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Political Dissent Part Two: The Doctrine Articulated

While the Covenanters and the Seceders in the 18th century were in agreement on the desirability of a Christian magistrate and a Christian civil government, the Covenanters viewed these things as absolutely essential in order for a government to legitimately exist. The Seceders, for their part, maintained that it was one thing to say that these things should be, but that it was quite another to suggest that they must be or else a government is to be viewed as illegitimate.

Speaking of the magistrate in this context, Adam Gib writes this in his “Display of Secession-Testimony”: “It is manifest, therefore, that the due measure and performance of scriptural qualifications and duties, -belongs not to the being and validity of the Magistrate’s office; but to the WELL-BEING and Usefulness thereof.”

The Covenanters repudiated this distinction in no uncertain terms. In the “Ploughlandhead Testimony,” they had this (among many other things) to say in reply: “Seceders maintain, that the people, without regard to scriptural qualifications, have an essential right to choose whom they please to the exercise of civil government, and that whomsoever they choose are lawful magistrates; and thus make the great ordinance of magistracy dependent on the uncertain and corrupt will of man. But that this anarchical system is not of divine authority, but owes its origin to their own invention.”

In the course of this debate with the Seceders the subject of the mediatorial kingship of Christ perhaps first came into focus. Matthew Hutchison, writing in his work “The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland: Its Origin and History, 1680-1876” speaks to this: 

“The controversy continued for a long time, and at a later date it became in large measure a discussion as to the extent of the Mediatorial Dominion of Christ; and especially as to whether civil government was among the “all things” put under Christ, whether as Mediator He is King of nations, or only of the Church, which is His proper kingdom, while as God He rules the nations in subservience to the interests of the Church.”

William Symington’s great work on the mediatorial kingship “Messiah the Prince” appeared in 1839. It is a comprehensive work dealing with the issue in every aspect from the perspective that Christ rules the nations as mediator. By the time Symington’s work was published, the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was well established among Reformed Presbyterians, and was included in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Testimony of 1842. 

Symington argues that civil society is “founded in nature, and not in grace” but “originates with God as the God of nature.” He goes on to say that nations “in a certain sense…derive even their existence from Christ.” Civil government is an ordinance of God and an ordinance of man. It is an ordinance of man only insofar as the people may fix constitutions, elect rulers, and so on. He warns that it is “not to be inferred from this, that it depends solely on the will of man whether civil institution should be set up in a country at all, that civil society originates wholly in voluntary compact, or that whatever is sanctioned by the public will is necessarily right, and consequently obligatory.”

Further, says Symington, “It is admitted that God has invested the people with power in political matters, and that the people of course have a right to the exercise of this power; but it is at the same time to be attentively observed that he has given them a law by which they are to be regulated in the use of this power, and it is only when they act according to the law given them that their determinations and institutions possess the sanction and obligation of righteousness.”

He makes the point that the “electors” are also under the obligation to Christ’s mediatorial dominion: “Nor is it only to the qualifications of the rulers whom they choose, that, out of respect to the will and glory of Christ, men are bound to attend, but also to their own qualifications as electors. This point is too apt to be forgotten. It is, however, one of great importance. Where the elective franchise is liberally enjoyed, everything may be said to depend upon the manner in which it is exercised. Electors, who are themselves irreligious and immoral, are not likely to set a high value on the existence of proper qualifications in those whom they choose to represent them. To such, the absence of these qualities is apt rather to prove a recommendation. But the choice of a representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle. He is bound to subject his judgment and inclinations in this matter to the control of God’s Word.”

Symington makes it clear that he believes “immoral systems of government” aren’t merely failing to meet the standards of scripture with respect to Christ’s mediatorial kingship over them, but that these systems of government are indeed unlawful authorities. He does state that Christians should nonetheless submit to them, but not because they possess lawful authority: “Lawful authority is for the most part, though not always, to be obeyed; unlawful authority, never. Lawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is not lawful; and in this case it is not to be obeyed. Unlawful authority may be employed to enjoin what is lawful; and, in this case also, it is not to be obeyed. What, it may be said, not to be obeyed even when requiring what is right! Certainly not. The thing enjoined is to be done; not, however, because enjoined, but from respect to its own intrinsic obligation springing from the law and will of God.”

