What’s Right with the
Orthodox Presbyterian Church?
R. B. Kuiper
I was asked to deliver an historical address on this occasion. It is clear that a sermon is not expected. It is also clear that, while in a general way my subject has been assigned, its formulation was left to me.
It occurred to me to speak on “Birth Pangs and Growing Pains.” That subject has much in its favor. It surely would be true to fact. It might be judged, however, to be somewhat lacking in dignity. So I dismissed it.
For just a moment—no more than a moment—I thought of speaking on the question, “What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?” That theme would have proved easy to develop because much is wrong with our church, but it is exceedingly trite. Our enemies have worked overtime at it, and some of us have worked at it almost as hard. Besides, while a measure of introspection is good, and even necessary, for both an individual and a church, concentration on one’s faults and weaknesses can be overdone. I have known persons who overdid it to the point of morbidity and even insanity. May God forbid that our church should head in that direction.
I have chosen rather to discuss the question, “What’s Right with Our Church?” And since, as I said, this is to be an historical address, my precise theme is: “What Is Historically Right with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?”
A great many things are right with our church, so many that I cannot possibly enumerate all of them. It is a foregone conclusion that, when I have finished, some of you—perhaps all of you—will think of things that I might have said, and perhaps should have said, but did not actually say. I have two excuses to offer: first, I cannot think of everything; second, I cannot say everything I think.
The right things about our church that I propose to name may conveniently be brought under two heads:
1. Our Church Is Broad in the Good Sense of That Term
2. Our Church Is Narrow in the Good Sense of That Term
The question arises at once whether the term narrow can be used in a good sense and whether the term broad can be used in any but a good sense. Nowadays hardly anybody wants to be narrow; almost everybody wants to be broad. A great many folk regard narrowness as an unmitigated evil, broadness as an unqualified good. It occurs to me, however, that Jesus once spoke of a narrow way and a broad way, and said that the narrow way leads to life, the broad way to destruction. Surely, it follows that narrowness is not always an evil, nor is broadness always a good. And so I am on solid ground when I speak of both narrowness and broadness in the good sense of these terms.
A Broad Church
When saying that our church is broad in the good sense of that term, I have several things in mind. I shall select three.
It has been said that there are present in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church three traditions—the American Presbyterian tradition, the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, and the Dutch Reformed tradition. Who will deny the fact?
But when it is intimated that the presence of these three traditions in one denomination constitutes a liability to that denomination, I beg to differ sharply. I rather consider it a distinct potential asset. Does it not present the opportunity to combine all that is best in these three traditions? Surely, very few churches, if any, have ever had such an opportunity. I do not hesitate to call it golden.
May I remind you that Dr. Machen was responsible for the presence of these three traditions among us? He took a leading part in choosing, among others, a true-blue Scot and three men of Dutch ancestry for the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. And it was he who not only invited these men into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but urged them, pleaded with them, to come in. Will you pardon a very brief personal reference? One of the last things Dr. Machen told me before his lips were sealed in death was that I should enter the Orthodox Presbyterian Church without delay. When the overwhelmingly sad news of his untimely decease reached me, I could no longer deny his wish.
And may I not remind you of the incomparably more significant fact that Calvinism is cosmopolitan? It cannot help being, for it is consistent Christianity, and Christ is the Savior of the world. Calvinism partakes of Christian universalism. The earliest history of Calvinism bears this out. In the Reformation period Lutheranism remained confined by and large to Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but Calvinism spread from Switzerland through France to the Low Countries, and across the channel to Great Britain, and at the same time it fanned out eastward through Germany to Hungary and Bohemia. Calvin himself was born, neither in Holland, nor Scotland, nor yet in America, but in France, and most of his labors he performed in Switzerland. Calvinism far transcends all national boundaries. It is supranational.
What then shall we do about these traditions? Shall we fight each for his own, and against the others? God forbid. Shall we tolerate one another’s peculiarities? I suppose so, but that will not suffice for true unity. Nothing short of love will hold us together. Let me remind you of pagan Cicero’s distinction between friendship and love. He defined friendship as a benevolent attitude toward those who are like us, love as a benevolent attitude toward those who differ from us. If that is a correct description of the love which flows from the common grace of God, what differences will not Christian love surmount?
