Chesterton Explains His Faith Journey

G.K. Chesterton, OrthodoxyG.K. Chesterton. 2017. Orthodoxy (Orig. Pub. 1908). Satya Books.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those that are curious and think for themselves, many of the best known critics of the Christian faith come up short. The heart of atheism is not a philosophical critique of faith; it is a willful disrespect for all forms of authority, especially divine authority. The reasons for disbelief often border on mere slander of the faith, which becomes obvious as inconsistent criticisms morph over time and show themselves in conflict. Apologetics accordingly begins to resemble the case of the parent trying to reason with tired child when a good nap (or firm discipline) is needed.


In his book, Orthodoxy, Gilbert Keith (better known as G.K.) Chesterton sets out to explain how he came to faith in his own words, the words and arguments that ultimately convinced him. In a puckish response to a question posed by his publisher, Chesterton recounts:

“‘Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?’ After a long pause, I replied, ‘I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.’ This is the book that I have written in answer to it.” (7)

When is the last time that you wrote a book to win an argument? Obviously, Chesterton (1874-1936) lived at a time when a “lettered” (“English writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic”[2]) man took his arguments seriously.

Orthodoxy Defined

Chesterton defines orthodoxy in these words:

“When the word ‘orthodoxy’ is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.” (5)

Belief in the Apostles’ Creed, summarized in five fundamentals of the faith:

  1.  The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (Longfield 1991, 9, 78)

were required for ordination as a Presbyterian pastor between 1910 and 1925. After 1925, one could be ordained without believing the Apostles’ Creed (the liberal view) and, if you persisted in believing the creed, you would be described pejoratively as a “fundamentalist.” Thus, Chesterton’s simple definition anticipated a crisis that had not yet divided the American church, but even today lies at the heart of the culture wars.

Lampoon Champ

Chesterton spends considerable time in his book lampooning his critics for their inconsistencies. He writes:

“certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.” (79-80)

Clearly, this argument is dated, but the inconsistencies persist. Who, for example, remembers that the first co-educational college in America, Oberlin College, was started by two Presbyterian pastors and that the famous evangelist, Charles Finney, served as its president from 1850 to 1866? The feminist movement started as evangelical Christian movement (see Gal 3:28) and it is only after the Civil War that the woman’s movement took a secular turn (Dayton 1976, 121-135). Hopefully, Chesterton will be forgiven for his candid (and dated) comments on this issue.

Coming To Faith

So why did Chesterton adopt the Christian faith? He writes:

“my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” (146)

In my own experience, I have found critics quite willing to pick at this or that doctrine that they do not understand or accept without substituting an equally valuable replacement. Christianity as a faith fits the whole person and the entirety of life’s experiences better than competing religions and philosophies which is why it is found throughout the entire world, unlike other faiths that favor one or another ethnic group and region. Mere critics normally do not accept responsibility for their partial criticisms—they steal a person’s hope and faith, and leave their victims in despair. Such actions clearly troubled Chesterton as he weighed his options.


G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a challenging but interesting read. He is challenging to read because he is better versed in philosophy and apologetics than most readers and his arguments often hinge on subtle word-play and knowledge of events and readings. Still, Chesterton is interesting to read because he writes roughly a hundred years ago and yet speaks directly to our own context. Read and enjoy!


Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Review:

Dayton, Donald W. 1976. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody: Hendrickson.


[1] Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth (


Chesterton Explains His Faith Journey

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1 

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 2

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

After sensing a call to pastoral service in 2004 my first response was to attend an inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, NJ. I was never more excited in my entire life. Still, tension clouded my excitement—I had waited months to attend the Passion of the Christ produced by Mel Gibson with fellow seminarians.  Who would come with? On Saturday night when 60 inquirers were asked who wanted to attend only one other student responded. (The others preferred to attend a play named after a female body-part[1]). I eventually wrote PTS off my list of prospective seminaries, but not for a lack of interest[2].

My Saturday night disappointment at PTS trivially highlights tensions in the PCUSA that were already evident in the 1920s. Longfield highlights 3 significant disputes within the church over the period from 1922 through 1936: ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions (4).  Let me address each briefly in turn.

Ordination Requirements

Longfield dates the Presbyterian controversy to a sermon preached by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick on May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City entitled:  “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (9)  The sermon turned on knowing the difference between a fundamentalist and a liberal Presbyterian.

