Thursday, July 23, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series we not only explored the centrality of Christian Liberty to the debates and discussions that led to the OPC’s division, but actually spent the third part focusing on the 3rd General Assembly, which was followed shortly by the exodus of the McIntire/Buswell group and the creation of the Bible Presbyterian Church.

Aftermath In The OPC
After the division of 1937 some began to speak of the OPC as a “wet church,” which for the time was a derisive term (as it was probably intended).[1] In a booklet called “The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question” Clifford Smith defended the OPC’s refusal to speak in favor of total abstinence. He argued that while drunkenness was clearly condemned in Scripture (something all parties were agreed upon), he also classified moderate liquor consumption as a “thing indifferent” — something that is neither morally virtuous nor evil in itself.[2] He referred to moderate alcohol consumption as “among things that are morally indifferent and is to be dealt with on this basis.” Although there were perhaps those in the McIntire/Buswell camp who believed alcohol consumption in any amount to be sinful, those who wrote and published publicly on the matter generally dealt with consumption of alcohol by classifying it alongside of those things that cause others to stumble but are not sinful in and of themselves.[3]

Smith expressed a common sentiment among those who defended the OPC’s refusal to take a stand on abstinence: “Just because a thing is morally indifferent in itself, it does not follow that every Christian has free license to do it.”[4] Nevertheless, he argued, that was not a sufficient ground to forbid the thing. Smith also went to great lengths to point out that the OPC’s refusal to move on the issue as the abstainers desired did not mean that the OPC was a “wet church.” They did not have a position on total abstinence, just as the Bible did not have a position on total abstinence.

Aftermath In The BPC
When McIntire, Buswell, and company parted from the OPC in 1937, they left to form the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). When the first General Synod met in September of 1938 they passed a resolution stating that “we deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence.” This statement was re-affirmed at the Bible Presbyterian Church’s fourth General Synod.[5] There the discussion was not framed in terms of clear prohibitions from Scripture but in terms of applied wisdom.

The Harvey Cedars Resolution, which the BPC passed in 1945, is worth considering at this point. Though the Harvey Cedars Resolution was passed eight years after the BPC split from the OPC, it arguably contains what may be the most mature and careful expression of the moral position that characterized the McIntire/Buswell party within the OPC prior to the split. In that Resolution, the call to personal moral separation is framed in terms of wisdom:
We deem it wise to pursue the course of total abstinence with regard to alcoholic beverages, and also tobacco; and furthermore we are unalterably opposed to the modern saloon, and the liquor traffic in general. We urge all ministers and Christian leaders among us to discourage these and other worldly practices among the Lord's people, and to give their testimony uncompromisingly against all forms of sin.[6]
In both of the preceding statements, spanning 1937-1945 the argument of the abstainers was consistent: based on the wisdom of abstinence, abstinence was the required lifestyle of the Christian.[7] The Harvey Cedars resolution stated that this call was “in conformity to the Word of God,” though it also said that this was “without adding thereto any rules binding the conscience.” They were careful to avoid framing the discussion in terms of biblical commands or prohibition, though it arguably became, in effect, a biblical command several steps removed. For the abstainers who left the OPC, this was a matter of prudence, and the prudent thing was to avoid alcohol altogether.

In Carl McIntire’s magazine The Christian Beacon, the separation of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Seattle and of California Presbytery from the OPC were characterized in strikingly heroic terms. The Beacon portrayed them as having left in order that they “might remain true to that purpose for which it left the apostate U.S.A. Church.”[8] If this sentiment accurately reflects that of those who left the OPC for the Bible Presbyterian Church then it becomes clear that the Westminster group and McIntire/Buswell group had, from the beginning, envisioned drastically different purposes in their departures from the PCUSA to begin with. The McIntire/Buswell supporters envisioned the separated life as essential to their purpose. As D.G. Hart explains it, however, Machen’s “purpose throughout the fundamentalist controversy had been to preserve a seminary that would train ministers in Old School Presbyterian theology and a church where those seminarians could minister.”[9]

