March 5: “Shall the General Assembly Represent the Church?,” by J.G. Machen (1925)

A Case of Two Letters

Among the conservative Presbyterian responses to the Auburn Affirmation here we also have the opportunity to see one of the rarer articles by Dr. J. Gresham Machen.  The subject here requires a very brief bit of explanation, and admittedly we are straying into deeper Presbyterian waters.  In short, the Auburn “Correspondence Committee” sought to extend the influence of the Affirmation statement and in 1925 they issued a  letter titled “For Peace and Liberty”.  It is specifically that letter that Machen here addresses.  Note the principle that Machen upholds and the error that he critiques. Please note that our copy of this document is defective in a few places, obscuring the text.

Shall the General Assembly Represent the Church? : An Answer to Criticisms of the Letter of Eight Ministers
By Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D.

[excerpted from  The Presbyterian 95.10 (5 March 1925): 6-8.]

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is passing through a time of decision. For many years the danger was concealed; the undermining of the faith was covered by a misleading use of traditional language; and another religion was gradually being substituted for the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ, without any real knowledge, on the part of the rank and file, of what was taking place. But now the mists to some extent have been dispelled, and the church has been led to face the facts. Shall our Presbyterian Church desert the Bible, as many Protestant ecclesiastical bodies throughout the world have already done, or shall it hold to the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice? Shall it merely admire and strive to imitate the reduced Jesus of naturalistic Modernism—the one whom the Unitarians and their co-religionists in other churches so patronizingly call “the Master”—or shall it hold to the Lord of Glory who is set forth in the Word of God? Shall it stand for Christ or against Him?

Some progress toward the answering of this question has been made during the past two years. But it would be the greatest possible mistake to suppose that the matter has now been settled, or that watchfulness is no longer in place. On the contrary, the attack upon the Christian faith within our church is, if anything, more acute now than it was in 1923 and 1924.

There are many evidences of this fact, but we shall now mention, by way of example, only two. One is found in the booklet, entitled “The First Presbyterian Church of New York and Dr. Fosdick,” which has been widely distributed by the clerk of session of that church; the other appears in the pamphlet, “For Peace and Liberty,” issued by “The Correspondence Committee” at Auburn, New York.

The New York booklet, after rehearsing the Fosdick case, of course in a thoroughly partisan way, represents the presbyery as having complied with the action of the last General Assembly. But this representation is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the presbytery has placed itself squarely in opposition to the mandate which the Assembly sent down. The Assembly declared that the relations with Dr. Fosdick “should not continue longer”; whereas as a matter of fact they have been continued all through the present winter—all during these months this anti-Christian propaganda, attacking the Bible and the very roots of the Christian faith, has been heard in the First Presbyterian Church of New York. Not content with this defiance of the Assembly, the presbytery has appointed the same preacher to the presbyterial function of preaching the sermon at an installation service, and recently has even asked him to take part in an evangelistic campaign. Thus evangelism, which to Christians means bringing sinners to the foot of the cross, means apparently to the Presbytery of New York the attempt to draw Christian people, especially Christ’s little ones, through the preaching of Dr. Fosdick, away from the Saviour who died for them. What is the attitude of the Presbytery [text obscured here in our copy] . . . whatever the attitude of the Presbyterian Church may be, the attitude of our Saviour has been made abundantly plain. “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me,” said Jesus, “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”

So much for the action of the Presbytery of New York with regard to the past and the present. Equally hostile is its attitude with regard to the future. It is true that the presbytery has fixed the date when Dr. Fosdick’s resignation as associate minister of the First Presbyterian Church is to take effect as March i, 1925 (over nine months after the General Assembly declared that the relation “should not continue longer”!) But the fixing of this date does not for a moment mean that either the church or the presbytery has given up the hope of having this preacher permanently. On the contrary, it is only “under present conditions” that the congregation accepts the resignation of its associate minister (page 49), and the hope is expressed (pages, 48, 53f, 58) that some way be found “not inconsistent with Presbyterian law and usage whereby his ministrations . . . may be continued.”

With this hope of finding a way to retain Dr. Fosdick, it is evident that the presbytery is in full sympathy; and the congregation makes plain what that way might be. The congregation refers (pages 47, 50) to the Plan of Organic Union which, as it finally came before our presbyteries of 1920, sought to relegate our historic Confession of Faith to the realm of the unessential, and set up as a basis of union a preamble which was couched in the vague language of agnostic Modernism. It is no doubt some such way of retaining Dr. Fosdick which the Presbytery of New York would welcome; but when that way is followed, the Christian character of the Presbyterian Church will be at an end.

