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Volume 16, Issue 4: Historia

Fundamentalism and Presbyterianism

Chris Schlect

The schism of 1934-36 in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was the culmination of six decades of doctrinal controversy. Controversy came on the heels of a relative calm following the 1869 reunion of "Old School" and "New School" communions. These two denominations were born of a split in 1837, when issues surrounding revivalism and the Second Great Awakening led them to divide. The 1869 reunion showed that they had laid their doctrinal differences to rest.1 But a new set of issues emerged which ushered in a long era of controversy. The issues the church faced in the coming decades set the stage for the ecclesiastical trial of J. Gresham Machen.

The first sign of controversy arose when former Old School and New School interests came together and launched a new theological journal called Presbyterian Review, which was an effort to foster good will between former foes within the reunited church. The inaugural issue ran in January of 1880 and exhibited a spirit of harmony. But before long, the two managing editors of Presbyterian Review, Dr. Charles Briggs of Union Seminary and Dr. A. A. Hodge of Princeton Seminary, were arguing with one another in the pages of their own journal. In a series of eight articles, four from each viewpoint, Briggs and Hodge reported their different reactions to how German scholars went about textual criticism of the Bible. While Briggs was sympathetic to such criticism, Hodge and his collaborator, B. B. Warfield, were not. Hodge and Warfield articulated a position that became known as "inerrancy," and was identified with Princeton Seminary.
The writers of this article are sincerely convinced of the perfect soundness of the great catholic doctrine of biblical inspiration—i.e., that the Scriptures not only contain, but are, the word of God, and hence that all their elements and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless and binding the faith and obedience of men.2
The two sides became firmly entrenched in the 1880s, but their differences remained academic in nature. The disagreement finally spilled out into the courts of the church when on January 20, 1891, Briggs delivered an address at Union Seminary entitled "The Authority of the Holy Scripture." He expressly denied Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and that Isaiah was sole author of the book named for him. Briggs also questioned miracles and predictive prophecy, and attacked inerrancy outright. Conservatives charged Briggs with heresy for holding such views, and the case passed awkwardly through various courts of the church. The controversy finally concluded when the General Assembly of 1893 found Briggs guilty and suspended him from the Presbyterian ministry. It was a clear victory for the doctrinal conservatives in the church.3
In a critical phase of the Briggs controversy, the 1892 General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Oregon, adopted what became known as the "Portland Deliverance." The Assembly determined that inerrancy was an essential Presbyterian doctrine and that ministerial candidates should be required to affirm it. Proponents viewed the deliverance as a reaffirmation of traditional Presbyterian dogma, but critics such as Briggs called it a new and un-Presbyterian test of orthodoxy. Critics claimed that the Assembly had effectively altered the doctrinal standards of the church without proper ratification by the church's local presbyteries.
After Briggs was suspended, the locus of doctrinal controversy in the church shifted to the discussion over whether the Church's seventeenth-century creedal formulary, the Westminster Confession of Faith, ought to be revised. Briggs himself had been a leading advocate confessional revision, and now others took up the cause. Opposing confessional revision was Briggs's colleague at Union Seminary, W. G. T. Shedd, together with many on the faculty of Princeton Seminary. Their opposition successfully thwarted efforts at confessional revision throughout the 1890s. But these efforts gained new life in 1900, when thirty-seven or thirty-eight presbyteries brought overtures to the General Assembly calling once again for confessional revision. The Assembly appointed a committee to study the matter, which included Benjamin Harrison, former President of the United States, and John M. Harlan, associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. Benjamin Warfield of Princeton Seminary declined an invitation to serve on the committee. "It is an inexpressible grief to me," Warfield explained, "to see it [the Church] spending its energies in a vain attempt to lower its testimony to suit the ever changing sentiment of the world about it." Indeed, the Princetonians wanted no part of confessional revision. After much public discussion, the committee settled upon a proposal to revise the Westminster Confession at eleven points. These points included deletions (e.g., striking the clause asserting that the Pope is the antichrist), slight word changes, and two new sections. The new chapters were the most notable. The first, "On the Love of God," and the second, a "Declaratory Statement" asserted God's love for each and every person, and that the Confession's strong Calvinistic assertions about predestination (especially chapter III) must be understood in harmony with God's love for each and every person. The Declaratory statement toned down the force of the Westminster Confession's teaching on predestination. The 1902 General Assembly approved these proposals and passed them down to the presbyteries for ratification. Over the next year, all eleven proposals received approval from at least of two-thirds of the presbyteries. So the General Assembly of 1903 acknowledged that their Confession of Faith had been revised.4If the Briggs case was a victory for strict confessionalists in the Presbyterian Church, the 1903 revisions to the great old Presbyterian formulary reveals a strong progressive impulse in the church as well.
The 1903 confessional revisions had an important practical effect in the Presbyterian Church. In 1905, the General Assembly approved a plan to unite with the Cumblerland Presbyterian Church, a plan that was consummated in 1906. The Cumberland Presbyterians had split off from the mainline church during the Kentucky and Tennessee revivals back in the 1810s. They stressed moral activism over doctrinal strictness and had always distanced themselves from the "fatalism" they perceived in mainline church's teaching on predestination. To them, the 1903 revisions to the Confession of Faith showed that the mainline church had abandoned its offensive fatalism, thereby opening the door to reunion.5The 1903 confessional revisions and the ensuing 1906 reunion with the Cumberland Presbyterians were two clear steps toward doctrinal openness in the Presbyterian Church. Traditional Presbyterian distinctives were being played down. The trend was also evident when the denomination pursued other ecumenical causes, as when Presbyterians took a leading role in forming the Federal Council of Churches in America in 1908. Presbyterians were becoming less doctrinaire and moved toward a more pragmatic view of the church. Increasingly they turned their attention to practical solutions to growing social problems related to industrialism and urbanization, which were progressive interests they shared with other Protestants.6
