In hopes that on the weekend you will have time to read a longer article, over the next few weeks we will be running a series of articles from 1949 written by Chalmers W. Alexander. Our author was a graduate of Princeton University, class of 1932, a lawyer and noted civil servant, and a faithful ruling elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi (now a PCA church). He died in 1996. These articles appeared in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, a monthly magazine published by Samuel G. Craig, founder of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, and that journal ran from 1930-1949; it should not be confused with the one still publishing today under the same name.
The Heretical Auburn Affirmation And The Northern Presbyterian Church
(“Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)
By Chalmers W. Alexander
The Auburn Affirmation, which was published in 1924, bearing the signatures of almost 1,300 ordained ministers in the Northern Presbyterian Church, did not create the lamentable doctrinal situation which exists in that denomination today. The Auburn Affirmation merely brought into clear locus the various elements of heresy and apostasy which had existed in the Northern Presbyterian Church for many years prior to 1924, so that all of the world could see those elements plainly.
What is the Auburn Affirmation, to which reference is made so often? Why did it come into being and what does it mean?
In order to understand completely the answers to these questions, it is necessary to review briefly some of the events which have taken place in the Northern Presbyterian Church in recent years.
Events Leading To The Auburn Affirmation
In January of 1919 Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist and a professor in that hot-bed of Modernism known as Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, was invited to serve as “stated preacher” of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. From the pulpit of that Presbyterian Church, Dr. Fosdick, who is one of the most popular and destructive Modernists in the entire Christian Church, began carrying on his Modernist propaganda instead of faithfully preaching the Christian Gospel as it is contained in the Bible. In fact, Dr. Fosdick from that pulpit began a strong attack upon the truths and doctrines which are the very heart and core of historic Christianity.
Because of this, seven different Presbyteries of the Northern Presbyterian Church sent overtures (which are simply formal requests for advice or action) to the General Assembly of that denomination, for consideration at its 1923 meeting which was to be held in Indianapolis. These overtures vigorously called attention to the deplorable situation in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City and asked that something be done about it.
The General Assembly of 1923 did do something about it. First that General Assembly directed the Presbytery of New York to correct the situation in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. Then it reaffirmed the evangelical statement or deliverance made by the General Assembly of 1910, in which each of the following had been declared to be “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards”:
1. “That the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide, and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error.”
2. “That our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
3. “That Christ offered up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice and to reconcile us to God.”
4. “That on the third day He rose from the dead with the same body with which He suffered, with which He also ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of His Father, making intercession.”
5. “That our Lord Jesus showed His power and love by working mighty miracles. This work was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.”
This doctrinal deliverance, or the “Five Points” as it came to be called, was not something new. It had first been made in 1910 by the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church in reply to an overture from the Synod of Baltimore “respecting prevalent doubts and denials of certain statements of the Confession.” And it had been reaffirmed by the General Assembly of 1916 in response to overtures complaining of the action of the Presbytery of New York in licensing candidates for the Presbyterian ministry who “neither affirmed nor denied the doctrine of the virgin birth.” As Dr. J. Gresham Machen, probably the world’s greatest New Testament scholar at the time of his death in 1937, once observed:
“This evangelical pronouncement of the General Assembly contained no intricate or detailed doctrines, and no doctrines peculiar to the Reformed Faith (or Calvinism). It merely set forth five central verities in which the great historic branches of the Christian Church are agreed.”
The Auburn Affirmation Is Published
Yet this evangelical pronouncement by the General Assembly of 1923 was powerfully attacked by a subtle and cleverly worded document called the Auburn Affirmation. This document was published in 1924, from Auburn, N. Y., and it bore the names of 1,293 ordained ministers of the Northern Presbyterian Church, representing more than one-tenth of the ministers in that denomination.
By signing that infamous, heretical document, the Auburn Affirmationists boldly denied the necessity of a Presbyterian minister’s believing in five of the great, central, foundation truths of the Christian religion.
The Auburn Affirmation at one stroke removes all of the “Five Points” from the essential message which the Christian Church is to proclaim to the world, for it claims that these five truths are not
essential at all.
When the Auburn Affirmation first appeared it gave all of the Bible-believing members of the Northern Presbyterian denomination an earthquake shock. And it will shock every Bible-believing Southern Presbyterian who will take the time to see what it says.
It should be kept clearly in mind that every Northern Presbyterian minister who signed the Auburn Affirmation had solemnly vowed, when he was ordained as a minister, that he believed the Bible to be the Word of God, the “only infallible rule of faith and practice.” He also had solemnly vowed that he received and adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
Now let us consider some of the characteristic statements of the Auburn Affirmation and compare them briefly with the clear teachings of the Confession of Faith and of the Holy Bible.
The Inerrancy Of Scripture Is Attacked
The Auburn Affirmation states: “The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the Church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ. We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that ‘the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,’ spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.”
