Book Review – Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church


crossed fingers book cover

Though this is a work of historical non-fiction, it reads like gripping historical fiction. It fascinates with its presentation of the drama surrounding the takeover of the most theologically rigorous — and one of the most visibly successful — Christian churches in the history of the Western world.

At 939 pages, plus five appendices, Crossed Fingers is a long book. It was published in 1996 by the Institute for Christian Economics.

It is a cautionary tale about how important it is for any institution to be prepared to consistently defend its philosophical mission by imposing negative sanctions (punishment) on those rebels within the organization who do not hold to that mission and actively work to undermine it.

As that principle relates to churches, the book screams the following requirement as its bottom line: you must screen access to the pulpit and ministry in terms of the doctrine of hell. “When hell is gone, can heaven’s departure be far behind?” [1022]

RIVAL COVENANTS

North paints the Presbyterian conflict as a battle between rival covenants. The good guys lost. The infiltrators executed a strategy of subversion that ended when the heretical liberals excommunicated the orthodox Christians from the church. They had much to gain for their efforts. “[The heretics’] goal was the capture of America’s greatest ecclesiastical treasure: colleges, seminaries, church buildings, a stream of income from donors, a prestigious denomination’s reputation, and perhaps even political influence.” [341]

THE FIVE POINTS OF ORTHODOXY

North presents the infiltrators’ covenant as a counterfeit of the Biblical covenant. The Biblical covenant has five components, and North describes its structure and form as follows on page 54:

  1. The Absolute Sovereignty of God – the predestinating God of Calvinism who is both transcendent to but universally present in his creation
  2. The Word of God – God’s visible representative in history was Jesus Christ, revealed to his elect in the words of Scripture. The Bible “is the voice of authority in history.” [57]
  3. Law – God’s commandments to man, his unchanging moral requirements, revealed by special revelation (Scripture) and general (natural) revelation.
  4. The Covenantal Oath – the judicial basis of legitimacy in the Church, State, and family, in which God’s eternal and historical sanctions are invoked (positive and negative)
  5. Succession – in history, based on covenantal inheritance and disinheritance

THE FIVE POINTS OF THEOLOGICAL LIBERALISM

The rival covenant of Modernism modeled itself after the Biblical covenant, and it consists of the following five points:

  1. The Non-Sovereignty of God – an absolute sovereign and unchanging God is replaced with one of pure process. Creation, rather than being an act of God’s spoken word, is revealed to be conceived as pure historical process. It is devoid of any supernatural discontinuities like that described in the Bible’s account of creation out of nothing in six literal 24-hour days. [71-72]
  2. The Non-Word of God – the Bible must be studied using the scientific method and within the context of ever-changing historical process. Since there is no longer a God who is absolutely sovereign over all of history and nature, then what has historically been referred to as “His Word” must be examined by modern scientific means. The method of higher criticism, which assumed “an historically relative, textually fragmented Bible that must be judged by the canons of secular literary analysis” undermined the orthodox Church’s claims of Biblical inerrancy, and by doing so it undermined the Bible as the sole source of unchanging authority in history. To quote a Modernist, “The substitution of scientific method for reliance upon authority is characteristic of our modern religious thought.” [73] This does not destroy authority, but rather it creates a vacuum into which a new, substitute authority must step. [72-75]
  3. Evolutionary law – Since God does not have absolute control over creation, then process governs history and that means men are not bound by “fixed theological, moral, and judicial standards in history.” [75] In the place of God’s permanent ethical standards, Modernism substituted relativistic situation ethics. Ethics, like history, are always evolving and must be constantly reinterpreted. [75-77]
  4. The Denial of Eternal Negative Sanctions: Hell – “The denial of final judgment is the identifying mark of theological liberalism.” This is the most offensive doctrine of all to liberals. “The doctrine of evolution must be seen primarily as a justification for denying the final judgment. The language of hell, unlike almost every other biblical doctrine, cannot be evaded by prevarication, qualification, and obfuscation. The New Testament’s language of torment is clear.” Without permanent standards, there can be no permanent binding oath to God — or consequences for breaking that oath. [77-79]
  5. Succession/Inheritance/Kingdom – the kingdom of God becomes the kingdom of collective Man. All institutional barriers are to be broken down. Church missions became the model for this “common campaign of evangelicalism.” Instead of erecting barriers that excluded, the Church became an institution of inclusion that would eventually unite all of mankind into a political or social state. The only people who were to be removed from this arrangement were those who preached the eternal separation of the sheep from the goats (Mat. 25:31-46). Any view was allowed as long as it allowed all views to be accepted; the contentious orthodox Christians, with their doctrines of eternal separation and torment, were characterized as divisive. [80-81]

North examines the historical timeline and identifies five phases of the conflict which progress as battles over each of the five successive points. Here he innovates, because conventionally the conflict’s beginning is assumed to have begun later in history than where North places it. The conventional view is deficient in this regard.