These broadening trends were a concern to conservatives within the Presbyterian Church. In order to ensure that their communion was not running off the rails, attacking spiritual problems with worldly solutions, they influenced the 1910 General Assembly to hand down a strict five-point doctrinal affirmation. It came about after the Assembly received a complaint against the New York Presbytery for licensing candidates who would not affirm that Jesus Christ had been miraculously born of a virgin. Some defended the licensees on the grounds that they "do not deny the Virgin Birth of our Lord, but were not prepared to affirm it with the same positiveness as for some other doctrine." Though the Assembly dismissed the complaint for lack of evidence, the body was sympathetic to the concerns it raised. So they charged a committee to draft an overture concerning the licensure of any candidate in the church. The resulting overture identified five doctrines as "essential and necessary" to the Presbyterian faith: the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the substitutionary character of Jesus's death as a "sacrifice to satisfy divine justice," His bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of His miracles. All presbyteries were enjoined to reject any ministerial candidate who did not explicitly agree with these five points. Adoption of the "five points" reassured many conservatives in the church who may have wondered whether the church had been wavering.7
These "five points" became a bone of contention over the next two decades. Critics charged that the General Assembly had reduced the creedal position of the church down to five articles, the practical effect of which was to supplant the church's doctrinal standards. On the other side, defenders of the five points argued that no change had been enacted; the Assembly had merely reaffirmed verities that Presbyterians had always acknowledged. As these discussions took place, the General Assemblies of 1918 and 1923 formally reiterated these same five points of doctrine.
These debates within the Presbyterian church played a leading role in broader discussions among American Protestants at the time about clarifying the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith. In fact, these five points became one way the emerging term "fundamentalism" was defined, both within and outside of Presbyterian circles. The term was also shaped in common discourse through the publication of a famous series of articles entitled The Fundamentals, which appeared in twelve paperback volumes from 1910 to 1915. The articles were written by leading Christian thinkers from various backgrounds, including faculty members from Princeton Theological Seminary. Southern California oil millionaire Lyman Stwart, together with his brother Milton, covered the costs for distributing these volumes free of charge to every pastor, missionary, theological professor, theological student, YMCA and YWCA secretary, college professor, Sunday School superintendent, and religious editor in the English-speaking world. Many of the articles challenged the "higher criticism" of Scripture, the general approach to the Bible favored by Charles Briggs and other liberal academics. Other articles in the series defended the supernatural character of Christianity in relation to several traditional theological topics. Practical topics were also included, such as prayer. The volumes studiously avoided social issues (e.g., prohibition of alcohol) and controversial theological topics such as dispensationalism. Like the five points, The Fundamentals became a touchstone for the growing fundamentalist movement in the 1920s.8
Significantly, neither the five points nor The Fundamentals were distinctively Presbyterian. In this respect, they downplayed the sectarian distinctives within American Christianity; their appeal crossed old denominational lines. People who identified themselves with any of a variety of traditions, as diverse as Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics, could heartily affirm all of the five points. By the close of the 1920s, the labels "fundamentalist" and "modernist" carried as much or more significance for classifying a Christian than denominational labels such as Methodist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian. At the time, many who called themselves fundamentalists felt a deeper kinship with their fellow fundamentalists in other communions than with non-fundamentalists within their own denomination. Fundamentalism should therefore be seen as an ecumenical movement in the sense that it brought together Christians from diverse denominational backgrounds. But it was also divisive in that fundamentalists stressed the supernatural character of Christianity, and therefore carved out an identity for themselves through their militant opposition to "modernists" or "liberals" who downplayed supernaturalism. Both fundamentalists and modernists struggled against one another within Protestant denominations, and joined forces with their cobelligerents in other denominations. In doing so they destabilized the traditional sectarian categories by which American Protestantism had been organized.
It is tempting to regard the 1903 confessional revisions in the Presbyterian Church as a "liberal" victory on the one hand, and the adoption of the five points as a "conservative" victory on the other. But this analysis ignores the common thread that joins these two events. Both illustrate a trend within the Presbyterian Church of downplaying traditional Presbyterian distinctives. Only against this backdrop can a character like J. Gresham Machen be fully understood. Because Machen was obviously not a modernist, some have labeled him a fundamentalist. But this label is grounded less in evidence than it is upon a prevailing interpretive dualism—the notion that Machen was part of an ecclesiastical universe made up of exclusively modernists and fundamentalists, where a non-modernist must have been a fundamentalist. In fact, Machen was animated far more by his desire to uphold a full expression of traditional Presbyterianism than he was by concerns that typified fundamentalism. These concerns set him on a collision course with his own church that culminated in 1936, the year he was defrocked and barred from communion in the Presbyterian Church.

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