ theology or ‘female’ or ‘Asian’ theology because that would challenge your hegemony.” I reply: It is not about hegemony because I do not accept the premise of the objection that doing theology is necessarily some exercise of power. Theology is a ministerial discipline. Anyone who regards theology as an act of power is probably deluded or in the wrong business. Further, if we concede that there really such things as “female” theology or “Black” theology or “physically-challenged” theology we have traded meaningful universals for radicalizing particulars. The many has swallowed up the one. Catholicity is lost to interest groups and theology is lost to politics.

We need to hear the voices every ethnic group in theology. There is no question whether each group has its own experience. The immigrant experience of Koreans is not the same as that of African-Americans. We all need to hear each other and account, as best we can, for the influence of our time and place on our understanding of Scripture and theology. Carter, however, cites David Wells’ comments about “American” theology (p.5) and some various traditions (dispensational etc; p. 10) from which he concludes that there must also be “black” theology. Is not it a bit of an equivocation to equate a theology that is done by “Americans” (i.e., in a given national context) with “black” theology to equate or a theological tradition such as “covenant” theology with theology done by a racial or ethnic sub-group? Is there then a “white” theology, a Latino theology etc? There are African-American covenant and dispensational theologians. Don’t those categories transcend ethnic categories?

Another assumption that I fear lies behind the language “black theology” is the notion that theology is really an expression of human religious experience. I am not imputing this notion to Carter but I worry about the unintended consequences of this sort of language. The idea that theology is really the expression of religious experience is, of course, antithetical to Protestant orthodoxy. It is the fundamental assumption of modernism and chiefly of the architect of modern theology: Friederich Schleiermacher. Theology, as defined by the Reformed churches, is the revelation of God in Scripture. As some anonymous medieval theologian said (no, it was not Thomas) Theology is given by God, teaches God, and leads to God. Theology is not fundamentally a human enterprise. We are getting to grips with divine revelation. Yes, we do it in a time, a place, and with necessary limitations, but the truth that we apprehend, sola gratia et sola fide, transcends our time and place. Would it not be more helpful to speak about the need to communicate Reformed theology to the various sub-groups that make up the African-American communities?

What Is Reformed Theology?

In chapter two Carter lays out a brief but summary of Reformed theology that raises significant questions about how the meaning of the adjective “Reformed.” Judged by the standard of the ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Reformed faith (i.e., the Reformed confessions and catechisms) and the broader classical Reformed tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries, the account given here is quite truncated. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession

I understand that the word “Reformed” gets used in a lot of different contexts to mean a lot of different things. The way it is used in ch. 2 of this work (and widely through the book) reflects a reductionist definition that revolves around soteriology. In short “Reformed” as used in On Being Black and Reformed is defined by the Five Points of the Synod of Dort. No one doubts that the Five Points are Reformed, but the effect of using them as the definition of Reformed is truncate the Reformed faith. The chief problem with this definition is that it omits the doctrines of the church and sacraments, as well as Christology, worship, and ethics.

In the “young, restless, and reformed” approach, none of the leaders studied is actually, confessionally, ecclesiastically Reformed. Inherent in the word Reformed, properly defined, is a Christology, is an ecclesiology, and doctrine of the sacraments that excludes about 90% of American evangelicals. Defined by the Reformed confessions and classical Reformed theology, it is not possible to be “dispensational” and Reformed. The doctrine of predestination is a necessary condition but it is not a sufficient condition. In the history of the church many theologians have taught the doctrines of election and reprobation but that fact does not make them Reformed.

The leaders surveyed in this chapter could not join many Reformed congregations let alone minister among them. To be Reformed is to belong to a confessionally Reformed congregation, to submit to its government and discipline, to confess its faith, and to participate in its sacramental life. We should applaud the enthusiasm in this book for elements of the Reformed faith but it is in the vital interests of the Reformed churches that we challenge the reductionist or minimalist definition of the word.

On Being Overlooked

On p. 78 Carter complains that black theologians have been ignored. This is a weighty and important question. This goes to the moral necessity of Reformed folk hearing all the voices who might be speaking our faith in their context. There is one Reformed faith but there might be a variety dialects (Dutch and Dutch-American, British, American Presbyterian, German-Reformed, African-American etc).

