As we are now upon the annual season when the various Presbyterian denominations typically meet in General Assembly, the following short post seems appropriate to repeat here. It is taken from an 1836 issue of THE CHARLESTON OBSERVER.
Attendance and participation in the courts of the Church—those meetings of the Session, the Presbytery and the General Assembly—always involve some level of personal cost and expense for each attendee. For some the cost is greater than for others. This is one reason why the meetings of Presbytery and General Assembly move regularly from one location to another, so that inconveniences are averaged out over time for all the officers of the Court.
All of this is nothing new. There have always been those who questioned the expense, and perhaps not without good reason, each in his own situation. But as you will read, there are also good and compelling answers urging upon Commissioners their full participation at the Courts of the Church.
For The Charleston Observer.
Mr. Editor.—Is it my duty to travel between four and five hundred miles, at an expense of at least fifty dollars [at least a month’s wages in 1836], for the sole purpose of attending Synod, when in all probability its business would be as well conducted without as with my presence? And in so doing I should be necessarily absent from the people of my charge two, if not three Sabbaths?
—A Member of Synod.
REPLY.—We answer, 1. Should every member of Synod conclude from similar premises that it was not his duty to attend, there would be no meeting at the time and place appointed, and of course no business done.
2. One member frequently changes the entire complexion of a meeting; and no one has a right to suppose that his presence is a matter of indifference.
3. If the member can afford the expense it will be money well laid out, and if not, his people should aid him. The time occupied in going and returning, may often be profitably employed. The journey may be of advantage to his health. In conference with his brethren he may receive a new impulse in his Christian course, and be better prepared to labor with effect among his people on his return; so that neither he nor they will be losers by his absence.
4. When he was set apart to the work of the Ministry, he was expected to make many sacrifices for the good of the cause. And if his brethren to whom he has solemnly promised subjection in the Lord, did not regard attendance upon the Judicatories of the Church as important, they would not have exacted an apology or excuse for non-attendance.
5. Instances are exceedingly rare that a Minister has ever cause to regret the sacrifices which he has made in attending the Judicatories of the Church. On the contrary he most usually feels himself amply repaid for all the sacrifices which it has cost him.
6. The present crisis of the Church seems to demand more than ever a full attendance both of Ministers and Elders, cost what it may.
[With that last point, keep in mind that in 1836, the Old School/New School debate was raging in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and the momentous split of those two factions came a year later]
[excerpted from The Charleston Observer, vol. 10, no. 39 (24 September 1836); 154, column 4.]
Image source: Photograph of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America [originally named the National Presbyterian Church, and renamed a year later.], meeting at the Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, December 4-7, 1973. The photograph is found as part of the Records of the Presbyterian Journal, Box 243, file 11, at the PCA Historical Center.
Tis The Season:
RCUS Synod met May 19-22 in Sutton, NE
URCNA Synod meets June 3-6 in Visalia, CA
OPC General Assembly meets June 4-10 in Grand Rapids, MI
ARP meets June 10-13 at the Bonclarken Camp and Conference Center, Flat Rock, NC
PCA General Assembly meets June 17-21 in Houston, TX
RPCNA Synod meets June 23-27 in Marion, IN at Indiana wesleyan University
Time did not permit me to put together a proper sketch of the life and ministry of Dr. Edmund P. Clowney this past July 30th, which was the anniversary of his passing, in 2005. However, in what time I was able to invest in trying to prepare that sketch, I came across the following message, which is presented today as our Sunday Sermon. The message is titled “Hear Him!,” and this is the substance of Dr. Clowney’s message on Journal Day, in 1972. For several decades, the Presbyterian Journal sponsored Journal Day as an annual event, a time of fellowship, a time of conference, and a time of planning for the future.
As best I can determine, this message has not been reproduced since its publication on the pages of The Presbyterian Journal, in the September 6, 1972 issue. The message we have here is classic Clowney—so typical of the depth and power of his best sermons—and it is a message that deserves to be dusted off and read again.
Behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ! —
Smog has become a national hazard in industrial America. The evening news report includes a pollution index, made graphic by a gray veil drawn halfway across the city pictured on the television screen. Smog is the more dangerous, of course, because we take for granted the smoke of the city along with its noise and dirt. In the grayness we have forgotten the glory of sparkling sunlight.
A more deadly smog pollutes the atmosphere in America’s Churches, a noxious miasma that is the more lethal when we take it for granted. It is the smog that obscures the difference between truth and error, between the faithfulness of God and the wiles of the devil. The light of glory has departed from contemporary theology, and the experts warn against its return. Doctors of theology tell us that final answers spell disaster, because they close our minds to the changing shapes of truth for today.
Half a century ago controversy raged in the major American denominations as those dubbed “fundamentalists” contended for the faith against the ecclesiastical power of theological liberalism. Today we are assured that this struggle was not only hopeless but meaningless. Imagine the naivete of arguing about whether the virgin birth of Jesus is essential to Christian faith!
Did Jesus have a human father, or was He conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary? Both the old-fashioned liberal and his contemporary successor seek to avoid that question. An unequivocal answer would make all too clear who confesses the historic Christian faith and who denies it. Liberalism old and new has therefore sought to make the question irrelevant. Religious truth, we are told, does not communicate objective matters of fact. It is a structure of symbolism, “a human expression in propositional language of some deeper pre-positional or not-yet-thematized level of experience . .
The older liberalism rather baldly found the meaning of the symbols in religious consciousness. The newer liberalism seeks a more ambiguous point of reference in the existential encounter of the individual (or, perhaps, of society) with the “ground of being.”
Inhaling this new formula of truth, the contemporary liberal both affirms and denies the virgin birth. As religious symbolism it is “true.” In the Hellenistic age it was understood literally, for such things could happen in the ancient world. In the modern age it is a myth which must be translated if its religious meaning is to be interpreted. There is no need to deny that it could have occurred; after all, anything can happen in an open universe. But there is also no need at all to affirm that it did happen, since its meaning is religious, not scientific.
In the darkening twilight of our age it is easy to be persuaded that the old antitheses are gone, that truth changes with the times, and that we should be grateful to those who offer a believable version of the Gospel to modern man.
Then we turn to Scripture and our dimmed eyes are dazzled by the glory. Neither poets nor philosophers, the apostles were eyewitnesses to glorious events. On the mount of transfiguration Jesus was praying while Peter, James and John kept watch. The scene was monotonously familiar to the disciples, and mystic ecstacy was far from the experience of these fishermen. No existential angst troubled their hearts. In fact, they were almost asleep.
Suddenly their heavy eyes were wide with amazement. Jesus stood before them as they had never seen Him before, His robe white with unearthly brilliance and His face shining with the glory of God. They saw His glory, and the light of that cloud of glory still dispels the smoke of our doubts. In this day when the glory has departed from the Church of Christ, the command comes again: “Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is upon thee” (Isa. 60:1). To see the glory now we must behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
The mount of transfiguration stands in the midpoint of Christ’s ministry. Jesus had refused to lead Israel’s revolution and the crowds were leaving Him. Peter confessed the distinctive faith of the Christian Church in sharp contrast to the flattering unbelief of the crowds. The people called our Lord a prophet, Peter called Him the Christ; the people hailed Him as the greatest of God’s servants, Peter worshiped Him as the Son of the living God. When the Church says of Jesus what all men will say of Jesus, it denies Him. When it says what flesh and blood cannot conceive, then it confesses Him whom only the Father in heaven can reveal.
The disciples who confessed the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ were thereby prepared to hear the heavy tidings of His sufferings and death. Here was the acid test of the obedience of their faith. Jesus was not to be the political messiah of worldly hope. Instead, He was the suffering servant of Old Testament prophecy. Whoever would follow Him must take the path to the cross. Peter promptly failed the test. He dared to rebuke Christ for taking the cross. Peter, who had been taught by the Father in heaven, became the mouthpiece of the devil. Called to be an apostolic rock of foundation, he became a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.
