As I’ve begun studies at Westminster Theological Seminary, I figured it might be worth while, given my interest in the history of Reformed theology in America, to write up something on the events in the Presbyterian Church which led to the founding of that institution. Nothing ground-breaking or original here, just a brief narrative for those who may be interested in hearing the story but who to this point have lacked the time.
As a Reformed catholic, I both sympathize with and shrink back from Machen in certain respects. Doctrinally, I agree with him wholheartedly with regard to the importance of orthodoxy and the un-Christian nature of theological liberalism. However, I do have my reservations about his seeming eagerness to pursue division within the Presbyterian Church. At any rate, as one who is a conservative American Presbyterian and therefore an heir of Machen, I do think these things are worth discussing.
My narrative here is taken almost exclusively from Bradley Longfield’s excellent work, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford, 1991.), as I lack the time at the moment to produce anything resembling a full research paper with a variety of sources. However, I’d also recommend Darryl Hart’s biography on Machen for a more sympathetic look at the great New Testament Scholar and champion of “Presbyterian orthodoxy.” Hart’s thesis that Machen was not, in fact, a fundamentalist in the strict sense, is intriguing, and one which I tend to agree with.
A Very Brief Narrative of the Presbyterian Controversy
As liberal theology was on the rise in American Presbyterianism, Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” at First Presbyterian Church in NYC on May 21, 1922. The sermon was the beginning of a liberal counter-offensive against conservatives who would not tolerate their beliefs.
J. Gresham Machen and other fundamentalists responded immediately. Clarence McCartney, pastor of Arch Street church in Philadelphia, preached a counter-sermon titled: “Shall Unbelief Win?” The central issues at stake for the conservatives were the virgin birth, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the atonement, and the bodily resurrection of Christ.
Early twentieth century theological Liberalism, while diverse, emphasized some common central themes: the immanence of God, the goodness of mankind, the moral influence theory of the atonement, the primacy of feelings and ethics in religion. Liberalism also generally adopted evolutionary science and the historical critical approach to Scripture, as well as the “social Gospel.”
Machen and those who thought like him concluded that theological liberalism was an entirely different religion from orthodox Christianity. Machen’s landmark work, Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923, worked out this thesis in detail. He contended that liberalism betrayed a tendency to bring God down to the level of nature and do away with human sin and the need for redemption, thus abolishing the very essence of the Christian faith. On top of being a different religion, Machen insisted, liberalism (or Modernism, as he also called it) is in fact worse than other non-Christian religions because it is “only the more destructive to the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional terminology.” [Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1929.), 2.]
Machen delineates six areas in which he viewed liberalism to have deviated substantially from historic Christianity: 1. its understanding of the nature, role, and importance of Christian doctrine, 2. its conception of the relationship between God and man, 3. its rejection of the authority and inspiration of Scripture, 4. its understanding of Jesus Christ, 5. its view of the salvation provided by Christ, and 6. how it conceives of the nature and purpose of the church. The only remedy for this situation, as Machen saw it, was a new Reformation which would bring “light and freedom” to mankind by contending for the central truths of Christianity: human sinfulness and redemption in the atonement provided by Christ and the authority and inspiration of Scripture. There were only two options in Machen’s mind: for liberals to admit their apostasy and withdraw from the church, or, lacking this, for conservatives to secede and form a new body.
In contrast to Machen’s primarily doctrinal agenda, William Jennings Bryan pushed for social, political, and economic reform in the denomination. In the 1923 General Assembly, a debate over evolution broke out, but Bryan couldn’t convince the assembly to ban evolutionary views. They did however determine to stand strong in its commitment to the doctrine of the Westminster Standards and the “five fundamentals” of biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the miracles of Jesus.
After the decision of the 1923 General Assembly, Henry Sloane Coffin, the liberal pastor/theologian of New York, declared that he could not abide by the decision to require the “five fundamentals” of ministers. In response to the decision of the Assembly, a committee of pastors and theologians led by Coffin drew up an Affirmation in an attempt to safeguard theological liberty in the denomination: The Auburn Affirmation. This document holds that, for the sake of liberty and unity, strict subscription to the Confession and the five fundamentals should not be required of all ordained ministers. It was signed by 174 ministers in the denomination.
