The Theory of Knowledge Again

Returning for a moment to the pages of THE PRESBYTERIAN in 1924, there is this brief article by the Rev. Albert Dale Gantz, who was at that time pastor of a church in New York City. Here Gantz accurately diagnoses the root problem of modernism as one of epistemology. With such diagnosis then, little wonder that rising seminarians like Clark and Van Til chose to focus on epistemology as that place where the battle was fiercest. 

A Diagnosis of Modernism
by Rev. Albert Dale Gantz

An analysis of symptoms is necessary to a diagnosis of the pathological condition. From a careful observance of the symptoms of so-called “modernism,” the conclusion has been borne in more and more upon my mind that the difficulty—the real source of infection is not so much in theology—our God-given knowledge of the Supreme Being, as with epistemology—or man-made philosophy of religious experience.

Modernists are cramped by a theory of knowledge which limits all religious knowledge to experience. They cannot admit any fact into their mind except through the single, narrow door of experience. They talk loudly about “the open mind,” when, as a matter of close observation, I find that their minds are closed to all truths which cannot enter in through the one narrow door of experiment. In other words, all knowledge is reduced to the terms of experience, and must be tested, so to speak, by the laboratory method, applicable only to certain branches of physical science ; and so by limiting themselves to one method of obtaining knowledge all truth not capable of treatment under laboratory methods is rejected. It is very easy to see, therefore, that the trouble with the modernists is with his epistemology. He has not yet perfected an apparatus for knowing truths in the vast realm where the test-tube and the Bunsen burner are inadequate.

To illustrate the inadequacy of knowledge that is confined only to what is discoverable by experience is not difficult. Take, for example, knowledge of God. The modernist cannot affirm the eternity of God or the pre-existence of Christ, because forsooth these great truths are beyond his experience. He is unable to affirm the creative act of the Almighty in bringing the cosmos into existence, because he cannot bring the mighty cosmic acts of omnipotence into the small door of his own personal experience. Likewise, because he has no personal experience of the mode by which the Supreme Being operates to create life, the modernist feels that he cannot accept any revelation on that matter. In other words, the modernist has set for himself such artificial and prescribed boundaries to the acquisition of knowledge that he has closed the avenues of his mind to those great realms of truth which are spiritual discerned, and has reduced all knowledge to that which is physically discerned. His limitations, therefore, are not in the realm of theology, but primarily in the realm of epistemology. He is cramped by a theory of knowledge. Continue reading “The Theory of Knowledge Again”


Abiding Themes

William Childs Robinson’s Reports on the Southern & Northern Presbyterian Churches 

Among the Papers of William A. McIlwaine there is a letter preserved in which his father, William B. McIlwaine, wrote to J. Gresham Machen, lamenting the spiritual decline of the Southern Presbyterian Church. Perhaps I will post a transcription of that letter here soon. But I mention that letter by way of introducing the following two reports issued by Dr. William Childs Robinson and published in volume 5 of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, reports which mirror McIlwaine’s letter of concern.

Robinson was one of the shining academic lights in the Southern Church (perhaps a singular light, according to Rev. James E. Moore) and a committed evangelical, Reformed Christian. His first article for CHRISTIANITY TODAY appeared in the July 1930 issue and he also served as a correspondent for the magazine, writing reports on conditions and events within the Presbyterian Church, U.S.  Following are two of his reports, reflecting on then current events in the Southern Presbyterian Church, while in the second report he turns his attention to the Northern Presbyterians, the IBPFM trials and the Church’s continual struggle against spiritual decline.  As William Iverson is fond of saying, “God has no grand-children.” — the urgent work of evangelism must be done afresh in every generation.