But what the Father had revealed in illumining Peter’s mind had to be manifested before the apostle’s eyes. The glory of heaven shone from the Saviour as He turned to the cross. A week after Peter confessed Christ by revelation of the Father, the Father himself confessed His Son before the three apostles. The glory of the mount calls us to worshiping faith, to receive the Lord on His terms, not ours, to confess Jesus Christ as the divine Son fulfilling in His life the will of the Father, displaying in His person the nature of the Father. From the cloud of glory came the voice of God, “This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye Him.”
Hear Him! This command must pierce our ears and our hearts and shape our obedience to Jesus Christ. We must hear Him who is the prophet of glory, the priest of glory, the king of glory.
The Prophet of Glory
The scene on this mount of revelation attests the glory of the prophetic authority of Jesus Christ. True faith in Christ cannot reject the revelation on the mount. One of the confusions of contemporary theology is to set Jesus Christ as the living Word against the Bible as the written Word. However, no such contrast is possible when the real Jesus of the Bible is taken seriously. He is not an enigmatic Christ-event to which various witnesses point with fallible and conflicting utterances.
No, He is the living Son of God and He speaks the words given Him by the Father. No man receives Christ the living Word who does not receive His spoken words. Hear ye Him! God who spoke of old by the prophets has now spoken by His Son, and that which was spoken by the Lord was confirmed to us by them that heard, God bearing witness with them (Heb. 1:1-2; 2:3-4).
The mount of transfiguration revealed Christ as the final prophet. Moses and Elijah, the two pivotal prophets of the Old Testament history of redemption, appeared with Him in glory. The great model of God’s revelation was the giving of His covenant on Mount Sinai. The living God kept His promise to Abraham when He redeemed Israel from Egypt and assembled the people before Him to hear all the words of His gracious covenant.
When the people could not bear to hear the voice of God, the Lord called Moses alone up into the mountain to receive the words of God’s covenant, spoken in His ears and written on tablets of stone by the finger of God (Exo. 24:18; 31: 18).
Moses, the mediator, receiving the words spoken and written by God, provided the pattern for the office of the prophet. When the prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord . . . they were doing what Moses had done: receiving the words of God and giving them to the people. Moses, with whom God spoke “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8), towered above all the prophets who were like him — until the promised prophet came.
With Moses was Elijah. He, too, had heard God speaking on Mount Horeb. Jealous for God’s holy name, Elijah was bitter because the fire that fell at Carmel did not consume all the idolaters. But God revealed Himself to the prophet, not in the fire or the storm, but in the whispered word of His counsel. God’s Word appointed Jehu, Hazael and Elisha as instruments to destroy the worship of Baal.
Moses and Elijah on the mount with Jesus again heard the word from the cloud, but God did not speak ten words nor promise the coming of other prophets. Rather, He said: “This is my Son, my chosen: hear ye Him.”
Hear Him, for the Word of the Father is spoken by the beloved Son in glory and in grace.
Hear Him as He declares the holy will of His Father: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven . . Hear Him, too, as He warns, “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my sayings, hath one that judgeth him; the word that I spake, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).
Hear Him, for “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard . . . See that ye refuse not him that speaketh” (Heb. 2:3, 12:25).
Hear Him as He calls “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Hear Him, for the words that He has spoken are spirit and are life (John 6:63).
The wind and the sea hear Him: “Peace be still!” The deaf hear him: “Ephphatha” “Be opened!” (Mark 7:34). The dead hear Him: “Lazarus, come forth!” Whoever has ears to hear must hear Him, for He who speaks is the Word of God alive.
Do not divide between Christ and the Bible. He who turns from the words of Christ turns from Christ the Word. See Him in His glory, standing between the prophets and the apostles, and you see the speaking Lord who unites the apostles and the prophets in the Amen of His mighty word. The Bible is one because Christ is one, and He fulfills all things that are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms concerning Him (Luke 24:44). Whoever does not believe Moses’ writings will not believe Christ’s words (John 5:47).
The Bible is not primarily a human witness to God’s redemptive acts. It is God’s own witness, God who spoke from the cloud, from the lips of prophets and apostles through the Spirit of His Son, and from the lips of the Lord of glory. It is true that prophets and apostles bear witness to what they have seen and heard, but they do so as they are borne along by the Holy Ghost. Even the prayers and praises given by the Spirit are part of God’s testimonies, given as His witness to His people (Deut. 31:19; II Sam. 23: 1-2).
