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Geneva College and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Robert Tarullo

In 1986, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church saw the publication of Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.[1] [2] Included in that anthology was a brief essay reflecting on the connection between Wheaton College and the OPC. The author, Edward L. Kellogg, draws attention to the early years of the OPC and how many of her ministers educated at Wheaton were encouraged to attend the fledgling seminary of the defrocked J. Gresham Machen, Westminster Theological Seminary. While Mr. Kellogg did not have these numbers available to him at the time, by my count, the total number of ministers as of 2001 who graduated from Wheaton was eighty (spanning the years 1905–1993). Indeed most of these men moved from Wheaton to Westminster and into the ministry of the OPC.

At the denomination’s seventy-fifth anniversary, it may be fitting to reflect upon the connection between Geneva College and the OPC. To be sure, Geneva is no Wheaton. Only twenty-eight ministers of the OPC graduated from Geneva (spanning the years 1920–2002). There is a larger story, though, beyond the students who became ministers in our denomination.

Geneva College has a long and rich history that even antedates Wheaton. Founded in 1848 as Geneva Hall by action of the Presbytery of the Lakes of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Geneva began holding classes in the western Ohio town of Northwood. Beginning as a “Grammar School,” and after a short period of closure due to debt and the Civil War, Geneva reopened largely due to the determination of John L. McCartney, a Reformed Presbyterian pastor in Northwood, along with his conviction for the establishment of a Freedmen’s College. The founding of this institution publicly marked Geneva as having strong abolitionist convictions. “As a result, well into the 1880’s there were African-Americans from the South in the student body.”[3] Geneva’s social concerns remain a steadfast mission of the college. Engraved into the very heart of the college is Pro Christo et Patria. The motto of the college is “For Christ and Country.” The goal of the college is to “transform society for the kingdom of Christ.”

After moving to Beaver Falls in 1879, the campus stands with the prominent building, affectionately dubbed, “Old Main” (completed in 1881) at its center. Over time Geneva grew from being a small Christian “Grammar School” into an academic institution offering the Bachelor of Arts and Science, as well as being known for its athletics.

In the 1930s, Geneva received a gift to construct a new library building. The gift was in honor of the Rev. Dr. Clarence E. Macartney. Macartney was the prominent Presbyterian preacher serving the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Having been reared within the Reformed Presbyterian Church and having grown up on the campus of Geneva College in the home his father, John L. McCartney, built and named Ferncliffe, Macartney knew Geneva well. He spoke there on more than one occasion. McCartney Library stands in honor of a man who had become colleague and ally of J. Gresham Machen. Together with Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, Macartney’s address in 1922, “Shall Unbelief Win?” (a response to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s infamous “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”), was a clearly articulated response to modernism, and it raised the banner of Christ in the fight against modernism in the mainline Presbyterian Church. While Macartney supported Machen’s new training grounds for the ministry in Westminster Theological Seminary, he would eventually balk at the idea of the necessity of forming a new denomination. While Machen died on January 1, 1937, serving the new denomination, Macartney remained at First Presbyterian Church until his death in 1957 in Ferncliffe, Geneva College. In his autobiography, Macartney would reflect upon his former ally’s founding of a new Presbyterian denomination, “The movement was abortive. Only a handful of men, sincere and courageous, however, followed Dr. Machen in the secession.”[4]

Despite Macartney’s determination to stay in the PCUSA, Geneva College has served the OPC well. Now in its 162nd year as a Reformed and Presbyterian institution of higher learning, Geneva has more recently become a planting ground for the OPC. This new planting ground for the OPC coincides with Geneva’s clearer articulation of its Reformed identity. According to Geneva historian David M. Carson, it was not until the 1960s that Geneva began to once again become self-conscious about its “historic roots as a Christian college [which] climaxed in the adoption in 1967 of the Foundational Concepts of Christian Education.”[5]

It is at this point in Geneva’s history that young men who would become OPC ministers began attending the college. Until 1960, there were only three Geneva graduates who became ministers in the OPC. During the decade of the sixties, no less than seven graduates would become OPC ministers. As well, professor of church history at Westminster Seminary and the first OPC historian, the Rev. Dr. Paul Woolley received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1969. (In the next decade, Westminster’s Harvie Conn would be accorded a similar honor.)

