The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 2. The Auburn Affirmation

THE SERMON, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" preached by the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D., in the First Presbyterian Church, New York City, May, 1922, was the signal for a new and public outbreak of the conflict between the forces of historic Christianity and modern liberalism within the Presbyterian Church in the USA. While many look upon this event as the first real skirmish between liberals and conservatives in the church, it is more accurate to consider it as a continuance of the struggle. On the other hand, it is correct to point to the publication of this sermon as the immediate cause for the conflict which eventually led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. As a matter of fact, the ensuing events show that the trend toward modernism, not only in the Presbyterian Church in the USA but also in many other Protestant churches, was very pronounced and that in many cases this form of religion dominated the situation.

In 1918 three churches in lower New York City united to form the First Presbyterian Church. The Rev. George Alexander, D.D., was called as pastor and the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D., a Baptist, was invited to become associate minister. The officers of the church believed that this arrangement of a pastor and an associate would solve the problems of a downtown church in a most acceptable fashion. They realized that it was extraordinary to ask a Baptist to act as associate minister in a Presbyterian church so they secured the permission of the Presbytery of New York to sanction the arrangement. Under this plan church attendance increased, and the fame of Dr. Fosdick as a preacher spread throughout the nation.[1]

On Sunday morning, May 21, 1922, Dr. Fosdick preached the now famous sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Without his knowledge, so Dr. Fosdick claims, Mr. Ivy Lee had the sermon reprinted, an introduction added, and the title changed to, "The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith."[2] He then proceeded to send copies of the sermon throughout the country, some of which came into the hands of Presbyterian ministers in Philadelphia.

The Presbytery of Philadelphia then had a large majority of conservatives with the Rev. Clarence E. Macartney, D.D., pastor of the Arch Street Church, as the acknowledged leader. Informal discussions concerning the presence of a Baptist minister in a Presbyterian church who did not believe in the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith were held by members of Philadelphia Presbytery. It was finally decided by this group to introduce the following overture to the Presbytery of Philadelphia so that the matter would be brought to the attention of the General Assembly. The overture was adopted on October 16, 1922, by an overwhelming majority—seventy-two to twenty-one.[3] Part of it follows:

The Presbytery of Philadelphia hereby respectfully overtures the General Assembly to direct the Presbytery of New York to take such action as will require the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrine taught in the Confession of Faith.[4]

The sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" contrasts the conservative and radical views on the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the atonement, and the second advent of Christ and pleads for a tolerance of both views within the Christian church. In a letter to Dr. Macartney, Dr. Fosdick claimed that he had been misunderstood and that the burden of his sermon was tolerance and not necessarily liberalism.[5] But in 1923 Dr. Fosdick gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching before the Yale Divinity School, which were published under the title, "The Modern Use of the Bible," and in which he upheld completely the modern "higher critical" views of the books of the Bible as to date and authorship. In fact, in his letter to Dr. Macartney he admitted that he represented the liberal view. Dr. Fosdick's theological position ever since that time has been well-known and no attempt has been made on his part to conceal the fact that he has advocated modernism as the religion for this day and generation.

When the General Assembly met in May, 1923, the most important issue before it was the overture from Philadelphia concerning the presence of Dr. Fosdick in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City. Agitation in all of the Presbyterian papers on this point had aroused the church so that sympathizers with the overture and opponents of it were well represented among the commissioners. The issue was far greater than the Philadelphia overture; actually it involved not only doctrines peculiar to Presbyterianism, but the fundamental doctrines of historic Christianity. The Rev. David S. Kennedy, D.D., editor of The Presbyterian, stated,

The center of the contention lies between supernaturalistic evangelicalism on the one side, and naturalistic rationalism on the other. It is a contention between two spirits and two convictions which are mutually exclusive and destructive; one or the other must prevail, and the one which prevails will determine the character and future of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and will have an important influence upon the testimony of the whole evangelical church.[6]

There were two leading candidates for the position of moderator of the General Assembly at the meeting in Indianapolis, May, 1923: the Rev. Charles F. Wishart, D.D., president of the College of Wooster, and the Honorable William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under President Wilson. Dr. Wishart represented those in the church who stood for unity and inclusivism rather than a division on doctrinal grounds, while Mr. Bryan represented those who wanted a church pure in doctrine and true to the historic interpretation of Christianity and the Westminster Confession of Faith. His followers were regarded as the militant wing of the church, although the nominating speeches stressed the orthodoxy of both candidates. Dr. Wishart won by a majority of only twenty-four.[7]

After the election of the moderator, the disposition of the Philadelphia overture became the paramount concern of the commissioners. In fact, overtures of a similar nature were before the assembly from nine other presbyteries.[8] As is customary, this overture was placed in the hands of the assembly's Committee on Bills and Overtures, of which the chairman was the Rev. Hugh K. Walker, D.D., of Los Angeles, who was appointed to this position by the moderator. The usual procedure is for the moderator to proffer this important office to the defeated moderatorial candidate, which would have been Mr. Bryan, but it is rather indicative of the feeling between the two camps in that assembly that this custom was not followed.

