Longfield and Presbyterianism

Longfield and Presbyterianism

It has been an excellent summer for books on the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian faith.   John Halsey Wood and James Bratt have both offered fine treatments of Kuyper; D.G. Hart produced his long-awaited history of Calvinism; and now Bradley Longfield's Presbyterians and American Culture (Westminster John Knox) has arrived on the market.

Longfield made his name with his book of character studies of protagonists in the Presbyterian fight of the early twentieth century, The Presbyterian Controversy (Oxford).   Here he broadens his chronological scope, looking at Presbyterianism in America from the colonial era through the present, whilst focusing the narrative on the interactions of Presbyterianism and Presbyterians with the wider currents of American culture.  The result is a book which offers a concise, informative and thoughtful reflection on the history of the Presbyterian churches in America.

It is not my intention here to offer a thorough review.  I trust the powers-that-be at Reformation 21 will be arranging for that to be done by somebody of real competence in the field.   Here I offer just a few thoughts on the implications of the narrative as given by Longfield.

First, for non-Presbyterians the book may well help them understand the coolness with which many of us greet quasi church groups like the Gospel Coalition.   The Old School-New School debates cannot be read in terms of simple oppositions either of the evangelical/liberal or anti-evangelism/pro-evangelism variety.   What was at stake were understandings of the church, of the normativity of scripture for understanding the church, and of the form of Christian life and ministry which flowed from such understandings.  Were there good men on either side?  Surely there were.    But there is an irony to the way in which the giants of Old Princeton - the Hodges, Warfield, Machen - have been co-opted by figures who really represent the New School type of approach against which the Old Princetonians defined themselves.  The church -- and only the church -- is a divine institution.  All other groups need radically to downsize their ambitions when it comes to their role in the Christian world.

Second, I was struck by the fact that the last chapter - on post-confessional, mainline Presbyterianism - indicated just how irrelevant Presbyterianism has become in its liberal forms.  With dull preaching, and always appearing to be a day late and a dollar short in its 'witness' to the culture and politics of the day, the liberal church is the aging mistress of secularism, trying desperately to make herself alluring in the skimpy underwear of a debased Christian vocabulary which has long since lost any meaningfully orthodox content.   As Machen pointed out in his book, What is Faith?, all the intellectual brilliance of liberalism has served to produce nothing more than an 'indolent impressionism' - perhaps we might say 'sloppy sentimentalism.' Too often this manifests itself liturgically and homiletically as an embarrassing childishness.  More broadly, it seems to foster only a tiresome irrelevance. 

Finally, I was intrigued by Longfield's observations that, in the early twentieth century, theological decentralization and organizational centralization were simultaneous as managerial efficiency started to trump confession in matters of practical ecclesiastical identity.  The denominational size and structure simply demanded such managerial efficiency even as they made disciplined confessional coherence more difficult; and thus doctrine became detached from that which made the denomination run on a day to day basis and therefore of less actual importance to functional identity.

There is a lesson there.  As a friendly outside observer of the P.C.A., it seems to me that she is so numerically large, so geographically diffuse, and has so many ministries and sub-organisations. Given the managerial complexity of such an organisation, one has to ask whether such a church can sustain a clear theological identity long term.  Or is it the case that managerial efficiency must in such circumstances inevitably come to trump theological confession as a means of maintaining institutional unity and identity?  In other words, in a country the size of the U.S.A. can one have a numerically large, administratively complex and yet still confessionally stable denomination?  Or is the way forward for confessional stability to have smaller, regional denominations where the courts of the church are capable of sustaining all the business of the church?  This is just an idle thought; but Longfield left me wondering if the parallels between the Presbyterian debates of the early twentieth century and those in the P.C.A. today are not simply doctrinal but also in important ways structural as well.