Some Popular Attitudes Toward The Auburn Affirmation Today
(“Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)
By Chalmers W. Alexander
This is the fourth in the series of articles by Chalmers W. Alexander under the heading, “Exploring Avenues of Acquaintance And Co-operation.” This is an informative new series of articles written by one of the most able laymen in the Southern Presbyterian Church.
When the Auburn Affirmation is mentioned to-day, there are several conventional comments or replies which are usually made by those who are in sympathy with it. And these comments or replies, which more or less fall into a set pattern, are made by some Southern Presbyterian ministers as well as by the Auburn Affirmation sympathizers in the Northern Presbyterian Church.
Those who give these replies do so as though they seem to feel that the Auburn Affirmation can be dismissed with a “bon mot” and a shrug of the shoulders. Very often their comments on the subject, when given a moment’s consideration, appear to be explanations which really explain nothing at all.
“That Took Place 25 Years Ago”
One of the most popular remarks is this: “Why bring that up now? The Auburn Affirmation took place 25 years ago. All that is a dead issue today.” This terse reply has a ring of finality and conviction about it, and it has but one glaring defect: it is simply not in accord with all of the facts and the truth.
Far from being a dead issue today, the Auburn Affirmation is very much alive, and its influence is powerfully at work in the Northern Presbyterian Church. Many of the Affirmationists occupy high places of power in that denomination today and they have a voice in the council chambers where many far-reaching church decisions are made.
As long as the signers of the Affirmation do not retract their affirmation of its heresies, that document will continue to be a vital, Modernist force in the Northern Presbyterian Church.
It is true that the Auburn Affirmation was published 25 years ago. It is equally true that the Communist Manifesto was published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 101 years ago. But no sensible person today would contend that, because the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, it is now a dead issue. Not until the Communist Manifesto is repudiated by the Communist Party, and not until all of those who subscribe to its teachings are disciplined, can any one claim that it is no longer a vital force in the thinking and in the beliefs of those who run the affairs of the Communist Party.
And not until the Auburn Affirmation is repudiated by the Northern Presbyterian Church, and not until its many signers are disciplined, can any sensible person contend that the Affirmation is no longer a vital force in the thinking and in the beliefs of those who hold places of great power and influence in that Church.
“It Was Not An Official Document”
Another comment which is often heard in defense of the Auburn Affirmation is: “It was not an official document of the Northern Presbyterian Church.” Now that remark is true in the sense that the Affirmation was never officially adopted by that Church.
But the Affirmation is thoroughly official as regards the almost 1,300 ministers who signed it. It clearly states in carefully written terms their views and beliefs regarding some of the great cardinal doctrines of the Christian Faith. The document in which those terms are contained reveal heresies of the most serious kind.
And the action of the Northern Presbyterian Church in approving many of the Auburn Affirmationists for places of high honor and great power and influence makes that denomination a party to the heresies contained in that document. To what extent the Northern Presbyterian Church has in this manner approved the Affirmation is widely known. Auburn Affirmationists have been put on many of the most important Standing Committees of the General Assembly; they have been placed on the faculties and the board of trustees of some of the theological seminaries; and they have even been elected to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of that denomination.
“It Was A Constitutional—Not A Doctrinal Protest”
Very often it is stated that the Auburn Affirmation was in reality “a constitutional, not a doctrinal protest.”
But as that great Bible scholar, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, who taught for so many years at Princeton Theological Seminary, once remarked:
“Let it not be said that the Affirmation attacked the General Assembly’s pronouncement merely on technical grounds. The Affirmation does, indeed, raise the technical point that the General Assembly had no right to issue such a pronouncement. But it proceeds at once to something far more fundamental. It attacks the content of the pronouncement on its merits. It declares that not a single one of the great verities mentioned by the General Assembly of 1923 is essential; and it declares that all of the five verities are merely ‘theories’ (among other possible theories), which some may and some may not hold to be satisfactory explanations of something else.
“Thus according to the Auburn Affirmation a man may be a minister in the Presbyterian Church and yet deny the lull truthfulness of Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God, the bodily resurrection, the miracles of our Lord.” To deny that these five doctrines (which are commonly referred to as the “Five Points”) are essential doctrines most clearly indicates that the protest of the Affirmationists involved doctrinal matters.