On p. 83, however, he concedes or suggests, by way of quotation, that theology done by African-Americans has, for understandable reasons, not always had the technical sophistication of other dialects. In that case it does not seem quite fair to to insist that African-American theologians receive equal time if their theology has not been all that interesting as theology. It is one thing to pay attention to a theology as a witness to the experience of a people (whether English or African-American) and it is another thing to pay attention to it because its inherent theological interest.

Along these same lines I am a little concerned about the way the Psalms are used and connected to the experience of the African-American churches (e.g. pp. 82–83). There is no question that these have been suffering people and that they, like all churches under the cross, have a special relation to the psalter, but there were times when it seemed that we might be verging on a kind of “Israelitism,” only in this case it isn’t “American Israelitism” or “British Israelitism” but “African-American Israelitism.” No national or ethnic entity is God’s new Israel. All of us who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, are the Israel of God.

Why African-American Christians Ought to Embrace the Reformed Theology, Piety, and Practice

Finally, in chapter 5 Carter gives reasons why African-American Christians ought to become Reformed. This is terrific and the list is fine as far as it goes but it is too short and it lacks an important category that could be a boon to African-American Christian families and congregations: covenant theology. Anyone with any social awareness knows that the African-American family has been decimated during the Great Society and since the advent of “urban renewal.” Whatever the exact causes of this phenomenon, one message African-American believers, with all believers, need to hear is that the God of the Bible is a promise-making and promise-keeping God. We are covenant breakers and therefore even though various social covenants have been broken, but God made a covenant (promise) of salvation and worked out the fulfillment of that promise (covenant) of grace through redemptive history and fulfilled it in Christ. They (and all of us) need to hear that God administers his gracious covenant promise in congregations and makes promises to Christian families to be a God to believing parents and to their children. This means that the family unit is not simply a collection of autonomous individuals but an entity through which God works to accomplish his promises. The covenant family is integral to the way God ordinarily works. The family is not the church and home-life is not the objective means of grace, but the family is the recipient of promises.

Another way to go at this question is to say that the Reformed faith should not simply be considered a sort of second-blessing to be added to American individualist revivalism but as a radical principle of ecclesiastical and theological and religious reorganization. If Reformed theology is covenant theology, then the absence of overt covenant theology is a significant omission from this work. Further, If African-American congregations adopted covenant theology they would have a compelling alternative to the various Black-nationalist heresies (e.g. the Nation of Islam) and perhaps even to the pernicious health and wealth messages peddled to the African-American communities. The promise that God has made to African-American believers and to their children is not earthly prosperity but “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

An Invitation

I realize that I have spent more words criticizing this work than I have praising it. I hope that these criticisms are taken as signal of my high regard for this book. I hope the reader will investigate this book and these questions for himself. I hope also that this book is only an introduction to these topics and that Carter produces a sequel to this work that fleshes out some of the positive themes that he introduces

A Review of the Story of Christian Theology By Roger Olson

Intervarsity Press, 1999. 652 pp. $34.99.

This review appeared originally in Modern Reformation, July/August 2001

Historical theology is an important part of the process of deciding who we are, what we believe and consequently how we will behave. For confessional Protestants, the past is not absolutely definitive, since all theologies besides God’s revealed word err, but its influence on our lives is inescapable. Much of what we teach and do in our churches and schools is determined by what our forefathers said and did centuries ago and what we believe about that past. Therefore, we must tell the truth about the past. This is historical theology’s primary vocation.

Unfortunately, far too many historical theologians tell us far more about themselves than about the past because they refuse to separate their own convictions from those about whom they write. This is unnecessary. Heiko Oberman, Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, Jill Raitt, Peter Stephens, David Bagchi and Carl Trueman, to name but a few, have shown that it is possible to write fairly and even sympathetically about those with whom they disagree.

Historical theology is descriptive, not prescriptive. The historical theologianÂ’s task is not to judge whether a theologian is correct; that is the work of dogmatics or church courts. His task is to discover and explain what a theologian taught and why.

Summary of Olson’s Thesis
In his new history of Christian theology, Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, sets out to tell us what “God has been doing for two thousand years to lead his people into an understanding of the truth” (11). One of historical theology’s great questions is “How do the various epochs of Christian history relate?” Does some theme unite the theology of the third century with those of the 14th and 20th centuries? Olson sees soteriology as the dominant theme, although he recognizes that even this theme has waxed and waned in Christian history.

