The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 1. The Beginnings of Unbelief

IN ORDER TO appreciate properly the significance of the theological struggle which has just ended within the Presbyterian Church in the USA, it is essential at the outset that an historical perspective be gained. It is important to realize that this conflict which resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church of America in June, 1936, now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was not a controversy over some trivial matter or a difference between certain individuals but the culmination of many years of doctrinal defection. The real basic issue was a clash between two divergent points of view in doctrine, one conservative or orthodox and the other liberal or modernist. The struggle had been in evidence for a generation or more, but it had been kept subdued. A study of the history of the Presbyterian Church in the USA will show how true this is.

The Presbyterian Church in the USA was organized largely by Presbyterians from the British Isles. These Presbyterians of the Puritan type settled in New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and Virginia, where they established churches under the guidance and encouragement of Presbyterians in England, Scotland, and Ireland. At first they existed as separate congregations, but finally in 1706 the Presbytery of Philadelphia was formed and later on the Presbyterian Church in the USA was organized into synods and a general assembly until it reached its present constituency of approximately two million members.

The creed which was adopted by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 was the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which documents had been completed by the great divines at the Westminster Assembly 1643-49. It is not possible here to discuss all of the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith nor is it necessary, but one thing is certain—the doctrines of the Confession, as admitted by all, are based on the assumption that the Bible is true and the sole authority in religion, and that the articles of the Confession are a systematic presentation of what the Bible teaches. While the Confession necessarily contains dogmas which are distinctive to Presbyterianism and taught in the Bible, there also appear doctrines such as the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, his atonement for sin, his miracles, and the full trustworthiness of the Bible, which have been regarded as essential by all branches of Christendom. It is rather important to keep this fact in mind throughout the discussion because the main contention of this survey is that the Presbyterian Church in the USA has departed in practice from these doctrines.

There are several dates which one might mark as the beginning of doctrinal impurity in the church. For example, in 1801 the General Association of Connecticut and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA adopted a plan of union in order to avoid competition. By the terms of this plan a Presbyterian minister could serve in a Congregational church and vice versa, but the congregation was to conduct its discipline according to the form of government obtaining, either Presbyterian or Congregational.[1] Some material growth and prosperity resulted from this merger, but with it came the inroads of Hopkinsianism, which originated in New England and which denied that man is depraved and separated from God because of his relationship to Adam. Two ministers, the Rev. Albert Barnes, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, and Dr. Lyman Beecher, professor at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, were tried for heresy on this point. While Dr. Barnes was acquitted by the General Assembly and Dr. Beecher's case was not carried to the General Assembly, it was not due to a lack of heresy but mostly because Hopkinsianism was growing in strength and could control the General Assembly at times.

The controversy between the Old School and the New School theologies, which ended in a division into the Old School assembly and the New School assembly in 1837, was the result of doctrinal unsoundness in certain presbyteries of the church. When the General Assembly met in 1837 in Philadelphia, the Old School was in a majority and it decided to abrogate the Plan of Union of 1801. A "Testimony and Memorial" was addressed to the assembly exhibiting the doctrinal errors and lapses in the church. The Old School leaders were determined to rid the church of heresy so that a true Presbyterian body would result. While the constitutionality of the Plan of Union of 1801 was also attacked, it was the doctrinal divergence from the Westminster Confession of Faith which motivated the Old School party in seeking the rescinding of the Plan of Union. These doctrinal errors consisted mainly in a wrong view of man's guilt in Adam, of the atonement, of election, and of regeneration.[2]

After much debate the Synods of Western Reserve, Utica, Geneva, and Genesee were exscinded because they were the most affected by the New England theology. A strong protest signed by one hundred and three ministers, among whom was Horace Bushnell, a leading liberal theologian of that day, was entered against the abrogation of the union.[3] This action by the Old School party was a bold step, but it was the only real solution to the differences in doctrine between the two groups in the church.[4] The Old School was truly Presbyterian in doctrine and polity, while the New School was tainted with anti-scriptural beliefs.

