March 5: Liberty within Evangelical Bounds

Among the confessional, orthodox responses to the Auburn Affirmation, we’ve been searching out some of the earliest responses and have located the following editorial from The Presbyterian appeared in the 5 March 1925 issue (vol. 95, no. 10).  Another reply, by Dr. J. Gresham Machen, may post shortly.

“Liberty Within Evangelical Bounds,”
by David S. Kennedy, editor of The Presbyterian

Under the title, “For Peace and Liberty,” a committee of thirty-one ministers—all or most of whom signed the Affirmation of 1924 — have addressed an appeal to the ministers and people of the Presbyterian Church to “stand firmly for the maintenance of our historic liberties, to discourage un-brotherly judgments, to cherish the ideal of an inclusive Christian church, and to unite the whole strength of our communion in forwarding the work to which our Master has called us.”

The appeal for peace contained in this statement is incidental to its appeal for liberty. The question whether its appeal for peace is warranted, or whether it is merely a case of crying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” is inextricably bound up with the question whether its appeal for liberty is an appeal for such liberty as is guaranteed by the Standards of the Presbyterian Church.  These thirty-one ministers unite in telling us that “the affirmation issued in, 1924, signed by over thirteen hundred of our ministers, asserted the historic freedom of teaching, within evangelical bounds, guaranteed to ministers of our communion.” Ostensibly, therefore, this is an appeal for the liberty of a Presbyterian minister to teach within the bounds of evangelical Christianity.

It would be quite in order to remind these ministers that it is scarcely correct to affirm that a Presbyterian minister is free to teach within the limits of evangelical Christianity. Those who take on themselves the vows of a Presbyterian minister do more than obligate themselves to teach evangelical Christianity; they obligate themselves to teach the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith — what is known as Calvinism or the Reformed Faith. Otherwise Lutherans and Methodists, for instance, would have no scruples about subscribing to the Westminster Standards. All who sincerely accept our Confession of Faith are indeed evangelicals, but it is by no means true that all evangelicals accept our Confession of Faith. If these thirty-one ministers speak with knowledge when they affirm the right of a Presbyterian minister to teach “within evangelical bounds,” then a Presbyterian minister is as free to teach Lutheranism or Methodism as he is to teach Calvinism.  We do not stress this consideration, however, as it seems to us that these ministers are pleading for a liberty to teach what goes beyond the teachings of evangelical Christianity. It would be bad enough, it seems to us, if they merely urged the right to confine their teachings to what all evangelical Christians hold in common. It is only too clear, however, it seems to us, that what they urge is the right to teach what all evangelicals deny, that apart from which there is no such thing as evangelical Christianity.

[text obscured] . . .  doctrinal statement, but it does refer us back to the Affirmation of 1924; and assures us that the Affirmation of 1924 “asserted the historic freedom of teaching, within evangelical bounds, guaranteed to ministers of our communion.” It seems perfectly clear that these thirty-one ministers are appealing for the right of a Presbyterian minister to teach in harmony with the creedal statement of the Affirmation. No doubt many of the thirteen hundred ministers who signed that Affirmation signed it under the impression that its creed was evangelical — though it seems more or less incredible that any Presbyterian minister should be so lacking in theological insight.  It is true, indeed, that on the surface the brief creed of the Affirmation reads like an evangelical creed.  It is expressed in Scriptural language and, taken by itself, could be subscribed to by every evangelical.. That creed, however, cannot be taken by itself.  It must be interpreted in the light of the fact that those who wrote it expressly denied the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of our Lord, his death as a sacrifice to/satisfy divine justice, his bodily resurrection, and working of miracles as essential doctrines of the Word of God and our Standards.

When the creed of the Affirmation is interpreted in the light of the\ Affirmation as a whole, it is perfectly evident that it was a plea for a liberty that went beyond the limits of evangelical Christianity. It is true it asserted that the “writers of the Bible were inspired of God,” but it was expressly affirmed that they were not so inspired of God as to preserve them from error in their statement of facts or to render them authoritative in their statement of doctrines. It is true also that it spoke of the Incarnation and affirmed that “Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh,” and that “God was in Christ.” All readers of current religious literature know, however, that while these phrases are Scriptural, yet that, as used, in liberal circles, they mean not that Jesus was the God-man, and as such an object of worship, but that in a remarkable degree he was a God-filled man.  Moreover, while it spoke of the Incarnation, yet it was an incarnation that could be held apart from faith in the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that did not necessarily carry with it the notion that during his early life he wrought mighty miracles.”. It is true also that it spoke of the Atonement.  It affirmed that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, that through Christ we have our redemption, that his death was vicarious, that he is our ever-living Saviour, who is able to save to the uttermost.   And yet the atonement it affirmed was an atonement that did not necessitate the belief that “Christ offered up himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine judgment……[obscured] . … though apart from the truth this statement enshrines there is no atonement in the sense of the Scriptures and our Standards.  What is more apart from this truth, there is no Christianity as Christianity has been understood by the church of all ages, for, in the words of B. B. Warfield, “precisely was Christianity in the beginning, has ever been through all its history, and must continue to be, so long as it keeps its specific character by virtue of which it is what it is, is a redemptive religion; or rather that particular redemptive religion which brings to man salvation from sin, conceived of as guilt as well as pollution, through the expiatory death of Jesus Christ.”

Lack of space forbids a full re-examination of this creed to which these thirty-one ministers have again referred us.  But surely a creed that looks upon the writers of the Bible as untrustworthy both as recorders of historical facts and as doctrinal guides, that is ambiguous and unsatisfactory in its assertion of the true deity and true humanity of our Lord, that asserts that the death of Jesus as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice is unnecessary to a valid theory of the atonement, that declines to affirm that Jesus was virgin-born, or that he worked miracles, or that he rose from the dead with the same body with which he suffered, is not a creed that can justify its claim to be an evangelical creed.

Nothing is more certain than that these thirty-one ministers are urging a liberty of teaching for Presbyterian ministers that does not confine itself within evangelical bounds.  How many of them are, in defiance of their ordination vows, already exercising such a liberty, we do not presume to say.  It is clear, however, that they all desire a liberty that their ordination vows do not grant.

What these thirty-one ministers and their sympathizers want is not liberty within evangelical bounds, still less within the bounds guaranteed by the Standards of the Presbyterian Church.  What they want is “an inclusive Christian church” which, being interpreted, means a church in which “conservatives” and “liberals,” “evangelicals” and “modernists” will have equal rights as ministers and teachers. It is in such a church, and such a church alone, that the liberty for which they appeal could be had. Such a church would be a monstrosity, because evangelicalism and modernism are not different manifestations of the same religion, but rather manifestations of opposing religions.  Such a church would be inclusive of non-Christian elements as well as Christian elements.  We have good authority for affirming that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

[excerpted from The Presbyterian 95.10 (5 March 1925): 3-4.]


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