At that time, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) had to subscribe to the 5 fundamentals of the faith:

  1. The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (9, 78)[3].

These requirements were instituted in 1910 by the General Assembly of the PCUSA.  Thus, a fundamentalist was not a pejorative term at that point; it simply meant that one met the requirements for ordination.

By contrast, Fosdick saw liberals as: “sincere evangelical Christians who were striving to reconcile the new knowledge of history, science, and religion with the old faith.” (9).  The liberal view of scripture was not inerrancy, but “the progressive unfolding of the character of God and that development, not supernatural intervention, was God’s way of working out his will in the world.” (10) Note the influence of evolution on the liberal interpretation of scripture (12-15).

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Fosdick resigned his pulpit at First Presbyterian Church on October 22,1924 to avoid censure (126-127), but was immediately called to pastor Park Avenue Baptist Church[4].  Notwithstanding, in 1925 a special commission of the General Assembly relinquished the 5 fundamentals of the faith as an ordination requirement (161).  Moderator Charles R. Erdman engineered the change out of a belief that:  “Christian living had precedence over matters of precise doctrine…any man good enough to go to heaven…is good enough to be a member of our church” (141-142). In other words, practical theology trumped systematic theology—previously the hallmark of reformed theology since the reformation.

Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary

The College of New Jersey (later called Princeton College) was chartered in 1746 on account of the expulsion of a young student named David Brainard from Yale College who said in private conversation that one of his tutors had “no more grace than a chair”.  Brainard had the support of the Presbytery, but Yale refused to readmit him (Piper 2001, 128, 156)[5].  In 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) was organized separately from Princeton College, in part, because modern universities no longer considered theology one of the sciences and certainly not “The Queen of the Sciences”, as it was known in the Middle Ages[6].

Throughout its history PTS defended Old School Presbyterianism which taught strict Calvinism[7], opposed the teaching of Darwin, and defended scriptural inerrancy (22, 133).  Princeton Theology, as it was known, made PTS the standard-bearer of fundamentalist theology in the PCUSA.  The point man during this controversy was Professor J. Gresham Machen who described PTS as “a lighthouse of orthodoxy in an increasingly secular world.” (169)

J. Gresham Machen

After the General Assembly abandoned the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, attention shifted to PTS and Machen, who had so staunchly defined those fundamentals. Having lost the battle in the denomination, Machen’s promotion to Professor of Apologetics and Christians Ethics at PTS, which had been offered by the board of directors, would not likely be confirmed by the General Assembly (161,163).  In 1926, the General Assembly appointed a special committee to study at PTS.  In 1929, the General Assembly adopted a reorganization plan which strengthened the office of the president and merged the board of directors and the trustees into a single committee.

While no changes were proposed to the PTS charter or mission, the new committee included two liberals (out of 33) who had signed the Auburn Affirmation (a liberal manifesto; 173).  Machen and three other PTS faculty members responded by leaving to organize a new seminary to carry on the traditions of the Old Princeton known as Westminster Theological Seminary which was set up in Philadelphia, PA (176).

Board of Foreign Missions

Foreign missionary activity reached an all-time high in the late nineteenth following the formation in 1886 of the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), essentially the missionary agency of the Young Men’s Christian Organization (YMCA).  SVM’s founding following a call by Dwight Moody to: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” (18, 185).  Between 1886 and 1936, roughly 13,000 missionaries were recruited. An important leader in the SVM was Robert E. Speer who personally recruited 1,100 undergraduates for missions during his last two years at PTS (186).

Speer was a charismatic and pragmatic leader.  Longfield writes:

“Speer’s emphasis on a simple Christocentric gospel, conducive to Christian unity and missionary success, his disparagement of systematic theology, and his understanding of the church as a missionary body persisted throughout his career.” (188)

Speer’s theological pragmaticism likely alienated him from Machen who in 1933 organized an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, a move opposed by Speer.  The Independent Board was eventually shut down by the General Assembly (180).  Speer retired in 1937.

Longfield dates the close of the Presbyterian Controversy in 1936 following Machen’s death in 1935 and the formation of the Presbyterian Church in American in 1936 (213).  While in this review  I have focused on the decisions reached during this controversy,  Longfield goes further.  Part 3 of this review will look at the ideas motivating these decisions and some of their implications.