He illustrates this idea as follows:

“A wicked neighbour, usurping an authority which does not belong to him, intrudes into my dwelling and commands me to worship God, to love my wife, and to bring up my children in the fear of the Lord. These are lawful commands; and it is at my peril that I neglect them; but in doing them I am not, surely, obeying the intruder. This distinction, betwixt obedience to lawful commands out of respect to the authority enjoining them, and obedience to them out of respect to their own intrinsic obligation, is a most important one, in a practical point of view. It enables Christians, living under iniquitous and anti-christian powers, to do much that is calculated to promote the good of the community, and their own civil interests, without giving the sanction of their approbation to those who renounce the authority and disregard the law of Christ, and thus violating their oath of allegiance to the Prince of the kings of the earth.”

So, for Symington, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority doesn’t make it simply immoral. Rather, the failure of a government to recognize Christ’s rightful authority over it makes its authority unlawful. It is rendered illegitimate. The people living in such a nation may indeed submit to such a government, but only insofar as whatever that submission may require is intrinsically lawful, and that submission does not give approbation to the illegitimate government. They must “avoid whatever is calculated to involve them in a participation of its guilt.”

Thus, he makes the connection between the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations and political dissent certain: The civil government, the rulers within it, and the people that may elect them are all bound to various duties under Christ as mediator. Failure in those duties by a government renders it illegitimate, and it becomes the duty of Christians living under such a government to practice political dissent.

Alexander M’Leod had taken a similar position in his 1803 work “Messiah, Governor of the Nations of the Earth.” After arguing that Christ, as mediator, rules the nations, he raises a possible objection:

“OBJECTION VI. The admission of Christ’s headship over the nations would involve us in a dilemma from which we could not be extricated. If Messiah be King of nations, and christians have sworn allegiance to him, they cannot consistently be in allegiance to any civil government which is opposed to the kingdom of Christ. No man can serve two masters. And yet the scriptures command every soul to be subject to the higher powers, and teach that the powers that be are ordained of God. Rom. 13:1. This is an objection with which I have often met. It appears to be a formidable one; and it has assuredly influenced many serious minds to call in question the duty of contending for the doctrine of Christ’s headship over the nations, as a part of that faith which was once delivered to the saints.”

In answering this objection, among other things, he says this:

“It is impossible such a dilemma could exist, as that you must necessarily renounce obedience to the Prince of the kings of the earth, or transgress the commands of his Heavenly Father. God’s precepts are not contradictory. Whatever he has appointed is in subserviency to the Mediator. He does not approve, he cannot sanction with his authority, that government which is constituted upon immoral principles. To an immoral constitution he never shall require the obedience, the allegiance, the subscription, or the support of his subjects.

Such powers as oppose God or Christ, are not ordained of God, in any other sense, than the prince of the power of the air, whom they serve, is; nor does God require that every soul should obey them. The authority which he sanctions, and to which he demands conscientious allegiance, is one which is a terror to them who do evil, and a praise to them who do well. [Rom. 13:3.] Submission to such is submission to God; allegiance to governments of a contrary character is rebellion against Heaven. God is, however, a God of order, and your weapons, Christians, are not carnal. Conformity to the general order of society is a duty, provided this can be done without violating the divine law. If this be all that is meant by submission to government, there is no inconsistency in it, with allegiance to the King of nations.”

Both Symington and M’Leod, then, as had Samuel Wylie, saw the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations as demanding a distinctively Christian civil government not only for the benefit of that government, but for that government’s very existential claim. It is on this notion that the practice of political dissent now rested.

Political Dissent Part One: A Practice Searches For A Doctrine

Here in the U.S. another national election is just a few weeks away now, and in some reformed and presbyterian circles the discussion of “political dissent” is already well underway.

I had hoped to write a series of articles on the subject of presbyterian political theory, focusing primarily on Scottish church history in two time periods: The first from 1638 to the Revolution Settlement, and then from the Revolution Settlement  to 1743 when the first Reformed Presbytery was constituted. I also had hoped to discuss the Reformed Presbyterians that emigrated to North America. I may eventually complete such a series, but with the election fast approaching I see the need to express some thoughts much more briefly. For that reason there will be a lot of material relative to this subject that simply won’t be covered.

It’s important for me to communicate, first of all, that I mean no offense to anyone who I may manage to annoy with what I write. I know a number of good men who will disagree with me in no small way. They are my brothers in Christ. We will remain brethren even if we disagree. What I write, I write with love for my brethren and would only ask that they read what I write keeping that in mind.

