Three Ways of Relating to American Religion

An HB Classic

Charles FinneyDarryl Hart has weighed in at DRC regarding the controversy at WTS/P. He is responding to a couple of blogs and to a post by Carl Trueman to which I replied a month ago. Darryl has pointed out for a years now, the reigning paradigm for interpreting American religion has been “conservative v liberal.” This paradigm doesn’t always work, however.

In the case of the struggle between Machen and Modernism in the 1920s and 30s, the the “fundamentalists” had as much or more in common with the “Modernists” than than they had in common with Machen. For example, Machen defended Christian liberty on the matter of consuming aohol but the Fundamentalists and Modernists agreed on prohibition and temperance. On the other hand, Machen (and his warrior children), were much more open to modern scholarship than most of the “fundamentalists” of the period. Machen (following Old Princeton) argued that the problem with Modernism is that it is premised on bad scholarship. Machen and his followers don’t really fit neatly in the “conservative v liberal” paradigm for interpreting American religious history.

In the case of what seems to be happening in Philadelphia Hart is arguing, in effect, that one side seems to be aligning itself with the progressive wing of American neo-evangelicalism and the other side is aligning itself with the older version of American neo-evangelicalism (e.g., Carl Henry). Hart sees two competing ways of being open to American evangelicalism and points to a third way: confessionalism. This was the tack taken, however inconsistently, by Old Westminster. This fact was reinforced recently by a symposium in the Mid-America Theological Journal to which George Marsden, Darryl Hart, Peter Wallace, and Alan Strange contributed. As WTS began to work out its institutional identity the temporary and unstable alliance, already strained, between fundamentalists such as Carl McIntyre and Machen collapsed after Machen’s death. Kuiper, Van Til, Murray, Stonehouse, Young and the rest were confessionalists. Van Til in particular was relentlessly critical of American evangelicalism but, as the symposium contributions show, Murray was became increasingly critical not only of Dispensationalism but also of more generic forms of pre-millennialism. One of the leading charges by the fundamentalists against WTS was that they school had been taken over by those who were alien and hostile to American Presbyterianism by which they meant the settlements of the 19th century.

The fundamentalists had a point. Old WTS did have a contingent of Dutchmen who weren’t deeply connected to American Presbyterianism (Kuiper, Van Til, Stonehouse) and the faculty wasn’t entirely comfortable with the negotiated settlement of the Old Side/New Side reunion nor with the settlement entailed by the Old School/New School reunion. In both reunions the Old Siders and Old Schoolers lost more than they gained.

For example, to consider just one Old School personality, Charles Hodge consciously chose a “national” Presbyterian church over strict confessionalism. He feared that if the PCUSA required ministers to subscribe to every doctrine taught in the WCF then the PCUSA would fragment into many insignificant bodies. His great fear was realized in the 1930s. The reunions didn’t hold. The history of American Presbyterianism is the history of the progressive defeat of the 18th-century Old Side in the 18th century and again in, in it’s a more attenuated Old School form, in the 19th and early 20th-century forms.

Just as the marriage between fundamentalism and confessionalism ended in divorce, so the union of confessionalism and neo-evangelicalism ended in divorce with the formation of Fuller Seminary. On this see George Marsden’s great book, Reforming Evangelicalism. Fuller Seminary was an attempt to retain Old Westminster’s commitment to Scripture, scholarship, and soteriology to the churchlessness of broad evangelicalism. Of course, as Rudolpph Nelson has argued in The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The case of Edward Carnell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), the relationship was crumbling by the early 1960s as E. J. Carnell lashed out bitterly at Machen. My guess is that he faced the same choice most of us have faced: to make peace with the populism and revivalism of American religion (whether conservative or liberal) or to be Reformed. To choose the former is to make a place for oneself in the broad stream of American religion. To reject it is to sentence oneself to the margins. Hence Bob Godfrey has written of the “Myth of Influence.”

Confessionalism is a churchly, theological, sacramental, disciplined approach to Christianity that is probably fairly described as elitist inasmuch as The faith is mediated to the masses by the ministers. There are not endless permutations of the “Reformed” faith. As Hodge pointed out in the 19th century, anyone with a little effort can discover what Reformed folk believe by reading the classic theologies or, better yet, the Reformed confessions. Further, there is not only a Reformed theology, but also a Reformed piety and a Reformed practice and none of these three things is very compatible with American evangelicalism or liberalism. Both evangelicalism and liberalism are theologically subjectivist, pietist, and pragmatist in praxis.

There are conservatives, who embrace the past but must negotiate a modus vivendi with American Religion, and there are liberals who are quite ready to discard the past and go where ever the culture demands so as to try to remain “relevant” and influential. There is a third way to relate to American religion, however, and that is confessionalism, which is neither liberal nor conservative, but it is what the Reformed Churches have always confessed to be the theology, piety, and practice revealed in the Word of God.

[Originally posted on the HB in 2008]

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Lots to chew on here. I appreciate your comments as well as the comments of D. G. Hart.

    While the average person in the pew might not see the significance of this discussion ministers in my denomination (PCA) and presbytery know it only too well. The main battleground is at the presbytery level when the topic of church-planting comes up. Most of the new works are not confessional in the least. While the church planters know their theology and can pass the presbytery exams they have pretty much made peace with the broader evangelical culture and its practices. Until recently anyone who raised an objection to this dichotomy was relegated to outer darkness.

    Part of this problem is unique to the PCA: our Directory of Worship is largely advisory with only the chapters on the sacraments being binding. Hence there is no constitutional means of preventing “the populism and revivalism of American religion” from taking root. Certainly a presbytery can determine what sort of churches it will allow to be planted within its geographic bounds. But, as you know, our denomination is already so broad that confessional churches are often “left to the margins” and simply out-voted. Still, we trudge on.

    Dave Sarafolean
    Christ Covenant Church (PCA)
    Midland, Michigan

  2. “To choose the former is to make a place for oneself in the broad stream of American religion. To reject it is to sentence oneself to the margins.”

    Some call the margins an Outhouse.

    Good stuff, Scott.

  3. Count your blessings, O ye marginalized in the Confessional Reformed groups.

    Try being a Confessional, Calvinistic, Reformational, and Reformed (if allowed that) Anglican. Marginalized? Hah! More like a Babylonian Captivity, fetters and all.

    A good article.

    • They weren’t all as scary as Charles Finney but pictures in the 19th century were serious business. They took a long time and in the Victorian period “dignity” was very important.

  4. the temporary and unstable alliance, already strained, between fundamentalists such as Carl McIntyre and Machen collapsed after Machen’s death

    Read about it in Preaching on the Plains, particularly McIntyre et al leaving the OPC (still then the “PCA”?) to found the Bible Presbyterian Church in ch 28.

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