So the natural question is, why did he make the list of invalid excommunications? His trial was seen as farce of justice and the charges themselves were and still are even questioned. Even the opponents of Machen were offended. That is a valid excommunication carried out, without broad support can undermine the sense of justice required for church discipline to be effective. What is important about the Machen case is it shows how a failure in process, even when the defendant was guilty can do incredible harm. The mainstream denominations never recovered from the damage that the trial of Machen did them. All feeling that there was a prohibition against schism were obliterated in America of 1937 during the Machen trial. What had been conflict and tension before Machen's trial became open warfare.
The reader may want to see Six Steps of a Fundamentalist Revolt to see the natural progression that Machen was attempting to follow. It is first important to set the scene. The devastation of World War I, and the heavy use of propaganda that the government deployed create a profound skepticism about authority, which led to an explosion in popularity for the modernist cultural movement, including in the area of faith. While not in the majority of American clergy, Americans that subscribed to parts of German theology in a meaningful way were a substantial minority. Adolf von Harnack contended now that modern man rejected the supernaturalism of the bible the focus of Christianity and churches should be on the moral teaching of Jesus; a move away from John/Romans as the center of the bible toward the "red letter" parts of the synoptic gospels. Rudolf Bultmann had contended that historicity (the myth) was not central to the Christian faith (the kerygma) and through demythologizing one could recover the faith. To rephrase, a bit inaccurately but in modern American protestant terms, he argued that inerrancy was not crucial for a doctrine of infallibility. At the same time the prewar anarchist / communist social unrest had become the mainstream labor movement and woman's suffrage had been enacted. So for many Christians the way forward was for the churches via the social gospel to resume their leadership for the salvation of mankind (see defense part 6 for earlier history).
A conservative theologian by the name of Gresham Machen wrote a book in 1921 called "The Origin of Paul's Religion", where he asserted that the epistles were consistent with the teachings of Jesus, a response to American's who had been influenced by Harnack's ideas He was familiar with German theology due to having spent 1905 in Germany learning from Wilhelm Herrmann a leading theologian of liberal Christianity. The book was well received by theologically orthodox Presbyterians and Machen established a reputation as one of the defenders of orthodoxy against modernism.
Until the publications of Origin Machen had been known as a professor and a bit player in opposing the "Philadelphia" plan, an ecumenicist plan attempt by John D. Rockefeller and the Foreign Missions Board of the PCUSA to share foreign missions costs across most mainstream denominations. The Philadelphia plan collapsed quickly mostly due to non presbyterians wanting a more neutral organization, the Federal Council of Churches now called the National Council of Churches. Ecumenical programs were generally quite liberal, and so fundamentalists opposed them. Machen in particular was quite concerned with how they helped to create a "spiritual Christianity" divorced from either doctrine or historical revelation, "Christianity can not be spiritually true and historically false", in total opposition to the Bultmannesque theology of the plan's supporters. At was at this point the religious right was born. A unification of nativism, hatred of liberal Christianity and hatred of the liberal wing of the Republican party later to be headed by John D's son Nelson Rockefeller. Of course in the end the Religious Right would be more ecumenical and strive together over a wider group of issues than Rockefeller could have hoped for, a case of losing the battle and winning the war perhaps?
In 1923 Machen became a leader of the budding reaction movement with Christianity and Liberalism, a book that argued liberal Christianity was not Christianity at all. :
In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called "modernism" or "liberalism."The book was an apology for a policy of asking all ministerial candidates to explicitly affirm support for the inerrancy of scripture and the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, miracle-working power, and bodily resurrection of Christ. This policy had passed In 1910, 1916 and 1923 the General Assembly of the church, distressed by the liberal theological tendencies of some ministerial candidates, declared that all candidates for ordination ought to be able to affirm "the fundamentals" in addition to the traditional confessions. What happened in the 1920s was the debate broke into the open: Shall the Fundamentalist Win, Shall Unbelief Win; where characteristic of debate at a lower level of intensity.
In 1924 the Auburn Affirmation (see appendix at and of article) directly challenged the 5 fundamentals as being essential for ministers:
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.The 174 signers agreed to hold to scripture and the Westminster confession but not to the fundamentalist interpretation of those documents. In 1925 a split in the denomination was averted by the formation of a committee which in 1926 affirmed that the General Assembly was not authorized to create a litmus tests for candidates without the consent of the presbyteries. Which is to say in 1926 the General Assembly determined that the PCUSA would have a policy of toleration for liberals.
