The Spirituality of the Church: How Old School Are You?


One of the books that kept me company on vacation was Hart’s Seeking A Better Country. On page 223 he briefly delineates what the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (what some might call the Reformed version of Lutheran two-kingdom doctrine) is according to the Old School line of thought:

“Among the most significant features of the southern version of the Old School was its emphasis on the spirituality of the church. Championed by James H. Thornwell, the doctrine would outlive his death in 1862. Southern Presbyterians saw the church’s task as preaching the gospel, trusting that the Holy Spirit would regenerate sinners by His Word and build them up in Christ. The church was not commissioned to make the world a better place in which to live. It had no business telling the government how to rule the body politic. It was not to feed the hungry, or provide houses for the homeless, or protest social injustice. These political and social temptations only distracted the church from its spiritual calling.” 

If we take the SOTC seriously it would seem that the church is an equal-opportunity killjoy when it comes to one cause or another, regardless of whatever shades of blue and red they come in. But survey the circles of those would likely call themselves conservative religionists who might jump at the sound of “Old School,” and one wonders just how to reconcile that with PCA and OPC circles forging General Assembly declarations against abortion, homosexual marriage and women in the military.

Lest we become too perplexed, we seem to come by this apparent contradiction honestly enough. A few pages later Hart also briefly sketches the debate that centered around one Professor James Woodrow (1828-1907) who, despite his earlier opposition to evolution, came to embrace the theory calling it “mediate creation.” What’s more compelling here than the popular center-ring of human ancestry that questions of evolution always seem to devolve into is the meta-narrative that has implications for ecclesiastical mission:

“Throughout the course of the investigation of his views, many of the charges against Woodrow entailed ecclesiastical pronouncements about scientific theory. That those pronouncements themselves violated the spirituality of the church was an inconsistency not lost among Woodrow’s supporters. Nor for that matter did observers in the North overlook the irony of a chair of natural science at a southern Presbyterian seminary.” (Italics mine.)

It seems that being distracted by the cares of this world have afflicted even those who would readily identify themselves with “Old School.” But take heart. Referring to the cares of conservative Presbyterians who seem more conservative than Presbyterian, marked more by a particular ideology than theology as they strive to help make sure Adam and Steve remain permanently single and that Jane mayn’t fly fighter jets, Hart suggests a remnant might still abide:

“Silenced in the noise of the debate was the voice of Presbyterian restraint that opted for conscientious objection from enlistment in the culture wars.”

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22 Responses to The Spirituality of the Church: How Old School Are You?

  1. Rick says:

    Do you not see “copywrite” watermarked on that photo?

    On topic: A quote from Horton’s GOP is coming to mind right now… but I don’t want to misquote him so I’ll have to wait to respond. It has to do with the Southern Presby’s and slavery.

  2. adam says:

    Hi Steve, I think rationale for those petitions to the civil authorities would be WCF 31.4, with the goal of reminding the civil magistrate of their responsibility to protect life. The LCMS, has also made similar petitions to civil authorities, so they’ve somehow managed to reconcile that with their two-kingdom theology.

    WSC Q. 68. What is required in the sixth commandment?

    A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.

    WLC Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?

    A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

  3. Zrim says:


    I take it you mean the GA declarations concerning abortion, since men in cockpits don’t exactly preserve life.

    So, if the forms you quote have something directly and obviously to do with the decisions of 1973 where are the declarations against institutional policies that some would argue perpetuate death for impoverished (ex vitro) youth and elderly? What exactly does “protect life” mean? Does it have anything to do with things happening in the Congo, the desert, Malaysia, our own inner cities? Where does it end?

    Why does Roe get the lion’s share of religio-moral indignation to the point of violating the SOTC? Once you start pronouncing about anything you have to pronounce about everything. And let’s just be honest: these things run down completely obvious cultural, social, moral and political lines. It is always ironic to me how we pick up on the slightest whiff of somebody else’s religiously baptized politics but become conveniently olafactorily-challenged when “ours” might get the limelight.

    Re the LCMS, similar declarations and 2K, one might say it was less a reconciliation and more a betrayal.

  4. adam says:

    Hi Steve,

    I can’t say for sure why the Congo doesn’t get much traction, but I think the elders most likely believe abortion in proximate terms represents the most egregious example of our government today sanctioning the violation of the sixth commandment, therefore the church speaks prophetically to the civil authority (WCF 31.4).

    On the whole question of pro-life, WSC 69 says the sixth commandment requires “all lawful endeavers” to preserve our own life and that of others, so it’s hard for me to see how engaging in fully legal actions designed to protect the unborn would be unconfessional? I’m sure there’s much more that could be done toward “protecting and defending the innocent” as WLC 135 puts it, but it’s hard to imagine a confessional stance consistent with WLC 134, 135 & 135, WSC 67 & 68 demanding we do less.