The Committee on Bills and Overtures brought in a report rejecting the Philadelphia overture and recommending that the Presbytery of New York be allowed to conduct its own investigation and report to the 1924 assembly, especially since the presbytery had already appointed a committee to institute such an investigation. The majority report signed by twenty-one of the twenty-two members of the committee was roundly scored for its straddling of the issue and for its pusillanimous compromise.[9]

The Rev. Gordon A. MacLennan, D.D., of Philadelphia, brought in a minority report signed only by himself, yet it was adopted by the assembly by a vote of 439 to 359.[10] It called upon the assembly to direct the Presbytery of New York to require the preaching and teaching at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City to conform to the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith. It also asked the assembly to reaffirm its faith in the infallibility of the Bible, in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, in his substitutionary atonement on the cross, in his bodily resurrection, and in his mighty miracles as essential doctrines of holy Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The majority report was championed by the Rev. Hugh K. Walker, D.D., chairman of the committee, Nolan R, Best, editor of The Continent, and by the moderator. Those in favor of the minority report were led by the Rev. Gordon A. MacLennan, D.D., William Jennings Bryan, and the Rev. C. E. Macartney, D.D. The debate was limited to ten-minute speeches, and a closing argument of fifteen minutes was allowed for each side.

In presenting the minority report, Dr. MacLennan said,

It is with the firm conviction that this General Assembly will answer the questions of our church in a definite and concrete form that I present this minority report. Shall not our Assembly give answer to these questions declaring its absolute faith in the virgin birth, in the inspiration of the Scriptures and the vicarious death on Calvary, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and in the mighty miracles which He wrought while here on earth?[11]

In closing the debate for the minority report Dr. Macartney asserted,

I wish I could pay tribute to the majority report. But I cannot. It is a masterpiece of whitewash, and the man who wrote it ought to seek employment as an exterior decorator... We take our stand upon the New Testament and the Confession of Faith.... What you have heard here this afternoon is but the "sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees." The storm is coming, and you cannot stop it with any pusillanimous compromise.[12]

Those who argued in favor of the majority report contended that the matter of pulpit supplies in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City rested with the Presbytery of New York. This presbytery had already appointed a committee to investigate the situation, so that it would be discourteous and unpresbyterian to interfere in the matter.

Following the assembly, the editor of The Continent wrote, "Men who insist that these and other theological formulas are vital to the perpetuation of Christianity are without exception men who have mistaken religion's first definition—Christianity is not a dogma but a life."[13] The Rev. Alexander MacColl, D.D., pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, was quoted as having said,

Let us be quite clear that the advocates of this materialistic philosophy, which robs life of all its glory and its beauty, have their chief allies today in those religious teachers whose expression of spiritual realities is always in material terms, whose perpetual emphasis is upon physical facts, upon a physical birth, physical blood, a physical ascension and coming again; the letter of a book.[14]

This decision of the General Assembly was hailed by the orthodox as a great victory for historic Christianity and "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." But the rejoicing was to be short-lived. The liberals were thoroughly aroused and determined to do everything to bring the corporate witness of the church into conformity with their point of view. While the Rev. George Alexander, D.D., pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, said that he would attempt to carry out the mandate of the assembly, the leaders of New York Presbytery displayed little intention to comply. As soon as the action was taken by the assembly, a protest was filed with the assembly disapproving of the decision because it was not substantiated by evidence, because it passed judgment upon a matter not rightly before the assembly, and because it imposed doctrinal tests upon office-bearers not allowed by the constitution of the church.[15]

When the Presbytery of New York met on June 11, 1923, it proceeded to ignore the intent of the assembly's action, which was to rid the church of false doctrine, by licensing two young men, Henry P. Van Dusen and Cedric O. Lehman, who refused to affirm their faith in the virgin birth—one of the doctrines which Dr. Fosdick had attacked. A group of ministers and elders in New York Presbytery, led by the Rev. Walter D. Buchanan, D.D., filed a protest with the presbytery against the action. This protest or complaint was carried to the General Assembly in 1924, but the Permanent Judicial Commission of the assembly ruled that the complaint must first be remitted to the Synod of New York. At a later date Mr. Van Dusen was not only ordained by New York Presbytery, but he also became a professor at Union Theological Seminary, an outstanding modernist institution.[16]