Now the Confession of Faith declares: “The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek . . . being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical.” (Chapter 1, Section 8). But the Auburn Affirmationists say the General Assembly in 1923, in asserting that the writers of the Holy Scriptures were kept from error, spoke “without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.” Evidently to the signers of the Auburn Affirmation the statement in the Confession of Faith that the Scriptures were “kept pure in all ages,” does not mean “kept free from error!”
What amazing gymnastics the Auburn Affirmationists have performed here! They would tell us that the doctrine of inerrancy “impairs” the authority of the Bible and “weakens the testimony of the Church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.” According to their thinking it must follow that to claim that the Holy Bible contains errors actually strengthens its authority and fortifies the testimony of the Christian Church. Or, as Dr. Gordon H. Clark, Ph.D., points out in an article entitled “The Auburn Heresy,” the proposition reduces itself to this absurdity”: … in order for the Bible to be authoritative, it must contain error; and, I suppose, the more erroneous it is, the more authoritative it can be.”
As that great Bible scholar, Dr. Machen, once wrote, while he was still a minister in the Northern Presbyterian Church:
“At that point, there is a clear-cut break between the signers of the Auburn Affirmation and the Bible-believing Christians. Signers of the Auburn Affirmation are able to see how a book can be the Word of God and at the same time contain errors; Bible-believing Christians are unable to attain to such a degree of subtlety as that; they are simple-minded enough to think that when God speaks He speaks truth and only truth.
“I do not think that any amount of fine words can conceal that fundamental cleavage. The most important thing about a building is not its super-structure but its foundation; and the foundation upon which Bible-believing Christians, as distinguished from signers of the Auburn Affirmation, build is the full truthfulness of God’s Holy Word.”
The Virgin Birth And Other Verities Are Attacked
In referring to the “Five Points” enunciated by the General Assembly of 1923, the Auburn Affirmation states: “We all hold most earnestly to those great facts and doctrines . . . Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”
What does the Confession of Faith say, for instance, with reference to the Virgin Birth? How does it compare with what the Auburn Affirmation says on the same subject?
The Confession of Faith says: “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity .. . did — take upon him man’s nature . . . being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance.” (Chapter 8, Section 2). This is a fact of history, recorded clearly in the Bible. It either happened, or it did not happen. But to the Auburn Affirmationist it is not a fact at all, but merely a “theory” of the Incarnation (which is the belief that Christ, being the Son of God, became man on this earth). And, to the Auburn Affirmationist, it is merely one of several possible “theories” which can be held.
Now there are three possible “theories,” to use the word used in the Auburn Affirmation, which can be held relative to Christ’s birth, if you grant that Mary was His mother. (1) The first “theory” is that the Lord Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, and was born of the Virgin Mary without a human father. That is the only account given in the Bible, and it is the only account set forth in the Confession of Faith. (2) The second “theory” is that Christ was born of Mary, who was not a virgin, and that Joseph was the father of Christ. The Bible states positively that this is not the case, and in order for one to believe this “theory” it is necessary that he run head-on into the plain statement to the contrary contained in the Holy Bible. (3) The third “theory” is that Christ was born of Mary, who was not a virgin, and that some man other than Joseph was His father. To believe this “theory” makes the Lord Jesus Christ an illegitimate child and portrays Mary as a woman of loose morals and low character. And yet the Auburn Affirmation affirms that if a Presbyterian minister happened to subscribe to this third “theory” he would nevertheless be, to quote the language of the Auburn Affirmation, “worthy of all confidence and fellowship!”
A similar comparison of the statements of the Word of God and of the Confession of Faith, with what the Auburn Affirmation says on the same subjects, indicates clearly that the Auburn Affirmationists brazenly deny that it is essential for a Presbyterian minister to believe in the substitutionary atonement to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God, or in the bodily resurrection of Christ, or in the miracles of our Lord. In fact, a Presbyterian minister may deny flatly all of the “Five Points,” according to the Auburn Affirmation, and yet he is to be considered “worthy of all confidence and fellowship” as though he actually and positively believed all of the “Five Points.”
Dr. Machen’s Opinion Of The Auburn Affirmation
After denying that any of the “Five Points” are essential doctrines, the Auburn Affirmation then attempts to make some positive statement of creed of its own. But this creedal statement is so cleverly worded that even the most radical Modernist could subscribe to it. When one carefully reads this creedal statement he is more impressed by what the Auburn Affirmation fails to say than by what it actually says.
In connection with this statement of creed by the Auburn Affirmation, and with regard to the Auburn Affirmation as a whole, let us listen once more to that master theologian, Dr. Machen. The emphasis in the following quotation is added:
“Let us not deceive ourselves. The Auburn Affirmation is a typical Modernist document. It is typical in the deceptive way in which it uses general terms which many interpret in a Christian sense, but which many also interpret in a non-Christian sense.
“It affirms ‘the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ It declares that the ‘writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.’