So, in these reformed and presbyterian circles I mentioned earlier, what is “political dissent?” In short, one may define it as a refusal to engage in such things as a vote, the taking of certain civil oaths, or holding public office. Historically speaking, both in Scotland and in the United States, certain presbyterian churches demanded this from their members as a term of communion.

The reason for the practice of political dissent in Scotland centuries ago was chiefly over the government’s failure to recognize the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant at the time of the Revolution Settlement. Those who dissented (variously known as the “Society Folk,” “Cameronians,” “Covenanters,” and, eventually, “Reformed Presbyterians”) took the position that neither the government of King William or the Church of Scotland were legitimate as a result. While Covenanter and field preacher Alexander Shields had returned to the Church of Scotland at the Revolution Settlement and had labored to bring the societies back in with him, Sir Robert Hamilton persuaded a minority of the United Societies to remain outside the Church of Scotland, and, to not acknowledge the “uncovenanted sovereign of these covenanted nations.”

The Reformed Presbyterian dissenters in Colonial America held on to these views initially, believing that the colonies under the control of the British Crown were obliged to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant. Once a new nation was founded and subsequently the Constitution was ratified, however, they took a different approach that still allowed them to continue their tradition of political dissent:  They viewed the government of the United States as illegitimate upon the grounds that it did not recognize the crown rights of Jesus Christ, and that it did give legal recognition of slavery.

In Scotland and the United States, then, both governments being illegitimate in their eyes, these dissenters could not engage in any activity that would affirm the “illegitimate authority” of these governments. This caused the Society Folk in Scotland in particular all sorts of difficulties after the Revolution Settlement: Society members weren’t allowed to have any interaction with state or church, therefore they had no access to marriage, baptism, civil licenses and the like, and were debarred from society membership if any such interaction took place.

Perhaps since the time of their controversy with the Seceders in the eighteenth century, Reformed Presbyterians have upheld the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations. Some would contend that the Covenanters upheld the doctrine in the seventeenth century as well. In any case, by the nineteenth century the doctrine was apparently viewed as a distinctive of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, with writers in both America and Britain dealing with the subject.

It’s not the purpose of this piece to examine the history and theology of this doctrine in any detail. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this writing, that the mediatorial kingship of Christ is significant for the Reformed Presbyterians primarily for two reasons: One, to support the establishment principle and, two, to support the notion of political dissent. Historically, a number of other presbyterian denominations with no relation to the Reformed Presbyterians have also upheld the establishment principle, but with no particular emphasis on the mediatorial kingship of Christ. It seems to be clear, then, for the Reformed Presbyterians, the more significant matter to be set forth in connection with this doctrine is indeed political dissent.

Samuel Wylie in his sermon “Two Sons of Oil” (circa 1802), for example, argued that the magistrate was subject to Christ as mediator, and from there argued that the magistrate must be a professing Christian and that the American government itself was immoral and its authority illegitimate. Therefore, no church member should be involved in any activity that would affirm the government’s authority. Oaths of allegiance, participation in civil elections, office holding to which an oath was attached, and so on are prohibited.

There was nothing new in the prohibition of political activity based on the idea that the government was illegitimate. As we have noted, that concept was around from the very beginning of what was to become the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

What was new in what Wylie had said (or at least new relative to the beginning of political dissent in the Societies a century earlier) was that the ground for dissent was now being firmly connected to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations.

In his paper “From Popery to Principle: Covenanters and the Kingship of Christ,” David McKay suggests that there was a change in Covenanter thought with respect to the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ. He maintains that both Gillespie and Rutherford did not view Christ as mediatorial king over the nations. He makes the same contention about Alexander Shields. Thus, McKay says, the seventeenth century Covenanters had an entirely different view of the doctrine than Reformed Presbyterians held a century or two later. He also notes that the doctrine of the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations eventually became “an established and undisputed principle in the testimony of the various branches of the Reformed Presbyterian Church that regarded themselves as heirs of the Second Reformation in Scotland.”

