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September 15, 2008


I did not know that the familiar description of the tripartite fragmentation of the PCA came from George Marsden. I suppose one cannot argue with a historian of Marsden's stature, but, insofar as it is true, it is sad, even tragic. It is also a little baffling. When by faith, through God's grace, we are made new, we have enlightened minds which rejoice in God's revealed truth and guard it zealously. We have new hearts that love to behold the beauty of our Savior. The outworking of enlightened minds and loving hearts transforms all our relationships, beginning with the family and extending to neighbors and beyond, as the Spirit leads. I am not sure about "renewing denominations." Denominations wax and wane, for good and bad reasons. I am sure about the needed renewal of our hearts, which are immortal. The God Who reveals Truth will have first place in our hearts, or none. And the evidence will be transformed relationships with others. Beginning, perhaps, with fellow Christians in our denomination.

GL: the relationship of Puritanism and Presbyterianism is complicated. In England, Puritan could include folks who were independents or folks who favored Presbyterianism. The Assembly could be said to represent 17th c. Reformed orthodoxy. But the independents in England -- also known as Congregationalists -- could be quite hostile to Presbyterians. With regrets for Carl Trueman's hero, Oliver Cromwell, the Commonwealth era in England was none too healthy for Presbyterians in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In fact, the anscestors of the Hodges and Alexanders likely decided to migrate to Philadelphia to escape the burden of being Presbyterian around "Puritans." (read: Cromwell persecuted Presbyterians.)

On this side of the Atlantic, Puritanism was also not so compatible with confessional Presbyterianism. One of the ironies in this discussion is that Greg Thompson was (maybe still is) a fan of John Williamson Nevin, and Nevin believed New England Puritanism was responsible for the individualistic, biblicistic, and low church mindset of American Protestantism (which finds expression today in many parachurch endeavors).

Al T.: I tend to think that pietism and culturalism are at odds with confessionalism, though not intentionally or explicitly all the time. Both don't take the visible church seriously, whether because of personal experience or because of an expansive reading of what the church's "ministry." If my reading of confessionalism means that not many TR's exist, it wouldn't be the first time. Reformed numbers have always been much smaller than we Reformed tend to think. I mean, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is the Lutheran equivalent of the OPC -- the runt of the litter. And they have 100,000 more members than the PCA.

Dr. Keller,

You conclude your assessment of Pastor Thompson's talk with this statement:

"Recently I’ve come to realize that the Old School Presbyterians of the 19th century like Alexander and Hodge did pull something like this off. They were neither as anti-ecclesial as the original New Side revivalists nor as anti-experiential as the original Old Side doctrinalists of the 18th century. How did that happen? I’m not a historian, so I can’t be sure. I would love to see something like that happen again in the PCA."

Could you be more specific as to what Old School doctrinalists were "anti-experimental?" I have always been under the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that the Old school Presbyterians were saturated with "experimental Calvinism." I assume you were referring to some who were against "revivalism," but that does not necessarily mean they were anti-experimental. If you read Archibald Alexander's biography you find that the Old School was full of Gospel loving, experimental ministers. This is the example that Alexander followed.

Hi, Nick--

I said the Old SIDE Presbyterians tended to be anti-experimental, not Old SCHOOL. My point was that the Old School was a nice merger of Old Side concern for ecclesial authority and the New Side concern for experimental piety, without the anti-confessionalism (of the New Side) or the anti-experientialism (of the Old Side).

Dr. Keller,

My apologies about confusing the two. I realized what I had done after posting. Could you still offer some examples of how the "Old Side" doctrinalists were anti-experimental? If it was with regard to Gilbert Tennet's itinerant preaching, isn't it the case that it was anti-revivalism, not anti-experietialism? I guess I am trying to sort through the use of the term "experiential" in this context. Tennet essentially preached his sermons 'the danger of an unconverted ministry" at some of the men who opposed his intinerant preaching. This does not mean, however, that these men were either anti-experiential or unconverted.

