Modern Presbyterianism: Under the Feet of Men
Today, Presbyterianism is not even a pale shadow of its former glory. If a person doesn’t know history, there is nothing in modern Presbyterianism that can tell him that just 100 years ago it was the central influence on the American culture. Nothing whatsoever. It is the perfect modern example of salt that has lost its savor, and was thrown out and is trampled under the feet of men. And here are the reasons for this decline.
Book of the Week:
– Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching, Ben House
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Welcome to Episode 5 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will be talking about modern Presbyterianism, how salt loses its savor, and is trampled under the feet of men. If you are a Presbyterian, by the end of today’s episode you will either hate me – because you are loyal to the current institutional system and you don’t see any problem with it – or you will be deeply disturbed by the picture of reality I present here. If you are not a Presbyterian – you may be a Baptist, or a Pentecostal, or a Charismatic, or Episcopalian, or just generally a good Evangelical, you may want to hit that shut-down button now, ‘cause it’s about them Presbies. But you may also want to stay and eavesdrop. For what you will hear, may apply in full force to your own group and denomination: it may either tell you why it has been trampled under the feet of men, just like the Presbyterians, or it may tell you how it may rise to being culturally victorious, as Presbyterians were in the past.
Let’s start with the obvious, which is not so obvious to many people today: This nation was started as a Presbyterian nation. No, I am not trying to denigrate any other denomination here. I am not trying to deny the contribution and the hard work and sacrifice and commitment of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Huguenots, Dutch Reformed, Episcopalians – well, Episcopalians were rooting for the King in the Revolutionary War, so I am not sure about that one. Even the small number of Roman Catholics in the colonies had adopted the liberty mentality of the generally anti-Catholic population and gave the Continental Army and Navy at least a dozen distinguished commanders. Yes, I know the Puritans and the Pilgrims came here two generations before the Presbyterians; during the Puritan Revolution in England, the American colonies barely had any Presbyterians. Yes, I know the first presbytery in America was not founded until 1706, more than 80 years after the first Pilgrim settlement, and the first synod was established as late as 1717. There is no doubt in my mind that compared to everyone else, Presbyterians were rather late comers.
But then, after 1717, their influence on the American culture grew exponentially. By the start of the First Great Awakening in the 1730s, the Presbyterian churches in America were the leading force in colonizing and evangelizing the “back country” regions in the South and in Pennsylvania. By the second half of the 18th century not only the back country, but the developed coastal areas were experiencing the influence of Presbyterianism. In 1746 Princeton University was established; and in 1768, John Knox Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian, became its president. For the next 25 years, Witherspoon would be the main spiritual and intellectual influence on the colonies in their war for independence. British intelligence officers blamed the rebellious spirit of the colonies on him alone. Because of him and the new generation of Presbyterian ministers he produced, King George would call the Revolution the “Presbyterian rebellion,” and Horace Walpole would announce the news of the rebellion in the British Parliament with the words, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” And indeed, while many of the Founding Fathers claimed to have gotten their Republican ideals from classical Greece and Rome, in reality, the majority of the population learned Republican political practices in their local Presbyterian churches, sessions, and presbyteries.
Throughout the 19th century, the influence of Presbyterianism on the American culture was complete to the point where the political debates were simply a reflection of theological debates within Presbyterianism. For better or for worse, Presbyterians were the top influence on both sides of the War between the States. Business in NYC was largely controlled by Presbyterians, even if the government of the city was in Irish, Roman Catholic hands. When John D. Rockefeller moved to NYC in 1884, he was a lone fundamental Baptist multimillionaire among Presbyterian magnates. So strong was the Presbyterian church there that the Roman Catholic bishop of New York complained that a large number of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants ended up converting to Presbyterianism; Presbyterian missionaries were taking the new arrivals right off the docks and provided for them shelter, employment, and adjustment courses. In the West, even though Presbyterian churches lagged behind the other denominations in missions and church planting, they still commanded a major presence among the economic and government elite in the western territories. As late as the 1930s the splits and the controversies within American Presbyterianism made headlines in the newspapers.
