Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

Primary Sources: Machen-Speer Debate on Modernism (1933)

In J. Gresham Machen, Modernism on 05/06/2009 at 17:45

Early in 1933, an historic debate took place in which Dr. J. Gresham Machen debated the head of the PCUSA Board of Foreign Missions, Dr. Robert E. Speer.  The debate centered on modernism on the mission fieldThe following account appeared on the pages of Christianity Today, a paper edited by Dr. Samuel G. Craig.  The author of the account is not specified.

Machen-Speer Debate–Historic Event in Presbyterian Church

By a Staff Correspondent
[Excerpted from Christianity Today 3.12 (Mid-April 1933): 19-23.]

NOT in many years has the Presbyterian Church witnessed such a dramatic and significant event as the clashing in debate on April 11th, before the Presbytery of New Brunswick of Dr. Robert E. Speer and Dr. J. Gresham Machen. Dr. Machen had introduced an overture concerning the Foreign Board, at the preceding meeting. (Text in another column.) Dr. Speer had been invited to attend and speak to the motion. So for the first time the outstanding militant conservative scholar stood on the same platform with the foremost representative of religious pacifism to discuss the missionary policies of the church.

Prior to the meeting of the Presbytery, Dr. Machen had prepared and sent to the members of the Presbytery, and to the members and secretaries of the Foreign Board, a 110-page pamphlet, completely documenting his charges concerning the Board and its work.

The Fourth Presbyterian Church, where the meeting was held, filled up rapidly as the hour for the debate, 2:30 P. M., neared.  Ministers and laymen from several Eastern states, professors and students from Princeton and a few from Westminster, crowded the church.  The usual humdrum Presbytery atmosphere soon gave way to a sense of suppressed excitement.

Balloting on Commissioners to the Assembly having been completed, and matters of a routine nature having been disposed of, the Moderator announced the order of the day, and called upon Dr. Machen.  Immediately the latter arose, announcing that he would read the overture and would be glad to speak to it if it were seconded.  Having read it, seconds came at once from various parts of the floor.

Thereupon it was moved by the Rev. D. Wilson Hollinger, pastor of Bethany Church, Trenton, that Drs. Machen and Speer be allowed one hour each, that subsequent debate be limited to ten minutes for each person who wished to speak.  This motion was carried.  Dr. Machen then proceeded to the front of the church.  After consultation with the Moderator, he mounted the stairs to the pulpit.  The debate began.

Dr. Machen opened his case with disarming informality.  After references to the use of material furnished by the Rev. A. B. Dodd, of the North China Theological Seminary, he explained that Dr. Dodd’s testimony was supplied at his (Dr. Machen’s) request, and that Dr. Dodd had already presented his evidence before representatives of the Board of Foreign Missions.  Dr. Dodd could not, therefore, be accused of having taken his dissatisfactions to the public without first having given the Board an opportunity to act.  Dr. Machen then pointed out a few minor verbal errors of citation in his printed brief, and welcomed any other corrections of the kind that readers might notice.

Plunging then into the main stream, he said courteously that he was glad because of the presence of Dr. Speer. Notwithstanding differences, he had never lost a high regard for Dr. Speer.  Dr. Speer was eloquent,—without doubt one of the outstanding figures of the Christian world.  Because of Dr. Speer’s eloquence, Dr. Machen felt himself at a disadvantage.  Yet he was glad, for all that, because Dr. Speer was the best exponent of certain views, and he would rather oppose its strongest than its weakest exponent.  He (Dr. Machen) was not eloquent,—could not be.  If this overture received any votes at all, it would not be due to the arts of persuasion of any speaker, but because of the power of the truth.

Dr. Machen then read a telegram from the Rev. Clarence E. Macartney, D.D., minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, as follows:


Then he read the letters referred to in the telegram.  They are found in another column.

Dr. Machen observed that he had read these letters, in order to show that, in being disquieted by the actions of the Board, he did not stand alone.  There were a host of others throughout the church who felt and believed as he did.