I am not prepared to say if McKay is right or wrong about whether or not the seventeenth century Covenanters were committed to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations. That is a rather contentious subject, and one that, frankly, I have concluded is actually irrelevant to the subject at hand. What is important about McKay’s paper is not that it necessarily shows that modern Reformed Presbyterians are at odds with the Covenanters on whether the mediatorial kingship of Christ is over the nations. Rather, it is that it reveals a significant change in the grounds for political dissent. Whereas the ground was adherence to the Covenants in the beginning, the ground for it later was found in the mediatorial kingship of Christ.

Whatever the case may be with regard to the mediatorial kingship doctrine among seventeenth century Covenanters, Shields and Hamilton weren’t arguing about that. The central issue between them was the relevance of the Covenants after the revolution. In fact, it doesn’t appear that there was much discussion about the mediatorial kingship of Christ among Covenanters at all until the debate between the “Cameronians” and the “Seceders” in the 1730s and 1740s. McKay observes this:

“Out of the debate between Covenanters (Cameronians) and Seceders, in ways that are not entirely clear from this distance, comes a more definite commitment on the part of Covenanters to the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nation.” He adds later, “Nevertheless, it does not appear that the doctrine of the kingship of Christ over the nations was thought out with any great theological or exegetical precision in this period- perhaps ironically, in view of the Covenanter’s thoroughness on so many other issues.”

The practice of ecclesiastical separatism and political dissent had been well established going back to 1690. It seems that with the passage of time, it became more difficult for the Societies and subsequently the Reformed Presbyterian Church to justify their separate existence and peculiar ethos. Their practice originally underpinned by the Covenants needed a new foundation, and the mediatorial kingship of Christ over the nations was eventually claimed to be precisely that.

Making Good Use of the Means of Grace

Some time ago I watched a sales instruction video in which the instructor said something that was incredibly simple and yet had profound implications. He said we already know what to do. The problem was that we’re just not doing it.

I have been involved in sales for most of my adult life, and I knew precisely what he was talking about. He was talking about all the things that a good sales representative has to do in order to be successful, and he was right: Most people in sales knew what those things were, but many of them weren’t successful because they just didn’t do them.

I couldn’t help thinking that there was a spiritual application to what he said.

How many times have you been listening to a sermon, or reading a theological book or article, or maybe been in a Sunday School class and the urgency of making good use of the means of grace was communicated to you? If you are like me, you’ve experienced that many, many times. And you’ve also been convicted about how relatively little time you’ve spent in the Word or in prayer.

We knew. We knew the benefits of using the means of grace and we knew the risks of failing to use them. We already knew what we needed to do. We just weren’t doing it.

the-pastor-at-prayerAre we spending time in prayer?

I remember reading about some Puritan of old that said he if he didn’t spend at least three hours in prayer, the day was lost. I’m not suggesting that has to be our practice. I do think, however, that it does illustrate how vital prayer was seen by great men of God in times past. We have ample reasons for why we should pray, and we certainly have plenty of things to pray about. (Phil 4:6, Mark 11:24, 1Thess 5:17, Matt 6:6, 1Tim 2:1-4)

Are we spending time reading the Word of God?

The Scripture informs us of a lot of things, but the Word of God is more than mere information. It also has the power to sustain us in our walk with God. Even when the passage is familiar to us, we will be reminded of the great truth written there and the Spirit will use it to our benefit. (Psalm 119:105, Psalm 119:169, 1Peter 2:2, Eph 6:17, John 17:17)dusty-bible

Are you going through a spiritually dry time? If you answered “no” to the earlier questions, should you really be surprised that your spiritual life is dry? The old Puritan that I spoke of earlier understood both the nature of the world and the nature of the human heart. He understood from experience and observation the impossibility of sustaining spiritual vitality without the diligent use of the means of grace.

We know what we need to do, by the grace of God. It’s time to start doing it. (Luke 11:28)


You Are Cordially Invited To Join Us!

I am inclined to believe that there is a growing interest here in America in what we might call “historic Presbyterianism”. This interest comes from Christians who have experienced everything from curiosity to conviction with regard to such subjects as Psalmody, the Regulative Principle, and experimental religion, just to name a few. The advent of social media has greatly facilitated both the spread of information on these subjects and the connection of Christians who are interested in them.

There are many other subjects, of course, that could be mentioned as matters of interest for those who are enthusiastic of historic Presbyterianism. My assumption is that most who will read this post are already familiar with most of these matters, and have some level of understanding of them.