To describe Scripture as the product of the reflection of the “faith- community” evolving from its experience and approved in its use is to substitute reflection for revelation, the word of man for the word of God, the faith of the community for the authority of the Son of God. Between the apostles and the prophets stands Jesus Christ, and God says, “Hear HimI”
To suggest that after God’s final word in Christ we are to hear as God’s word the sentences of Chairman Mao or the ancient darkness of the Bhagavad Gita is to reject the voice of the living God. God is jealous for His name. He will not give His glory to another, and there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
No doubt much more than we imagine is at stake when men refuse to believe that God can speak words to men. We begin to see the corrosion in our literature when words are cut off from ultimate meaning. Fabricated truth, formed for the day, cannot undergird the mind of man or establish his heart. But we are not adrift in empty galaxies babbling verbal signs without meaning. We are God’s creatures, lost in our rebellion, vain in our thoughts, but to us God says, “This is my Son, hear Him!”
Priest of Glory
Yes, hear Him, for the Son of God is the priest of glory. Moses on the mountain was the great mediator between God and the people. When Israel sinned, Moses stood before God to intercede for a rebellious nation. Elijah built an altar on Carmel, and after the fire fell kept vigil in prayer until the promised rain came. These great servants of God fulfilled priestly roles as they stood between God and the people.
When Jesus was transfigured He was praying. He who is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek poured out the agony of His soul as He looked from the mount of transfiguration to the mount of Calvary. Made like His brethren, Jesus prayed then as He prays now, the representative priest. What Moses and Elijah prefigured, Christ fulfilled.
The glory was given not only for the disciples’ sake, but as part of Christ’s strengthening for the conflict. As angels ministered to Him after the temptation in the wilderness and later in Gethsemane, so the heavenly glory came to refresh His human nature on the way to the cross.
Hear Him as He talked with Moses and Elijah. They spoke of His death and resurrection, for toward this their ministries had pointed. They could not join in His priesthood. Theirs was a passing ministry and it was over. Christ is the abiding priest who ever lives to make intercession for them who come unto God by Him. Priest and sacrifice, He put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. There is one God and one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus.
King of Glory
When He had made purification of sins, He sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high (Heb. 13). Hear Him, for He is the king of glory.
The radiance of the Saviour’s face was not like the luster of Moses’ countenance when he came down from Mount Sinai. That glory had so dazzled the people that Moses had put a veil over his face. Yet for all of its brilliance it was reflected glory, the afterglow of encounter with the glory of the Lord. The glory of Christ on the mount was His own glory, a bursting forth of the glory that He had with the Father before the world was. The glory of God did not first appear in the cloud, as on Sinai, and then by reflection on the Saviour’s face. Instead, it shone forth like the sun from Christ himself, the true light who came into the world.
God’s glory came down in the cloud to rest upon the tabernacle in the wilderness. Glory dwelt among the people, but Israel rebelled in the land of the promise, and Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord departing from the temple. Yet the glory dawned again with the coming of the Lord, and the disciples were witnesses of the presence of the Lord of glory. Who is the king of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the king of glory.
Moses had prayed on Mount Sinai “Show me, I pray thee, thy glory.” He knew that when God’s glory was manifested all the blessings of the covenant were secure. On Sinai God passed by Moses, covering him in the cleft of the rock, but Moses who once saw the glory of God’s back in the theophany later saw the glory of God in the face of Jesus
Christ. The glory of the true tabernacle streamed forth from the light of the world.
Reflecting on Christ’s kingship, we better understand the tabernacles Peter proposed to build. The feast of booths or of tabernacles was the last great feast of the sacred year, the harvest-home of God’s salvation. Peter may have concluded that the time for the feast of the kingdom of God had come.
The king had come in His glory, but it was not time for the feast of glory. From the mount of transfiguration Jesus went to the cross. Have you reflected on the testing of Christ on this mountain? It was completely different from the temptation, when Satan had taken Christ into a high mountain to show Him the glory of the kingdoms of this world. Yet in another way, Christ’s dedication to the path of His kingship was searched out more deeply. Christ was tasting the glory of heaven. How He must have yearned to return with Moses and Elijah to the glory of the Father! Chariots of fire had carried Elijah to heaven.
