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Geerhardus Vos: Presbyterian Unrest

Danny E. Olinger

When Geerhardus Vos returned to Princeton after his sabbatical in September 1923, the Presbyterian Church was in a state of unrest. Theological liberals were angered by the 1923 General Assembly’s declaration that the inerrancy of Scripture, Christ’s virgin birth, his substitutionary death to satisfy divine justice, his bodily resurrection, and the showing of his power and love by working miracles were each an essential doctrine of the Word of God. In opposition to these declarations, they gathered in Auburn, New York, in December to draft what would become known as the Auburn Affirmation.[1] The Affirmation, eventually signed by 1,274 ministers in the Presbyterian Church,[2] denied the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and declared that the doctrines of Christ’s incarnation, atonement, resurrection and power to perform miracles were mere theories and non-essential to the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture.[3] It further asserted that the general assembly had no right to elevate these doctrines as special tests for ordination to the gospel ministry.

After the Affirmation’s wide distribution, the question became whether the 1924 General Assembly would discipline the signers. Consequently, the election of the moderator of the assembly, which would go a long way in determining what the assembly’s response would be, held special importance. The candidates were conservative leader Clarence Macartney, pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and Princeton Seminary’s Charles Erdman, who although personally evangelical, was the liberal choice as moderator due to his desire to keep the peace in the Presbyterian Church.[4] Princeton Seminary president J. Ross Stevenson championed Erdman’s candidacy.[5] Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen backed Macartney’s candidacy.[6] The assembly elected Macartney, which brought joy to the conservatives, but by the end of the assembly Machen lamented that the doctrinal issues had been largely bypassed.[7]

The next year Erdman’s name was nominated again in the Presbytery of New Brunswick for the presbytery to recommend as a candidate for moderator of the 1925 assembly. Thirty-nine members of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, including Vos and Machen, opposed the nomination and signed a protest.[8] Forty-two members of the presbytery, however, voted to have the stated clerk of the presbytery recommend Erdman for moderator of the assembly.

Although it was well known at the seminary that Vos sided with Machen during the controversy, signing the protest against Erdman was one of the few times that Vos publicly took a stand. Bernardus Vos explained his father’s position during the controversy.

The President of the Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, favored allowing the Seminary to fall into the hands of those liberal in their theological outlook and who favored operating the Seminary as an institution catering to all the factions of the Presbyterian Church, liberal and otherwise. The policy was vigorously fought against by Drs. Machen, Allis, Robert Dick Wilson, Van Til, and others. With these my father agreed, although he himself took no active part in the controversy.[9]

Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History

While Vos did not play an active part in the controversy, he did play a small part with his teaching in the classroom and in print. In his judgment, liberal theology was based on philosophical speculation and not on presuppositions that flowed from the Bible. During Machen’s first year on the faculty at Princeton Seminary in 1906, Vos had forcefully argued in his Princeton Theological Review article, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” against the liberal belief that Christian faith had little or nothing to do with historical fact. In maintaining that Christianity was a life and not a doctrine, liberal theologians had knowingly separated Christian faith and history. Distrusting the historical truthfulness of the Bible, they answered that Christianity is too inward and ideal to be dependent in its essence on this or that occurrence in history. “They protest that their own faith lives far superior to the level where such questions are discussed and decided, as to whether Christ was supernaturally conceived by the virgin birth or rose bodily from the grave on the third day.”[10] Their own subjective faith then becomes the standard for what is possible in Christianity.

Vos countered that this was a wrongheaded approach. “In revelation and redemption naturally not the human, subjective side, not the religious views and sentiments of men, stand in the foreground, but the great objective acts and interpositions of God, the history as it is in itself, not as it reflected itself in the mind of man.”[11]

Redemption was bound to historical events. The doctrines of Scripture gave meaning to those events. Vos wrote, “It is safe to say that a Christianity which plants itself squarely upon the foundation of the supernatural history will always be a doctrinal Christianity and vice versa.”[12]

This rupture of faith and history, Vos contended, was the byproduct of the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism. The modernist question in the previous age had been, “Is the supernatural conceivable on the general principle of reason?” Now, the question was, “Is the supernatural necessary according to the empirical data of history?”[13]

Vos answered that the historical and the supernatural were not mutually exclusive. “To us the history of Christ, and therefore the historical Christ, means the entire life of the Saviour with all its eternal issues included, replete with supernatural elements, involving the incarnation, the miracles, the resurrection.”[14] These historical and supernatural events make Christ the revelation of God to us, not the religious trust or perfect ethical conduct he displayed. In proto-Machen fashion, he argued:

