Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Part One: Origins

In 1927, only two years after the infamous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, where the popular Presbyterian layman and prominent Democrat politician, William Jennings Bryan, had prosecuted the case against teaching evolution in public schools, J. Gresham Machen was asked to become the president of Bryan Memorial University, an institution commemorating the Christian statesman’s accomplishments. Machen refused the offer. He was so busy with controversies both in the Presbyterian Church and at Princeton Seminary that a move to a new school would have compromised his usefulness to conservative efforts against theological liberalism in Presbyterian circles.

Time magazine actually reported on the invitation to Machen, an indication of Bryan’s continuing notoriety and the publicity surrounding the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist controversy. For this reason it was no surprise that Machen’s refusal would eventually be published in Moody Monthly. More curious, however, was the substance of his reasons for declining the position. Machen wrote to the board of trustees,

I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” There is indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between “Fundamentalism” and “Modernism,” then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.”

What is noteworthy about these remarks is Machen’s self-conscious identification not just with the Reformed faith, but also with the particular tradition represented by the theologians and churchmen at Princeton Seminary. Most of Machen’s contemporaries thought of him as a fundamentalist, pure and simple. But he thought of himself as part of something that was both broader and narrower than interdenominational fundamentalism, namely, the noble theological tradition stretching from the apostle Paul to the great theological insights of the Westminster Assembly and the distinctive beliefs and practices of American Presbyterianism.

Many people since Machen’s time have been hard pressed to distinguish a fundamentalist from an Orthodox Presbyterian. Both came to life during the 1920s and 1930s, both have been judged narrow and intolerant, and both hold to a faith that is at odds with the way most modem men and women live and think about their lives. But, while the ecclesiastical struggles that led in 1936 to the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were part of the culture wars that came to be known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, Machen’s purposes as a leader of the new denomination, demonstrated in the quotation above, were remarkably different from mainstream fundamentalism. Just as there are differences between political conservatives, like the ones separating those who favor free markets from others who stress issues of public morality, so there are differences between the conservatism of fundamentalists and Orthodox Presbyterians. Whereas fundamentalists looked back to the American traditions of revivalism and moral crusades to abolish slavery and alcohol, Machen took sustenance from the theology and practice of true American Presbyterians like Hodge and Warfield, the leaders of what was called “Old School Presbyterianism.”

The following chapters cover the Presbyterian controversies which involved Machen in the struggles against liberalism and led to the founding of the OPC, as well as the initial conflicts within the new denomination which stamped its early identity. They demonstrate that the OPC was established not just to oppose the theological liberalism which had infected America’s mainline Protestant bodies, but also to preserve and champion older Presbyterian habits and convictions. These chapters also show that in order to understand the OPC we need to look beyond the issues raised by fundamentalists in the 1920s to the concerns that have throughout American history informed the tradition of confessional Presbyterianism.

Chapter 1: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Presbyterian Identity

In the spring of 1920 as J. Gresham Machen, then a relatively unknown professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, made plans for service at his first general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, he was still adjusting to the routines of “normalcy” in post-war America. Only nine months earlier he had returned from France where he had witnessed the atrocities of World War I while working as a secretary for the YMCA. But even though Machen enjoyed leaving behind the hardships of life at the front—the poor sleeping conditions, the bad food, the constant threat of attack, and above all, the destruction of human life—his desire for normalcy did not prevent him from gearing up for one of the greatest battles in the history of American Christianity, one which would begin at the Assembly of 1920 and would only be complete with the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church sixteen years later.

The commissioners to the general assembly were to deliberate and vote on a proposal that would have dramatically compromised the witness of the Northern Presbyterian Church which Machen actively served. J. Ross Stevenson, the President of Princeton Theological Seminary and well-respected leader in Presbyterian affairs, reported on a plan to unite the nation’s largest Protestant denominations into a national federated church. “The Philadelphia Plan,” as it was called, was designed to coordinate and consolidate the activities of eighteen different denominations. In some cases this would mean the merger of several small churches in rural towns into a larger “union” congregation. In all cases it meant the sacrifice of theological integrity because the plan called upon denominations to put aside doctrinal distinctives for the purpose of achieving greater influence and relevance. And while the plan invoked the biblical imperative that Christ’s disciples be one, Machen, along with other conservative Presbyterians, opposed the initiative as a subtle form of error masquerading as scriptural truth.

From Machen’s perspective, the unity of the church could never be isolated from the truths to which Christ had called his people to witness. The creedal basis of the plan, he wrote in one of three articles designed to defeat the proposed union, omitted the “great essentials of the Christian faith.” Most disquieting was a paragraph in its introduction which relegated the Westminster Confession of Faith to nothing more than a denominational affair. This view of the confession implied that there was virtually no difference between Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, or other Protestant bodies. Even more insidious was the idea that what united Christians was religious experience and that theology was merely a manifestation of Christians living at different times and in diverse places. For those who believed that the Confession of Faith was the system of truth revealed in Scripture, Machen concluded, such a basis for church union would always produce the fiercest opposition.