Also, let us refuse to be traditionalists. Traditions may be valuable—some are and some are not—but traditionalism is an evil. Did not Jesus rebuke the scribes and Pharisees of his day for their traditionalism? Instead of clinging tenaciously to views and customs handed down to us by our elders, let us settle our differences in the light of the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Then we shall indeed be in a position to combine all that is best in our differing traditions, and thus our church will be greatly enriched.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has repeatedly acknowledged the principle of Christian liberty and has thus manifested itself to be broad in the good sense of that term.
The mere mention of Christian liberty causes some of you to worry. You see smoke and smell liquor, and you wonder whether I may not be about to utter some awful indiscretion. Forget it. Christian liberty is something big. It is truly broad.
It has reference to doctrine. Within the Reformed faith there is an area which has room for differences of opinion. To be sure, this area has its boundaries, but its existence may not be denied. For instance, infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism have flourished alongside each other in the Reformed churches, and their respective adherents have usually found it possible to bear with one another. Much the same thing is true of premillenarianism, amillennialism, and supernaturalistic postmillennialism.
Does this mean that, after all, the Reformed churches have been willing to compromise a little with error—that they have been tolerant of error, provided error was not too serious? I say with all the emphasis at my command that it means nothing of the kind. All error is serious. To compromise with any degree of error is sin. I have heard it said that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church tolerates premillenarians. Although I am not myself a premillenarian, I resent that statement. If I were a premillenarian, I should not want to be tolerated in this church nor in any other. A stigma attaches to being tolerated. Would you know why premillenarians, amillenarians, and supernaturalistic postmillenarians stand and labor shoulder to shoulder in our church? The reason is very simple. It is not at all that we are willing to condone a mild type of heresy, but that, whatever our individual convictions may be, as a church we have not yet arrived at certainty that any one of these groups is a hundred per cent right. Our church is still seeking more light. Obviously this type of Christian liberty has nothing in common with doctrinal indifference.
Christian liberty also concerns the Christian life. There are practices concerning the propriety of which there have historically been differences of opinion among serious-minded Christians and, more specifically, among Reformed moralists. In the field of Reformed ethics, as in that of Reformed doctrine, there is an area in which there is room for differences. To be sure, this area too has its boundaries, but its existence must be recognized. I hardly need to name any practices that lie within that area. All of you are familiar with some, and no doubt every one of you engages in some. The difference among us is not that some of us engage in such practices while others abstain, but that some of us engage in some, others in other of such practices.
Does this mean that we are tolerant of so-called little sins? God forbid. Calvinism is not a whit less insistent on purity of life than on purity of doctrine. But in such matters as were alluded to, we of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church respect each other’s consciences, refrain from judging one another, recognize that each of us stands or falls to his own master, take heed not to use our liberty for an occasion to the flesh, and aim so to live in love as not to offend anyone.
That, too, is broadness in the good sense of the term.
What is the function of the Christian church? Some say: to bring the gospel to the unsaved. Others reply: to build up its members in the faith. If you give either of these answers to the exclusion of the other, you are narrow in the evil sense of that term. If you give both answers, you may be credited with a measure of broadness in the good sense of that term.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has ever given both answers.
It is a sad but undeniable fact that some who helped found our church had little doctrinal background. The reason was that they came from the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which for many decades had almost completely neglected the indoctrination of its members. To be sure, they were not so blind as to fail to recognize the blatant heresy pervading that church. Yet their doctrinal eyesight was not keen. Awareness of this situation prompted Dr. Machen to say that it was the solemn duty of our church to educate a whole new generation of Christians. We have tried and are trying to perform this arduous task. Most of our preachers do much doctrinal preaching. All of them should. And, by the way, there is no good reason why doctrinal preaching should be dry as dust and abstract. There is every good reason why it should be thoroughly practical and scintillatingly interesting. In most of our churches there is not only a Sunday school, but systematic doctrinal instruction is given the children of the covenant in Catechism classes. That should be done in all of our churches. At least a few of our pastors conduct classes in doctrine for communicant members. The rest of our pastors should follow suit. As a denomination we are rapidly becoming conscious of the necessity of Christian day schools for our children. Several of such schools have already been established by voluntary associations of Orthodox Presbyterian parents, and more are in the immediate offing.