The difference between those who think they can do without the facts and us who feel that we must have the facts, does not lie on the periphery of the Christian faith: it touches what to us is the center. It relates to nothing less than the claim of our holy religion to be a supernatural religion, and a religion which objectively saves from sin. It would be easy to show that a Christianity which can dispense with the facts of Bible history must, from the nature of the case, be a religion confined by the horizon of the present life and the present world, lacking the supernaturalistic eschatological outlook which is so characteristic of the biblical religion as a whole, and of historical Christianity as well.[15]

There was not a fact which the Bible summons us to believe that was not the exponent of a great principle meant to stir our religious life. The most blessed times in the history of the church have been “when the belief in Bible history and the religion of the heart went hand in hand and kept equal pace, when people were ready to lay down their lives for facts and doctrines, because facts and doctrines formed the daily spiritual nourishment of their souls.”[16]

The Messianic Consciousness

Another place where Vos aggressively disagreed with liberalism was its contention that Jesus did not understand himself to be Messiah prior to his death. Vos argued that Jesus not only understood himself to be the Messiah, but also that the Christian religion stands or falls on whether Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah.

For decades at Princeton, Vos argued this point in an elective course on the Messianic consciousness. Drawing on his notes for the course, Vos published two articles in 1916 in Biblical Review, “Modern Dislike of the Messianic Consciousness in Jesus” and “The Ubiquity of the Messiahship in the Gospels.”[17] In 1920 and 1922 he published two more articles in the Biblical Review, “The Messiahship: Formal or Essential to the Mind of Jesus?” and “The Name ‘Lord’ As Used of Jesus in the Gospels.”[18]

By 1926 he had expanded both his class notes and his articles into a full manuscript entitled The Messianic Consciousness of Jesus. What he could not find, however, was a publisher. Machen, who agreed with Vos’s argument that liberalism had distorted biblical teaching concerning Jesus, was enthusiastic about the book. He told Vos that he eagerly “would do everything that I possibly can to help secure the advantageous publication of what I know is a magnificent book.”[19] Machen then wrote William H. Leach of the George H. Doran Company.

In view of my acquaintance with you, and of our recent correspondence, I am venturing to introduce to you my honored teacher and colleague, the Rev. Geerhardus Vos, D.D., Professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton Theological Seminary, who has prepared a manuscript on the Messianic Consciousness of Jesus. It is possible that the wording of the title may be somewhat changed. I scarcely know of any book that I have been so eager to see appear as a book on this subject by Dr. Vos. His lectures on the subject when I was a student at the Seminary have been to me one of the few really basic things in my preparation for life and in my guidance in everything that I have tried to do; and I feel sure that my experience is similar to the experience of many others. I cannot imagine anything more vitally important, and more clarifying, than his treatment of the subject. That was true of his lectures as I heard them, and I should think that it would be even more clearly true of the present book, which is the result of many years of magnificent scholarly work. No one commands the whole literature of his subject better than this author, and no one is more capable of reducing the material to admirable order and of combining a genuine originality with wide scholarship. And the particular topic that he has chosen for this book is one that he has made peculiarly his own, and is also perhaps the most important topic and the most timely one in the whole field of New Testament study.

If you should publish this book, I feel sure that you would be publishing one of the most notable contributions to theology that has appeared in many years.[20]

George Doran himself responded that he would be eager to publish the book. He did request that Vos change the title The Messianic Consciousness of Jesus. Doran wrote, “If the title could be somewhat more inviting to popular reading and study than the one you have chosen I think it would serve the double purpose of extending the usefulness of your message and enable us to dispose of a larger number of copies.”[21] Doran then suggested that the subtitle, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, carried more popular appeal and should be used. Thankful for Doran’s willingness to publish the book, Vos changed the title.

The Self-Disclosure of Jesus

In the preface to The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, Vos put forth the seriousness of the theological controversy in the church. “What the cross was in the days of the Apostle, the Messiahship is to the modern advanced ‘Christian’ mind, the great rock of offense.”[22] But, Vos added, this rock was not easy to remove without a retreat into “plain liberal Judaism.”[23]

Vos knew that some might conclude that the controversy was simply a theological difference of opinion, but, he maintained that doctrinal indifferentism on this question was not an option. The way that one views the Messiahship of Jesus determines the character of one’s piety. Vos declared, “Let no one delude himself with the soothing comfort that the controversy is all about scraps of external belief and does not touch the core of practical devotion. With its decision the Christian religion stands or falls. Tua res, pia anima, agitur!”[24] Vos then stated that the book was written to make this argument clearer.


