November 4: “The Effect of the Auburn Affirmation”


Another in a series that we’ve gathered on this subject, the following article is one of two penned by Dr. William Childs Robinson.  The context was the proposed merger between the PCUSA and the PCUS [aka, Southern Presbyterian Church].  Dr. “Robbie” wrote here in direct response to an editorial in THE CHRISTIAN OBSERVER. For more on the Auburn Affirmation, including both the text of that document, links to other conservative Presbyterian responses and a short bibliography, click here.


By the Rev. Wm. Childs Robinson, D.D.
[excerpted from The Christian Observer 132.44 (1 November 1944): 6.]

In the October 11 issue of The Christian Observer, Dr. Walter L. Lingle makes a mild case for the Auburn Affirmation based in part upon a letter in which Dr. Henry Sloan Coffin asserts that the contention of the affirmation was constitutional and not doctrinal. As our Church faces the question of union with the U.S.A. Church, our concern, however, is not with what may have been the intention of the affirmationists. It is rather with the effect that the Auburn Affirmation has had upon the U.S.A. Church and will have upon our Church if we unite without an adequate safeguard against the liberal theology which the affirmation protects.

Since Dr. Lingle goes back to the period of 1923-1928 for his argument, I shall go back to the same period for my answer. In that period Dr. Coffin, the leader of the liberal majority in New York Presbytery, used the Auburn Affirmation to protect the licensure and ordination of his students who did not accept the virgin birth of Christ. In due process these cases came before the Synod and the Assembly. The U.S.A. Assembly of 1925 condemned New York Presbytery for licensing two students who were unable to affirm their belief in the positive, definite statements of the Gospels on the virgin birth. That Assembly remanded the case to New York Presbytery for appropriate action.

Speaking for the liberal majority of New York Presbytery, Dr. Coffin took the floor and declared the action of the Assembly null and void. Other Auburn Affirmationists threatened to split the Church if the action against New York Presbytery were consummated. In the face of this Auburn Affirmation declaration of nullification and threat of secession, the moderator appointed a committee which so compromised the matter that nothing was ever done by the U.S.A. Assembly against either the Presbytery or the students. By this action and by continued pressure at the ensuing Assemblies, the Auburn Affirmationists prevented the General Assembly from requiring candidates to accept the virgin birth of Christ.

The rejection of the virgin birth logically involves the rejection of the pre-existence of Christ. The logic of the position is to regard our Lord Jesus Christ as a temporal, human person rather than as a divine, eternal person. And those who reject an article of the Apostles’ Creed, the virgin birth, are not likely to sit very firmly on the decisions of the ecumenical councils that Christ is God the Son, co-eternal with the Father though this is the clear teaching of the Westminster Confession.

In “Liberal Theology: An Appraisal,” Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, one of the students whose licensure was condemned by the Assembly of 1925, states his doctrine of Christ. Of this statement, Dr. James D. Rankin, a veteran United Presbyterian scholar, says: For Dr. Van Dusen, Christ “was man at his highest. Of course, this denies His divinity and the value of His atonement.” Of the same statement, Dr. S. M. Zwemer, of Princeton, says “His (Van Dusen’s) Christology is not that of the Westminster Confession.” For Dr. Van Dusen, Christ serves man primarily, not as a reservoir; “but the New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ is the only reservoir.” According to Dr. Van Dusen, “God was a fully present in Jesus of Nazareth as it is possible for Him to be in a genuine human being.” In and through Jesus the life of God spoke and acted as fully “as the Sovereign of reality could find expression through a man of Nazareth in the days of the Caesars.”

For Dr. Van Dusen there is an identity of Jesus with God only of outlook, purpose, will and compassion. For the Church of the ages our Lord Jesus Christ is one with the Father in substance, essence, being. Though he uses the term, “the divinity of Christ,” he does not use it in the same sense as does the Confession of Faith. For the Confession, Christ is “very and eternal God” who became also man for us men and for our salvation. For Dr. Van Dusen’s liberal theology, He is “a man of Nazareth in the day of the Caesars” in whom God was personally present. Thus, the effect of the Auburn Affirmation has not been the con amore acceptance of the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, but the enfranchisement in the U.S.A. Church of a liberal Christology which is not that of the Westminster Confession. Moreover, it has meant the setting aside of the trustworthiness of those passages of the Holy Scriptures which teach the virgin birth and the pre-existence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If space permitted, it could be shown by specific cases that the effect of the Auburn Affirmation has been to open the doors of the U.S.A. Church to ministers who reject the other doctrines challenged by the Auburn Affirmation. It could be shown that an Easter sermon rejecting the historicity and the objectivity of the resurrection of Christ and an article rejecting the doctrine of the atonement which is set forth in the Shorter Catechism have been published in papers of the U.S.A. Church.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States adopted an in thesi deliverance maintaining the eternal deity and saving work of Christ in unambiguous and wholly confessional language. Every part of our statement is expressed in the language of either the Confession or the Catechisms, which the Church accepts as standard expositions of Scripture in regard to doctrine. This deliverance was unanimously passed by the 1939 Assembly, it was interpreted and reaffirmed by the 1940 Assembly, and in effect was reaffirmed by the 1942 Assembly when that body unanimously passed the Lilly resolution. Let our committee write this Declaratory Statement into the Plan of Reunion in such a way that it will not be limited or curtailed by the Declaratory Statement of the U.S.A. Assembly, and we shall have a safeguard against the liberal theology which the Auburn Affirmation protects in the U.S.A. Church.

Decatur, Ga.

[excerpted from The Christian Observer 132.44 (1 November 1944): 6.]

The in thesis deliverance noted by Dr. Robinson in his final paragraph above, came before the Seventy-ninth General Assembly of the PCUS initially as a Resolution from Judge Richard V. Evans [M79GA, p. 37.], which resolution was then referred to the Standing Committee on Bills and Overtures. That Committee then reported several days later and issued the following, which was adopted by the Assembly:

Your Committee recommends that the Resolution of Judge Richard V. Evans which was referred by the General Assembly to your Committee be answered as follows:

The General Assembly hereby declares that it regards the acceptance of the infallible t truth and divine authority of the Scriptures, and of Christ as very and eternal God who became man by being born of a virgin, who offered Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God, who rose from the dead with the same body with which he suffered and who will return again to judge the world, as being involved in the ordination vows to which we subscribe.

The text of the resolution from Judge Evans is not itself provided in the Minutes.

In 1940, the Presbytery of Lexington overtured the Assembly to clarify its action, by stating whether this action is to be interpreted as a doctrinal deliverance on the part of the General Assembly which defines the doctrinal content of the ordination vows. [M80GA, p. 25.]

The Report of the Standing Committee on Bills and Overtures then recommended:

2. In answer to overture No. 2, from the Presbytery of Lexington, asking for a deliverance of this Assembly, clarifying the action of the General Assembly of 1939, in which it declared that the acceptance of certain truths contained in the Confession of Faith are involved in the ordination vows to which we subscribe, we would reply that this was merely an in thesi deliverance, interpreting a part of the content of the ordination vows without any intention of changing the whole substance of them. [M80GA, p. 45.]

Finally, in 1942, the Rev. Edward G. Lilly presented a resolution which was unanimously adopted by a rising vote, and is as follows:


The vote of the General Assembly on recommendation eleven of the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations concerning certain doctrines of faith shall not be construed as a denial of any of these doctrines nor as indicting a relaxation of belief in any of them.  [M 82GA, p. 94-95]


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