Aimed at the interested layman and the pastor who wants a refresher course in the history of theology, Olson’s book is grounded in the conviction that no doctrine ever arose out “of thin air” but always within a context and in response to some challenge. His reminder that doctrines develop for reasons and were not meant to confuse simple Christians corrects the televised anti-intellectualism of our age. His conviction that doctrine matters even for piety is commendable.

He contends that there is a canon of great books and thinkers in the Christian tradition, the study of which is essential for good history even if it is politically incorrect. Yet, as he notes, many of the great theologians were not dead white European males, but rather Africans or Semites.

His working assumptions include his making a distinction between dogma, doctrine and opinion. Opinion involves matters indifferent (e.g., the nature of angels or the details of the parousia). Doctrine is a non-essential deduction from Scripture that is essential to some particular theological tradition. Dogma is what confessional Protestants would call catholic truth, e.g., the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Olson argues that doctrines can matter too much, such as when Reformed and Lutheran Christians separated over the nature of the Lord’s Supper (see 16-20).

He maintains that God works in mysterious ways to establish his people in truth and to reform theology when needed (21), thus rejecting both the kind of historicism that assumes that everything has a natural cause and divine sovereignty as distinguished from providence. He acknowledges that he is not writing a neutral scientific-historical description of the history of theology (22).

Methodological Criticisms
Having enjoyed Olson’s 20th Century Theology (co-authored with Stanley Grenz), I came to this work with high expectations. As a teacher of historical theology, I have been looking for a text to assign to new students to orient them to the methods and topics of historical theology. Unfortunately, this is not that book.

Olson’s honesty about his assumptions is helpful, but it reveals the bookÂ’s basic flaw, which is OlsonÂ’s refusal to distinguish consistently between historical and dogmatic theology. His distinctions about dogma, doctrine and opinion are virtually meaningless for historical theology. What he thinks constitutes a dogma, a doctrine or an opinion is interesting, but in the history of theology it is what, e.g., Anselm or Aquinas considered to be dogma, doctrine or opinion that matters.

Although apparently pious, his attempt to discern the hand of providence in the history of theology is highly problematic, since determining when God was or was not working is necessarily a dogmatic and not a historical judgment. Judgments about what God has been doing providentially for the last two millennia require bringing the interpretation of Scripture to bear on historical theology.

This is a hotbed for special pleading. Reformed and Lutheran Christians could find it satisfying to explain and defend the Reformation by appealing to providence, but why should a Roman Catholic find such a claim compelling? Appeals to providence cut both ways. We appeal to Luther and Calvin but the Jesuit appeals to Peter Canisius as evidence of divine blessing. In their own ways, both Calvin and Canisius had great success. So what do we learn about history from such claims? Nothing. We just learn Olson’s interpretations of providence. As interesting as this is, it is not history.

The book’s sub-title illustrates the problem. “Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform” is a bad way to frame the history of theology because in our culture “tradition” is suspect and “reform” stands for “progress.” Those laying claim to being reformers thus have a rhetorical advantage, while those described as “traditionalists” are marginalized. Olson’s approach to history is like the Mafia’s approach to sports. They watch the game, but the outcome is not in doubt.

Elsewhere, Olson positions himself as a champion of progressive neo-evangelicalism. He aligns himself with—if he has not actually adopted—the new doctrine of God promulgated by theologians such as Clark Pinnock and Gregory Boyd. Known as “open theism,” this doctrine casts itself rhetorically as a new Reformation reacting against allegedly stodgy, confessionalist, traditionalist theology. Hence, Olson has a stake in who is accounted traditional and who is accounted a reformer. This surfaces throughout his book, as when his sympathies for open theism lead him to dismiss cavalierly Tertullian’s doctrine of God as being unduly influenced by Greek philosophical categories (see 97-98). Similarly, his negative assessment of Cyprian’s ecclesiology (no salvation outside the church) as hierarchical and hurtful to personal piety seems to owe more to his own ecclesiology than to the actual historical life and consequences of Cyprian’s theology (see 122-23).

Historical Criticisms
The book’s greatest weakness may be its lack of a strong historical foundation. Good historical theology must be written with historical sensitivity, i.e. it must take careful account of the circumstances in which a particular theology developed. It must evaluate a theologian against the time in which he formed his theology and it must avoid anachronism.

