Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church[1].  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered.

Fundamentals of Faith

When the PCUSA abandoned its ordination requirements centered on the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, it effectively lost the ability to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in its own confessions. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily in a common polity [2]. This fundamental change, which is often misunderstood and frequently denied, Longfield articulates primarily in terms of the person of a pugnacious son of the South, J. Gresham Machen.

Longfield sees Machen differing from his opponents in the Presbyterian controversy in a number of ways, most importantly philosophically.  He writes:

“The education Machen received at Princeton complemented and refined the religious heritage of his boyhood.  Like the Thornwellian theology of the Southern Presbyterians, Princeton held tightly to the doctrines of the Westminster [confession] divines undergirded by Common Sense philosophy and the Baconian method.  The Princeton Theology insisted on the primacy of ideas in religion and stood firmly for a strict doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  Additionally, Princeton adhered to the traditional Reformed belief that Christians must strive to bring all of culture under God’s rule….Princeton was a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy in an increasingly hostile world…” (40)

Old School Presbyterianism, as articulated by James Henley Thornwell was strictly confessional and viewed theology as “a positive science grounded in observation and induction, consisting of facts arranged and classified according to the necessary laws of the human mind.” (33) This philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism, maintained that: ”we can and do know the real world directly through our senses… [and that] Anyone in right mind… knew that the objective world, the self, causal relationships, and moral principles existed.” (34)[3]  Following Thornwell, Machen firmly believed that once the facts were known irrefutable conclusions (events not interpretations) could be drawn (222) [4].

Machen’s focus on correct doctrine, as embodied in the confessions, flowed immediately from his philosophical presuppositions (223). Obviously, from Machen’s perspective, deviating from correct doctrine was not only wrong; it was immoral, because it led one away from God.  In some sense, a liberal was anyone who deviated from correct doctrine.

Robert Hastings Nichols, a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, drafted a formal statement of the liberal positon in the PCUSA in 1923. The paper, which argued for theological diversity within the bounds of evangelical theology, evolved into the Auburn Affirmation and was endorsed by 174 signatories (79).  The affirmation basically said that 5 fundamentals of the faith offered only one theory allowed by the scripture (77-79).

In other words, for the liberal no one, objective reality existed—history was not a matter of facts, but of interpretations (89). The emphasis was on religious experiences, not historical events such as found in the Bible (90-91).  Writing about Henry Sloane Coffin, Longfield writes:  “the Bible was not the ultimate authority for the Christian, Jesus alone was the Word of God; the Bible simply contained the Word.” (91)

At the end of Presbyterian Controversies, Bradley Longfield prods the PCUSA to “affirm a normative middle theological position with clear boundaries.” (235)  The focus among evangelicals on the inerrancy of scripture and the doctrine of divine inspiration of scripture provide the boundaries on Biblical interpretation suggested.

The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense [5].  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon[6].  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith [7].  In a practical, denominational sense,  the philosophical diversity that characterizes the denomination makes it unlikely that boundaries can be agreed upon even if those boundaries are based on a shared history.

Clearly, Longfield’s book is an interesting read, very relevant to current controversies, and certainly worthy of ongoing study.

Footnotes

[1] “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)

[2] In 2012 at the General Assembly in Pittsburg, PA (which I attended), for example, the stated clerk opined before the entire body that the Book of Order need not comply with requirement of the Book of Confessions. They served different functions. This opinion paved the way, in part, for that body to endorse the ordination of homosexuals.

3] Very ironically, from the perspective of the liberal-fundamentalist divide, Scottish Common Sense Realism was foundational in the development of the scientific method. By contrast, the liberal philosophical position, borrowing heavily from Darwinian evolution—hence, the term progressive, actually undermined scientific advancement inasmuch as it came to question the existence of objective reality—a trend in thinking that later matured into postmodernism. If one does not believe in one, objective reality, then why invest time and money in researching it?

[4] William Jennings Bryan, for example, also maintained that “true science and the bible could not disagree.” (56)

[5] The other tell that one has slid into a liberal leaning is the focus off of theology and onto experience.  Liberal theology focus on feeling rather than thinking which reflects a debt to the romanticism of the 19th century.  For the liberal, God is experienced through feelings, not through the mind.  This makes it unreproduceable among and between individuals.  By this lining of reasoning, we can have common experiences of God through service, crises, and mission trips, but we will have trouble describing what just happened.  This makes agreement on and adherence to language, creeds and confessions difficult.  Words denoting theological concepts become squishy. We like feeling words like progress, spirituality, and love which are hard to define; we have trouble with thinking words like creed, morality, and duty which have specific content.

[6] Plantinga (2000) attempts to fill this philosophical gap by offering the concept of warrant.  He argues from a postmodern perspective that warrant is a reasonable standard for justifying Christian  belief.  The modern perspective of requiring logical proof, which is also not attained by the critics themselves, is argued not to be a reasonable standard on which to base judgment.

[7] My belief is that the existence of one God is obvious from the existence of only one set of physical laws in the universe.  In some sense, the existence of one objective truth immediately follows from God’s immutability.  Relative truth is more of an optical illusion.

REFERENCES

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000.  Warranteed Christian Belief. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3

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