Its worth commenting why the conservatives lost in 1926 when they hadn't in the 1890s during a similar attempt at liberalization. The reason was the denomination was starting to split on gender lines. Woman were in very large numbers starting to support enhanced roles for woman and woman's ordination, theological liberalism was in favor of this position while theological conservatism was opposed. So, while nothing remotely approaching a majority of the PCUSA members supported higher criticism of scripture, a substantial minority if not a majority of the membership were willing to follow the liberals out the door if the denomination had split. And without the liberal counter balance the denomination would have gotten more conservative and pushed out moderates; so the moderates sided against the conservatives. And while no one knew this in 1926, the membership would continue to get more liberal for the next 60 years. Quite simply had this gone the other way, the PCUSA would be a fraction the size it is today.
The effect of losing on Machen and the Conservatives is they became much more strident and hostile. From 1926-1929 the liberals reorganized Princeton Theological Seminary to increase cooperation with the denomination. The effect was to disempower Conservatives and in 1929, Machen set up Westminster Theological Seminary as a conservative alternative. This wasn't quite schism but it was very close.
Immediately after this the next battlefield became the board of missions. William Ernest Hocking wrote a document for the Presbyterian church along with other churches called "Re-thinking missions a laymen's inquiry after one hundred years" (text pdf Time-Magazine article). The article argued for cultural sharing rather than gospel sharing being the core for missions work. In his view missionaries should be better trained and financed, they needed to cooperate with each other and even with non Christian religions in their aid work. A PCUSA missionary to China by the name of Pearl Buck went on a speaking tour in the US in favor of the report, and raised publicity sky high for the Hockings Report.
It is at this point that Machen and Buck clashed. Buck was completely at variance with the stated policy of the missions board: she denied core Presbyterian doctrines like salvation by faith alone and the virgin birth, “To some of us He is still the divine Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But to many of us He has ceased to be that.” She advocated for humanitarian efforts to be the principle purpose of missions and joining with non Christian religions and even defend the Chinese government's "protections" regarding doctrines like original sin which she consider a noxious superstition. Machen argued that missionaries should hold to all the 5 fundamentals and attacked Robert Speer's management for allowing people like Buck to serve and continue to serve.
In Machen's view Pearl Buck and other liberals were preaching apostasy from a PCUSA subsidized pulpit, "And so another opponent of the gospel enters the councils of the Church, and another false prophet goes forth to encourage sinners to come before the judgment seat of God clad in the miserable rags of their own righteousness." And he wasn't wrong in his assessment, Buck had been quite open in her views, “I do not believe in original sin”. And from Machen's perspective it was much worse that she was adored and respected with an audience, at least for her fiction, of millions. Buck was not some obscure missionary denying the virgin birth and preaching on the equality of all faiths but among Americans the most well known contemporary missionary of her time. Pearl Buck was perfect example for Machen of how liberalism was not a variant of Christianity but rather another faith and thus she presented an excellent foil for Machen in demonstrating how the moderates by not demanding strong adherence to the creeds had allowed variants they never would have intended to become acceptable views within the church. Christianity and Liberalism has a terrific passage which addresses his attitude towards the "close enough" ecumenicalism which Hockings and Buck were advocating:
What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law ... Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity. As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind; and only because he (and others) did nothing of the kind does the Christian Church exist to-day … Paul certainly was right. The difference which divided him from the Judaizers was no mere theological subtlety, but concerned the very heart and core of the religion of Christ.To put Pearl Buck in perspective it is important to realize, the extent of her popularity. She was among the top 10 most respected woman in America for 20 years running. Her fiction had sold millions of copies and would continue to do so for many years. She had won the Pulitzer prize for The Good Earth in 1932, and would go on to win the Noble prize for literature making her the first American woman ever to win the Pulitzer, and one of only 3 people to win both a Noble and a Pulitzer. Which is to say that Pearl Buck was to the PCUSA what Tom Cruise is to Scientology today. She really was capable of speaking to the nation.
It seems to me in reading Pearl Buck's writings she was struggling to find a language for inventing multiculturalism. To use that language, she was arguing that the Asian community was discovering its own voice and history and growing in its understanding of how western imperialism harmed them. Anti-western attitudes that were developing made it likely that the entire east Asian missionary program could end very shortly if hearts did not shift. Pearl Harbor, the rise of Chinese nationalism and then Communism which led to the total collapse of East Asian missionary work proves that Buck was absolutely correct in her assessment. Buck's proposal for missionary work: genuine cultural integration, really understanding the people and working alongside them rather than above was the technique the communists employed successfully to win millions of converts (see The Ugly American). Machen, a man who wanted to control foreign missions while knowing nothing about the people missionaries aimed to convert provided a perfect foil for her present the alternative to the rethinking of foreign missions. We shall never know what would have happened, had the Hocking/Buck's proposals been accepted. It might have been too little too late. But it might have led to a hundred million new converts.