Olson consistently misses these marks. For example, he treats Luther as a “born again” Christian, which is anachronistic and distorts LutherÂ’s actual experience (see 377). Paul Tillich is a twentieth-century Clement and Karl Barth a modern Tertullian (see 85). This is highly tendentious, because it ignores the great gulf that exists between Christian antiquity and post-Christian modernity. Post-Christian modernity deliberately rejects historic Christianity yet uses historic Christian language to express distinctively modern convictions. As radically opposed as Tillich and Barth were in many ways, they were both very modern thinkers who only superficially resemble Clement and Tertullian. Clement and Tertullian both believed in the history of redemption and in the actual truth of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, while Tillich did not and it is debatable whether Barth believed historic Christianity beyond the resurrection of Christ.

Olson publicly positions himself as a spokesman for beleaguered Arminians. So how does he treat his theological opponents? Unfortunately, not well. He has Servetus issuing a “prophetic challenge” to Calvin’s “overbearing dominance” in Geneva (see 21). This is historical nonsense. Even Calvin’s harshest critics should acknowledge that he only had limited political influence in Geneva, as his inability to gain permission from the civil authorities to celebrate the Supper weekly shows.

Olson’s description of the Arminian controversy would have been more helpful if he had simply followed the historical order of things (see 549-60). His Arminius was reacting to the five points of Calvinism! This would have surprised the international delegation to the Synod, who thought that they were responding to the five points of the Remonstrants. Olson’s bias is particularly evident when he categorizes Augustinian-Calvinism as an “extreme” pole opposite process theology. He has a right to consider Calvinism to be in error and even dangerous. Yet, as an historical judgment, his characterization of the Augustinian view of the fall and divine sovereignty as extreme is historically untenable, since it was shared by many of the Fathers, by most major medieval theologians including Thomas, and by Luther and Calvin.

Covenant theology is discussed only in the context of New England controversies (see 501-02), while its roots lie much deeper in the history of Western theology than that. His account of federal theology could have been written fifty years ago. Modern Reformation readers will be interested to learn than the Protestant scholastics were guilty of “metaphysical speculation” (456). Olson cites Richard Muller’s work but shows no real grasp of his argument or research, ignoring completely Muller’s published research on Theodore Beza. In the past twenty-five years, a significant body of secondary literature has radically revised several of the accounts upon which Olson apparently relied.

His account of the nature of contemporary theology also is flawed. He describes the German theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg as “critically orthodox,” contrasting them to classical theism’s “all-controlling and static God” (607). The only conservative alternative to the futurist eschatology he seems to imagine is of the Tim LaHaye/Hal Lindsey variety. Classical Protestant (Lutheran or Reformed) amillennialism or even historic chiliasm does not seem to cross his radar screen. Thus, this book is curiously parochial. On one hand, Olson is dismissive of key aspects of classical theology and, on the other, he shows little genuine familiarity with its primary texts or its force. <

I have been involved in discussions with Roger Olson on the doctrine of God. In conversation and in print, he makes it plain that he believes he is being persecuted for his views. I do not want to persecute him for his theology but to prosecute his book as a prime example of what is wrong with much contemporary historical theology.

This book is well designed, containing reasonably useful indices of names and topics, although some page references seem to be incorrect. It is a little surprising, however, that it does not include a bibliography of primary and secondary resources for further study.

It is well written and accessible. Olson seems to have tried harder in some sections to be fair (e.g., regarding contemporary evangelicalism; see 592-596) than in others (e.g., on Anabaptism; see 415-428). Readers will want to consult Geoffrey Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction, Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology and even Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, for more successful attempts to tell the story of Christian theology that don’t involve their writers working to vindicate themselves in the process.

The Presbyterian Controversy: A Review

Bradley Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

This review was published originally in a slightly different form in The Reformed Heraldin 1993. It was written for the Reformed Church in the U.S. which publishes the magazine.



Bradley Longfield, of Duke University, has written an important book about the struggles surrounding the formation of the OPC in the 1920’s-30’s.

Know Yourself

This book is of interest to us for three reasons. First, the OPC is family and we have an interest in the history of our brothers and sisters. Knowing the family history helps us to understand ourselves and to make corrections where necessary. Knowing the sacrifices and faith of earlier generations edifies, reminding us that God uses sinful people for his own glory.

Second, we have, in many respects, a parallel history with the OPC. Both bodies are separatist churches who withdrew from (in the case of the OPC) or stayed out of (in the case of the RCUS) liberal denominations for the sake of the gospel and the reformed faith, at nearly the identical point in this century. That we are self-consciously, militantly reformed and separating bodies has largely determined our actions, methods and confession for more than fifty years. Certainly there is no other denomination with which we have closer ties. (2)

Third, there are a number of striking parallels between the struggles between the Presbyterian Controversy and what is taking place today in the wider reformed community, especially for those in the Christian Reformed Church, where the parallels with the Presbyterian Controversy are acute.(3) This book also speaks to the situation of those conservative UCC congregations who are mulling over their future.

