D.G. Hart has given some feedback and pushback to Matt’s and my posts on Voluntarity and the Young Reformed.  Dr. Hart is not one to back away from the rough and tumble of electronic controversy, so I am glad to have merited no worse than a backhanded compliment (or perhaps a complimentary backhand?) from him.

I am honestly glad to surprise Dr. Hart with my awareness of the history of the Old School/New School controversy.   I should add that I am aware of, and greatly appreciate, the NAPARC churches. I have a particular admiration for Hart’s denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and for their key founder, J. Gresham Machen.

I think broader evangelicalism has a lot of important lessons to learn from these more confessional churches, about the importance of the visible church and the value of the old confessions. We evangelicals often need to escape the narcissistic attitude toward history that plagues our culture. The cry “Ad fontes”, “to the fountain”, is just as important now as it was during the Reformation. It is a cry to return not only to the scriptures, unique and supreme as their authority is, but also to the best of the theologians from all ages of the church. From the recent past to the deep past.

So when Dr. Hart asks, “But I’d sure like to know which cooks they have in mind and what authorities are overseeing the kitchens,” here’s my reply. I would love to see the Young Restless and Reformed set start cooking more from Hodge and Warfield’s cookbooks, with some Turretin sauces as a garnish. And not just when they are trying to make a point about alternate views of creation or the extent of the Flood. Many, including Carl Trueman and Kevin DeYoung, have warned of the risks of the Young Reformed movement becoming yet another celebrity fad. Unlike Dr. Hart (presumably), I don’t think that entails a root and branches rejection of the pietistic heritage.

Now maybe I’m just bad at the whole subtlety thing, but I was using a New School/Old School analogy in a very loose sense. The New School Presbyterians tended to hold denominational affiliation more loosely, were more willing to participate in revivals that crossed churchly and theological lines, and to adopt newer theological developments like dispensationalism and Keswick holiness. In a similar manner, what I called the “Parachurch” or “New School” (note the scare quotes, which I normally avoid) are more open to independency, interdenominational blending, and newer networks based to a large degree on ministry method and ethos.

By contrast, the Old School Presbyterians tended to emphasize confessional theology, the ordinary means of grace, and the work of the visible church. Some, like Warfield and the Old Princeton set, had a more favorable attitude towards pietism and saw at least some revivals as works of God. Others, like Nevin, had an even stronger emphasis on sacraments and liturgy and issued scathing rebukes of revivalist methods. What I called the “Church” or “Old School” young Reformed have a relatively stronger emphasis on covenant theology, grace-centered life, the work of local church officers, and a tendency to stockpile Banner of Truth reprints. I don’t mean to draw a perfect parallel or a historical succession. Just a pretty strong rhyme.

As for examples of “Church” or “Old School” Young Reformed figures, I would suggest Kevin DeYoung, who has argued in defense of the institutional church and called for a renewed appreciation for the Heidelberg Catechism. Dane Ortlund, perhaps, if he doesn’t object to being dragged into this. Or the younger end of the Reformation21 fanbase. Plus a good subset of those who have joined the PCA in recent years, or who quietly wish that more Baptist churches held up the London Baptist Confession (or even the Abstract of Principles) instead of the anti-confessionalism that has come to dominate the American baptist scene. And—if it would not be too forward—myself, insignificant beginner that I am.



P.S. For Mere-O readers who are unfamiliar with the references to the New School/Old School controversy, I promise to outline some highlights in a post in the very near future. It is a very interesting and important story. If such a post is not up soon, my friends should rebuke me, hold my feet to the fire, and perhaps even poison my tea.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Kevin White


  1. Spot on.


  2. I am so happy to be a newcomer to the “Old School.” :)

    What I’ve come to understand as part of this “camp” is that the emphasis on historic confessions of faith and theological leaders of the past is valued insomuch as they emphasized sola scriptura. I think that principle will sustain and help the young Reformed crowd persevere. In a post-modern world where everything seems doubtful, I know I find tremendous comfort in the Holy Spirit demonstrating to me me how the Bible is timeless and eternally true. No matter who God calls to lead and represent the movement, I can see that He and His Word are it’s true source of life.


  3. Kevin, thanks for the explanation. I’m glad to know of your respect for Machen and the OPC. In your understanding of the Old School I would encourage you to think more about ecclesiology. As you may know, the Old Schoolers took pretty seriously the idea that “outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). This was a confessional basis for jure divino Presbyterianism — that is, the idea that Presbyterian polity is the form of government revealed in and required by God’s word. Pretty chauvinistic I know. But it is an important reason for Old Schoolers staying away from various forms of interdenominational cooperation. In which case, most of the examples of Old School you cite — and thanks for the answer to my question — would not exactly fit the Old School profile.

    I don’t pretend to be the umpire of all things Old School, but the doctrine of the church is important and I learned it from Machen and the Old School tradition he represented. I would be delighted if the young Reformed embraced this ecclesiology. But the piety of evangelicalism, whether Reformed or not, generally begins with a personal encounter with God and is independent of the church. Your original post about the voluntary character of religious affiliation, while practically and obviously true, is going to be hard to reconcile with a high view of the church and her authority.


    1. Dr. Hart,
      Thanks for you courteous reply.

      I’ll admit, ecclesiology is one subject that I am trying to play catch-up on. And I think, between the figures we’ve both referenced, I have a good reading list. Is there a particular work by Machen you would recommend to get a good grasp of his ecclesiology?

      We might be closer to agreement than you think about the problems of “voluntarity” and a sense of individual encounter with God supplanting proper organic, sacramental membership in the church as the marker of Christian identity and belonging. I probably could have communicated this better in my writing. But that is why, in my original post, I tried to emphasize how the covenanted nature of the local, visible church ought to pull its members beyond a mere light, casual, voluntaristic attitude towards church membership.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.