The parallels of the two eras are uncanny. Like a century ago, conservatives have achieved some key victories, from the “definitive guidance” of the 1978 General Assembly that declared homosexual behavior inconsistent with Scripture, to the 1996 “fidelity and chastity” amendment to the Book of Order, which has survived subsequent challenges. In the earlier conflict, conservatives had likewise achieved a string of General Assembly victories, including declarations in 1892, 1910 and 1916 of five “essential and necessary” doctrines, or fundamentals, that officers were required to uphold. While conservatives did not attempt to incorporate them into the Book of Order, they believed that the Westminster Confession, to which ministers freely subscribed, explicitly taught them. Foreshadowing today’s Covenant Network, liberals in high places vigorously fought these attempts to hold officers accountable to the plain meaning of the church’s Constitution. In signing the Auburn Affirmation (1924), some 1,274 ministers challenged the very idea of classifying certain doctrines — what they called “theories” — as essential or fundamental.
Also a replay of the earlier era, when the General Assembly appointed a commission in 1925 to restore the “purity, peace, unity and progress” of the church, the General Assembly in 2001 appointed a theological task force on the “peace, unity and purity” of the church. In both cases, skepticism abounds regarding the ability of a committee to resolve the issues dividing the church. Similarities also emerge among personalities. The earlier conflict had its liberal voices like Jack Rogers (Robert H. Nichols, who wrote the Auburn Affirmation) as well as those seeking moderation like Richard Mouw (J. Ross Stevenson, president of Princeton Seminary) and Jack Haberer (Charles R. Erdman). While these personal parallels could be improved upon, the difficulty in finding a modern-day counterpart to the conservative Machen, the respected New Testament professor at Princeton, suggests that the earlier conflict featured dynamics that are missing today.
The Princeton Prophet
Machen, who became the foremost conservative leader after the publication of his Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, is often dismissed as a fundamentalist with all the baggage the term connotes. Yet Presbyterian historian D. G. Hart paints a different portrait in Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (1994). Born and reared in a prominent Presbyterian family in Baltimore, Machen was a scholar of the first order, having studied at Johns Hopkins, Princeton (the university and the seminary), and the German universities of Marburg and Göttingen. Theologically, he was no Yankee evangelical but a southern, Old School confessionalist who was suspicious of church union schemes that had been popular since the end of the Civil War; to him, they sacrificed confessional integrity to the dubious purpose of achieving greater social influence. Simultaneously upholding the “spirituality of the church” and tolerating diversity in society, Machen was on the wrong side of issues dear to Northern Presbyterians, objecting to Prohibition as well as prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Also unusual for a fundamentalist, he was not agitated over evolution or biblical criticism. He also was a life-long member of the Democratic Party, voting for the Roman Catholic Al Smith for president in 1928.
While he was uncomfortable with the religious right orientation of the Northern church at the time, his Christianity and Liberalism exposed a fatal flaw in the Presbyterian Church that did not sit well with liberals or evangelicals, both of whom presumed that America depended on the fortunes of their church. In riveting detail, Machen not only argued that liberal Protestantism is a different religion than historic Christianity, but raised the less-than-flattering observation that liberal ministers were disingenuous in subscribing to creeds that they no longer believed. Many within the church thought that mentioning such a thing in polite company was unbecoming of a gentleman. But secular intellectuals concerned about truth more than Victorian etiquette were impressed with the young professor, believing his narrative was more cogent than his opponents. Walter Lippman praised Machen’s argument for its “acumen,” “saliency” and “wit.” H. L. Mencken found his logic “completely impregnable.”
While no one in the church has since met his match, another anomaly of the earlier era is the inverse relation of Machen’s intellectual achievements to his institutional threat to the denomination. Compared to the Confessing Church Movement, which claims nearly 1,300 congregations representing 429,000 members, Machen’s mission board supported just 11 missionaries (compared to the church’s 1,356); his Orthodox Presbyterian Church attracted only 34 ministers and 17 elders when founded in 1936. Why the General Assembly was quick to deny him a promotion at Princeton, to break up the Old School majority at the seminary and to order him to trial remains a mystery.
