February 9: Edwin H. Rian

Problems in Life Usually Have a Long History

Edwin H. Rian’s “Unbelief in the PCUSA–Is It Recent?”


This is a reprint (with changes) of an article that first appeared in The Independent Board Bulletin, April, 1936.  Rev. Rian also authored The Presbyterian Conflict (1940), but under some cloud later recanted his position and returned to the PCUSA, working for the remainder of his life as assistant to the president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Nonetheless, this brief account remains an excellent synopsis of the events leading up to the modernist controversy.

Field Secretary of Westminster Theological Seminary

We often hear it said that the present controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is simply a personal squabble between Dr. Machen and Dr. Speer, with Dr. Machen as the cause and the aggressor.  It is also stated that the difference between these two is merely administrative, and that this administrative difference is of recent date.

No two statements about the present conflict in our beloved Church could be farther from the truth. Dr. Machen, and we who are associated with him, are just as opposed to the principles of many others who are in control of the ecclesiastical organization of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as we are to the principles for which Dr. Speer stands in the present controversy.  And to say that the difference between us is administrative is simply to ignore the real basic issue, which is doctrinal through and through.  What is more, a study of the history of the doctrinal defection in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. will show that the present crisis is only the culmination of one hundred and thirty years of gradual yielding to anti-Presbyterian doctrine.

The Church is reaping what it has sowed.  A glance at the history of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. will show how amazingly true this is.

Union of 1801

In 1 801 the General Association of Connecticut and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church adopted a plan of union.  It was a union between the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians in order to avoid competition. By the terms of this plan a Presbyterian minister could serve in a Congregational Church and vice versa.

Some material growth and prosperity resulted from this merger, but with it came the inroads of New England theology and the beginnings of doctrinal impurity.  Hopkinsianism, which originated in New England and which denied that man is depraved and separated from God because he is a member of the race of Adam, spread throughout the Presbyterian Church.

The Rev. Albert Barnes, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, was tried for heresy on this point.  He denied that Adam’s guilt was imputed to the human race. But the General Assembly of 1836 did not convict him, largely because the New School of Theology had gained control of the Assembly.

Dr. Lyman Beecher, professor at Lane Theological Seminary, was tried for heresy in respect to original sin, total depravity, regeneration, accountability, free agency, and Christian character.  The Presbytery of Cincinnati in 1835 acquitted him and so did the Synod.  The case was not carried to the General Assembly.

The acquittal of these two ministers meant that heresy was rampant in the denomination, and that the New School Party was growing in strength and could at times control the General Assembly.

Old and New School—1837-1870

When the General Assembly met in 1837 in Philadelphia the Old School was in a majority and it decided to abrogate the Plan of Union of 1801.  A “Testimony and Memorial” was addressed to the Assembly exhibiting the doctrinal errors and lapses in the Church.  The Old School leaders were determined to divide the Church so that a True Presbyterian Church would result.  After much debate the synods of Western Reserve, Utica, Geneva and Genesee were exscinded because these synods were most affected by the New England theology.

Thus the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was divided into the Old School Assembly and the New School Assembly.

This was a bold step, but it was the only real solution to the differences in doctrine between the two groups in the Church.  The Old School was truly Presbyterian in doctrine and polity while the New School was tainted with anti-Reformed and anti-Scriptural beliefs.

Union of 1870

If the division into Old and New Schools had continued it is very likely that the present doctrinal crisis in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. would never have occurred.  But, alas, the Civil War produced new issues which made the Old School Assembly and the New School Assembly forget their differences, and a union was effected in 1870.  That union should never have taken place.  It brought together two parties who disagreed fundamentally as to doctrine.  It was one of the most tragic events in Presbyterian history.

Heresy Trials

The bad effect of the 1870 union was seen almost immediately.  The New School Party began to urge the revision of the creed of the Church.  This was debated and studied for many years, but in 1890 the General Assembly, even though it had received sixty memorials asking for a new and shorter creed, laid the whole matter on the table.  But such procedure did not settle the differences.  Instead, false doctrine continued to flourish in the Church.

