Van Til on the Reorganization of Princeton

An Excerpt from an Unpublished Lecture Entitled “Why Westminster Today?”

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 4 (October 1997)

In the spring of 1929, Dr. Stevenson and his party succeeded in having the Seminary reorganized in accordance with the new inclusive policy. At the 1929 General Assembly the church did away with the old two board system of control and established one new board to run the affairs of the seminary both academic and educational. Two of the members of this new board were signers of the Auburn Affirmation. It was as if two communist sympathizers had been elected to the supreme court of the United States. The new board soon made a public pronouncement to the effect that under the new board the seminary would now be better able than it had ever been to carry out the provisions of its charter. The new board revealed the way in which it would perform its new task. It asked all the members of the old faculty, even those who had opposed the reorganization of the Seminary, to remain on the new faculty. They were not seeking to exclude the old point of view; they were simply going to give both points of views a place on the faculty. This was clever strategy. If men like Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald T. Allis, Geerhardus Vos, Wm. Park Armstrong and J. Gresham Machen could be persuaded to remain on the faculty, or rather join the new faculty, it would appear to all the world that they did not consider the change very basic or very evil. But as you all know Dr. Wilson, Dr. Machen, and Dr. Allis refused to serve under the new board. Dr. Vos, Dr. Armstrong, and Dr. Hodge did agree to teach under the new board but this was due to circumstances. All three of them had vigorously opposed the reorganization.

In the summer of 1929 these three men together with others organized Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Machen was the natural leader of the new movement. In giving a public account of the reason for the organization of the new seminary, Dr. Machen made it clear beyond the peradventure of a doubt that the old Princeton was dead. The gospel of salvation by grace from dead works would no longer be taught there without compromise. This gospel would be diluted with the supposed wisdom of man. The new seminary was small in number and had no money. There would be no final dependence upon numbers and upon organization. Those who undertook to organize the new seminary were not pretending to be greater scholars than were other men. Those who organized the seminary, both the board and the faculty would seek learning indeed, they would seek learning with all their strength, but they would seek this learning on their knees, in humility seeking their help from their Savior.

But one thing must be clear, the banner of the gospel of the grace of God in Christ must be raised to the top of the highest mountain that can be found. For that reason Dr. Machen soon organized the Independent Board of Foreign Missions as well as the seminary. To be sure, Dr. Machen believed the work of the Missions is the work of the church. But through its Board of Foreign Missions, the Presbyterian Church was sending out missionaries such as Pearl S. Buck who nowise believed the gospel at all. Graduates of the seminary applying under this Board to go out to the foreign field were required to promise that they would cooperate with such missionaries as did not believe the gospel at all. What else could be done, at least as a temporary measure, but to organize an independent mission board?

The response of the leaders of the church was not slow in coming. They soon called Machen to give an account before a commission of five appointed by the General Assembly. One of the commissioners was a signer of the Auburn Affirmation. The whole Commission was loyal to the church, but they were not loyal to Christ the head of the church. They condemned Machen who was loyal to Christ as the head of the church. If Machen had succumbed to their requirement he would, like they, have crucified the Christ of the Scriptures afresh. He, like they, would have prevented– as far as he could–the gospel of grace from going out to the ends of the world. By the grace of God Machen said in effect that he must obey God rather than man.

Bismarck, North Dakota

It was in this spirit of obeying God rather than man that Machen spent himself to exhaustion till he died in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was on New Year’s Day, 1937. Before leaving for the West, he called me up and told me that on his way to Dakota to speak for a little group of people who sought to be faithful to Christ he would stop in Chicago and write an article on Christian Schools. He would send this article to me. Would I go over it and send it on to the office of the National Union of Christian Schools. In Chicago the pains of pleurisy overtook him but they did not prevent him from going on to the Dakotas in order to encourage a small group of Christian people to stand fast for their Lord. A former student of his drove him forty miles through midwinter weather while he was in pain. But he carried on to the finish. On his death bed he sent a telegram to Professor John Murray about the comfort of the active obedience of Christ for a dying man. As he lived so he died. In humble deep obedience of love he gave his life, his money, his all.

How good it was for those of us whom he had chosen to labor with on the faculty, R. B. Kuiper, Ned B. Stonehouse, Paul Woolley and me to be with him daily and often to go out to lunch with him after the Saturday morning faculty meeting. He did not preach at us telling us to do this or to do that. He left us free in the true sense of the word, freedom to develop our work for ourselves. But we could not help but imbibe something of his spirit of unreserved devotion to the one goal of lifting up the banner of Christ on top of the highest mountain.

When Socrates was about to drink the hemlock cup he had sent his wife away. One cannot die philosophically with women around. Socrates had Simmias and Cebes and others with him. With them he calmly discussed the question whether, when the hemlock would reach his heart, and he would pass to the other world, he should then still know who he was. Socrates was certain that he would live because he would partake of the Idea of Life. Well, Machen did not send his wife away. It was indeed said of him that he had inherited his money from his wife and she had made it from breweries. But the missing link in this chain of forgeries was his non-existent wife. As for his money, he had some money but he used it freely to pay for the deficits that appeared on the books of the seminary from year to year. One day I saw him place a check of $24,000.00 on the desk of the treasurer to make up for the deficit of a certain year. We his followers could not be present at his deathbed physically in the way that Simmias and Cebes were present at the deathbed of Socrates. But one thing we knew without a doubt. Machen did not speculate on the problem whether or not he might participate on some unknown Idea of Life. He knew Christ and the power of his resurrection. He knew that he would presently see his Savior face to face.

On the way back from the burial service at Baltimore I was depressed. Would everything that Machen had done go, as it were, with him into death? Then Mrs. Frank Stevenson, wife of the Seminary Board’s first president and a friend of Machen’s, spoke to me and told me not to be disheartened. The greatness of Machen lay precisely in that he had not centered the work of the seminary around himself. His death was a great loss indeed but the work must go on. God would raise up new men to do his work. They might not be of the caliber of Machen, but as long as they were of the spirit of Machen the work would go on for generations to come and even to the final day of Jesus Christ. Then, soon after that, I visited my father who had all his life been a simple farmer. He listened to me as I told him how dismayed I had been not only at the personal loss sustained in the death of Machen but of my fear that the work could not go on effectively without such a world renowned leader as Machen had been. My father, old and well stricken in years, simply quoted the passage of Hebrews “He that cometh to God must believeth that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” That was all he said! He said no more. I was rebuked and chastened. Did I still finally trust in Machen’s greatness as a scholar and as a man or did I trust in the Christ to whom Machen had constantly pointed us?

From the new CD-ROM containing The Works of Cornelius Van Til, published by Labels Army Co., 1997. Price $250. However, the CD is available through the Westminster Seminary Bookstore for $175 (with postage charges no greater than $6).