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The Practical Implications of Old School Presbyterianism

volume 19, number 28, July 2, 2020

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day.” -John 6:44

Without question the Great Awakening in Colonial America, between 1735 and 1770, was Calvinistic to the core. That is, the belief of all the preachers, whether they were Presbyterians (men like William and Gilbert Tennent, John and Samuel Blair, John Roan, Samuel Finley, and Samuel Davies), Congregationalists (like Jonathan Edwards), or Anglicans (like George Whitefield) was that God is absolutely sovereign in all the affairs life, including one’s eternal salvation, and that fallen man is totally and thoroughly corrupted in mind, heart, and will due to the imputation of Adam’s sin. This means that no one is ever able to call upon the name of the Lord to be saved unless God draws him by the convicting and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. This is clearly stated by Jesus in John 6:44 and the Apostle Paul (Rom. 3:10-18, 8:28-32, 9:1-19, Eph.1:3-14, 2:1-10). 

We saw in last week’s post[1] that the above mentioned Presbyterians were New Side. That is, they embraced the revival, believing in the power of the Holy Spirit to give new life in Christ to anyone at any time. They fully subscribed to their doctrinal standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and they believed in preaching the terrors of the law, showing people their utterly lost condition and then preaching Christ crucified, calling men everywhere to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The year 1789 was prominent for several reasons. George Washington was inaugurated as our first President, the godless French Revolution began in July in the storming of the Bastille by anarchists, and the Presbyterian Church was formally established in Philadelphia. By this time there was a very rapid, westward expansion from New England and New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania where thousands of people were migrating to upstate and western New York, all the way to Ohio. Presbyterians had a problem. Due to their requirements of a theologically well educated clergy, there was a vast shortage of ordained Presbyterian ministers. By 1800 the Presbyterian Church had 419 churches but only 111 pastors, and by 1803 they had 511 churches. Since both the Congregational Churches of New England and the Presbyterian Church subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith the two denominations agreed in 1801 to the Plan of Union in which both denominations would share resources in order to plant churches and supply pastors in what was then called the Western region of our country.   

Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards and the President of Yale (1795 to 1830), was used powerfully of God to bring revival and hundreds of conversions in the Yale chapel services at which Dwight regularly preached. The problem, however, was that he was a little loose on his doctrine of man. He departed to some degree from his grandfather’s strong Calvinistic belief in the total inability of man to believe on Christ without the work of the Spirit drawing him. One of Dwight’s best pupils was Nathaniel William Taylor who in 1822 became the first professor of the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. Taylor taught that human sinfulness arises from sinful acts, not from a sinful nature inherited from Adam in his fall into sin. Taylor argued that all people have a “power to the contrary” when faced with the choice to follow or reject Christ as Savior and Lord. That is, man can resist the electing grace of God unto salvation. Thus Taylor departed from the old Calvinism in at least two very important places—he denied the imputation of Adam’s sin and he believed in “free will.” 