At the same meeting of New York Presbytery the action of the General Assembly with respect to Dr. Fosdick was referred to the special committee of three ministers and two elders who had been appointed by the presbytery on April 9, 1923, in answer to a request from the Harlem-New York Church to investigate matters at the First Presbyterian Church.[17]

On October 1, 1923, and on January 14, 1924, the committee reported to the presbytery and on February 4, 1924, its recommendations were adopted. The committee came to four major conclusions and recommendations: (1) they were convinced that the doctrines of grace were being proclaimed in the pulpit of the First Church, (2) they expressed their confidence and loyalty in the session of the First Church, (3) they expressed their readiness to receive more reports on the subject in general, and (4) they affirmed their faith in the Bible. They also reported that the sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" was perhaps ill-advised and that it had been distributed without the knowledge of the session of the First Church.[18]

This action was not at all satisfactory to the conservatives in the Presbytery of New York, who immediately drew up a complaint to be presented to the General Assembly meeting in Grand Rapids in 1924. The Permanent Judicial Commission of General Assembly held in Grand Rapids ruled that the presbytery and its committee had obeyed the mandate of the assembly, but that the situation at the First Church would be clarified if Dr. Fosdick would express his purpose as to whether he intended to enter the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA or to remain a minister of the Baptist denomination.

We therefore recommend that the Presbytery of New York be instructed, through its committee or through the session of the First Presbyterian Church, to take up with Dr. Fosdick this question to the end that he may determine whether it is his pleasure to enter the Presbyterian church and thus be in a regular relationship with the First Presbyterian Church as one of its pastors.[19]

The New York Presbytery's committee to deal with this matter addressed a letter to Dr. Fosdick asking him to define his relationship to the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, and to state his intentions with reference to ministerial membership in the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Dr. Fosdick replied in a letter to the Rev. Edgar W. Work, D.D., chairman of the presbytery's committee, in which he refused to unite with the Presbyterian Church in the USA because of his unwillingness to subscribe to any confession of faith on the ground that it would violate his conscience. In the same letter he mentioned his intention to resign as associate minister of the First Church.[20]

The First Church accepted Dr. Fosdick's resignation as associate minister to take effect in March, 1925, but also extended an invitation to him to preach for them "when not otherwise engaged."[21]

Both the action of the General Assembly and that of the First Presbyterian Church of New York were strongly assailed by the conservatives of the church at large. The editor of one religious weekly called the assembly's decision "A Monstrous Suggestion."

It seems almost incredible that anyone should even suggest that the disturbance over Dr. Fosdick has been occasioned by the fact that he is not a Presbyterian minister. The disturbance arose from the belief—in our judgment a well grounded belief—that his teachings not only openly deny the essential doctrines of the Presbyterian Church, but they are "subversive of the truth of Christianity as received, confessed, held and defended by the Christian church of all ages."[22]

In commenting on the invitation of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to Dr. Fosdick to preach for them "when not otherwise engaged," Dr. Macartney wrote, "We cannot think, either, that the special preacher could lend himself to this plan to evade the will of the Presbyterian Church."[23] In spite of this opposition and in spite of the apparent evasion of the assembly's action, the First Church of New York City continued to have Dr. Fosdick fill the pulpit as a supply until March 1, 1925.[24]

In this connection it is interesting and informing to read the comment of the Rev. Albert C. Dieffenbach, D.D., then editor of the Unitarian weekly, The Christian Register,

I have the profoundest respect for a man who is consistently a fundamentalist, or for a man who is consistently a Roman Catholic, but I have no respect for the attitude of Dr. Fosdick.... When he goes to Cambridge he speaks in terms of liberalism and when he comes to New York he says, "I am an evangelical Christian!"[25]

While this controversy between Dr. Fosdick and the Presbyterian Church in the USA was continuing, the conflict between modernists and conservatives in the church at large became more and more stormy. On October 30, 1923, at a gathering in New York City sponsored by the Rev. Walter D. Buchanan, D.D. and attended largely by ministers and elders of New York City and vicinity, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, then assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Dr. Macartney spoke of the need of contending for the faith. Dr. Macartney stressed the importance of being loyal to the creed of the church and Dr. Machen showed that the neo-Christianity preached by the liberals was not a perversion of Christianity but a new and different religion.