Dr. Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, was convicted and suspended from the ministry in 1893 for his failure to hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Dr. Henry Preserved Smith of Lane Theological Seminary was suspended from the ministry in 1894 for practically the same offense.

Professor A. C. McGiffert of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, had expressed his views as favorable to the destructive results of higher criticism.  The attention of the Presbytery of New York was called to this in 1899 but before a trial was instituted Dr. McGiffert withdrew from the Church.

The Declaratory Statement of 1903

But the trouble did not stop with the heresy trials.  The New School Party kept up its fight to revise the Standards of the Church.  This movement to revise the Standards had been temporarily halted in 1890 when the General Assembly laid the matter on the table, but in 1900 the Assembly revived the project.  Finally in 1903 the revision was consummated.

This revision consists of three parts: (1) A declaratory statement, explaining Chapter III of the Confession of Faith concerning God’s eternal decree, and explaining Chapter X, section 3, concerning elect infants; (2) changes in text in three other articles; (3) the addition of two chapters to the Confession of Faith on the Holy Spirit and on the Love of God and Missions.

These changes, particularly the declaratory statement and the chapter on the Love of God and Missions, are un-Reformed in theology and certainly should not be in our Standards.  They merely show that the temper of the Church at that time was to conciliate and compromise on the Reformed Faith.

Union of 1906

In 1906 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were united on the basis of the Confession as revised in 1903.  These revisions do not change the system of doctrine to which office-bearers must subscribe in ordination, but they do seriously mar the Confession of Faith.  It is sad that statements of an un-Reformed nature were allowed to be written into the Confession of Faith.

This was simply a union between a Church with a Reformed or Calvinistic creed and one which had an un-Reformed Confession.  How could such a union accomplish anything but a weakening of testimony?

An Attempt at Union

Many attempts at union with other denominations have been made by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., but one of the most important efforts was the proposal to merge eighteen Protestant communions into one body.  Thirty-five presbyteries overtured the General Assembly meeting at Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, to consider such a union.  The Bills and Overtures Committee of that Assembly recommended that the Committee on Church Co-operation and Union take charge of such negotiations with other Evangelical denominations looking forward to a union.  In 1920 the General Assembly meeting in Philadelphia listened to the plan of union as drawn up by a committee representing these eighteen denominations.

The preamble to this plan of union, which gives its doctrinal basis, shows how utterly vague and nullifying would have been the testimony of such a merger.  It demonstrates further the fact that there were many in our Church who seemed to be perfectly indifferent to doctrine.  The doctrinal section of the preamble reads:

“Whereas: We desire to share, as a common heritage, the faith of the Christian Church, which has from time to time, found expression in great historic statements; and
Whereas: We all share belief in God our Father; in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Saviour; in the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter; in the Holy Catholic Church, through which God’s eternal purpose of salvation is to be proclaimed and the Kingdom of God is to be realized on earth; in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing God’s revealed will, and in the life eternal,”

A Modernist could have subscribed to such a creed, because it was so vague and so general. Fortunately the proposed union was defeated.

The Auburn Affirmation

But the New School of Theology continued to grow in influence in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. When the General Assembly of 1923 declared that the infallibility of Holy Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and the miracles of Christ are essential doctrines of our faith and that every minister in the Church should believe in them, a great storm of protest arose.  A document was issued by some Presbyterian ministers in Auburn, New York, stating that the General Assembly had no right to elevate these five doctrines as tests for ordination; and further it stated that these doctrines are not essential to the Christian Faith, but are merely theories implying that there are other theories to explain these truths.  And what is more, the Affirmation attacked directly the inerrancy and full truthfulness of Holy Scripture.

To show that our contention is true, namely, that unbelief in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has been growing, we can point to the bald fact that 1293 ministers of that denomination signed the heretical Auburn Affirmation.  And the astonishing truth is that not one of these ministers has been tried for heresy.

