Volume 13, Issue 1: Ex Libris
Presbyterian Pluralism, Competition in a Protestant House
William J. Weston; University of Tennessee Press, 1997
Reviewed by Chris Schlect
The Presbyterion church went through serious disputes over doctrine and polity from 1891 through 1936. These dates bookend an era wherein that communion is said to have shifted from conservative to liberal. In 1891, conservatives succeeded in suspending a liberal, Charles Briggs, from the ministry; by 1936 the tables had turned, and liberals defrocked conservative J. Gresham Machen. While the conservative-to-liberal-shift is an attractive interpretation of this period, it is a rather simplistic one, and perhaps misleading, as several observers have noted. A good bit of ink has been spilled over these events, and now William J. Weston has introduced a stain of his own.
Weston studies these church fights in order to test-drive his own sociological model. This model, he claims, provides the interpretive keys that other scholars have missed, and they all err because of it. He nowhere identifies their errors, except to point out that they don't follow his interpretive model. So what are the keys that other scholars miss? First, they neglect the dynamic of competition among factions in the church, and second, they overlook the most important of these factions, the "institutional loyalists." Institutional loyalists are the majority group sitting midway between liberals and conservatives, who are faithful to the Church as an institution rather than to an ideology. Weston's sociological model is so obvious to himself that he even criticizes Briggs and Machen for not having seen it (104). If these men had Weston's sociological savvy, they might have been more successful in their controversies.
Weston advances his sociology of "competitive pluralism" as a solution to its impractical alternatives, "triumphalism" and "relativism." "Triumphalism" is committed to the idea there is one truth, an unrealistic commitment that cannot be realized in practice. "Relativism" falters because it defeats itself (i.e., Is it true that there is no truth?). By contrast, in Weston's "competitive pluralism," two factions compete for the allegiance of an uncommitted third party, the all-important "institutional loyalists." According to Weston, both Briggs and Machen, together with the historians who interpret them (except Weston), fit the impractical molds of either "triumphalism" or "relativism."
Weston says that his model is wholly new. Here he seems ignorant to the fact that both Briggs and Machen were quite cognizant of a middle group within the church-an uncommitted third party, for which Machen even coined a term: the "indifferentists." Moreover, the important role of this middle group has not escaped the notice of scholars who have come before Weston (e.g., Marsden, Longfield, and Hart).
Weston's chief weakness is his assumption that the Church's essence is its bureaucratic infrastructure, and that the end of the Church is to maintain this infrastructure. In accord with this assumption, Weston weighs a theologian's merit by whether or not his machinations bring the loyalists aboard his bandwagon; he criticizes Briggs and Machen because neither wooed the loyalists. This assumption about the Church clouds Weston's understanding of Machen especially. In reality, it was against such a view of the Church that Machen fought. For Machen, a church is fundamentally identified by its witness, not merely its "social structure" (106). This conflict between conceptions of the Church was even evident in his trial, where proposed appeals to doctrine on Machen's part were ruled out of order, for the tribunal saw the issue as "administrative" in nature, not doctrinal. Weston says that Machen offended loyalists by neglecting the church's constitution, though he could cite no Book of Order violations. This charge seems to disregard the fact that the Confession of Faith (to which Machen repeatedly appealed) is itself an essential part of the church's constitution.
One of Weston's charges against Machen is a sound one: that Machen never brought formal charges against a minister who had compromised the church's teaching. (In a 1936 Presbyterian Guardian article, Machen openly confessed this as a grave sin of omission.) But Weston asserts that Machen brought no such charges because he could not prove that any doctrinal compromise existed in the church (107, 112, 117). To the contrary, in 1933 Machen clearly set forth such proof in print, in a 110-page booklet that Weston does not cite, called Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Others had produced similar documentation that circulated widely among Presbyterian ministers in the mid-1930s.
Weston discloses his point of view openly where he writes "it is seriously misleading" to characterize the Presbyterian controversy as a collision between Calvinism and non-Christian worldviews, which "is to take at face value Machen's account of the central issue." Rather, he sees the battle to have been "between Calvinist groups fighting over the procedures of an essentially Calvinist organization" (116).
Against Weston's spin, Machen demonstrated in 1923 that Christianity and liberalism are different and incompatible religions. Did liberalism exist in the Presbyterian church? The previous year Henry Emerson Fosdick had preached a notoriously unorthodox sermon from a Presbyterian pulpit in New York; in 1924 more than a thousand Presbyterian ministers signed the unorthodox "Auburn Affirmation"; and in 1933 Machen published his well-documented display of corruption in the church's Missions Board. But perhaps the clearest evidence of all came when the 1936 General Assembly upheld the New Brunswick presbytery's decision to suspend Machen from the ministry-of course, for reasons that were administrative, not doctrinal.