This is why so many Presbyterians treat the Westminster Divines the way most Americans regard the founders — these are the heroic founders of our religious and political institutions. Noting the problems and flaws that haunted these folks is not what most people want to hear. They’d rather contemplate the genius, commitment, and courage that led to the triumph of good over bad
Over at Vintage 73 (a nostalgic name?), a PCA blog, Bobby Griffith reflects on the communion’s 40th anniversary and cautions about nostalgia.
As we meet together as the 40th General Assembly, there will likely be a resolution or some sort of commemoration that recognizes the date. Surely, there will be a few in attendance who were commissioners to that first Assembly, back when we were the National Presbyterian Church. Those things are great, an Ebenezer, if you will.
However, we must resist the temptation to believe the past was so much better. We cannot let ourselves think that only theological issues led to our founding. We cannot let ourselves believe that first assembly spoke with 100% unity and all the commissioners shared all the same opinions and had the same reasons to be there when they were. . . .
When we attempt to use the past for our agenda, instead of a guide, we run the risk of distorting it with nostalgia. We make cotton candy. Something that is sweet but empty. Nostalgia causes us to ignore the things that make us look bad because we want heroes and triumph. We want something to live up to.
Of course, Griffiths has a point. One of my frustrations (all about me) as a historian is that lots of students and church folk enjoy historical study for its inspirational value. This is why so many Presbyterians treat the Westminster Divines the way most Americans regard the founders — these are the heroic founders of our religious and political institutions. Noting the problems and flaws that haunted these folks is not what most people want to hear. They’d rather contemplate the genius, commitment, and courage that led to the triumph of good over bad.
At the same time, Griffiths’ point needs to be seriously qualified if he is to avoid a form of egalitarianism that always leads to relativism. To say that the PCA was not uniform, always pure, or even good looking at its founding is not the same as saying that the church then was no better than the PCA today. Griffith appears to want to avoid an assessment that might lead some to conclude that the PCA is in decline from its founding. If I were in the PCA I’d also like to avoid that conclusion.
But is the way around this to recognize the flaws in every moment of church history and refuse to give any kind of grade? If that were the case, then the PCA should not have bet so many chips on Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC. For that kind of backing — using TKNY and Redeemer as a model for home missions and home missionaries — puts into motion a nostalgia for the good old days of Tim Keller’s wonder working ministry in The Big Apple.
D. G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. Darryl blogs, along with his partner in the venture, John Muether, at Old LIfe where this article first appeared. It is used with permission.