Their letter, titled “For Peace and Liberty”

The second attack upon the Christian faith, and upon the peace of our church, which we single out just now for special mention is the letter of the Auburn “Correspondence Committee,” entitled “For Peace and Liberty.” This letter commends the “Affirmation” of 1924, which was signed by some thirteen hundred ministers; and actually claims that this Affirmation was approved in principle by the last General Assembly! Could there be a more striking refutation of all those who say that everything was settled at the General Assembly of 1924, so that nothing is left for the General Assembly of this year, or who say that the anti-evangelical propaganda in our church is of negligible proportions ? No doubt there were some truly Christian men among the thirteen hundred signers of that former paper; some men no doubt were deceived by the Christian terminology in which the Affirmation was couched. But the Affirmation itself represented the basic facts of Christianity, such as the bodily resurrection of our Lord, as “theories” about which full liberty is allowed in the church. God save us [text obscured] . . . our church, which is grounded upon the simple truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.

These two attacks upon the corporate witness of the Presbyterian Church are not isolated phenomena, but indicate a widespread condition of mind and heart. Dr. Fosdick, for example, would in himself be comparatively unimportant; despite his popular gifts, he is only one preacher among many. But when his teaching, so vigorously hostile to Christianity, is commended and supported, not only by the Presbytery of New York, but also by a large number of Presbyterians throughout the length and breadth of our land, it is perfectly evident that rather definite decisions must be made if the Christian character of the Presbyterian Church is to be preserved.

Such is the situation. But what is to be done about it?

A letter of reply, then Machen’s own response

A little group of eight men, of which the present writer is a member, has tried to answer that question in a letter which has been sent to many ministers. This letter has been vigorously criticised, not only in the religious press, but also in the Auburn communication and in a widely circulated pamphlet compiled by Dr. G. A. Briegleb, of the Synod of California. In this latter pamphlet our letter is printed in full, and is criticised by Dr. Briegleb himself, by Dr. W. O. Forbes, of San Francisco, and by an action of the Presbytery of Los Angeles. To these criticisms I now desire, entirely in my own name, and without showing what I have written to any other member of our group, to make a brief reply.

Two features of our letter have been singled out for special criticism. We have been criticised in the first place because we urge the selection of such commissioners to the General Assembly of 1925 as shall be loyal to the historic position of the Presbyterian Church, and in the second place because we recommend, as a means toward the attainment of that end, a series of meetings in different sections of the church.

The second of these two criticisms may conveniently be considered first. The fact of the criticism in many quarters is in itself not surprising. We do not wonder that men who are indifferent about the Standards of our church object so strenuously to “loyal meetings.” But if the fact of the criticism is under the circumstances only what was to be expected, the nature of the criticism is truly surprising, and ought to be considered on its merits, lest loyal men should be deceived.

When the criticism is considered thus on its merits, it is found to be based simply upon opposition to the entire system of popular government which is fundamental in our Presbyterian polity. The Presbytery of Los Angeles deprecates “anything in the nature of caucuses or mass meetings by any class of Presbyters for the purpose of influencing in advance the election of Commissioners to the General Assembly . . . or dealing with legislation that properly belongs to the judicatories of the Church.” These words ignore the basal principle of liberty as it finds expression in the Constitution of our church—they ignore the basic fact that the judicatories of our church are representative of the rank and file. As a matter of fact, under Presbyterian law, there is absolutely no such thing as “legislation that properly belongs to the judicatories of the Church,” and does not also belong ultimately to [text obscured] this whole notion that presbyteries and General Assemblies have any existence independent of the men and women that elect members of them, the better it will be for our church. In deprecating “mass meetings,” the Presbytery of Los Angeles is deprecating the fundamental right of free assembly of individuals; and without that right, both in church and state, all liberty would be at an end. Most assuredly then there may be mass meetings intended to influence legislation, and the moment a legislative body, deprecates such meetings, it is setting itself up to be independent of the will of the people, and will, if there be any love of liberty left, meet with a swift and vigorous rebuke.

If the Presbytery of Los Angeles deprecates the exercise of the right of free assembly, we on our part deprecate something else—we deprecate this whole effort at keeping the laity in the dark about the great issue before the church. We object to all star-chamber methods in our judicatories; we most emphatically do not think that the issue between Modernism and Christianity is a merely theological issue with which plain men and women have no concern. We do not indeed wonder that Modernism objects to publicity; for the laity of our Presbyterian Church is fundamentally Christian, and if it knew what is really going on, it would make its will felt in a way that could not be ignored. But we cannot see what objection loyal men can have at any time to meetings in which loyalty to the Bible and our Confession is to be urged; and still less do we see what objection there can be at the present time, when the very basis of our church is being underminded. Others may deprecate public discussion of the great issues of the day, others may prefer to labor in the darkness; but we for our part prefer the light.