This teaching began to seep into the Presbyterian Church through Taylor who was training Congregational ministers who were serving alongside Presbyterians in the Western region. Thus the 18th century New Side Presbyterian movement was by the 1820’s deeply infected with false doctrine. Increasingly many Presbyterians, including Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander of Princeton Seminary, James Henley Thornwell of Columbia Seminary in South Carolina, and R.L. Dabney of Union Seminary in Virginia were sounding the alarm on these heresies. Matters digressed from bad to worse when Princeton trained Presbyterian pastor Albert Barnes blatantly denied the imputation of original sin from Adam in a sermon entitled “The Way of Salvation” which he preached in 1829.[2] Charges of heresy were brought upon Barnes but he was never found guilty. Meanwhile at the same time the controversial Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney popularized the “New Divinity”. Even the esteemed Lyman Beecher who originally sided with orthodox Asahel Nettleton against Finney, did a “180” and supported Finney and Barnes. Hodge, Thornwell, and others like them began to be called “Old School” Presbyterians while Barnes, Finney, and others were known as “New School.” These issues were tied up in the church courts for several years but at the General Assembly meeting in 1837 the majority “Old School” Presbyterians voted to revoke the Plan of Union and dismissed presbyteries and synods in New York state and the upper midwest (mainly Ohio). Twenty-eight presbyteries, 509 ministers, and 60,000 church members were removed from the Presbyterian Church. This action had to be ratified at the 1838 General Assembly being held at the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Things got ugly very quickly. The Old School men took all the seats in the front of the church and the Old School moderator refused to recognize any New School men who wished to speak to the issue. Finally the New School men went to the back of the church to hold their own General Assembly. It became obvious that both groups could not conduct their business in the same room so the New School men left and conducted their business at the First Presbyterian Church. Thus came the Presbyterian Church split in 1838 on the issue of the New Haven Theology, also known as the New Divinity. The Old School Presbyterians, men like Hodge, Alexander, Dabney, Thornwell, and Nettleton, believed in the old time revival of the 18th century Great Awakening along with full subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. New School men like Barnes, Finney, and Samuel Cox ignored the Westminster Confession of Faith and denied original sin and embraced free will. They also were political activists. 

Well perhaps you have learned a few things you did not know, but surely you are asking, “So what? What difference do these divisions of nearly two hundred years ago have to do with us today?” Ah, my friends. They are intensely practical. Doctrine matters. Church polity matters. The Presbyterian Church should have never entered a Plan of Union with the Congregational denomination. Their views of church government were quite different. Whether you agree with the Old School men or not, the simple fact is that they believed Presbyterian, representative, elder rule is Biblical. They saw it on every page of the New Testament. I will have more to say about Presbyterian polity in the future. By joining with the Congregationalists they allowed the aberrant theology to enter their church with deadly consequences. 

And the New Haven Theology’s denial of the imputation of Adam’s sin was not only a violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith but also of Scripture (Ps.51:1-6, Rom.5:12ff). This led to the idea that man is not as bad as he could be, that he is not throughly corrupt, that he has some measure of ability in himself to “decide” for Christ. This led to a change in their view of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement. Until that time Presbyterians and the Puritans before them believed in “penal substitutionary atonement,” meaning that the just wrath and condemnation of God hangs over every unconverted sinner and that only Christ’s death and resurrection in our place can assuage or satisfy that righteous judgment. In the place of penal substitution the New School men taught the moral or governmental theory of the atonement, meaning that Christ’s death shows the way God feels about sin but since there is no imputation of Adam’s sin on people then there is likewise no need for Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to people. This ripped the guts out of the gospel. From there men like Finney and many evangelists who followed him in the 19th and 20th centuries have failed to stress the inability of man to call on the name of the Lord, teaching that the unregenerate man has the “ace” card, that he is the one who makes the decision. Therefore in this scenario it is incumbent on the evangelist to use “new methods” to get a decision for Christ. Consequently modern day evangelicalism in America has millions of professing Christians who live as fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, liars, thieves, drunkards, and porn addicts and still call themselves Christians. After all, they decided for Christ, didn’t they?

Vanguard Presbytery, the new denomination of which I am now a member, repudiates New School Presbyterianism. We stand firmly in line with the Old School Presbyterians like Hodge and Thornwell, men who believed in revival and the work of the Holy Spirit but who also unashamedly embraced full subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith.    

1.<> The Practical Implications of New Side Presbyterianism June 25, 2020

2. <> Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, Part 5: The Plan of Union, 1801, D.G. Hart and John R. Meuther. 

2 thoughts on “The Practical Implications of Old School Presbyterianism

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  1. Maybe it’s my SBC upbringing showing, but while I agree that denying the imputation of sin (what some name “Original Sin”) is a heresy, I’m not convinced that “free will” doctrine rises to that level; As commonly taught I’d call it an error, sure, but am not sure that holding it actually damns the eternal soul (some just don’t realize how little they did to effect their salvation, but are not therefore unsaved). That’s where I’d draw the line between heresy and “mere” error– errors aren’t liable to damn the erroneous as heresies can and do damn the heretic.


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