One further preliminary statement should be made, he said.  So often men do not meet on common ground in debate.  This is because they have no common criterion of truth.  The Board was on trial,—as was proper, the responsibility resting ultimately upon us all—and we must judge whether its course is right or wrong, true or false.  What is the standard of judgment?  He wished to be perfectly clear.  His standard of judgment is simply and solely this Blessed Book which lies open before us on this pulpit.  The only method by which the truth is to be found is to compare the reports of the Board, the speeches of its secretaries, the testimony of its missionaries, with the things written in this Book.  If the things that are being said and done by all these persons are not in accord with the things written in this Book, then we must correct them in loyalty to Christ and the gospel.

Other standards of judgment are freely offered.  For example, the Rev. President J. Ross Stevenson, a member of the Board of Foreign Missions, in the February, 1933, number of the Missionary Review of the World, in endorsing Buchmanism, had said, “Changed lives are as they always have been, the unanswerable apologetic of a vital, glowing Christian faith.”

This must be rejected, that was not the criterion of truth.  Is the “life changing” of Buchmanism the new birth spoken of in the Word of God?  This first criterion, “experience” must be rejected.

Another standard offered is “the mind of Christ.”  Of course if one could hear Christ Himself speaking, we would accept it as showing His will perfectly.  But the trouble is, the phrase as used today does not mean that,—it means rather the combined mind of the weak present-day followers of Christ.  This must be rejected.  It is no substitute for the Bible.

The same was true of other standards offered today:  the so-called “spirit of Christ” and “the teachings of Jesus.”  He did not wish to be misunderstood.  Every word our Lord ever spoke is true.  But as people often use this phrase today they are doing despite to the teaching of Christ Himself because they are doing despite to the rest of the Bible.

Dr. Machen’s Proposed Overture

The Presbytery of New Brunswick respectfully overtures the General Assembly of 1933.

1.  To take care to elect to positions on the Board of Foreign Missions only persons who are fully aware of the  danger  in  which  the  Church stands and who are determined to insist upon such verities as the full truthfulness of Scripture, the virgin birth of our Lord, His substitutionary death as a sacrifice to satisfy Divine  justice, His bodily resurrection and His miracles, as being essential to the Word of God and our Standards and as being necessary to the message which every missionary under our Church shall proclaim.

2.  To instruct the Board  of Foreign Missions that no one who denies the absolute necessity of acceptance of  such verities by every candidate for the ministry can possibly be regarded as competent to occupy the position of Candidate Secretary.

3.  To  instruct the Board of Foreign Missions to take care lest, by the wording of the application blanks for   information from candidates and from those who are asked to express opinions about them, or in any other way, the impression be produced that tolerance of opposing views or ability to progress in spiritual truth or the like, is more important than an unswerving faithfulness in the proclamation of the Gospel as it is contained in the Word of God and an utter unwillingness  to make common cause with any other gospel whether it goes under the name of Christ or not.

4.  To warn the Board of the great danger that lurks in union enterprizes at home as well as abroad, in view of the widespread error in our day.

In holding this view of the Bible he differed from the implications of what Dr. Speer had said in his latest book on “The Finality of Jesus Christ,” whether Dr. Speer himself did or did not observe those implications.  Dr. Speer had in Lecture II in the book classed “Judaism” among the non-Christian religions and had said that there was a “deep generic breach” between Christianity and Judaism, Christianity being “a new and incommensurable religion.” There was, Dr. Machen said, just one religion based upon a supernatural revelation from God, beginning with the fall of man and running all through God’s dealings with his covenant people in Old Testament and New Testament times.  The Bible included the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, and the distinction between it and any other book and between the revelation that it records and any other revelation is the distinction between the supernatural and the natural.  This book unquestionably taught that Christianity is a new religion as overagainst Judaism.  The difference is profound between a belief in the Old Testament as a supernaturally given revelation of God, true in every word, and a belief in it as merely a part of the preparation of the world for Christ.  He held up a statement on the ordination vows of the Presbyterian Church issued by the Candidate Department to prospective missionaries.  It said in part:

“The question about the Bible should be taken in its entirety.  The Church has found during all its years that it can go to the Bible without hesitation or fear to learn it duty in faith and practice, finding its norm always in Jesus Christ who is its ultimate authority.  The Bible can always be relied upon in these two vital fields and hence it is called the only infallible rule for this purpose.  This does not deny the existence of truth in many places; it locates complete reliability in the Word of God.”  But this is wrong.  You cannot separate the spheres of faith and practice from the rest of truth, because there is nothing that is not included in them.  Men tried to lift the Bible out of  controversy by saying that it was not a book of science and history.  That is wrong.  The Bible is a book of science and history simply and precisely because it deals with facts. Let no one misunderstand.  The speaker held the Bible to be true from beginning to end, and held that it is true because it is God’s word.

