The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 14. Reform from Within

THE "reform from within" movement in the Presbyterian Church in the USA is based upon the belief that the church has a sound Confession of Faith, and although the courts, boards, and agencies of the church have been disloyal to the standards in many instances and are controlled by those who are out of agreement with the Confession, nevertheless, it is the duty of each minister and member to contend for the faith and to lead the church back to a place of faithfulness to the Bible. This is the position of men like the Rev. Samuel G. Craig, D.D., editor of Christianity Today, who wrote, "Reform is imperatively needed and every true Presbyterian should give himself for the task."[1]

When the members of the Independent Board were suspended from the ministry of the church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed, Dr. C. E. Macartney and others urged the ministers and members of the Presbyterian Church in the USA not to leave the church. But at the same time they deplored the "severe treatment" meted out to men like Dr. Machen and the other members of the Independent Board and admitted that we "are convinced that doctrines not in accord with her [Presbyterian Church in the USA] standards are being tolerated and even fostered by boards and agencies of the church."[2]

They have maintained this position quite consistently, for they resigned from membership on the board of trustees of Westminster Theological Seminary and refused to support the Independent Board when it became evident that these two organizations would eventually lead to a separation from the Presbyterian Church in the USA. They have always been of the opinion that the church could be saved from modernism and that their duty was to fight from within.

On the other hand, some of those who renounced the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church argue that, although the doctrinal standards of the church, with the exception of the 1903 amendments, are sound, the decision of the 1936 General Assembly sitting in its highest capacity as a court of Jesus Christ so interpreted the constitution in favor of modernism that the church is now apostate, at least until that decision is reversed. In addition, these men reason that the boards, agencies, and courts of the church are completely dominated by those who are out of accord with the doctrines of the church. And finally, says this group, the theological seminaries of the church, which are the source of ministerial supply, are not teaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, but employ professors who deny the very essentials of the Christian faith. What is more, the barriers against ministerial candidates from seminaries outside of the Presbyterian Church in the USA are mounting each year. With such a deplorable situation facing the church, what possible chance is there of effecting any real reform?

The question arises, "What are these advocates of 'reform from within' doing to alter the serious doctrinal defection in the church and to return it to the control of those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God?" The attempt to reform the Presbyterian Church in the USA from within became an organized movement when the Presbyterian League of Faith was launched in April, 1931.[3] The Rev. Walter D. Buchanan, D.D., had been accustomed to invite well-known conservative leaders of the church to New York City once every month or two for the purpose of discussing the present situation in the church and of laying plans for combating the advance of modernism. It was from this group that the launching of Westminster Theological Seminary received great impetus and support. The ministerial members of the board of trustees of the seminary were drawn largely from these men, and the churches represented became the largest contributors to the institution. The men who gathered in New York City at the invitation of Dr. Buchanan were the recognized leaders and contenders for the faith. Besides Dr. Buchanan, there were Dr. Machen, Dr. Frank H. Stevenson, Dr. C. E. Macartney, Dr. S. G. Craig, Dr. O. T. Allis, Dr. David Burrell, and many others, who later assumed a conspicuous place in the conflict.

The proposed union between the larger Presbyterian and Reformed bodies in the United States, which did not proceed further than a plan, revived the discussion of the Auburn Affirmation as evidence of theological impurity. It was at this time that the Rev. E. T. Thompson, D.D., professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, felt compelled to discuss the subject, "Is the Northern Church Theologically Sound?"[4] in order to allay suspicions in the southern church. He pronounced the northern church sound and the suspicions of his brethren in the South as groundless. But his declaration fell on deaf ears because discussions continued, and the three leading papers in the southern church, The Presbyterian Standard, The Presbyterian of the South, and The Christian Observer, reprinted the Auburn Affirmation in substance, all of which helped to focus attention on the Auburn Affirmation.