And then suddenly, the decline came. So abrupt was it that by the end of the 1940s Presbyterianism was now in the periphery of the American society where it remains today. So insignificant is it, and so outside the mainstream of our lives that the media don’t even bother to register scandals in it anymore. In fact, if we borrow the dispensationalist idea of the rapture, if the Presbyterian churches in America are raptured tonight, hardly anyone will notice their absence the next day. We have become irrelevant and insignificant.
No, worse. We have become salt that has lost its savor. This loss of cultural influence can be only blamed on Presbyterianism itself. Something shot it up to the top of its cultural influence 300 years ago; some spiritual and covenantal value that made it relevant, vibrant, practical, and influential. And if Presbyterianism today is trampled under the feet of men, it must be because that value has been lost.
And I want to talk to you today about the five things Presbyterianism has lost over the last 300 years. As I said, at the end, you may hate me. That’s OK. Hate me or not, though, don’t ignore my words. Give them a day in court. Study history. Study the Bible. You may discover that there is some truth in what I am saying. And perhaps, there is in my words a hint to the solution to our cultural problems, and to the restoration of the prominence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our culture. So, five characteristics, five aspects that were lost, or rather, abandoned, which destroyed our influence. Let’s see what they were.
The first fundamental characteristic – first, because when it was lost, it affected the very concept of the sovereignty of God – were the Charismatic views of the early Presbyterians. Now, if you are a blue blood Presbyterian, born and bred with the Westminster Confession – or, I should say, with the modern interpretations of the Westminster Confession, you would laugh at this statement. You were always taught that the early Reformed were cessationists all the way through, and Charismatics were nowhere to be found at the time except among some heretical Anabaptists and Quakers. I have a surprise from history for you: Cessationism is a fairly novel doctrine in the church, only about 150 years old. Theological cessationism appeared in the church only with the spread of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and systematically developed cessationism came with the rise of dispensationalism.
In the 16th and the 17th centuries the Reformation in Scotland and England was developing steadily, and with the Reformation, the two nations experienced a very high level of prophetic gifts and miraculous experiences. As early as the mid-16th century John Knox and George Wishart delivered prophecies to their nation and were known among their followers and listeners as real prophets of God. Knox was called by his spiritual heirs “the prophet and apostle of our nation,” and Puritan missionaries among the Indians in the American Colonies were known as apostles. Robert Bruce had a healing ministry for epileptics and insane and healed people by laying hands on them and praying for them. The later Covenanters not only acknowledged the validity of the spiritual gifts in our era, they also incorporated their Charismatic views of the Holy Spirit in their documents. In 1998, a discussion panel of the Puritan Reformed Church of Edmonton was charged with the task to study the views of the original Covenanters in respect to the revelatory gifts. It came to the conclusion that not only their views were in favor of the continuing validity of the miraculous gifts today, but also that any denial of that validity – that is, cessationist beliefs – would be a violation of the covenant documents of the Scottish Kirk and is therefore an excommunicable offense. (This means that the majority of today’s Presbyterians and especially the modern so-called “covenanters” would be excommunicated from the original Presbyterian Church.) Samuel Rutherford specifically affirmed the validity of the prophetic gifts, mentioning Luther and Knox among the modern prophets; his only argument against the other Reformed groups was that prophets should prophesy only under ordination, within the church. And even earlier, John Calvin himself said about the only verse in the Bible speaking of cessation of gifts, 1 Cor. 13:8, that it is about the end of the world, and it is STUPID to apply it to an intermediate time.
John Howie’s book, The Scots Worthies, one of the most detailed descriptions of the personal lives of many Scottish Reformers, written in the late 18th century, describes a number of instances of prophetic and miraculous gifts among the Scottish Reformers in the 16th and the 17th centuries. Based on this and other historical evidence of that period, we can safely say that there has been no region and time in the history of Christendom that has seen so many manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit in both miraculous deeds and special revelation; and there is certainly no other nation that has had so much of their individual and social life influenced and guided by special direct prophetic revelation. If even a woman prophetess could enter the highest military council of Cromwell’s generals and deliver a prophecy, and the council took several days conscientiously examining that prophecy, we sure know there were no cessationists in that time. (Read the story of Elizabeth Poole and her visions from God.)