A heresy or an excommunication trial for Pearl Buck would be unmitigated disaster from the moderate's perspective. On the other hand Machen's attacks were doing real damage to donations. Machen followed up his attacks on Buck in speeches blaming the problems on Robert Speer (head of the Presbyterian Missions, and a man who was known for ecumenicism) with a book and then his own missions board. Machen's proposal was cutting off money to missionaries during the depression which Speer saw, not unreasonably, as extremely threatening to the well being of his people. That is for Speer and many other moderates Buck and Machen had put their own personal pet projects above the interests of the denomination. Conversely Buck and Machen both benefited from the controversy their fight generated as it helped publicize their minority views. The extremists from both sides were successfully putting pressure on the moderates by taking this dispute public and the moderates were horrified about the possible outcomes.
That is for Speer these two intellectuals were being self indulgent and destructive. The depression was on and raising money for missionaries was difficult. The Presbyterian church had a huge missionary commitment and infrastructure in East Asia that would take a generation or more to replace if funding levels were not maintained. A warm discussion about technique might have been useful; but that was not what they were doing both of them were attempting to deliberately provoke their own followers and were indifferent to offending the other side's donors. Machen with his books and the establishment of his own missions board, was diverting badly needed funds from the base of small conservative donors. To openly embrace Machen's ideas would have required repudiating the international peace movement led by Rockefeller which was a huge source of funding. What was vital to Speer, was that believers in international peace through the great commission and conservative Christians which saw the great commission as a Christian duty, continued to view themselves as working on a common project.
Machen's fundamentalism insulted the believers in international peace by questioning whether they were Christian at all. Buck went out of her way to mock fundamentalists. Her comments about the Hocking's report were designed to be an offensive parody of the doctrine of inerrancy, “I think [the Hocking's report] is the only book I have ever read that seems to me literally true in its every observation and right in its every conclusion." Many moderates felt that the language these two, and their supporters were using created the hardness of hearts that led to denominational splits. Any drop in funding could force hundreds of missionaries out of the field or worse leave them unfunded and stranded. And these two were from Speer's perspective cooperating quite well on making sure that a drop in funding would be inevitable. When Buck was forced to resign. Speer's own secretary was furious with him for pushing out Buck rather than Machen. Perfect evidence for what Speer was worried about. Both of them in their own ways were doing tremendous damage to the denomination's missions program.
Finally many moderates not concerned directly with missions saw Machen as preaching donatism. For them a key distinction needed to be made between a institutional heretical church and a church which is tolerant of a heresy. Machen in his broad based accusations was failing to make that distinction and hence himself committing the donatist heresy.
That is, there were 3 radically different viewpoints and all 3 of them were right. It wasn't question that any of them were wrong, but rather a question of priorities and values. In the end the moderates understood they couldn't side with either in this politicized environment and had to force both out. Henry Coray tells a story that he intends as a defense of Machen but really shows the sorts of pressures siding with either would have caused (note Das is a pet name for Machen):
"I wrote to the Board," said Das, "and asked what the Board intended to do about Mrs. Buck. The Board answered, saying, 'Dr. Speer (one of its secretaries) is a very fine man. 'I answered,' I agree that Dr. Speer is a fine man, but I would like to know what you are going to do about Mrs. Buck?' The Board's reply was, 'Dr. Machen, why are you so bitter?'" (Henry W. Coray essay)Randy Oliver notes that Machen was seen by opponents as, “temperamentally defective, bitter and harsh in his judgments of others and implacable to those who [did] not agree with him.”
And here I believe a decision was made to get rid of them both. This in my opinion was where the disaster happened. Not because I believe Machen was innocent, I absolutely believe he in fact was putting his pet project above the interest of the denomination. Rather there did not exist the necessary support for an excommunication. The attacks on the 8 ministers involved in Machen's missions board would pass by a narrow margin but without widespread support. And like any martyrdom once Machen was removed the issue would refocus, the subtle and situational aspects would be forgotten and Machen's "excommunication" (removal from office) would be taken entirely out of its context to become a broad indictment on all of mainstream Christianity. Here is how this unfolded.
After Buck's resignation the general assembly instructed Machen's board of missions to disband in the directives of the General Assembly of 1934. The General Council of the church, operating under what it called its "constitutional authority" "to superintend the concerns of the whole church," prepared a lengthy document, "Studies of the Constitution," contained in the Journal of the General Assembly of 1934, which concluded with specific directives. The four were:
- That "The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions" be and is hereby directed to desist forthwith from exercising any ecclesiastical or administrative functions . . . .