Dr. Buchanan and the men meeting in New York City decided that they had too long neglected to organize an attack on the Auburn Affirmation, and that the need for united action on the part of the conservatives was urgent. Accordingly, the organization known as The League of Faith was launched in April, 1931, and a constitution adopted and signed by 150 ministers, many of whom were among the best known in the church, and sent to every minister in the church. Eventually about twelve hundred ministers joined the League, a number approximately equivalent to the number of those who had signed the Auburn Affirmation.

The constitution states the objects of the League to be a maintenance of loyalty to the Bible and insistence, in opposition to the Affirmation, that the full truth of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the miracles of Christ are essential doctrines of the Word of God.[5]

Meetings of the League were held several times each year, usually in New York City at the Broadway Presbyterian Church, of which Dr. Buchanan was pastor, for the purpose of Christian fellowship and discussions. But no real program of reform was ever adopted or executed. The outstanding struggle with modernism on the Board of Foreign Missions was carried on by individuals who were members of the League but in their capacity as individuals. Many of the League members helped in the conflict, but at no time did the League as an organization enter the struggle concerning foreign missions. In fact, most of the members of the League regarded it as a protest against the Auburn Affirmation and very little beyond that.

When the members of the Independent Board were suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Presbyterian Church of America was organized in 1936, the League was reorganized and continued by a group of ministers led by Dr. C. E. Macartney, who were imbued with the idea that the Presbyterian Church in the USA was still fundamentally sound.

At the invitation of Dr. Macartney a group of ministers and elders met in Pittsburgh on June 16, 1936, and adopted resolutions expressing their loyalty to the standards of the church, deploring the severe treatment meted out to members of the Independent Board, and designating Christianity Today and The Presbyterian as "channels for this militant testimony."[6]

On June 26, 1936, the Presbyterian League of Faith convened in the Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City, elected Dr. Macartney as its president, and expressed a determination to fight from within the church for loyalty to the doctrinal standards.

The League met in Columbus, Ohio, on May 25th and 26th, 1937, at the time of the assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and decided to wage a strong fight against a proposed revision of chapter XXIII of the Confession of Faith, which revision was being advocated by pacifists in the church in order to condemn war.[7] A testimony in general terms extolling the importance of remaining true to the Word of God was adopted and also the following paragraph opposing the proposed change in chapter XXIII of the Confession of Faith with reference to war:

Therefore we deplore, and pledge ourselves to oppose the adoption by our Church of any measure or measures which would leave our nation defenseless in the midst of its foes, or which would give encouragement to those anti-Christian and anti-social movements and organizations who plot for the downfall of all that the Church of Christ holds sacred.[8]

This expressed determination to oppose any change in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which change would outlaw all wars as un-Christian and sinful, became the first specific project of the reorganized League of Faith to keep the Confession of Faith pure, and began the movement to reform the church from within.

The 1938 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA had adopted the report of its special committee recommending that chapter XXIII, part of which reads,

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the offices of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing hereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions,

be changed to read in part,

War wherever it appears, is a manifestation of the power of sin in the world. It defies the righteousness of God, disrupts His worldwide family, and outrages the human personality which Christ Jesus came to redeem. Even when war is waged with sincere purpose to restrain evil, it tends to produce greater evils than those against which it is directed. The Church, which is the body of Christ, set in the world to preach the Gospel of Peace, must ever bear witness to this character of war.[9]

In fact, a revision of the entire chapter was proposed.

In pursuance of the endeavor to resist this change in chapter XXIII of the Confession of Faith, an outstanding article entitled "The Christian Attitude Toward War," by Dr. Loraine Boettner, a layman, appeared in Christianity Today.[10] Dr. Boettner contended that the Bible does not condemn wars which are waged upon just and necessary grounds, and on certain occasions God actually commanded the Israelites to go into battle against the enemy. He included many other arguments against the proposed changes and concluded, "The proposed new amendment is unscriptural and treasonable."