Two large mass meetings were held on December 10 and 14, 1923, in New York City and Philadelphia, both of which were addressed by the Rev. Maitland Alexander, D.D., a former moderator of the General Assembly and then pastor of the large and influential First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, on the subject, "The Maintenance of the Reformed Theology."[26] Dr. Alexander not only pointed out the faithfulness of the Westminster standards to the New Testament, but he also emphasized the importance of ordaining ministers and elders who would be true to the standards of the church, and of electing members to the boards and agencies of the church who would maintain the Reformed faith.

It was during this height of the controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the USA that the small but significant book, Christianity and Liberalism, by J. Gresham Machen, appeared. This book, which was much discussed and was accepted as the best statement of the issue between modernism and historic Christianity, compelled the public to recognize Dr. Machen as the intellectual leader of those who believed in the Christianity of the Bible. He demonstrated quite conclusively that the religion of liberalism or modernism was not even a perversion of Christianity, like Roman Catholicism, but rather a new and different religion. Walter Lippmann, the well-known publicist, characterized the book as follows: "For its acumen, for its saliency, and for its wit this cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism is, I think, the best popular argument produced by either side in the current controversy."[27]

The modernists were also much stirred over the turn of events. A committee of 150 Presbyterian ministers with headquarters at 10 Nelson Street, Auburn, New York, issued a document on December 26, 1923, in answer to the action of the General Assembly concerning the Philadelphia overture. This document is commonly called the "Auburn Affirmation," and requires detailed study because it has profoundly affected the course of the Presbyterian Church in the USA.[28]

The contention of the Affirmation is twofold: first, that the General Assembly has no constitutional right to elevate the five doctrines mentioned as special tests for ordination to the ministry, unless the constitution be changed by a vote of the presbyteries; and secondly, that the five doctrines enumerated in the assembly's action are non-essential to the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures and are merely theories of those facts and doctrines.

There have been opinions expressed by many Presbyterians of high repute relative to the constitutionality of the doctrinal deliverance of the 1923 General Assembly. Two conservatives like Dr. D. S. Kennedy and Dr. J. Gresham Machen differed on this question. Dr. Kennedy maintained that "The whole structure of the Form of Government and Book of Discipline makes the interpretation of the courts binding and the interpretation of the general assembly as final."[29] On the other hand, Dr. Machen argued in favor of the constitutionality of the deliverance, not because the general assembly has a right to demand allegiance to these five doctrines as part of the constitutional questions for ordination, but on the ground that these five doctrines are taught in the word of God. Those who agreed with Dr. Kennedy contended that every candidate for ordination must answer the question, "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures?" and that every one of the five doctrines mentioned in the deliverance is essential to the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.

The weight of the law seems to be on the side of the Auburn Affirmation. There are already certain questions asked of a candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and if further and special tests for ordination are to be given, an overture to this effect would have to be sent down to the presbyteries for ratification. It is altogether likely that the General Assembly does not have the power to bind the presbyteries to "any essential and necessary articles" unless the presbyteries have so voted. The matter of the constitutionality of the deliverance is not important to the main issue. As a matter of fact, if the question of constitutionality were the only point, it would hardly be worth discussing. It is the second contention of the Affirmation with respect to the essential nature of the five doctrines which makes the subject of historical significance.

There have been three ways in which the vow, "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures?" has been interpreted: (1) the candidate assents to every proposition in the Confession of Faith, (2) the candidate accepts the Confession of Faith as containing the "substance" of the doctrine taught in the Bible, and (3) the candidate receives the Confession as containing the "system" of doctrine taught in the Bible.[30]

Very few have held the position that every article in the Confession of Faith must be accepted as essential to the system of truth. In fact, the Presbyterian Church in the USA has never officially maintained that every article in the Confession of Faith is essential to the system of doctrine. For example, the chapter on Marriage and Divorce recognizes that "such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage."[31]

There are many ministers in the church who recognize that there is only one biblical ground of divorce, namely, adultery. The Presbyterian Church in the USA has never refused ordination to anyone for differences on this point as well as others nor has it held this as vital to the system of doctrine.

The signers of the Auburn Affirmation expressed their agreement with the second interpretation, that the Confession of Faith contains the "substance" of the doctrine taught in the Bible. They argued that the Synod of Philadelphia in the Adopting Act of 1729 had declared,

All the ministers of this Synod or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in and approbation of the Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, as being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine, and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith.[32]

They maintained that this Act gives great liberty in assuming the ordination vow and has never been abrogated.

Those who were opposed to this interpretation pointed to the fact that an Act Explaining the Adopting Act was passed by the Synod of Philadelphia in 1736, in which it is stated specifically that, with the exception of chapters twenty and twenty-three, the Confession of Faith is to be regarded as the faith of the church.[33] Furthermore, the Act explained that if anyone did not subscribe to certain articles, the members of the synod were to decide whether those articles were essential to the system of doctrine or not.