I recognize that for some, interest in the historic Presbyterian expression of Christianity is not (in itself) particularly life changing. Perhaps you are quite happy in your present situation, ecclesiastical and otherwise. Or, for whatever the reason, you simply aren’t in a position to pursue another church in another place. Maybe you have been blessed to already be a part of a Reformed church whose doctrine and practice embraces the things earlier mentioned.
Lions-ClubHowever, if you are becoming convinced that you need to be a part of a church that believes and practices the historic Presbyterian expression of Christianity, and you are in a position to make the move, you are cordially invited to join us at Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church in Johnston, IA.

Yes, that’s right. You were just invited to move to Iowa.

One could certainly find other denominations that uphold the same doctrine and practice as we do that have congregations throughout the world, including a number in the U.S. and Canada.

So why us? Why Iowa? Please allow me to make the case.

Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church was organized in 1985, and joined the Presbyterian Reformed Church in 1992. The Presbyterian Reformed Church (PRC) was formed in 1965. So we have a congregation that is now over 30 years old, and one that has been part of the PRC for nearly a quarter of a century. The PRC as a denomination celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. This demonstrates a level of stability and an ecclesiastical heritage that I hope you will find desirable.

Our congregation is a small but happy one, and we look forward to worshipping together and fellowshipping with one another every Lord’s Day.

We have a session of four, collectively with many decades of experience in congregational oversight. There is genuine harmony and love among our elders, even when difficult situations arise.

pastor-ericsonOur pastor, Rev. Mike Ericson (B.A., M.A., M.Div., Th.M.), has been in the ministry for twenty five years and has been our pastor here at Trinity since 2001. His in-depth expository preaching and gentle approach to shepherding God’s people is much appreciated by the congregation. The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is always set forth.

So what is missing? In short, you are.

I have become convinced that, in God’s providence in this day and time, the people who ordinarily desire to come to a congregation such as ours are people who already have convictions about such things as, for example, Psalmody and the Regulative Principle. They want to enjoy the “stark simplicity” of our worship, with its absence of liturgy and focus upon the Word of God preached, read, and sung. We look forward to the day when Christians in large numbers grow tired of “contemporary worship” and begin to seek out churches with the focus I just mentioned. But until that day comes, we need people who are like minded with us to join us. We need your gifts, we need your labors, we need your fellowship. We need you.

Iowa has a quality of life that is truly excellent. Economically speaking, there is much to appreciate here. In CNBC’s  list of “Top States for Business in 2010”, Iowa was recognized as the sixth best state in the nation. Iowa is known for agriculture, but it has a diversified economy with manufacturing, biotechnology, finance and insurance services all contributing significantly to Iowa’s economy. As of December 2015, the state’s unemployment rate is 3.4% (Yes, I know the number is bogus, but it is a useful comparator to other states).

Iowa crime is well below the national median in every category. In the crime rate per square mile category, Iowa is less than half the national median. You and your family can feel safe here.

Iowa has a vibrant Evangelical Christian community. This is evidenced by the Iowa Republican party electing an Evangelical Christian as its presidential caucus winner the last three election cycles. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 77% of Iowa adults that consider themselves to be Christian, 28% are what Pew categorizes as “Evangelical Protestant”. There are also several NAPARC churches in the state, and a number of them are in the Des Moines area where Trinity PRC is located. Trinity has cordial relationships with these churches.

I would charitably challenge anyone who has convictions about the distinctive doctrines of historic Presbyterianism, and isn’t presently in a church that holds to them, to prayerfully consider moving  near to a church that does. Further, please prayerfully consider whether or not Trinity PRC may indeed be that church. We need you, and would love to have you be a part of our congregation.


For more information, please call 515-795-3676 or send an email to


John Frame on Confessional Dissent: Please Allow Me to Make a Retraction

retractionA few days ago, I posted an article in which I was critical of a statement regarding confessional dissent that John Frame had made on his Facebook page. In this article I brought out the negative implications of what I saw as the plain meaning of Frame’s words.

Today I took my article down from this site. While I am still deeply concerned about the implications that arise from what I still believe to be a more than plausible interpretation of the statement, I see now that Frame’s words can be interpreted in a more positive light.

I left room in my original post for the possibility that Frame’s intentions were not as I had feared. Nonetheless, I still should have cast the piece in a different way, at least demonstrating how else his words might be taken. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any other way at the time I wrote it, perhaps due to my mind being hijacked by its own alarm. Or, maybe I’m just thick headed. Feel free to take your pick.

