Parting Words : Buswell’s Last Letter to Machen

Over at the OPC web site, there has been the recent posting of a 1996 article by Charles Dennison, the late historian for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The article is entitled “Cornelius Van Til and the Identity of the OPC”, and in the opening paragraph, Rev. Dennison made reference to the last letter that Dr. J. Oliver Buswell wrote to Dr. J. Gresham Machen.

I thought our readers might like to see that letter, for added context and background to the Dennison article. A second letter by Dr. Buswell—written late in January of 1937 and bearing a significant comment on this first letter—will follow in our next post.


Dr. J. Gresham Machen
206 South Thirteenth Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dear Dr. Machen

Since reading the last issue of the Guardian, I have been confirmed
in feeling that I ought to write you with reference to certain
points which I have not had time to discuss with you adequately.
(1) The first of these is the method to be used in correcting
dispensational error.  You are a far more experienced and more
capable Christian leader than I, but I have had certain experiences
with devout people misguided by dispensationalism, which I think
you have not had.  I have found that such people will generally
listen to specific arguments with definite references but they are
not convinced, and I think could not be expected to be convinced,
by general phrases such as “the dispensationalism of the Scofield
Bible.”  Professor Murray’s article last May and Dr. Allis’ two
articles in recent issues of the Evangelical Quarterly were more
definitely characterized by careful handling of detail.  The last
issue of the Guardian contained a very effective appeal on page
seventy-one, column two-b, but it is all in the realm of generalities
and hence in the realm most likely to cause irritation rather than
to bring conviction.  This is especially true since the doctrine
of a literal millennium is seen to be a particular within the
general phrase which Dr. Kuiper used.

Furthermore I should find it very helpful if’ you or someone who
disagrees with me in regard to the dispensationalism of Charles
Hodge would analyze that question and bring to light the difference
which you feel exists.  I think my interpretation of Hodge was
correct, but I am entirely prepared to be convinced by evidence.
I imagine there are many others in my state of mind in regard to
that point.
Dr. Machen – #2

The false idea that certain parts of the Scripture are “on legal
ground” in the sense in which these words ere used in the Scofield
notes, is found in the writings of many great theologians.

(2) Now let me approach in fear and trembling & far more difficult
point and let me say again by way of preface that my deep admiration
for your Christian leadership has not changed in the least.  In
pointing out what I think has been an error, I am doing so in the
deepest feeling of friendship and with the keenest realisation of
my own failures.  I really think you have misjudged Carl McIntire,
and that the statement in the second paragraph of the article which
begins about the middle of colunn one, page seventy-one, in the last
issue of the Guardian, is not adequate.  You seemed so very determined
and positive and unwilling to be convinced by anything that might
be said to the contrary, that I may have been quite weak and faith-
less in our recent conversations.  I did try to suggest in as kindly
a way as I knew how, that I did not agree in your insistence that
Mr. McIntire was under obligation to print Dr. Kuiper’s letter in
full.  Whether or not Dr. Kuiper used general words in an incorrect
may as I think he did, and whether or not Dr. Kuiper was himself
responsible in part at least for the misunderstanding which arose,
and whether or not in his letter he introduced arguments irrelevant
to the correction of the misunderstanding,- i.e. supposing that Dr.
Kuiper’s terms were perfectly clear and specific and that he was in
no way responsible for the misunderstanding of his article and that
his letter was simply a correction of the misunderstanding,- yet an
editor is not bound to print material which he honestly thinks
irrelevant.  His obligation is discharged when he has made such
correction as he is convinced is necessary in order to make the
testimony of his paper truthful and accurate.  In other words, I
cannot see that the editor of a Christian paper is under any different
obligation from that which rests upon a minister in his pulpit

Now, I am sure you will be gracious in realising that I am simply
expressing to you my sincere conviction.  What follows is an inter-
pretation of recent events from my own point of view,- I believe that
a considerable number of your very best friends and your most faith-
ful supporters feel as I do in regard to your remarks about Mr.
McIntire in the issue of the Guardian which preceded the General
Assembly.  I believe therefore that the change in the presidency
in the Independent Board had far more to do with the reaction of the
“spirit of democracy” which we have all observed, than with the
eschatological question.  Some of your friends have interpreted the
attitude of the editors of the Guardian toward the Beacon as being
undemocratic and dictatorial.  The right of a young pastor to start
a paper and to conduct it with such degree of success as he can, has
not been questioned so far as I know; but I wonder if some interpreted
your attitude toward McIntire in this light.
Dr. Machen – #3

Well, that is about the worst thing I have to say, and if you can
forgive me and still regard me as a brother in the Lord, perhaps
you will be willing to read my comment on one or two more points.