Within a few years the Philadelphia Plan was defeated. But the controversy that erupted at the 1920 General Assembly revealed widespread ambivalence within the church and the denomination’s seminaries about the central convictions of Presbyterian faith and practice. The controversy about church union became, in effect, a prelude to the conflict over Protestant liberalism. For the tendency to sacrifice theological teachings for more effective witness, which characterized the plan for union, was also central to the logic of theological liberalism. And the strongest opponents of church union, many of whom were ministers and elders from the Philadelphia vicinity, would also emerge as the leading critics of Protestant liberalism. In both cases, in the debates about church union and throughout the fundamentalist controversy, Presbyterian theology and practice were at stake. Thus, instead of returning home to a quiet life of scholarship and preaching, Machen came back from a Europe ravaged by war only to face an enemy even more dangerous than the Kaiser’s army, one which would not kill the body but could destroy the soul.

What is Presbyterianism?

The word “Presbyterian” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros (meaning elder), and it refers to a particular form of church government. But historically, Presbyterianism entails more than that. In addition to polity, Presbyterians have certain convictions about the doctrine and worship of the church. These three elements—polity, doctrine, and worship—are reflected in the ordination vows of the OPC. Among those vows, candidates for church office are asked to “receive and adopt” the Westminster Confession of Faith “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” and they are asked to “approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.” And it was the theology of the Westminster Confession that Machen believed was under attack during the 1920s by ministers and denominational executives of the Presbyterian Church.

As we have suggested, “Presbyterian” has come to mean more than a form of church government. With other heirs of the Protestant Reformation, Presbyterians have historically held a high view of the authority of Scripture. The Westminster Confession states that the Bible is the Word of God and is our “only rule for faith and obedience.” It was a departure from that high view of Scripture and a substitution of the word of man for the Word of God in the Presbyterian Church during the fundamentalist controversy that led to the exodus from that body and to the formation of the OPC.

Presbyterians are also Calvinists: they affirm the “Reformed faith.” The Reformed faith is sometimes summarized as the “five points of Calvinism”—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. These five points are helpful ways of understanding the sovereignty of God in our salvation. It is through grace alone that we are saved: salvation is found only in the electing love of God, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and the application of Christ’s work through the work of the Holy Spirit.

But the Reformed faith is more than that. It affirms the sovereignty of God in all of life. It is a way of life that seeks as its main purpose “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The clearest summary of the system of doctrine is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms. And so the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, while holding the Bible as its only infallible rule of faith and practice, has adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as its subordinate standards.

Reformed theology as expressed in the Westminster Confession also relies upon the idea of the covenant. The confession explains that the Bible has one central message: God’s salvation of his people through Jesus Christ. The entire Bible is about God’s covenant of grace with his people. Covenant theology refuses to divide the Bible into different dispensations with different ways of salvation. From beginning to end the covenant of grace is the story of salvation by grace. The covenant unfolds from its establishment in the garden of Eden to our present age, the period between Christ’s ascension and second coming. The Old Testament prophesies about the coming of Christ, and the New Testament describes and explains his coming.

The doctrine of the covenant shapes the life of God’s church in important ways. Covenant theology does not regard the church as a group of individuals who voluntarily join a religious club but as a household of faith that God has graciously chosen and sustained as his people, the body of Christ through the fellowship of the Spirit. All of God’s people are uniquely gifted for service in his kingdom with special offices instituted by Christ for the ministry of worship, nurture, and evangelism. Thus, no Christian is an island. Participation in the work of the church, both through supporting and submitting to it, is essential to walking in the way of the covenant.

Furthermore, covenant theology refuses to distill the Bible into a set of fundamentals or spiritual laws. Since all Scripture is God-breathed, the “whole counsel of God” is to be preached, and the sovereignty of God impacts all of life.

Finally, as we shall explore in a later chapter, the covenant affects our attitude toward our children. They are a heritage of the Lord. We baptize our children because they belong to God. The covenantal promises of God extend to believers and their children.

History of Presbyterianism

Presbyterians have not been unanimous in their understanding of Calvinist theology, however. This has meant that throughout the history of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, conflict and division have regrettably taken place.

Modem Presbyterianism traces its origin to the giants of the Reformation such as John Calvin and John Knox. These reformers saw the restoration of both theology and church order as essential to their purpose. Jesus Christ, not the pope, is the only mediator between God and man and thus the only ruler of his church. He rules his church directly through his Word and Spirit.

English-speaking Presbyterianism began with the Scottish preacher John Knox. Knox fled to Geneva in exile in 1555, and there he formed a congregation modeled on Calvin’s teaching about government, confession, and worship. He returned to Scotland in 1559, helping to establish the Presbyterian church there by drafting the Scots Confession and the Book of Discipline. Presbyterianism came to the New World in two waves, first with the early Puritan settlements, and later with the Scotch-Irish immigration in the seventeenth century. Colonial presbyteries were organized in the early eighteenth century, and the Presbyterian Church in the USA was established in 1789 with its first general assembly.