After the preface and before the opening chapter, “The Strategic Importance of the Messianic Consciousness,” Vos included an epigraph on a single page. It read, “His visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men.” Below the verse was “Isaiah III, 14.” The epigraph, typographical error aside as the verse quoted was Isaiah 52:14, was important because it revealed what Vos thought was at stake in the debate about the Messianic consciousness of Jesus. [25] Would the church embrace the biblical self-disclosure concerning Jesus, the Savior who went to the cross, or would it recreate a Jesus of its own liking?

The Strategic Importance of the Messianic Consciousness[26]

Vos opened the first chapter, “The Strategic Importance of the Messianic Consciousness,” by stating that the question of the Messianic consciousness deals with whether Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah. Those who sought to answer the question in the negative, that Jesus did not understand himself to be the Messiah, were inclined to deny the supernatural Jesus. “From the religious point of view Jesus is not valuable to them in the capacity of Messiah, but under some other aspect, variously defined, be it as a religious genius, or an ethical teacher, or a social reformer.”[27]

One’s view of Jesus’s understanding of himself was not merely a theoretical issue. It also affected one’s practice. If at the heart of Christianity was the fellowship that takes place between God and man, how Jesus viewed himself was all-important for the believer. Vos said, “No one can take a Savior to his heart in that absolute, unqualified sense which constitutes the glory of religious trust, if there persists in the background of his mind the thought that this Savior failed to understand Himself.”[28]

Vos further questioned how so many modern minds could adopt the position that Jesus failed to understand himself. This view, inherently perverse in a field where everything ought to be straightforward, was one of the strangest riddles of the pathology of religion. Vos said, “It would be difficult to find a case where two ways of thinking appear to be so pointedly at variance and have so little in common as the Messianic way of thinking on the one hand and the thought form of ‘liberal’ Christianity on the other hand.”[29]

Vos then detailed the reasons why liberalism rejected the Messianic self-consciousness of Jesus.  One reason was an opposition to biblical authority. “The Messiah is the incarnate representation of that divine authoritativeness which is so characteristic of Biblical religion.”[30]

A second reason was liberalism’s antagonism to biblical religion being an eschatological religion. But, Vos argued that the goal set before humanity cannot be attained by the natural course of events as liberalism assumed. Rather, the goal will be brought about catastrophically through a divine interposition, which once attained bears the stamp of eternity. At the center of this eschatology-complex, the closing of the present world order and the start of the new world order, stands the Messiah. “That we do not more clearly realize this is due to the fact that for us the Messiah has come and accomplished a part of his task, and yet what we call the ‘eschatological’ crisis is still outstanding.”[31]

A third reason for opposition to the view that Jesus possessed a Messianic consciousness was the connection with the supernatural. Liberalism attempted to make Jesus a person whose center of thought rested in the natural relation between God and man. A supernaturalized Jesus, who “lived and moved and had his being in the world of the supernatural,” would “not fit into the humanitarian idealism of which the ‘liberal’ theology would make Jesus the exponent.”[32]

Vos did not deny that there were humanitarian aspects of the work of Jesus as Messiah, but they cannot explain his purpose. Jesus came to rescue sinners from judgment and to introduce them into the blessedness of the world to come. But, Vos noted, “this old solid idea of salvation, the basis of all ‘evangelical’ religion, has become an offense to the modern mind in many quarters.”[33] The modern Jesus was no longer the Savior of sinners, but an evangelist of uplift.   

The view of Jesus as moral uplifter, however, depended upon stripping him of his Messianic consciousness. “The moment this falls from off Him, the distasteful soteric notions of atonement, regeneration, and whatever belongs to this circle of ideas, disappear with it one and all. They are enucleated in their Messianic root.”[34]

According to Vos, in order to achieve their goal of stripping Jesus of his Messianic self-consciousness, the liberal critics applied the same method to Jesus as they applied to the Old Testament Scriptures.