The influence of Geneva College upon the OPC is largely found in its faculty and the local church. As the present author received comments from fellow alumni, a few common themes arose. Geneva provided a foundation in liberal arts that prepared young men for seminary; we were either introduced to or reinforced in the Reformed faith and life, as well as to the OPC through its professors and proximity to the local congregation of Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Beyond this, Geneva, along with Westminster Seminary, also became the institutional support behind the OPC’s controversial inner city educational ministry, The Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS), based in Philadelphia.

Formally organized in 1978, CUTS could trace its roots to Emmanuel Chapel, an inner city Philadelphia home mission work of the OPC, where OPC minister Bill Krispin served as evangelist from 1968–1975. Geneva’s historic concern for racial relationships among the people of God may explain its academic support for CUTS. The opening paragraph of the center’s constitution expresses a theology of racial reconciliation as a basis for doing ministry:

Early in our nation’s history the church was divided into alienated unites when white Christians failed to receive their black brothers and sisters into the fullness of fellowship and ministry in the church. . . . The unity of the body of Christ necessitates that urban and non-urban churches today actively seek ways together of meeting each other’s needs.[6]

To this end, the Geneva College Program offered one major leading to a BA degree in biblical studies with an urban ministry emphasis. Through the OPC’s Committee on Home Mission and Church Extension, the center would “enable the OPC to begin new [urban] churches in the company of committed friends rather than in isolation.”[7]

As I reflect upon my years at Geneva, I am in awe of God’s sovereign handiwork. Like others before me, I was well prepared for seminary through Geneva’s rigorous Christian liberal arts program. For those who attended Geneva in the sixties and seventies, the influence came through Johannes G. Vos, Robert B. Tweed, and John H. White. According to alumnus Mark R. Brown, pastor of Westminster OPC, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Johannes Geerhardus (more familiarly, J. G.) Vos, the son of Princeton Seminary’s renowned professor of biblical theology, Geerhardus Vos, was a particularly important influence. Brown remembered the younger Vos “as a kind and gentle man with Reformed piety mixed with humor rather than stuffiness.” Vos and Tweed strongly encouraged Geneva graduates to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Of J. G. Vos’s influence, former student, colleague, and president of Geneva, John H. White wrote:

The Reformed community owes Dr. [J. G.] Vos a deep debt of gratitude because several of his father’s works were substantially edited and rewritten by him. The Self-Disclosure of Jesus was edited and rewritten sentence by sentence by Dr. Vos in order to make it more readable and useful. The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews was assembled from old syllabi, students’ notes, and his own class notes. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments was assembled in a completely rewritten form from mimeographed editions and lecture notes by Dr. Vos, and a detailed index was added by him. Humanly speaking, the revival of interest in ‘Vosian Biblical Theology’ would not have occurred without J. G. Vos.[8]

While neither father nor son would become members of the OPC, the younger Vos continued the influence his father exerted on the denomination. Students of Vos, both father and son, became entrenched in biblical theology. In many ways Geneva proved to be the introduction for some to the biblical theology of Geerhardus Vos. This would later become reinforced at Westminster Theological Seminary where many of them were ushered off for pastoral training.

If Charles G. Dennison was correct when he wrote of Geerhardus Vos’s influence upon the OPC,[9] then certainly his son, would have relayed similar influence as well. By all accounts, each displayed a keen exegetical eye through the lens of Reformed biblical theology. Thankfully, their ability to convey that exegesis with the humility of Christ would be an influence of great import to the OPC.

There were other factors as well. For this author, the influence came from Dr. Byron G. Curtis. His Bible and Hebrew classes flamed a love for the Old Testament. His love for God and the language of the Scriptures was infectious.

But for me and many others, it was the local church that was most influential. Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, began under the ministry of the Rev. Donald M. Poundstone in 1970 just in time for the several new students eager to learn about the OPC. His ministry encouraged young men such as Robert Eckardt (class of ’74), Robert Harting (class of '74), and Robert Tanzie (class of ’74) to pursue the ministry in the OPC.

