The time we spent together was a highlight of last week's travel to Florida, and I am glad that my business trip and your spring break converged. I enjoyed meeting your school mates at the spring training game in Bradenton. Hope springs eternal this time of year, even for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But their pitching looks weak again this year, as we witnessed last Thursday. Both the Pirates and Presbyterianism were once proud and robust institutions in Pittsburgh, but they have fallen on hard times.
This brings me to the question you posed around the fourth inning, and which I botched at the time like a passed ball. When your dorm mates urge you to "chill out" with your Presbyterian particularism, you begin to see why Presbyterianism is such a hard sell in our age. Our surrounding evangelical culture does not take kindly to the tradition and history that inform the identity of Orthodox Presbyterianism. That history involves not simply the controversies within American Presbyterianism before World War I, but also the development of the Reformed tradition itself in seventeenth-century Britain and its transplanting to the New World in the eighteenth.
Defending the importance of the truths of the Reformed faith and the practices that are articulated in our Confession leave us vulnerable to the charge of narrowness and rigidity. The sanctity of the Lord's Day, Reformed sacramental theology, a high view of preaching, the regulative principle of worship—all of these are "sectarian" practices from the point of view of a generic faith that seeks affirmation and inspiration from all believers, no matter what they think about, say, justification or corporate worship. The OPC has maintained an identity as a separate denomination in order to preserve these traditions. For that we have been called ingrown and even downright un-American.
Your evangelical classmates claim the upper hand by stressing the preeminence of the Bible over the church's confession. After all, isn't it a good thing to liberate the Bible from man-made creeds? Now, of course, we draw a distinction between primary and secondary standards. But the Confession is still a standard, and in reducing it to mere opinion your friends' understanding of the faith becomes an oddity in its own right.
It is worth noting that throughout American church history, no-creed-but-the-Bible movements have been numerous. Surprisingly, they may bear greater resemblance to the openness and tolerance of liberal society than some Christians ever contemplate. So eager are some to overcome dogma in the interest of fellowship and generosity that they don't see how they subtly advance a liberal tradition that eliminates distinct beliefs and practices that thwart social (and religious) unity and cooperation. Americans are great believers in the cause of unity under the banner of reason. Unfortunately, too many Christians have adopted a similar ideal for the church without thinking what this does to their denominational distinctions. Is it really a good thing to wash them all away in the interest of a plain evangelical faith that draws no conclusions about infant baptism, justification by faith, or speaking in tongues?
Do you also notice what happens when your friends set the Bible against the Confession? They end up exchanging a confession from the past for the prejudices (and tradition!) of the present. Sure, they claim to be biblical. But their views are just as much "man-made" as the OPC's Confession and Catechisms. At least our standards have been cultivated by the God-ordained officers of the church who are responsible for ministering God's Word. The anticreedal position is often only one believer's opinion about what the Bible says. Notice, too, that each view claims to be biblical. The point is that the OPC's confessional standards are in fact biblical, not simply man-made.
Many anticreedal, Bible-only movements have degenerated into liberal Protestantism. That may not be inevitable. Yet it's hard to think of a Bible-only tradition that has remained Reformed in its teaching and practices. For this reason, confessional Presbyterians have looked skeptically at plans to unite believers under one church or parachurch organization. But that does mean that we oppose ecumenicity. Here the words of Cornelius Van Til prove helpful. No ecumenical cause, he insisted, is worthy of Presbyterian effort that lowers the banner of the Reformed faith. The maintenance of our confessional standards, far from being an impediment to ecumenicity, becomes the means by which we exercise the most genuine expression of ecumenicity. Our ecumenical mandate is to provide a witness to the Reformed faith. Van Til observed that by being narrowly Reformed we actually serve the entire church.
When generic Christians ask us to give up on our Presbyterian identity for the sake of getting along with lots of other believers, they say, in effect, "smile and commit suicide." Arguably, suicide is what the Pirates have committed since its last winning season (I believe that was sixteen years ago). I for one am not willing to see the same fate befall confessional Presbyterianism. Hang in there.
"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2008.