Book Reviews

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 3 (July 1997)

Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, by Gary North, 1134 pages. $34.95. Published by I.C.E., Box 8000, Tyler, TX 75711. (A 50% discount is offered to all church officers if the order is submitted on your church’s letterhead stationery.) Reviewed by the Editor.

I first became interested in what I will call the Machen era while I was a student at Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary. Edwin Rian’s book had whetted a strong desire to know more about this incredible history, but such information was not easy to find. It was for this reason that I asked for—and was granted—a personal interview with Clarence E. Macartney to get his slant on these events. But even this did not fill the void. Now, however, this vacuum has at least begun to be filled with the publication of such books as Longfield’s The Presbyterian Controversy, and Hart and Muether’s Fighting the Good Fight. I have found all of these to be helpful, but in many ways this contribution from Gary North tops them all.

For one thing, North’s survey of that era is much more comprehensive. (1) He clearly and convincingly traces the roots of the failure of the conservative effort in the PCUSA back to the Old School/New School divisions, and to the doctrinal compromises that came with the restored “unity.” (2) He also shows more effectively than anything I’ve seen the strategy and monetary sources of the liberal onslaught. It was never so clear to me before how much the Rockefeller millions affected the whole process of change in both the church and the nation. (3) And most important of all I think he really does prove the validity of the book’s title. When men at Princeton Seminary agreed to work with men at Union Seminary in the production of a theological journal it was already apparent that serious compromise had been made. And, as North demonstrates (in my opinion at least), the basic problem really was the problem of “crossed fingers.” How could the men at Princeton insist on full subscription to the Westminster Standards when they themselves allowed for such errors as theistic evolution? I think North is also correct in showing that this “crossed fingers” syndrome (meaning the taking of vows with mental reservations) paralyzed all attempts to discipline on the basis of these Westminster Standards. The whole problem with the attempt to choose five doctrines out of the Westminster Standards and make them the test of orthodoxy—together with the Auburn Affirmationists’ response—was only proof of the fact that the Westminster Standards were no longer regarded by either party as authoritative. (It is interesting to note, incidentally, that the conservatives in the RCA just recently attempted the same thing, with similarly futile results.)

Gary North has definite opinions and he expresses them quite pointedly. This offends some people, but quite frankly, I find it refreshing. I don’t always agree with his opinions, but saying what you really think (instead of what people want to hear, or are willing to accept) is a rare commodity today, and most welcome. It is for this reason that this massive book is also interesting in what I would call its incidental features. Think of names such as Woodrow Wilson, Harry E. Fosdick, Margaret Sanger or Pearl S. Buck (and a host of other players in the drama of this era). North gives his opinion of many of these together with at least some of the evidence that brought him to form his opinion. And—for what it is worth—in nearly every case I found myself somewhat surprised at the extent in which our opinions are in agreement. Hardly any of the men who were considered “big wheels” or “great men” in that era are now considered (by North, or by me) to be great men or worthy men at all. It would, in fact, be a waste of time to even consider writing a 100 page book about most of them. But then there was J. Gresham Machen. And even though North finds it necessary to quite candidly point out some very serious weaknesses in Machen’s position, the man’s character—and worth—shine forth in this fascinating book with greater lustre than ever before.

There is more—much, much more—that could be said about this massive and fascinating book. But to conclude this all-too-brief review, let me just say that I hope every OPC minister, ruling elder and deacon will read this book. And, pursuant to this, let me urge all office-bearers of the OPC to see to it that your church has a copy available for both the office-bearers and members to read. There are many lessons to be learned from this (which is, after all, our own) history, and it would be a great pity if knee-jerk reaction to Gary North’s name (or the theonomic advocacy for which he is famous) kept anyone from reading this remarkable book. I recommend it highly.

Power Preaching for Church Growth: The Role of Preaching in Growing Churches, by David Egy. Published in 1996 in the Mentor imprint by Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Fearn, Rossshire, IV20 1TW, Great Britain. $15.95. [Available from Evangelical Bible Book Store (1-800-450-5858) for $12.80 plus postage.]

