In our previous post, we provided some background for an article currently posted at the OPC web site. The article was written by the Rev. Charles Dennision, who was at that time serving as the OPC historian. The article is titled “Cornelius Van Til and the Identity of the OPC“. Our last post provided the text of the letter by J. Oliver Buswell, writing late in 1936 to Dr. J. Gresham Machen. Dennison also mentions a fragment of a letter, a working draft that Machen intended in reply to Buswell, but Machen died while on a speaking engagement in North Dakota and the reply was never finished. I presume that draft fragment is preserved among the papers of Dr. Machen, in the archives at the Westminster Theological Seminary.
What we do have is the other side of the conversation, found among the papers of Dr. Buswell, and in addition to the previously posted letter, there is another interesting letter that sheds further light on the situation, and which also contains an interesting admission by Dr. Buswell. In both of these letters, I think there is much that can be gleaned as to how Christians can and ought to conduct themselves in debate and disagreement.
In this letter, Dr. Buswell is writing to the Rev. Harold Samuel Laird, a highly-regarded pastor in Wilmington, Delaware.
Rev. Harold S. Laird
R. D. #3
My dear Dr. Laird,
I told you in conversation the other day of my conference with the West-
minster faculty Monday evening, January twenty-fifth. I feel that you
as a trustee of Westminster and as one who has sacrificed so much for the
cause we all love, should be informed, and therefore I am writing down
certain conclusions which I think were reached.
(1) The faculty stand by Professor Murray’s attitude towards alcoholic
liquor. They defend him not only in theory but in his practice. Pro-
fessor Murray drinks liquor and insists upon the principle of personal
liberty in doing so. The faculty insist that he is right. This none
of them will dispute, I am sure.
We did not exactly agree on definitions of terms in regards to the emphasis
Mr. Murray places upon this point, but I feel that I am justified in de-
scribing his attitude as follows:- Whereas Dr. Machen believed in a prin-
ciple of personal liberty which I believe to be wrong, Dr. Machen did not
touch liquor because he wanted his testimony on crucial matters of doctrine
to be unencumbered. Mr. Murray drinks liquor himself and does not hesitate
to state his views and his practices whenever the occasion comes up with
students or others. Thus his pedagogical effect upon students is far
worse. Mr. Murray stated that his drinking liquor was a matter of principle,
but denied that he teaches that others ought to drink to vindicate that
principle. I feel that the impact upon young ministers is the same whether
Mr. Murray says “I drink from principle” or “You ought to drink from principle.”
Mr. Murray does admit that it may not be wrong for a person to refrain from
drinking, but he does feel that it is very wrong for a person to teach abstinence to others.
The faculty as a whole are very emphatic in their opposition to the teaching
of total abstinence. I think we agreed on definitions at that point. The
faculty think it wrong to teach that ministers in this present day and age
ought not to drink liquor.
We did not discuss other social practices at any great length, but the counte-
nancing of the entire program of what we call worldliness characterizes the
Rev. Harold S. Laird – #2
attitude of the Seminary faculty very strongly.
Mr. Rian supports Mr. Murray one hundred percent in his theory and in his
practice of personal liberty. I happen to know from other sources
that Mr. Rian frequently or occasionally speaks to our friends against
what we would call “the separated life.” For that reason alone I should
have been one hundred percent opposed to Mr. Rian’s election as the president
of the board of trustees of the Seminary.
We spent some time last Monday evening in discussing the change of emphasis
from the type of apologetics which characterized the work of Dr. Robert Dick
Wilson to the type characterized by Dr. Van Til. I have very high regard
for Dr. Van Til, and I do not wish to be understood as objecting to the
constructive side of his philosophy. I think it is a very real contribu-
tion and a valuable supplement to the type of apologetics which Dr. Wilson
advanced. I think, however, there is a very serious fault in Dr. Van Til’s
epistemology. Dr. Van Til frankly and emphatically stated that he does
not agree with the underlying assumptions of the arguments of James Orr,
Charles Hodge, and Robert Dick Wilson. He claimed that Dr. Machen agreed
with him in this point. I know that Dr. Machen in recent days was greatly
affected by Dr. Van Til and Professor Murray. I do not doubt that he
expressed himself as being in sympathy with their views, but logically
Van Til’s system would cut the ground from beneath “The Origin of Paul’s
Religion” and “The Virgin Birth” just as much as it would cut the ground
from beneath Wilson’s “Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament.”
I have read three long mimeographed studies by Professor Van Til, and
have conferred with him in regard to them. I think I understand his point of
view thoroughly. He does not believe that it is possible or reasonable
to deal with an unsaved man on the basis of factual historical Christian
evidences. The only possible means of dealing with an unsaved man is simply
to use an “ad hominem argument” to destroy the unsaved man’s conclusions. Now
to me Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology is the very best statement of the
Reformed Faith. A rejection of Hodge on the part of a Professor in
Westminster Seminary is to me a reductio ad absurdum. If Hodge, Orr, and
Wilson are fundamentally wrong according to Van Til, then Van Til must be
I shall always regret that my last letter to Dr. Machen (December
fourth, 1936) was critical. In as kindly a way as I knew how I brought up
the two issues mentioned above which I discussed with the Westminster
faculty last Monday evening. Although I regret having taken these matters
up, now that Dr. Machen has gone to be with the Lord, yet in another way
I am glad to say that I did bring these issues up before his death and am not raising
Rev. Harold S. Laird – #3
new questions after the departure of our great leader. Dr. Machen’s
death, in my judgment, gives greater importance to these questions. His
life testimony was in the field of historical critical apologetics. His
world-renowned courage and scholarship counter-balanced objectionable
things in Westminster, and his attitude toward liquor and other worldly
practices, completely abstaining from liquor and tobacco, did not begin
to have the harmful effect upon the lives of young men which Murray’s
attitude will increasingly have if correction is not made.
I raised two other questions in my December fourth letter to Dr. Machen,
which we did not have time to discuss in my meeting with the faculty
last Monday. These questions were (1) the method of attack on “the
dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible” and (2) the intolerant and
undemocratic attitude of the Westminster group toward Mr. McIntire’s
independent paper. I feel that Dr. Machen’s attitude on these two
questions in the last few months of his life was not at all characteristic
of him, but that he was influenced by those who are now dominantly
in control of Westminster.
I feel that the philosophy of time held by the Westminster faculty, and
Dr. Van Til in particular, is at the basis of much of the attack upon the
Premillennial position which goes on in the Westminster classrooms.
The Westminster faculty do not see this point and we did not have time to
argue it. I hope to take up the matter later on.
What I fear is that the Presbyterian Church of America, necessarily going
the way of the separated life, the strongly evangelical and historical
type of apologetics and evangelism, and quite largely colored by pre-
millennial teaching, may have to part company with Westminster Seminary.
I wish that parting of the ways might be prevented. I do not believe
God will bless a drinking, worldly ministry.
Yours in Christian fellowship
P.S. The above has been hastily composed but I want to get it mailed
today. Please use it as you think the Lord would have you.