Among the motives that have led to the denial of the genuineness of some of the greatest eschatological prophecies has been the feeling that the ideas of free grace and supernatural transformation, so prominent in them, are out of keeping with the intensely ethical spirit of the prophets.[35]

Vos concluded that liberal theology was “nothing else but the Pelagian view of religion seeking to dislodge the Augustinian view from its double stronghold in prophecy and Gospel.”[36]

Liberal theology also believed that Jesus should suffice as an example, a teacher, a leader, a point of departure in religion. Vos believed that this view had multiple difficulties. It created an awkward interpretative situation in biblical texts in which the plain reading is that Jesus offered himself at an infinitely higher value. Further, if you eliminate Jesus’s Messianic self-consciousness, you eliminate his claim to be the object of faith, prayer, and worship. Vos judged that this liberal solution of eliminating Jesus’s Messianic self-consciousness was Arian and a rejection ultimately of Jesus himself.

Vos understood that for the Presbyterian Church to move in this direction was to embrace a change so radical for Christianity that it becomes an entirely different religion. “Practically all this anti-soteric effort can have but one result. It is bound to raise an unsurmountable barrier between the historical Jesus and the refusers of his supreme gift.”[37] If Jesus were desupernaturalized and his consciousness of Messiahship removed, then the Jesus that remained would be unfit for being the recipient of any truly religious approach from man. In other words, if the communion that Jesus sought to impart, the giving of himself entirely and at every moment, operated apart from his atoning work in history on a non-soteric basis, it would be a pseudo-communion.

Modern Liberal Christianity’s Opposition to the Messianic Consciousness

In the next six chapters, Vos outlined five different objections to the Messianic consciousness put forth by “modern liberal Christianity” and its critical relatives. The five views were 1) outright denial of the historicity of the Messianic consciousness in Jesus; 2) agnostic position; 3) theory of consciousness of prospective Messiahship; 4) theory of a gradually developing consciousness of Messiahship in the mind of Jesus; and 5) theory that the Messiahship was for Jesus no more than a formal thing.[38] What each view shared was “a departure from Christ and addressing itself to the world, rather than a movement seeking the Person of Christ in order to occupy itself with Him.”[39]

Proponents of the first view, the outright denial of the Messianic consciousness in Jesus, believed that the Messianic consciousness was at odds with the ethico-religious character of Jesus. When they attempted to establish their position from Scripture, however, their methodology lacked an objectively verifiable procedure. The solution was not to proclaim that the supernatural Jesus was historical, but to proclaim the texts unhistorical. The Messianic element is ruled out not because the passages criticized offer just ground for suspicion, but the passages are suspected because the Messianic idea appears in them.

The deniers further believe that the Messianic consciousness in Scripture was the result of the subsequent dogmatizing of the disciples. The alleged dogmatizing was supposedly seen in Jesus’s break with Israel and the association of the cross and suffering with the Messiahship.

Vos countered that the first step in answering these criticisms was to discern how Jesus regarded his Messiahship and how the Judaistic mindset regarded the Messiahship.  Jesus believed the Messiahship existed for the sake of God. The Judaistic mindset believed that the office existed for man. “Not God but Israel was in it the chief figure of the world to come, and the Messiah appeared as the agent who would raise Israel to this greatness.”[40] This is why Jesus charged Israel with sin, declared them unfit for entrance into the eschatological inheritance, and summoned them to repentance.

For Vos, the liberal view of Messiahship matched that of the Judaistic Messianic concept that Jesus opposed. “The modern reconstruction of his figure and mind has made it difficult to ascribe any other principle to Him in any course of action than that of the most one-sided humanitarianism, excluding all but the most superficial and indirect concern for the interests of God.”[41]

What applied to the break between Israel and Jesus applied in equal measure to the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah on the cross. Liberals believed that the cross discredited the Messianic consciousness. “So long as regard was had to what man would get out of the Messiahship, the cross could not but appear preposterous. But Jesus sought the cross from the love of God. In dying, as in all else he did, He hallowed God’s name.”[42]

Liberalism believed that Jesus came as a great thinker expounding a new system of ethics. Jesus, however, was the Savior who spoke out of a great redemptive movement where he was the central and controlling factor.[43] “In this profound sense the Messianic idea underlies all the high idealism of his ethics, and alone renders it historically intelligible.”[44]

Rather than the church attempting to make Jesus fit the times, the church should fit the times to his teaching. His ethics were deeply rooted in his God-centered, other-worldly frame of mind. “Our Lord was interested in these things, because from the highest religious viewpoint the coming world, the state of eternity, meant for Him the only possible religious consummation.”[45]

