In part 3 of this series, we shall continue to explore Calvin’s thoughts on the visible Church, keeping in mind that he was attempting to defend a mediating position between the Catholic churches which remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and the Anabaptist sects. [Quotations from the Institutes of the Christian Religion in this post will be from The Westminster Press (1960) edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, and edited by John T. McNeill.]
After delineating “the distinguishing marks” of a ‘true’ church, Calvin then goes on to write:
We have laid down as distinguishing marks of the church the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments? These can never exist without bringing forth fruit and prospering by God’s blessing. I do not say that wherever the Word is preached there will be immediate fruit; but wherever it is received and has a fixed abode, it shows its effectiveness. However it may be, where the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no deceitful or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements—much less to desert it and break its unity. For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished. (4.1.10)
Once again, Calvin takes a very stern stance on the issue of schism, to the extent that he says, “the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments”.
Now, contrast these words of Calvin, with the present day landscape of conservative Calvinism in America. Let’s examine those denominations which embrace the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms). But first, a brief history of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. According to Frank Mead’s Handbook of Denominations (10th edition), “the first American presbytery”, was, “founded in Philadelphia in 1706”. “American Presbyterians met in a general synod in 1729 and adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechism”. A brief split occurred in 1740 between ministers who embraced the “‘new birth’ revivalism…which grew out of the Great Awakening enthusiasm”, with those who upheld “the old creedal Calvinism”. The two sides reunited in 1757 and remained pretty much united until 1837, when a split between “Old School” and “New School” Presbyterians occurred. The civil war precipitated further splits. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) became identified with “Northern” Presbyterianism, while in 1857, “several Southern New School synods had withdrawn to form the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church”. This was shortly following by the “greater schism” in 1861, “when 47 Southern presbyteries of the Old School formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Then in 1867, the two aforementioned “Southern” denominations merged to form the Presbyterian in the United States (PCUS). The PCUSA and PCUS officially reunited in 1983 forming the new PCUSA.
Prior to this reunification, an important schism between the conservatives and liberals had taken place, over what has been termed the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy”. On June 11, 1936 the now famous G. Gresham Machen, a former professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary (on July 18, 1927, Machen, with his colleagues Oswald Allis, Robert Wilson and Cornelius Van Til, formed the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia – see Longfield’s, The Presbyterian Controversy, for in depth details), with “a group of about 300 people…met in Philadelphia to form a new church that would be true to the Bible”. But, unity within this new church did not last very long: “A year later it became apparent that the new church was actually composed of two groups with views so divergent [even though both ascribed to the Westminster Standards] as to make continued unity impossible”. A split occurred on September 6, 1938, forming two new churches: the Bible Presbyterian Church, and the church now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
In the south, a split between the conservatives and liberals took place a bit later in 1973, and the conservative denomination now known as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was formed. However, the schisms were far from over, more splits loomed on the horizon.
In 1981, another split from the PCUSA occurred, forming the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). 1998 witnessed the emergence of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches out of the PCA. (This schism has its roots in “Federal Vision” controversy.) And in 2006, the ultra-conservative Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States (WPCUS) was formed (the OPC and PCA were just not ‘conservative’ enough!)
As of 2009, I am aware of no less than 8 conservative Presbyterian denominations which adhere to the Westminster Standards (the 7th and 8th being the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). But, this is merely ‘the-tip-of-the-iceberg’, for there exists many other conservative denominations that have emerged within the Calvinistic/Reformed tradition (e.g. Reformed Baptists, Reformed Episcopal Church, Free Reformed Churches of North America, United Reformed Churches, et al.). Though these other Calvinistic/Reformed denominations have not adopted the Westminster Standards, the standards they have chosen to embrace are virtually identical, doctrinally speaking.
So, our little history lesson ends with a question: how faithful have these conservative Calvinistic/Reformed denominations been to Calvin’s teaching on schism?
Grace and peace,