(3) I have a feeling that there has been a shift of emphasis in your
own position or at least in the position of Westminster Seminary in
the past five years.  I believe thoroughly in the system of doctrine
taught in the Scripture as set forth in the Westminster Standards as
they existed before 1903.  I believe that that system of doctrine is
supremely important.  I believe, however, that the emphasis upon
historical apologetics and Biblical exegesis which characterizes the
works of James Orr, Robert Dick Wilson, and your great works on the
origin of Paul’s religion, the virgin birth,, and other subjects, ought
to be retained.  The apparent tendency in Westminster to substitute
what your faculty would call a theological but what I sincerely
believe is a philosophical type of apologetics seems to me a tendency
in the wrong direction.  You have been so great a leader in meeting
the unbelieving world on its own grounds of critical scholarship, I
hate to see our young men going forth from Westminster with the
feeling that critical historical apologetics is of less value than
philosophical apologetics.

I do not question the right of a professor in a truly Presbyterian
seminary to teach the amillennial view if he believes it.  You do
not question the right of a professor to teach the premillennial
view if that is his conviction.  It has seemed to me however that
the shift of emphasis from historical critical apologetics to philo-
sophical apologetics has resulted in a very strong and disproportionate
emphasis upon the amillennial view.  This, in my humble judgment,
has resulted from a philosophical conception which has unconsciously
been allowed to creep inland has not been the result of careful
critical Biblical scholarship.

I am sure you know that I believe in preaching doctrine and in
preaching the system of doctrine, but I fear that doctrinal preaching
which is more philosophical than exegetical is dangerous.  I feel
like saying that the doctrinal sermon which is not actually based
upon critical historical exegesis of the Scripture is very likely to
go astray.

So far I have proceeded through three difficult points.  Let me just
touch upon another which is likely to be a very sore one.  (4) There
is among your most faithful friends and followers a deep feeling that
any theology which does not result in a separated life cannot be
truly Biblical.  The question of alcoholism in America today with
our neurotic mixed race and our fast mechanical life, is entirely
different from that question in Palestine in the first century.  To
argue from usage in the one situation to a conclusion in the other is
as illogical as to argue for foot-washing as a modern Christian custom.
Such things as teaching [introducing] the use of fermented wine of which converted
Dr. Machen – #4

alcoholics are expected to partake at the communion table, are
far more likely to cause an explosion in our ranks than any

question of eschatology.  The report that some Westminster
students use liquor and keep it in their rooms with the approval
of some members of the faculty is also likely to produce a serious
explosion.  I feel also (as an individual) that the commercial
stage can never be defended as though it existed merely for drama
as a fine art.  Not all of your friends and mine agree with the
position of Wheaton College in completely boycotting the commercial

theatre.  We maintain our position without desiring to force it
upon our Christian friends who cannot see exactly with us.
Nevertheless it seems so useless, such a waste of energy, that a
considerable number of our mutual friends, a considerable portion
of the Presbyterian Church of America, have to be shocked by the
spectacle of some of their leaders in the defense of the faith
also defending the products of Hollywood,

How I wish I could sit down with you and Dr. Kuiper and Dr. Van Til
and the others and talk over all of these problems.  I have written
this letter with great hesitation.  I would not offend you for the
world but I do hope and pray that these remarks may be helpful.

Yours in Christian fellowship


P.S.  I have read this letter over with serious misgivings.
I do not know whether I ought to send it or not.  On the first
two points I have some hopes of persuading you in part at least.
On the second two points, I imagine your opinions are quite
settled, but I thought it might be helpful for you to know of
my feeling and my prayer for you and for Westminster Seminary
from these two viewpoints also.

J.O.B. Jr.