The second criticism concerns the choice of commissioners to the General Assembly. We have urged “the selection of such Commissioners to the General Assembly of 1925 as will be loyal to the historic position of the Presbyterian Church.” This suggestion has been called “politicizing” the presbyteries (see The Presbyterian Banner quoted in the Auburn pamphlet, entitled “Editorials from Presbyterian Weeklies”) ; and in reply it has been maintained (letter of Dr. W. O. Forbes in Dr. Briegleb’s pamphlet) that “every man in the Presbytery is entitled to equal rights—including the privilege of going to the General Assembly, so long as he is in good and regular standing in the Presbytery.”

This criticism of course ignores the simple fact that the General Assembly is a representative body. It is absolutely untrue that every man in a presbytery is entitled to the privilege of going to the General Assembly; on the contrary, the only men who have such a right are the men whom the presbytery elects as its representatives. [note here that the PCA operates under a different “grassroots” principle, allowing each church to send representatives.]

What we are trying to do is simply to secure an intelligent and honest election. We cannot prevent Modernist members of presbyteries from voting for Modernist or indifferent commissioners (and certainly Modernist members of presbyteries always do vote for such commissioners) ; but what we do think ought to be prevented is that evangelical members of presbyteries, for personal considerations or out of ignorance of the situation, should vote for such commissioners. For that reason we should vote for such commissioners. For that reason we think that in this great crisis all personal considerations should be laid aside, and that presbyters should ask themselves [the text of this last line of the column is obscured]. . . commissioners will best serve the interests of God’s kingdom in this hour of crisis?

That does not mean that among those whom we think unfitted at this particular time to go to the Assembly there are not found many true Christian men; it does not mean at all that every candidate for the Assembly whose election we should feel obliged to oppose is one whom we think ought to be subject to a charge of heresy. On the contrary, we think that among the qualifications of commissioners is to be found a knowledge of the present danger to the church as well as a personal loyalty to Christ and to our Creed. It is a time of peril; the General Assembly has the future of the church in its hands. At such a time, personal considerations seem very small; the election of commissioners is a solemn act for which we are responsible to Almighty God.

Thus the objections of those who are opposed to our letter are really objections to the whole principle of representative government; if Dr. Forbes’ view, for example, were correct, the commissioners to the General Assembly would have to be chosen by lot. We, on the other hand, believe that every presbytery has a right to choose those commissioners who are known to be in sympathy with the measures that the presbytery thinks ought to be put into effect.

A Modernist Assembly of 1925, or an Assembly indifferent to the great danger that besets us, would, we think, be productive of untold harm; whereas an Assembly aware of the real conditions and loyal to Christ will do much to preserve the witness-bearing of the church and its true unity as based upon the Word of God. We are not now proposing a programme of legislation; and certainly we are opposed to any programme which is not strictly in accord with the. Constitution of the church. We are not speaking at all, moreover, of the “instruction” of commissioners. But we do think that an electorate has a full right to know in general the opinions and the qualifications of those whom it is choosing to represent it.

How then shall a well-informed and loyal General Assembly be secured? One method would be the method of personal influence; we might place men in nomination on personal grounds, with concealment of the real issue. Such have been the methods by which the Modernists and indifferentists have attained their present position of altogether disproportionate influence in the church. Our method, we confess, is different. We for our part prefer to place the issue squarely before the church. “Here is the issue,” we say; “the General Assembly must decide; you elect the members of the General Assembly; if the Assembly decides wrong, you are responsible to God.” I do not know whether this method will be effective; I cannot say whether it is ecclesiastically astute or not. But of one thing I am convinced—it is the only method that is thoroughly honest and above-board. And personally I do not for my part attribute so much importance to ecclesiastical astuteness or personal “influence” or the like, as is sometimes done. If the Presbyterian Church is to be preserved, it will be preserved only by the Spirit of God; and the Spirit of God, I believe, honors naught save honesty and truth.

Because of this last fact, I do not despair of the result. We are passing through a great crisis, but this is not the . . . [text obscured] . . . Always, from the very beginning, paganism in one form or another has been seeking to engulf the people of God; always it has been seeking to obliterate the distinction between the church and the world; always it has been trying to remove the offense of Christianity by inducing the church to become what the new Auburn Affirmation calls an “inclusive” church. But somehow there has always been a true church of God; the salt has never quite lost its savor; and there have always been some disciples of Christ truly conscious of their distinctness from the world.

That does not mean that we have any assurance in the Word of God that just our Presbyterian Church, which we love so dearly, will be preserved. But at least it does show where strength is to be sought if that end is to be accomplished. It is to be sought not in that “trust in men” which The Presbyterian Banner (quoted in “Editorials from Presbyterian Weeklies”) demands. On the contrary, it is to be sought only in the power of the God who answers prayer.

We are not without sympathy for the “other gospel” which is to be heard so widely to-day. It has promoted some civic virtues; it has palliated some of the secular symptoms of sin. But one thing it has not done—it has not saved a single soul. That can be done only by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit uses only the one true gospel, now so often despised, that is found in the Word of God. Which “gospel” shall our church proclaim? That is the real question before the General Assembly of 1925.


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