In his own reflection on the division of the OPC, George Marsden argues that, ultimately, the cause of division cannot entirely be placed squarely upon either the personalities or the theological issues involved.[10] Neither of them, in and of themselves, would have been sufficient to effect the division. Rather, says Marsden, each side in the conflict represented competing visions of what a Presbyterian Church ought to be. The Mcintire/Buswell group represented a vision of Presbyterianism as “a Bible-believing church witnessing to the world both in the preaching of the Word and the ‘separated life.’” The majority, says Marsden, wanted “an orthodox church whose witness would reflect an informed study of the scriptural principles in the church and its work.”[11] Marsden concludes that these two compatible visions of the church — which could (in principle) be held in balance — became incompatible when the balance between themselves was lost. Perhaps the only man who could hold the factions of the OPC in balance was Machen himself, but his death in January of 1937 meant that such questions would belong only to the realm of conjecture and speculation.

If it is true that only Machen could hold these groups together, then the uneasy alliance that opposed modernism in the PCUSA could never have held together on their own in the long-term. The majority in the OPC chose a path that would eventually put them at irremediable odds with the desire for the separated life expressed by the McIntire/Buswell group.

Even if one granted that it was wise or expedient for Christians to abstain from alcohol, was the wisdom of abstinence sufficient grounds to constitute a requirement for such abstinence? Absent a Biblical prohibition, could the Church make such a statement in the confidence that they spoke with the authority of Christ Himself? For those who left form the BPC, the answer to these questions was “Yes.” For those who remained in the OPC, the answer was “No.”


[ ] Clifford Smith, The Presbyterian Church of America and the Liquor Question. (PCA Historical Center, Buswell Collection, Box 286, File 105), 1.
[2] Ibid., 13.
[3] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[4] Smith, 16.
[5] Minutes of the 4th General Synod of the BPS (1941), 6.
[6] PCA Historical Center. “The Harvey Cedars Resolutions,” (accessed Jan. 2, 2015).
[7] This was true not only of statements in print but also in personal correspondence. For instance, in a letter to Charles Woodbridge, J. Oliver Buswell argues that this whole discussion was ultimately a matter of how wisely and carefully the believer exercises his freedom. Appealing to Paul’s words in Romans 14:15-22 he argues that the offensiveness of liquor is in itself sufficient reason to forbid ever drinking it. Letter from J. Oliver Buswell to Charles Woodbridge (April 24, 1937).
[8] The Christian Beacon 2 Vol. 23 (July 15, 1937), 1, 8.
[9] D G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2003), 170.
[10] Marsden’s concluding analysis of the split makes for fascinating reading. See George M. Marsden “Perspective on the Division of 1937” in Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 321.
[1] Ibid., 322.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 3)

In the prior two posts we considered the importance of Christian Liberty to the division of the OPC in 1937. In this post we will focus on the events themselves as they played out at the third General Assembly.

Two months after Buswell’s clarification and exchange with Stonehouse was published in The Guardian, the third OPC General Assembly convened. June 1, 1937 was a unusually warm day for Philadelphia at that time of year, reaching a balmy high of 90 degrees. The heat outside of the General Assembly’s meeting at Spruce Street Baptist Church was matched only by the heated disagreements between those factions that had formed within the OPC over the course of the previous year. Soon after this assembly convened, and before the first session had even commenced, J. Oliver Buswell “openly declared his intention to withdraw from [the denomination] if the Assembly did not take what he considered to be the only proper action on the overtures involving the question of total abstinence.”[1] Everyone would soon discover that these were not empty threats.

In the course of the assembly, three proposed overtures called for the church to endorse abstinence from alcohol. The overture from Chicago Presbytery cited prior statements by the PCUSA from the 19th century where total abstinence was endorsed. This included statements from the 1812, 1818, 1829, 1865, and 1877 General Assemblies (among others).[2] Indeed, the McIntire/Buswell group seemed to have the historical argument on their side, as temperance does seem to have held the field in 19th century American Presbyterianism. Despite valiant efforts and strong arguments for historical pedigree, none of these overtures passed.[3]

On the other hand, a contrary overture calling for caution against man-made rules was also submitted, which was successfully passed.[4] This overture referenced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 20, Sections 2-3 which read in part, “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word…” This passage was a favorite of those who opposed making statements endorsing total abstinence.