“That sounds Christian, does it not? But the trouble is that every one of these noble terms is often used today in a non-Christian sense by destructive unbelief; and the Auburn Affirmation is careful to say that it will not define those terms in the manner that the General Assembly did, so as to break definitely with unbelief.
“A document which will affirm inspiration but denies that the Scripture is without error; which affirms the incarnation but will not affirm the virgin birth; which will affirm the atonement but will not say Christ died as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God; which will affirm the resurrection but will not say, as our Standards say, that the Lord rose from the dead with the same body in which He suffered; which will say that He wrought mighty works but will not say that He wrought miracles — this is simply one more manifestation of that destructive Modernism which is the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion in practically all of the larger Churches of the world at the present day . . .
“A mighty conflict is on in the Presbyterian Church at the present time. On the one side of the conflict are to be put believers in, and defenders of, the Word of God; on the other side are to be put not only the signers of the Auburn Affirmation themselves, but also all those who are ready to make common cause, without protest, with the signers of the Auburn Affirmation in mission boards, in governing boards of theological seminaries, and in the courts and councils of the Church.”
The Auburn Affirmation is the boldest statement of heresy and apostasy ever to appear in the Northern Presbyterian Church. And yet, in spite of this fact, the Auburn Affirmation was never repudiated by the Northern Presbyterian Church, and none of its signers were ever convicted of heresy. Instead, many of the Auburn Affirmationists have now become powerful and influential leaders in the Northern Presbyterian Church.
The Opinion Of Other Sound Northern Presbyterian Ministers
In 1934 there was a plan afoot to unite the United Presbyterian denomination with the heresy-tainted Northern Presbyterian Church. One of the outstanding Conservative leaders in the Northern Presbyterian Church is Dr. Clarence E. Macartney, Pastor of the great First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh; Dr. Macartney was elected Moderator of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1924. Dr. Macartney, in the April (1934) issue of “Christianity Today,” one of the orthodox church papers in that denomination, wrote an article entitled “Thou Shalt Say No,” in which he spoke vigorously against the proposed union. (And it is of interest to note that the United Presbyterian denomination has not yet united with the Northern Presbyterian Church.)
One of the principal grounds on which Dr. Macartney advised the United Presbyterian denomination not to unite with the Northern Presbyterian Church was the deplorable situation in the latter denomination, and one of the evidences he gave of this doctrinal unsoundness was the Auburn Affirmation.
Dr. Macartney stated that, because of the serious doctrinal division within the Northern Presbyterian denomination, one evidence of which was the Auburn Affirmation, the Presbyterian League of Faith had come into being in 1931. Among the 1,082 Northern Presbyterian ministers who organized the Presbyterian League of Faith were well known names in the Presbyterian Church, prominent professors, missionaries, ministers, and three former Moderators of the General Assembly of that denomination. The objects of the Presbyterian League of Faith were as follows (the emphasis is added):
1. “To maintain loyalty to the Bible as the Word of God.”
2. “To maintain the Reformed, or Calvinistic, system of doctrine.”
3. “To oppose changes in the historic formula of creed subscription required of candidates to the ministry and eldership.”
4. “To oppose the attack made by the document commonly called ‘The Auburn Affirmation.’ ”
5. “To warn men everywhere that salvation is to be obtained not by human merit, or human effort to please God, but only through the redeeming work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
6. “To encourage the vigorous defense and joyous propagation of the Gospel in its fulness as it is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith on the basis of Holy Scripture.”
If the Northern Presbyterian Church had remained faithful to its historic doctrinal position, and had not drifted away from the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, the Presbyterian League of Faith never would have been organized.
A Common Creed No Longer Exists
Today the Northern Presbyterian Church has as its doctrinal basis the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms — as modified or qualified by the heretical Auburn Affirmation. The Southern Presbyterian Church, on the other hand, still has as its creedal basis the Word of God as outlined in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms.
While the Northern Presbyterian Church still professes the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, its true testimony in connection with these Westminster Standards is radically curtailed and qualified with regard to the great doctrines about the Holy Bible and about the Lord Jesus Christ by the open denials and negations contained in the Auburn Affirmation. On the other hand, the Southern Presbyterian Church has clarified its testimony regarding the Holy Bible and regarding the Lord Jesus Christ, as this testimony is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, by this declaration which was adopted unanimously by our General Assembly of 1939:
“The General Assembly hereby declares that it regards the acceptance of the infallible 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 to judge the world, as being involved in the ordination vows to which we subscribe.”
The true creedal bases of the Northern Presbyterian Church and of the Southern Presbyterian Church simply do not coincide any longer.
It would be a decided step downward, and a definite compromise with heresy and apostasy, for the Southern Presbyterian Church to unite with the Northern Presbyterian Church.
What shall Southern Presbyterians, as Bible-believing Christians who repudiate completely the views contained in the Auburn Affirmation and who wish to remain separated from the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation, say with regard to the proposed union with the heresy-tainted Northern Presbyterian Church?
Thou Shalt Say, No!