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Volume 10, Issue 1: Ex Libris

The Presbyterian Controversy

A Bibliographical Essay by Chris Schlect

Collected Writings; - vol. 4 - Ecclesiastical James Henley Thornwell 1873; reprinted by Banner of Truth

Christianity and Liberalism J. Gresham Machen 1923; reprinted by Eerdmans, 1990

J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir Ned B. Stonehouse 1954; reprinted by Banner of Truth

The Presbyterian Controversey Bradley J. Longfield Oxford University Press, 1991

The Presbyterian Conflict Edwin H. Rian 1940; reprinted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1992

Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America Daryl G. Hart Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994

Crossed Fingers Gary North Institute for Christian Economics, 1996 "The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity," wrote Dr. J. Gresham Machen in his famous Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923 (p. 47). Later that same year, Machen and his colleagues would be horrified by the circulation of the liberal "Auburn Affirmation," a document which counted as nonessential "theories" the doctrines of the virgin birth, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection, and which denounced the inerrancy of Scripture outright. Soon, over 1,200 PCUSA ministers would sign the "Affirmation." Machen's book offered a diagnosis and prescription: "[I]t is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties is the need of the hour" (160). How should this separation come about? Machen offered an answer; thirteen years later he would confess that his answer was wrong, and totally naive: "The best way would be the voluntary withdrawal of the liberal ministers from these confessional churches whose confessions they do not, in the plain historical sense, accept" (167). The liberals didn't voluntarily withdraw, they took over. In 1936 J. Gresham Machen and several others were defrocked by the PCUSA—not just for denouncing liberalism, but for their unwillingness to support it.