But what about the Westminster Confession? True, it doesn’t specifically defend their Charismatic views. But it’s only because there was nothing to defend them against; there were no cessationists around. But it does contain an acknowledgment of those views: It is in the clause that places “private spirits” on the same level as “decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men,” all to be examined by Scripture. Under modern cessationism, private spirits wouldn’t even be mentioned, let alone examined on the same level as decrees as councils.
Why is this important? Were the early Reformed occult? Did they try to deny the sufficiency of Scripture? No. Their Charismatic views followed from their belief in the Sovereignty of God. God was Sovereign for them not only in an abstract, remote way. As if He has written His Word and has left it to men and their powers to apply it to present use. John Calvin said in his description of the prophetic gift that it is “applying scripture to present use,” and explicitly warned, “it is not just bare interpretation, but special revelation.” God was transcendent, He had a general, canonic revelation for His covenant people; He was also immanent, that is, intimately present and participating directly in everything happening in his church and on the earth. An intimately present God can’t only speak through a remote Word; He must also speak directly in applying that Word to the specific circumstances of the day.
In his book, Systematic Theology, R.J. Rushdoony speaks of the importance of a high doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the relation between Calvinism and the Charismatic doctrines: “A Charismatic emphasis should be highly Calvinistic but it is not normally so. . . . Likewise, those who are Calvinistic and who stress God’s sovereignty should logically be very emphatically given to a high emphasis on the doctrine of the Spirit. This, however, is clearly not the case.” He explains why: “It may be that sovereignty is confused with an exclusive transcendence, so that immanence is seen as a compromise.” I would add: That’s exactly how Enlightenment rationalism and Deism operate: God is only transcendent but never immanent. And when in the mid-19th century Enlightenment rationalism hit the church, and cessationism became the dominant Reformed doctrine, God’s sovereignty was limited to His transcendence. God became an abstract entity who never speaks an immanent word. Man replaced God’s immanence. From being a faith in an immanently present God, Presbyterianism became an abstract doctrine of an abstract God who is silent concerning immanent matters. When it comes to application to present use, man is now who speaks in God’s place.
This leads us to the second important characteristic of early Presbyterianism which is lost today: the principle of plurality of elders. If you are a member of a Presbyterian church, you will jump at this one, “I got you now, Bo, this is not true. Plurality of elders is not abandoned and our church practices is.” Of course, you say it because you think that plurality of elders is having many elders in your church session, and they all make their decisions by voting; so, voilà, you have plurality of elders. Not so quick. Plurality of elders is not in decisions by majority vote. It is in veto by individual dissenters. The purpose of the principle is not giving legitimacy to church rule and government; the purpose is protecting the flock and imposing accountability on the rulers themselves.
I won’t be able to present to you the full case here today; we don’t have enough time. Earlier this year, I spent several months studying the historical Presbyterian and Covenanter practice and theory of church government; and I studied the Books of Church Order and of Discipline of most major Presbyterian organizations in the US today. The main line of my discoveries is presented in an article I posted in my blog, ChristendomRestored.com. The title is, “Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders.” Read that article for more information. My conclusion in it is this: Not only is the principle of plurality of elders abandoned in modern Presbyterianism, it is in fact actively opposed, rejected, and legally stamped out from modern Presbyterianism. It is replaced with a rival principle: the principle of the dictatorship of the majority, or what I call, the “singularity” (as opposed to plurality) of the majority in the session.
The plurality of elders was never meant to mean rule by a majority vote in the session – imposing the will of the majority over dissenting elders. An elder – as an individual elder, not as a member of a collective – in the Bible is a position of authority, and no group of elders was meant to have a greater authority in the government of the church than any individual elder. (Augustine’s principle of the Trinity: no Person is greater than another Person, and no combination of two Persons is greater than the third.)