  5. Zrim says:


    I think that is a fairly naive interpretation of what is going on amongst we religionists. I simply cannot look at what certain pronoucements are made and say that it isn’t fairly compromised by particular politics that are beyond the pale of normal human frailties, that we are being held captive by a certain political-correctness and moralism.

    Let me ask you this: since abortion (the way we understand that term in 21st century America) is such an egregious thing that it demands this level of ecclesiastical attention, what voice do those of us who think it has more to do with jurisdiction that morality and ethics have? What about those of us who think the “egregious problem” with Roe was that it said state’s can’t make it illegal? You do realize that to “overturn Roe” (the lingo of anti-abortionists) literally would mean to give states the power to decide for themselves, which means some states would outlaw it and some wouldn’t. I say that’s better than federal-moralism one way or another. Right now the feminist-moralists have won the day. I wouldn’t cheer to see fetus-moralists win.

    Nevertheless, as much as that is my own quibble when asked, I would still see it as a violation of the SOTC to make ecceslaisatical declaration about the judicial decisions of Roe. That’s my quibble as a secular citizen. My inner believer tells my inner citizen to go stuff it when he gets it in his misguided head to lower a religious boom on the magistrate to return power to the states.

    Yes, that is a way of calling the Elders misguided. When you say “Well, I guess the Elders just deem it egregious enough,” like Holly Hunter told Nick Cage, “That’s no answer, that ain’t no answer.”

  6. Darryl Hart says:

    Zrim: for the record, the way Susie has two moms, Seeking a Better Country has two authors, John Muether and me. BTW, it’s a heck of an index.

  7. Zrim says:


    Does it help that my other bit of company was Meuther’s CVT bio? From what I could tell, SBC sure had your imprint all over it.

  8. Darryl Hart says:

    Zrim, it does help but you should know that John and I both speak Old School fluently.

  9. Zrim says:


    Yes, you’re both crystal clear.

    Speaking of writing, reading, Muether and Old School, how’s that thesis from Millward coming? Muether suggested he develop the idea of “worship as a fourth mark of the true church.”

  10. Chris says:

    It was not to feed the hungry, or provide houses for the homeless, or protest social injustice.

    How do you define “It”? The magisterium (yes, we Protestants have them)? Both it and the flock? Do you mean that pastors ought not be involved in such endeavors? What if it was one lay person? How about two? More? What if doing such things occured between 6 and 11 am on Wednesday mornings? Would that be too distracting?

    Shameless plug here: The September issue of a certain magazine has Horton and Gordon writing for it. And while I certainly agree with (especially) Gordon’s sentiments on the culture wars, I don’t necessarily think it precludes the point I was getting at in the previous paragraph.

  11. Zrim says:


    It may have helped Darryl to use personal pronouns instead of neutered ones.

    The church and her mission seem to be one and the same.

    “Do you mean that pastors ought not be involved in such endeavors?”

    No, to my mind, it’s not that they may be involved but how. This distinction seems quite unobserved anymore. After all, every pastor also has a dual citizenship and he may do as he will when it comes to the KoM. He just needs to remember the burden of his office, which is simply different from your or mine. And that burden is that he speaks for the church both in and out of the pulpit (no fair hiding behind the plea that he never brings politics into the pulpit–his pulpit follows him everywhere).

    “What if it was one lay person?”

    Go ahead. Just don’t tell me truer piety would join “you.” I might disagree with your whole program about what it means to “protest social injustice.” I just might think the pro-life movement is a project to punish, institutionally and culturally, particular (sexual) sinners; same for efforts to make sure Adam and Steve stay permanantly single. I might go to work for Planned Parenthood instead of Women’s Resource Centers, but I doubt it since I am not much of a moralist.

    “How about two? More?”

    It doesn’t matter how many laity get together, go ahead, feel free. But I have found that sinners are more vulnerable to group-think when they do, especially when they are also religionists, who get more comfy with what “cause” is implied by true piety and which isn’t. I am more comfortable when secularists get together over these things than religionists.

    “What if doing such things occured between 6 and 11 am on Wednesday mornings? Would that be too distracting?”

    What one does is up to him; how he does it is up to his non/office; when he does it is a question of six days/Sabbath. So I don’t care when one does what he conscience dictates during his six days. On Sunday attend to the needs of your own believing homeless, hungry and downtrodden. And if you feel guilty for not taking up some moralistic cause during your six days remember that God has given you plenty to take care of anyway in your ordinary life, unexciting as it may be. Taking up causes is more American than Christian. After all it’s easy to be hard.