Because of the denominational controversies of the twentieth century, it is tempting to imagine that American Presbyterianism before the twentieth century was orthodox. The truth is that doctrinal controversies constantly confronted the church. From the earliest days of American Presbyterianism there were disagreements over the degree to which the church would adhere to its confessional standards. These disputes were usually described as debates over subscription, that is, how strictly must Presbyterian ministers subscribe to the Westminster Confession? Throughout the early history of the Presbyterian Church, the sides were divided into “loose subscriptionists” and “strict subscriptionists.” The former consisted of New England Puritans influenced by revivalism who, it seemed to others, stressed personal piety at the expense of doctrinal precision. The Scotch-Irish ministers, on the other hand, tended to be more confessionally oriented and bound by church order.

The tension between the pietistic and confessional groups divided the church into “New Side” and “Old Side” camps during the Great Awakening of the 1740s. The New Siders gained popular support through the revival preaching of men like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent. Their emphasis on the holiness of God and the sinfulness of men and women convicted thousands of hearers and revived Calvinistic orthodoxy in colonial America. Yet Old Siders feared that the excesses of revivalist psychology were a threat to Presbyterian order and theology. While revivals reached many with the gospel, they also undermined the authority and order of the local congregation and pastor. Revivalism made the individual’s experience central to Christian faith and practice, thus downplaying the importance of word, sacrament, and the communal character of membership in Christ’s body.[1]

Split in 1741, the two sides were united again in 1758. But tensions between revivalism and confessionalism were to emerge again with the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century. The revivals of this period, like those before American independence, demonstrated commendable zeal for reaching the lost and prompted many heroic efforts to reform society. But the Second Awakening, different in some ways from its predecessor, stressed the individual’s decision for Christ, even to the point of attacking Calvinism as elitist and the ministry as antithetical to democratic individualism. Evangelists like the Presbyterian Charles Finney employed “new measures,” techniques of revivalism copied from Methodists which appeared to make grace dependent upon human initiative. Some Presbyterians left the church for other denominations. Becoming Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ, they joined churches where man-centered theology was welcome. Also during the Second Awakening the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed, a body whose theology was clearly Arminian.

Controversies over these revivals, coupled with the volatile issue of slavery, led to the split in 1837 between Old School and New School Presbyterians. Old School Presbyterians, largely Scotch-Irish in the middle Atlantic states and the South, were the party of strict subscriptionists. New Schoolers, primarily in New England and the newly settled Midwest were socially activistic, pietistic, and vigorous opponents of all worldliness, from the consumption of alcohol to holding slaves. Later, the outbreak of the Civil War witnessed another split. Old School Presbyterians in the Confederacy split with the Old School Presbyterians in the North and formed their own denomination, reflecting the political divide between North and South. After the defeat of the Confederacy, this body became known as the Presbyterian Church in the US (or, more popularly, as the Southern Presbyterian Church). After the Civil War, Old and New School Presbyterians would reunite, though the Northern and Southern denominations would remain separate until 1983.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

The controversies in the Northern Presbyterian Church in which J. Gresham Machen was to play such a crucial role and which would lead to the founding of the OPC in many ways resembled the conflicts of earlier centuries between Old and New Side, and Old and New School Presbyterians. As opposition to the Philadelphia Plan for church union indicates, conservatives like Machen argued for strict subscription to the Westminster Confession, refusing to treat Calvinism as a mere difference of opinion. Yet there was something decidedly different about the fundamentalist controversy. Here the division was not between confessionalists and revivalists, though Presbyterian fundamentalists in the revivalist tradition like Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan did not see eye to eye with Machen. Rather, the conflict was between the naturalism of theological liberalism and the supernaturalism of both confessionalists and revivalists.

After the Civil War, intellectual and social developments undermined confidence in traditional understandings of the gospel. Darwinism and newer scientific methods of studying the Bible (i.e., higher criticism) led many to question the uniqueness and truthfulness of Scripture. Liberal Protestants who welcomed many of these ideas still believed the Bible was true and special, but did so more by interpreting the Bible symbolically and by looking to Christ’s ethical teachings as the core of the gospel. Meanwhile, as American industry mushroomed and attracted immigrants from around the world to work in the nation’s rapidly expanding and congested cities, the gospel’s offer of security in the next world looked increasingly irrelevant to life in this one. An influential number of Protestant ministers responded to this social crisis with a social gospel. They attempted to apply Christian ethics to the difficulties created by industrialization and the urban plight of an ethnically diverse labor force. They believed Christianity offered hope for the salvation of society. Jesus may save sinners, they acknowledged, but new social realities required a newer gospel. In the process, political reform took the place of proclaiming the good news of salvation in Christ.