Members of the Presbyterian League of Faith wrote articles and made speeches against the proposed amendment. But the opponents of the amendment were not confined to the members of the League nor to so-called conservatives. Outstanding modernists like the Rev. John A. MacCallum, D.D., a signer of the Auburn Affirmation, fought so strenuously against the amendment and against pacifism in general that he was asked to resign as editor of The Presbyterian Tribune, whose board of directors were committed to the amendment.[11] The Presbytery of Philadelphia, which is controlled by Auburn Affirmationists, voted against the amendment, while the supposedly conservative Presbytery of Northumberland voted for it.[12]

The amendment failed to receive the required vote of two-thirds of the presbyteries and so was lost, but in no sense of the word can the issue be regarded as a doctrinal one, since modernists and Bible-believers fought on the same side. The Confession of Faith was not altered, but the battle was not in this instance between Christianity and modernism.

Since the reorganization of the League in 1936, only one struggle has been fought, which was an out-and-out conflict between Christianity and modernism. It concerned the election of the Rev. E. G. Homrighausen as professor of religious education at Princeton Seminary, as well as the presence of Dr. Emil Brunner of Zurich, Switzerland, as guest professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Homrighausen had been appointed a professor by the board of trustees of Princeton Seminary, but his appointment required the confirmation of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, since Princeton is under its jurisdiction. Dr. Brunner had accepted the invitation of the board of trustees to occupy the chair of systematic theology made famous by the three Hodges—Charles, Archibald Alexander, and Casper Wistar.

Members of the League of Faith opposed most strenuously the election of Dr. Homrighausen and the presence of Dr. Brunner on the faculty at Princeton Seminary. Others, not members of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, also called attention to these two professors and their liberalism, indicating that Princeton Theological Seminary was no longer the citadel of orthodoxy, and that its reorganization in 1929 and the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary the same year marked clearly the beginning of a trend toward modernism.

An issue of Christianity Today devoted considerable space to the reprinting of several articles by theologians outside of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, attacking the theological beliefs of these two professors.[13] One article was by Clarence Bouma of Calvin Seminary, and one by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary, both of whom contended that Barthianism, which Dr. Brunner advocates, is directly contrary to the historic position of Calvinism and Christianity.

Professor Van Til pointed out that Dr. Brunner does not believe in the infallibility of the Bible nor even in the Scriptures as a trustworthy record of history. The view of history in the plain sense of the term is denied by Dr. Brunner and in its place he substitutes a new conception of history known as "supra history." Events like the bodily resurrection do not belong to history but to eternity. There must be a distinction between the dimension of becoming and that of history, according to Brunner. Such a distinction, said Dr. Van Til, destroys the real historical basis of Christianity.

In 1929 when Princeton Seminary was reorganized there were those who maintained that the conflict was administrative and personal, but Dr. Craig declared that with the coming of Dr. Homrighausen and Dr. Brunner no one could hold that the issue at Princeton was not one of doctrine.

Since that event, however, a number of things have happened that would seem to indicate that the founders of Westminster Seminary were not far wrong when they maintained that a new Seminary was needed to carry on and perpetuate the policies and traditions of Princeton Theological Seminal as that institution existed prior to its reorganization by the General Assembly.[14]

Dr. Craig expressed the "hope that the Board of Trustees of Princeton Seminary would reconsider this whole matter."[15]

In subsequent issues of Christianity Today, Dr. Craig assailed the appointment of Dr. Brunner not only on the grounds established by Dr. Van Til and others, but because Dr. Brunner rejected infant baptism, the virgin birth, the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles, and because he maintained a wrong view of church and state. Dr. Brunner later denied these allegations, but Dr. Craig claimed that his contentions were corroborated by books and articles of Dr. Brunner's.[16]

In a letter to Dr. Craig professor Brunner stated, "I think it is no news that President MacKay whilst differing in some points from me has the intention of leading Princeton Seminary back to the real Reformation theology, the real Biblical theology of which Warfield's theology is a decided deviation."[17] Of this statement Dr. Craig made much, to indicate that the president of Princeton was intent on changing Princeton's historic position. The fight against Dr. Brunner's appointment as a professor never came to a conclusion because Dr. Brunner decided to return to Switzerland in 1939.