Even Marsden, in his book Fundamentalism and American Culture, makes the following statement without giving examples of Old Side anti-experientialists (or experimentalists):

"Calvinists tended to stress the intellect, the importance of right doctrine, the cognitive aspects of faith, and higher education. On the other hand, more pietistically and emotionally oriented groups such as the Methodists tended to shun intellectual rigor and to stress the practical and experimental-practical aspects. Many Congregationalists and Presbyterians, especially those of the revivalistic branches, known in the 19th Century as "New School," combined educational and doctrinal emphases with intense emotion. Jonathan Edwards was their model. (44-45)"

I guess I am trying to avoid making a blanket statement about an entire branch of the 18th Century Presbyterian Church. It seems that by doing so we can make set up a false dichotomy between doctrinal confessional subscription and evangelistic fervor.

Nick—Again, I’m not a church historian. But here’s how I read it. The 18th century revivalists saw many people in churches who subscribed to sound doctrine and were generally ethical but whose lives did not show the marks of Spirit-regenerated character. They began to preach to church members that they should not rely on ‘outward ordinances’ but be sure they were converted. Many in the Old Side took great offense at this. They said, if someone was a church member and participating in the sacraments, they were Christians, by definition. But the revivalists said there had to be a vital connection between sound theology and life-changing experience. Hodge and Alexander agreed with the revivalists on this concern for ‘experimental knowledge’ but rejected the New Side’s methodology—its disdain for church order and the authority of church courts. The Old School created what I think was a good synthesis. Nevin and the German Reformed, however, continued the Old Side’s rejection of this emphasis on spiritual experience. Nevin contradicted Hodge and Jonathan Edwards and grounded assurance and profession not in spiritual experience but in church membership and the sacraments. I think that Alexander and Hodge had a much better balance than Nevin and his forbears in the Old Side. Again, when it comes to church history, I’m a ‘lay person’, but this is the way I understand things.

Thank you Dr. Keller. Very helpful!

Pastor Keller,

You wrote:
"Nevin and the German Reformed, however, continued the Old Side’s rejection of this emphasis on spiritual experience. Nevin contradicted Hodge and Jonathan Edwards and grounded assurance and profession not in spiritual experience but in church membership and the sacraments."

As a young historical theologian, I have done a lot of work on Nevin for my doctoral dissertation and also for some published articles on Nevin's liturgical theology. On the basis of that work, I would say that Nevin did not disparage spiritual experience. He did believe that the Old School's synthesis had an insufficiently objective view of the church and its concrete embodiments in liturgy and sacrament. (And most historians now believe that Nevin's was the one who was the more faithful and accurate expositor of John Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper.) The reason for his objection, however, was not to disparage or downplay the importance of spiritual experience. As a careful student of Calvin, he strongly the standard Calvinian consensus that the we only receive Christ and the benefits of his redemptive work in the sacraments by personal faith. Nevin's controlling category for soteriology (along with Calvin) was his emphasis on mystical union with Christ, a doctrine that is hardly at odds with an emphasis on spiritual life. Read Nevin's sermons and his pastoral exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, and you'll see a man who was in no way trying to oppose the necessity of personal, living faith in Christ.

What Nevin was attempting to critique was a set of beliefs about the objective means through which God works to form and shape our spiritual experience and the form that our spiritual experience takes. He adamantly opposed the idea that an outwardly dramatic conversion experience was a necessary mark of regeneration (as did Hodge), and, just like Edwards and various Old Schoolers, criticized the excesses of revivalism for confusing mere emotionalism with genuine spiritual renewal. Nevin was too polemical and pugnacious at times, and he sometimes painted with too broad of a brush (e.g., his dismissal of everything he opposed with the category "Puritan"). However, the dividing line between Nevin and his Presbyterian opponents was not a disagreement about the necessity of genuine, living faith in Christ that expresses itself in acts of loving obedience to Christ. The disagreement was more specifically about the way to understand, articulate, and emphasize the way that God uses the objective means of the church community, liturgy, and sacrament to give himself to us and to shape our spiritual life. Nevin stressed the sacramental union of Christ with the church more than some of his Old School opponents did. On these points, I think that Nevin is actually closer to Calvin's own views and practice on this issue than Hodge was.

The categories of Doctrine, Piety and Culture-transformation seem to correspond to the trinitarian character of God. That in the Father we are confronted with Truth, in the Son with Grace and through the Spirit with Mission. All three (members of the Trinity and components of a healthy church) are essential, and to deny the necessity of one or to elevate one above the other begins problematic consequences.

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