J. Gresham Machen, the chief figure in the founding of the OPC, grew up in a society very much shaped by the optimism and confidence of America’s emerging industrial social order. Born in 1881 to a prominent Baltimore family—his father and older brother were accomplished lawyers—Machen was reared in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). While this southern denomination was generally more conservative than its northern counterpart, the congregation in which the Machen family were members was thoroughly infused with the progressive spirit of the time. Machen’s distinguished education as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University—an institution which regarded scientific research as part of the nation’s march toward righteousness—did little to question the activistic optimism of American Protestantism. Even at Princeton Seminary, where Machen enrolled after a year of graduate study in the classics at Johns Hopkins, he failed to see clearly the threat that liberalism posed. He was much more interested either in attending college football games or in his studies toward a Master of Arts in philosophy from Princeton University.

Only when Machen went to Europe from 1905 to 1906 to pursue advanced study in New Testament at German universities did he begin to comprehend the threats, both intellectual and social, to Presbyterian orthodoxy. In the fall of 1906 he returned to Princeton Seminary to teach Greek and New Testament. He also began monumental studies of the virgin birth of Christ and the apostle Paul’s theology, both of which would be published as rigorous scholarly endeavors. And in the course of his teaching and studies Machen became convinced that liberalism not only denied the fundamental convictions of Presbyterian faith but, more generally, was an entirely different religion from historic Christianity.

Machen summarized this argument in his classic book, Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923. In this work he wrote that Christianity was a religion of grace. Human nature was essentially sinful, leaving men and women in a position where they deserved eternal punishment for breaking God’s law, and could do nothing for their salvation apart from the gospel of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. Liberalism, however, said just the reverse. It held that human nature was basically good and that Christ’s teaching provided a supreme model for human goodness. While Christianity proclaimed God’s marvelous grace in Christ, liberalism appealed to human morality.

The Presbyterian Controversies

The fundamentalist controversy within the Presbyterian Church began in earnest in 1922 when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist minister preaching regularly at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, accused conservatives of intolerance. He said that orthodox views about the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, the atonement, and the second coming of Christ were all matters open to interpretation. And because the interpretation of these doctrines was not fixed, liberals and conservatives should be tolerated in the church.

A little more than a year later, Fosdick’s sentiments were echoed in the infamous Auburn Affirmation written in December of 1923. Claiming to protect the “unity and liberty” of the Presbyterian Church, this declaration was signed by over 1,200 ministers and denied the right of the church to establish certain fundamental truths as tests of theological orthodoxy. According to the Affirmation, views such as the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, his substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection, and miracles were not facts essential to the Bible but merely theories about Scripture’s message. Conservatives like Machen countered that such skeptical views about truth denied not just the confessional character of the church but even the authority of Scripture.

To end the growing antagonism within the church, Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton Seminary and moderator of the 1925 General Assembly, appointed a commission to study the causes of division within the church and make recommendations to restore “purity, peace, unity and progress.” After a year of investigation, the committee reported back to the general assembly that no traces of liberalism could be found in the denomination and that the cause of controversy was due to conservatives who made unfounded accusations against well-intentioned and sincere Presbyterian ministers. The committee completely ignored Machen’s testimony which pointed to the 1920 plan for church union, Fosdick’s preaching, the Auburn Affirmation, the ordination of two New York ministers who denied the virgin birth, and the lack of conservatives on denominational boards and agencies as evidence that liberalism was present in the church.

Though the Special Commission’s report did not single Machen out by name, it did state that conservatives were responsible for dividing the church. The General Assembly of 1926 focused on Machen, however, when it appointed a committee to investigate dissension at Princeton Seminary. As the fundamentalist controversy unfolded, the faculty and administration divided into two camps: the moderates, led by Charles Erdman and J. Ross Stevenson, and the conservatives, headed by Machen, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge (all members of the faculty), and Clarence Macartney (a member of the seminary’s board of directors). The moderates were by no means liberal. Rather, they were influenced by the revivalist impulses of American evangelicalism and believed that effective outreach and church unity were more important than theological precision or uniformity. From their perspective, there may have been a few liberals in the church—people who did not dot every “i” and cross every “t” of the confession—but standing against them was not worth destroying the unity of the denomination. Conservatives, however, saw liberalism as a message antagonistic to the gospel. How could any church that took the Bible and theology seriously willfully tolerate error in its ranks?

Other issues were also at stake in the debates at Princeton. The seminary had been an agency of the Old School Presbyterian Church. When the Old and New Schools reunited in 1869, the plan allowed Princeton to retain its Old School theological identity. Old School Presbyterianism stood for strict adherence to the Westminster Confession and an insistence that, according to Presbyterian polity, the church, not parachurch agencies, was the only acceptable means for conducting the work of missions and evangelism. Moderates at Princeton in the 1920s, however, came from New School backgrounds, and wanted the seminary to represent the whole church, not just Old School Presbyterianism. For Machen and other conservatives, the issue was not just the legal matter of following the seminary’s constitution; it also involved the meaning of Christianity itself. Was the Westminster Confession of Faith the system of truth revealed in the Bible, as the ordination vows of the Presbyterian Church stated? If it was, then preserving the Old School character of Princeton concerned not just technical legal matters but the meaning of the gospel. Princeton, in conservative minds, stood for the truth of the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Others who wanted the seminary to change did not see the value of Presbyterian orthodoxy.