Today, historians call this ecclesiastical melee "The Presbyterian Controversy," or in its broader context, "The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy." The events culminated in the downfall of a faithful, orthodox, confessional communion. Since then, other communions have followed suit. Recent Credenda editorials have warned that it may happen again, which has raised many readers' eyebrows. On what is this warning based? See for yourself: study this controversy, then ask whether history is repeating itself. Nothing is new under the sun. Allow us to introduce you to the available literature.
Bradley J. Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy offers the best starting point. Longfield introduces the subject while placing it in its proper historical context. His work is organized around biographical studies of the key persons in the controversy: J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Sloane Coffin, Clarence E. Macartney, Charles R. Erdman, and Robert E. Speer. Other writers recognize, rightly, that doctrinal differences lay at the heart of the controversy. But Longfield looks deeper. He understands that a number of factors go into the makeup of a man: his parents, the church in which he was raised, his education, etc., all of which contribute to his doctrinal tendencies. Longfield also sketches the cultural trends that served an important catalytic role in the controversy: "The circumstances that led to this confrontation had been developing for over fifty years," he writes, "Americans awoke from the nightmare of the Civil War only to encounter revolutions in the intellectual, social, and religious life of the nation" (p. 12). The Presbyterian Controversy was, in part, a product of these revolutions. Longfield properly identifies J. Gresham Machen as the greatest figure in the controversy. Machen's graduate studies in Germany exposed him to the seduction of modernism, his classical training equipped him to confound modernism in the academy, and his confederate heritage raised him to fight uncompromisingly for his principles. Longfield also shows why some conservative stalwarts like William Jennings Bryan did not view modernism as a serious threat to the church, and why others, like Clarence Macartney, willingly made concessions to admittedly loathsome doctrines for unity's sake. The outcome: Machen's conservative allies gave away their cause, but only Machen saw it coming.
Knowing J. Gresham Machen is important to appreciating the whole controversy. The most recent full-length treatment is Daryl Hart's Defending the Faith. Hart's perspective is more sociological than ecclesiastical, which limits the book's usefulness to students of the Presbyterian Controversy. (Such an audience Hart didn't necessarily have in view, perhaps because his editors at Johns Hopkins Press wouldn't have liked the book had he written it that way. Gauging from my reading of other products of Dr. Hart's pen, and from my enlightening conversations with him, it seems to me that he has more to say than what appears in his book.) Hart's book portrays Machen as more of a Victorian than an Old-South Confederate. Hart's Machen-as-Victorian analysis is less satisfying than Longfield's perspective of Machen-as-Confederate. On the other hand, Hart's portrayal of Machen's education and politics is excellent and very helpful. The older, standard biography of Machen is still the best. Author Ned Stonehouse worked alongside Machen for a number of years, and was the first to wade through Machen's vast correspondence after his death. Stonehouse uses these letters to reveal Machen as a man of eloquence, conviction, and robust life. A valuable perspective on the Presbyterian Controversy emerges. Throughout, Stonehouse portrays Machen (quite rightly) as a hero. But he isn't entirely uncritical of his Great Subject. On pp. 497-499, Stonehouse offers his own comments on the weakness of Machen as a coalition leader who lost the support of key conservatives like Samuel Craig, Oswald Allis, and Clarence Macartney. These few pages aren't appreciated apart from a reading of the whole book, and when they are appreciated, they bring timeless wisdom to any presbyter who would work for reform in his communion. "Since [Machen] penetrated easily and quickly to the depths of issues, and could not bring himself to seek to commit men to himself personally," Stonehouse summarizes, "an impression of impatience with those who did not immediately agree was sometimes given." Clear minds and powerful pens are necessary for reform, but because churches are populated with people, they are insufficient.
What Stonehouse mildly criticizes in Machen is a character flaw that runs wildly amuck in Gary North. North knows this, and grins while jabbing his finger in everyone's eyes. North is the only writer I know who can generate a 1,000-page pamphlet. His latest roller-coaster, Crossed Fingers, is one of these. Don't let the size daunt you: it's an easy and entertaining read. Reading Gary North is like sitting behind an unusually witty drunk at a football game: you enjoy his wisecracks and even laugh at them, yet you feel embarrassed for the guy.
North's book is a mixture of bad and excellent. First, the bad. The book is subtitled, How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church. As the subtitle hints, North sees a liberal conspiracy. In the Presbyterian Controversy, the liberals were more successful than conservatives at coalition-building, but this can be accounted for far more reasonably than North's tenuous conspiracy theory. Theological liberals favor administration over doctrine because they are liberals, not because they met together and approved this as their strategy. They gathered in coalitions not because they were conniving plotters, but because they were doing what any like-minded people do upon encountering opposition.
Another weakness of the book is its hasty scholarship. I grew suspicious when a copy of a letter that North referenced to the Machen papers at Westminster Seminary could not be found by the archivist who has kept those papers for years. The most charitable explanation I can offer is that the letter was misattributed. (By contrast, Hart's and Longfield's sources were easy to locate.) Interestingly, North actually offers this advice to reviewers like me: "Because this book is large, you can tip your hat to scholarly objectivity by mentioning that there is a great deal of useful material here, especially in the footnotes. This is safe; hardly anyone actually reads the footnotes" (1087). This reviewer won't let his readers be insulted like this; examine North's footnotes with a healthy skepticism. In his preface, North discusses the importance of painstaking archival research. He confesses, "This detailed archival research has not been done by those who have written about the Presbyterian conflict, including me" (p. xliv). Oddly, North nowhere interacts with Longfield, who obviously spent a great deal of time in five different archival collections. Yet he is correct on one point: more work needs to be done.
To my criticisms above I could add remarks on several of North's finer points of analysis. I suspect that many such criticisms would be alleviated if North subjected himself to a more rigorous editorial process, and if he committed six months or so to shore up his research.
Next, the good. North's book will be valuable to a discerning reader who is mindful of its faults. North's criticism of the conservatives is worth attention. He charges that, years before the Presbyterian Controversy, the conservatives had already compromised their own fidelity to the Westminster Confession, leaving themselves without foundation to fight the liberals when liberals did the same thing. This analysis prompts North to look far back through the history of American Presbyterianism. He charges the Old School with compromise on the slavery question (here North is on weak footing), which marks the dawn of trouble. More importantly, he recounts instances of the Church's failure to protect the Calvinism in its Confession. Throughout, North repeats one point like a mantra: without sanctions, orthodoxy won't last. The point deserves repetition, for history shows that Presbyterians in America who love the Westminster standards will not fight for them. North wonders whether a problem lies in the standards themselves or in the ordination vows, neither of which invoke sanctions for infidelity. Conservatives in the Presbyterian Controversy fought modernism in academic journals rather than in church courts. This was Machen's ill-fated tactic, to which he committed himself in Christianity and Liberalism. Liberalism should have been met with heresy trials. Instead, it was met with a genteel disagreement that legitimized it.
While others have pointed out the importance of sanctions, North has made the point best. He also adds an original contribution: money and power politics. The liberal cause was blessed with Rockefeller money and savvy church bureaucrats. Now the threads come together: Liberalism is inherently anti-creedal, thus liberals hold the church's organization to be more precious than the church's message. Centralization follows as liberals position themselves in the growing bureaucracy—in liberal theology, this is Christian service. Finally, administrative law replaces the dead-letter Confession. If they don't leave, old-guard confessionalists are silenced or driven out by administrative machinery.
Edwin Rian's memoir, The Presbyterian Conflict, also raises important ecclesiological questions. Having sat on Machen's defense team during his 1935 trial, Rian's first-hand insights are helpful. His book begins with an excellent survey of presbyterianism in America, addressing such events as the Old School-New School controversy, the Cumberland union, and the 1903 revisions to the Westminster Confession. The balance of the book covers the key events in the Presbyterian Controversy, beginning with the Auburn Affirmation. His account of the missions controversy through Machen's trial is the best published account available. He also covers the PCUSA's efforts to seize the property of congregations that left the denomination, and the early difficulties within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Throughout, Rian cites important documents and correspondence, sources which his narrative brings to life. The Appendices include the full texts of key documents in the Controversy, including the Auburn Affirmation and the General Assembly's 1934 Mandate. Rian covers much of the same historical material that North does, but Rian does so in 900 fewer pages.
Both the analyses of North and Rian raise important questions of polity. After reading them, we cannot but wonder how the controversy might have turned out had the PCUSA kept herself clean of bureaucratic deadweight. When a church's General Assembly grows into a huge coffee-and-keynote convention rather than what it should be, a deliberating judicatory, that church has given up her sanction-protected doctrinal witness in favor of bureaucratic administration. These very matters were addressed in the 1860 General Assembly of the PCUSA, when James Henley Thornwell debated Charles Hodge on the propriety of church boards. History has since proven that Thornwell was right: church boards and agencies can redefine a church's mission because they fall outside the presbyterian juridical structure, leaving their work unchecked. This debate, and Thornwell's published articles on the subject, appear in volume 4 of Thornwell's works. Any presbyterian who is desirous of protecting his church from liberalism must read Thornwell.