If the division into Old School and New School had continued, it is very likely that the doctrinal controversy which resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church of America would never have occurred. But the Civil War produced new issues which made these two parties forget their differences, and a union was effected in 1869.[5] That union should never have taken place, for it brought together two parties who disagreed fundamentally as to doctrine. It was one of the tragic events in Presbyterian history.

There are other events which illustrate the disagreement between the two doctrinal factions within the church, but the most important controversy was the one which led to a revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1903. It is this dispute which shall be examined in detail as it demonstrates how much the New School theology had permeated the church. In 1788, chapters XX, XXIII, and XXXI of the Confession of Faith concerning the powers of synods, councils, and civil magistrates were amended and, in 1886-87, the clause forbidding marriage with a deceased wife's sister was stricken from chapter XXIV, section 4 of the Confession of Faith, but this did not affect the Calvinistic system of doctrine of the Confession. The amendments in 1903, on the other hand, vitally altered the emphasis of the Confession.

The agitation to revise the Confession of Faith began in 1889 when fifteen presbyteries overtured the General Assembly asking that some change be made in the doctrinal standards of the church. A committee appointed by the assembly brought in a report which was later adopted to the effect that the matter be referred to the presbyteries under two questions: 1. Do you desire a revision of the Confession of Faith? 2. If so, in what respects and to what extent?[6] When the General Assembly met in 1890 it was learned that 134 presbyteries had voted in the affirmative. This was a sufficient majority to warrant the assembly appointing a committee of fifteen ministers and ten elders who were instructed to consider the whole matter and to report to the next assembly, but they were specifically told that the Calvinistic aspect of the Confession must not be impaired.[7]

When the General Assembly convened in 1891 the committee on revision proposed changes involving many chapters of the Confession and questions in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.[8] The changes which the assembly of 1892 finally sent to the presbyteries for discussion and a vote concerned not only the chapters which the committee had recommended for revision, but additional ones. These proposed changes failed to receive the affirmative vote of a two-thirds majority of the presbyteries and so the efforts to revise the Confession failed at that time.[9]

Two reasons in the main caused the defeat of the revisions: the strong opposition of the men at Princeton Theological Seminary like Francis L. Patton and B. B. Warfield, and the heresy trial of Dr. Charles A. Briggs, professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. It is perhaps true that the heresy trial of Dr. Briggs was the stronger reason because it dramatized the doctrinal viewpoint of some who favored revision.

Dr. Briggs held to a belief in the errancy of holy Scripture, the sanctification of the soul after death, and the sufficiency of human reason and the church as adequate guides in the matter of salvation. At the General Assembly in 1893 Dr. Briggs was declared guilty and suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.[10]

After these attempts at revision had failed, comparative quiet obtained in the church, but those who believed in a modified Calvinism and a less strict interpretation of the Bible continued their fight to revise the standards of the church. Many in the church were firm believers in the New School theology and were not to be discouraged so easily.

Again in 1900 twenty-three presbyteries overtured the General Assembly to establish a new and shorter creed, while fifteen presbyteries asked for a revision of the Confession of Faith and a new creed.[11] Such demand by so many presbyteries could not be ignored, so a committee of fifteen—eight ministers and seven elders—was appointed to study the matter and asked to report to the next General Assembly. Through two successive assemblies certain changes were considered, and in 1903 modifications were made by adding a declaratory statement as to chapter III and chapter X, section 3; and changes were made in chapters XVI, section 7, XXII, section 3, XXV, section 6; and chapter XXXIV on the Holy Spirit and chapter XXXV on the Love of God and Missions were added. These revisions were less extensive than those proposed in 1890, yet they meant a victory for the New School party and a definite toning down of the Calvinistic emphasis of the Confession of Faith.[12]

Several doctrines distinctively Calvinistic or Reformed were involved in these changes, but the one which is paramount is the doctrine of election and its consistent application to the doctrine of the atonement. This is seen in the declaratory statement which deals with chapter III and chapter X, section 3, of the Confession, and is also seen in chapter XXXV on the Love of God and Missions.