...and in case any minister of this Synod, or any candidate for the ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall, notwithstanding, admit him to the exercise of the ministry within our bounds, and to ministerial commission, if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship or government.[34]

In other words, no such latitudinarian principle of interpretation of the Confession as that advocated by the Auburn Affirmation was to be allowed. If such an interpretation were permitted, the conservatives maintained, and each individual could determine just what is essential to the system of truth, it is conceivable that even the doctrine of the Trinity might be omitted, thereby making the Confession meaningless.[35]

The third interpretation is the one which the Presbyterian Church in the USA has always employed, namely, that the candidate receives the Confession of Faith as containing the "system" of doctrine taught in the Bible. This means more than acceptance of certain individual articles or isolated sections; rather, it involves a well-defined plan of redemption with its doctrines of God, man, sin, and salvation, which has come to be known as the "Reformed theology" or "Calvinism," and which is set forth in the Scriptures. Dr. Charles Hodge, the famous Princeton theologian, was very emphatic on this point.

If the question, "What is the system of doctrine taught by the Reformed Churches?" be submitted to a hundred Romanists, to a hundred Lutherans, to a hundred members of the Church of England, or to a hundred skeptics, if intelligent and candid, they would all give precisely the same answer. There is not the slightest dispute among disinterested scholars as to what doctrines do, and what do not belong to the faith of the Reformed. And, therefore, any man who receives these several classes of doctrine, (viz.: those common to all Christians, those common to all Protestants, and those peculiar to the Reformed Churches) holds in its integrity the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession.[36]

The five doctrines enunciated in the Deliverance of the 1923 General Assembly, however, are not peculiar to the Reformed theology nor even to Protestantism, but are common to all Christians, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Greek Orthodox alike. Consequently, the real issue is not the technical point of the constitutionality of the deliverance nor even the question of the system of doctrine peculiar to Presbyterianism, but rather whether or not these five doctrines are taught in the Bible and essential to any system of doctrine which calls itself Christian. A study of each doctrine will show how true this is.

The first doctrine mentioned by the General Assembly of 1923 reads, "It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture, as to keep them from error." With respect to this, the Auburn Affirmation states,

There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were "kept from error"! The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not found in the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any other of the great Reformation confessions.... The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.

In answer the conservatives maintained that each minister must give an affirmative reply to the question, "Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?"

The Confession of Faith, chapter I, section V, which treats "Of the Holy Scripture" does not employ the phrase, "kept from error," but it does contain such expressions as, "the entire perfection thereof " and "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth" which imply and connote inerrancy. Furthermore, they argued, in 1893 the General Assembly suspended the Rev. Charles A. Briggs, D.D., professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, because he believed in the errancy of holy Scripture.[37] In other words, the church had already interpreted the constitution with respect to the inspiration of the Bible and exactly as the Deliverance of 1923 had stated. What is more, it is clear that the other branches of the Christian church—the Roman Catholic Church as expressed in the Council of Trent, and the Greek Orthodox Church as expressed through its confessions and catechisms—believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible. The Council of Trent describes the books of the Bible as having come down to the church, "the Holy Ghost dictating."[38] The Greek Orthodox Church doctrine, as expressed in "The Confession of Dositheus," is that the inerrancy and infallibility of the church's judgment is based upon the absolute inerrancy of the Bible.[39] In other words, this doctrine of an infallible Bible has been the belief of the Christian church these many centuries.

The second doctrine contained in the deliverance reads, "It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary." Concerning this statement the Auburn Affirmation affirms,

We all believe from our hearts... that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh.... But we are united in believing that these [five doctrines] are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.

It is plain from this assertion that the Auburn Affirmation regards the virgin birth as a theory of the incarnation. The narratives in Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are very explicit in their description of the birth of Jesus Christ. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary (Matt 1:20, Luke 1:34-35). That statement of an historical event in the external world in the two gospels is either true or false. It is not a theory, for to make such a claim would be to reduce the gospel story to an absurdity and to make nonsense of the language. Furthermore, it is beyond dispute that the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the various branches of Protestantism clearly teach a belief in the virgin birth of Christ.

The statement of the deliverance with reference to the atonement of Christ for sin reads, "It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that Christ offered up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and to reconcile us to God." The Auburn Affirmation states, "that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption."