The ministry of Grace OPC was bewildering to me at first, reflecting this newcomer’s shallowness and ignorance of the Reformed faith. On the invitation of a classmate, Chad Bond (now an OPC minister), this newly converted mainline Episcopalian took a forty-minute drive to the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. There Charles G. Dennison preached powerful sermons that were not for the faint of heart. After a few weeks I departed, determined never to return. A year later, I returned at the persistent requests of my friend. Several months and many inquirer’s classes with Pastor Dennison later, I professed my faith for the first time in a Reformed and Presbyterian Church in May of 1995.

It was the combined influence of the faithful ministry of Grace OPC with Pastor Dennison, the wise session, and loving congregation along with the excellent required and elective Bible and language classes at Geneva that influenced me to enter the ministry of the OPC.

Without these influences how would I have ever managed to climb into the bell tower of Old Main determined to read through Vos’s The Wonderful Tree with Sarah Bingham, now my wife. Nor would I breathlessly try to explain Vos’s two-ages diagram on a napkin parked behind McKee Hall after a “Calvin Forum” book club, a ministry of Grace OPC.

In so many ways, Geneva College and the local church of Grace OPC, Sewickley shaped who I am now, serving as a pastor in Newtown, Connecticut. Charlie Dennison once wrote, “History is what God does to you.”[10] Truly, I am not alone in attesting the fact that Geneva College has influenced the OPC in some of her student body becoming ministers. God has worked through so many secondary causes to bring about mature men serving in our midst as moderators, general secretaries, regional home missionaries, foreign and home missionaries, and pastors of the local church whose desire it is “not only to preach Christ, but also to live Christ, even as they preach.”[11]

The success that Geneva has had in producing ministerial members for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church owes by and large to a unique synergy between the instruction in the classroom and the preached Word from the pulpit. As this essay has suggested, some of the principals in that arrangement—J. G. Vos and Charles Dennison—are now passed from the scene. Time will tell whether the college will continue to bear fruit for the OPC.

As Kellogg suggested, Wheaton was arguably the greatest feeder to the OPC ministerial ranks in the denomination’s earliest years. After World War II, Calvin College may have assumed that role. Of course, many other Christian colleges have served the OPC well (among them Gordon, Dordt, and especially in recent years, Covenant). But pride of place for the past quarter century may go to Geneva College. Its ties to the OPC, though often indirect and subtle, have been a noteworthy feature of the story of the OPC.

Endnotes

[1] I want to acknowledge with thankfulness the assistance that I received from Linda Foh, OPC Web Assistant, Becky Phillips, Interim Director of Alumni, Church and Parent Relations, Kae Kirkwood, Geneva College archivist, and John Muether, Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, without whom this little project could not have been completed.

[2] Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986).

[3] David M. Carson, Pro Christo et Patria: A History of Geneva College (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 1997), 11–12.

[4] Clarence E. Macartney, The Making of a Minister: The Autobiography of Clarence E. Macartney, ed., J. Clyde Henry (Great Neck, NY: Channel, 1961), 189.

[5] Carson, Pro Christo et Patria, xi.

[6] Iain Crichton, “Empowering for Effective Urban Ministry: The Center for Urban Theological Studies—Philadelphia,” Urban Mission 5 (November 1987): 36.

[7] Ibid., 35. For further discussion of CUTS and the OPC, see D. G. Hart, Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1956–1990 (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2011), 206–10.

[8] John H. White, ed., The Book of Books: Essays on the Scriptures in Honor of Johannes G. Vos, (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), ix–x. My thanks to Byron Curtis for alerting me to this resource.

[9] “Geerhardus Vos and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” in History for a Pilgrim People: the Historical Writings of Charles G. Dennison, eds. Danny E. Olinger & David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2002), 67–87.

[10] “Vos and the OPC,” 67.

[11] Ibid., 87.

Robert Tarullo is the pastor of Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Newtown, Connecticut. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.

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