That our church is strong for missions is a matter of common knowledge. As was already pointed out, zeal for truly Presbyterian missions became the immediate occasion of the founding of our church. And ever since its founding it has conducted a full missionary program. I have no statistics available, and I am not greatly interested in statistics, for they are often misleading, but I seriously question whether there is a denomination on this continent, or for that matter on any continent, which for its size and its strength is more active in missions than is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Right now we have mission fields on three continents: America, Asia and Africa. Small and weak though we are, utterly insignificant in the eyes of almost all other churches, we count the world as our field. During the recent war those of our ministers who served as chaplains in the armed forces—and many did—encircled the globe. We are bending every effort to hasten the day when the kingdom of this world will have become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and when an innumerable multitude will sing, “Thou, 0 Lamb, wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation.”
That again is broadness in the good sense—may I not say, in the best—of that term.
A Narrow Church
When saying that our church is narrow in the good sense of that term, I have reference especially to the matter of doctrine. Was not the Orthodox Presbyterian Church conceived and born in doctrinal controversy? Doctrinal issues were the occasion of its origination.
Historically, our church has opposed doctrinal error. It has refused even to compromise with error. How Dr. Machen used to din into our ears the behest never to compromise with error. Compromising truth was to his mind equivalent to denying truth. He himself consistently refused to compromise even a little. A certain character has gone down in the history of our country as “the Great Compromiser.” Dr. Machen may well go down in the history of our church as the great noncompromiser.
Positively expressed, our church has historically striven hard to exemplify the biblical description of Christ’s church as “pillar and ground of truth.” What is the meaning of that expression? What is the function of a pillar and of the ground? Obviously, to uphold things. Christ brought his church into being in order that it might uphold the truth. In this world so full of falsehood, that cannot be done without opposing error. Therefore our church has ever been militant in its defense and proclamation of the truth of God. It has declared the truth, both controversially and constructively. It has made the truth in all its whiteness stand out boldly against the black background of error.
In a word, our church is intolerant of error. Intolerance is frequently condemned as a grave sin, while tolerance is advocated as a great virtue. The fact is that the term tolerance is a neutral one. Whether tolerance is good or evil depends on that which is tolerated. To tolerate sin is an evil. To tolerate error is sin. But intolerance is usually regarded as evidence of narrowness. It may well be that. Only remember that intolerance of error is evidence of narrowness in the good sense of that term.
The Birth of the OPC
Where did the Orthodox Presbyterian Church originate? You say that it originated at this very place, in the New Century Club of Philadelphia, on the eleventh day of June in the year of our Lord 1936. That is true in about the same sense in which it is true that the Protestant Reformation began on the thirty-first of October, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his famous ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. But everybody knows that the roots of the Reformation lie far back of that date. It is equally clear that the roots of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church may be traced behind 1936. It is not amiss to say that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was conceived when the Presbyterian Church in the USA became tolerant of error. And that happened long ago. Let no one suppose that the church just named was relatively sound and pure until a decade or two before 1936. He who thinks that betrays an utter lack of historical sense. The decadence of a church is a process, usually very slow— almost imperceptibly slow—at first and then gradually accelerated. To name but one date, 1870 is significant in this connection. In that year the Old and New School Presbyterians were merged into one body, and that merger involved compromise with error.
The doctrinal decadence of the Presbyterian Church in the USA came to a head in 1924, when some twelve hundred leaders in that denomination affixed their names to the Auburn Affirmation. That infamous document denounced the infallibility of Holy Scripture as a “harmful” doctrine. It also stated as the conviction of the signers that it was unnecessary for a minister in the church to believe in the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, or the miracles of the Bible generally. The precious doctrine that Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice by which he expiated sin and satisfied divine justice was further decried as but one of many theories of the atonement and nonessential to the faith. The church was now divided into three parties: the Modernists on the one hand, the Conservatives on the other, and between them the middle-of-the-roaders or indifferentists. The last-named party was by far the most numerous, and more despicable even than the first.