In commenting on chapter III the declaratory statement says,

With reference to chapter III of the Confession of Faith: that concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God's eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of His love to all mankind, His gift of His Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and His readiness to bestow His saving grace on all who seek it.

It is, of course, biblical to say that God loved the world (John 3:16) and that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2). Such expressions must, however, be understood in their biblical sense. The declaratory statement gives to such expressions a turn that distinctly tends to obscure the particularism of God's redemptive love and universalizes the design of Christ's atoning work. It is the contention of the Reformed faith that God's redemptive love as set forth in the Bible is coextensive with the extent of the atonement, and that Christ did not die to save all men but only the elect.

The effort to tone down this particularism of the gospel is also seen in chapter XXXV, "Of the Love of God and Missions." Let it be said with emphasis that Calvinists are staunch believers in and supporters of missions. In fact, they are among the most zealous for preaching the gospel to the lost. But in chapter XXXV there is no mention made of the fact that God not only loves all in a general benevolent way, but that he loves some unto salvation. There is also an omission in this chapter of the efficacious grace of the Holy Spirit which makes salvation real to some. In other words, that particularism of the gospel which is so precious to lovers of the Bible and so offensive to the enemies of the cross is studiously avoided. A statement which seeks to declare the teaching of the Confession on the love of God and omits the fact that God has elected some to salvation is not true to nor consistent with the whole of the Confession.

There are those who contend that such an interpretation of the Confession of Faith would eliminate the love of God from the Confession entirely.[13] It is true that the Confession and the Bible do not include the love of God as preached by those who hold to the general fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It is also true that the Confession and the Bible do not warrant the teaching that God loves all unto salvation. As Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse pointed out in discussing this subject,

It is not true, however, that the Westminster Confession of Faith drops the Biblical doctrine of the love of God. At the heart of the Bible, at the heart of Christianity and the gospel, and so at the heart of Calvinism, is the doctrine of the particular saving love of God for His people. This doctrine of redeeming love avoids the one-sided preaching of the love of God, which is so common today, with its consequent passing over the righteousness and holiness of God and the radical sinfulness of man.[14]

The very same weakness is seen in the declaratory statement concerning chapter X, section 3, on elect infants. The declaratory statement is right when it says, "With reference to chapter X, section 3, of the Confession of Faith, that it is not to be regarded as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost." This leaves the question of the extent of the salvation of infants dying in infancy open to various opinions. In fact, on this point the Scriptures are not definite. But the declaratory statement goes farther by saying, "that all lost in infancy are included in the election of grace and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how He pleases." According to the Word of God and the Confession of Faith, no one has a right to make such a statement because revealed truth is not clear on the subject. The extent of infant salvation has been left a mystery in the Bible and that is where it must be left. One of the glories of the Confession of Faith is the fact that it includes all that the Scriptures teach but no more; it does not speculate. In dealing with this question professor John Murray makes it clear that there have been various convictions concerning the salvation of infants dying in infancy.

There have been Reformed theologians of the highest repute who held to the position expressed in the Declaratory Statement. Dr. Charles Hodge for example [Systematic Theology 1, 26-27] is unambiguous in his argument for the salvation of all infants dying in infancy. Other Reformed theologians of equal distinction scrupulously refrained from taking any such position. It is apparent, therefore, that there is surely room for difference of judgment in the matter. Our objection to the Declaratory Statement is that it incorporates into the creed of the church what is, to say the least, a highly debatable position, and therefore a position that should never be made part of creedal confession.[15]

A perusal of the discussions concerning these amendments in the Presbyterian Church in the USA between 1889 and 1903 will show that the Calvinists were on one side of the debate and those with Arminian and anti-scriptural tendencies were on the other.

