Home > Fisks, The Auburn "Affirmation", Theology > Debate ‘n Switch (Part II of series) : A closer look at the text of The Auburn Affirmation

Debate ‘n Switch (Part II of series) : A closer look at the text of The Auburn Affirmation

11 December 2009

As a follow-up to Saturday’s article on Auburn Seminary’s Face to Face / Faith to Faith activity within DSO, we continue our series on the Auburn Affirmation.  I had intended to deal with the text of this in one fell fisk, but prudence dictates that it be done over several articles.  In fact, I think one or two paragraphs at a time, at a rate of one or two articles per week, is the best I can do.  I think it is important that we Episcopalians (as well as other Christians) examine this document, as it is very much a part of the struggle that we have in this age. 


An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America

Two observations on this statement: 

1)  It implies that those who do not (heh) affirm the Affirmation do not have the best of intentions for their denomination.

2)  Within an organization, what is the relationship between ‘unity’ and ‘liberty’ ?  Let’s consider our jobs.  Are we at ‘liberty’ to sleep at our workstations during work hours?  For that matter, are we at liberty not to produce for our employers?  In fact, if we slept at our workstations, the unity of our organization would be disrupted in short order, for we would lose our jobs.  So, we see that there is a necessary tension (at least here on Earth, where we are imperfect as Life itself is imperfect) between liberty and unity.  As the saying goes, sometimes you just can’t have your cake, and eat it too. 

Submitted for the consideration of its ministers and people

Actually no – it was for the consideration of ministers only. 

Introductory paragraph:

We, the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America,

Like I said, submitted for the consideration of ministers, not people, and not other offices in the PCUSA. 

feel bound, in view of certain actions of the General Assembly of 1923

Here is some historical background regarding the General Assembly of 1923.  A (rather lengthy .. (sorry) ) excerpt:

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.

In other words, the conservatives basically lost the battle over doctrine and discipline during and after the general assembly of 1923, and the “liberals” were upset that their victory required effort.  The poor dears. 

But let’s get back to the Auburn Affirmation…

and of persistent attempts to divide the church and abridge its freedom,

There it is again – “divide the church,” and “abridge its freedom.”  ‘We want our cake, and we want to eat it.’ 

I particularly like this line – “abridge its (i.e., the church) freedom.” Rather, this should read, “abridge the freedom of ministers who sign this Affirmation.” 

 to express our convictions in matters pertaining thereto.

Hmm… sounds pretty tame.  They just want to have a conversation.  Conversations aren’t so bad.  Are they? 

(Stop me if any of this is starting to sound painfully familiar). 

At the outset we affirm and declare our acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as we did at our ordinations, “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”

Actually, this is false.  We shall see that the “ministers” who signed this statement did not, in fact, remotely accept the system of Westminster Confession of Faith.  We will continue to refer back to the Westminster Confession (WCF) on a point-by-point basis, as these arise in our discussion of the Auburn Affirmation. 

We sincerely hold and earnestly preach the doctrines of evangelical Christianity, in agreement with the historic testimony of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, of which we are loyal ministers.

They didn’t, and they weren’t.  Again, that will be made plain as this series continues.  I should also point out that many of the “liberties” that this “affirmation” affirms, are outside of the bounds of not only orthodox evangelical, but also Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox spheres of Christendom as well. 

For the maintenance of the faith of our church, the preservation of its unity, and the protection of the liberties of its ministers and people, we offer this Affirmation.

Now they’re switching their tack.  It’s no longer intended to only preserve unity and liberty, but rather these two virtues are qualified with the phrase, “maintenance of the faith of our church.”  You see, Gentle Reader, if the intent of the Auburn Affirmation were only to maintain the faith of the church, then unity and liberty would be the natural outcome

Rather, the Auburn Affirmation elevates liberty (i.e., to those ministers who in essence, disagree with Christian doctrine) as the faith of the church, and promotes unity on that basis only.  Unfortunately, it is not the faith of the church,  it is not about authentic liberty, and it is not (as we shall see in the final installment(s)) about unity. 

(to be continued..)

– Elder

  1. 15 December 2009 at 4:04 PM

    “a masterpiece of whitewash, and the man who wrote it ought to seek employment as an exterior decorator”

    A masterpiece of a speech.

    One posthumous award of a free pass to the Laffin’ Place for the Rev. Clarence E. Macartney.

    If they don’t have a Laffin’ Place in heaven, I ain’t goin’.

  2. Elder Oyster
    15 December 2009 at 5:25 PM

    Well, if Mark Twain (I think it was Twain) was right, then humor’s reliance on suffering would mean that there would be no laughter in Heaven.

    Then again, Twain also said this:
    “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

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