It is not only theologically conservative Christians who find themselves in drifting churches who face a crisis, but those liberal bodies themselves. From 1966 to 1987 the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost 1.2 million members. In roughly the same period the United Methodist Church suffered similar losses and every evidence suggests that the trend continues. (4)

Longfield tells us why these churches are becoming numerically anemic. In the 1920’s and 30’s American mainline churches deliberately adopted a policy of doctrinal pluralism. That is, the PCUSA, like the UCC after it, decided that it was in the church’s best interest not to require belief in or subscription to only the historic Christian faith as summarized in the reformation creeds and confessions (5). Instead, they believed, in order to remain credible before an increasingly secularized, sophisticated and urbanized population, the church could no longer present what they viewed as a quaint, out dated, message to society. (6) Pluralism meant that biblical, historic, confessional, reformed Christianity became only one option among many, but as it usually is with liberals, the pluralism didn’t last. Eventually, after the influence, first of Classical Higher Criticism, then of Neo-orthodoxy followed finally by the Death of God theology, reformed confessionalism became nearly extinct within these denominations.

The result of the banishment and death of orthodoxy in the mainline denominations has been ruinous. The immediate problem for these denominations is that, as far as most members can tell, the liberal church believes nothing substantially different than the vast majority of the culture. The liberal church simply lags a few years behind in ratifying the latest degenerate behavior of the culture.(7) If the church’s message is an affirming, “I’m okay, you’re okay” message, then why bother to roll out of bed on Sunday?

The Beginning of the End

How did mainline Protestantism decline so? Longfield’s main argument is that at the turn of this century, there were three options available to the mainline churches, Fundamentalist, Moderate and Modernist. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church made a tactical mistake in the 1920’s and 30’s by choosing the modernist option, doctrinal pluralism. For Longfield, of the remaining two options is still viable for the PCUSA and which, if deliberately chosen, might begin to rectify things in the PCUSA and other mainline churches.

Longfield has carefully chosen certain representatives of the various camps. The Fundamentalists are represented by J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Macartney; the Moderates by Charles Eerdman and Robert Speer; and the Modernists by Henry Sloane Coffin. I think these are fair samples of the thought and leaders of the various factions in the PCUSA at the turn of the century.

Obviously, we are most interested in what Longfield has to say about those with whom we most closely identify, especially J. Gresham Machen.

The Modernists

One of the strengths of this book is that Longfield avoids simplistic characterizations. In truth, people rarely are simple neither are their motives. For example, it would be quite easy for us to dismiss a man like Henry Sloane Coffin whose views we so utterly reject, but there is much to be learned from coming to know him a little better. Coffin regarded himself as a “liberal evangelical” redeemed by Jesus Christ. He categorically rejected attempts to reduce Jesus to a mere teacher. (8) Coffin thought of himself as a man who wanted to reach people, particularly the residents of New Yorker City, with the gospel. Coffin was raised on the Westminster Standards, but he came to think of them not so much as living embodiments of God’s truth, but as charming relics of the 17th century. Like Schleiermacher, Coffin thought he was doing a service to Christianity by attempting to restate its truths in contemporary terms. The issue for Coffin was not “what do the Scriptures say?” but rather, “what do you believe and how has it affected you?” In other words, experience is king. (9)

The Moderates

The Moderates whom Longfield highlights were men who had solid evangelical credentials. Robert Speer was deeply influenced by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody (founder of the Moody Bible Institute), (10) associated with the YMCA movement and who was regarded as perhaps the leading missions expert of the day. Charles Eerdman was certainly no flaming liberal. (11) Eerdman became convinced that he could not learn enough about the Bible at Princeton, so he interrupted his studies there to study with his father for a year. Eerdman was also closely associated with Dwight L. Moody, pastoring Moody’s Chicago Ave. Church for three years.