Plurality of elders involves three separate principles. First is accountability for the session. This one is based on the principle of balance between power and responsibility. If the session has executive power as a body, it must have executive accountability as a body – whether to a higher court (presbytery) or to the congregation. Which means, acts, decisions, and verdicts of a session as a body which are found to be sinful, unjust, or damaging to the church, must lead to sanctions against the session – from restitution (including financial, that is, the elders pay out of their own pockets to the party they have wronged) to collective excommunication for the session as a body.
Second, the spiritual authority of the elders. Each elder must be a man of gifting and ministry that are independent from his institutional power in the church. Only such a man of real spiritual authority would be able to stand alone against the majority in the session to hold them responsible for their actions and protect the flock from tyranny. Just like Paul stood up to Peter and the whole church in Gal. 2. The principle doesn’t allow for faceless bureaucrats; it requires that ordination is only an acknowledgment of already operating authority and ministry, not a creation of a new one.
And third, the power of the dissenting veto. An individual elder must be able to block decisions by the majority which he finds harmful to the health and liberty of the flock. Thus, the session will always be forced to either make corporate decisions by common agreement (no political factions), or, if such an agreement is not possible, work through the individual authority and influence of the individual elders to resolve the situation, not by bureaucratic decree. In addition, that individual dissenting elder must be protected and immune against persecution by the other elders.
These three were at the foundation of the early republican views in the colonies. Those who fought in the Revolutionary War learned republicanism from their local Presbyterian congregations. And this was what made Presbyterianism so important and culturally dominant – one of the factors. The Reformed doctrines of God, man, and society gave America the ideology of liberty which was at the foundation of the Revolution. Presbyterianism gave it the practical ideology of government, implemented and practiced in Presbyterianism for several generations before the Revolutionary War.
These three principles are lost today, and in my article I have shown that plurality of elders has been abandoned even in the very legal documents of the modern Presbyterian denominations. First, modern Presbyterian sessions are not accountable to anyone. At best, they can see their decisions repealed by a higher court; but there are no legal repercussions on a session if those decisions are sinful or unjust, or based on deliberate false witness. Second, elders are elected based on bureaucratic principles, not on the basis of proven authority from God, gifting, or existing ministry. Presbyterian churches today are led by faceless bureaucrats, like a government administration. And third, individual dissenters who dare try to protect the flock against injustice are not only not given a voice, they are also persecuted by the majorities in the sessions. From example for responsible, republican government, Presbyterianism has become an example for tyrannical, irresponsible, oligarchic government.
The third characteristic that was lost was the theonomy of original Presbyterianism. For those who don’t know what the word means, “theonomy” means simply, “God’s Law.” Presbyterianism in its early days was not the pietistic, gnostic, ou-of-this-world truncated doctrine only concerned with our individual salvation, spending countless of hours on the TULIP and on making fancier and fancier verbal description of the same basic truths of salvation, baptisms, predestination, laying on of hands and eternal life. It didn’t have irrelevant seminaries where students spent two years studying obscure topics like “pastoral hermeneutics” or “counseling.” It didn’t have expensive conferences dealing with “tough” questions like “Did Jesus have to die?” or “Do our unconverted loved ones go to heaven or not?”
Instead, it had a world to conquer and reform. And conquering and reforming the world meant that Presbyterianism had to have a comprehensive ethics of how the world is supposed to operate. Ethics not just for the individual man and his personal conduct, but ethics for his institutions as well – family, church, courts, government, military, businesses, taxes, finances, etc. In order to make sense be practically applicable, such ethics had to be consistent across the board: the same moral principles that applied to the individual had to apply to his family, his church, his business and his government. That is, God’s throne among His people was to be based on both righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14). It made no sense to establish ethical boundaries of behavior for an ordinary man, if a man in power could break those rules using his power.
And where is a committed, Bible-believing Christian to find such comprehensive, consistent ethics for both man and his institutions?