In another failure on the part of the McIntire/Buswell group, overture no. 8 from Iowa Presbytery argued that the denomination ought to allow a broad latitude of eschatological views. This did not pass, which dealt a double blow not only to defenders of temperance but to the perceived future of dispensational premillennialism in the OPC. The McIntire/Buswell supporters in the OPC took these successive defeats as a painful signal that they were not welcome in the newly conceived denomination and that they would not have a voice in it.

Before the third General Assembly had adjourned, the McIntire/Buswell group presented and filed a formal protest. This protest was with reference to the Assembly’s rejection of Overtures 2, 3 and 6 and passing of Overture 1.[5] They offered as their reason for protest a “deep conviction that, in the interest of making clear the position on this matter which we hold, and which we believe is held by the majority of the members, of this Assembly, we should have declared that we deem it wise to pursue and to encourage the course of total abstinence.”[6]

After the Assembly convened, seventeen total Teaching and Ruling Elders left the OPC and announced their intention to form a new denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). They subsequently established Faith Theological Seminary — a seminary that corrected what the BPC men had seen wrong with Westminster Seminary while feeling powerless to change it.

In Part 4 we will conclude this series of blog posts by considering the aftermath of the split between the OPC and the BPC.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (June 26, 1937), 88.
[2] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 5-7.
[3] The specific overtures were Overture No. 2 from the Chicago Presbytery (which failed to pass 24-65), Overture No. 3 from the California Presbytery, and Overture No. 6 from the Presbyter of New Jersey (the latter two of which were rejected without a vote).
[4] This was Overture No. 1.
[5] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 27.
[6] Ibid.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 2)

In the first part of this series of blog posts we talked about the environment from which the OPC emerged. We concluded by surmising that the greatest issue in the OPC was not necessarily the issue of alcohol itself, but rather the question of how Christian Liberty is to be practiced. In this post I want to focus on the events, arguments, and correspondence that drew out the importance of these issues, culminating in division.

A little over three years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, and six months before the division of 1937, J. Oliver Buswell published a book called The Christian Life in which he argued that moderate alcohol use eventually leads to drunkenness. Because of this sad reality—argued Buswell—and based upon Paul’s teachings of lawfulness versus expediency in 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23, he concluded in this book that total abstinence from alcohol is required for Christians.[1]

In the book, Buswell fully concedes that “the Bible does not explicitly teach total abstinence,” even granting the possibility of some hypothetical utopia where people do all things in moderation — a scenario in which he actually says drinking alcohol might be acceptable.[2] In one of the overtures that would come before the OPC General Assembly in June 1937, the New Jersey Presbytery would echo Buswell on this point, agreeing that moderate alcohol consumption is not condemned in Scripture.[3] What Buswell argued, however, is that there was such a tendency to drunkenness in Americans that they needed to abstain completely. This conclusion of Buswell was again echoed by the New Jersey Presbytery a few months later when they argued that the “tendency of the American people to go to harmful excess” with regard to alcohol was sufficient reason to condemn its use altogether.[4]

In The Christian Life, Buswell anticipated the claim that Jesus’ production of wine at the wedding of Cana was sufficient to demonstrate that its use was not completely wrong. His response was to claim that America is such a different place than first century Palestine that (even granting that the wine at Cana was alcoholic) this kind of reasoning is tantamount to saying we ought to walk in the middle of traffic because Jesus walked in the middle of the road in his own day.[5] “If it was alcoholic wine which our Lord drank in his ordinary fellowship with men, if it was alcoholic wine which he made at the marriage in Cana of Galilee (this is open to dispute), we are not at liberty to argue that he would use or approve of the using of alcoholic beverages in America today.”[6]

The majority group wondered how, absent a Scriptural prohibition against something, would one arrive at the conclusion that something was to be prohibited? At the end of the day, there was much agreed upon within the early OPC, but when it came to the alcohol question the two parties were deeply divided as to how Christian liberty ought to be put into practice.

