Back in the early 1970s William Stringfellow, a tenacious lawyer and lay theologian, contended that what the church most needed was the spiritual gift of discernment. That is, one should exercise the gift of spiritual insight that truly engages the particular times in which you are living. Now, in the listing of spiritual gifts by the apostle Paul, discernment is not explicitly mentioned. But Stringfellow, speaking at a Presbyterian College convocation in Montreal, made a compelling case. The social upheaval of the 60s, the long drawn out Cold War and profound questions raised by the Vietnam War were among the growing challenges to face those who would soon enter ordained ministry. For him the witness of Scripture to the Gospel of Christ compelled discernment of the times as a spiritual discipline.
The church, of course, has faced acute moments of challenge before and done so with prophetic vigor: Augustine in the fourth century, the Reformers of the 16th century, and more recently Barth and Bonhoeffer between the First and Second World Wars. Closer to home, Walter Bryden in those difficult decades for Presbyterians after 1925.
Who might help us discern our way today? Often we are prodded by iconoclasts, people who penetrate the surface of things and send us back to reexamine our core convictions as a community of faith. One such voice is that of Stanford Reid. Through the lens of Donald MacLeod’s remarkable biography, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy, we meet an articulate, often outspoken, individual who had a running battle to reform the church he persisted in loving but from which he experienced mostly rejection. What can we learn from such a character and why might we be the poorer if such people were not part of our heritage?
For Reid, discerning God’s way for his denomination meant taking the confessions of the church, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith, with great seriousness. He wanted to help the church recover the kind of clarity about what it believed that Calvin articulated. Some thought he reflected an overly rationalistic form of Calvinism than the liveliness of the Reformer’s original vision. Perhaps the main difference between Reid and people like Barth and Bryden was that for the latter the confessions of the church were not the last word. They were subject to the confessions only in so far as they were faithful to Scripture. Reid would argue that the confessions were faithful to Scripture and therefore should be rigorously accepted.
People who are confessionally Reformed and convinced Evangelicals have often been misrepresented in our church. Of course, it is also true that many of them don’t even understand themselves! We would add that few people in our denomination, wherever they might be on a conservative-liberal continuum, have evidenced the grand scale of Reid’s reach nationally and globally and with such devoted service. Our denomination deserves to be exposed to his thinking.
In the early 1930s, Reid was very concerned about the future of the Canadian Presbyterian Church in which his family had demonstrated profound commitment in Quebec in the wake of the whole church union controversy of 1925. His father had been minister of Stanley Church in Westmount and this congregation was known “as a bastion of a confessional orthodoxy.” He was also a friend of J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia – a seminary that sought to maintain the tradition of orthodox Calvinism that had been the hallmark of Princeton Seminary until the late 1920s.
Reid went to Westminster quite deliberately for what MacLeod regards as academic, theological and spiritual reasons. Some regarded this decision not to attend one of his church’s colleges as a sign of “disloyalty to the denomination.” But three contemporaries of Reid who chose to study at Princeton Seminary were not criticized in this way. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that in the early 1950s he was denied a call to teach church history at Presbyterian College even though he was highly qualified academically.
In 1944 Reid helped establish the Town of Mount Royal Presbyterian Church. He hoped to create what he called a company of those committed to the cutting edge of the Gospel in an increasingly secular culture. It would be a revolutionary venture in which no fundraising programs would be held and no social club types of activity would be allowed. Long after he left, he noted the numerical decline of the congregation in the 60s and 70s. Part of the reason was certainly the effects of Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution and the province’s increasing secularism. But Reid thought it was also, and perhaps principally, because of its loss of spiritual commitment.
After a short but creative ministry as the first pastor of Mount Royal, he began 39 years of teaching history, first at McGill University and later at the newly formed University of Guelph. All the while he remained intimately involved with the local congregation. He preached regularly, taught a Bible class and was elected an elder. He was active in both the Presbytery of Montreal, and nationally when General Assembly was trying to create new administrative arrangements.