These Moderates were men who personally held the Bible to be the Word of God and the fundamental tenets of the faith to be true. Nevertheless, they believed that it was necessary to cooperate with those with whom they personally disagreed, for the sake of the gospel. They valued the visible advance of the Kingdom over doctrinal differences. This pragmatic approach is most clear in the case of the Foreign Missions Board. Speer disagreed with the increasingly liberal and even blatantly non-Christian views of the Foreign Mission Board. Speer, however, refused to allow the presence of liberals on the board or its leftward drift, deter him from supporting the board. He disagreed with Machen who argued that liberalism on the board constituted grounds for ecclesiastical discipline.

One of the important messages of The Presbyterian Controversy is that although separated by labels, Coffin, Eerdman, Speer and Machen were united by a common desire. What motivated Coffin is what motivated the men whom Longfield describes as Moderates is what motivates many sincere, evangelical Bible believers today: the desire to see the Kingdom of God have an impact on our culture and nation. By impact, I mean concrete observable changes in morals, social policy and legislation. The difference between Machen and the others is that Machen ultimately was unwilling to sacrifice his doctrinal commitments for the sake of a social vision.

The Fundamentalists (12)

Longfield paints an equally engaging picture of the Fundamentalists, Machen, Bryan and Macartney. Bryan is portrayed as a populist, not terribly Presbyterian, evangelical who remained at essence a politician, ready when to make deals for the sake of his social vision.

The heart of the book is Longfield’s portrayal of Machen and Clarence Macartney. In Machen we have the engine of the controversy and arguably the most interesting character of the drama. In Macartney, Longfield sees the neglected solution to the problems of the PCUSA.

Macartney was a Princeton Seminary educated ally of Machen’s for much of the controversy. Raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Macartney later became convinced of the old Princeton theology. Throughout his life, Macartney held on to one aspect of his Covenanter heritage, the vision of a Christian America. Ultimately, it is this vision, which led to his separation with Machen. Unlike Machen, Macartney was unwilling to press the matter of the Independent Board for Foreign Missions. 13) Macartney had been willing to support Machen’s new seminary (Westminster Theological Seminary) but he would not support Machen by joining him in the fledgling Presbyterian Church of America.(14) Macartney believed he could have a greater influence on the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary from within the denomination.

Machen is described as an articulate, cultured, politically and theologically conservative southerner committed to what some have called the “cult of the lost cause.” (15) For Longfield, Machen’s crusade against the Foreign Missions Board and against the reorganization of Princeton Seminary (16) shows that his downfall was his inability to reconcile himself to the pragmatic necessities of the day. For Longfield, it is Machen’s unwavering commitment to the truth of Scripture and principle which forced him to separate from Princeton and the PCUSA to create new institutions.

Clearly, Longfield has felt the force of Machen’s arguments. Repeatedly the author admits that Machen was essentially correct of his analysis of the consequences of compromise with liberalism and the decline of the Presbyterian Church. (17) Longfield’s response to Machen seems to be to say only that Machen was too ruthlessly logical and that Machen failed to understand that his southern upbringing and theological education (and crisis) in Germany equipped him to see the issues in a way that his opponents and some of his friends could not.

Let me deal with the latter argument first. Longfield creates a misleading impression by implying that the Presbyterian Controversy was as much a matter of personalities shaped by circumstances as a conflict of ideas. True, some previous biography has perhaps not fully accounted for Machen’s upbringing, but there is more to the story. It truly was and is a story of competing theologies.

Machen was no more a victim of his philosophical presuppositions, i.e., his unspoken but firm adherence to the Princeton Scottish Common Sense tradition, than were his modernist opponents. It is unquestionable that Machen accepted the Common sense tradition. It was that very intellectual heritage that Cornelius Van Til later called into question as a doorway of liberalism into the church, but the essence of the Common sense tradition is that it is not skeptical. Princeton believed that the Scriptures were clear enough to be understood. This is not a liability for Christians!

So why does Longfield fail to point out the equally obvious debt of the Moderates and Modernists not just to the New School theology of Bushnell and Taylor but to the Kantian presuppositions which lay behind it all? The Modernists believed that man is the measure of all things and there is a ditch fixed between the ancient and modern worlds such that we can never be too insistent on the truth or clarity of such a pre-scientific book as the Bible. Of the two sets of presuppositions, which has had the most disastrous consequences for the PCUSA, Christianity, the Nation and the West?