Messianic Names

In chapters 8–13 Vos examined the titles Jesus called himself and the titles that others called him. These titles were “the Christ,” the Lord,” “the Son of God,” and “the Son of Man.” Jesus’s favorite self-designation was Son of Man.[46] The name speaks prospectively of his coming to judge with the glory of his Father, but this glorious one also undergoes humiliation for the sake of his people. “Not, because He is the Son-of-Man must He undergo humiliation and suffering and death, but although He is the Son-of-Man is such a destiny, paradoxically, in store for Him.”[47]   

In his explanation of the “Son of God” designation for Jesus, Vos engaged Adolf von Harnack’s understanding of the title.[48] Harnack believed that Jesus used the forms of his day, but was far advanced in his thinking. What was necessary, according to Harnack, was separating the substance of what Jesus taught from the form he used. Jesus might have used “Son of God” as a self-designation, but he was not claiming that he was divine. It was a form used to express the religious experience that all believers share when they put their trust in the Father.

In direct opposition to Harnack’s teaching, Vos maintained that the Son of God title shows how the Messiahship, though existing in time, rests solidly upon the eternal things of the Godhead.

Our Lord’s eternal sonship qualifies Him for filling the office of Messiah. This office … implies such a relation of close affiliation with God, such an acting as the absolute representative of God, that only a Son in the highest sense can adequately fill the office.[49]

The Messianic sonship is the eternal sonship brought into history, but Messiahship also involves the Messiah’s assumption of human nature and living a human life. The title Son of God holds the two aspects of Jesus’s life, the eternal and the temporal, together in a common designation.

The Messianic Task—To Save

Vos turned next to the Messianic tasks. The one comprehensive term that described Jesus’s mission was “to save.”  Salvation is the translation from the sphere of death to the sphere of life.

Liberals designated Jesus “as the Uplifter and Benefactor, bent mainly upon relieving all manner of distress and abnormality upon men.”[50] The trouble with such an understanding is that it has no Scriptural support. Consequently, Vos registered his complaint against liberal exegesis. It created a conflict in the text rather than receiving the conflict from the text. He wrote:

In this respect the half century of toil of the “liberal” theology, instead of rehabilitating the historical Jesus, has only resulted in the construction of a far different figure—a figure which is now being felt to be unhistorical after all. And at no other point, perhaps, has the disillusionment attending this result proved so poignant as here.[51]

Jesus gave his life as a ransom for others. “Christ died, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us near unto God. The death of Jesus negatively takes away the disqualifications and positively bestows the qualifications necessary for the worship-service of God in the heavenly sanctuary.”[52] Jesus’s supreme desire is that where he is, there his disciples shall be also. He sanctifies himself for them so that they also may be sanctified.      

Princeton Seminary

Around the same time that Machen was helping Vos find a publisher for the Self-Disclosure, Machen found himself embroiled in controversy once again. At the 1926 General Assembly, Machen had been put forth by the faculty of Princeton to fill the chair of apologetics.[53] Stevenson spoke on the floor of the assembly against the approval of Machen and requested the erection of a special committee to study the situation at Princeton Seminary and report back to the next assembly. The assembly agreed and appointed the moderator, William O. Thompson, who had just retired as president of the Ohio State University, to chair the committee.

The Thompson-led committee met the faculty on November 23, 1926. Vos, Armstrong Hodge, Wilson, Allis, and Greene made it clear that they sided with Machen. Machen, appreciative of their support, told the special committee, “Five members of the majority group in the Faculty were my teachers when I was a student at the Seminary; and the relationship of pupil to master, into which I entered with them, has never been broken but has only been deepened in the passing years.”[54]

In attempting to make their case, the six-man group appointed Armstrong as their spokesman. He contended that Stevenson and Erdman represented a doctrinal indifferentism that was contrary to the seminary’s stated purpose. Their advocacy of change had led to the disruption at the seminary.

Given their turn, Stevenson and Erdman blamed Machen for the troubles at the seminary. In response, Vos asked Erdman two questions. The first question was whether Machen had ever called Erdman a modernist. The other question was which faculty members Erdman believed were editors of the Presbyterian, about which Erdman had made a claim in print.[55] The report recorded the following exchange:

Dr. Erdman: With reference to the statement that Dr. Machen called me a modernist, I think Dr. Machen has never called me a modernist. I have no such memory of having made such a statement, and if I have said it, I withdraw it and apologize now.

Dr. Thompson: Does that satisfy Dr. Vos?

Dr. Vos: Yes.

Dr. Erdman: In reference to my changing an article which I had written. My change was to delete the sentence where the phrase “editors” was used. The word “editors” was not made “editor” but it was deleted before the article reached Dr. Kennedy.

Dr. Luddock: I think you said that you had no reference to him.