That’s right. In the Bible. In the Law of God, where the rules and boundaries of conduct for both man and his institutions are established. The moral law of God – which includes morality both for individuals and institutions – is of continuing validity. The early Reformed groups – and especially the Presbyterians – took it very seriously in shaping the new legal systems of their nations. To understand how seriously they took it, keep in mind that their law books of the time contained both the civil laws and the Biblical verses from the Law of God in the Pentateuch. In England and Scotland in the 17th century, a commentary on Exodus 21-23 became very influential: Johannes Piscator’s Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses. The Westminster Divines quoted Piscator extensively, and laws and judicial decisions were self-consciously modeled on those judicial laws of Moses. Presbyterians in the 17th century – and not only Presbyterians, but also Independents, Baptists – went straight to the Law of God to get informed about the laws of their lands. True, they were not always consistent in the details and in their practical applications. In many cases the legacy of Romanist scholasticism marred their legal interpretations. But officially – and to a great extent in practice – theonomy was the accepted ethical and judicial standard, for both individuals and governments.
This gave the early Reformed churches – and especially Presbyterianism – a level of relevance far above their Romanist opponents. Relevance not in the sense preached by the modern childish parodies of churches and preachers – with focus on certain brands of clothes or music. Relevance in the sense of practical social and legal theory, of encoding the Biblical concept of good and evil in the very fabric of society, both for individuals and for institutions. Again, they didn’t get all the details right. But they got the spirit right, and that made Presbyterianism indispensable as a social force. Just as Calvin as a legal consultant and expert was indispensable for his theological opponents who ruled Geneva, Presbyterians were indispensable for the whole American society throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries; they had the solutions.
And, predictably, when theonomy was dropped, that relevance was lost. Modern “Reformed” seminaries who not only never mention theonomy but train their students to judiciously avoid going to the Law of God when discussing governments and institutions, are only contributing to the increasing irrelevance of modern Presbyterianism.
But law without sanctions is a dead law. And sanctions in the Bible are not only human sanctions but also direct sanctions of God in history. Covenantal sanctions; sanctions that God metes out to people and institutions and communities for their obedience or disobedience to His Law. My favorite example of it is Sunday morning of September 4, 1650, when during church service in Edinburgh, Scotland, a messenger arrived from the battlefield at Dunbar with the news that Oliver Cromwell’s small expeditionary corps had just defeated the much larger and better supplied Scottish army led by the experienced general David Leslie, a man of 20-years military experience on the battlefields of Germany, Sweden, Poland, and Russia. Church ministers in Scotland immediately ascribed the defeat on the moral and judicial failures of Scotland, and called the nation to repentance. Granted, they may have judged wrongly on some failures, and may have failed to acknowledge others. But in their covenant theology they had no doubt that sanctions in history are indicative of God’s judgment – positive or negative – on a nation.
For these early Reformed, God was intimately close and involved not only in a Charismatic way – directly revealing specific applications of His Word to the present circumstances. He was also intimately present in a covenantal way – in correcting nations, or rewarding them, depending on their obedience of disobedience to His Law. History was the history of God’s covenant with man, both individually and corporately. And therefore society was an inescapable member of God’s covenant – with its duties and privileges under that covenant. And not only privileges, but also punishments.
This gave early Presbyterians a very clear and systematic way of interpreting history, one that was present in Christian thought as early as Athanasius and Augustine who saw history as God’s court and verdict on mankind and on the city of man. It was never developed, though, until John Calvin in his sermons presented a very systematic, covenantal reading of Deuteronomy 28; the chapter which lays out the blessings or curses of God on a nation for obedience or disobedience. The Puritans and the Presbyterians took the systematics from Calvin and developed it into a philosophy of history. History now had meaning. And, as we will see later, the future had meaning. And whoever can explain the past, controls the future.
Between the 17th century and today, this covenant view of history has been lost. It is not just lost, it is actively opposed in the “Reformed” seminaries. Meredith Kline, of the most influential theological voices in the “Reformed” seminaries of the second half of the 20th century, specifically insisted that history doesn’t present any discernible pattern or connection between covenantal obedience or disobedience and covenantal sanctions. His specific words about the course of history were: “. . . prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious wisdom.” History, that is, doesn’t mean anything for modern Presbyterianism. Yes, it is controlled by God, but from a human point of view that control is mysterious and abstract; and it contains nothing of covenantal value. Presbyterianism has lost its view of history, and therefore it has lost its ability to change and direct history.