When the 1,082 Bible-believing ministers in the Northern Presbyterian Church, including three former Moderators of the General Assembly of that denomination, organized the Presbyterian League of Faith in 1931, they realized fully that the Auburn Affirmation was most assuredly a doctrinal protest, for one of the formally stated objects of the Presbyterian League of Faith was: “To oppose the attack made by the document called the Auburn Affirmation.”
Whatever else it might be considered as being, the Auburn Affirmation was definitely a doctrinal protest.
“It Is Not Contrary To The Constitution of The Presbyterian Church”
Some ecclesiastical legalists occasionally remark: “The Auburn Affirmation is not contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church.” What an amazing statement that is! To say that the doctrinal teachings of the Auburn Affirmation are not contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church is to claim that it is not contrary to that Constitution to deny that the infallibility of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection, the substitutionary atonement, and belief in Christ’s miracles are essential doctrines of the “Word of God and of our Standards.” How any Presbyterian, be he minister or untutored layman, could make such a statement is beyond human comprehension.
Even if it were true that the Auburn Affirmation was not contrary to the Constitution of the Northern Presbyterian Church, would the Southern Presbyterian Church want to be a part of a denomination whose Constitution does not condemn the kind of heresies contained in the Affirmation?
“Some Affirmationists Believed The ‘Five Points'”
Some of the Auburn Affirmationists and their friends point to the part of the Affirmation which contains this statement: “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines.” But the serious issues involved in the Affirmation cannot be evaded by claiming that some of the Affirmationists personally believed the “Five Points.”
As Dr. Machen so clearly put it: “In the first place, no signer of the Affirmation, if he knew what he was doing when he signed the document, can believe in the first of the five verities—the full truthfulness of Scripture — for that is definitely attacked in the name of all the signers in the earlier part of the Affirmation.
“In the second place, if he himself accepts this or that one of the five verities, he does so, according to the terms of the Affirmation, only in the sense that he is accepting it as one theory among other possible theories in explanation of something else. Thus, according to the Affirmation, a man may say, ‘I believe myself that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary’; but he also says, according to the Affirmation: ‘I hold that that view, that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary,’ is only one of the theories that the Scripture allows a man to hold in explanation of the incarnation, and I am perfectly willing to receive into the ministry of the Church a man who holds to some theory of the incarnation which does not affirm that ‘our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary,’ which holds, for example, that Jesus was the son, by ordinary generation, of Joseph and Mary.’
“What a morass we find ourselves in here! It is a well-known morass, the morass of that destructive Modernism which is engulfing our Presbyterian Church, as it already has engulfed so many other Churches, to the ruin of countless souls.” It should be evident that the belief in the “Five Points” cannot be very deep on the part of any Presbyterian minister who complacently contemplates leaving those five doctrines out of the Christian message because he considers them as being really non-essential.
The Attitude Of Some Southern Presbyterian Ministers
There is one attitude which has been very surprising when the Auburn Affirmation is mentioned at times, and that is the attitude shown by some of the young ministers in the Southern Presbyterian Church. By an indulgent smile, and a pleasant shrug of the shoulders, they give the impression that any serious consideration of the Auburn Affirmation by intelligent people today is really quite amusing.
The attitude of these young ministers toward the Affirmation, an attitude which at times almost amounts to flippancy, is one of several reasons why a large company throughout our denomination believes that it is now time to overhaul completely some of our theological seminaries where these young ministers were trained.
What a contrast with their attitude toward the Auburn Affirmation was the attitude of that careful Presbyterian scholar and veteran defender of the Faith, Dr. William M. McPheeters! Dr. McPheeters taught at our Columbia Theological Seminary for some 47 years, prior to his death in 1935. And concerning the Auburn Affirmation he wrote: “… the oftener I read it the more deeply I am convinced that its conception of Christian liberty in connection with subscription to the system of doctrine set forth in the Standards of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is intellectually absurd, historically false, ethically detestable and pernicious, and religiously blasphemous.”
What shall every Southern Presbyterian, as a Bible-believing Christian who repudiates completely the views contained in the Auburn Affirmation and who wishes to remain separated from the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation, say with regard to the proposed union with the heresy-tainted Northern Presbyterian Church?
Thou Shalt Say, No!