Yet the fact that the church today is on the verge of a major division, not a tiny splinter like that of 1936, suggests that she has not addressed the predicament that Machen addressed in a book that remains in print 80 years later. Viewed this way, the relationship of the two eras is more serial than parallel; the unwillingness to listen to Machen laid the groundwork for the present, where the church is not so much debating theology but morality: whether officers can violate marriage vows, leave spouses and desert children in to order to “fool around.” Machen would not have been surprised; he would predict that once a denomination functions as if ordination vows and confessional standards do not matter, it will in subsequent generations begin to function as if marital vows and the natural family are no longer important either.
Lessons for Liberals and Evangelicals
Liberals may feel the most heat from Machen, who believed that intellectual honesty required them to resign their church offices because they could not in good conscience represent a church that maintains public confessional standards with which they disagree. In the world of finance, this would be call fiduciary negligence. Even today, as ministers no longer “subscribe” to a system of doctrine but promise to be “guided” by a Book of Confessions, many liberals still show little interest in submitting to a higher standard. Even as the 1967 constitutional changes vindicated Machen’s concerns about disingenuousness, those weakened vows nonetheless function the same way Machen maintained: making a minister accountable to a confessional tradition, not the other way around.
Likewise, liberals could learn from Machen about the futility of seeking to use the church as an instrument of social progress or, as H. L. Mencken lamented at Machen’s death, of trying to make “the Presbyterian church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.” The membership decline since 1968 confirms that the century-long effort to preserve the Presbyterian Church as a pivotal American social institution has achieved the opposite. Presbyterians today are not only scarcer than ever (less than 1 percent of the U.S. population), they find themselves outnumbered by Lutherans — whose churches have been relatively more concerned with maintaining a confessional tradition than with mediating social norms — by 3 to 1.
Evangelicals also have things to learn from Machen. Sharing with liberals the same New School pedigree, they suffer from the same weaknesses. Oblivious to the “spirituality of the church” (in Lutheran terms, the doctrine of the two kingdoms), evangelicals also exhibit an instrumental view of the church that results in confusing the sacred and the secular, bent on making the church relevant to the here and now. Whereas liberals want to be relevant to elite opinion, evangelicals want to be relevant to popular culture, witness their embrace of the megachurch and liturgy that takes cues from Hollywood and Nashville not Westminster and Edinburgh. Like all good confessionalists, Machen would look askance at what D. G. Hart calls this artificial, industrial approach to church growth, preferring the organic means that take the covenant, sacraments and procreation seriously.
While evangelicals affirm the fundamentals, Machen would have questioned the strategy of the Confessing Movement of rallying around a three-point statement that is more typical of parachurch organizations than an ecclesial communion. In his day, he was not a fan of the Portland or “Five Point” Deliverance; he knew that nothing substitutes for a vigorous embrace of a confession, like the Westminster Standards, that touches on “all things” that Christ commanded his apostles to observe. Understanding the critical role of theology, Machen would add that the Confessing Movement would be more credible and effective had the protest started much earlier — perhaps in 1980 when the National Capital Union Presbytery received into membership Mansfield Kaseman, a United Church of Christ minister who denied the deity of Christ — rather than waiting for the Mount Auburn session of Cincinnati to ordain practicing homosexuals in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, if Western North Carolina Presbytery repeats the 1935 mistake of the New Brunswick Presbytery, the church will be tempted to think she has rid herself of a problem. The reality would be that she has ignored a pathology that has plagued the church for generations. However, by listening to a prophet who was silenced, J. Gresham Machen, Presbyterians can reverse the mistakes of the past century and begin to care more about the confessional tradition of John Calvin and John Knox than the fortunes of American society.
Posted Jan. 27, 2004
Robert W. Patterson, a former Presbyterian minister, is a writer on public policy and religion in Washington, D.C.
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