John R. Muether
For the past year, New Horizons has featured historical remembrances in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It has included stories about churches, presbyteries, French Creek, the Boardwalk Chapel, and individuals such as Betty Andrews, John DeWaard, and, of course, J. Gresham Machen.
Not all Presbyterians, however, believe that sustained focus on the past is really healthy for a church. In the judgment of some, celebrations like this are distractions, diverting the church from its true mission. Underscoring how God has blessed a distinctive story is to “major on minors,” they say, and promoting the interests of one denomination, even at its best, borders on anti-ecumenical parochialism.
In the estimation of some commissioners to the 1986 General Assembly, the OPC’s semicentennial celebration was the cause for the Assembly’s refusal to accept the invitation of the Presbyterian Church in America to join it. As an Assembly protest described it, the church had reached a crossroad, and the Assembly in its vote “look[ed] backward instead of forward, inward instead of outward, and is exclusive instead of inclusive.” The point of the protest seemed to be that looking backward thwarted the church from marching forward.
This concern was echoed by one recent author who wrote, “The various anniversary celebrations and official histories in the different Reformed denominational bodies have been largely self-congratulatory.” He went on to argue that institutional milestones breed narrow-mindedness and chauvinism; they downplay an examination of the sins and weaknesses of a tradition, and they usurp a “spirit of genuine self-criticism.”
To be sure, the past can be an impediment to the health of a community. Embracing a perceived golden age of former times may promote a fixation on a frozen past that is largely the product of one’s imagination.
But is this the inevitable effect of history? The Word of God suggests otherwise. The book of Psalms, especially, reminds us that the past can point to the future. Geerhardus Vos writes:
The Psalter is wide awake to the significance of history as leading up to the eschatological act of God. It knows that it deals with a God, who spake and speaks and shall speak, who wrought and works and shall work, who came and is coming and is about to come. To no small extent it is the dignity of Jehovah as Creator and Redeemer from which the eschatological necessity springs…. Jehovah cannot abandon the works of his own hands (Psalm 138:8); he will perfect that which concerns his people. His work must appear unto his servants, his glory unto their children (90:16).
For the people of God, the past is prologue, and reflection on God’s faithfulness in history yields, in Vos’s words, a “serene confidence and quiet expectation.”
Of course, the history of the OPC is not redemptive history. It does not describe the mighty saving acts of God through the person and work of Christ, as recorded by inspired prophets and apostles. OPC history is the story of God’s providence in the affairs of one corner of the kingdom of God, as interpreted by fallible observers. So we must concede that it is tempting to misread history, especially on anniversaries.
Still, in looking over the ways in which the OPC has observed anniversaries in the past, it is striking to read how cautiously the church has interpreted these milestones. There has been an absence of boasting and a strong focus on a proper stewardship of our calling. The goodness of God to this small portion of his visible church has not occasioned presumption, but rather has generated appeals for greater faithfulness.
What follows—three reflections on previous anniversaries in the OPC—are particularly eloquent testimonies of history in service of corporate humility and faithfulness. The challenges posed here urge themselves upon the church today. By pointing us to the past they direct our steps toward a genuinely forward-looking faith.