Shall We Keep the Faith?
By the Rev. Prof. Wm. Childs Robinson, Th.D., Columbia Theological Seminary
[Christianity Today 5.1 (May 1934): 26]

According to news items appearing in the religious press the Rev. Donald H. Stewart who was twice refused admission to West Hanover Presbytery on account of his modernism is undertaking the pastorate of the University Church at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This item raises several questions. Has Mr. Stewart changed the views he so emphatically re-affirmed before West Hanover Presbytery? Did the Presbytery which dismissed him satisfy itself as to his doctrinal soundness; that is, did it observe the requirement of the Constitution of the Church and examine into his reported unsoundness as required in paragraph 183 of the Book of Church Order? Did the Presbytery which received him for the North Carolina work satisfy itself as to his doctrinal fitness to renew the ordination and installation vows? The reports of the former examination indicated that Mr. Stewart accepted religious experience as his rule of faith rather than the Scriptures as set forth in the first ordination vow.

While the pamphlet issued and now being circulated by Dr. Wm. M. McPheeters was called forth by the actions of Arkansas Presbytery, it is a message which other presbyteries need to hear and heed. It is not too much to say that every presbytery and every presbyter ought to reconsider the solemn truth of the ordination vows before men and especially before the God of truth. Now as ever an honest man is the noblest work of God. The Book still pronounces its blessing upon the man that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not; and still excludes those who make and love the contrary. Rev. 22:15.

Standing in the shadow of eternity the eighty-year-old Southern Prophet, Dr. Wm. M. McPheeters, has issued a clarion call for a more faithful observance of the third and the ninth commandments–for truth and the keeping of vows made to the Holy God. Will the Church of today hear this word and gird herself to keep the faith before man and before God; or will she stone another prophet and leave it to the generations to come to build him a monument?

If you are following current events among NAPARC Churches, McPheeters’ words bring to mind the exhortation of another patriarch, the Rev. John P. Galbraith, at the recent 75th anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: Continue reading “Abiding Themes”

How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit

Recently while processing the papers of Dr. Morton H. Smith, I came across one folder with several publications by an organization identified as The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen, Inc.  This was a renewal organization that I hadn’t heard of before, which appears to have operated between 1959-1964. This Laymen group was formed to oppose the modernist takeover of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and their publications were in particular critical of Ernest Trice Thompson, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA and a key leader among the modernists in the PCUS.  The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen organization was short-lived and never large in number; they disbanded as other more significant groups such as Presbyterian Churchmen United and the Concerned Presbyterians came to the fore.
For its first four publications, The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen organization was based in Selma, Alabama. In what appears to be the fifth and final issue published, the group now showed a Jackson, Mississippi mailing address. Where the first four publications were eight and twelve page format, their final issue was a single-sheet legal-size broadside printed on both sides, bearing the single article reproduced below.  The article is an apt summary of the concerns of that day in the fight to maintain orthodoxy in the old Southern Presbyterian denomination.


This is a question that confronts Presbyterians today with an increasing urgency. A new liberalism, often called neo-orthodoxy, is making inroads into our pulpits to a degree which threatens the doctrinal integrity and spiritual strength of our church. The liberals who are entering our pulpits under various guises are fully aware of the fact that they are preaching another Gospel and that they are not true to the historic faith of the Westminster Confession and their ordination vows. But their departure from the historic Presbyterian position is concealed by frequent use of an evangelical terminology and a kind of fervor in the pulpit which almost deceives the very elect.

Their blatant dishonesty, when it is exposed and brought into the open, is promptly denied. These liberals claim that they are only making the Gospel relevant to a contemporary culture and are only using a vocabulary which is in keeping with the 20th Century. Nevertheless, even though they carefully conceal their tracks so that their liberalism is hidden from the man in the pew, there are tell-tale signs which make their liberalism very evident.

These signs have to do with what these ministers believe about the Bible and its message and the mission of the church. And most liberals will be found to follow a rather consistent pattern in their theology, ecclesiastical activities, and in their outlook on life in general.

