Presbyterian Scholars Conference: What happens when mainliners sit at table with split P’s?

Guest commentary by Chuck Wiggins

“I often wonder what kind of shape the Presbyterian Church would be in today if the Orthodox Presbyterians, the PCA, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO had not departed,” mused Joseph D. Small, former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Theology & Worship director.

untitledThose particularly thought provoking words came during the recent Presbyterian Scholars Conference held October 18-19 at Wheaton College in Illinois.

A glimpse of that musing was evident as 30 scholars from various streams of the Presbyterian enterprise gathered to offer papers and exchange remarks on “the future of American Presbyterianism.”

From my perspective, the spirit and the tenor of the conference with scholars from the PC(USA), OPC, EPC, and ECO under one roof during both the lectures and at table during meals was — how shall I say it — downright genial.

Headlining a list of outstanding scholars besides Small, included Bradley Longfield of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary; OPC historian extraordinaire and Hillsdale College professor Darryl Hart; and George Marsden, distinguished professor from Notre Dame University and arguably the premier historian of American church history.

img_20161019_194507Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Longfield’s groundbreaking work, “The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates.” Longfield’s award-winning book has been widely regarded by Presbyterians of all theological stripes as an even-handed analysis of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s and their aftermath. (In my opinion, previous historical narratives by mainline P’s have largely tended to dismiss departing conservatives as simplistic cranks; while the “split P’s” have approached their forbears uncritically with a kind of surreal, hagiographic reverence.)

The Presbyterian Scholars Conference serves a laudable purpose. Conference convener Jeff McDonald sees it as a bold outreach to professors, laypeople, seminary students and Ph.D. students, thus providing a scholarly discussion of Presbyterian history, theology and other related fields.

McDonald, pastor of Avery Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Nebraska, and adjunct professor of church history at Sioux Falls Seminary in Omaha, Nebraska, states his case up front: “Our goal in the PSC is to provide grants for ‘evangelical’ Presbyterian Ph.D. students. This is a Pan-Presbyterian initiative seeking to encourage theological renewal throughout Christ’s church and the advancement of evangelical Presbyterian scholarship. ”

Particularly engaging to me was Small’s paper, “Where (in the world) is the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?” In it, Small unearthed some choice comments by John Calvin lamenting needless divisions in the church.

“Ranked among the chief evils of our time,” Calvin agonized in “Letter to Cranmer” is that “the Churches are so divided that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute among us … that the members of the Church being severed [while] the body lies bleeding.”

As Small put it: “Calvin’s distress went beyond regret, for it led him to greet with enthusiasm Cranmer’s proposal for a general council of all the reformation churches in order to bring unity out of separation. A few years later his vision broadened as he proposed a universal council of the Church to put an end to all of the divisions in Christendom. Calvin envisioned a council that would include representatives from the whole church, including the Catholic bishops as well as representatives of the reformation churches. He was even open to the possibility that the pope would preside (but not rule!).”

But what hath Geneva to do with Louisville? Everything.

A. Donald MacLeod (Photo credit: Jeffrey McDonald)
A. Donald MacLeod (Photo credit: Jeffrey McDonald)

What if all of the mainliners and split P’s remained “truly one” as Jesus prayed in John 17:23? What if we all had been able to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of straightjacket rigidity of the Split P’s and the theological ambiguity of the mainline P’s these past eight decades? What if we could have avoided its plaguing eccentricities that have wounded Presbyterians ever since?

I wonder, indeed, how much better shape the Reformed witness would be today in the church universal if we could place on the table a savory, robust and generous orthodoxy in place of current mishmash of mainline/split P soup.

The third annual Presbyterian Scholars Conference on “The Future of American Presbyterianism” just might have been a baby step from what if … to what might be.

The conference also established a Presbyterian history award in honor of A. Donald MacLeod. MacLeod has become known throughout the U.S. and Canada as an outstanding Christian biographer and historian of Presbyterianism and evangelicalism. Each year the winner of the MacLeod Award will receive a $1000 prize.

Plans are in the works for a fourth conference next October at Wheaton College.

chuck-wiggins1Chuck Wiggins is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Venice, Florida.