Once that view of history is lost, the view of the future is lost. And specifically, the optimistic view of the future. Early Presbyterians and Puritans were known for their bright, unapologetic postmillennial optimism. Iain Murray wrote his book The Puritan Hope about the Puritans, but the same spirit and optimism was shared by the Presbyterians as well. We cannot understand the theological, missional, economic, political, technological, business, social, and other developments in Presbyterianism in the 18th and the 19th centuries without their belief in a history that progresses to greater and greater influence of the Gospel in the world’s affairs, and culminates in the final victory of the Gospel in all the world before Christ comes. Naturally, if God punishes the wicked in history, and if He rewards the righteous in history, then history will see more and more success for the covenant-keepers and more and more defeat for the covenant-breakers. If history is a manifestation of the judgment of God, then it is also a manifestation of the victory of the Gospel and of Christ’s redemption.
It is commonly assumed that the present determines the future. Reality is opposite to this belief; the truth is that the future determines the present. The expectations of the future of a person, group, or society, determine the actions of that person, group, or society today. And when there are positive, optimistic expectations of the future, then men will cut their consumption today and invest in the future. And will prosper economically, intellectually, politically, and in many other ways. And will be culturally dominant.
Thus, postmillennial hope and optimism helped early Presbyterians to prosperity in everything they did, and helped their societies prosper. It was not the fake financial prosperity of the modern day fiat money systems. It was the real, substantial, social, intellectual, and also economic prosperity of the covenant of God.
As late as 1909, Presbyterian missionaries were confident that the world is ripe for the Gospel, and that the Gospel will bring not only personal conversion but also conversion of whole cultures. Find the book Students and the Present Missionary Crisis, a collection of lectures and reports of missionaries to the Student Society for World Missions in 1909. You may be surprised by their expectations and optimism. The PDF of the book is free online.
And this has also changed. After 1910, pessimism gradually crept into the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, and by the 1930s the majority of Presbyterian seminaries were officially amillennial or premillennial in their eschatology. (J. Gresham Machen was the last postmillennialist of the older generation.)
To wrap it up, for the last 3 centuries, Presbyterianism lost (1) its view of God sovereignty in God’s direct involvement in guiding His covenant people; God became an abstract entity, and man’s interpretations and application of God’s Word to present use became dominant; (2) its doctrine of government; from republican government where those in authority had a greater accountability than everyone else, it became an oligarchic government of bureaucrats who force accountability on everyone else but not on themselves; (3) its doctrine of the present validity of the Law of God as the only Biblical comprehensive and consistent ethics for individuals and governments; (4) its covenant theology, the doctrine of God’s Covenant as the frame for all history, and God as constantly and intimately involved in judging people and cultures in history; and (5) its postmillennial optimism which gave it the energy to look to the future with hope and confidence, and invest accordingly.
And today, Presbyterianism is not even a pale shadow of its former glory. If a person doesn’t know history, there is nothing in modern Presbyterianism that can tell him that just 100 years ago it was the central influence on the American culture. Nothing whatsoever. It is the perfect modern example of salt that has lost its savor, and was thrown out and is trampled under the feet of men.
The book we will assign for reading today is by Ben House, a historian and Presbyterian pastor, the title is, Punic Wars and Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching. The book is a collection of essays on different periods of history, and the cultural lessons for our own experience today. Ben House is a history buff and he is amazingly capable of mining historical details and finding their rightful place in the big covenantal picture of history. This book is both delightful and instructive for true Christian Reconstructionists.
And don’t forget to pray and support my work in Bulgaria. As far as it lies with me, I am committed to not only learn the lessons from history but also apply them to my mission field, so that my heirs in Bulgaria do not make the same mistakes American Presbyterianism made in the last 300 years. That’s why we are building an intellectual foundation through translating the right books in Bulgarian. Pary for this work, and also, visit bulgarianreformation.com, and donate to help our efforts of placing these books in the hands of Bulgarian Christians. God bless you all.