A startling statistic came to my attention recently while reading a history of American Presbyterianism called Seeking a Better Country. In 1776, Presbyterians accounted for 25 percent of the American population. By 2001, that number had plunged to just 2.7 percent (p. 259-260).
Of course the kingdom of God is much bigger than Presbyterianism, and I am happy to acknowledge it, but there is a reason why I am a Presbyterian pastor: I believe Presbyterianism is the best (though not a perfect) expression of Biblical Christianity. So this Presbyterian plunge is a concern to me.
But this begs a question – what does it mean to be Presbyterian? Some Presbyterians are as liberal as you can imagine (often found in the PCUSA), and some are as conservative as you can imagine (often found in the PCA, but more so in the OPC). Some historians would explain the decrease in Presbyterian membership by saying there is no distinct Presbyterian identity.
Much of this goes back to the 19th century, when there was a split between “Old School” Presbyterians and “New School” Presbyterians. Tim Keller has written a helpful overview of this historical development here.
Old School Presbyterianism
The Old School was concerned about maintaining strict adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith; upholding strong commitment to the five points of Calvinism; embracing something called the “spirituality of the church,” which teaches that the church should stay out of secular and civil matters.
An Old School Presbyterian might say something like this: “It has always been the tendency of the church to slide into apostasy and heresy, and the only way to avoid this is for the church to be zealous for doctrinal precision. The church’s responsibility is not to get sidetracked or entangled in cultural or societal issues, but to preach the Gospel in all its purity and sanctify the church.”
New School Presbyterianism
The New School, on the other hand, was more interested in working for social reforms; they were Calvinistic, but willing to allow for more wiggle room when it came to the Westminster Confession; they were “revivalistic,” which means they placed a stronger emphasis on calling people to a “conversion experience;” and they were much more willing to work alongside Christians of other traditions.
A New School Presbyterian might say something like this: “It has always been the tendency of the church to withdraw from the world while the lost perish, and the only way to avoid this is for the church to be zealous for conversions and cultural change. The church’s responsibility is not to get sidetracked or entangled in theological minutia, but to impact the world and reach the lost with the Gospel.”
My question: what kind of Presbyterian are you? What are the advantages of both schools? Is there room in the PCA for both?