We’ll return shortly to the rest of the series on “The Modernist Controversy through a Journalist’s Eyes.”
However, I was surprised recently to find that this article could not be located online, and this material seemed to provide a good but still pertinent break. What follows here is the first of a short series of articles produced by the Rev. John Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. In this first article, Professor Murray addresses the advance of modernism in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., with particular focus on the so-called “Auburn Affirmation.” [Technically, that 1924 document was titled simply “An Affirmation”, but as it was initially issued from Auburn, NY it easily acquired the more descriptive title in popular reference.]
Part II of Professor Murray’s series was a critique of dispensationalism, and that article turned out to be rather controversial as it began a volley of debate with other conservatives and eventually played into the division of the Presbyterian Church of America [later, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church] and the creation from her number of the Bible Presbyterian Synod.
The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes
by John Murray, Th.M.
[excerpted from The Presbyterian Guardian 1.6 (16 December 1935): 88-89.]
It is not exaggeration to say that the situation in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. at the present time is unspeakably bad. Our conviction with respect to the conditions prevailing cannot perhaps be better expressed than in the words of the Psalmist, “O God the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to the meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.” (Psalm 79: 1, 2.) This estimate is not a merely theoretical judgment; it is a state of affairs that makes the discerning in the Church sigh and cry and is to them the captivity of Zion.
The root cause of the lamentable situation is departure from the historic faith of the Church, in a word theological orthodoxy. We do not need to be theologians in the technical sense to be theologically heterodox nor to understand what theological heterodoxy is. Any devout believer knows that the person who denies, for example, the Deity of Christ or His substitutionary atonement or His bodily resurrection does not hold the faith of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The devout believer knows instantly that the person who is indifferent to or rejects these tenets of our holy faith cannot be accorded the hand of Christian fellowship; he must be regarded as an unbeliever.
The analysis and exposure of the fact that the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has wandered far away from its historic witness may be undertaken from the standpoint of the formula of subscription signed by all who assume office in the Church. The first two articles of that formula read as follows: “1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice? 2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”
These vows have as their plain import the belief that the Bible is the Word of God, that the system of doctrine taught in the Bible is divine in its origin and nature, and that the system of doctrine contained or expressed in the Confession of Faith is the same system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
Every minister, elder and deacon on assuming office answers these questions in the affirmative. It will surely be conceded that the taking of this ordination pledge in the Presbyterian Church is one of the most solemn and heart-searching acts performed upon earth. Unfaithfulness to that pledge is one of the most heinous and reprehensible of sins.
In the year 1924 there was issued what is known as the “Auburn Affirmation.” It was signed by 1293 ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
This “Affirmation” as is well known attacks the Christian Faith at its centre. It affirms that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is not only not true but also dangerous and impairs the supreme authority of the Scriptures for faith and life, and that other doctrines—the Virgin birth of our Lord, His vicarious sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, His bodily resurrection, and the supernatural character of His miracles—are simply theories which may be held or not, but must not be considered as tests for ordination or good standing in the Church.
Such a position is manifestly heretical and heretical, let it be observed, not at the circumstances of our Faith but at the very centre, and is therefore expressive of what is the antithesis of our Christian Religion. It means that another religion exists within the external unity of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
That the signers of the “Auburn Affirmation” have been unfaithful to their ordination vows is evident. They have not only avowed what is heretical but they have broken trust. They are guilty of transgressing the basic principle of honesty, indeed guilty of moral perjury and that in one of the most sacred relations that exist in this world.
That path of life for these gentlemen is the way of repentance and public repudiation of the error to which they have affixed their signature. The minimum of simple honesty is that they should withdraw from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. The fact is that with very few exceptions they have done neither. “Truth is fallen in the street and equity cannot enter.”
In the “Auburn Affirmation,” then, we have what provides us with conclusive evidence that, in the bosom of the Presbyterian Church theological heterodoxy of the most deadly character is rampant, and with that heterodoxy in doctrine goes hand in hand an ethical dishonesty reprehensible beyond description.
But the question immediately presents itself, why has this been tolerated? What has happened to the discipline of the Church? Every ordained minister vows on assuming office that he will be “zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel and the purity and peace of the Church whatever persecution may arise unto him on that account,” and every elder and deacon answers affirmatively the question, “Do you promise to study the peace, unity and purity of the Church?” Have these vows been fulfilled in the issues raised by the “Auburn Affirmation”? The answer is lamentably in the negative. In no case has an “Auburn Affirmationist” been brought to trial or convicted of heresy. The inevitable consequence flowing from the nature of the Church and from the ordination vows specified is that in every case discipline ought to have been exercised. And so in the fact that the “Auburn Affirmationists” have been allowed without any exception to flout the doctrine of the Church we have irresistible evidence that the corporate conscience of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. had become practically dead. The default in the sacred province of discipline has been colossal. In view of this the whole Church as an organization is involved in the guilt of tolerating the most baneful heresy, a guilt of which the orthodox themselves, we are sorry to say, are by no means free. We have a state of corruption beyond the power of words to estimate and ruinous in its consequences.
We are not forgetful of the noble service done by the vigilant and enlightened in exposing the error of the “Auburn Affirmation,” and in the repeated protest made by such in the various courts of the Church against heresy and unfaithfulness. The loyalty of these we hold in the highest esteem. They have used their powers to the limit, if not beyond it, in arousing the Church to the dangers within its border. They have refused to be silent. They are as watchmen upon the walls of Sion who have not held their peace day nor night. We honour them even in the persecution that has fallen to them on that account and say to them, “Rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven.” (Matt. 5:12.)
We are not unmindful of the fact that in one case an attempt was made to bring certain signers of the “Auburn Affirmation” to trial. It was the action taken by Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths and others in the fall of 1934, when charges were filed in the Presbytery of Philadelphia against eleven signers of the “Affirmation” who were ministerial members of that Presbytery. This attempt failed because of the miserable tactics of the Modernists in the Presbytery and the spineless weakness of the Presbytery itself. But it was a noble attempt to fulfill a standing obligation to Him who is the Head and King of His Church, and in the opinion of the writer the most Presbyterian act performed in the Church for at least ten years. It was, however, but the discharge of a primary duty, a duty which left unfulfilled in all other cases has wrought irretrievable havoc in the history of American Presbyterianism.
It is also gratifying to know that some at least—we hope many—who failed in the discharge of this duty in the years that have elapsed since 1924 have repented in the bitterness of their souls. It does indeed appear that a streak of light is breaking through the dark cloud that hangs over the Presbyterian Church.
But the situation as a whole is unchanged. The Church has no thought of rebuking and ousting heresy. So far is the Church from bringing her wayward sons to discipline that instead she elevates them to the positions of highest influence and trust. It is not then simply the “Auburn Affirmation” that forms the spectacle before us. It is a Church that in its organization, control, and corporate witness is complacent towards what is the antithesis of our Christian Faith. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. may not be worse than any other Protestant Churches, but it is questionable if there is another Church for which so much evidence can be produced of theological heterodoxy stalking abroad unashamed and unrebuked.
“Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of His people, Jacob shall rejoice and Israel shall be glad.” (Psalm 14:7.)
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Murray under the general title give above. The next will appear in the issue of January 20th.]