In 1929 the contest for the identity of Princeton Seminary—and more generally for the identity of the Presbyterian Church—came to an end. The seminary was reorganized in such a way that conservatives who had been a majority on the board of directors were now a minority. What is more, signers of the Auburn Affirmation were appointed to serve on Princeton’s board. In effect, the seminary had been forced to conform to the theologically tolerant—if not indifferent—character of the Presbyterian Church. Princeton Seminary, an institution that had stoutly served the Reformed faith since 1812, Machen wrote, had been lost to the cause of Presbyterian orthodoxy.

In response to these devastating developments, Machen and other conservatives in the Philadelphia vicinity founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Yet, according to Machen, speaking at the seminary’s opening exercises in the fall of 1929, “Princeton Seminary is not dead, the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary is alive.” The new seminary would endeavor “by God’s grace” to continue the Princeton tradition unimpaired, as he explained,

… not on the foundation of equivocation and compromise, but on an honest foundation of devotion to God’s Word, to maintain the same principles that old Princeton maintained … that the Christian religion, as set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, is true; and … that the Christian religion should be proclaimed without fear or favor, and in clear opposition to whatever opposes it, whether within or without the church, as the only way of salvation for lost mankind.

Such was the founding vision for Westminster Seminary. This was also the founding vision for the OPC. For Machen founded a new seminary not just to add diversity to the world of higher education but in order to train Presbyterian ministers who, week in and week out, would proclaim the whole counsel of God as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In a few years it would be painfully clear that the ministers trained at Westminster would not be welcome in the Presbyterian Church and that a new denomination would be necessary. That denomination would be the OPC, a church dedicated to faithfully following Scripture, adhering to Old School Presbyterianism in its worship, polity, and doctrine, and putting faithfulness to Christ above the success of numbers or the plaudits of the world. This vision for the OPC was shaped by the developments within Presbyterianism of the 1920s, events which taught that constant vigilance is necessary for the vitality of the church, that errors must be continually expelled, that purity of doctrine, worship, and life must be the goal. In sum, this vision was to be a Presbyterian church, nothing less.

Chapter 2: The Founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

After the events of the 1920s and the loss of Princeton Seminary to concessive forces within the Presbyterian Church, Machen became convinced that conservatives would have to start thinking about a new church. As early as 1924 he believed verbal adherence to the Bible and the confession of faith would not assure orthodoxy. But once the very boards and agencies of the church began to combat the gospel in their official activities, then the need for a new church would be clear.

In 1932 the scenario which Machen feared became a reality. This was the year ReThinking Missions was published, a massive evaluation of world missions funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and co-sponsored by the missions boards of seven Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church. The report recommended that the churches reconceive their mission strategy. The authors denied the exclusive nature of the Christian faith and favored an approach that acknowledged good in all religions. Missionaries, they said, should not work for the “destruction of [other] religions” but for “their continued co-existence with Christianity, each stimulating the other to their ultimate goal, unity in the completest religious truth.” Christianity was not a religion distinct or hostile to other world religions. Rather, it was the fulfillment or the perfection of universal religious sentiments. The report also argued for a new conception of the missionary enterprise. Evangelism should no longer be the motive for missions. Instead, humanitarian services such as education and medicine had religious value in and of themselves. To shower other lands with these blessings was to Christianize them as much as to call individuals to faith and repentance.

In his history of this period, The Presbyterian Conflict, Edwin H. Rian writes that ReThinking Missions was premised on the modernist assumption “that the germ of truth exists in all religions and that it is the duty of the missionary to recognize that germ of truth as the least common denominator and build thereupon.” The church had outgrown the work of missions. No longer were missionaries to show the false character of other religions and to point people to the one way of salvation. It seemed offensive to the modem, enlightened mind to preach the unique claims of Christ and to assert that other religions were simply false. For modernists the traditional missionary activity was cultural imperialism, and the religious traditions of native peoples must be respected, not challenged.

The controversy that erupted after the publication of ReThinking Missions had all the earmarks of the 1920s fundamentalist controversy. Conservatives in the church believed that the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions, which had two of its members on the committee that wrote the report and which refused to condemn its conclusions, was guilty of harboring liberalism. Moderates who were concerned to keep the church unified and programs afloat opposed conservative accusations as distractions from the positive work of the church. Liberals never really had to get involved in the fight since conservatives and moderates were disagreeing so well on their own. The result was a dispute between faithfulness to Scripture and the confession, and the effective outreach of the church—theological integrity versus pragmatic efficiency.