[1] The Vagina Monologues (

[2] I was working full-time in federal service at that time.   PTS and the other Presbyterian seminaries focused on providing a full-time, residential seminary experience.

[3] Also see: Longfield Surveys Interface of Presbyterians and Culture, Part 2 (


[5]Today, we might describe that tutor as an atheist but in 1746 such a charge would be considered slander even if true.


[7] Calvinists subscribed to a systematic understanding of theology summarized in the acronym, TULIP. TULIP stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints (Sproul 1997, 118).


Piper, John.  2001.  The Hidden Smile of God:  The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology:  Understanding the Basics.  Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks.

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1


Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1

Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 2;  Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Have you ever experienced a déjà vu moment?[1]

Reading good historical accounts can give one a sense of being a fly on the wall or even participating actively in the moment. The sense of lost opportunity or lost glory pervades the work.  For Bradley Longfield’s The Presbyterian Controversy, the past ominously informs the present like it only happened yesterday [2].

Presbyterians in Conflict

Longfield (3) writes:

“The mainstream churches in America today face a serious crisis…Through the reasons for this hemorrhage in membership are many and complex, one contributor to the decline noted by analysts is the nebulous doctrinal identity of the churches…Without clear theological boundaries distinct from the ideals of the surrounding culture, the churches have been increasingly subject to cultural currents…The roots of this nebulous identity lie, at least in part,  in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. The churches in the 1920s, in response to the growth of liberal theology and the resultant reaction of fundamentalism, chose to allow for diverse doctrinal views in order to preserve institutional unity.”

So what was the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s? Who was involved and why do we care?

Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

Longfield (4) chronicles:

“From 1922 until 1936 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) was wracked by conflict.  Sparked by a sermon of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick [3], a liberal Baptist preaching in a Presbyterian pulpit, the Presbyterian controversy raged for fourteen years over such issues as ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions.”

The controversy raged among leaders of the PCUSA denomination, including: J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Sloane Coffin, Clarence E. Macartney, Charles R. Erdman, and Robert E. Speer. Longfield tells this tale by examining the biographies and thinking of these six men (5).

Why do we care?

The PCUSA crisis today is rooted in decisions made in 1925. Still, the same struggles persist as if the controversy occurred only last week.  The question is: what fruits arose from the decisions made in this prior controversy?[4]

When Bradley J. Longfield wrote The Presbyterian Controversy, he was a visiting professor of American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School, where he received his doctoral degree.  He is currently Vice President and Dean of the Seminary and Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary [5].  This book is written in 9 chapters, preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, including:

  1. The Conflict Erupts: Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Presbyterian Church,
  2. Gresham Machen: Princeton Theology and Southern Culture,
  3. Williams Jennings Bryan and the 1923 General Assembly,
  4. Henry Sloane Coffin and the Auburn Affirmation,
  5. Clarence E. Macartney and the 1924 General Assembly,
  6. Charles R. Erdman and the 1925 General Assembly,
  7. The Reorganization of Princeton and the Birth of Westminster,
  8. Robert E. Speer and the Board of Foreign Missions, and
  9. The Close of the Controversy: The Entanglement of Religion and Culture (ix).

The epilogue is followed by notes, a bibliography, and an index. The book cover depicts a group picture of the 1927 General Assembly of the PCUSA.


Longfield is an interesting read and a thorough biographer.  For each personality chronicled in his history, he discusses their personal background, education, the background of parents, idiosyncrasies, and influences. In part 2 of this review, I will look at the particular controversies—ordination requirements, the mission of Princeton Seminary, and the orthodoxy of the Board of Foreign Missions—and in part 3 of this review, I will review the lessons learned.


[1] Yogi Berra’s famously said: “It’s like deja-vu, all over again”. In French, déjà vu literally means—already seen—so his malapropos was hilariously redundant (

[2] Savage( 1996, 84-85) writes:  “In the rehearsal story, the individual tells a story out of the past.  Through hearing it, the listener can become aware that the event retold contains the same themes as the current problems facing the person.” Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

[3]  “Shall the Fundamentalists Win”(9).

[4] Jesus warned:   “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”  (Matt. 7:15-20 ESV)



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