 

Michael Collins

Producer: Stephen Woolley, Director: Neil Jordon
Los Angeles, Warner Bros. & Geffen Films, 1996

Reviewed by Douglas Jones

Every year, because of bad marketing or poorly chosen release dates, moviegoers miss great films like Michael Collins, the story of the fight for Irish independence. Collins was a pioneer in guerrilla warfare and many followed his model, including Yitzhak Shamir. Collins led Ireland to declare its independence from Britain after the turn of the century, and he negotiated the treaty which left the island split (yes, the moral complications go far deeper than the movie; we ourselves prefer to wear orange on St. Patrick's day).

Collins is still a topic of national interest. President De Valera, who ruled Ireland after the ratification of the treaty forbid the Collins' family to speak of him. In Irish schools, history classes skipped over the period 1916 to 1922, a foolish decision making him the stuff of legends.
The film opens at the Easter Rebellion of 1916 where Collins was one of the men arrested for seizing Dublin's General Post Office Building. After being released from prison, he and his friend Harry Boland rise to power (Michael to leadership) in the Sinn Fein movement. Along the way, he wins a government supporter who turns out to be the records clerk in charge of all the files kept on Irish dissidents, and he organizes a mobster- like guerrilla warfare squad to defend against the British who consolidate power against the uprisings.
Finally the Irish win a decisive victory and Eamon De Valera, an Irish representative in Parliament likely to become the new president, recommends that Collins negotiate the approaching treaty. De Valera does so knowing that Britain will never acquiesce to the terms. Four months later Collins returns with a treaty dividing Ireland. De Valera and the men whom he trained reject him as a compromiser.
The plot is constructed around two triangles, a love triangle involving Michael Collins (Liam Neeson), Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) and Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), but also a political triangle with Collins, Boland, and De Valera. Upon Collins' return from Britain he becomes engaged to Kitty. Boland sees that her love for Collins rests in her respect for him as a leader, a man driven for the cause of Ireland, so Boland shifts political loyalties from his longtime friend in order to stand with De Valera whose wits have been replaced by ambition.
The well-structured story struggles with accuracy, especially concerning a particular assassination (I won't give the details away here). In the film we get the sense that a character is assassinated by De Valera, but all that is known about the assassination is that De Valera was in town. This is like saying that Nixon was guilty for Kennedy's death because both were in Dallas.
This good film could have been great. As an example: The "hero" begins as a revolutionary and ends up a compromiser, or better, a reformer. Films tend to glorify the radical because radicals make good dynamic characters. But this film had the chance to glorify the reformer, something never done. Collins knows that the path of success for Ireland involves patience, so he negotiates as much from the British as possible. Upon returning home, Collins is accused of cowardice on the floor of the new Irish Parliament. He could have talked about the value of reform or something, as he actually did upon this occasion. The man was an eloquent speaker and a good statesman as opposed to the mere common man scripted in the film. But the character in the film says nothing at this point, because the writers gave him nothing, only some mumblings about him being willing to accept tarnish on his name if it means the betterment of Ireland. When characters have an audience in a scene the stakes always go up, in a way proportional to the importance of the members of that audience. This dramatic device is one of the great strengths in films which is difficult to exploit in plays or prose. My Best Friend's Wedding (with Julia Roberts) made amazing use of this device in creating tension in comedy. Collins is speaking before Parliament, and yet the moment comes and goes. It could have been delivered a punch. Instead it just shakes your hand.
Interestingly the film views history as character driven. Collins's chief antagonist is a man who over the course of the film develops his greed for power. He was a good man who like MacBeth becomes evil through ambition. Harry Boland becomes Collins's political enemy, not for ideology but for the love of a woman. This modern story is told through rather ancient eyes, which saw that the futures of nations rested in choices driven by the lusts, ambitions, and virtues of the men who made history.