I am still in hopes that Dr. Frame may at some point remove the ambiguity from his Facebook post. A few minor changes to the statement would provide some much needed clarity, as some who commented on his Facebook page have already requested.

In any case, I apologize for the problems with my earlier post and you may take this as a formal retraction of it.

I’d also like to thank those of you who let me know your concerns about the post. Your comments were helpful and appreciated. Proverbs 27:6


Rare Sermon Digitizing Project

20151202_174422I’ve finally started on what hopefully will be a very nice digital “library” of old and rare sermon recordings. I say finally, because I’ve spent quite a lot of time and a bit of money trying to get an appropriate reel to reel tape deck to play the rare tapes that are presently in my possession. Two tape decks and a lot of frustration later, I have the first sermon posted on the Presbyterian Reformed Church website. It’s by Professor John Murray, and it was preached in 1959 at the Old Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

I haven’t looked through all of them yet, but there are sermons from Dr. David Freeman and Dr. William Young in this collection along with Professor Murray and a number of others as well. This is priceless stuff!

The audio quality isn’t as good as I’d hoped, and some of it is not the fault of the old tape or the recording itself. Some of the noise is coming from the ancient tape deck I’m using for playback. I hope to get another one in the near future that is in better working condition and that should really help the quality of the digital recording.

Anyway, here’s a link to the first installment:

Fond Recollections of Dr. William Young

Doc Young

I met Dr. William Young in November of 1992. Our congregation in Des Moines had petitioned the Presbyterian Reformed Church to be taken into their denomination. He had been part of a committee sent by the Presbytery of the Presbyterian Reformed Church  to meet with our congregation and examine the church officers. I walked into the room where we were meeting and he was already there seated at a table. He was unpretentious and, as always, a bit disheveled. He introduced himself simply as “William Young”.

Over the course of the day, we discussed a lot of things: Who we were, who the Presbyterian Reformed Church was, and, of course, during our examination they asked us a lot of questions. As we got to know a bit more about where the other was coming from, we also had the occasional small debate as well. I found myself in a rather protracted debate with Dr. Young about the Received Text and the meaning of providential preservation  in the Westminster Confession.  I had absolutely no idea who I was dealing with at the time, but in retrospect I was like a kid with a pea-shooter going up against a Howitzer.

He was incredibly kind and patient with me, and didn’t destroy me with his intellect and his vast knowledge, which he certainly could have done.

That evening we stopped at a tobacco shop before heading back to my home, where we stayed up very late sitting by the fireplace smoking cigars and talking. I learned that if you asked the old boy a question you’d better be prepared to listen to the answer for the next forty-five minutes. That first night, I learned about the Clark-Van Til controversy that Dr. Young had found himself in the middle of, I heard about the beginnings of the Rhode Island congregation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, and Herman Dooyeweerd’s “cigar shop” analogy. He also spoke at some length about his relationship with Dr. Clark, the discussions they had, and how, on one occasion when they were discussing quantum mechanics, Dr. Clark replied to Dr. Young, “I am silenced, but unconvinced.” By this time, I had an inkling of who I was dealing with: This was the most brilliant man I was ever to meet. And one of the most eccentric as well.

That first night I found myself wiping a pile of cigar ash off his necktie before it caught on fire. It wouldn’t be the last time for that sort of thing. He was just oblivious to stuff like that.

The next evening, several of us were gathered together at our home, and Dr. Young was once again seated near the fireplace. I can’t recall exactly how it came about, but he ended up with my son Jonathan on his lap, and Dr. Young was reading Vergilius Ferm’s Pictorial History of Protestantism to him. Jonathan sat on the old man’s lap for most of the evening listening to him tell about Luther and Zwingli at Marburg and such like. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what a special thing that was, and I hope Jonathan remembers the night he was tutored in Protestant church history by a man who possessed one of the greatest minds in all of Reformed Christianity.

By the time the weekend was over, I knew I had definitely made a fast friend. I admired him immensely and really got a kick out of him. I looked forward to seeing him again. I think he genuinely liked me too. I think he generally liked anybody that he could go have a smoke with, and I guess I fit that bill.