The test of truth is the Bible.  The first sermon after Pentecost was Peter’s sermon recorded in the Second Chapter of the Acts.  Had Peter been preaching that sermon in modern fashion he would have said “Look at me!  Look at my wonderful religious experience.  Don’t you want to share it and be as I am?”  But no, Peter presented Christ, the Christ of history and fact.  Today many people when they “preach Christ” mean the “Christ in them”—and not the Christ of the Bible.

If there is no power in the church today, the reason is perfectly plain.  Men are preaching themselves or the “Christ in themselves” instead of opening the Bible, and, as God’s ambassadors, preaching the Christ of the Bible. Paul in writing his first epistle to the Thessalonians said of them that they had turned to God from idols.  Men must have preached to them the immutable justice of God.  They must be brought again into the presence of the Throne! Some people said that they preached Christ alone. That cannot be.  It is an awful sin, this worship of a purely
human Jesus.  It is an offense against God.  Paul also told them to “wait for His son from Heaven.”  Where has this motive gone in mission work today?  To wait for the return of Christ?  The Bible taught that that coming was to be catastrophic, glorious.  Instead of this men are often exclusively interested, today, in setting up conditions of the Kingdom of God upon this earth.  And the Eternal Son of God is Jesus of Nazareth.  “Even Jesus” Paul says, “who delivereth us from the wrath to come.”  As we read those words of Paul we think how sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear.  Why is the name of Christ “sweet”?  It was sweet to Paul “because He saved us from the wrath to come.”  Men forget the wrath of God today.  He asked Dr. Speer through the Moderator to tell how much “the wrath of God” was emphasized today in mission conferences.  In his recent book, referred-to before, Dr. Cleland B. McAfee, a Secretary of the Board, had referred to the doctrines of eternal loss apart from Christ as a secondary motive,—a motive that might be needed by some but could be dispensed with by others.  But if one would find the most uncompromising expression of the wrath of God, he needed not to look into the volumes of Church theologians.  He did not need to go to Paul, but to Jesus, and hear from His lips the solemn assertion of that motive of fear that is so despised today.

Then he read a statement from one of the application blanks used by the Board for prospective missionaries. They are required to apply in the following terms: “I have fully and prayerfully considered the challenge and privilege of Christian service abroad, and desire to share with my fellow men the inestimable values of the Gospel of Jesus.”  Would a man want to sign that if he believed that apart from the gospel men are under the awful wrath and curse of God?

Turning to church unionism abroad, Dr. Machen observed that some of the creeds of these bodies seemed to reflect men who are interested in seeing how little of Christian truth they can get along with.  The Bible, on the other hand, is interested in what the whole truth of God is.  And when we speak of the System of Doctrine contained in Holy Scripture, we do not mean a collection of disjecta membra that men have gathered together.  We mean on the contrary that the whole system itself is in the Bible.  There is no power in an inconsistent Christianity.  Consistency demands defense, controversy.  And to anyone who cares to take the trouble to study it, it is plain that the  missionary effort of the New Testament was radically controversial

[All this time the speaker had, in a gradual process, step by step, completely captured the attention and  imagination of his audience.  A deathly silence hushed the church, full as it was.  Men’s ears were straining to catch every syllable.  Like some great figure of days gone by,—a Knox, a Luther or an Edwards, the speaker’s face was composed and serene, lit as with a divine certainty and conviction.  Here was true eloquence,—not the eloquence of the facile phrase and the sonorious period, but the eloquence of deep smoldering moral earnestness that now blazed up like a consuming fire and now flashed downward like a shining sword.  Eloquence as art faded from men’s minds in the presence of eloquence as truth.  How many who saw, knew what they saw?  How many who heard, knew what they heard ?  Here was an hour for the ages.]

