February 15: 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 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. [aka, Southern Presbyterian Church]. 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.” — which is to say, 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?

The Northern Presbyterian Situation in the Light of Presbyterian History
by the Rev. Prof. Wm. Childs Robinson
[Christianity Today 3.10 (February 1935): 249-250.]

The writer is not in any way a supporter of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, his loyalties in this matter being to the Presbyterian Committee of Foreign Missions located in Nashville, Tenn. Nevertheless, the prosecution of the members of the Independent Board furnishes interesting food for thought and comparison to the student of Presbyterian history. The official Northern Presbyterian Board in whose interest this prosecution (or persecution) is proceeding was itself organized as an independent Presbyterian board. The General Assembly of 1831 took no action upon the eloquent plea of Dr. John Holt Rice, of Union Seminary (Va.), asking that the Presbyterian Church be recognized as a missionary society. Therefore a group of Presbyterians acting independently of the Assembly organized the Western Foreign Missionary Society with headquarters in Pittsburgh. For five years thereafter, the General Assembly continued to support the interdenominational ABCFM.

The General Assembly, U.S.A. of 1925, in a judicial case, found Mr. H.P. Van Dusen, now Professor Van Dusen of Union Seminary (N.Y.), guilty of holding views in diametric contradiction to the first ordination vow, namely, of refusing to accept the Virgin Birth. No ecclesiastical censure has ever been visited upon Dr. Van Dusen for this offense against the doctrine of Scripture as interpreted by the Westminster standards.

The General Assembly of 1934, without judicial procedure, declared the officers of the Independent Presbyterian Board guilty of violating the fourth ordination vow. and on December the 20th, the same day as that on which the neo-pagans removed Karl Barth from his chair in Bonn, the Presbytery of New Brunswick indicted Dr. J. Gresham Machen for holding office in the Independent Board of Foreign Missions. It is a foregone conclusion that the commission of that Presbytery will declare the Westminster professor worthy of an ecclesiastical censure. The constitution defines an offense as “anything, in the doctrine, principles, or practice of a Church member, officer or judicatory, which is contrary to the Word of God or to those expositions of its teachings as to faith and practice which are contained in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.” It declares further that God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the commandments of men that are in anything contrary to or in addition to His Word. No evidence has been produced to show that Dr. Machen has been guilty of such an offense.

One is reminded of a debate in the Presbytery of Carlisle on the question of the General Council. The pastor of the largest church in that Presbytery urged the adoption of the plan of a General Council in order that the Presbyterian Church might have a head. Others opposed the General Council on the ground that the Presbyterian Church already had a head, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the introduction of a second head, the General Council, would result in a hydra-headed anomaly rather than a true body. It looks like many people in the Presbyterian body are listening to the commandments of men emanating from that body which Dr. C.______ wished to see set up as “the head” of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

In the eighteenth century Dr. John Witherspoon waged a vigorous fight in the Church of Scotland against liberalism in doctrine accompanied by autocracy in administration. In the nineteenth century Dr. Abraham Kuyper faced the same combination in Holland, liberalism in doctrine, autocracy in Church government. The historian of the future will write the same verdict over the current events in the Northern Presbyterian Church, unless the only true Head of the Church by the power of His Holy Spirit turn this great Church away from the heresies of the Auburn Affirmation to a Christian manifesto of faith in the miracles of the Bible and of the Apostles’ Creed.


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