Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945–1990

Written by D. G. Hart Reviewed By Camden M. Bucey

June 11, 2011, marked the 75th anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a small denomination that was formed out of the modernist-fundamentalist conflict of the early twentieth century in America. To commemorate the church’s anniversary, the Committee for the Historian of the OPC has commissioned and published two new volumes, including Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 19451990, written by D. G. Hart.

Between the Times recounts the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church during a transitional period from 1945 to 1990. Despite the denomination’s small size, the OPC’s history bears significance for the contemporary church. It is the story of a self-consciously Reformed denomination that began with J. Gresham Machen, its catalytic figure and the author of Christianity and Liberalism (1923). The OPC’s story has great value today as denominations and churches seek to understand their place within the milieu of parachurch organizations, networks, and other theological movements. Between the Times picks up the story in 1945 when the denomination was attempting to understand its place amid the changing ecclesiastical landscape.

Hart, who is well-suited to take up the task of this history, has a tendency to force the reader to either agree or disagree with him. Loyal readers of Hart will know that he is nothing if not persistent. A champion of historic Presbyterianism to many and a determined provocation to others, Hart’s Old School convictions are evident when he discusses ecumenical involvement. His treatment of the OPC’s refusal to join the American Council of Christian Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals reveals his strong skepticism regarding the warrant and effectiveness of parachurch organizations. These views may seem novel or even peculiar to many evangelicals.

As hinted in its title, the book integrates amillennialism into its contextual analysis. Early Orthodox Presbyterians understood that the church exists in an overlap of ages—within a tension between this earthly world and the heavenly inheritance secured and inaugurated by Christ. Many early figures in the OPC understood that the Church must navigate between the two extremes: a social gospel (an overemphasis on this world) and a neo-Gnosticism (a tendency to be so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good). Hart argues that the church was able “to maintain a Reformed witness that attempted to preserve the best of Old Princeton and that branch of American Presbyterianism and to combine it with the insights of Reformed tradition outside America” (p. 30). Yet not all understood the OPC’s distinctive response to doctrinal, ecumenical, and social issues. The communion would struggle through several decades trying to understand as well as fashion its identity in the changing evangelical world.

The chapters of Between the Times are somewhat independent of each other. This can be an advantage to those who prefer to read selective portions of the history, but others may find that occasional repetition of facts and information hinders the flow of a careful and continuous reading. Nonetheless, the book is more similar to a concept-album rather than a “greatest hits” since Hart unites the book by weaving several recurring themes throughout each chapter.

Readers may be surprised to find entire chapters devoted to the creation of a hymnal or controversies over Sunday school. Others may find chapters on the finer points of church membership and the denomination’s constitution to be trying, even tedious at times. Yet these accounts are bound up with the OPC’s desire to maintain a distinctively Reformed identity. Perhaps the most intriguing sections of the book recount the highs and lows of the OPC’s relationship with Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, which was founded by Machen, the OPC’s principal figure. Other Orthodox Presbyterian ministers such as Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Ned Stonehouse, Paul Woolley, and Edward J. Young taught at the seminary for many years and came to be significant figures in the denomination. Hart, who previously taught at Westminster, navigates well through this history, including a sensitive controversy regarding the teaching of Norman Shepherd. The event has been considered by many to be the primary reason that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) did not receive the OPC into membership in 1981. To his credit, Hart’s account of this polarizing event in Westminster’s and the OPC’s history is balanced and displays a dispassionate tone.

The book is well written and provides an interesting test-case by which readers might anticipate the future of other conservative communions. Yet outsiders may feel the book ascribes too much significance to such a small body of believers. Nonetheless, Hart makes a compelling case that the OPC faithfully represents historic, conservative American Presbyterianism, and he suggests that its history has much to say to today’s evangelical church.

Camden M. Bucey

Camden M. Bucey
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

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