    Re your last paragraph, it is way too enigmatic to respond to, I suppose. I have no idea what Gordon’s point is on the culture wars, etc. But be encouraged to alert the OH when it all goes to print.

  12. Chris says:

    Sorry about that. Reading this site, I would’ve thought for sure you’d be tapping into Gordon constantly.

    You know, I’m generally satisfied with your commentary on Hart’s statement. For my part, I’d much rather be working with a mix of secularists in any number of “causes.” There’s less temptation to suffer under the delusion that were “ushering in the kingdom of God.”

  13. Zrim says:


    But I’ll see your satisfaction and raise a point: “causes,” as we understand that term, is still a problem. To me, it still carries with it notions of said ushering. I think it’s in our American DNA to see ourselves, secularists and religionists alike, to be over-realizing our tasks. “Causes” seem to be about fooling ourselves into believing we are actually changing something, and, of course, always for the better (we never seem to allow that our actions might make things worse).

    When I consider my own life, I do a heckuva lot more maintaining than changing anything. And I am hardly influential–I can barely get my drive through orders to come back to me right or my kids to take my advice…what makes me think I can make the world a better place? I wonder how much “causes” owe to our understanding of just how ineffectual we really are.

  14. Chris says:

    Yeah, I was just using the word you proffered. I’ve never, ever used “cause” to describe anything I’ve been involved in. Personally, I like agenda; it narrows it down a bit and gives it just the right amount of subjectivity to knock it down a level or three.

    I just watched An Unreasonable Man the other day. It’s amazing to think of how affected our lives are on account of this one man. For the better or worse? The bad cancels out the good? I’m not exactly sure, but I tend to think not.

  15. Zrim says:

    Well, I guess I find the words to be synonymous. “Cause, agenda,” “potato, potahto.” When we say someone “has an agenda” it usually is meant to signal suspicion, and I think for good reason.

    I just read something on Nader the other day. It was about his work in 1970. The only thing that caught my immediate interest was that I was born in 1970 (how’s that for narcissism?). While it likely is undeniable that he has had an effect, I’ll leave it to others to judge the effects of his effect. The thing about actually changing things that effects humanity on a large scale is that very few of us probably do that. The rest of us seem to like to think we have a share in it.

  16. Chris says:

    …it usually is meant to signal suspicion, and I think for good reason.

    Exactly my point. Whereas “cause” presumes too much (positively); “agenda” brings it down to the real world. What did Jesus mean (among other things, to be sure) when he said, “Repent, and follow me”? Well, “Turn from your own way, and follow my agenda instead.”

    Regarding 1970, from the looks of your profile pic, you must have been an “early bloomer.”

  17. Zrim says:


    I guess that’s why I am not much for Eugene Peterson (i.e “The Message”): I’d rather take Jesus at his word about his “way” than his “agenda.” “Way” seems much more counter-intuitive than “agenda,” which sounds way too American for me…sounds like I have to get to work instead of receiving work.

    Re the pic, that’s my father, the Lapsed Episcopalian, circa 1974. It’s a beloved family image. I stole both his nickname (“Zrim”) and his image for the purposes of blogging. It’s my pathetic attempt to be half the man he is one day.

  18. Chris says:

    …sounds like I have to get to work instead of receiving work.

    Bingo. But there’s no real reason to introduce a bifurcation. Listen, I don’t like the notion of getting to work any more than the next (lazy) guy, but, well, you know where I’m going. I wish it were all “receiving”; I really do.

  19. Johnny Yesno says:


    I understood the point you were trying to make before, but this…

    What the hell are you doing? You’d be OK working w the abortion propaganda machine? And don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.

    I usually agree w you most definitely, but this is ridiculous.


  20. Johnny Yesno says:

    The quote was:

    “I might go to work for Planned Parenthood instead of Women’s Resource Centers…”

  21. Zrim says:


    I’m pretty sure I know where you’re going. And I appreciate the temptation to lay my point at the feet of laziness at best or antinomianism at worst. But you’re speaking with a conventional Heidelberger here who understands (or at least likes to think he does) the nature of and relationship between indicatives and imperatives. I have no beef with work, I just want it properly contextualized. And “agenda” still throws up red flags which seem to work against (pun kinda intended) all this.

  22. Zrim says:

    Hi Johnny,

    Well, my point actually ended up cancelling out both propaganda machines; I’m no fan of either. I have Christian friends who work for both–they have more in common with each other than either do with me. WRCs are also propaganda machines, and don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.

    The great advantage, I think, in not being a moralist of any stripe, including a socio-political one, and instead being a Calvinist, is to be able to assess a bit more soberly and honestly just what is going on.

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