Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part I: How did we get here?
Chapter 2 - Too Small: The Pure Conservative Church of J. Gresham Machen.
The second chapter introduces us to J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary (1906-1929). The Liberal wing of the church successfully revised the Westminster Confession in 1903, softening its stance on predestination. This, among other events, provoked a conservative response that led the identification of the five fundamentals of the Christian Faith (inerrancy, virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and miracles). Affirmed by the General Assembly in 1910 and in 1916, the fundamentals become the center of controversy in the church and Machen became leader of the movement to repel encroaching liberalism.
The recurrent theme in all Machen’s conflicts was that he saw the Presbyterian Church as a voluntary society teaching a pure doctrine, and he did not see how he could remain in the same body with people who did not agree with all that doctrine.
Machen conceived of the church as an association for the teaching of Christian doctrine. This pure doctrine had its source in the Bible and its highest embodiment in the Westminster Confession, and it was not subject to change or development. To maintain the purity of the doctrine, the church must be tolerant, exclusive, and free from the state. Therefore, when Machen spoke of the “church” he normally meant only the content of its teachings, rather than all the phenomena one might find in the empirical Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Machen considered his group to be the truly constitutional party in the church, but by “constitution” he meant only the sections dealing with doctrine, not the larger body of material on order, government and discipline. (20-21)
Machen argued that a church, in contrast with the state, had a right to insist that those within it agree with all of its standards, and to remove any who did not. “Involuntary organizations,” he wrote, “ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist.
Machen had a conception of he church that was doctrinal, exclusive, intolerant, free, but not institutional. … (21)
Things came to a head in 1922 when New York Presbytery installed Henry Emmerson Fosdick, a non-Presbyterian and a professor at Union Theological seminary, as a pastor of a New York church. Fosdick spoke publicly against the fundamentals, provoking a response from conservative forces led by Clarence Macartney, Machen, and others. An overture to the General Assembly in 1923 called for Fosdick’s removal and for a reaffirmation of the fundamentals. Fosdick was eventually required to either become Presbyterian or vacate his pulpit (He chose the latter.) The affirmation of the fundamentals made a number of liberals and moderates uneasy and they issued the Auburn Affirmation that challenged fundamentals as essential to church doctrine. (About 1,300 of 10,000 pastors eventually signed on.) To Machen and company, this was a clear indication that there were two different religions under one roof (one being apostate) and one had to go.
Weston observes that the conservative forces attempted to address the issues at the General Assembly level rather than challenging the issues in individual presbyteries. To try to address issues through the assembly (that in some ways violated denominational polity) would have likely forced a denominational divide, while addressing issues through presbyteries might have might have pared the denomination down but not provoked a split. The specter of divide aligned the loyalists with the liberal wing even though many loyalists may have been in sympathy with the conservatives. How the loyalist handled this is the subject of the next chapter.
As someone who did not grow up Presbyterian, I am still intrigued to see how these events of 75-100 years ago still function as a template for many life-long Presbyterians. I have hit a raw nerve more than once with a variety of life-long Presbyterians in conversations simply because I was without the same template and the idea I had in mind was symbolic for them in ways that it was not for me.
Weston’s observation about the conservative impulse rings true to me from my experience. The emphasis on the doctrine to the near exclusion of institutional factors is an insightful perspective.
Next we will turn to chapter three and the loyalist party.