The conservatives had given them a foot-hold by essentially adding extra-confessional requirements for ordination, which enabled the signers of the affirmation to get away with the egregious aspects of the affirmation which affirmed the Five Fundamentals as truths, but as truths open to various broad interpretations. In the end there was no discipline. The conservatives, by focusing upon the Five Fundamentals instead of the Standards of the Church, made it almost impossible to bring charges against those whose doctrine was contradicted by the Standards.
I rarely get involved in theological discussions online, but I believe it’s important that I express a concern over developments in the PCA and especially the latest GA. Sorry for the length of this post. For those who don’t know me, I’m a minister in the OPC. This concern has grown as I’ve read different responses to what was unfolding at the GA. Some expressed alarm, but then settled down after seeing many positive signs at the assembly. I’ve even read posts of repentance for statements made rashly.
One thing I’ve not seen anywhere in the posts that I’ve read is any real reflection of church history regarding watershed General Assemblies in Presbyterian denominations. I took note of some of the strategies employed by conservatives in the PCA, and though I sympathized greatly with what they did and rejoiced in things said, I wondered if they were repeating a conservative error that has plagued the church in the face of rising progressivism in the past.
The 1923 and 1924 General Assemblies of the PCUSA were watershed GAs in the battle between conservatives and progressives (then often called fundamentalists and modernists). The thing we need to note is that conservatives left both of those assemblies greatly encouraged, believing that their show of power had reclaimed the church. After an initial loss (the election of the moderate, Charles Wishart as moderator over the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan) in 1923, the conservatives believed they’d won the day on virtually every issue to come before the assembly. First, the assembly sided with the conservatives regarding the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick, and second, the assembly voted to require all officers to affirm the Five Fundamentals. Though conservatives rejoiced, they failed to realize that neither action had any teeth. Subsequent to the assembly, the Presbytery of New York essentially ignored the directive of the GA regarding Dr. Fosdick. Also, the modernists convened a meeting to strategize how to respond to the conservative “wins” at the GA that concluded with the writing and signing of the Auburn Affirmation. Sadly, those who signed the Auburn Affirmation understood the constitution of the PCUSA better than the conservatives who were trying to defend it. By adopting the Five Fundamentals the conservatives added extra-confessional requirements for ordination. Though the Five Fundamentals spoke directly to the issue at hand, they provided an open door for the progressives to cry “foul.”
All of this came to a head at the 1924 GA. The conservatives struck first and elected Clarence E Macartney as moderator, who appointed Maitland Alexander as chairman of the Bills and Overtures Committee. William Jennings Bryan also served on the committee creating a false-sense of security for the conservatives at the GA. An overture came to the GA from the Presbytery of Cincinnati putting the matter of the Auburn Affirmation before the GA. Though the dynamics on the Bills and Overture Committee were complex (with a liberal majority of 13 to 9), in the end, no action was taken on the overture as it was placed on the table. There were no dissenting votes recorded to placing it on the table, and it’s been noted by OPC historian, Danny Olinger, that J. Gresham Machen was a commissioner and even he didn’t record a negative vote. The result was that nothing of consequence happened to those who signed the Auburn Affirmation. The conservatives had given them a foot-hold by essentially adding extra-confessional requirements for ordination, which enabled the signers of the affirmation to get away with the egregious aspects of the affirmation which affirmed the Five Fundamentals as truths, but as truths open to various broad interpretations. In the end there was no discipline. The conservatives, by focusing upon the Five Fundamentals instead of the Standards of the Church, made it almost impossible to bring charges against those whose doctrine was contradicted by the Standards. This error of exposing modernism in the church, but not bringing charges against those espousing false-doctrine would continue over the next few years. Interestingly, while conservatives celebrated saving their church after the 1923 and 1924 assemblies, it was only 12 years later that the leading conservative in the PCUSA, J. Gresham Machen was deposed as a minister by that same church. The fall happened rapidly, a conservative majority was caught off guard, the church was lost. I’m not making any predictions about the PCA, only reminding you of history. I understand the sentiment of bringing the Nashville Statement before the Assembly. It is a Biblical Statement, but I’m concerned the battle wasn’t fought by bringing the Westminster Standards to bear, instead of using an extra-confessional statement established by a para-church organization.
In the early 2000s, conservatives (moderates to most of us) in the PC(USA) repeated the same error as the conservatives did in the 1923/1924 General Assemblies. Of course, the confessionalism of the PC(USA) was already eviscerated by the adopting of a contradictory Book of Confessions and watered-down ordination vows, yet still, the same method was used with the establishment of the Confessing Movement. This time, the conservatives selected three Fundamentals instead of five: (1). Salvation only in Jesus Christ, (2) The authority of the Bible for Faith and Life, and (3) sexual fidelity in monogamous hetero-sexual marriage. I had a conversation with a PC(USA) conservative at that time who was excited about the Confessing Movement and reminded him of what had happened in 1923/1924. I also pointed out that the PC(USA) had already abandoned any semblance to confessionalism and pled with him to leave the church. He was sure that the conservatives had turned the tide and were going to win the day. Alas, see what’s happened to the PC(USA). Interestingly, those who opposed the Confessing Movement in the PC(USA) developed their own Auburn Affirmation. Again the progressives understood their history better than the conservatives.
This is a plea for my conservative brothers in the PCA to remember our history and to take note of previous mistakes.
Lacy Andrews is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serve as the Regional Home Missionary for the OPC Presbytery of the Southeast. This article was first published here and was used with the author’s permission.