Dr. Grier, editor of The Presbyterian in 1889, wrote with almost prophetic insight,

The General Assembly has by one of its acts just passed opened up the sluices of debate in the church for the coming years. It has put its Standards in question before the Presbyteries and invited their suggestions as to the revision of the Confession of Faith. This is a movement which may have immense consequences in the future, and largely determine the position of the body in the circle of the Churches, in the time to come, and its own stability and unity as well.[16]

In fact, this act of the assembly not only opened up the "sluices of debate," but the ultimate revisions in 1903 gave comfort and impetus to those who wished the New School theology to control the church. As it turned out, the stability and the unity of the church were mightily affected, since the child of New School theology, which is known as modernism, does dominate that church today, and the unity of the church is only in name.

Dr. B. B. Warfield, of Princeton Theological Seminary, entered into the discussion against revision with vigor and helped measurably to delay action until 1903. In commenting on chapter X which deals with "Effectual Calling," he wrote,

The chapter, as a whole, comes out of the Committees' hands a fair model of what a Confessional statement ought not to be—obscure and ambiguous where certainty and clearness are not only attainable but had already been attained in the original statement, dogmatic where the Scriptures are silent or even opposed, and not without both omissions and insertions which can be made to play into the hands of error.[17]

Of the report as a whole he wrote,

Theologically, the report as a whole exhibits a decided tendency to lessen the sharpness and precision of the doctrinal statement of distinctive Calvinism... To all the clamorous proclamation of false doctrine about us—yes in our midst—against which the Church needs protection, the Committee has been deaf. To all the demands thus made on it for progress in the doctrinal statement of our orthodox truth in relation to present-day needs, it has been blind. Turning its back on it all, its whole doctrinal work is comprised in requesting the Church to lower its voice in telling the world the truth![18]

When Dr. Warfield was asked to serve on the committee for revision in 1900, he refused on the ground that to revise the standards as was indicated would be to lower the testimony of the church to the truth.

Abraham Kuyper, that eminent Dutch theologian, was concerned and wrote a long article on the general subject of revision and its perils. He pictured the danger in that day of toning down the Calvinistic emphasis of the Confession of Faith instead of enriching and unfolding it. He concluded his article by stating,

These are the reasons why the author, hearing of the revision proposed in America, and realizing what its consequences might be for the Dutch Churches, would feel in duty bound in the sight of God to dissuade from such revision in the most positive manner, if it were proposed in his own country.[19]

It is significant that Dr. Briggs, who was suspended from the ministry of the church for holding beliefs contrary to the Confession of Faith, which are known today as modernism, was one of the most vigorous proponents of revision. He argued that the people, the elders of the church, and the ministers desired relief from the antiquated elements of the Confession. He ended his discussion by saying, "Biblical critics will not much longer tolerate persecution on the part of a contra-Confessional majority."[20]

Dr. Henry Van Dyke, who was chairman of the Committee on Revision, was also in favor of the amendments. It is revealing to note that it was he who ceased attending the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1924 because he could no longer tolerate the orthodox Christianity which Dr. J. Gresham Machen was preaching while stated supply of the church.

On the whole it is clear that those who stood for revision wanted more than a modified Calvinism; they desired a liberalizing of the Confession. Their victory was only partial, but nevertheless it was a definite step toward the ultimate goal which they hoped to achieve, that of broadening the doctrinal standards of the church.

There may be some who will contend that the revisions of 1903 did not modify the Calvinism of the Confession, but the union of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1906 is testimony to the fact that a denomination was convinced that they did. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was a strange mixture of Arminianism and Calvinism. Its creed was an attempt to strike a middle ground between the two points of view, and, as a result, it was more Arminian than Calvinistic. In fact, it was the Calvinism of the Confession which was one of the dominant factors in leading certain ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the USA to separate themselves from the church and to form the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1810. But when the revisions of 1903 were a part of the standards of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, immediately the Cumberland Presbyterian Church began to make overtures looking toward union. The Cumberland people felt that the Westminster Confession had been modified sufficiently to remove all substantial doctrinal differences between these two churches. Accordingly, a union was effected between the two bodies in 1906.[21]

The result of this union was to weaken the testimony of the Presbyterian Church in the USA to the Bible and the Calvinism of the Confession. It helped further to entrench the position of those who wanted the Confession and the church modernized.