Could not the Son of God have ascended from the mount of transfiguration rather than from the Mount of Olives? We catch something of Christ’s yearning when He came down from the mount to confront His disciples who could not perforin a healing because of their little faith. “O faithless and perverse generation,” said Christ, echoing the words of Moses, “how long shall I be with you, and bear with you?”
Jesus might have returned to heaven from the mount, but not with Moses and Elijah. Christ is the way to heaven for Moses and Elijah, as well as Peter, James and John. Only because the king of glory went willingly to the cross is there salvation for any man. Moses and Elijah departed, but the king remained. He descended the mount of transfiguration and climbed the mount of Calvary where the superscription on the cross read, “This is the king of the Jews.”
Only after Calvary’s conquest did the cloud again appear. Christ was lifted up on the cross before He was lifted up to the throne of heaven. Yet the glory of His transfiguration is a pledge of the glory that will be revealed when Christ comes again as He promised.
Listen to the witness of Peter as he knows his death is near: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming (that word is “presence” — parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to Him by the majestic glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with Him in the holy mount” (II Pet. 1:16-18).
No, these are not fables. God speaks to us and we have the word of prophecy made more sure. He says concerning His Son: “Hear ye Him!”
Have you heard and heeded the Word of Christ? Have you heard Him as He speaks of His death and the glory to follow? Will you hear Jesus, Jesus only, forever? For your life, for your Church there is one Lord who rules by His revealed Word in the power of His present Spirit.
His Word is not gray, not a yes and no. His Word is truth and glory, the light of heaven to our path. “For how many soever be the promises of God, in Him is the yea: wherefore also through Him is the Amen, unto the glory of God through us” (II Cor. 1:20).
Presbyterians may have been too restrained to say, “Amen” in the past. But the time has come when we must confess Christ by saying, “Amen” to His revealed Word. In our lives and in o u r Church, we must hear and obey Him who is the Lord of the Word and who speaks to us the Word of the Lord. Not counting the cost, we must obey God rather than men, and hear Him, the final prophet, the eternal priest, the returning king of glory!
“Hear Him!,” [the substance of Dr. Clowney’s message on Journal Day in 1972], The Presbyterian Journal, 31.19 (6 September 1972):
Photos from the Presbyterian Journal Photo Collection, Box 245, file 27, preserved at the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO.
On June 6 of this year, our post featured a look at the life and ministry of the Rev. Richard W. Gray, architect of the 1965 union of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod [1833-1965] and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church [1961-1965]. On the occasion of that union in 1965, Dr. Gray delivered the following sermon, titled:—
WHERE HAVE WE BEEN AND WHERE ARE WE GOING?
In 1936 I was a senior in Westminster Seminary about to launch upon a cause which, to me and many others, showed great promise. I had become acquainted with this cause at Wheaton College where, with Dr. Buswell as president, I learned something of the conflict and of the gathering storms in the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It was there I was introduced to the works of Machen and I heard him speak for the first time, and came to know some of the men of this assembly.
During my first two years of seminary there was the upheaval at Westminster when the policy of “no compromise” caused the resignation of the president of the board, Dr. Clarence McCartney, and of one of the original faculty members, Dr. O.T. Allis. It was while I was in seminary that I went with a number of students and sat in the lovely, colonial, historic sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton. On the platform were five or six men comprising the Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of New Jersey. I heard them read out five or six indictments against J. Gresham Machen and I saw him humbly but firmly, stand and plead on each one “not guilty.” Then I saw this trial of justice become a fiasco when they refused to permit doctrinal consideration and said the only issue at stake was whether or not Dr. Machen belonged to the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
In 1936 I was preaching for one of the commissioners to the Syracuse Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA when Dr. Machen, Dr. Buswell, Dr. Laird and others were having their cases reviewed by that Assembly, sitting as a judicial court. It upheld the convictions of these lower courts—in effect, defrocking these men, or at least removing them from the rolls of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
Then, I sat on that day in June in the New Century Club in Philadelphia with a group of people known as the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. There the constituting act for the Presbyterian Church of America was adopted. There stepped to the platform the young professor of philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, Gordon H. Clark, and in “Clarkian” style he took from his pocket two 8 1/2 x 11 pages and delivered a terse but brilliant nominating speech which made J. Gresham Machen moderator of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America.