Dr. E. G. Homrighausen, who was appointed to the chair of Christian education, received considerable attention from Dr. Craig and others because he was regarded as an American exponent of Barthianism, and more expressly because of his view of the Bible as expressed in his book, Christianity in America. In this volume Dr. Homrighausen repudiated a belief in the full truthfulness of the Bible (p. 121) and contended that the gospel must be expressed in modern thought forms (p. 49).

With these facts in mind, Dr. Macartney and Dr. Craig appeared before the Standing Committee on Theological Seminaries of the 1938 General Assembly and argued against the confirmation of Dr. Homrighausen's appointment as professor of Christian education at Princeton Seminary. After hearing both sides the committee decided to take no action, so that the General Assembly had no opportunity to vote on the appointment.[18]

Between the time of the 1938 and 1939 General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, Dr. Homrighausen issued a declaration of his faith which seemed to prove that he had changed from a Barthian to a staunch believer in the Bible and Calvinism.[19] This declaration apparently satisfied Dr. Craig and members of the League of Faith that Dr. Homrighausen was orthodox. The objections to his professorship were dropped so that his appointment was confirmed at the 1939 General Assembly.[20]

However, Dr. Van Til contended that the many changes in professor Homrighausen's theology from an out-and-out modernism to Barthianism and finally to a mild evangelicalism, all within the space of a few years, was no guarantee of his Calvinism or of his fitness as professor at an institution which was committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Thus the latest pronouncements of Dr. Homrighausen are at best hopelessly confusing. His trumpet gives forth an uncertain sound. It is difficult to see how anyone so confused on the fundamental issues of theological thought can with clarity and conviction present the Reformed Faith to his students....
But granted we could overlook his Barthianism—which is absolutely destructive of the notion of an infallible Bible—where is the evidence that Dr. Homrighausen has now adopted the Reformed Faith? It is not to be found in the Article on "Convictions," which the editor of The Presbyterian commended to the commissioners of the Assembly as evidence on the basis of which they might judge whether Dr. Homrighausen was a fit candidate for a professorship at Princeton Seminary.... It has not been customary in the past to appoint professors at Princeton who are merely "on the way" to becoming Reformed; of Dr. Homrighausen it cannot even be shown that he is "on the way."[21]

The struggle against Professor Homrighausen thus came to an end and he was officially installed in the chair of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, October 10, 1939, giving further evidence of the lack of strict adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith which the seminary is pledged to defend.

Up to the present time no other definite projects for reform have been undertaken by the "reform from within" group, except that of opposing the proposed union between the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the Protestant Episcopal Church.[22] The National Committee of the Ruling Elders Testimony issued its initial blast against the unfaithfulness of the boards and agencies of the church, but since then the organization has remained more or less inarticulate. With respect to the whole movement to reform the Presbyterian Church in the USA from within, the question might well be asked, What are the chances for success?

The answer to this question can be given quite positively: the chances for success are very poor indeed! This unequivocal reply is based upon two considerations: First, the "reform from within" group has no thorough-going plan to reform the church, nor is any program being actively promulgated. Secondly, the facts of church history are arrayed against the successful reform of an individual communion when once the ecclesiastical organization has come under the control and influence of modernists.

In the first place, there is no program of reform being pursued. The members of the League of Faith admit that the decision of the 1936 General Assembly in suspending members of the Independent Board from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA was a wrong decision and a discredit to the church. Dr. Craig wrote,

More might be said, but surely we have said enough to justify our characterization of the fifth anniversary of the 1934 mandate and accompanying "Studies of the Constitution" as an inglorious anniversary. It is not necessary to approve the organization of the Independent Board in order to maintain that for the good of the Church they ought to be rescinded or at least very considerably modified.[23]

Dr. Macartney likewise stated, "Indeed, in some instances, such as the tragic expulsion of that great theologian, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, our church has seemed to witness against its creed rather than for it."