The first phase begins in 1720 with the battle over the first point, the doctrine of God and doctrinal legitimacy. The conflict culminates in 1936 with the settling of the fifth point, inheritance, as manifested by control over Church missions and the ejection of J. Gresham Machen from the church.

TOO INTERESTING FOR ACADEMIA

North presents a compelling narrative. He uses evocative language and commonly employs terminology associated with military conflicts, which is appropriate because the battle over control of the Presbyterian church was a military conflict. It was spiritual warfare.

For example, he writes of Charles Augustus Briggs’ as being the pointman for the modernist infiltrators. “In the infantry, the point man walks ahead of his platoon. If he draws fire from the enemy, or if he steps on a land mine, his fellow soldiers are warned of trouble ahead. Charles Briggs was the point man-the visible representative-in the Presbyterian modernists’ strategy from 1876 to 1893. At each stage, he would press the issues, both theologically and rhetorically.” [177]

Briggs was eventually excommunicated from the Church, but not before showing his colleagues how far they should push before drawing fire. North describes the ascendency of Briggs’ career as a war of escalating rhetoric that eventually got him booted from the Presbyterian church. Briggs’ rhetoric, he said, became too inflammatory. “He used his rhetoric to test the Old School’s will to resist. Each time that he was successful, he would then increase the pressure both rhetorically and theologically. By the time his rhetoric undermined him, his theology was firmly in place in the denomination. When he was deposed in 1893, it was because of his rhetoric.” [177]

Briggs had been publicly stating heretical positions for years; any number of his books could have been used as evidence against him sooner. While the Church was loathe in their desire to apply negative sanctions to heretics, in the face of embarrassing attacks that came from one of their own most influential and popular leaders, they were pressed into action.

EXPLAINING THE CAPTURE WITH TWO CRITICAL LESSONS

The book’s thesis is presented clearly in its title. How was the Presbyterian denomination captured by liberals? Simple: someone was crossing their fingers. Someone was deliberately lying. You may get the impression that it was the liberals who crossed their fingers and, through deception, were able to bamboozle the orthodox Christians and slowly take control over the church’s levers of power.

This is only partly true. To believe it’s the whole truth is to attribute too little fault to the good guys. As the reader comes to learn, it wasn’t the crossed fingers of the infiltrators that were to blame. It was the crossed fingers of the orthodox leaders which opened the path to the church’s capture by just a handful of determined theological liberals (heretics).

How might this be so? North shows that there were several points of contention that the orthodox Presbyterian theologians compromised on and suffered embarrassment over. Their embarrassment shamed them, and they could not escape their shame because they never addressed it. This shame crippled them with institutional paralysis, and it proved to be hereditary. For over a hundred years, the leadership never recovered the confidence to step forward and prosecute the heretics with the vigor they should have because they were ultimately looking into a mirror at their own hypocrisy. After 1900, they didn’t conduct anymore heresy trials at all. By the time a self-conscious leader arose (J. Gresham Machen) with the confidence and clout to confront the heretics, the infection was too deep, the patient too far gone. His institutional ancestors bequeathed him a war that was all but lost.

There are two critical issues worth highlighting because they reveal moral deficiencies which weakened the Church. The Church’s leadership failed to lead in terms of the ethical requirements imposed on them by Scripture. The battle over “Which God?” was lost because the old-school Calvinists never repented of their having approved of the legitimacy of chattel slavery. [291] They did not denounce it before the Civil War broke out, and when the war was over it was clear to everyone that they had been on the wrong side of the argument. Moral legitimacy shifted from the Old School Calvinists to those who had called for abolition before the Civil War began. Those “others” were not as theologically rigorous; some weren’t even Christians. But they gained influence because they were perceived to hold the moral high ground.