The centrality of Christian Liberty became clear when Charles Woodbridge responded to Buswell against accusations that Westminster Seminary was a “wet campus.” Woodbridge (one of those who opposed taking a stand on alcohol) attached to his letter a lengthy quote from Charles Hodge that Woodbridge believed was relevant to clarifying the real issue. His inclusion of the Hodge quote indicates that for Woodbridge the issue was not the harmfulness of excessive alcohol use, but rather the danger of speaking as the Church of Christ on an issue where Christ Himself, in the Scriptures, did not speak.
When it is obligatory to abstain from the use of things indifferent, is a matter of private judgment. No man has the right to decide that question for other men. No bishop, priest, or church court has the right to decide it. Otherwise it would not be a matter of liberty. Paul constantly recognized the right (εξουσια) of Christians to judge in such cases for themselves. He does this not by implication only, but he also expressly asserts it, and condemns those who would call it in question. “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth.” “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:3, 4, 5.) It is a common saying that every man has a pope in his own bosom. That is, the disposition to lord it over God’s heritage is almost universal. Men wish to have their opinions on moral questions made into laws to bind the consciences of their brethren. This is just as much a usurpation of a divine prerogative when done by a private Christian or by a church court, as when done by the Bishop of Rome. We are as much bound to resist it in the one case as in the other.[7]
For the Westminster group, the issue was not whether alcohol could be destructive, but rather, the wrongness of the Church declaring prohibitions where the Bible had not. In many ways, Buswell’s response in his letter to Woodbridge seems to be utterly unexpected: “I agree with what you quote from Dr. Hodge.” According to Buswell, the issue was not man-made laws (which he didn’t think he was guilty of making). Buswell goes on to tell Woodbridge that for those advocating abstinence from alcohol, the real issue is how the believer is supposed to exercise his liberty, pointing to Romans 14:15-22.[8] Who are the “weaker brethren” of Romans 14:15-22, according to Buswell? “Converted alcoholics and the young people in the social swirl of today.”[9]

Following the publication of The Christian Life, the Presbyterian Guardian ran a response by Guardian editor Ned Stonehouse on Feb. 27, 1937, titled “Godliness and Christian Liberty.” In that article, Stonehouse argued that, in light of Christ’s own miracle of turning water into wine, Buswell simply went too far: “It is a serious reflection on our Lord to hold that moderate drinking inevitably leads men into a life of drunkenness, as Dr. Buswell seems to do in his recent book on The Christian Life, p. 88.”[10]

In April of 1937 Buswell responded to Stonehouse’s article not by appealing (as he had in his book) to a disjunction between Christ’s own day and modern America, but by instead arguing that he was being misrepresented. “If the reader will turn to chapter three in this book he will find that the argument is based squarely upon the scriptural doctrine of expediency.”[11] In the same issue, Stonehouse retorted that “the argument in his book goes beyond an appeal to inexpediency.”[12] To Stonehouse’s credit, pages 85-88 of The Christian Life did not make any references to Christian Liberty but rather to the raw destructiveness of alcohol, as well as the irrelevance of Christ’s own example to the modern context. This isn’t to say that inexpediency was not a part of Buswell’s argument (pages 88-91), but Buswell’s response does seem to have been an attempt to steer the debate towards what Buswell perceived to be the stronger elements of his argument.

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at the actual events of the 3rd OPC General Assembly.