Aside from these and other statements and articles, the League is doing nothing to have that decision rescinded. The Presbyterian way, according to its Form of Government, is to send up an overture or a memorial to the general assembly, urging the assembly to reverse its decision. Three years have intervened since the decision was rendered, but so far no such move has been made and there is little evidence that any will be made.

In addition, what is the League of Faith doing to reform the boards and agencies of the church which the League members have declared disloyal to the doctrinal standards of the church? No overtures have been made demanding that modernist literature be withdrawn, that only sound literature be distributed, that no compromising unions be made, that only those be elected to membership on the boards who will refuse to compromise with unbelief. No mass meetings are being held decrying the condition in the church and demanding its reform. Dr. J. A. MacCallum probably diagnosed the situation when he wrote,

Fortunately, with the exception of one or two minor skirmishes, all is now quiet on the theological front. Of course we can never tell when the battle will break out again in all its ancient virulence but it looks as though we are in for an era of theological good-feeling. The conservatives are not so conservative, or at least not so militant, and the liberals are not so sure of themselves as they were a few years ago when Dr. Clarence Edward Macartney was the self-appointed knight of reaction. His occasional Cassandra calls may be as strident as ever but they have lost their sometime magic and in consequence his followers have been reduced to a weedy segment of their former battalions.[24]

The Presbyterian, which was designated as one of the two papers to help in the effort to reform the church, makes it quite apparent that Dr. MacCallum's judgment is not far wrong. That journal publishes articles written by men who are modernists, as well as Bible-believers. The September 29, 1938 issue contained an impressive comparison of the Auburn Affirmation with the standards of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in parallel columns. The purpose of this and previous articles was to demonstrate how contrary is the Auburn Affirmation to the doctrines of the church. In the same issue of the magazine there was an article, "God, Youth and America," written by the Rev. Jesse H. Baird, D.D., a signer of the Auburn Affirmation, which the editor praised as follows: "Dr. Baird of our San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, California, delivered this masterful address on the spiritual history of America at the Area Christian Endeavor Convention in July, where ten Western states were represented." With such contradictory testimony appearing in the same issue of The Presbyterian, which was conscripted to contend for the faith and whose editor was a vice-president of the League of Faith, there seems to be little hope of reform. In fact, it reveals that a proper conception of reform is sadly lacking. What is more, the attitude of those who are leading the so-called movement for reform has changed since the 1936 debacle.

In 1923 Dr. Macartney wrote, "The third way to control the great defection is by protest and appeal and ecclesiastical procedure. But from this method many turn away."[25] Now there seems to be a tendency to forget the ecclesiastical situation as a whole, except for an occasional verbal or written blast against modernism, and to hold to the conviction that the situation is quite hopeless and that the most important task is to hold the fort in the local church by preaching the gospel. Dr. Macartney evidenced this attitude when he wrote recently, "Therefore, I value less the whole ecclesiastical structure, and feel that more and more for the true witness to the gospel and the Kingdom of God we must depend upon the particular local church, the individual minister and the individual Christian."[26]

In the second place, the facts of church history do not augur well for the present "reform from within" cause. There is not a single instance in all of church history where a "reform from within" group has been victorious when once the church has become doctrinally corrupt in its ecclesiastical organization. The most outstanding example of an attempt to reform a corrupt church, and the one which almost parallels the present movement, is that which occurred in the Netherlands.