This is a small book (192 pages). But it has an important message. The message is a defense of the biblical statement that preaching—faithful and full-orbed—is the power of God unto salvation. And the author sees this as the number one need thing that is lacking, and therefore urgently needed, in the Protestant churches of North America.

The book is based on the teaching of the book of Acts because this book tells the story of the early church in which the power of preaching is so clearly manifest. The author first argues from the text of this book his conclusions, and then adds comments from many of the great Reformed preachers and teachers of both the past and present. These well-chosen quotations help to underline the point that the writer is making. I found this feature a most interesting aspect of this fine little book.

After more than 40 years in the pulpit I am now more often in the pew, and from both perspectives I am in hearty agreement with the basic thesis of this book. It may be just the thing that you need to encourage you to redouble your efforts to preach the whole counsel of God with power.

Battle to Destroy Truth: Unveiling a Trail of Deception, by Claris Van Kuiken. Published by the Educational Research Group, Inc. P. O. Box 1213, Tinley Park, IL 60477. $15.95, plus $3.75 for shipping first class, or $2.75 for book rate (total, $18.70, $19.70). Illinois residents only add 7 1/2 % tax.

As you no doubt know the OPC recently ended its fraternal relationship with the CRC. It was not an easy thing to do, after some six decades of fellowship. Yet, as our General Assembly determined, it simply had to be done. And if there is any lingering doubt concerning this decision, this book will go far to dispelling it.

Claris van Kuiken—who is now a member of the OPC (Palos Heights, Chicago)—was a lifelong member of the CRC. As an alert, covenant keeping mother, she became concerned about uncritical acceptance of New Age heresy in the Christian Schools, and even her own church. It was not that she wanted to draw up a list of forbidden books. Far from it. But what she objected to was the fact that books promoting deadly heresy were being classified as Christian. So she went to work to alert the office-bearers of her church to this fact. And it was right there that the frustrations began.

The office-bearers of her church—relying on “expert” testimony, rather than their own careful reading of the material—declared the writings of Madeleine L’Engle to be Christian. This was a devastating blow in the face of the facts as she had come to know them from her own careful reading of this New Age writer. But though she was “down” she was not “out.” No, she—with others—took the matter to the classis. And the classis (Chicago South) fully agreed with her assessment. Here is what the classis said:

  1. L’Engle denies that the atonement, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, was a substitutionary sacrificial payment for the sins of God’s people.
  2. L’Engle denies that Jesus’ incarnation is qualitatively unique, uniquely “God with us.” Immanuel.
  3. L’Engle denies that there will be a final separation between God and some persons as proclaimed in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the Majesty of His power....”
  4. L’Engle denies the unique authority of the Bible as the final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice.

One would think that this would be sufficient, yet—as Mrs. van Kuiken goes on to show—it was anything but! And the reason is that a spirit of relativism has fallen upon so many of the office-bearers of the CRC that nothing seems to be clear any more. To read the torturous account of the devious methods, evasive responses and political (behind the scenes) fixing, ought to convince anyone that a great calamity has indeed befallen the CRC. When men of high standing—and responsibility—in the church can no longer answer simple, straightforward questions put by a sincere and concerned member of the church, then it is only the blind who cannot see that something is radically wrong. It was to this reluctant conclusion that Claris was driven, and in this remarkable book she tells us why.

Dr. Lester De Koster—former professor and librarian at Calvin College and Seminary, and editor of the Banner—says: “Rarely has the never-never-land underside of church politics been more vividly described than in this outspoken account of courageously futile tenacity..” We would agree. It is also more clear to us than ever before that even worse than the ambiguous actions of the CRC in recent years is the mindset of relativism so clearly displayed in this account.

I might add that this book is also valuable because of the information it provides regarding New Age concepts—information gleaned from the extensive research that Mrs. van Kuiken has done in the course of these events. When the writing of such authors as Madelaine L’Engle are widely praised as Christian—even in such colleges as Wheaton, Trinity, Calvin and Dordt—it is time for the elders of the church to sharpen their ability to perceive the spirit of the times. And it ought to be a humbling and sober reminder to us all that it sometimes takes the courage and persistence of someone who is not a pastor or elder to make us aware of our own need to be more discerning and diligent in watching over the flock of God. We thank God for the courage and persistence of Mrs. van Kuiken. May the Lord use her testimony to awaken many to what is really going on in the CRC. And may it also help the office-bearers of the OPC to avoid such a mindset like the plague.

