There are a number of questions about Vanguard Presbytery that people ask me. Sometimes, people I do not know will email me with questions. Other times, people will ask me in person. Then, there are those questions that filter back to me. A friend recently asked me this question: Is Vanguard Presbytery just a bunch of TR’s.
For the uninitiated, the letters ‘TR’ stand for “truly reformed.” It is a moniker that, to the best of my knowledge, was first used in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1970’s by a group of young Presbyterian ministers and ruling elders who were wrestling with the implications of the Reformed faith. From what I have been told, one person would make a statement and another would raise the question, “Is that truly reformed?” Or, someone would say, “That is not truly reformed.” In its beginnings, the phrase “truly reformed” and the “TR” movement were good things. As John Calvin taught, a reformed church is ever to be reforming according to the Word. Yet, even movements that begin well can develop in directions that were never intended. Sadly, that is the case with the “TR” movement. Most of the older ministers who have imbibed the Federal Vision heresy were once considered to be “TR’s.” Dr. G. Aiken Taylor, former editor of The Presbyterian Journaland former Moderator of the PCA, once wrote an article in his publication, “Lo, the TR!” He saw some disturbing practical trends with the many of those who were “TR’s” in the 1970’s, but the article really did not put its finger on any theological problems with those who called themselves TR’s.
When my friend asked me if Vanguard was a group of TR’s, I unhesitatingly replied, “I am not aware of anyone in Vanguard Presbytery who would identify as TR. Vanguard believes in revival and evangelism while most people who identify as TR’s do not.” In this article, I want to delve deeper into this issue and explain why someone who believes in evangelism and revival cannot be TR in the sense in which the phrase is used today.
First, Vanguard Presbytery identifies as New Light (or, New Side) and Old School. As I have written many times, those descriptions refer to two different movements, primarily among Presbyterians. The first movement was the Old Light (Old Side) and New Light (New Side) split in 1741. The second movement was the Old School and New School spit in 1838. The New Lights were very strong supporters of the Great Awakening revival under George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Jacob Frelinghuysen, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Blair and others. The Old Lights opposed the revival under the guise of concerns about the orthodoxy of the ministers involved. I say that was a guise because the Old Lights themselves, in many instances, were not orthodox. They gave lip service to their subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The New Lights were not only the most evangelistic Presbyterians, they were also the most consistently faithful to the Westminster Standards.
Nearly a century later, another controversy enveloped the Presbyterian Church. This time it was a battle for orthodoxy and it split the denomination into two groups—the Old School Presbyterians who were consistently orthodox and the New School Presbyterians who were loose both on doctrine and evangelistic/revival practices. Vanguard Presbytery has taken the position that our spiritual heritage is New Light—Old School. The New Light Presbyterians contended for revival and then doctrine. The Old School Presbyterians contended for doctrine and then the right view of revival. There is little practical difference between the New Light Presbyterians of the 18thcentury and the Old School Presbyterians of the 19thcentury. The latter group grew out of the former group.
Now, here is the question of all questions concerning TR’s: Where do the modern-day TR’s stand on these two issues? I cannot speak for all of them, but I can speak for some of them. I know of various so-called TR’s who identify themselves as “Old Light—Old School Presbyterians.” In making that claim about themselves, I think they completely misunderstand both movements. The New Light Presbyterians of the 18thcentury led to the Old School Presbyterians of the 19thcentury. I understand why my TR friends do not want to be defined as New School Presbyterians after the manner of Albert Barnes and Charles G. Finney, but I do not think they understand why they gravitate towards the Old Light Presbyterians of the 18thcentury. In other words, I understand why they want to align themselves with the Old School Presbyterians of the 19thcentury. I do not think they understand why they align themselves with the Old Light Presbyterians of the 18thcentury. Let me try to explain.
There is a dynamic tension between the mind and the heart; between objective grace and subjective grace; between rationalism and subjectivism. The Scriptural reality is that we must love the Lord with both our minds and our hearts. If we deny all subjectivism, then we become rationalists. If we deny all rationalism, then we become completely subjective. If we emphasize objective truth to the exclusion of everything subjective, then we feed our minds while our hearts remain cold and listless. We need both the heart and the mind to be fully engaged in the worship of God. We need both objective truth and subjective truth. We need to come to Christ with an objective, rational understanding of the truth, but we also need to subjectively experience God’s saving grace. Many of my TR friends emphasize objective truth almost to the exclusion of anything subjective. Thus, they appear to think that the objective and correct position is to be both Old Light Presbyterians and Old School Presbyterians. Therein, they reduce Old School Presbyterianism to just agreement with objective truth while overlooking the Old School support for experiential religion and revivals/evangelism. Moreover, by supporting the Old Light Presbyterians, they are supporting those who were mostly guilty of dead orthodoxy. In fact, many of the Old Light Presbyterians, despite their outward adoption of the Westminster Standards, were guilty of heterodoxy or even heresy in some instances. Anyone who has ever read about the Pharisees in the Bible should not be surprised that people can claim to be Scriptural with their lips while their hearts are far away from Christ. Now, I am not accusing the TR’s of being heretics. I am just saying that when they align themselves with the Old Light Presbyterians, they are aligning with some people who were heretics. That is simply a fact of history which the unpublished sermons and manuscripts of those Old Light ministers prove.
In the beginning of this article, I noted that many of the older ministers involved in the Federal Vision heresy once claimed to be TR’s. So, what is the connection? Here it is. When Doug Wilson wrote his book on the Federal Vision, his subtitle was “Restoring the Objectivity of the Covenant.” There is that pesky word, “objectivity.” There is the problem with many of the TR’s. They have moved so far in the direction of trying to be objective that they have neglected the Scriptural subjectiveness that is a true and vital part of the Christian faith. That is why Vanguard Presbytery is New Light and Old School. We are both objective and subjective. We are both mind and heart. We are both rational and experiential. There is a balance to true saving faith. We want to maintain that balance at all costs.
The great leaders of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches have held to both objective truth and subjective truth. They have maintained both heart and life; heart and mind. John Calvin’s writings breathe with the freshness of the Holy Spirit and he refers to the Spirit on almost every page. The Puritans wrote much on the matters of the heart. They were never guilty of dead orthodoxy. The same is true of Spurgeon and Whitefield and Edwards and Davies and McCheyne and Ryle and Thornwell and Lloyd-Jones and many more. Vanguard Presbytery seeks to be a denomination within the great spiritual heritage of those great ministers from the past. We are reformed. We are evangelistic. We are not doctrinaire while neglecting both our own hearts and the souls of others.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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