It was like standing upon a tower. There was a great vista before us. I felt as though I was a part of church history and in my bones were some of the great convictions of the Reformers and of the early Christians. But within one year I was to know something of the disillusionment and the discouragement that causes the Psalmist to cry out in the first three verses of Psalm 60. This initial group split and each side tagged the other with labels which it has taken about 25 years to wash off.
We went, some of us, to our local churches, working in store-fronts and in houses against the great odds which were now upon us, being labelled with every kind of name. In the course of two decades each of these groups broke again and we became known all over the country as “splinterers.”
“O God, thou hast cast us off.” I do not think I cried this out literally, but I am sure these were my feelings.
We had felt that the hand of God was on that movement when the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union became the Presbyterian Church of America and Dr. Machen became its first Moderator. But now we felt like crying out: “O God, thou hast cast us off; thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased. Thou hast made the earth to tremble; thou hast broken it; heal the branches thereof; for it shaketh. Thou hast showed thy people hard things; thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.”
Discouragement? Well, some of you may never known such discouragement as was experienced then. Vaguely there was still the sense of calling which is described in the next two verses, the calling and the prayer. “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed in the cause of truth. That thy beloved may be delivered; save with thy right hand, and hear me.” It was not much more than a gasp. Where was the banner with which we began?
Now a banner is a standard raised in warfare. We believed in 1936 that we belonged to the Church Militant. I want to say that we still belong to the Church Militant. The Lord Jesus Christ is not carrying on His work on this earth with tin soldiers. It is a life-and-death struggle.
I believe we are still in the warfare and we still have the same banner. The banner raised in the cause of truth was raised for the turth against compromise in ecclesiastical matters. We were standing for the purity of the visible church. We felt that the organized church had been instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ and it was not simply an association of convenience, or an organization that one joined because he wanted to get ahead, or even merely to give one the opportunity of preaching the gospel.
Also the banner of truth was raised against compromise culturally. We believed that Christianity was not only a fire escape from hell, so to speak, but it was a life-and-world view. We still believe this. We held this against the encroaching secularism of the day, against the deadening formalism of the church, and against the contaminating worldliness with which the church had become tainted.
Further, the banner of truth was raised against the compromise doctrinally. Many of us had come out of fundamentalism which united on five brief doctrines. We thanked God for that fundamentalism which stood in the gap and really brought us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. But when we were introduced to the Westminster Standards, those documents which set forth the system of truth taught in the Word of God, we found something that satisfied our souls in depth. We felt that that also was a part of the standard and it was our calling to hold and raise this standard that God had given us—a banner for the cause of truth against compromise ecclesiastically, against compromise culturally, and against compromise doctrinally.
But you can well imagine that we did not exactly carry that banner with heads up. We were kind of disheveled looking after the reverses and the discouragements of 1937 and of the next decade. We would wait for the strange-looking stare that usually came and we wondered whether God had cast us off.
But then the encouragements began to come. As the Psalmist said, “God hath spoken in his holiness; I will rejoice.” I remember about ten years ago in the midst of some of these discouragements trying to convince myself that I could take a pulpit in the United Presbyterian Church about a year or two before the union with the Presbyterian Church USA, was to be consummated. It was a large pulpit and a rather influential one. I did my best to convince myself that I could take this. But somehow or other I could not quite give up on the calling that I felt God had given to me to raise this banner and to display it in the cause of truth.
I was still convinced, as I am sure many of you were, even though I did not feel it, that God had spoken in His Holiness and I clung to the promises by performances. Some encouragements began to appear. When I had a pastorate in southern Jersey just across the river from Wilmington I became acquainted with some of the brethren from whom I had been separated for ten or fifteen years. We began to work together on The Witness and the National Missions Reporter, which later became the Evangelical Presbyterian Reporter with basically the format of The Witness. That was an encouragement in the right direction.