No one can object to the statement of the Auburn Affirmation about the atonement because it is a partial quotation from the Bible (II Cor 5:19), but when the assertion of the deliverance is referred to as a theory of the atonement and that other theories which may be employed to explain the doctrine are worthy of all confidence, then an entirely different situation obtains and the question of anti-scriptural views comes into consideration. The Confession of Faith uses practically the same language as the deliverance to describe the sacrifice of Christ.

The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father.[40]

Officially, the Presbyterian Church in the USA has never taught any other view of the atonement than that expressed in the deliverance. In fact, its essential features are common to the Latin, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. In discussing the various theories of atonement, Dr. Charles Hodge wrote,

The first is that which has been for ages regarded as the orthodox doctrine; in its essential features common to the Latin, Lutheran, and Reformed churches.... According to this doctrine the work of Christ is a real satisfaction, of infinite inherent merit, to the vindicatory justice of God; so that He saves his people by doing for them, and in their stead, what they were unable to do for themselves, satisfying the demands of the law in their behalf, and bearing its penalty in their stead; whereby they are reconciled to God, receive the Holy Ghost, and are made partakers of the life of Christ to their present sanctification and eternal salvation.[41]

The fourth statement of the deliverance reads:

It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and of our standards concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, that on the third day He arose again from the dead with the same body with which He suffered, with which He also ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of His Father, making intercession.

In opposition to this view of the deliverance, the Auburn Affirmation states, "that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our everlasting saviour." The proper implication of this statement is that the resurrection of Christ was not necessarily a bodily one, especially since the Auburn Affirmation claims that the bodily resurrection is only one of many theories. With reference to this doctrine the deliverance quoted directly from the Confession of Faith.[42]

If the bodily resurrection of Christ is only a theory, then the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is mistaken, because it is devoted almost exclusively to a discussion and proof of the resurrection of Christ and the assertion that the resurrection was a bodily one. It also makes of no meaning the claim of Christ to Thomas, "Handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (Luke 24:39). In fact, no other theory of the resurrection is taught or implied in the Scripture. In addition, all branches of Christendom in their creeds teach the bodily resurrection of Christ. Of that there can be no question. So again the fact becomes clear that the issue raised by the Auburn Affirmation concerns the fundamental basis of Christianity, and not doctrines peculiarly Presbyterian.

The fifth doctrine of the deliverance reads,

It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme standard of our faith that our Lord Jesus showed His power by working mighty miracles. This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.

The Auburn Affirmation states, "that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works."

Here the attempt is made by the Auburn Affirmation to undermine the entire supernatural element in the works of Christ and to make them to appear as mighty, but explainable to this generation by natural causes. The Confession of Faith reads, "God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure."[43] At this point the tendency toward naturalism in the Affirmation becomes more evident, and the real underlying difference between it and historic Christianity is clear. It is here that the contention between two spirits, two convictions, and two conceptions of Christianity becomes most plain, and anyone who would understand this conflict correctly must honestly recognize that fact. The essential nature of the miraculous is evident not only in the works of Christ but in the whole of the New Testament. Eliminate that or try to distinguish between miraculous and non-miraculous Christianity, and no Christianity remains. What is more, no informed person would question the assertion that the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church believe in the supernatural character of Christ's miracles.

It is obvious to any honest, clear-thinking man that there exists a world of difference concerning the essential nature of Christianity between the Deliverance of the 1923 Assembly and the Auburn Affirmation. The deliverance holds to a supernatural religion which comes as a revelation from a personal God, while the Affirmation supports the view that the Bible may be a revelation from God but no one can be sure of it, and that the miraculous aspects of Christianity are to be questioned and perhaps explained on a naturalistic basis. As Dr. Machen so ably argued many times, the religion of the Affirmation is a new and different religion, separate and distinct from historic Christianity.

The issuance of the Auburn Affirmation called forth a veritable flood of articles for and against it. These articles dealt with the constitutionality of the deliverance, but more especially with the doctrinal questions raised by the Affirmation. It became evident that this issue would be one of the main considerations at the General Assembly in May, 1924.

When the assembly met at Grand Rapids in May, 1924, the following overture from the Presbytery of Cincinnati concerning the Affirmation was presented and, according to custom, sent to the Committee on Bills and Overtures of which the Rev. Maitland Alexander, D.D., was chairman.