It was inevitable that this doctrinal controversy in the church should affect its seminary at Princeton. And so in the twenties a battle royal was waged at that institution. It has been said that this battle concerned a mere matter of administration. Princeton Theological Seminary was controlled by two boards: a Board of Directors and a Board of Trustees. There were those who felt that in the interest of efficient administration these two boards should be merged: others thought otherwise. And that was all there was to it. A more misleading understatement is hardly imaginable. President J. Ross Stevenson had advocated an “inclusive” policy for the seminary. He wanted it to represent not only the conservative wing of the church, but the church as a whole. Now the Board of Directors, which had much to say about the constituency of the faculty, was conservative, while the Board of Trustees was not. Clearly, it was in the interest of Stevenson’s policy of inclusiveness that the former board should be swallowed up by the latter. Precisely that happened. In a word, the issue was a doctrinal one. The conservatives went down to defeat. Princeton Theological Seminary, that erstwhile bulwark of American orthodoxy, was taken over by modernists and indifferentists. Ichabod was written over its doors.
Thus it came to pass that in 1929 Westminster Theological Seminary was founded as the continuation of old Princeton. In a very real sense the seminary which had been put to death at Princeton was resurrected in Philadelphia. Westminster began with a faculty of seven men, four of whom had taught at Princeton. The four were Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, Dr. Oswald T. Allis, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, and Dr. Cornelius Van Til. This seminary contributed incalculably to the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.
For some time the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA had been under fire because of modernism in the board and among its missionaries. Pearl Buck, for instance, once served under this board as missionary in China. It was she who expressed the opinion that, if the bodily resurrection of our Lord should be definitely disproved, that would not matter, for the spiritual values of Christianity would persist just the same. When at last she resigned under conservative fire, the board accepted her resignation with regret. Complaints against the modernism of the Board were lodged with the courts of the church. However these complaints fell on deaf ears. Then conservatives in the church found themselves compelled to organize the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. This was in 1933.
Before long several members of this board were brought to trial. I do not exaggerate when I assert that their trials constituted one of the greatest travesties of justice in ecclesiastical history. In 1934 the church made the astounding declaration: “A church member or an individual church that will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church, is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual church that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” (Manual of Presbyterian Law for Church Officers and Members, published by the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1936, p. 115). On that made-to-order and much worse than flimsy ground the defendants were condemned. But never once were they permitted to say in their defense why they had organized the Independent Board. The issue was patently doctrinal, but every doctrinal reference was consistently ruled out by the court as irrelevant.
Here let me quote a significant statement by a Unitarian in the Boston Evening Transcript of April 6, 1935. The reference was to the trial of Dr. Machen, the president of the Independent Board, which trial had just been concluded and had resulted in an order for his suspension from the ministry. Said Albert C. Dieffenbach: “No matter what may be said in slovenly contempt about doctrines—that they do not count—the fact is that they are the only things at last that do count. It will always be so. Every great issue in religion throughout history has been in the realm of belief. The weakness, the incoherency and the ineffectualness of any church can be attributed to its lack of great rooted ideas and convictions to give ultimate meaning to the life of man.” How grave an indictment by a Unitarian of an avowedly Presbyterian church! And how just!
Those members of the Independent Board who had been adjudged guilty by the lower courts of the church appealed to the 1936 General Assembly, which convened in Syracuse, N.Y. When their appeal was brushed aside lightly, it was clear as broad daylight that the time for drastic action had arrived. The Presbyterian Church in the USA had unmistakably come under the control of modernism and indifferentism. By accepting that control it had denied the truth. This situation demanded drastic action. Any action short of drastic would have betokened compromise and cowardice. On the eleventh day of June, 1936, The Presbyterian Church of America was founded, the church which today is known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
How clear that the beginnings of our church were doctrinal, It came into existence because of the doctrinal collapse of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Basically, the one and only issue that gave rise to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the issue of doctrine. Its founders were intolerant of doctrinal error. They were narrow in the good sense of that term.
The whole story has not been told.
It cannot be doubted that some who united with our church in its early days expected it to be broadly evangelical. It seems not to have occurred to them that this church would insist on being specifically and strictly Reformed or Presbyterian. Nor did they realize that, in order to combat modernism effectively, it would have to be distinctively Reformed, for the reason that of all Christian systems of theology only Calvinism has consistently refused to compromise with naturalism, and hence Calvinism alone is in a position to assail modernism all along the line. It was nothing strange, therefore, that doctrinal differences already emerged at the Second General Assembly of our church in the fall of 1936.