Instead of regaining their legitimacy through public repentance, the hardcore Calvinist Presbyterians (Old School) sought reunion with the softcore Experientalist Presbyterians (New School). They wanted to merge back into the good graces of the people by taking the easy way out, but they had to return to the New School with hat in hand to be allowed to do so. They had to abide by the terms of the New School: no heresy trials over issues of God’s absolute sovereignty.

The second major point was confessional. The Presbyterian Church required its leaders to pledge to uphold the Westminster Confession in its entirety. This came to be a sore point when discussing the issue of the age of the earth. Evolutionary science had begun asserting the extreme old-age of the earth and pointing out the seeming contradiction between Scripture’s account of origins and the “facts” of modern science. In the face of these claims, the Church leadership went soft on the defense of the Confession’s account of the six-day creation. They claimed to hold to the Confession, but in their public writing they would betray the truth that they really had departed from it on this issue. Because they crossed their fingers on this point, they granted their opponents the same advantage on other points, even though their opponents’ disagreement with the Confession was a much more severe departure from the historical Christian faith than was theirs.

The liberals recognized this and used it to their advantage. They publicly called out the orthodox leadership on their hypocrisy.

The church leaders made a series of strategic blunders that steadily transferred legitimacy away from them and to their opponents. This is because they refused to acknowledge a conscious plan of subversion being implemented against them by the liberals. They refused to put together their own long-term strategy. They were out-maneuvered and out-foxed.

UNRESOLVED ISSUES

The book highlights critical, unavoidable issues within practical ecclesiology that have remained unaddressed. The most notable, and perhaps one of the most important, is the place of creeds and confessions in the church: how rigorous should they be, how strictly should church leaders be held to them (every word, or just most?), should the church members be held to one or both or neither, how should they be enforced, and how and when should they be revised?

North attaches a few interesting Appendices to help start us down the road on resolving this matter. In “How To Immunize Presbyterianism,” North provides his insight on how to strengthen the church gained from years of researching the weaknesses prevalent in the current model. In “The Strange Legacy of the Westminster Assembly,” he explores the genesis of the Westminster Confession, explores some unfortunate gaps it did not close, and concludes with a rather startling assessment about the whole affair. Given his seeming fondness of the Confession, his frankness, no doubt tinted by his lifetime studies of economics, may surprise you as it did me.

KEEPING YOUR ATTENTION

Being an expert in direct-response advertising, North knows how to grab a reader’s attention — and keep it. He constantly inserts ominous allusions to future events not yet described that keep the reader marching ahead with anticipation.

North asks a series of provocative questions in the book’s Foreward, questions like “What are the tell-tale signs that your Church is moving away from orthodoxy toward theological liberalism?” and “What are the catch phrases of those who are actively infiltrating your Church or selling it out?” [xxi-xxiii] He does not give answers immediately. The answers are revealed throughout the book, but he does collect them all together at the end. [916-926] It’s a useful technique that helps to crystallize the scope and seriousness of the conflict prior to getting into it, and it serves as a reminder of the high points at the end.

SOME CRITICISMS

He could be criticized for his non-Academic presentation and admitted bias towards the subject. First, he is self-conscious about the religious nature of the conflict and says so up front. “[M]y book is written from the point of view of the losers: the Calvinists who defended the Old School Presbyterian position. It is written from a position sympathetic to what became the largest lost cause in American Protestant Church history.” [xxxvi] He is not neutral. “Ethically self-conscious Christians are my targeted audience.” [xx]

North is also unabashed about pointing out the bias inherent in the mainstream accounts of the conflict, which will not gain him any sympathy from Establishment historians who pretend to be neutral. “If there is one rule above all other rules governing the writing of history,” he writes, “it is this: the winning side writes the popular history books.” [xxxvi] Any sweetness this book’s premise may have had to a secular academic will quickly turn to bitterness in his mouth. But this will even be true for many Christians who have bought into the worldview of those hostile to their religion and yet do not want to face the reality of it. So North’s bias will alienate a large audience before he gets out of the gate.

But that’s ultimately best for the unencumbered reader. It makes for an interesting and entertaining book that holds one’s attention. The book will have greater appeal to future Christians than contemporary ones. That’s because the constant decentralization of education, created by the rapid advance of technology, will create a generation of people whose educations are based on some other worldview than that of the Establishment, which has controlled education for so long.