 

The 1599 Geneva Bible

L.L. Brown Publishing, 1990

Reviewed by Chris Schlect

For many years it has been impossible to obtain a Geneva Bible. Thankfully, L.L. Brown Publishing has corrected this problem, offering this excellent facsimile edition. Those who know the history of English Bibles know the prestige of this magnificent volume. It was by far the most scholarly translation of its day; its translators returned to the original languages with unequalled carefulness while comparing with previous versions. Moreover, this translation reflects the elegance of Tudor literary culture. The Marian persecutions had driven prominent English Protestants away from England, many of whom fled to Geneva. John Knox often preached to the English congregation there, the congregation that subsidized the painstaking translation project that would require more than two years' work. Meanwhile, Calvin was there revising his Institutes and generating his commentaries, and Theodore Beza was poring over the Hebrew and Greek texts. The first edition of the Geneva Bible appeared in 1560 in the rising heyday of Protestant scholarship and literary culture. The Geneva Bible would shape the theology and literature of Elizabethan England; it was the Bible of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Scottish Kirk.

The Geneva Bible presents many helps, including several maps including the Exodus route and Joshua's distribution of land, many detailed illustrations (e.g., tabernacle and temple, together with their features), and charts (e.g., a description of lawful marriage relations, and a fascinating chronological table of historical events in Revelation). Of course, study aids of this sort have vastly improved since the sixteenth century, but these offer a fascinating display of historical theology. This edition also includes versified Psalms and hymns, prayers, and a concordance. The most striking feature is the Geneva Bible's copious marginal notes, the likes of which we evangelicals, due to our modern folly and immaturity, could never produce. The notes are thorough and exegetical, and they draw out the text with characteristic Puritan practicality. These people knew Holy Writ.
This L.L. Brown facsimile reprint is expensive, but it is attractive and well-bound. The only drawback is its silly prefaces by Michael H. Brown. For their pretended scholarship, sophomoric analysis, and historical inaccuracies, they are an embarrassment to the publisher and a blemish in the Geneva Bible's publishing tradition. No invective is too strong for them. I've heard hopeful rumors that these prefaces will be dropped in future editions.
Some will have difficulty reading sixteenth-century spelling and typesetting. Bear with it; it takes only a little practice. In our family worship we read through the Psalms and enjoyed the language, as well as the commentary.


 

Logic

Isaac Watts
Soli Deo Gloria

Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

Almost all Christians are familiar with Isaac Watts through his hymns and psalms. "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is probably one of the most frequently sung hymns in the history of the West. His devotional writing is both simple and profound, and continues to have great influence.

But Watts had another side to him, and contrary to what many might think, this other side was not a "dark" side. In short, although Watts was a logician and wrote a book explaining clear thinking, this intellectual clarity should be seen as the fountainhead of Watts' devotional clarity.
Soli Deo Gloria has done a great job getting this work back into print, and is to be heartily commended. Those who are interested in teaching clear thinking to their children (please, not "critical thinking skills") should be greatly interested in obtaining this book. The subject matter is challenging, but the book is written in way that should not be too difficult for a well-taught high school student. Homeschoolers who want to teach logic to their kids would be well-advised to include the reading of this book as an essential part of that training.
Watts' commitment to the faith is evident throughout the bookó"As divine revelation can never contradict right reason. . . ." In this book there is no compromise with the false notion that faith and reason stand opposite one another. This is a lesson our generation needs badly. Get the book.

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