Transforming History

One way a tradition becomes fossilized is to imagine that everyone is agreed

Evans goes on to assert that Trueman is out of step with the history of Westminster Seminary. Trueman himself is fully capable of defending himself and I won’t speak for him. But I will observe that Evans is remarkably ill informed about the history of Westminster. For one, he does not seem to recall that WTS’ chief founder was J. Gresham Machen, a man whom neo-Calvinists will contort into a transformationalist but who better than anyone else in the first half of the twentieth century articulated the spirituality of the church over against the transformationalism that dominated the PCUSA:

 

Bill Evans thinks that a few pokes at the cultural transformers means the neo-Calvinists are taking it on the chin these days. It is in fact odd to see folks express surprise when others don’t agree with them, as if neo-Calvinism were the settled position of Reformed Protestantism since the days of Ulrich Zwingli and Zacharias Ursinus. One way a tradition becomes fossilized is to imagine that everyone is agreed; arguments keep you sharp, unless you are a follower of Abraham Kuyper whose authority cannot be questioned. I doubt Kuyper himself would be pleased with that group think.

Evans is a little worked up about a post by Carl Trueman that wonders whether the transformationalists have accomplished enough to make news:

The secular and religious media are awash with reports of how the millennial generation of evangelicals is burned out on the political activism of the religious right, and the Two-Kingdoms theology (2K) currently being trumpeted by some faculty members at Westminster Seminary in California (WSC) certainly provides a theological fig-leaf for such culture-war fatigue. In short, H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, with his favored model of “Christ transforming culture,” and the great Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper are not exactly the flavor of the month.

Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised, though certainly not shocked, to see Carl Trueman jumping decisively on the anti-transformational bandwagon (here on Ref21 and here on TheAquilaReport). Dr. Trueman, as most of us know, teaches church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (WTS), and is the former Provost and academic dean there. But despite Trueman’s very public aversion to all things trendy, he seems to be right in step with the Zeitgeist on this one. He also seems to be somewhat out of step with his institution’s history.

Evans goes on to assert that Trueman is out of step with the history of Westminster Seminary. Trueman himself is fully capable of defending himself and I won’t speak for him. But I will observe that Evans is remarkably ill informed about the history of Westminster.

For one, he does not seem to recall that WTS’ chief founder was J. Gresham Machen, a man whom neo-Calvinists will contort into a transformationalist but who better than anyone else in the first half of the twentieth century articulated the spirituality of the church over against the transformationalism that dominated the PCUSA:

In the first place, a true Christian church, now as always, will be radically doctrinal. It will never use the shibboleths of a pragmatist skepticism. It will never say that doctrine is the expression of experience; it will never confuse the useful with the true, but will place truth at the basis of all its striving and all its life. Into the welter of changing human opinion, into the modern despair with regard to any knowledge of the meaning of life, it will come with a clear and imperious message. That message it will find in the Bible, which it will hold to contain not a record of man’s religious experience but a record of a revelation from God.

In the second place, a true Christian church will be radically intolerant. At that point, however, a word of explanation is in place. The intolerance of the church, in the sense in which I am speaking of it, does not involve any interference with liberty; on the contrary, it means the preservation of liberty. One of the most important elements in civil and religious liberty is the right of voluntary association – the right of citizens to band themselves together for any lawful purpose whatever, whether that purpose does or does not commend itself to the generality of their fellow men. Now, a church is a voluntary association. No one is compelled to be a member of it; no one is compelled to be one of its accredited representatives. It is, therefore, no interference with liberty of a church to insist that those who do choose to be its accredited representatives shall not use the vantage ground of such a position to attack that for which the church exists. . .

But when I say that a true Christian church is radically intolerant, I mean simply that the church must maintain the high exclusiveness and universality of its message. It presents the gospel of Jesus Christ not merely as one way of salvation, but as the only way. It cannot make common cause with other faiths. It cannot agree not to proselytize. Its appeal is universal, and admits of no exceptions. All are lost in sin; none may be saved except by the way set forth in the gospel. Therein lies the offense of the Christian religion, but therein lies also it glory and its power. A Christianity tolerant of other religions is just no Christianity at all. . . .

There are certain things which you cannot expect from such a true Christian church. In the first place, you cannot expect from it any cooperation with non-Christian religion or with a non-Christian program of ethical culture. There are those who tell us that the Bible ought to be put into the public schools, and that the public schools should seek to build character by showing the children that honesty is the best policy and that good Americans do not lie nor steal. With such programs a true Christian church will have nothing to do. . . .

In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street. ( “The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” 1933)

Lest Evans think that Machen was Westminster’s conciliar tradition swamped by the high papalism of neo-Calvinism, he should also remember that after Machen’s death, the Westminster faculty (including R.B. Kuiper, Cornelius Van Til, and Ned Stonehouse, all sons of neo-Calvinism) opposed the transformationalists who formed with Carl McIntire the Bible Presbyterian Synod. The Bible Presbyterians wanted to retain the transformationalism of American Presbyterianism as the genuine Presbyterian tradition in the United States, hence the overture that split the OPC — one in favor of prohibition, the very crusade that had cost Machen a promotion at Princeton Seminary.

So Evans can argue for neo-Calvinism and its superiority all he wants. But he can’t read his preference back into the history of American Presbyterianism. And he should not let his preference prevent him from considering the real tension that comes from trying to harmonize Abraham Kuyper and J. Gresham Machen.

D. G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. Darryl blogs, along with his partner in the venture, John Muether, at Old Life where this article first appeared. It is used with permission.

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