But the missions controversy of the 1930s took on a different tone from the debates of the 1920s when Machen and several other conservatives founded in 1933 the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. At this point the battle for Presbyterian orthodoxy shifted to a contest over Presbyterian polity. Just as the events of the 1920s, in which leaders like Machen defended Calvinist theology, were important for shaping the OPC’s confessional identity, so the skirmishes of the 1930s over Presbyterian church order were crucial for the OPC’s characteristic dogged adherence to Presbyterian practices in ecclesiastical politics.

Presbyterian Polity

There are dozens of denominations in existence today that claim to be Christian, yet all of them adhere to one of three kinds of church polity. There are hierarchical churches, such as Roman Catholic and Episcopalian. These denominations order the offices of the church in a hierarchy: bishops, priests, and deacons. Furthermore, they claim that authority in the church is found in direct and uninterrupted apostolic succession. Another common form of government is the congregational model, found, for example, in Baptist churches. This teaching affirms the autonomy of the local church. Each congregation is independent, responsible only to Christ as its head, and is not subject to church councils.

The third model for church government is Presbyterianism. Presbyterians believe that the Bible requires the church to be governed by elders. More recently some Presbyterians have argued that the Bible describes only two offices for the maintenance of the church, namely elders and deacons; e.g. Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975). But historically, Presbyterianism has taught that Jesus Christ by his Spirit instituted the office of the minister of the Word, or teaching elder, along with the ruling elder and the deacon for the preservation of sound teaching and good order in his church. This is commonly called the “three-office” view. The minister is called in Scripture “preacher,” “pastor,” “teacher,” “steward of the mysteries of God,” and in this combination of functions is distinct from the elder. The minister does rule, along with the elders, but unlike the elders he does not earn his living in secular occupations but is supported by the church because his life is devoted to preaching the Word (I Cor 9:14, “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel”).

In Presbyterian polity, the local church is governed by a session that is composed of the pastor and ruling elders. The church is also a member of a regional group, a presbytery, uniting the pastors and ruling elders of a region. Finally, there is the general assembly, which is the governing body of the whole church, composed of such ministers and ruling elders as the presbyteries shall commission to it. These bodies the session, presbytery, and general assembly—all exercise discipline and oversight over the church. The system of lower and higher judicatories preserves the peace and unity of the church while protecting the rights of the local assemblies.

Unlike the congregationalists, Presbyterians seek the visible unity among congregations. In contrast to hierarchical churches, the unity is structured through representative and non-hierarchical means. Presbyterians believe that Christ alone sovereignly rules the church, as the Westminster Confession states, “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ.” The confession adds that church government is designed for the edification of the church and that believers are to receive the church’s decisions “with reverence and submission” if “consonant to the Word of God.”

The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions

Questions about Presbyterian polity and the authority of the church lay at the heart of the missions controversy of the 1930s. Convinced that the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions tolerated and in some cases promoted liberalism, Machen in 1933 through his regional body, the Presbytery of New Brunswick (NJ), overtured the general assembly to instruct the missions board to do all in its power to insure that sound missionaries and doctrine were characteristic of its activities. To make his case clearer, he also wrote a lengthy pamphlet, “Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions of the PCUSA.” In it he argued that ReThinking Missions was “from beginning to end an attack upon the historic Christian faith.” Beyond the Foreign Missions Board’s own endorsement of the report, Machen also pointed out other ways the board was condoning modernism.

Perhaps the most glaring example of modernism within Presbyterian foreign missions was Pearl Buck. The well-known author of The Good Earth and other novels, Buck lived in China and taught in Nanking University under the aegis of the Board of Foreign Missions. As a thoroughly committed modernist, she urged the church to rid itself of “the old reasons for foreign missions.” These reasons were adherence to doctrines such as original sin, the deity of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, and his resurrection, all of which she linked to “superstition” and “magic religion.” Machen insisted that the integrity of the board required it to dismiss her and other modernists from the rolls of Presbyterian missionaries. He made it plain that this was not an esoteric issue before the church, stating that “the real question is what the Board of Foreign Missions is doing with the funds which the Bible-believing Christians, at great sacrifice, are entrusting to it.”

While foreign missions became the battleground, it would be a mistake to think that this was the only area of the church affected by modernism. On the contrary, it was the perception of the conservatives that the church’s Board of Foreign Missions was the /east contaminated of the official boards. According to the Presbyterian Guardian, the literature produced by the Board of Christian Education contained “unvarnished paganism,” and the Board of National Missions had the highest percentage of Auburn Affirmationists of all three boards.

Machen’s overture was defeated by the Presbytery of New Brunswick, but a similar measure came before the 1933 General Assembly from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. It too was defeated through what conservatives believed was an outright evasion of the issue for the purpose of protecting the church’s image. The clear message was that unbelief was institutionalized in the church. One of Machen’s students at the time, Robert Churchill, described the moment as one in which the church had effectively rewritten Galatians 1:8 to read, “If any man preach another gospel, let him be supported.”

Rebuffed by the ordinary means of Presbyterian procedure and convinced that other more visible means of combatting modernism were required, on June 27, 1933, only four weeks after the general assembly, Machen and his supporters organized the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions for the expressed purpose of promoting “truly Biblical and Presbyterian mission work.”

