The Presbyterian Church at the Cross Roads
Address Delivered at the Meeting of Princeton Theological Seminary Alumni, in New York City.
By Rev. Clarence Edward Macartney, D.D.
[Excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 95.8 (19 February 1925): 6-7]
BOTH the historic polity and the blood-bought doctrines of the Presbyterian Church are in danger. Christianity is never in danger, for it is the will of God for the world’s redemption, and our faith standeth not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. But churches are always subject to error and declension from the truth of the gospel. It is that danger which now confronts the Presbyterian Church.
The Form of Government of the church declares that in perfect consistency with the principle of freedom and private judgment, Christian people have a right to associate themselves in groups or churches and to declare what the terms of admission to that church shall be, and what the qualifications of its ministers. The Presbyterian Church does not seize and press men into its ministry. On the contrary, it bids them search their hearts, and carefully examines them as to their acceptance of the doctrines which the church declares all her ministers must hold.
The purpose of such association into a church on the part of men holding the same views of the Bible and of the way of salvation is two-fold: first, to make a corporate witness to the world concerning Jesus Christ; and, second, to strengthen and encourage one another. But both of these purposes are now seriously threatened, for it is clear that with one part of the Presbyterian Church witnessing to certain facts and truths concerning Christ and another part of the church ignoring or denying those facts and truths, the corporate witness of the church is broken, and the peace and mutual fellowship of the communion are destroyed.
The Presbyterian Church has ever been the fearless friend of religious liberty; and tyranny in every form, ecclesiastical or political, has had no more dreaded foes than the Presbyterians. But it is an outrage on liberty to confuse that historic witness of our church with acquiescence with unbelief, or to say that protest and discipline in the case of the violation of our doctrines and our polity are inconsistent with the Presbyterian principle of religious freedom.
The Presbyterian Church believes that men should be as free to teach and to preach as the winds out of the four heavens are to blow. But it also believes that it has the right to say what doctrines must be taught and preached and believed by ministers who stand in Presbyterian pulpits and under Presbyterian orders. There are many theories and guesses and ventures of opinions on the great matters of Christianity, but the Presbyterian Church has its own carefully articulated and logically defined views, and these views it declares must be held and taught by its ministers. That is what a creed and a constitution mean. Throughout the Presbyterian Church, and by even non-religious men outside of the church, there is an increasing feeling that men who cannot in good conscience receive and defend and declare the doctrines of the church should take off the Presbyterian uniform and withdraw from the fortress.
If men can be received into the presbyteries of the church and installed in the pulpits of our congregations without accepting whole-heartedly doctrines which the church has repeatedly declared must be held by all its ministers, then the Creed has become a scrap of paper. Or, if the interpretation of the Creed be left so wide and vague that men can deny or “refuse to affirm” many portions of it, in other words, if the Creed is so stretched that it will take in almost any kind of religious view, then the Creed becomes an absurdity.
The friends of modernism, within and without the evangelical churches, would like nothing better than to see the Creed of the Presbyterian Church stripped of its meaning and its restraining power. In the whole tattle fine of the evangelical churches, the creedal position of the Presbyterian Church has ever been a source of strength and hope to evangelical Christians and a sore distress to those of radical and rationalistic opinions. They realize that they must capture this Presbyterian salient in the battle line of New Testament churches; before they can hope to effect much in the way of turning the whole position. Hence the eagerness to press into our church, and when once in to declare doctrines which are more like those of the Reformed Synagogue than those of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
To receive men into the ministry of the church who disavow doctrines of the church, is to defy the government of the church. The instances where this has been done are not lacking, and protests and complaints against such action will be made to the highest court, the General Assembly. The question now before the Presbyterian Church is “whether or not it has the intention and the courage to enforce its own mandates. Nothing would please destructive liberalism and modernism so much as to see the Presbyterian Church tamely submit to affront or disobedience on the part of any one of its constituent presbyteries or congregations, for such acquiescence would mean that he Presbyterian Church had hung out the banner, “All welcome,” to every kind of religious adventurer and theological freebooter.
With the present extraordinary popularity of a misty agnosticism, the great need of the church ii for preachers who know what they believe and are able to give a reason for the faith that is in them. Preachers who are tossed about with every wind of doctrine may interest the people, but can lead them nowhere. When one reads some of the outputs of the popular teachers and preachers of Christianity to-day, their glib and facile comments remind one of the celebrated inventor and architect of Laputa, in “Gulliver’s Travels,” who had devised a scheme whereby houses could be built from the roof down, instead of beginning with the foundation. This plan might do for the gossamer fabric of the spider; but a church which is going to serve a lost humanity must be built upon the granite foundation of great convictions and beliefs, Jesus Christ himself being the chief Corner-stone.
Princeton Theological Seminary has long been the despair of the liberal theologians and all the sons of restatement and reinterpretation, which, being interpreted, means evacuating the New Testament doctrines of their Christian meaning. They would rend the heavens with a shout if they thought that Princeton Theological Seminary shook in a single stone of its ancient foundations. This noble nursery of faith and piety, and the other evangelical seminaries of the Presbyterian Church, are the hope of the church for to-morrow, if these foundations be destroyed, then woe to the church!
It may seem idle and beyond the mark to speak a word of warning and entreaty to our evangelical seminaries, Princeton, and the others. But who, fifty years ago, could have predicted the sad declension of Union Theological Seminary from the Presbyterian Standards? Let what has happened there serve as a warning to our other seminaries! In eternal vigilance is the price and the secret of loyalty to the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Any one who at this time shrinks from defending the doctrine and government of his church, lest he should become a target for ridicule, criticism and abuse, is not worthy of the great and glorious name, Presbyterian.
The eyes of the whole Christian world are on the Presbyterian Church in this, its struggle to make a great witness to the truth of Divine Revelation and to the honor of Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer from sin. We are not contending for Presbyterian peculiarities, but for the great facts of the Everlasting Gospel.
Words to Live By:
Dr. Macartney might well have concluded by reminding his hearers of this verse from the prophet Jeremiah :
“This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” — Jeremiah 6:16