- That all ministers and laymen affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, who are officers, trustees or members of "The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions," be officially notified by this General Assembly through its Stated Clerk, that they must immediately upon the receipt of such notification sever their connection with this Board, and that refusal to do so and a continuance of their relationship to the said Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, exercising ecclesiastical and administrative functions in contravention of the authority of the General Assembly, will be considered a disorderly and disloyal act on their part and subject them to the discipline of the Church.
- That Presbyteries having in their membership ministers or laymen who are officers, trustees or members of "The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions," be officially notified and directed by this General Assembly through its Stated Clerk to ascertain from said ministers and laymen within ninety days of the receipt of such notice as to whether they have complied with the above direction of the General Assembly, and in case of refusal, failure to respond or noncompliance on the part of these persons, to institute, or cause to be instituted, promptly such disciplinary action as is set forth in the Book of Discipline.
- That each Presbytery be and hereby is instructed to inform the ministers and sessions of the particular churches under its jurisdiction that it is the primary responsibility and privilege of all those affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to sustain to the full measure of their ability those Boards and Agencies which the General Assembly under its Constitutional authority has established and approved for the extension of the Kingdom of Christ at home and abroad.
- Disapproval, defiance, and acts in contravention of the government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
- Not being zealous and faithful in maintaining the peace of the Church.
- Contempt of and rebellion against his brethren in the Church.
- Conduct unbecoming a minister of the Gospel.
- Advocating rebellion against the constituted authorities of the Church.
- Violation of his ordination vows.
The question of mandatory contributions to the official Church agencies was considered at length by Machen, since he believed that such a tax was an extreme infringement on the personal liberty of Church members. He indicated that obedience to the order in the way demanded by the General Assembly would mean acquiescence in the principle that support of the benevolences of the Church is not a matter of free will but the payment of a tax enforced by penalties.
Thus if the members failed to recognize the authority of the Assembly over the Independent Board or over them and resign they were considered by the General Assembly actually to be guilty of a disorderly and disloyal act. That is for all practical purposes the General Assembly had already convicted them before any trial could be held, and this was all borne out in the very decision which later came in 1936 the court found against Machen, "When a church is organized under a written Constitution, which contains prescribed provisions as to giving for benevolent purposes, every member is in duty bound to observe those provisions with the same fidelity and care as he is bound to believe in Christ and to keep His commandments according to the doctrinal provisions set forth in that same Constitution."
One will note that the court didn't address the core of Machen's argument either in the fact that the missionaries were preaching apostasy nor did they address the legality of the general assembly's acts. Their argument was that ministers were ordained and the acts they were ordained for were: leading the singing of psalms, reading the Bible, preaching, catechising, the sacraments, a collection made for the poor, and dismissing the people with a blessing, violation of the collection was how they saw Machen's acts. So from a purely legal standpoint this might have been excusable but given Machen had a following this was seen as ignoring the defense. (newspaper article on the trial)
Before long several members of this board were brought to trial. I do not exaggerate when I assert that their trials constituted one of the greatest travesties of justice in ecclesiastical history. In 1934 the church made the astounding declaration: "A church member or an individual church that will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church, is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual church that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper" (Manual of Presbyterian Law for Church Officers and Members, published by the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1936, p. 115). On that made-to-order and much worse than flimsy ground the defendants were condemned. But never once were they permitted to say in their defense why they had organized the Independent Board. The issue was patently doctrinal, but every doctrinal reference was consistently ruled out by the court as irrelevant. (R. B. Kuiper)A good analogy is the trial of Luther before the court of Worms. In Luther's case the secular court couldn't determine whether the books where heretical, that was solely the church's authority. So in the secular court the only acceptable defense would have been Luther to prove the books weren't his. Because the secular court did not try the core issue, that is were Luther's books heretical, the secular verdict against him lacked popular support. Similarly Machen couldn't defend himself on the grounds that the board of missions had failed to act in a way consistent with its mandate. This created a feeling that the trial was a sham, part of a liberal coup d'etat not a religious court. Gary North's Crossed Fingers, is a very detailed history but the overriding theme of the book is that that the Liberals lied and stole the denomination.