When the Laymen’s Missionary Report came out, the Board had contented itself with complimenting it in part, and with expressing in cautious terms its own “evangelical basis”—a basis broad enough so that those who favored the “Laymen’s Report” were willing to sign it.  But there had been no public warning by the Board to the Church,—no speaking out against the great attack on the Gospel contained in the report.  When this great attack came, those who would not speak out against it were violating not only one text, or a text here and there.  They were violating the whole Bible!  One word, almost forgotten, should be learned over again by Christians.  Christians should learn to say NO!

He held up a red-bound book in his hand.  It was the report of the Foreign Missions Conference of 1932.  In the section dealing with Latin-American work was the report of a committee.  And that report expressed itself as saying that one of the great accomplishments of the year was the publication in Spanish of the works of the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Glorying in that!  And whose name was signed as Chairman of the Committee?  Not the name of some well-known Modernist.  He named several.  No,—the name signed to that report as chairman was the name of Robert E. Speer. He recognized the power of Dr. Speer’s eloquence, the God-given ability to sway men as he could. He (Dr. Machen) would rather have that power than all the kingdoms of this world.  Yet truly, he would rather throw away all his eloquence as well as all those kingdoms if he had them, and account it all as filthy rags rather than have his name signed to that report. [A pause.  The silence of death.]

He spoke of Mrs. Buck.  She had written articles that were plain repudiations of the gospel.  Yet the Board retained her, appealing to both kinds of people within the Church,—to those who approve her and to those who would never give a cent of their money for such departures from the gospel.  This appeal to both was not honest. Dishonesty is always wrong,—even in a church!  The Board would do well if it would say to those who support Mrs. Buck, and whose gifts they fear to lose: “Keep your millions of dollars.  We are far poorer if we receive them than if we reject them.”  As it is, many people who give money have no idea that they are helping to support such a thing as the Church of Christ in China.

Dr. Machen ended his address with an appeal of such strength and lofty thought that the reporter was simply unable to catch all the words.  And even if he had all the words no printed page could ever convey the power, dignity and tenderness that were mingled together.  It was an appeal to return to the power of the Word of God.  Here is God’s truth: His Holy Book.  It was a joy to speak for that Book,—to testify to the Christ of the Bible, against the whole current of the age that held the minds of men so rigidly in its embrace of death.  He was glad to have spoken a word for Christ, to call men to return from the wisdom of the world to His wisdom.  For this wisdom we thank and praise God, and may He raise up men and women who will go forth and not be ashamed to carry it to the ends of the earth.

When he ended, silence remained unbroken.  Then the Moderator rose to his feet, cleared his throat, and spoke.   And every one was back in Presbytery again.

Dr. Speer.

The promised eloquence was not forthcoming.  To say this is no injustice to Dr. Speer.  For he had consciously determined not to be the orator before arriving in Trenton, preferring rather to read word for word from a  typewritten statement.  This statement did not even attempt to refute the matters alleged in Dr. Machen’s printed argument.  It could not, of course, have any relevancy to Dr. Machen’s speech.  It consisted solely in an argument against the terms of the proposed overture, based mainly on the repeated argument that a number of Assemblies during the past hundred years had decided against the methods proposed in the overture.

But before commencing to read his manuscript, Dr. Speer made a preliminary statement.  He said that he had not come to engage in any debate or controversy.  He was glad to come at the invitation of the Presbytery to be of whatever help he could as the Presbytery sought to deal wisely and justly with the overture.  The simple question is: what action is wise and right, for the good of the Church, and the mind of Christ? [“In the full sense of St. Paul” he hastened to add, doubtless remembering Dr. Machen’s rejected criteria.]  In order not to be drawn into controversy, he had written out in advance a statement of facts and principles, which he began to read.