In the 1924 General Assembly, Clarence Macartney, a leader of the fundamentalist party, won the vote to be moderator by a vote of 464-446. Macartney was a staunch advocate of Westminster orthodoxy and was an ardent defender of the Princeton doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Even though Macartney was named moderator, the decisions of the assembly were moderate: no action was taken against Coffin or the other signers of the Auburn Affirmation.
Thus, the battle raged on into the next General Assembly. Machen and McCartney continued their assault on liberalism while Coffin and others continued their cry for tolerance. The struggle also reached Princeton Seminary. Machen and Charles Erdman, both professors at the seminary and theological conservatives, disagreed on the importance of doctrinal precision. Erdman was willing to tolerate those who did not adhere to the Westminster Standards, while Machen was far from tolerating any deviation whatsoever. This difference marked the beginning of the breach at Princeton which would eventually cause Machen to leave and begin Westminster Seminary.
As Erdman’s name came up as a candidate for moderator of the 1925 General Assembly, Machen began an assault against his colleague. He stated that the issue at stake was the threat of modernism in the church and the need for a strong stance against it. Indifference to the necessity of orthodox doctrine was, to Machen and other fundamentalists, nearly as bad as rejection of it. Amidst the attacks, Erdman stood firm in his platform for progress and peace and did become moderator. Under the influence of Erdman and Coffin, the “five fundamentals” that were declared to be essential by the GA in 1910, 1916, and 1923, were in 1925 officially declared to be unbinding for ministers in the denomination. Thus, with the help of Erdman and other moderates, the liberal push for tolerance was secured.
As the rupture between Machen and Erdman at Princeton continued, two factions developed and by 1926 the faculty was split. A proposal to reorganize the seminary in order to allow for appointing professors with liberal views was on the horizon, and the 1929 General Assembly decided for reorganization despite Machen’s protests. Two liberal theologians were placed on the Seminary’s board of trustees, and Machen’s greatest fears were realized: Princeton Seminary had entered the beginning of what would surely be a drawn-out, painful decline into compromise and irrelevance. Standing by to watch this take place was not something Machen was willing to endure, so he decided to begin his own Seminary near Philadelphia, naming it, quite aptly, Westminster. He envisioned his new seminary as one which would uncompromisingly carry on the Old Princeton tradition. The Seminary began its first semester on September 25, 1929 with Machen, Oswald Allis, Robert Wilson, and Cornelius Van Til as its professors.
Around the same time as his struggles at Princeton were coming to a head, Machen had also become convinced that the denomination tolerated and supported liberal missionaries, and therefore determined to begin an independent board of missions which would support only missionaries who were theologically orthodox. The main personality he took on in this battle was Robert E. Speer, who was head of the denomination’s board of foreign missions. Fifteen of the board members—including Speer—had signed the Auburn Affirmation. Machen, not surprisingly, charged the board with compromise of the Gospel and engaged in a prolonged assault against it. He wrote an overture to the 1933 General Assembly declaring his distaste and distrust of the Board, labeling Speer’s theology in particular as “middle of the road” and vague. As was the case in his battle with Erdman, the main issue for Machen was the board’s refusal to take a strong stand against modernism. While Speer pled for unity and peace, Machen continued his push for a reformation of the denomination’s mission policies. The 1933 General Assembly rejected his pleas, and Machen consequently decided to begin an independent board of foreign missions.
The 1934 General Assembly declared the independent board of foreign missions unconstitutional. Machen would not dismantle the board, however, and was uncompromising in his stand. Though urged even by fellow conservatives such as Macartney to soften his stance for the sake of unity, Machen had little desire any longer to continue dealing with liberals, for he was convinced that God had hardened their hearts against the Gospel. He thus began the work of forming an entirely new denomination. Machen proudly stood trial at the 1936 General Assembly and was suspended from ministry in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Soon thereafter he formed his new denomination: The Presbyterian Church of America (which later became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). Machen declared at the first General Assembly of the new denomination that he was overjoyed at the division and at the establishment of what he considered to finally be a “true Presbyterian Church.” Within six months, however, Machen would be pushed out of his position as president of the board of missions and the new denomination would undergo a split of its own due to dissentions over the issues of premilennialism and the drinking of alcohol.