Was the formation of the Independent Board a wise decision? This question is not easily answered. Machen’s high view of the church and the accountability normally insured by Presbyterian polity made the establishment of what was essentially a parachurch organization for the work of missions an anomaly at best. Even though the officers of the board were all Presbyterian and the missionaries they supported had been ordained Presbyterian ministers, the board was not directly answerable, as Old School Presbyterians would have insisted, to the visible church in anything more than an informal way. But while uncomfortable with the board’s independence, Machen believed the dire situation in the church required an emergency measure. According to Robert Churchill, the Independent Board was never intended to be permanent. It would be dissolved if and when the official board reformed. The Independent Board was a temporary effort to address the desperate state of missions in the church. Moreover, the centralization and bureaucratization of many of the Presbyterian Church’s ministries, missions being only one example, severely restricted efforts to reform denominational agencies by removing them from the more immediate supervision of church courts.

A more troubling concern for Machen and the supporters of the board was the division the board provoked within the conservative cause. Many conservatives within the church, especially some members of Westminster Seminary’s faculty and administration, equally opposed to modernism, argued that the Independent Board was too antagonistic and that it did not serve the best interests of the cause of orthodoxy. Sadly, some of these allies deserted the cause over disagreement on strategy. The irony was that these supporters had gone along with the founding of Westminster, an independent Presbyterian institution. From Machen’s perspective, organizing the Independent Board was no different from establishing Westminster Seminary. Emergency situations required unusual tactics. And the only way to make the church take notice was to establish institutions committed to the Reformed faith and unfettered by the denomination’s desire for acceptance within American culture.

The Word of God versus the Word of Man

Ultimately, the debate over the Independent Board shifted to the ecclesiastical question. Here the independence of the board was critical. Machen believed that the central agencies and offices of the denomination had become too powerful and too much subject to the whims of a small modernist party within the church. The centralization of the church’s bureaucracy had made it increasingly difficult for conservatives not just to shape denominational policy but even to have a voice in denominational affairs. More and more denominational officials were subverting church polity and procedure in order to force their own agenda upon the church at large. According to Machen,

Everywhere we find centralization of power under an arbitrary bureaucracy; the idea of liberty is slowly but very surely being reduced. Solemn contracts … are being treated as scraps of paper; the solid foundations of liberty and honesty are crumbling beneath our feet. … The Church, bearing the sacred name of Christ, is standing on a lower ethical plane than that which prevails in the world outside—than that which prevails among people who make no profession of religion at all.

These problems had been evident in the Special Commission of 1925’s rulings and the reorganization of Princeton Seminary, but assumed a particular urgency in the case of the fundamentalist Presbyterian, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, only a few blocks from Westminster’s original center-city Philadelphia campus. In 1930 he had begun a series of Sunday evening services in an area theater that drew people away from their own services and caused ministers in the vicinity to object. Especially offensive was Barnhouse’s declaration that he would sooner die than allow a liberal minister to preach in his pulpit. Liberals within the Presbytery of Philadelphia eventually brought Barnhouse to trial for breach of the ninth commandment and violation of his ordination vows. He was found guilty and was admonished by his predominantly conservative presbytery, the lightest punishment under Presbyterian law.

Machen was by no means a supporter of Barnhouse, a minister partial to dispensational premillennialism and indifferent to Westminster, but Machen was alarmed by the proceedings, believing it would set an important precedent. From his perspective, the church court had ruled that the minister’s utterances were slanderous without ever considering whether they might be accurate. The trial was a clear signal to church members that disloyalty to the Presbyterian Church or its ministers would result in charges being brought against dissenters. Machen wrote in one letter that the ruling was “an outrage” and added that if Barnhouse were guilty, all conservatives were guilty. The trial raised the possibility that conservatives would be forced to make common cause with modernists.

The issues of constitutionality and restraint of arbitrary power came up forcefully in the aftermath of the organization of the Independent Board. Could the church prohibit the action of its members to form agencies independent of the church? On this issue Machen’s conservative critics agreed; whether or not the formation of the Independent Board was prudent, Machen was acting fully in accordance with the constitution of the Presbyterian Church to organize the new missions board. What is more, the church had never questioned the support that local congregations sent to independent missions agencies such as the China Inland Mission.

Yet church officials, some of whom had signed the Auburn Affirmation, took a different view of the Independent Board. The stated clerk of the general assembly, Lewis Mudge, opined that the new agency subverted Presbyterian law by undertaking “administrative functions within the church without official authorization.’’ He also instructed presbyteries that graduates of Westminster Seminary could not be licensed to preach unless they affirmed the commitment to support the official work of the denomination. Machen pointed out that such demands for loyalty to church agencies was clearly unconstitutional—ordination vows could not be amended without the consent of the church through its ordinary deliberations. In addition, demanding such a pledge of loyalty was tyrannical—it obligated ministers to support whatever denominational agencies did. Above all, it was unbiblical—it substituted the word of man for the Word of God.