Then the Columbus Synod occurred, and what was to be known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church took form. Several men of that Synod went to Houston, Kentucky, to a little group known as The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America. They said, “You know, we believe the same things you do. Cannot we get together?” I was not part of it then. They, too, had had their discouragements. Their difficulties had come before, and I think none of the older Reformed Presbyterian men would deny that discouragement had set in.
So now channels began to open. The next year some of us who had no ecclesiastical home and who had become somewhat discouraged and disillusioned, went to Coulterville, where we observed the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Presbyterian Churches discussing union. It was only a year later that we were a part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. And now, praise God, we are a part of the united church.
Although during the last five years there have been many dark days as far as this union is concerned, during the preceding 25 years there were even darker days, God gave His encouragement, we kept working and praying, and here we are.
I feel today the way I felt in 1936, when I thought I was about to launch upon a crusade with great promise. Before us at this synod there stretches the vista of large opportunity. It is the feeling one gets as he looks from the tower of Covenant College across vistas that include seven states.
But as we look out over this beautiful territory, we also see an enemy ensconced in his fortified city and we ask, “Who will bring me into the strong city, who will lead me into Edom?” You know, I think we can look at the strong city of Presbyterianism with the powerful enemy within its borders, and we can do so with a certain confident expectation regarding the future. A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a prominent conservative layman in the Presbyterian Church of the USA. He said, “I suppose you’ve seen the write-up in Time magazine about the change in the Creed. Last July I was in Princeton and I heard Dr. Dowey say the Westminster Confession of Faith was the death of theology.”
Then he made this statement to me: “You know 20 years ago they said to us that the conservative strategy should be one of co-existence and cooperation, but where has it gotten us?” I agreed that that would have been a great strategy if the hierarchy had “bought” it. The devil may allow the conservatives to win some tactical victories but certainly no strategic victories. He is certainly not surrendering the source of ministerial supply to any conservatives in that church or any other church if he can help it. Then he continued: “If you can do anything to arouse the conservatives in our denomination to reconsider this question I wish you would do it.”
In preparation for this Synod I wrote several men asking them to assess the situation in Presbyterianism today. A friend of mine who was a part of this movement in 1936 and now has one of the large Presbyterian pulpits in this country wrote. Listen to his note of discouragement. “Blake and Company are riding two horses. They speak of union with others, Episcopal, United Church, and so forth, but at the same time the unforgiveable sin is to buck the machine and not to be 100 percent Presbyterian. 100 percent Presbyterian means to give your all to the denominational program prepared by the professionals. At the same time they are making it easier for anyone to come under the flag of Presbyterianism by offering us a variety of creeds and statements. So you pay your money and take your choice. We can offer anybody anything in the way of a creed in our church. . .”
“The Presbyterian Church, North, is run by professionals who can make us poor preachers look silly when it comes to maneuvering. Note how they so slickly turned Pittsburgh Seminary from the one source of conservative-producing ministers to one of the most scholarly, radical institutions we have. Princeton is by far more conservative than Pittsburgh. They just faked us right out of our buildings.”
He is just utterly discouraged. He says, “I must admit I have not any positive thoughts about your united denomination. I can only point out the weaknesses of the situation in which I find myself, and hope they can be avoided.”
One of the leaders of the Southern Presbyterian Church wrote, “My statement to you uniting men would go along these lines. American Presbyterianism is in a state of sharp decline. The optimism of the late ’30’s over the revival of doctrinal consciousness due to the neo-orthodox movement has proved unfounded, for the rejection of Biblical infallibility by the Barthian group has had the inevitable effect of further unsettling the theological picture.
“The toboggan can be clearly seen in the north. It is not yet in evidence in the south, but a drift of increasing proportions may be easily detected. Conservatives in the southern church at this time are fighting only a holding action. They have the Presbyterian Journal as their rallying point and in this they are truly fortunate, but they lack a consistently conservative seminary which is a major and most lamentable weakness. They should be able to stave off efforts to effect union with the UP-USA body, for the constitutional requirement that mergers must receive an affirmative vote of 3/4ths of the Presbyteries is still adequate safeguard.
