Hart, D.G. and John R. Muether. Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007.
Brief Overview of the Book (Theme, Perspective, Approach):
The book was written to American Presbyterians to cure us of our historical amnesia. It fills in many of the details explaining the splits and reunions of the Presbyterian Church over the 300 plus years of history. The title of the book, Seeking a Better Country reflects this history as many in the church saw improving America as their primary task. The book comes across as a tragedy, explaining why the Presbyterian denominations are in the predicaments we find ourselves today and showing that there has been no golden age in the history of Presbyterianism in this country. The authors come from a conservative tradition and more conservative denominations than the mainline Presbyterian Church but they work primarily to describe what has taken place in the mainline church and their approach is more descriptive than anything else (leaving much of the prescription to each reader) as they are historians.
Critique (strengths & weaknesses):
The book is a fascinating read and showed me (someone who was a history major in college) how much historical amnesia even I had towards my tradition. No one does brute history — all history is interpreted. Therefore, we should expect that the authors will show some of their biases. The question, of course, is whether their interpretation is God’s interpretation. Thankfully they know this and try to avoid declaring God’s verdict. The comparison with Hebrews is well thought through (see best quote and its surrounding context). But my impression in reading the book was that they celebrated the “spirituality of the church” doctrine. They explain this teaching as follows:
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. (223)
One can appreciate that staying out of the political and social fray may have helped the church avoid some of its mistakes. However, this view is incredibly WRONG. The church must work to make the world a better place in which to live. It must speak prophetically to the government. It must feed the hungry, provide shelter for those who are homeless, and protest social injustice. It must do these things. The problem is not that the church took up these issues. The problem is that often the church was not informed by the Scriptures on these issues and sought to bind consciences where Scripture did not require it.
Application (specific, shows just how valuable & relevant the book is):
The natural thing to do as you read this account is to take sides. It is a historically anachronistic thing to do, but fun nonetheless. And it bears fruit in application. Their conclusions at the end as to what time period and group different people would see as “heroes” is very interesting. I think that they are right about most mainline Presbyterians seeing the golden age of Presbyterian history in America as during the twentieth century. They are also right when they argue that most liberals and conservatives read this history selectively to shore up their own arguments. We have been seen that lately in the PUP report in the mainline church. It is fascinating that the Presbytery of New Castle began requiring subscription to the Westminster Standards before the whole synod did. Even then there were debates as to how strict one should be about the standards. Nevertheless, a presbytery could require standards that the whole church did not. This is interesting since I have been hearing lately that presbyteries cannot set standards, which is nonsense.
Nevertheless, all this just raises more questions than answers for me as to application today. But what does seem to apply is this idea of choosing sides. For example, I can see the strengths of both the Old and New Sides in that split. I think that to a large extent both are right. But I would probably identify more with the Old Side for the following reason: the piety that the New Side was encouraging does not always mesh with Reformed teaching. As they say,
“Although that form of piety could lead as it did to new members and greater godliness among its ministers and members, it was also a form of devotion that was in tension with the covenantal faith of the Reformed tradition that stressed children growing up and inheriting the faith of parents rather than having to undergo a religious experience as a Christian rite of passage” (68-69).
This is something that I constantly find myself emphasizing because our youth fall away thinking they need some sort of religious experience before they can take ownership of the faith. Thus the application for me was realizing that I am more like the Old Side pastors of old and that the churches I serve are more like the New Side pastors of old. I was surprised by how un-Reformed the theology of so many in the Presbyterian Church had been. Yet as we apply this history to our present we need to see the strengths as well as the weaknesses in each of these groups.
Remembering that I disagree with their agenda of promoting the “spirituality of the church” doctrine, which shows up even in this paragraph, this is still the best quote:
“If the authors of this book tried to assert, not midway but in the conclusion of their narrative, that the Presbyterians we think most faithful were seeking a heavenly city, not an earthly church of prominence and influence, we would justly open ourselves up to criticism. Again, the author of Hebrews possessed religious auspices that we obviously lack. Nevertheless, a point that a reader could plausibly draw from both the eleventh chapter of Hebrews and the history of American Presbyterianism told here is that there is no golden age in the history of the church. To expect such an age of wisdom for fallen creatures is to demand too much.” (256)
The Reformed are right–total depravity.