Lest We Forget: A Personal Reflection on the Formation of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church By Robert K. Churchill
Published by the Committee for the Historian of the OPC
135 pages; List price: $6.95, softback; ISBN: 0-934688-34-6
Lest We Forget is pastor Robert Churchill’s autobiographical account of the tumultuous years of conflict in the early 20th century between German liberalism, American fundamentalism, and historic Presbyterianism. Written from the perspective of a young Presbyterian who would be ordained at the first General Assembly of the newly formed Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Churchill’s reflections are aimed at reminding future Orthodox Presbyterians of their roots and theological identity, as if Grandpa has sat down in his rocking chair to give his grandchild an important, factual, and wisdom-filled glance into the past for the purpose of helping his grandchild chart a wise course for the future.
In ch. 1, Churchill recalls his conversion and call to the ministry. Though minor points, young ministerial candidates will do well to chew on two nuggets of advice, the first on education for ministry:
I attempted a short cut [to ministry], via a course in the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. But “No,” said that inner voice, “get a thorough education, the best available, before you preach the word” (p. 19).
And the second on making your call sure during your training, internship time, etc.:
I became a minister because I had to. As it came to Paul, so in a lesser way it came to me: “Yea, woe is me if I preach not the gospel!” (p. 19)
Chapter 2 surveys two Presbyterian churches to introduce the looming conflict between liberalism and historic, orthodox Christianity, the first ingredient in the Presbyterian conflict in the 1920s and 30s.
The second ingredient, the “new kind of fundamentalism” with its dispensational theology, is introduced in chapter 3. This new fundamentalism is not like historic fundamentalism that simply upholds five fundamentals of Christianity (i.e. verbal plenary inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture; the virgin birth of Christ; supernatural miracles; Jesus’ physical resurrection; Christ’s substitutionary, penal atonement). Rather, using a dispensational hermeneutic the new fundamentalism drove a wedge between the people of God in the Old and New covenants, thereby introducing two plans of salvation instead of one, unified plan of salvation in Christ Jesus. This new fundamentalism also fails to appropriately relate law and grace in the New Testament’s doctrine of salvation.
Churchill introduces the third and final ingredient in the Presbyterian conflict in chapter 4: the Westminster tradition, with such pastors and theologians as J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til. This institution, where Churchill received his seminary degree, and these men stood for orthodox, Reformed Presbyterianism. Churchill describes his time at Westminster in terms of being introduced to the “largeness” of the Reformed faith over against the smallness of the dispensational theology coming out of dispensational strongholds such as Dallas Theological Seminary.
In chapter 5 Churchill focuses on Presbyterian ecclesiology, using the analogy of Lincoln’s “house divided” speech to show the growing rift in America’s Presbyterian church. The 1923 a conservative General Assembly affirmed five fundamentals of the Christian faith (as noted above). The following year the same body denied these fundamentals in what became known as the Auburn Affirmation. This affirmation also revealed the liberals’ strategy: flanking by degrees, or an invasion of “half truths” instead of a full frontal attack.
The Affirmation revealed the campaign strategy of the modernists. The attack on historic Christianity was not to be an open, forthright one. It was to be a denial of the faith by feigned affirmations (p. 65).
By separating redemptive fact from the divine interpretation of those facts, liberal theologians sought to affirm Christianity’s facts and to deny Christianity’s doctrines simultaneously, a ferocious non sequitur based ultimately on a denial of Scripture’s authority.
This chapter looks into the impact of heterodoxy on the Presbyterian world missions scene related to the 1932 work, Re-Thinking Missions. Conservatives in the church did not want to send their money to support theologically liberal missionaries, and conservative missionary candidates did not want to be rejected for service simply because they believed in historic, orthodox Christianity. Thus, the stage was set for explaining the purpose behind J. Gresham Machen’s independent mission board, which he formed outside the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church.
Once it became clear to conservative Presbyterians that their money was being used to support liberal missionaries and that conservative missionary candidates were having trouble getting certified for the field, Dr. Machen led the charge to form the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions for the purpose of supporting missionaries who held to orthodox Christianity. The church reacted swiftly in a 1934 deliverance demanding extra ordination and membership vows which required support of the church’s official mission board. This action created an impasse for conservatives: either support the liberal mission board or face church discipline.
Chapters 8 & 9
Under the pretense of the mission board issue, Dr. Machen, along with other conservative ministers, were brought before the church’s courts, given an unjust (i.e. non-judicial, but strictly administrative) trial, and then defrocked. This last point is often forgotten–the conservatives did not split the church. Rather, they were kicked out. Only then were they forced to start their own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, renamed to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The final chapter ends in the OPC’s tumultuous first year. Now free from the common foe of liberalism, the conservatives faced internal strife, especially on the issue of premillennial dispensationalism. Churchill outlines four main challenges in building momentum around a conservative identity:
- Unpopularity — By definition the Gospel of Christ is an offense. Thus it will always be a challenge to spread the light in a dark American context that is addicted to entertainment, pleasure, and all things hedonistic.
- High Financial Cost — For a pastor to leave the large Presbyterian denomination would cost him his salary, pension, benefits, etc. And the cost for a church was its building, assets, etc. Thus many churches were not quick to join the conservatives due to the high cost of leaving.
- Internal Theological Division, especially dispensationalism — Premillennial dispensational theology (i.e. from the Scofield Reference Bible) had gained a large foothold even among conservative churches. The new church struggled to maintain a consistent Reformed hermeneutic (i.e. covenant theology, Reformed eschatology).
- Christian Liberty — Whereas historic Reformed theology promotes a robust doctrine of Christian liberty according to the Scriptures, the “new fundamentalism” (referenced above) in the conservative Presbyterian movement sought to use the church to support politically-charged movements such as prohibition and extra-Biblical mandates, such as no card playing, movie going, etc.
These four challenges led to a splinter group emerging in the OPC’s first year. The dispensationalist- and new-fundamentalist-friendly members formed into the Bible Presbyterian Church and founded Faith Theological Seminary.
At times, Churchill’s reporting is juvenile (see p. 117, for example), one-sided (i.e. no reference to opposing views anywhere in the book, as on p. 99, for example), and triumphalistic. But such observations ought to be taken with a grain of salt when the genre of Churchill’s work, autobiographical reflection, is held in view. Further, even though the work is not a meant to be a research paper, Churchill’s wide sweeping comments about the analogy between church and statue authority (i.e. pp. 111-12) are unnecessarily broad; his points regarding the nature of church authority would have been better served with appeals to Scripture.
Overall I found Lest We Forget easy to read and fairly engaging. Each chapter (except chapter 1) cuts quickly to the main idea of the chapter and clearly unfolds the implications for the OPC. Thus friends of the OPC will find in Churchill a friendly and fatherly voice which gives an “insider’s” look into the foundation of a 71 year old denomination. Also, anyone interested in the history of American Baptistic fundamentalism (i.e. the fundamentalism akin to Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, and the like) or the historical influence of Dispensationalism will find Churchill’s book helpful in setting the historical context for these theologies, albeit from a Presbyterian perspective. Lastly, those interested in tracing the flow of historic, orthodox, confessional Christianity in the 20th century will benefit too from Churchill’s autobiographical work.