There are other criticisms to be made of Longfield’s portrayal of Machen. Longfield does not entirely succeed in making his case that Machen is a disciple of the great southern Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell. While it is true that Machen undoubted imbibed deeply of the spirit of the Old South, the identification of Machen with Thornwell ignores the fact that Machen received his formal theological education at a distinctly northern institution, Princeton, where Thornwell was not a dominant influence. (18) Longfield’s association of Machen with Thornwellian theology also overlooks the fact that when Machen had the opportunity to form his own seminary, Thornwell’s theology was not a significant component. Nor does “Machen’s denomination”, the OPC, reflect a great deal of influence of Thornwell.(19)

I could also quibble with Longfield’s characterization of Machen as a “radical civil libertarian” (20) This is somewhat like describing Machen’s love of mountains, as radical environmentalism. In current usage, “civil libertarian” is as misleading as would be “environmentalist.”

In the end, Longfield believes that although Machen was essentially correct, and that time and declining church attendance support Machen’s criticisms, Macartney’s response was the better one. Longfield tries to bolster his case for the Macartney option, that of maintaining an evangelical presence within the mainline denominations as opposed to separating, by pointing to the influence which Macartney had later on: a)Macartney pastored a prestigious church, b)gave prestigious lectures at Princeton, c)was able to publish his point of view in prestigious magazines, d)and that Macartney had a positive influence on the next generation of evangelical leaders such as Harold Ockenga.

It is doubtful whether more conservatives within the PCUSA would have had the effect Longfield predicts. In fact, many good men did stay in. Obviously, they did not have the salutary effect they wished. So is it a question of quantity? It is more likely that Macartney was allowed to remain in the Presbyterian Church because he tacitly accepted an arrangement with the liberal leadership of the Church whereby he was allowed to to maintain his position so long as he refrained from challenging the liberals.” (21)

Fuller Seminary is a case in point. Longfield points to Macartney’s influence on Fuller Seminary founder Harold J. Ockenga as proof that Macartney did the right thing by staying in the PCUSA. In fact, Fuller was the product of men who were not quite comfortable with Westminster’s fervent defense of the faith. They founded a school dedicated to the proposition evangelicalism could be reasonable and thus acceptable to the mainline majority. Instead, Fuller has ceased to leaven the PCUSA for good and has instead become leavened by the PCUSA. The present state of Fuller is full vindication of Machen. There is no middle way between liberalism and Christianity, they are distinct species of religion.

Most unhappily, Longfield points to the smallness of the OPC as proof that separation does not work. While it is certainly true that denominations which are primarily organized around doctrinal concerns are, by that fact, going to have relatively limited appeal in an overwhelmingly pragmatic nation typically disinterested in ideas, it is simply far too simplistic for Longfield to argue that the OPC is small primarily because it is doctrinal. First, It is the mainline communions which are bleeding to death, not conservative, doctrinally oriented groups. The PCA is a confessional church, and it is one of the fastest growing denominations in the U.S.

Second, Longfield’s argument is naive precisely because it ignores the the fact it is the apostasy of the liberal churches which has helped to create the highly secularized society in which many denominations are struggling. Separatist groups such as the OPC were divorced from their resources, institutions and organizational familiarity(22) at exactly the moment when the nation was emerging from its agrarian cocoon to become an industrialized economic super power.(23) Just how were rag-tag bands meeting in unfamiliar, often unpleasant settings, supposed to match the luster of the established denominations?

Longfield seems to have assumed that in the end, doctrine really is less important than perceptible impact and numbers. Is it true that we can measure the “success” of a given movement? What if, Speer, Eerdman and Coffin were correct and the Presbyterian Church had begun growing exponentially because the church chose the Modernist-Pluralist option? Would such a choice then be justified?

J. Gresham Machen remains a powerful and compelling personality is because he was right. Machen had stared into the lovely face of the liberal seductress and rejected her completely. Machen could not do what Longfield seems to have done, i.e., assume a stance of cool detachment toward the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, as though they were negotiable.


My criticisms of aspects of Longfield’s book should not obscure the fact that this is a very well written book. Longfield lays out his thesis clearly and supports it well. He has done an excellent job of recreating the historical situation in which this great drama unfolded. He brings the characters to life, painstakingly, even lovingly, placing them within their respective cultural and social settings. If you read this book you will come away with a clearer understanding of the beginnings of the OPC (and by analogy the RCUS) but also a clearer understanding of the present crisis in so many of our sister churches find themselves(24).