The Presbytery of Cincinnati would respectfully place in your hands the accompanying pamphlet, entitled, "An Affirmation," that you may be "well advised" of its contents and purposes and that your venerable body may exercise intelligently, under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, its "powers of deciding in all controversies respecting doctrine; of reproving, warning, or bearing testimony against error in doctrine, or immorality in practice, in any church, Presbytery or Synod;" "and of repressing schismatical conventions and disputation."[44]

The Committee debated this overture as well as several others of a similar nature for five days, and then recommended that no action be taken.[45]

Since Dr. Clarence E. Macartney, an outstanding conservative leader in that assembly, was elected moderator, and since Dr. Maitland Alexander and William Jennings Bryan, both of whom were well-known conservatives, were members of the Committee on Bills and Overtures, the question has often been asked, "Why was not some action taken against the Auburn Affirmation and its signers?" Dr. Alexander and elder A. Marshall Thompson have partially answered that question in their letters to The Presbyterian,[46] by stating that the committee was dominated by liberals thirteen to nine, so that every report coming from the committee represented the liberal point of view. Dr. Alexander further states that the General Assembly laid the matter on the table on motion of Dr. Mark A. Matthews, and that by unanimous vote. The fact remains that as far as the record is concerned, there was no protest and no dissenting vote. It is also surprising that very little or no comment is made concerning this overture in the report of the proceedings of the General Assembly in such a magazine as The Presbyterian, which was then the most aggressive organ for the faith. The statute of limitations which outlaws action against individuals one year after an offense has been committed, did not apply because only six months had elapsed since the issuance of the Auburn Affirmation in December, 1923.[47]

There seems to be no sound explanation of this action and attitude of the conservatives except that they made a grave mistake. No advice was given to the church concerning the Auburn Affirmation and, as a result, the matter has troubled the church ever since. One editor asked the rhetorical question, "What has become of `An Affirmation,' signed by 150 ministers of the Presbyterian church, which number, through the labors and at the expense of Union Seminary, New York, was increased to twelve hundred?" Then he answered his own question, "It is dead."[48] But the church was to discover to its regret that the Affirmation was far from dead.

On the other hand, large mass meetings were held in several cities, deploring the doctrinal decadence in the Presbyterian Church in the USA as evidenced by the Auburn Affirmation. One such gathering took place in Cincinnati under the leadership of the Rev. Frank H. Stevenson, D.D., then pastor of the Church of the Covenant of Cincinnati, and one of the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary. In fact, the situation in the church became so acute that the 1925 General Assembly appointed a committee of fifteen with the following instructions,

That a Commission of fifteen members be appointed to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest, and report to the next General Assembly, to the end that purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured.[49]

No Auburn Affirmationist was appointed to the commission, nor was any out-and-out member of the orthodox wing of the church. It was evident that this commission was appointed to still the voice of objection which the Auburn Affirmation had created.

The commission made reports to the 1926 and 1927 General Assemblies, both of which were adopted. As a whole, the reports dealt with church polity, the powers of the general assembly and presbyteries, ordination, licensure, essential and necessary articles of faith, and many other kindred subjects, but failed completely to point out the "causes making for unrest" in the church, which was the main purpose of the commission. It hid behind a barrage of technicalities, most of which were according to the constitution of the church, but made no adequate proposals "to the end that purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured," and recognized no deep-seated doctrinal difference among the ministers in the church, but rather urged brotherly consideration and fair play. A short quotation from the reports will demonstrate the spirit of doctrinal inclusivism of the members and their attitude toward the great doctrinal issues involved in the conflict.

Two controlling factors emerge. One is, that the Presbyterian system admits of diversity of view where the core of truth is identical. Another is, that the Church has flourished best and showed most clearly the good hand of God upon it, when it laid aside its tendencies to stress these differences, and put the emphasis on its unity of spirit.[50]

It is a matter of great sorrow that no attempt whatsoever was made at the time to bring individual signers of the Auburn Affirmation to trial. This method would have been the proper one, for when heresy exists among ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, charges must be filed against a particular minister with the presbytery. The orthodox ministers of the church wrote many pamphlets and made many speeches against the Auburn Affirmation, but no individual signer of that document was charged with heresy. This grave error caused irreparable harm in the church and furthered the cause of the modernists in the church. The Presbyterian League of Faith was organized in 1931 as a direct testimony against the Auburn Affirmation, and its constitution was signed by about twelve hundred ministers, but this did not result in any action against signers of the Affirmation (see chapter fourteen).

One attempt was made to bring the Auburn Affirmationists to trial in the Presbytery of Philadelphia in October, 1934, when the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths and elders Murray Forst Thompson and Gordon H. Clark lodged six charges against the eleven signers of the Affirmation in the Presbytery of Philadelphia for violation of their ordination vows.[51] Through questionable methods and technical maneuvers the Affirmationists in the presbytery succeeded in keeping the charges from being filed. In addition, the legal difficulty imposed by the Book of Discipline in the statute of limitations, which requires charges to be filed within one year after an offense has been committed, would have militated against the success of this move. Yet the initiators of the charge felt morally obligated to start this suit in order to show the church that they regarded the signers of the Affirmation as heretics. When the Auburn Affirmation was issued in 1923, Mr. Griffiths was not a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and Messrs. Thompson and Clark were not elders.

