Denominational downfall redux

Gary North is perhaps best known for making bad Y2K predictions and Christian reconstructionist views. However, even critics speak highly of his 1000+ page, 1996 history of the liberal takeover of the northern Presbyterian Church, Crossed Fingers (the whole thing is online here). I have yet to read anything but excerpts — so many books, so little time — but take a look at this brief excerpt from an old review. See if it sounds familiar:

By the mid-1800s, three theological factions were visible within American Presbyterianism: (1.) the Old School, with its characteristic emphasis on doctrine and scholarship; (2.) the New School, with its emphasis on experience, heavily influenced by Arminian evangelism; (3.) religious modernists, who were undermining the authority of the Bible. By the end of the conflict, in the early 1900s, these groups were typified by the familiar labels of Calvinists, fundamentalists, and liberals. … By reuniting with the New School [in 1869 after the Civil War], the Old School made it impossible for Calvinistic doctrine to be enforced in the church. On the principle of the “lowest common denominator,” the New School would, in practical terms, set the standards of enforcement in the church [i.e. looser subscription to the church’s confessions].

Now, one characteristic of the experiential party was their aversion to conflict. Since their desire was to get on with the mission of church with a minimum of fuss over doctrinal precision, they did not want to be troubled by the discord inherent in heresy trials. Thus, the newly united church rarely took notice of the subversive activities among the denomination’s seminary professors. It took an infraction of grave proportions, stated in an inflammatory manner, to elicit judicial action in the church. The case of Charles Briggs was notable example of how far a man could go, in denying the doctrine of scripture, before the church would take decisive action. In the case of Briggs, even the Old School was guilty of foot-dragging. … That failure to act decisively was an indication that the war was already lost.

… [T]he war was lost on the basis of judicial authority. The outcome turned upon the inability of the orthodox party to impose negative sanctions upon heretics. North observes that the tactical error of the Old School was to allow issues to devolve into merely academic disputes conducted in theological journals.

The academic cast of the Old School played itself out in a predictable manner: “The conservatives were content to accept the language of orthodoxy rather than substance.”

This entry was posted in History, Ills. Bookmark the permalink.