2. I intend no slight to our brothers in the RPCNA, or any of the other bodies with whom we have fraternal relations. The fact is, we are separated from most of these bodies by geography, culture or history in a way we are not separated from the OPC. It is also true that many of our pastors studied with OPC professors and future OPC pastors at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and in Escondido, CA. The same cannot be said about most of the other churches with whom have fraternal relations. This doesn’t mean we should neglect these brothers and sisters, on the contrary! We will have to work even more diligently to improve relations with the bodies with whom we have less natural affinity.
3. This is where I believe Longfield’s book will be most helpful. The experiences of Machen and Macartney should serve to warn CRC conservatives. Liberals do not long practice the “pluralism” they preach.
4. Over the same period, scholars Peter Berger and Dean M. Kelley, among others, have been warning for decades about these sorts of developments. Even the arch liberal, Henry Sloane Coffin, for Longfield’s purposes, admitted something of the truth of this charge later in his career.
5. Referring to the Presbyterian Church of fifty years ago as the PCUSA is anachronistic, since the PCUSA is really a composite body including the former UPCNA and PCUS. But it is clearer for my purposes to refer to use the contemporary designation or simply the title Presbyterian Church. I trust our brothers in the OPC and PCA will understand.
6. For an excellent critique of this position see the essay by Derke Bergsma, “Preaching for Modern Times” in Practical Theology and the Ministry of the Church, ed. Harvie Conn (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990).
7. Camille Paglia, has written a scathing critique of the attempt by the PCUSA, in their recent report on sexuality, to sanitize and normalize homosexuality. Paglia is much more honest about the matter. She says the point, and for her, the thrill of sexual deviance is that it is deviant and unacceptable. “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex” in Sex, Art, and American Culture (London: Viking, 1992).
8. p.88. For Coffin and other Modernists, the term liberal was worn as a badge of honor. For them liberal connoted generosity, charity and broadmindedness.
9. p.89.
10. For most of this century, the Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church and related enterprises (e.g., Moody Broadcasting, Moody Monthly, Moody Press) has been a bulwark of conservative evangelicalism.
11. Eerdman did, by the 1920’s adopt a “limited inerrancy” view of the Bible (p.140). Limited inerrantists, as they are called, believe the Bible to be true and authoritative on matters of faith but subject to challenge on matters of historical, geographical or scientific “fact”. How we are able to trust the Bible completely when it tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead but not when it tells us that animals talk, is a question which limited inerrantists have not answered for more than 70 years.
12. The term Fundamentalist was coined in 1920, derived from a series of volumes published between 1910-15 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. p.21.
13. In reaction to the liberalism of the Foreign Missions program of the Presbyterian Church, Machen and other conservatives formed The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. It was Machen’s refusal to disassociate himself from the IBPFM which became the formal grounds on which Machen was disciplined by the PCUSA.
14. The PCA later became of the OPC after a court challenge by the PCUSA over the use of the name Presbyterian Church of America.
15. pp.36-38.
16. Because of tensions between conservatives and liberals in Princeton Seminary, the denomination approved a reorganization plan which placed liberals in control of the school. This move, in the view of most of the faculty, seriously undermined the school’s ability to carry out its mandate, to uphold the historic reformed faith uniquely among all the seminaries in the U.S. at the time.
17. E.g., pp.176, 234.
18. it is true that Warfield is a southerner, but it is also true that his writings are not usually associated with traditional southern Presbyterian themes.
19. That the PCA has a strong southern, hence Thornwellian, influence and the OPC does not, is likely one of the factors which has kept the two groups apart.
20. p.50.
21. Proof of this implicit arrangement is that Macartney, like many conservatives in the CRC today, became functionally Congregationalist. See p.216. By opting out of Presbytery and Synod, Macartney is no longer engaging the liberals but conceding the fight.
22. From a marketing point of view, the OPC lost her “brand name” and had to start from scratch. That the PCUSA recognized such to be important is proven by the fact that they went to court to prevent the OPC from using a similar name, not to mention the numerous property battles which exhausted the resources of small local congregations.
23. This is not to say that separatist churches such as the RCUS and OPC share no blame in remaining small fifty years after their separations from the mainline churches. We have sometimes contented ourselves with defending the faith to the neglect of reaching the lost.
24. I would suggest that you supplement your reading of Longfield with other valuable books on the period including, D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids, 1994); D. G. Hart and and J. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight. A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, 1995); Edwin Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict. OPC: (repr) 1992; Ned B. Stonehouse. J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954); Henry Coray. J. Gresham Machen: A Silhouette (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981). In addition most of Machen’s books are still available. You should begin with the readable classic, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946).