In 1834 the Rev. Hendrik De Cock was suspended from the ministry of the Netherlands Reformed Church because he criticized modernism within the church, so that De Cock and his congregation at Ulrum formed the mother church for a new and truly Reformed church in the Netherlands.[27] Gradually others were suspended from the ministry for the same reason. But some ministers who were themselves doctrinally sound remained in the church to reform it and formed a society for that purpose. They gave three reasons for remaining within the national church: (1) their main purpose was to preach the gospel of salvation to the lost; (2) the national church was still capable of reform; (3) the methods of those who withdrew were wrong.

Many years later Abraham Kuyper, who was to become one of the greatest theologians of the Netherlands, was born of parents who were members of the national church. After he was converted from liberalism to a belief in the Bible he saw the need for a theological faculty true to the faith. Under his leadership the Free University of Amsterdam was organized, which has become one of the truly great centers of Christian learning in Europe. But the tyranny of the national church became greater and many saw the hopelessness of reform from within, so that they withdrew from the church. In 1892 this group united with the church organized by Hendrik De Cock to form the great Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The "reform from within" movement had failed miserably, and today it is the free Reformed Churches of the Netherlands to which Bible-believers look for comfort and aid in the fight for the faith.

Reform from within the Presbyterian Church in the USA seems doomed to failure not only because of the two main considerations already discussed but also because there is not a single strictly orthodox seminary within the church. With this situation obtaining and with these leaders of reform mostly older men, from where are the Bible-believing ministers coming to fill their places and to carry on the conflicts? In addition, there is the painful truth that every year scores of modernist and doctrinally indifferent ministers are being added to the roll to lead the church to a more liberal position.

No one would rejoice more than the former ministers and members of the Presbyterian Church in the USA who have formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, if the "reform from within" group should succeed in reversing the 1936 decisions against the Independent Board, in gaining control of the boards and agencies of the church, and in placing orthodox professors in the theological seminaries of the church. But this seems impossible, not only because the reform movement has no organized plan, but also because the history of the Christian church seems aligned against it. It is strongly suspected that history will repeat itself and that the League of Faith has set a hopeless task before itself.


[1] Christianity Today 7 (October 1936), 126.

[2] Presbyterian Guardian 2 (July 6, 1936), 161.

[3] Christianity Today 2 (May 1931), 19.

[4] Ernest Trice Thompson, "Is the Northern Church Theologically Sound?" Union Seminary Review 42 (January 1931), 109-134.

[5] Christianity Today 2 (May 1931), 19. See Appendix, note 29.

[6] Presbyterian Guardian 2 (July 6, 1936), 161.

[7] Christianity Today 8 (July 1937), 50.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Minutes of the General Assembly 1938, Part 1, 47-48.

[10] Loraine Boettner, "The Christian Attitude toward War," Christianity Today 9 (Winter 1939), 57-71.

[11] J. A. MacCallum, "Valediction," The Presbyterian Tribune 54 (April 13, 1939), 3-4.

[12] Minutes of the General Assembly 1939, Part 1, 173-74.

[13] Christianity Today 9 (October 1938), 34-41.

[14] Christianity Today 9 (October 1938), 2.

[15] Ibid., 3.

[16] Christianity Today 9 (Spring 1939), 105-110.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Christianity Today 9 (October 1938), 14.

[19] E. G. Homrighausen, "Convictions!" The Presbyterian 109 (May 11, 1939), 8-9.

[20] Minutes of the General Assembly 1939, 104.

[21] Cornelius Van Til, "Homrighausen Approved," Presbyterian Guardian 6 (July 1939), 136-37.

[22] See chapter five for a discussion of this subject

[23] Christianity Today 9 (Spring 1939), 102.

[24] The Presbyterian Tribune 54 (March 16, 1939), 5.

[25] Clarence E. Macartney, "The Great Defection," The Presbyterian 93 (September 20, 1923), 9.

[26] Clarence. E. Macartney, "Warm Hearts and Steady Faith," The Christian Century 56 (March 8, 1939), 317.

[27] Paul Woolley, "What Have We Learned?" Presbyterian Guardian 2 (May 4, 1936), 45-46.

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