The Reorganization of Princeton Seminary

The last great citadel of orthodoxy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was Princeton Theological Seminary.  It had been standing like a rock against the inroads of Modernism, and for over one hundred years it had been sending out ministers trained in the Bible as the Word of God.  This fact troubled those who were leading the forces of unbelief in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  They knew that Princeton Seminary had to be captured if the source of supply for sound ministers in the denomination were to cease.

Without entering into the full details of that story, suffice it to say that in 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary was reorganized so as to be complacent toward Modernism.  Two Auburn Affirmationists were placed on its Board of Trustees.  The full rout of orthodoxy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was thus practically accomplished.

But thank God that Westminster Theological Seminary was organized in 1929 to carry on the tradition of the old Princeton.  God has richly blessed this institution, so that today all of its 112 graduates except one have fields of labor.  The testimony of the gospel through these men has gone forth throughout the length and breadth of the land and around the world.

The Independent Board

We come now to the last phase of the fight between the forces of unbelief and those of the Bible in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

The publication of Re-Thinking Missions and the resignation of Mrs. J. Lossing Buck as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. captured the attention of the Christian world and focused that attention on foreign missions.

In regard to Re-Thinking Missions, which sets forth unbelief in a very thoroughgoing way, and in regard to the heretical views of Mrs. Buck, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. assumed a vacillating position.

This led to an investigation of the program and policies of the Board of Foreign Missions by Dr. J. Gresham Machen.  The rest we know.  Dr. Machen found the worst kind of Modernism in that Board.  He published his findings in a 110-page pamphlet entitled “Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.”

Overtures were sent up to the General Assembly in 1933, asking the Assembly to reform the Board of Foreign Missions.  Instead of reforming the Board, the General Assembly exonerated it, commended its work to the Church, and ended by singing a paean of praise to the Senior Secretary of the Board.

Everything constitutional had been done in the attempt to purify the Board, but without avail.  There remained therefore no truly Biblical and truly Presbyterian foreign missionary agency within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  Accordingly such a missionary agency, which would be outside of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and independent of all ecclesiastical control, had to be organized.  The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions thus came into being.

The “Mandate” of  1934

In 1934 the General Assembly meeting at Cleveland, Ohio, issued a so-called “mandate” ordering members of the Independent Board to resign on pain of ecclesiastical discipline.  This declaration of the 1934 Assembly stated in so many words that any member of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who refused to support the boards and agencies of the Church to the utmost of his ability was as guilty as one who refused to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

There we have the quintessence of Modernism, which is the substitution of the word of man for the Word of God.  The General Assembly in issuing that declaration was trying to compel every member of the Church to support Modernism whether he wanted to or not.  Nothing could deny more completely the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Members of the Independent Board have refused to obey the “mandate.”  As the result some have been suspended from the ministry and are awaiting the final adjudication of their cases at the General Assembly meeting in Syracuse next May.

The Last Stand Against Unbelief 

At the meeting of the General Assembly in May, the culmination of this long hard battle against unbelief will be reached.  For nearly a century and a half the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. has been yielding to anti-Presbyterianism point by point until today it stands at the cross-roads.  Today that denomination gives every evidence of being content to tolerate Modernism in its corporate witness.  It is perfectly clear that when all prejudice and bitterness are set aside, we have left the basic issue, the Word of God versus unbelief.

Let us not be deceived in this matter.  When the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly brings in its decision on the Independent Board cases and the General Assembly, sitting as a court, affirms or denies that decision, then and there will be decided the destiny of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  Will it succumb completely to the enemies of the Cross or will it repudiate unbelief?  That is a question of far-reaching significance which the Christian world is waiting to hear answered.

Some of us are determined by the grace of God to stand on the side of the gospel regardless of cost.

On which side will you stand ?

[This article originally appeared in The Independent Board Bulletin 2.4 (April 1936): 3-8, and was subsequently reprinted as a separate booklet.  Copies of both forms of this work are preserved at the PCA Historical Center.]


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