[1] The Presbyterian Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[2] J. Oliver Buswell, The Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937), 86.
[3] Minutes of the 3rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America, 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Buswell, 87.
[6] Ibid., 86.
[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 265.
[8] Personal letter from Buswell to Charles Woodbridge, April 24, 1937, 2. (PCA Historical Center, Box 285, file 14)
[9] Buswell, The Christian Life, 91.
[10] Guardian 3 (Feb. 27, 1937), 203.
[11] Guardian 4 (April 10, 1937), 12.
[12] Ibid.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The OPC Split of 1937 and Christian Liberty (Part 1)

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church emerged from a hotbed of conflict. This was a conflict that, as Darryl Hart and John Muether have argued, was to define the OPC[1] in nearly every area of its polity, doctrine, and personality even up to the present day.[2] This conflict from which the OPC emerged was not a conflict between two Christian groups who simply could not agree on some details, but — as J. Gresham Machen portrayed it — between Christianity and Liberalism: two entirely different religions.[3] The battleground of this conflict was the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of the 1920s and 30s and the conflict arguably struck its zenith with the trial and ejection of J. Gresham Machen from its ranks. By June of 1936 the OPC was formed by Machen and a small group of conservatives who chose not to remain in the PCUSA any longer.

Because it was a child of war, the OPC was originally composed of an oddly mismatched (in retrospect) coalition that might be roughly divided into two: the Westminster group and the McIntire/Buswell group. On the Westminster side were leaders who were associated with Westminster Seminary such as J. Gresham Machen, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Paul Wooley, Ned Stonehouse (the editor of the Presbyterian Guardian), and Charles Woodbridge. Those who occupied the McIntire/Buswell camp were those who eventually left the OPC. This group, of course, included among them Carl McIntire and J. Oliver Buswell.

In their battles with the modernists of the PCUSA these groups found themselves sharing a similar agenda and a common enemy. George Marsden puts it this way: “As long as conservatives were confronted with the presence of modernists within their own institutions, and as long as there was real hope of retrieving control of the church, there was little time for disputes on fine points.”[4] After the split with the PCUSA, of course, these two conservative groups now shared the same house. From the perspective of hindsight it seems like a marriage that was destined to fail, but at the time it did not perhaps seem so obvious. Why, after all, should it be so hard to remain together, now that the issue of an aggressive and militant form of modernism was off the table?

In the beginning there was what might be termed a “honeymoon phase” for the newly formed denomination. One detects it in the triumphant declaration by J. Gresham Machen that in forming the OPC “we became members of a true Presbyterian Church; we recovered, at last, the blessing of true Christian fellowship. What a joyous moment it was! How the long years of struggle seemed to sink into nothingness compared with the peace and joy that filled our hearts!”[5] That sense of joy was not to be long lived or shared by all. Less than a year later, however, some of those same people would choose to separate from this “true Presbyterian Church.”

It would be a mistake for anyone to think that the sole issue which caused the division of 1937 was the issue of the church’s relationship to the alcohol question. The issues were not at all simple. As Marsden summarizes it, there were at least three primary driving issues leading to the split: dispensational premillennialism (doctrinal), abstinence from alcohol (moral), and participation with non-Presbyterians in foreign missions (ecclesiastical).[6] It was never just one thing, and there were many factors and personalities at play beyond these three, as well (not the least of which was the death of Machen in January of 1937). In George Marsden’s analysis, however, the issue of temperance was certainly “the most emotionally charged of the issues that had been raised.”[7]

Through a series of upcoming blog posts we will look more closely at this “most emotionally charged” of the issues that divided the OPC. By the end, not only will we have explored a fascinating period in Presbyterian history, but we will really see that the issue which was most pressing in the division wasn’t ultimately disagreement over the wrongness of alcohol, but disagreement over two competing visions of how Christian Liberty ought to be put into practice.

In Part 2 of this series we will consider the developments that ultimately led to the division of the OPC in 1937.

[1] The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was initially called the Presbyterian Church of America until it was forced to change its name by court order. However, in spite of the anachronism and for the sake of continuity I will here refer to it by its later name, the OPC.
[2] D G. Hart and John R. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995), 7.
[3] See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 2.
[4] George M. Marsden “Perspective on the Division of 1937” in Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 299.
[5] The Presbyterian Guardian 2 (June 22, 1936), 110.
[6] Marsden, 296.
[7] Marsden, 308.