First, let us look at the theology of a liberal. His liberalism in this area is probably the most difficult to detect because so frequently it will be cloaked in a language dear to the hearts of the evangelicals through the ages. He will speak of the sovereignty of God in glowing terms and he will even give the impression that he believes in the doctrine of election. He will even pay great respect to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but the similarity and agreement with historic Presbyterianism is more apparent than real. His apparent belief in the doctrine of Election is simply an excuse for a doctrine of universalism and the covenant theology which he holds is not that of the Scriptures.

Most of these liberals will hold Christ in high esteem and many of them will teach and even insist that He is the Savior of men. But here again, there is not any real dedication to the historic faith, as taught by Christ. They will avoid any theory of the atonement which looks to Calvin or the other reformers, and the liberal will usually depend on some kind of moral theory of interpretation of this doctrine. Yet at the same time he will make much of the necessity of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ or he will possibly even insist that men can only come to God the Father through Christ the Son. Some of these liberals will even seem to accept the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, although they will probably try to give it some symbolical significance and, if pressed, most of them will deny that this Virgin Birth was an actual event in human history. Continue reading “How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit”

Labels in the Current Controversy

The Use of Names And Terms In The Current Controversy

By Chalmers W. Alexander
Jackson, Miss.
[THE SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 8.17 (2 January 1950): 7-8.]

As practically everyone in the Southern Presbyterian Church knows, there is a serious controversy going on in our denomination. At present the controversy is focused around the question of the proposed union of our denomination with the Northern Presbyterian Church.

But, in the broad sense, this is but one phase of the controversy. For this controversy arises directly from a difference in creedal or doctrinal beliefs. In the final analysis, there are two distinct groups in the Southern Presbyterian Church, and these two groups differ radically in matters of belief.

In discussing the views of the two groups it is necessary from time to time to use terms or names to designate the two groups and to identify their positions in doctrinal matters.

What names and what terms should be used?

The Wrong Use Of Names And Terms

One can, of course, pitch the discussion on a very low plane and refer to those with whom one differs as Dr. D. P. McGeachy, of our denomination, recently did, in The Christian Century, a non-denominational religious magazine with a wide circulation. Dr. McGeachy wrote therein a description of the 1949 General Assembly meeting of our denomination. The Presbyterian Outlook, in expressing its approval of Dr. McGeachy’s article, stated that it was “his annual classic describing the Presbyterian U. S. Assembly,” and that “there is nothing quite like it for color and for penetrating surgery.”

Now in his article in The Christian Century Dr. McGeachy referred to those of us in the Southern Presbyterian Church, who consistently hold to the Conservative position, in this manner:

“There will be a little handful of willful men who will persist in this sober-faced mummery,” and “They have all of the fearful and many of the rich and well-to-do on their side. Every tactic, good and bad, whether based on ignorance or prejudice, will be used,” and “We find Rome and the ultra-fundamentalists alive and unscrupulous in our very midst.”

In writing thus, and in using such insulting terms, Dr. McGeachy has given us a classic example of how the current controversy should not be conducted.

It is possible to put the current controversy on a very low plane by making such references and using such terms. On the other hand, it is possible to pitch the discussion on a much higher plane by using terms and names which are neither insulting nor slurring.

What terms should be used, and what names should be applied, to the two groups in the current controversy?

The Terms “Orthodox” And “Unorthodox”

Perhaps the most accurate terms that could be used would be the “Orthodox” group and the “un-Orthodox” group.

In discussing the meaning of that term “Orthodox,” Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the world-famed Bible scholar, once wrote in The Presbyterian Guardian: Continue reading “Labels in the Current Controversy”

The Mistakes of Modernism, by A.Z. Conrad (1929)

Sad to realize that the League of Evangelical Students, an early forerunner of later evangelical campus ministries, has largely been forgotten now.  The League’s modest quarterly, The Evangelical Student, produced some great articles and on its pages appeared some of the first published works of men like John Murray, R. Laird Harris and Ned Stonehouse.  More on them later, no doubt.  But for now. . . Continue reading “The Mistakes of Modernism, by A.Z. Conrad (1929)”