Another attempt to effect a union with other churches which demonstrated that the doctrinal defection in the Presbyterian Church in the USA had gained a strong foothold was the proposal to unite with other Protestant bodies in 1918. In that year thirty-five presbyteries overtured the General Assembly meeting in Columbus, Ohio, to consider a proposal to merge eighteen Protestant churches into one evangelical church. The plan as finally presented by a council composed of representatives from these organizations contained stipulations as to government as well as doctrine, but it is the doctrinal basis which is most significant.[22]

The preamble to the doctrinal section of the plan reads:

Whereas: We desire to share, as a common heritage, the faith of the Christian Church, which has, from time to time, found expression in great historical statements; and whereas: We all share belief in God our Father; in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Saviour; in the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter; in the Holy Catholic Church, through which God's eternal purpose of salvation is to be proclaimed and the Kingdom of God is to be realized on earth; in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing God's revealed will, in the life eternal.[23]

In none of these vague statements is there an attempt to make clear the doctrines concerning God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, the Scriptures, or eternal life. Practically anyone, whether orthodox or liberal, could subscribe to such a creed because each could read into the statements what he desires. Such a state of indifference and doctrinal disintegration becomes all the more significant when it is realized that 100 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in the USA voted for this organic union. It demonstrates graphically how formidable had become the number and influence of those who no longer considered sound doctrine as essential to the church. Fortunately, the majority of the presbyteries voted against the plan of union so that it was defeated in 1920.[24]

While this attempt at organic union with many other so-called evangelical bodies on a vague doctrinal basis proved unsuccessful, nevertheless it demonstrated the temper of a large portion of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. In fact, to those who could discern the trend it showed how rapidly the spirit of compromise and doctrinal indifference had spread. To those who were awake to the true situation, the next important step in the process of doctrinal defection was no surprise but an expected conclusion.

These evidences of unbelief in the church were only the beginning. During each succeeding crisis those who advocated modernism added to their power and prestige, and when the next bold move of this group was launched in the issuance of the "Auburn Affirmation," which will be discussed in the next chapter, they not only enlisted a large following but succeeded finally in controlling the church.


[1] The Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1938), 50.

[2] Minutes of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, 1837, Part 1, 420-422.

[3] Ibid., 454.

[4] Ibid., 444.

[5] The Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1930), 42.

[6] Minutes of the General Assembly 1889, 79.

[7] Minutes of the General Assembly 1890, 85-86.

[8] Minutes of the General Assembly 1891, 22-37.

[9] Minutes of the General Assembly 1892, 130ff.

[10] Minutes of the General Assembly 1893, 166.

[11] Minutes of the General Assembly 1900, 35, 46.

[12] Minutes of the General Assembly 1903, 124-128.

[13] The Christian Century 53 (November 25, 1936), 1548.

[14] Ned B. Stonehouse, "Have We Dropped the Love of God?" Presbyterian Guardian 3 (December 26, 1936), 119.

[15] John Murray, "Shall We Include the Revision of 1903 in Our Creed?" Presbyterian Guardian 2 (September 26, 1936), 251.

[16] The Presbyterian 59 (June 1, 1889), 3.

[17] Benjamin B. Warfield, "The Final Report of the Committee on Revision of the Confession," The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 3 (1892), 323.

[18] Ibid., 329-330.

[19] Abraham Kuyper, "Calvinism and Confessional Revision," The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 2 (July 1891), 399.

[20] The Presbyterian 59 (August 10, 1889), 6-7.

[21] The Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1938), 59-68.

[22] Minutes of the General Assembly 1918, Part 1, 153-154.

[23] Minutes of the General Assembly 1920, Part 1, 118.

[24] Minutes of the General Assembly 1921, Part 1, 41ff.

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