The Cause Of The Doctrinal Trouble In The Northern Presbyterian Church
(from the series, “Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)
By Chalmers W. Alexander
[THE SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 8.13 (1 November 1949): 9-11.]
This was the eighth in a series of articles by Chalmers W. Alexander under the heading, “Exploring Avenues of Acquaintance And Co-operation.” Chalmers Alexander was a noteworthy ruling elder serving the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, MS.
What has been the principal cause of the doctrinal disturbance in the Northern Presbyterian Church?
Origin Of The Doctrinal Disturbance
In order to understand fully the answer to that question it is necessary to look back briefly over some of the events which took place in the early history of Presbyterianism in America. By the close of the eighteenth century, the Presbyterian Church in this country found itself working side by side with the Congregational Church in trying to build churches and furnish ministers for the nation’s expanding population, which was spreading throughout the Middle West. And in 1801 a plan of union was adopted whereby the Presbyterian General Assembly and the General Association of the State of Connecticut (Congregational) should work together, rather than in competition.
“Old School” Theology Versus “New School” Theology
This union of 1801 marks the earliest discernible beginning of the decline of what we now refer to as the Northern Presbyterian Church, for the Congregational churches adhered to the liberal “New School” theology. This liberal “New School” theology differed from the Presbyterian, or conservative “Old School,” theology in several important points of doctrine.
The conservative “Old School” theology of the Presbyterians rested solidly on the teachings of the Holy Bible as they are outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The liberal “New School” theology differed from its teachings, for instance, with reference to the extent of the guilt of Adam as it is imputed to his descendents, and with reference to the Calvinist doctrine of the definite atonement of Christ.
The New England theologians, who were the trainers of the Congregational ministers, were not inclined to consider very seriously the principles which meant much to the Presbyterian ministers who, for the most part, came from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Consequently friction developed between the two denominational groups, and in 1837 they severed their relationship.
The Presbyterian Groups Separate
But prior to 1837, the liberal “New School” theology of the Congregational Church had been embraced by some of the Presbyterian ministers. Accordingly, within a few months after the separation of the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church, there occurred a separation between the conservative “Old School” and the liberal “New School” groups which now existed in the Presbyterian Church.
The “New School” Presbyterian group, among other things, had founded Auburn Theological Seminary, at Auburn, New York. (It was from Auburn, New York that the heretical Auburn Affirmation was later to be published.) And this liberal “New School” group had also founded Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which is today one of the nation’s leading centers of extreme Modernism.
When the Civil War took place in this country, the synods of the South withdrew from the “Old School” group of Presbyterians in the North, and founded our own Southern Presbyterian Church. And from its founding until the present time our Southern Presbyterian Church has always adhered to the conservative “Old School” theology.
The Merger Of 1869
After the close of the Civil War, in the North the conservative “Old School” Presbyterian group reunited in 1869 with the liberal “New School” Presbyterian group, in spite of the fact that the great Princeton theologian, Dr. Charles Hodge, left a sick-bed to oppose the merger.
As a result of the merger of the conservative “Old School” and the liberal “New School” Presbyterian groups in 1869, that which Dr. Hodge and the other Conservative leaders in the Northern Presbyterian Church had feared now began to take place. From the date of that merger until the present time, the liberal “New School” theology has been a disturbing factor in the ranks of the Northern Presbyterian Church.
This disturbance and trouble arose, of course, from the fact that the merger of 1869 had taken place upon the basis of a common administration, and not upon the basis of a creed which meant the same thing to both Presbyterian groups. Thus, in 1869, the Northern Presbyterian Church had willingly surrendered the greater principle of Christian doctrine for the less important principle of church administration. “To it the system of government had become of more importance than the system of belief,” as Dr. William Crowe, one of the very clear thinkers of our denomination, has so well expressed it.
Two Divergent Groups In The Church
As a result of this merger of 1869, there now existed within the Northern Presbyterian Church two distinct and divergent groups. One, the “New School” group, adhered to the liberal theology which was being taught at such institutions as Union Theological Seminary of New York City. This Seminary, founded earlier by the liberal “New School” Presbyterian group, had been taken into the merged Northern Presbyterian Church in 1869 without any requirement being made that it first change its position in theology to conform to the teachings and doctrines summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. (Some twenty-three years later, in 1892, Union Theological Seminary of New York City was to terminate its relation to the Northern Presbyterian Church because of the action of the General Assembly of 1891 in refusing to confirm as Professor of Biblical Theology in that Seminary, Dr. Charles A. Briggs, who was found guilty of heresy and was later dismissed from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church by the General Assembly of 1893, but who was to remain a professor in good standing at Union Theological Seminary of New York City until his death in 1913.)
The second group in the Northern Presbyterian Church, or the conservative “Old School” group, continued to adhere to the theology which had come from Paul the Apostle down through John Calvin of Geneva, John Knox of Scotland, and, in this country, through the great Princeton Seminary theologians.
As Princeton Theological Seminary (hereinafter referred to as Princeton Seminary) has played such an important part in the life of the Northern Presbyterian Church, it will be informative to consider what effect the liberal “New School” theology has had upon it since that Seminary was reorganized in 1929.
But first let us glance at some of the history and achievements of that institution prior to its reorganization in 1929.
The Early Character Of Princeton Seminary
Princeton Seminary was from its beginning the great center of conservative “Old School” theology in America. Founded in 1812 at Princeton, New Jersey, it was the oldest seminary in the Northern Presbyterian Church. Its foundation rested squarely on the fully inspired Word of God as it is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Because of its sound theology, and because of the profound scholarship of its faculty, Princeton Seminary acquired a world-wide reputation as a great center of Christian learning. It became known as the outstanding seminary of the Northern Presbyterian Church.