This is a history of the liberals' strategy of infiltration and conquest of the Northern Presbyterian Church. This book is also a study in what could be called ecclesiastical entomology: bugs. Specifically, it is a study of ecclesiastical termites: liberals. By 1921, these voracious termites had eaten away so much of the Presbyterian Church that Princeton Seminary's greatest living theologian, Warfield, on his deathbed called the entire denomination rotten wood... Had it not been for the defection of earlier generations of Christians, we would not be in the place we are today: looking in from the outside on institutions that once belonged to God and His people rather than to the covenant-breakers who now occupy positions of institutional authority.And this sense of grave injustice moved into fundamentalism. At first it just resulted in a minor split, Machen and a small group of followers left the church (time article). So in June 11, 1936, the Presbyterian Church of America (the name was changed to Orthodox Presbyterian Church after losing a lawsuit). He took with him only 4200 people (article from Time during the process).The conservatives themselves split into essentially the formation we see today, three splits within the conservative camp itself:
- The split between those who supported and those who opposed the founding of the Independent Board.
- Which led to a subsequent split of Westminster Seminary.
- The second split contributed to the split in the Presbyterian Church of America. The Orthodox Presbyterians opting for strict denominational control through church boards and the Bible Presbyterians for Independent Agencies. The bible presbyterians were led by Carl McIntire who became notorious for actions like picketing outside of World Council of Churches meetings about WCC collaboration with the KGB.
When the invaders surrender cultural territory, we will regain it--not inside the four walls of liberal churches but in the culture at large. As for liberal churches today, let the dead bury the dead. Large brick churches in declining sections of town are not worth re-capturing. The heating and cooling bills alone would strap us. Had it not been for the defection of earlier generations of Christians, we would not be in the place we are today: looking in from the outside on institutions that once belonged to God and His people rather than to the covenant-breakers who now occupy positions of institutional authority. (Gary North)
Also because of the fact the movement was born in frequent splits, while paying lip service to the notion of large denominations they de facto accepted the congregationalist model and thus became instrumental in undermining the meaningful authority, financial resources and scope of denominations. The trial of Machen was a minor injustice done for pragmatic reasons that has gone on to cost the PCUSA 1/2 its membership and all its growth.
- Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict on Wikipedia
- The Presbyterian Conflict by Edwin H. Rian
- PCUSA journal article on fundamentalist-modernist conflict
- Fighting the Good Fight, A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by D. G. Hart and John Muether
- Independent Board trials details, from the American Presbyterian Church. Also their history chapters 10 and 11
- Credenda Agenda book reviews on the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. It speaks at length about why Machen was antagnistic to liberalism during the 1920s.
- Historical Background and Development of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
- Machen articles on the OPC website. Of particular interest his article on the distinction between fundamentalism (orthodoxy) and the evangelical movement.
- Long list of articles on Mister Richardson
- Biography of Machen on theopedia, and another from Craig Hawkings of Apologetics information
- Theological analysis of Machen by William Moore
- How the Presbyterians further scattered after the formation of the OPC.
The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another. (John Frame)
- What is Christianity 1899-1900 University of Berlin lecture series by Adolf von Harnack, (mentioned above) gives a good example of the liberal theology Machen was arguing against
- 3 types of fundamentalist today by 9Marks
- The Fruit of Compromise by Pickering, which is an apology for separating off Christians that disagree, this one however directed by fundamentalists at evangelicals. It also gives the example of Machen.
- Current website for the independent board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
- Christianity and Culture an address by Machen in 1912 which shows his attitude towards cultural Christianity a decade before he became known for it.
- Review of D. G. Hart's Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Also by Hart, J. Gresham Machenand the Problem of Christian Civilization in America
Appendix on Auburn Affirmation:
The Auburn Affirmation was a response to the "5 point test" (note their are really 6 points, the name came from the 5 fundamentals which did not include the 6th item on this list) which was given as a test of orthodoxy:
- Inerrancy of the Scriptures
- The virgin birth (and the deity of Jesus) (Matt 1:18)
- The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Heb 9)
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28)
- The authenticity of Christ's miracles
- His pre-millennial second coming
The statements of the affirmation were (full text):
- The Bible is not inerrant. The supreme guide of scripture interpretation is the Spirit of God to the individual believer and not ecclesiastical authority. Thus, “liberty of conscience” is elevated.
- The General Assembly has no power to dictate doctrine to the Presbyteries.
- The General Assembly’s condemnation of those asserting "doctrines contrary to the standards of the Presbyterian Church" circumvented the due process set forth in the Book of Discipline.
- None of the five essential doctrines should be used as a test of ordination. Alternated “theories” of these doctrines are permissible.
- Liberty of thought and teaching, within the bounds of evangelical Christianity is necessary.
- Division is deplored, unity and freedom are commended.