But why, asked many, should Dr. Speer wish to shun “controversy”?  If he had not come to reply to whatever Dr. Machen had alleged or might allege, why had he come at all?  As for his rather weary citation of what this or that Assembly had decided, any one else could have done it with access to the Minutes of the Assemblies and a sharp pencil.  No one, so far as could be ascertained, denied that the Assemblies quoted had taken the action they did.  The real concern was not about assemblies of long ago when different personalities and circumstances exercised effects now incalculable, and before the rise of Modernism to power, but what should the Assembly of 1933 do?  Dr. Speer must know full well, of course, that one Assembly is not bound by the acts of another, and that the Assembly of 1933 is free to act as it sees best.  Dr. Speer’s main points in argument against the terms of the overture were as follows:

(1) Concerning Section 1. It was unfairly discriminatory in that it singled out the Foreign Board and made no mention of the other three boards.  It gave expression to assumptions and suspicions that were unfounded.  This was unjust and unfair because the Board was recognized everywhere as a bulwark of the gospel.  The overture was of dubious significance and impossible interpretation.  It did not ask for proof of “awareness” or tell what the “danger” is in which the Church is said to stand.  Thus the first clause, he claimed, was “incompetent.”  Further he declared that the prayer of the overture had been disallowed by the Assembly of 1924.

(2)  Concerning Section 2.  The present Candidate Secretary was for six years a missionary in North China.  At ordination he answered the constitutional questions in the affirmative.  He had spent six years in the Southern mountains on his return from China.  He had rendered “devoted service” since his selection as Candidate Secretary in  1926.   He was a minister in good and regular standing.  The only way of impugning that standing was by trial.  A letter was read, written by Mr. Hadley (The Candidate Secretary) in which he said, inter alia “I am a conservative in theology.”  [The not-so-subtle humor of this statement will be apparent to all who are familiar with the Auburn Affirmation.  Throughout his carefully prepared paper, Dr. Speer blandly sidestepped all reference to the document mentioned, although it was the whole issue in the second  section of the overture and implied in the first.]  The  Board  had  no authority to sit in judgment upon ministers.  He engaged in a considerable historical excursus to prove this point, which nobody had ever denied.  The duty of the Board he said was to notify the Presbytery to which a minister belonged, if any doctrinal question arose.  [The fact that the Board has never notified the Presbytery of French Broad, to which Mr. Hadley belongs, that a question has risen concerning his orthodoxy, is rather hard to reconcile with Dr. Speer’s statement.  The Board cannot deny that the question of his doctrinal fitness for his position has been raised, directly and persistently.  If it has not notified the Presbytery, it must confess its own violation of the principle upon which Dr. Speer so vehemently  insisted.  It can hardly claim that it has given the matter no consideration, for Dr. Speer’s statement clearly indicated that Mr. Hadley’s case had received special attention.  In fact he said “The Board would retain no Candidate Secretary who did not represent its mind and the mind of the Church in this matter.”  It is quite obvious, therefore, that by Dr. Speer’s own admission the Board has sat in judgment upon this minister and decided that he is worthy of confidence—the very thing the Board  through   Dr. Speer disclaimed any right to do.]

(3)  Concerning Section 3.  Dr. Speer read the questions in a number of blanks, and declared that there were no questions that would warrant the words of this section.  He only wished he could read some of the application statements of prospective missionaries to show the Presbytery what a fine lot of young people they were.  [It was a little hard to see what this last statement had to do with the subject under discussion, but it seemed to be the most popular of all Dr. Speer’s contentions, because heads were nodding agreement all around.  No statements by these applicants were actually read, however.]

(4) Concerning Section 4.  Yes, he said, there are dangers that lurk in unions, and also dangers that lurk in separation.  Then followed another historical peregrination which finally arrived at the conclusion that we ought in the mission field to unite only with evangelicals, and to avoid disunion with those who believe.  He did not, however, take up the real point involved, namely that the Presbyterian Church was fostering a union movement in China the evangelical quality of which had been challenged.  Dr. Speer stuck to broad principles and not to embarrassing particularities.  But it was really only the particularities that were in issue.