The faculty of Princeton Seminary had always been composed of great men, all of whom adhered strictly to the conservative “Old School” theology, and all of whom held to the doctrines of the Holy Bible as they are outlined in the Westminster Standards.
Among the Seminary’s earlier faculty members there had been such theological giants as its first professor, Dr. Archibald Alexander, and the other Alexanders, and Dr. Samuel Miller, and some of the members of the famed Hodge family. And in more recent times such master theologians as the following were on its faculty: Professors Benjamin B. Warfield, Robert Dick Wilson, William B. Greene, Geerhardus Vos, William Park Armstrong, J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, Casper Wistar Hodge (the fourth member of that great family of theologians), and Cornelius Van Til.
Princeton Seminary Scholarship
Some conception of the very unusual ability of these men as Bible scholars can be gained by considering one of them, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, for a moment.
Dr. Warfield had received his A.B. and his M.A. from Princeton University and his Th.B. from Princeton Seminary. Then he had studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of Leipzig. He was for many years the Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.
Dr. Warfield is considered by many very able Bible scholars to have been the greatest theologian that America has ever produced.
The late Dr. John DeWitt, himself a great scholar, once remarked that he had known intimately the three outstanding theologians in the Northern Presbyterian Church of the generation preceding Dr. Warfield, namely, Henry B. Smith, William G. T. Shedd, and Charles Hodge, and that he was certain that Dr. Warfield knew more than any one of them, and that he was disposed to think that Dr. Warfield knew more than all three of them combined.
Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge succeeded Dr. Warfield as Professor of Systematic Theology in Princeton Seminary after the latter’s death in 1921. Dr. Hodge received his A.B. and his Ph.D. from Princeton University and, after a year’s study abroad at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Berlin, he had finally taken his B.D. from Princeton Seminary. In speaking of his predecessors in the Professorship of Systematic Theology (two of whom had been his grandfather, Dr. Charles Hodge, and his uncle, Dr. A. A. Hodge, both of whom had been world famous), Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge spoke of Dr. Warfield as “excelling them all in erudition” and as being “one of the greatest men who has ever taught in this institution.”
At the time of Dr. Warfield’s death, Dr. Francis Landey Patton, who had formerly served as President of Princeton University and later as President of Princeton Seminary, stated that under Dr. Warfield’s leadership “the department of Systematic Theology has been built up and has attained a position in this Seminary which it never had before and, so far as my knowledge and information go, exists nowhere else.”
And Dr. Samuel G. Craig, the able Editor of Christianity Today, one of the sound church papers in the Northern Presbyterian Church, wrote in 1934: “For instance, I am sure that at the time of his death there was no man in the world-—I make no exceptions—who knew more about the New Testament and what has been said against its trustworthiness than Benjamin B. Warfield. Again I am sure that at the time of his death there was no man in the world—here too I make no exceptions—who knew more about the Old Testament and what has been said against its trustworthiness than Robert Dick Wilson. Yet I am sure that Dr. Warfield would have said about the New Testament what Dr. Wilson said about the Old Testament: that no man knows enough to say that it contains errors.”
In fact, in his monumental volume entitled, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, which the Inter-Varsity Magazine, of London, calls “the ablest defense of the conservative view of the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture that has appeared in the English language,” Dr. Warfield expressed the same view of the Bible’s full trustworthiness which was held by Dr. Robert Dick Wilson.
Dr. Warfield’s view of the inspiration of the Bible and his position in theology were shared by all of his associates on the Princeton Seminary faculty. That able theologian, Dr. John Macleod, Principal of the Free Church College, of Edinburgh, Scotland, has stated that Dr. Warfield, in speaking to him of Dr. Warfield’s associates on the Princeton Seminary faculty, once remarked that, “We are all of one mind.” All of the members of the Seminary faculty were conservative “Old School” theologians who believed that the only consistent system of doctrine and belief taught in the Holy Bible was clearly summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
Under the leadership of Dr. Warfield, Princeton Seminary stood like a Rock of Gibraltar which, since its founding, had withstood all of the Modernist attacks of unbelief. When perplexing problems of theology were under discussion, Bible-believing Presbyterians everywhere knew that the right answers to the problems could always be found at Princeton Seminary.
Of all of the theological seminaries in the Northern Presbyterian Church, Princeton Seminary alone now stood firmly and consistently for the orthodox position in theology. Its faculty was not in any way contaminated by the liberal “New School” theology. And Princeton Seminary was pouring into the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church each year from forty to fifty orthodox young ministers, constituting one-fourth of each year’s total supply of new ministers in that denomination.
A Movement To Reorganize Princeton University
Now for some time there had been a movement under way to try to reorganize the great Princeton Seminary.
The purpose of the proposed reorganization of Princeton Seminary was to make that institution inclusive not only of the conservative “Old School” theology which had always been taught there, but of the liberal “New School” theology as well.
Because of the movement to try to reorganize Princeton Seminary, a fierce struggle had taken place for several years behind the scenes in the Northern Presbyterian Church. By this time the Northern Presbyterian Church consisted of three different groups: a strong, outspoken orthodox group, an active Modernist group, and a so-called “middle-of-the-road” group. This so-called “middle-of-the-road” group was trying to hold on to the Holy Bible and to the Westminster Standards, and at the same time not oppose the Modernists. Many of this so-called “middle-of-the-road” group wanted “peace at any price,” even if it had to be purchased at the cost of serious compromise with error in Christian belief.
Finally, in 1929, in spite of a valient and courageous fight by many of the orthodox group in the Northern Presbyterian Church, those who wanted to reorganize Princeton Seminary won the struggle.