A larger point of long-standing criticism is likely to be over the five-point structure that North employs. The model has its detractors. Some of its most fierce (and ablest) criticisms have come from within his own camp. One of the well known and well-respected Christian Reconstructionist leaders called it a “Procrustean bed” by which, once devised, anyone can “then filter Biblical material through the preconceived grid” and conform any pattern of facts to its shape.

[Read Greg Bahnsen’s review, “Another Look at Chilton’s Days of Vengeance,” in Journey Magazine 3:2 (March-April 1988), by clicking this link: http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pb075.htm]

Dr. Greg Bahnsen diminished the significance of the five-point model when he wrote that “anyone with a modicum of imagination can devise other ‘ways to cut the cake’ (some with ‘Trinitarian’ threes, some with ‘perfect’ sevens, etc.).” North, no doubt aware of these remarks, wrote, perhaps in the spirit of friendly and professional rivalry, perhaps out of deference to Bahnsen’s judgment:

I have adopted the Bible’s five-point covenant model as a grid to understand the rival theological positions in the Presbyterian conflict. Other models are no doubt possible and useful, but this one enables us to be sure that we have not missed anything really crucial. [53]

Bahnsen himself was fond of pointing out, especially when savaging the worldviews of unbelievers, that one of the important tools of criticism we should employ is what he called examining the fruits of the belief: where does it practically take you? It comes from Jesus’ statement that “You will know them by their fruits” (Mat. 7:16).

I would like to think that even Dr. Bahnsen would concede to the model’s usefulness and primacy after seeing it applied repeatedly in North’s work since its discovery in 1987 and after reading North’s account of the Presbyterian conflict. The narrative is just too gripping, its structure too logically compelling, to discount the model’s merits. North is certainly a competent writer; he had been honing his craft for almost forty years by the time he wrote Crossed Fingers (and had been thinking about it for nearly as long [xxiv]). But the historical progression, when recognized and described in terms of the covenantal warfare that it was, pulls the reader along at a pace that entertains and informs while forcing him to confront the weaknesses in his own worldview. It uncovers deeply buried and intentionally-obfuscated truths. This creativity cannot be attributed to North’s prose alone, but rather credit must be shared with the organizational power of the five-point covenant model.

Unfortunately, Dr. Bahnsen died before the book was published. We will never read his review of Crossed Fingers the way we can his (scathing) review of Chilton’s Days of Vengeance. We can only respect his judgment and his unyielding commitment to Christ and use the tools he gave us for defending the faith, preserving Biblical authority, and extending the Christian worldview. North respected this legacy by subtly acknowledging Bahnsen’s criticisms and leaving it for the reader to judge the quality of the fruit.[1]

CONCLUSION

North is probably right. Not many people will read the book. Fewer will finish it. But few works of history have ever presented their facts as juicy and compelling as North’s has. He has laid the groundwork for future works. He has demonstrated the power of viewing history systematically through the lens of the five-point Biblical covenant model.

Any Christian who finishes the book will have his understanding of history forever altered. Deciding whether to read it is like Morpheus presenting Neo with two options: take the red pill, or take the blue pill? The Christian who does not want to have his eyes opened to the gritty truth of history’s very personal and intentional manipulation should take the blue pill and return this book to its shelf (or refuse to click this download link to the free digital copy).

But the Christian who is tired of being fed the conventional line of history’s randomness (especially something as boring and irrelevant as “church history”), who is fed up with hearing that history is a string of “the right people being in the right place at the right time, nothing more” should open the book and be prepared for a wild ride.

There’s a reason history is never taught this way in (public) school. If it were, people would actually remember it.

_______

1. Though I can’t help but wonder if North isn’t having a little fun with, or at least self-consciously assailing, Bahnsen’s criticisms. Bahnsen, after savaging Chilton’s use of the five-point model, exclaims “But David [Chilton] also has a four-part outline for Revelation! …Can the same pie be completely divided into four and completely divided into five pieces?” North divides the Presbyterian conflict into five parts, but divides his book into four. Each part opens with a summary and concludes with a judgment. Thus, the five-fold covenantal conflict is combined with a four-fold pattern of judgment, the very thing Bahnsen derided Chilton for doing. Something to take seriously? Maybe Dr. Bahnsen would think that my observation on this matter “is too bizarre to be taken seriously by any literary critic.” Link: http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pb075.htm

Advertisements

2 responses to “Book Review – Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church

  1. This is still on my list of books to read…so many books and sadly so little time. Gary North has done us a great service writing this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s