The great missionary statesman then went on to plead with the Presbytery not to have suspicion and doubt concerning the work of the Board.  He said, “If there is one missionary of our Board who is not faithful to the central message of our Church the Board does not know of it.”  He cited what he claimed was the inability of critics of the Board to name any missionaries guilty of heresy.  Surprisingly, however, he said almost immediately that there were two exceptions to the statement that if there were any disloyal missionaries the Board did not know of them.  The Board was greatly concerned for them.  It hoped that the final result would be the winning and not the losing of any lives.  [Some listeners knew he referred to Mrs. Pearl S. Buck as one of these exceptions.]  Dr. Speer concluded by hoping that Dr. Machen could be won over.  Dr. Machen had shown what kind of work needed to be done in his great books “The Origin of Paul’s Religion” and “The Virgin Birth of Christ.”  Then as a shrewd tactical move he concluded by quoting from a passage in Dr. Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” in which Dr. Machen expressed the deep desire of his soul to live and work in a Church free from turmoil and dissension as a place of refuge from the unbelieving world.  “Thank God,” said Dr. Speer, “that there is such a House.  It is our Father’s house where we dwell together in love and faith as brethren.”  [One fatal flaw has been pointed out in the use of this quotation, however. In the book Dr. Machen was speaking of the kind of Church that was free from dissension because it was free from unbelief.  Dr. Speer applied it to the Presbyterian Church as it is, including its varied theological menagerie.]

Dr. Machen then put a question to Dr. Speer.  He had understood from something Dr. Speer had said that the   Board  had repudiated the doctrinal teachings of the “Laymen’s Report.”  When was this done?  What were the terms?

Dr. Speer replied by reading the first paragraph of the letter written by Dr. Erdman as President of the Board to the First Church of Pittsburgh.  Somehow it did not seem to answer the question.  In the midst of his efforts to get an answer, the same member of Presbytery who had made the original motion regarding time allotments for speakers, moved the previous question.  Since no debate had taken place from the floor, the effect was to reconsider the action already taken, and shut off debate.  This flagrant abuse of the motion to cut off debate seemed to pass almost unnoticed.  Because of the former motion the motion to close debate was not in order until after at least some debate had taken place from the floor.  But the motion was put and carried, and Dr. Speer relieved from the annoyance of embarrassing questions.  Dr. Machen protested this summary closure, saying that he had earnestly hoped to have Dr. Speer present to answer questions fairly and openly.  Then the overture was defeated by a viva voce vote.  This correspondent estimated between fifteen and twenty votes for the overture out of a voting group of perhaps sixty.

Then a partisan of the Board introduced a resolution of faith and confidence in it.  Dr. Machen immediately rose to speak to it, so far as the impatient temper of the majority of the Presbytery would permit even a word.  He cited the case of Mrs. Buck.  He read a quotation from her writings, in which she roundly rated a religion that would teach that people were bound for Hell unless they were saved by Christ.  “I hold this religion with all my heart,” he cried, “this despised religion upon which despite is being poured by Mrs. Buck.  The Board is dishonest in asking for money from those who favor Mrs. Buck and from those who believe in the gospel she despises.  Dr. Speer has not answered concerning Mrs. Buck.  He has not answered regarding the unchristian propaganda that has gone out from the Candidate department.  It is on that Gospel, the Gospel that is being undermined by work supported by the Board of Foreign Missions that I rest my hope for time and for eternity!”  This vigorous, forthright statement brought the only applause of the afternoon.  It was obvious that if Dr. Speer had the votes of presbyters who dared not offend the powerful board, yet Dr. Machen’s appeal for honesty had struck home to the majority of the spectators.

Dr. Speer replied by admitting that Mrs. Buck was not sound in the faith.  “We recognize that these are impossible views to be held by any missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A.,” he said.  Yet further he intimated that there were factors in the case that could not be referred-to publicly.  And he did not explain how, if his statement were true, the Board could honestly continue Mrs. Buck as a missionary.

The motion of confidence in the Board was then put and carried. Dr. Machen, Dr. Samuel G. Craig and Dr. Casper Wistar Hodge asked to have their dissent recorded.  Immediately upon the passage of this motion, Dr. Speer hurried away to catch a train for New York.

Competent observers agreed that the Board had won a pyrrhic victory, that its defence would allay few  objections, arouse many more.  The material allegations in Dr. Machen’s printed argument had remained without a shadow of denial by the Board.

Repercussions of the debate will be fully reported in the May issue of Christianity Today.

[Excerpted from Christianity Today 3.12 (Mid-April 1933): 19-23.]

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