The Arrogance of the Modern: Historical Theology Held in Contempt, by David W. Hall. Published by the Calvin Institute, Oak Ridge, TN 37830. 308 pp. $21.95 but available on the Frequent Reader’s Discount for $17.56 + $3 for shipping and handling. Reviewed by the Editor.

It was Solomon who said there’s nothing new under the sun—a truth of which we have been reminded again with the welcome publication of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology. All the more regrettable, then, that the rich legacy of the past is so often neglected because of a preference for the novelties of today. This is the basic thesis expounded in the sixteen essays that make up this welcome book. This, in my judgment, is the kind of emphasis that is sorely needed in the Protestant churches of North America—Reformed as well as more broadly Evangelical.

It is not the argument of the author that the fathers were (are) always right, or that “the way we’ve always done it” has final authority. Not at all. But he does show—convincingly I think—that in not a few vital areas the way it was done in the best days of church history is a lot better than the way it is too often done today. Take the tendency to treat the 90s (or any other limited time slot) as if such is so unique as to require a whole new approach to deal with this “crisis.” In confronting this mindset of what has been called our ’now generation’ Hall writes an essay entitled On Not having a Strategy for the Decade. He calls, instead, for a return to the strategy laid down for all ages and places in the scriptures written in the age of the inspired apostles. True, this strategy may not produce mega-churches over night. But it could produce churches that are firm in the faith in the midst of a sea of unbelief.

One of the most fascinating essays to my mind is the one entitled Holding Fast the Great Concession of Faith: Science, Apologetics and Orthodoxy. In this essay Dr. Hall has the courage to go right against the widely held opinion “that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and others erected theories compatible with a 16-18 billion year old cosmos....” (p. 164). In other words, he takes issue with “the frequent assertion that the orthodox strain of beliefs on creation has always allowed wide latitude... rendering the ancients virtually indistinguishable from modern.” (Ibid). I think he demonstrates that this frequent assertion is without any solid foundation. I think he is also right in faulting the great Princeton divines because of their willingness to make concessions to the findings of modern science that the ancient fathers were never willing to make (pp. 176-180). In an 1856 review, for instance, Charles Hodge makes this statement: “If science should succeed in demonstrating that the earth is millions of years old, then we will with the utmost alacrity believe that the days of creation were periods of indefinite duration..” Is it any wonder, then, that “Abraham Kuyper implicitly and explicity accused Hodge of conceding too much to the realm of autonomous fact..” Hodge—and Warfield—held to a realm of neutrality wherein the facts could speak for themselves. Yet, as Kuyper pointed out, there is no such neutrality: “every scientific reproduction of the knowledge of God must fail, as long as this sense [i. e. the fall of man, and the reality of sin] remains weakened... it will not do to omit the fact of sin from your theory of knowledge.” (p. 178).

In his essay entitled Heresies that Transform, Deform and Re-form Dr. Hall shows how relevant a knowledge of the past is for the present. The sects and heresies of today are little more than a retread of some what the church has already encountered and overcome. In another entitled Reformation Era Welfare Reform he shows, again, just how relevant the church’s past experience can be to our so-called modern problems. For those who—like myself—are always interested in learning more about that great Dutch thinker the essay on Groen Van Prinsterer: Political Paradigm alone makes it worthwhile to have this book.

The past hundred years or so in American Protestantism have been years of declension. Most of it is the result of a constant stream of innovative gimmicks. It is therefore my hope that we have now reached the place where a straightforward presentation of classic Reformed theology—and ethics—sounds amazingly new and revolutionary. It just might be that the hour is near when it will be widely proclaimed—and heard—again throughout the land. This is certainly my prayer. When it does come I believe the labors of Dr. Hall will be recognized as one of the means that God has used to return the church in North America to better days. Highly recommended.