The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates, by Bradley J. Longfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pb., 352 pp. ISBN 0-19-508674-0. $30.
Editor’s Note: This book review was written before the release of the recommendations from the PC(USA) Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity.
Along with Jon Walton, I serve as the Co-Moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and was glad to be asked to recommend a book that might be instructive to members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as we awaited the full report and recommendations of the Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity. I asked for suggestions from many friends and colleagues. One book got several mentions and so I ordered it and then wondered if I would stay awake as I read it.
When one is pondering “summer reading” possibilities, suffice it to say that the title, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates, would not seem to be the best choice to slip into your beach bag! That said, I thoroughly enjoyed–yes, enjoyed–reading this interestingly written and instructive book by Bradley J. Longfield. I believe that this book ought to be on every pastor’s reading list and required reading for seminarians. It should be accessible to laypeople who seek to understand the Presbyterian Church’s ways of debating important issues and trying to work through times of disagreement by a responsible use of our polity and understanding of our history.
The “Presbyterian Controversy” of the 1920s and 1930s is multi-faceted, but was primarily centered on differing stands on “right doctrine” in theology, the authority of Scripture, the relationship between church and culture, and requirements for ordination standards. Sound familiar? What fueled the heat of this controversy, in addition to genuine differences in theological and biblical beliefs and perspectives, were the enormous cultural and scientific changes occurring in American culture specifically and the upheaval in the world following World War I generally.
There was concern about the increasing secularization of the nation as, for instance, Sabbath observances began to falter. Concern for moral and social reform was evidenced by the Presbyterian Church’s strong support of Prohibition. And Darwin’s theory of evolution presented, literally, an earth-shaking challenge to the biblical story of creation and by extension, of belief in God and the understanding of humankind being made in God’s image. Wars, whether of the cultural kind or of the militaristic kind, dominated this period of history. Little wonder, then, as Presbyterians tried to make sense of all this profound change and turmoil, that theological and ecclesiological matters would also become the center of profound change and turmoil.
Longfield chose an engaging lens through which we might glimpse our church in those years. He introduces us to the main characters of the controversy, six leaders in our denomination who shared many similarities in background and upbringing, but who came to have sharply differing views and methods of dealing with conflict and division in the church. In succeeding chapters, we meet each person and learn some of the familial and educational influences that shaped their theology and ecclesiology. J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Sloane Coffin, Clarence E. McCartney, Charles R. Eerdman and Robert E. Speer embody the Presbyterian controversy and their varying personalities greatly determine the eventual outcome of how that controversy is handled in the church. They represent the theological spectrum from conservative and liberal extremes to a moderate middle.
Having attended some General Assemblies myself, I was drawn into Longfield’s descriptions of how several General Assemblies in the 1920s sought to address issues and individuals with integrity and to preserve the unity of the church in such tumultuous, uneasy and divisive times. The speeches and votes of those assemblies still live and breathe in our General Assemblies today. In page after page, I found myself recognizing that I had very recently heard some of the same theological and biblical arguments of the 1920s being hashed out on the floor of our own Presbytery meetings as well as at the General Assembly level. Often, as Longfield quotes these six spokesmen, we can hear ourselves in them as we speak to each other–and about each other–today.
The impetus for this book for Longfield in 1991 seems to have been the decline of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in numerical membership and influence in the culture at large. And, while he and I might differ somewhat in our opinions on the various causes and in the remedies for this decline, his book in 2005 provides a helpful insight as our church faces its current crisis.
We, too, are in a period of tumultuous change in society and upheaval in the world. We, too, have sharply differing views on the interpretation of Scripture, on whether there ought be a list of doctrines to which we must all adhere, on ordination standards and the proper role of Presbyteries and congregations to determine fitness for ordination and the role of the General Assembly in reviewing such matters. As a lifelong Presbyterian committed to the Church and as part of the Covenant Network, I share the goals of opening ordination to all called members of the Church and of preserving its unity.
In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen was separated from the denomination over his commitment to “right doctrine” as he fiercely understood it. Others worked long and hard to preserve the unity of the church, which required making enough room for people of sincere faith who held differing views on the Bible, theology and ecclesiology. The desire for unity was grounded in a deep commitment to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ out of a united witness to a torn world in need of hope, healing and peace.
It turns out this is the perfect season for reading this book. The Presbyterian Controversy illuminates lessons learned from an earlier controversy and provides valuable insights for how we might deal with each other now. We are too large and diverse in 2005 to have one seminary (Princeton) and six individuals who wield such influence and power as did these six men not quite a century ago. But it is my prayer that the collective and careful insights and recommendations of our current Task Force will help the Presbyterian Church of today speak respectfully of and to one another, listen thoughtfully, and then move together into a vital, faithful future just as an earlier Commission (Task Force) took on that task in another unsettling, unsettled time.
Kim Clayton Richter is interim director of the Lay Institute of Faith and Life at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and is co-moderator of the Covenant Network.