“There is a great need on the American scene for a sturdy, conservative Presbyterian denomination. The union of the EPC and the RPC is an important step in achieving this. If next the OPC can be brought to join forces, a truly impressive denomination would resutl. Numerically they would form a pretty good network of churches across the country. Separatist movements usually carry in themselves the seeds of further division as shown again in the days of 1936. The new denomination has learned these lessons it may be hoped.
“If the OPC should come along, too, there would be adequate number of experienced men with balanced judgment to keep the denomination on a sound course, one to encourage steady growth by local progress in attracting to the new church our Presbyterian groups seeking a happy spiritual home.
“To assist” (and I think this is a very important paragraph) “this last suggested development to occur the new denomination should follow a statesman-like policy toward the USA and the Southern church. They might well feel that their role in the south should be to testify without derogating. Criticisms that have to be made in faithfulness to Scripture could be offered in an evident spirit of loving concern, in sorrow not condemnation. It might be indicated that the line of separation that sometimes has to be drawn is often very difficult to decide upon, one man’s conscience not having received the same education as another’s, and Biblical interpretation on the issue of separation not standing out sharply and obviously clearly.”
So you see from these statements. and I think they are typical of the feelings of conservatives in the north and the south, that they are looking at us with somewhat envious eyes, and we must conduct ourselves with proper demeanor. If we ask humbly: “Who will bring me into the strong city? Who will lead me into Edom?” we will be able to reply: “Wilt not thou, O God, which hadst cast us off? and thou, O God, which didst not go out with our armies? Give us help from trouble, for vain is the help of man. Through God we shall gather strength: for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.”
I wonder what it was for which we were not prepared in 1936 that in the providence of God we may be prepared for in 1965 in order to seize the very same opportunity? I think we ought to ponder this question. One thing is that we must rely more upon the sovereign God. This reliance would cause us to carry on the battle in a different manner.
As one of the brethren of this Synod wrote me, “We should avoid the way in which we used to set forth the negative.” I was tremendously impressed by a statement in Phillips’ Your God Is Too Small in which he said that if you set forth the positive clearly and firmly and with conviction, the negative will automatically be there. But we must also exercise our responsibility, and whenever you hold to the Sovereignty of God, you are bound to hold to human responsibility.
If we are relying upon the sovereign God in prayer, then we are raising the banner in the great battle for the truth and exercising our responsibility. And I repeat that on this banner are these three distinctives: We must display the banner of truth against compromise ecclesiastically—standing for the purity of the visible church and yet paradoxically holding equally strongly to the communion of the saints which is fellowship with all believers, personally, individually, regardless of the organization ecclesiastically in which they find themselves.
We must display the banner of truth against compromise culturally, holding to the Christian life and world view, clinging tenaciously to the antithesis, while at the same time paradoxically utilizing Common Grace.
We must hold fast in our displaying of the banner of truth over against doctrinal compromise and I think this is our greatest need. Some of you other men feel the same, that we must cling to the system of truth set forth in the Westminster Standards. We are thanking God for the fundamentalism that brought us to Christ, but we are Presbyterians and we must hold to this system of truth which we believe is truly Scriptural and satisfying. It meets the enemy on many fronts.
At the same time we recognize that this system of truth has something in common with every other Christian system of truth as long as it holds to the infallibility of Holy Scripture and the supernatural doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. We are Presbyterians in the providence of God and also by conviction. We must not be ashamed of this and if Infant Baptism is the only reason we are Presbyterians we are holding to Presbyterianism for a meager reason. The stronger reasons for being Presbyterian are for the teaching concerning the great doctrines of grace summarized in the five points of Calvinism, and the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace, as well as the Presbyterian form of government.
“Who will bring me into the strong city? Who will lead me into Edom the camp of the enemy? Wilt not thou, O God, which hadst cast us off, and thou, O God, which didst not go out with our armies? Give us help from trouble; for vain is the help of man. Through God we shall gather strength; for He is is that shall tread down our enemies.”