Dr. Erdman: I had no reference to Dr. Vos.

Dr. Vos: I would like him to reply, whether he had another member of the faculty in mind. I would like him to say who it was, if he feels like it, or it was not this or that one.

Dr. Erdman: I had supposed that the article emanated from a certain editor of the Presbyterian, but I afterwards found that I was mistaken in such a suspicion.[56]

Thompson stated that he agreed with Machen that “the great issues before the Church are the fact and character of God, the fact and character of Christ, the fact and character of the Scriptures, all leading up to the great fact of supernaturalism and the proclaiming of the Gospel.”[57] Thompson believed that Machen put forth the issues for which the seminary stood accurately. Still, Thompson believed that the reconciliation between Erdman and Machen was paramount.   

Erdman responded, “It does seem to me the whole trouble is a past difference between Dr. Machen and myself.” Erdman continued that if the committee could persuade Machen that he (Erdman) was sincere in his desire to defend the evangelical faith, then he believed that Machen would forgive him for what was past.

Vos interjected at this point. He said that Erdman had written “there is bitterness in the faculty, that it is not confined to one person, it is a disease spread through the whole faculty.” Vos then said, “If that is to be resolved, I wish to shake hands with Dr. Erdman.”[58]

Erdman then presented an affirmation that he said he hoped that the other faculty members would sign also. It read, “We the members of the Faculty of Princeton Seminary do hereby affirm that to the best of our knowledge, no member of this Faculty desires to alter the historic position of the Seminary in its absolute loyalty to the standards of our Church.”[59]

Thompson reported that the Special Committee members were hopeful that the Faculty could affirm the resolution. Vos, the first faculty member to respond, was not favorable. He said:

This pledge is not nearly as explicit as the pledge I subscribed to when I was inducted into my professorship. There is great ambiguity in maintaining loyalty to the Standards of the Presbyterian Church. In what sense does the average Presbyter maintain it? We know very well that as a matter of fact there are differences tolerated in the Presbyterian Church, there are Presbyters who subscribe to the Confession of Faith, and do it with an attitude that is sub-evangelical, I call it. I don’t mean Dr. Erdman has any such thought in his mind. The word historical is very flexible.[60]

Hodge immediately followed Vos and stated that he felt Erdman’s affirmation was no answer at all. He said, “It seems to me that everybody asserts that they desire to maintain the historic position of Princeton Seminary, but the point is really the attitude of the institution toward the latitude of interpretation which Dr. Vos has spoken of.”[61]

Machen supported Vos and Hodge’s contention. He maintained that the inability for the faculty to agree on a definition of Princeton’s historic position had troubled the faculty for quite some time. Machen said, “I do hold there is a very great difference of opinion as to what the historic position of Princeton Seminary is, and what course must be adopted to exclude modernism from the seminary.”[62] Vos agreed with Machen and expanded on his precise fear.   

I have dread of this word “historical position.” I have the same dread of it that I have of “system of doctrine” which opens a wide door for the slipping in of all kinds of heresy. I would be willing to vote for that if it were defined or qualified. The “historical position as it is outlined in the Plan of the Seminary and acknowledged by all the teachers in it at their induction into office.”[63]

In the end, the faculty did not support the resolution.   

When the Special Committee reported to the 1927 General Assembly, it put forth Stevenson’s recommendation that the board of directors, who favored the historic position of the seminary, and the board of trustees, who favored broadening the seminary’s outlook, be merged into one board. The 1927 Assembly appointed a Committee of Eleven to propose amendments to the constitution of the seminary to establish a single overseeing board. The Committee of Eleven presented their recommendation of a single board with thirty-three members to the 1928 General Assembly. The 1929 General Assembly approved the changes and made official the single board.

Machen, Wilson, Allis, and Cornelius Van Til, who had served as an instructor in apologetics during the 1928–1929 school year, resigned from Princeton after the assembly action. In September 1929, the four men joined together with Princeton graduates Ned B. Stonehouse, Allen MacRae, Paul Woolley, and R. B. Kuiper to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.[64] Vos, Armstrong, and Hodge did not resign from Princeton. The question to many became why these supporters of Machen and his cause did not leave for Westminster.


[1] In taking the action that it did, the 1923 General Assembly affirmed the similar declarations of the 1910 and 1916 General Assemblies.

[2] This represented approximately 13 percent of the ministerial members of the Presbyterian Church.  D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994), 116.

[3] Lefferts A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1957).