So the episode of the Auburn Affirmation ended, with the modernists scoring a decisive victory as shown by their success in restraining the church from admitting doctrinal heresy, at least in an official manner, and in keeping signers of the Affirmation in positions of great power in the church. It is very revealing to study the membership lists of the boards and agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. In 1927, when the commission of fifteen made its last report, many signers of the Affirmation were on those boards. The Board of Foreign Missions had four, the Board of National Missions seven, the Board of Christian Education three, and the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, which is practically the final arbiter of doctrine in the church, had two. Dr. D. S. Kennedy, editor of The Presbyterian in 1924, said that the Auburn Affirmation was dead; subsequent events prove that its signers were more alive than ever and that its spirit dominated the church. The following chapters will attempt to prove that fact.


[1] The First Presbyterian Church of New York and Dr. Fosdick (New York: n.p., [1925]).

[2] The Presbyterian 92 (December 7, 1922), 6.

[3] The Presbyterian 93 (April 26, 1923), 4.

[4] The Presbyterian 92 (October 26, 1922), 6-7.

[5] The Presbyterian 92 (December 7, 1922), 6.

[6] The Presbyterian 93 (May 17, 1923), 4.

[7] The Presbyterian 93 (May 24, 1923), 12-13.

[8] Minutes of the General Assembly 1923, Part 1, 23.

[9] The Presbyterian 93 (May 31, 1923), 10-11.

[10] Minutes of the General Assembly 1923, Part 1, 253.

[11] A. Gordon MacLennan, "Notes from the Speech Presenting the Minority Report of the General Assembly," The Presbyterian 93 (June 7, 1923), 7.

[12] "Excerpts from Dr. Macartney's Closing Argument at the Assembly," The Presbyterian 93 (June 7, 1923), 8.

[13] The Continent 54 (July 5, 1923), 849.

[14] The Philadelphia Public Ledger, 26 May 1923.

[15] Minutes of the General Assembly 1923, Part 1, 338.

[16] Minutes of the General Assembly 1924, 194.

[17] Presbyterian Church of New York and Dr. Fosdick, 7.

[18] Ibid., 28-29.

[19] Minutes of the General Assembly, 1924, Part 1, 196.

[20] Presbyterian Church of New York and Dr. Fosdick, 38-42.

[21] Ibid., 50.

[22] The Presbyterian 94 (June 5, 1924), 5.

[23] The Presbyterian 94 (October 30, 1924), 22.

[24] Presbyterian Church of New York and Dr. Fosdick, 60.

[25] The Presbyterian 94 (November 6, 1924), 12.

[26] Maitland Alexander, "The Maintenance of the Reformed Theology," The Presbyterian 93 (December 27, 1923), 6-9.

[27] Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York: Macmillan Co., 1929), 32.

[28] See Appendix, note 1.

[29] The Presbyterian 94 (January 17, 1924), 9.

[30] Charles Hodge, The Church and Its Polity (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1879), 317-35.

[31] Confession of Faith, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., chapter XXIV, section VI.

[32] The Presbyterian Digest Vol. 2 (1938), 4.

[33] Ibid., 6.

[34] Ibid., 4-5.

[35] Clarence E. Macartney, "The Creed of Presbyterians," The Presbyterian 93 (July 12, 1923), 8-10, 26.

[36] Hodge, Church Polity, 333-4.

[37] Minutes of the General Assembly 1893, Part 1, 166.

[38] Philip Schaff, "The Canons and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent, A.D. 1563," in Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1931), 2:80.

[39] Ibid., 403.

[40] Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter VIII, section V.

[41] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895), 2:563-64.

[42] Westminster, chapter VIII, section IV.

[43] Westminster, chapter V, section III.

[44] Form of Government XII, section 5; John Vant Stephens, "An Affirmation," 27-28.

[45] Minutes of the General Assembly 1924, Part 1, 202.

[46] The Presbyterian 106 (January 23, 1936), 22.

[47] The Book of Discipline (1909), chapter X11, section 17

[48] The Presbyterian 94 (September 4, 1924), 3.

[49] Minutes of the General Assembly 1925, Part 1, 88.

[50] Minutes of the General Assembly 1926, Part 1, 78.

[51] Christianity Today 5 (November 1934), 141-43.

[Table of Contents]


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