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.

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