Why Vanguard Presbytery is Both New Light and Old School

            In Mark 12:30, Jesus answered the query of a scribe who asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” with a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” I like J. A. Alexander’s comments on this verse:

There is no need of attempting any nice distinction between heart and soul and mind, the obvious design of the accumulated synonymes being to exhaust the one idea of the whole man with all his powers and affections.[1]

The heart and the mind are not in conflict with one another. The truth that is understood by our minds will find a welcome reception in the heart of every godly person. It is impossible to divorce the love of God from either our hearts or our minds if our love is sincere. The true love of God is comprehensive. It is a full-orbed love that spills out in every part of our being. We love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. When there is an apparent disconnect between our minds and our hearts, the problem is that we do not have a full-orbed, comprehensive love of God.

New Light Presbyterianism and Old School Presbyterianism, therefore, are not two different systems that somehow have to be melded together into one seamless position. Rather, they are emphases that were necessary at a particular time in the history of the Church in order to protect the truth. In 1741, the New Lights had to protect the revival known as the Great Awakening and experiential religion. In 1838, the Old School Presbyterians had to protect the orthodoxy of the Presbyterian Church. We might distinguish the two movements in terms of their primary focus, but we have to remember that both were simply responding to the various attacks on the Scripture that they faced in their days. The New Light Presbyterians were ardently faithful to the Westminster Confession of Faith even though they are known for emphasizing revival, evangelism, and experiential religion. For instance, here are the titles of several sermons by various New Light Presbyterian ministers that are included in Archibald Alexander’s Sermons of the Log College:  “The Justice of God” by Gilbert Tennent; “Treatise on the Doctrine of Predestination” by Samuel Blair; “The Principles of Sin and Holiness” by Robert Smith; “An Essay on the Means of Grace” by John Blair; “The Madness of Mankind” By Samuel Finley; “Regeneration Opened” by John Tennent. I have read these sermons and they are thoroughly Calvinistic as well as being experiential. The New Lights were both doctrinal and practical, both Calvinistic and experiential, because they loved the Lord with all their heart and all their soul and all their mind and all their strength. I could give further examples from the sermons of Samuel Davies (someone that I know a little bit about) to show that he emphasized both sound doctrine and experiential religion also.

So, what about the Old School Presbyterians? They were sound theologically, but were they also in favor of experiential religion and revival? The Old School Presbyterians opposed the revivalism of the New School movement under Charles Finney, Albert Barnes, and others. For that reason, it is sometimes thought that they were more like the Old Light Presbyterians of 1741 who opposed or, at least, were skeptical of the Great Awakening. Such an assessment is overly simplistic. As I have shown in other emails, the Great Awakening, though not perfect nor always pure, was on the whole a God-centered revival which swept hundreds of thousands of souls into the kingdom of God on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, the Second Great Awakening under Charles Finney and others was mostly a man-centered movement that depended on unscriptural means to try to work up a revival. The Great Awakening was God-centered. The Second Great Awakening was mostly man-centered. The Great Awakening was a movement of the Holy Spirit. The Second Great Awakening was a movement to work up a revival apart from the Holy Spirit through man-made measures. Thus, the Old School Presbyterians were right in opposing the revivalism of the New School Presbyterians. Yet, there was another problem with the New School Presbyterians. They were lax on their subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and that looseness allowed many theological errors to creep into their theology.  So, can we say that the Old School Presbyterians were for the right views on both theology and revival? I certainly think so. Some of the greatest theological works ever written were from the pens of Old School Presbyterians such as Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney, Robert Breckinridge, William S. Plumer, John L. Girardeau, and others. Experiential Christianity was set forth both in sermons and various works from the pens of Givens Strickler, C. R. Vaughn, Moses Drury Hoge, William S. Plumer, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, John Holt Rice, and others. The Old School Presbyterians were committed to evangelism, evangelistic preaching, and praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So, it would be a mistake to drive a wedge between the New Light Presbyterians and the Old School Presbyterians. They were both committed to Calvinism of the mind and heart. They were both committed to sound doctrine and what J. C. Ryle titled one of his books, Practical Religion. Having been a Christian for over 50 years, I do not see how any true believer can be committed to doctrine but not to evangelism and practical Christianity. It is both doctrine and life. Truth is for the purpose of godliness.

The problem with separating New Light Presbyterianism from Old School Presbyterianism is that either emphasis by itself leads away from the truth. It is both/and, not either/or. I talked with a minister last week who told me that his denomination had been mostly Old School but now has become mostly New School concerning the Westminster Standards. Most of the older ministers in the Federal Vision heresy were once considered Old School adherents in the PCA. I know that first- hand because I went to seminary with them or they were mentors of mine in my early days. They were Old School, but not New Light. That is a problem. It works the other way also. The Old Lights of the 1740’s rejected revivals, but their children became New School Presbyterians. Or, once again, some New Light Presbyterians began to depart from the Westminster Confession of Faith and became New School Presbyterians themselves, along with their followers and children. The only way to protect the faith is to hold tenaciously to both mind and heart, to doctrine and life, to sound theology and evangelistic fervor. We must be full-orbed in our love for God. That is what Jesus said is the greatest commandment. That is why Vanguard Presbytery intends to be both New Light and Old School.      

Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Destin, FL 

[1] Joseph Addison Alexander, The Gospel According to Mark (Guildford and London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 333.

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