October 24: “Dr. Fosdick’s Letter,” by Professor J. Gresham Machen (1924)


While the brunt of this article appears to concern the removal of H.E. Fosdick from the pulpit of First Presbyterian church in New York City, Dr. Machen also makes clear reference to those men who signed the Auburn Affirmation, and so we include it here in this series.  In point of fact, Machen is actually more concerned in this article with larger principles in application to the Presbyterian Church, while Fosdick becomes simply an example to prove his point.  Fosdick and the Affirmation were closely linked in other ways as well, and perhaps more on that later, but for the Machen, the crux of the matter is this:  “Are we going to be content with the dishonest situation which now prevails in many sections of the church and in many parts of its organized work — a situation the existence of which is so definitely attested by Dr. Fosdick?”

“Dr. Fosdick’s Letter,” by Professor J. Gresham Machen.
[excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 94.43 (23 October 1924): 6.] 

DR. FOSDICK’S recent letter in reply to the communication from the Presbytery of New York, amply confirms the contention of those who have insisted upon his withdrawal from a Presbyterian pulpit.

In the first place, this letter makes particularly plain the writer’s hostility to the whole factual basis of the Christian religion.  The Westminster Confession is here objected to not on the ground that it is false and some other creed true, but on the ground that no creed can be true.  Creeds, according to Dr. Fosdick, are simply the necessarily changing intellectual expressions of an inner experience ; they are useful, in other words, but can never by any possibility be permanently true.  A more complete skepticism would be difficult to find — or a more complete opposition to a religion, like the Christian religion, which is founded upon facts.

But so much is really obvious and has been made abundantly plain by all of Dr. Fosdick’s utterances.  What is far more important is the assertion of this letter to the effect that the writer holds “the opinions which hundreds of Presbyterian ministers hold.”  These hundreds of ministers have entered upon a course which Dr. Fosdick, for his part, vehemently repudiates — they have subscribed to a creed with the mental reservations and “interpretations” which Dr. Fosdick quite correctly regards, for himself, as ethically unjustifiable.  In view of the presence of these men in the Presbyterian ministry, no doubt the writer of this letter is correct in finding “no reason to suppose” that the Presbytery of New York  would fail to receive him.  The Presbytery of New York would probably receive Dr. Fosdick into its membership, if it has received many of those hundreds of ministers who are just as hostile to the Christian faith as is Dr. Fosdick himself.

It is the presence of such ministers in the Presbyterian Church, and particularly their presence in positions of ecclesiastical trust, which gives rise to the most immediate duty of the hour.  That duty is the duty of honesty — the duty of so purifying the church that what Dr. Fosdick quite correctly designates as “a definite creedal subscription, a solemn assumption of theological vows,” shall cease to be the miserable farce which in many quarters it has now become.

We hold, therefore, that the removal of Dr. Fosdick does not in itself determine whether the Presbyterian Church is to continue to be Christian or not.  It is indeed an important step, and it was not taken because of the ecclesiastical irregularity involved in having a Baptist in a Presbyterian pulpit.  No doubt that situation was irregular ; very likely it was unwise.  But that was not the real reason why Dr. Fosdick was removed.  The real reason was not that he was a Baptist, but that, in the opinion of the main body of the church, he was attacking the very foundations of the Christian Faith.  Despite the unsatisfactory form in which the Assembly of 1924 continued the action of the Assembly of 1923 — a form which almost seemed like reversal of the previous action — it does remain true, we believe, when the movement is viewed in its entirety, that an important step has been taken in the pathway of honesty and truth.

But important as is this step, it is, after all, only a step, and if the church stops here, it would perhaps almost have been better if no step had been taken at all.  What is going to be the result of the great moral awakening which was begun two years ago?  Are we going to say in effect, as the church apparently did in the case of Dr. Briggs, that the victory now has been won and that peace may now be enjoyed?  Are we going to be content with the dishonest situation which now prevails in many sections of the church and in many parts of its organized work — a situation the existence of which is so definitely attested by Dr. Fosdick’s letter?  If such is our attitude, then the same thing will happen as that which happened after the case of Dr. Briggs — the one test case will have settled nothing, the destructive elements will continue to labor on in secret, and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America will continue on a path which if followed to the end will make it cease to form a part of the true church of God.

God grant that we may not grieve his Spirit!  God grant that we may walk forward in the pathway of honesty, and that there may come a time when the holiest and dearest things of our faith shall no longer be pushed into the background or debarred from mention at the council-tables of our church, and when we shall go forth in the unity of the Spirit to proclaim that word of the cross which now, as always, is to them that perish foolishness, but to them that are saved Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The Presbyterian Church has taken an important step.  But far more than one step is needed.  The unfortunate compromising action at the last General Assembly shows clearly — what should already have been abundantly plain — that the clear witness-bearing of our church cannot be restored in one year or in two years.  It will take far longer than that to place what may be called the “machinery” of the church in the hands of evangelical men, so that the machinery may become an effective instrument in the propagation of truth.  If the present movement springs from the surface of our lives, then it will quickly run its force, and the church will settle back into the deadly lethargy which is falsely called “peace.” But if the movement is of God, then it will continue through the years ; the vital task of placing the affairs of the church in the hands of men who are full of love for the gospel of Christ will be continued with patience as well as with zeal ; and we shall then have within the church the true unity that is founded upon the authority of the Word of God.


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