[4] Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1992), 43. Machen commented, “Dr. Erdman does not indeed reject the doctrinal system of our church, but he is perfectly willing to make common cause with those who reject it, and he is perfectly willing on many occasions to keep it in the background.” See, Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004), 325.

[5] Report of the Special Committee to Visit Princeton Theological Seminary to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., San Francisco, California, May, 1927 (Philadelphia: Office of the General Assembly, 1927), 62.

[6] Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 318.

[7] D. G. Hart explains, “The distinction between fact and theory was an argument that Machen opposed vehemently. From his perspective, the Affirmation revealed the telltale flaw of liberalism, that of making theology independent of and secondary to religious experience. The redemptive events mentioned in the document were not theories, he believed, but facts whose meaning the Bible supplied. By asking for tolerance in interpreting these doctrines, Machen thought the Affirmation reversed the ‘plain meaning’ of both scripture and the confession and, in effect, left the church without a theological foundation.” D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith, 116.

[8] A Statement concerning a Pamphlet Entitled “The Presbytery of New Brunswick to the Church at Large,” April 25, 1925. Hart observes that Erdman had solid evangelical credentials as he had served as editor of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets that opposed liberal biblical scholarship. His overarching desire, however, was to maintain the unity of the Presbyterian Church. Machen and the other conservatives “believed that liberal and conservative views were irreconcilable. When [Machen] complained publicly that Erdman was merely a puppet for liberals and asked conservatives not to vote for his colleague, Erdman took offense.” Hart, Defending the Faith, 117.

[9] Letter, Bernardus Vos to Roger Nicole, July 3, 1967. Archives of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

[10] Geerhardus Vos, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 458.

[11] Ibid., 460.

[12] Ibid., 462.

[13] Ibid., 461.

[14] Ibid., 464.

[15] Ibid., 466.

[16] Ibid., 471.

[17] Geerhardus Vos, “Modern Dislike of the Messianic Consciousness in Jesus,” Biblical Review 1 (1916): 170–85, and, “The Ubiquity of the Messiahship in the Gospels,” Biblical Review 1 (1916): 490–506.

[18] Geerhardus Vos, “The Messiahship: Formal or Essential to the Mind of Jesus?” Biblical Review 5 (1920): 196–208, and, “The Name ‘Lord’ As Used of Jesus in the Gospels,” Biblical Review 7 (1922): 515–36.

[19] Letter, J. Gresham Machen to Geerhardus Vos, May 25, 1926. J. Gresham Machen Archives in Westminster Theological Seminary.

[20] Letter, J. Gresham Machen to William H. Leach, May 25, 1926. Machen wrote a nearly identical letter to W. H. Murray of the Macmillan Company on the same day. J. Gresham Machen Archives in Westminster Theological Seminary.

[21] Letter, G. H. Doran to Geerhardus Vos, June 22, 1926. J. Gresham Machen Archives in Westminster Theological Seminary.

[22] Geerhardus Vos, Self-Disclosure of Jesus (New York: George H. Doran, 1926), v.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. “Your concern, devout soul, is at stake.” Thanks to Richard B. Gaffin Jr. for this translation.

[25] Sadly, in the 1953 second edition edited by Johannes Vos, and the 1978 and 2002 versions produced by P&R, the epigraph is not included.

[26] For the opening chapter, “The Strategic Importance of the Messianic Consciousness,” Vos reworked his 1916 article in the Biblical Review, “The Modern Dislike of the Messianic Consciousness in Jesus.” See, Geerhardus Vos, “The Modern Dislike of the Messianic Consciousness of Jesus,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980): 324–32.

[27] Vos, Self-Disclosure, 11–12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid. In his book The Modern Search for the Real Jesus, Robert B. Strimple appeals to Vos at this point to explain the critical attempt to reject the historicity of the biblical witness regarding Jesus and yet not reject Jesus himself. Strimple writes, “Modern, post-Enlightenment readers of the Gospel have not been willing to accept and follow the supernatural Jesus presented there. On the other hand, however, they often have not been ready simply to reject Jesus and do without him altogether. They find the religious role claimed for Jesus by Jesus himself, and by the writers of the New Testament, uncongenial to their naturalistic mind-set, and yet they find it hard to cut off all religious relationship with Jesus. Therefore, they seek to find a new one, one compatible with their unbiblical worldview. As Geerhardus Vos has pointed out, however, such an accommodation is impossible.” Strimple then quotes Vos from this portion of the Self-Disclosure of Jesus. “No one who prizes the name of Christian can dismiss Jesus absolutely from his field of religious vision; there is always some category of pre-eminence of leadership under which He is classified … [But if] it be once established that Jesus meant to be that specific kind of spiritual helper which by historical right we designate as “the Messiah,” then how can one refuse his help in that very capacity, and force upon Him a role of religious helpfulness which He was not conscious of sustaining?” (Vos, Self-Disclosure, 12, 14). Robert B. Strimple, The Modern Search for the Real Jesus (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 11.