That Assembly concerned itself with adopting the doctrinal standards of our church. Prominent among these standards, of course, is the Westminster Confession of Faith. But the question arose in what precise form the Confession was to be adopted. In the year 1903 the Presbyterian Church in the USA had, to put the case mildly, watered it down. Negotiations had been under way for union with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. A stumbling block was encountered. The Cumberlanders were Arminian in doctrine and therefore objected to the rigorous Calvinism of the Confession. In order to meet them, perhaps less than halfway but nonetheless part of the way, the Presbyterian Church in the USA adopted certain Arminianizing amendments to the Confession. At our Second General Assembly the question arose whether the Confession of Faith should be adopted with or without these amendments. The Assembly was sharply divided. Lengthy debate ensued, some of it a bit acrimonious. But finally Dr. Machen made a ringing and convincing speech against the Arminianizing amendments. This plea won the day.
A significant development must here be recorded. Little more than half a year later, at the 1937 General Assembly, practically all who had favored the retention of the 1903 amendments parted company with our church. The reason for their departure was avowedly another, and I do not wish to call their veracity into question; but that there were Arminian tendencies among them may be set down as an indisputable fact, and that these Arminian tendencies may have had some bearing on their departure must be recognized as at least a possibility.
Another doctrinal matter that received attention at the Second General Assembly was the dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible. While the Assembly issued no official doctrinal pronouncement on the subject, it is no exaggeration to say that modern dispensationalism—mind you, I did not say premillennialism—was discredited.
How clear that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in its early days was tremendously insistent on sound doctrine and firmly refused to compromise with doctrinal error. It was narrow in the good sense of that term.
In 1936 our church named itself The Presbyterian Church of America. Through the civil courts the Presbyterian Church in the USA compelled us to change our name. In 1939 a General Assembly was called for the sole purpose of choosing another name. After lengthy debate, our present name—the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—was adopted. How significant a name! Had our doctrinal consciousness been less than strong at the time, we could hardly have chosen it. And by choosing it, we committed ourselves to the strictest orthodoxy for the indefinite future. Failure at any time to live up to that name will make our church a laughingstock. To put it popularly, we stuck out our necks in 1939. I do not say that one should never stick his neck out, but surely, he should never do so without being ready to take the consequence, if need be, of having his head chopped off. As a church, we solemnly vowed in 1939 that we would be willing to be decapitated if we should not adhere strictly to sound doctrine, or should become indifferent to it. So long as we bear our present name, we shall remain committed to that vow.
Let me bring the matter up to date. For some two years now a doctrinal controversy has been in process in our church. It originated in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and has since become denominational in scope. Now, don’t worry. I am not going to say anything indiscreet. I shall not be so ungracious as to take advantage of my present opportunity to make propaganda for my own convictions on this subject, however strong those convictions may be and actually are. But I do want to make one statement. Our willingness to debate doctrine, and our unrelenting refusal to desist from doctrinal debate until truth and error have come clearly to light are evidence that as a denomination we have not yet succumbed to the temptation of doctrinal indifference and have not yet ceased being narrow in the good sense of that term.
What is right with our church? Much in every way.
But may we never forget that we are what we are by the grace of God alone. All that we have, we have received. Let us then give all the glory to God and take none for ourselves. Soli Deo Gloria!
May we also remember that we have our God-given treasures in earthen vessels. How earthen we are! Then we shall put our trust for the future solely in the almighty Head and King of the church at the right hand of God.
Again, may we ever be mindful that much will be required of those to whom much has been committed. Our responsibility is exceedingly heavy.
I conclude with applying to our church the exhortation which he who walks among the seven golden candlesticks and holds the seven stars in his right hand addressed to the church of Philadelphia in Asia Minor, which, like ours, had little strength but had kept his word and had not denied his name: Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
R. B. Kuiper, the original professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, delivered this address in 1946 (the two main parts of this address have been reversed). Reprinted with permission from the Presbyterian Guardian in New Horizons, March-April, 1991.