In a forceful statement that captures something of the driving thrust of Reid’s thinking and behaviour, he wrote in 1951, “The Protestant Church today throughout the world is troubled with anemia … There is a new need for that enthusiasm, self-sacrifice and aggressiveness which characterized the sixteenth century Reformation.” His view of the church was not a concern about size, rituals and organization but an urgency regarding “a spiritual reawakening based upon a return to the doctrines of the Scriptures.”
He was generally critical of the denomination’s colleges and served for some 37 years on the Board of Trustees of Westminster Seminary and taught there as a sessional lecturer from time to time. He was even proposed as a candidate for its first president but in 1965 his membership in a denomination associated officially with the World Council of Churches made him suspect to some. By 1981 Reid had concluded that he was persona non grata at Westminster. He was also increasingly disappointed that Canadian Presbyterian graduates of Westminster often left the denomination and frequently split congregations in the process. In 1977, Reid wrote the president of Westminster Seminary, “I know that over the last ten years … the graduates from Westminster have generally been a dead loss up here in our church as far as working within the church for reform is concerned … They have wrecked more than a few congregations.”
In his own way Reid sought to be ecumenical but not if this ended up “wiping out our historical Presbyterian position,” not if it set aside “what we regarded as the basic Christian position.” He was open to cooperate as long as this did not mean compromising one’s own basic theological convictions.
It was not until after retirement from the University of Guelph that Reid finally achieved in the early 80s what he must have regarded his highest delight as a teacher and scholar. He was invited to help the Presbyterian Church in Australia deal with pressures there for church union. In the process of supporting the continuing Presbyterians, he was also given the chance to teach church history at Presbyterian Theological Hall, Melbourne. All of this happened at a time of the declining health of Priscilla, Stanford Reid’s beloved wife.
Over the years Reid surprised many both on his theological left and on his right. In the 1960s he supported the new ordination questions. Regarding the ordination of women to ordained ministry, he would not be drawn into the debate. When Living Faith was being circulated for comment, he gave his opinion, was listened to and supported the final draft. On these and other major issues before the church he sought to distinguish what was essential doctrinally and what was less essential and could be either tolerated or accommodated. For this he was sometimes roundly dismissed by a number of evangelical voices.
In 1979 Stanford Reid received an honorary D.D. from Presbyterian College. In presenting him, Joseph McLelland depicted Reid as “a worthy debating partner, an outspoken but fair critic, and one of those theologians whose disagreement with majority opinions are always to be taken seriously.”
As a historian Reid saw a difference between world history and church history. He held that the latter sought to place the church in the context of the former. Reid emphasized that Christ is the Lord of all history but also “cautioned against ever attributing an event directly to divine intervention.”
MacLeod concludes his biography with a thoughtful summation that captures something of the essence of Stanford Reid for our denomination. “He had carved out a lonely niche for himself: a man who never felt truly comfortable in the mainstream, who was often a loner, but at the same time, paradoxically, a propagandist, a popularizer, even, one might say, an entertainer.” He was “a defender of the person in the pew who was puzzled by church politics and anxious for direct dealing and common sense solutions.”
Time and again throughout his life he was “ignored, minimized, ostracized, even rejected. Remarkably none of these experiences left him bitter or angry. His Reformed faith provided a ready antidote to this buffeting. He was continually going back to the themes of providence and the perseverance of the saints. His Calvinism was of a very practical and personal nature, gainsaying those who decry that theology as merely cerebral and intellectual.” His vision in establishing Town of Mount Royal Church was “a laity equipped to articulate a faith that provided an alternative to the easy and comfortable conformities of Christendom immediately after the Second World War.”
My own assessment is that evangelical voices, at their most constructive, encourage the church to think through its theological heritage as a whole; they push for deeper reflection on our basic convictions. We need this earnestly as we face new and difficult questions for the times in which we live. Discerning God’s way for the church arises in the interrelationship between what it is that we believe and the challenges we are called to engage.