[30] Vos, Self-Disclosure, 16.

[31] Ibid., 18. Later in the chapter, p. 32 to 34, Vos acknowledged the work of the “hyper-eschatologist” school that showed how liberalism had failed to account for the eschatology of Jesus. The main proponents of the school that Vos had in view were Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) and Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965). Although Vos praised Schweitzer’s acumen, he believed that Schweitzer had separated the historical Jesus from the church just as much as liberalism had done. Schweitzer failed to distinguish between eschatology as a theological obsession, and eschatology as the finest flower of religion cultivated for the glory of God as Jesus did. Jesus did not become an eschatologist for the sake of eschatology as Schweitzer maintained. Jesus was an eschatologist for the sake of God.

[32] Ibid., 23.

[33] Ibid., 26.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 26.

[38] Ibid., 35–36.

[39] Ibid., 35.

[40] Ibid., 58. The antagonism to God found in the Judaistic spirit is a theme that appeared in Vos’s writings. In his 1903 article, “The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” Vos wrote that “the Judaistic spirit made itself the end and God the means, gave to itself the glory and to God the part of subserving the interests of this human glory by His moral government; that it led the creature to regard itself as active and God as a merely passive factor in the determination of eternal destiny.” Geerhardus Vos, “The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 391. In the Self-Disclosure, Vos inferred that liberalism shared the same spirit and reversed the creator-creature distinction. The result was a mindset that believed that if God exists, he exists to serve me.

[41] Vos, Self-Disclosure, 58.

[42] Ibid., 60.

[43] Arguing in the same manner, J. Gresham Machen said, “Here is the fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.” J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 47.

[44] Ibid., 62. Regarding Vos’s point, Charles Dennison commented, “The Jesus of Scripture has no interest in being a moralist, social reformer, or earth-day advocate. His concern is the glory of God and seeking and saving those who were lost by bringing them into covenant fellowship with him.” Comments to author, April 22, 1996.

[45] Vos, Self-Disclosure, 64.

[46] Earlier in the book, on p. 37, Vos stated, “This is the favorite self-designation of Jesus; indeed, it is never put by the writers upon the lips of others concerning Jesus.”

[47] Ibid., 238.

[48] Vos references Harnack (1851–1930), the famous liberal theologian who taught at the University of Berlin, more than any other theologian in the Self-Disclosure. Vos dealt with Harnack’s methodological attempt to neutralize the importance of the Messianic consciousness of Jesus in chapter 7, “The Theory of Formal Significance of the Messianic Consciousness.” He then examined Harnack’s usage of the “Son of God” title in chapters 10.

[49] Vos, Self-Disclosure, 190.

[50] Ibid., 274.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., 303.

[53] The vacancy in the chair of apologetics and Christian ethics was due to the pending retirement of William B. Greene. The faculty voted on May 10, 1926, to nominate Machen. See, Rian, Presbyterian Conflict, 45.

[54] Report of the Special Committee to Visit Princeton Theological Seminary to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., San Francisco, California, May 1927 (Philadelphia: Office of the General Assembly), 110. The “five members” were Vos, Wilson, Hodge, Armstrong, and Greene. Allis had been a student at Princeton with Machen.

[55] In response to an editorial that appeared in the Presbyterian, Erdman replied in the January 22, 1925, issue of the Presbyterian Advocate, “This division would be of no consequence were it not for the unkindness, suspicion, bitterness and intolerance of those members of the faculty who are also editors of the Presbyterian.” Machen was the only member of the faculty who served as an editor of the Presbyterian.  See, Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 325.

[56] Report of the Special Committee, 134.

[57] Ibid., 142.

[58] Ibid., 143.

[59] Ibid., 169.

[60] Ibid., 170.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., 174.

[63] Ibid., 175.

[64] John Murray would leave the next year from Princeton for Westminster. For accounts of the reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary and the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary, see Rian’s Presbyterian Conflict, 37–71; Stonehouse’s J. Gresham Machen, 377–413; Hart’s Defending the Faith, 108–32.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, January 2018.

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