So, for the next twenty years or so we’d see one another on a fairly regular basis. We’d be at a Presbytery meeting together or we’d see one another on one of my many trips to Rhode Island where he was pastor of the Presbyterian Reformed Church congregation there. Between sessions of Presbytery meetings or between services at church, Dr. Young would almost always shuffle over to wherever I was and ask if I was interested in going outside to join him and Vinnie Gebhart and whoever else for a smoke. Some of my fondest memories of Dr. Young involved conversations we had during the enjoyment of a couple of good cigars. We had a lot of laughs, too. He was always happy with a cigar in his hand.

Over the years he and I managed to tick one another off at Presbytery meetings, but the irritation never lasted long between us. We’d be out having a laugh and a smoke afterwards, and that would be the end of that.

He certainly had an opinion on lots of things, but frequently he could be rather puzzling as to just where he really stood. On the one hand, he was always ready to tell you that he didn’t think much of Geerhardus Vos’ biblical theology or Abraham Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration, but, on the other hand, he would make these cryptic statements about other subjects that just left you guessing and scratching your head. I think he liked it that way.

Sometimes he could be incredibly funny. You more or less had to know him a bit to understand that.

One Lord’s Day after a Presbytery meeting in Portland, OR, several of us were on an afternoon walk near the base of Mt. Hood where one of our church families lived. A couple of us were holding on to Dr. Young’s arms as we walked up the hill, and he was asked how he was doing and if the pace was okay. He was, after all, in his early eighties at the time. “Oh,” he said, “this is child’s play.” The way he said it made it sound as if he was incredulous that we would even ask such a thing, and we all broke into laughter as soon as he said it.

But he wasn’t done: “I admit I’m not the man I was when I took my alpenstock and traversed the glacier…” He went on to tell us about how he and his companion misread the signs and took a trail that was extremely dangerous, and that he nearly fell into a crevasse. From there he went on from one story to another going back some sixty years. By the time he had described to us his struggles with Phys-Ed classes at Columbia, I had tears rolling down my face and my sides ached from laughing so hard. We were all listening and laughing, and the old boy knew he was working us like a stand up comedian. He was loving it.

He would occasionally make a face to show how absurd he thought something was, and it involved sticking his tongue out, closing his eyes, and shaking his head rather violently. It was priceless to see that.

Traveling with Dr. Young must have always been a memorable event. On one occasion, Dr. Young was traveling with Vinnie and John Humphrey via airplane to a Presbytery meeting somewhere. One of them must have asked him a question, and the next thing they knew, there was Dr. Young, loudly lecturing on the philosophical history of the nature of perception and Einstein’s theory of relativity. It had to be quite a treat for the rest of the passengers, who Dr. Young was, no doubt, quite unconscious of.

The last several years were difficult for him, as his health was increasingly failing, and he was in and out of various medical facilities, including nursing homes that he absolutely abhorred. Through the efforts of Michael Ives, he eventually was able to receive around the clock in-home care, but in the beginning he was stuck (imprisoned was how he viewed it) in a nursing home. On one of my visits to Rhode Island during this time, he asked to speak to me privately. I went to his room convinced he was going to give me a list of grievances about his situation, but I was completely wrong. He simply wanted to make an inquiry about the spiritual well being of my two sons. I was deeply touched by his concern, especially knowing how stressed and unhappy he was at the time.

I owe the man a great deal. It was through hearing his lectures and reading his articles that I gained an understanding and appreciation of experimental religion. He pointed me to writers like Archibald Alexander and Thomas Boston. And for the first time, I was able to reconcile my Calvinism with the warm Evangelicalism of my youth.

I’m grateful to him for other things as well. Some of our dearest friends came to know Christ under his ministry, and his involvement in the denomination I love has left an imprint that I trust the rest of us will always take notice of.

It’s been awhile now since I last had a smoke and a laugh with my old friend. I miss those times. In my mind’s eye I see him pretty clearly, however: It’s Winter, and he’s wearing his heavy wool overcoat and his coonskin hat, and, just like I did the first time I saw him wearing it,

I chuckle.

Welcome to The Presbyter

Welcome to “The Presbyter.”  My name is Brian Myers and this is a place where I hope to blog about theology, church history, and issues that impact Presbyterian polity and thought.brian-myers

I am an elder in the Presbyterian Reformed Church, a small denomination with congregations in the United States, Canada, and England.

I hope you enjoy reading the articles that I post, and please leave a comment to let me know what you think.