Having eliminated the potential of support for the Independent Board, Presbyterian officials next acted against the board itself. In the spring of 1934, the members of the Independent Board were instructed that the new organization was in violation of the church’s constitution and that board members were guilty of violating their “ordination or membership vows, or both.” The basis for this decision came in Studies of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a document prepared for the 1934 General Assembly. This booklet placed the broadest possible construction upon the power of the general assembly. It also stated that offerings to the denomination were as much an obligation as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Gifts could only be given to organizations approved by the general assembly. This interpretation of Presbyterian polity was ratified by the 1934 General Assembly, which also ordered the members of the Independent Board to resign their positions. If they did not comply, they would be brought to trial.

Conservatives, whether members of the board or not, were outraged. Maitland Alexander, a former director of Princeton Seminary, said, “if we are to have a Presbyterian Mussolini, give us one with Mussolini’s brains …. if we are to have a Pope, give us one with the wisdom and conservatism of the Vatican.” Samuel G. Craig, a member of Westminster Seminary’s board, wondered whether the general assembly had ever read the Westminster Confession which declared that “‘decrees and determinations’ of synods and councils ‘are to be received … if consonant to the Word of God.’” The general assembly’s action, according to Clarence Macartney, was an “invasion of Presbyterian liberty” and “another victory for modernism.”

The Presbytery of New Brunswick asked Machen to comply with the edict. He refused and responded with a prepared statement. Machen objected that the church’s mandate made church benevolences a tax and that the general assembly had illegally granted itself the power to interpret the constitution and confession without the ratification of lower courts. Presbyterian law safeguarded the rights of individuals and lower judicatories from “the tyranny of the higher.” This law was also premised upon the notion of due process. But the entire question of the Independent Board’s constitutionality had been decided without giving the board’s members a day in court to hear their side. The decision therefore violated basic Protestant principles, clearly substituting human authority for the Word of God and, in effect, adopting the Roman Catholic Church’s view that the seat of authority in religion is “the Bible interpreted authoritatively by the church.” In effect, the ruling instructed ministers to take their Bibles from their pulpits and use instead the last Minutes of the general assembly. Machen concluded that the Independent Board had not violated Presbyterian law, and the unconstitutional methods of the church hierarchy proved as much.

Despite his vigorous defense, Machen and the rest of the Independent Board were eventually brought to trial. In Machen’s case the proceedings began in February 1935. His counsel tried to hold up the trial on a variety of legal matters in order to show how unethical the whole affair was—for instance, no conservatives were on the judicial commission which heard the case and the commission had wanted to conduct the trial in private. There was even a question whether the Presbytery of New Brunswick was the proper court of jurisdiction. Machen had transferred to the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1934, but the stated clerk of the general assembly, also a member of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, ruled that Machen’s transfer had been invalid because the proper paper work had not been filed. In all likelihood, the conservative Presbytery of Philadelphia would not have brought Machen to trial, or at least would have made such a proceeding very messy for the denomination.

If Machen and his counsel thought some of these matters indicated a lack of fairness, they had no idea what was ahead. After settling these technicalities, Machen’s counsel, H. McAllister Griffiths, prepared to take up the heart of the matter, namely, whether the official Board of Foreign Missions was condoning modernism and, if so, could someone be convicted of lying and violating his ordination vows for pointing this out. But before he could say a word, the commission ruled that it would hear no evidence concerning modernism in the church, the soundness of the Board of Foreign Missions, the Princeton-Westminster controversy, or the legality of the 1934 mandate. With Machen unable to defend his actions, the commission, on March 29, 1935, found him guilty as charged and recommended that he be suspended from the ministry unless he repent of his indiscretions.

Machen responded that the commission had simply condemned him without a hearing. He had disobeyed the 1934 mandate, a “purely arbitrary administrative order,” because it was unconstitutional. The only way to test a ruling, he added, was through the courts, beginning with the presbytery. The Presbytery of New Brunswick, however, had refused the right of such testing. The entire case came down to this, he said: “I am ordered by the General Assembly to support the modernist propaganda which is being furthered by the official Board of Foreign Missions. … Being a Christian man, I cannot do so.”

In the aftermath of this trial and ones similar to it, approximately one hundred ministers and elders gathered at Philadelphia in June 1935 to form the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. The organization was designed to combat the growing influence of those who supported the Auburn Affirmation and to protest the outcome of the Independent Board member trials. Covenant Union members vowed to make every effort to reform the denomination. If these endeavors failed, they would “perpetuate the true Presbyterian Church … regardless of cost.”

The PCCU was committed to the notion that doctrinal and administrative matters could not be separated. Presbyterian leaders could not be content with preaching the gospel to their congregations or insuring that local churches remained sound; they had to take their grievances to church councils because Presbyterian polity insisted upon the theological uniformity and integrity of the church. The church was not a pluralistic institution. Its message was bound by the Westminster Confession of Faith. And making one’s concerns known at presbytery and general assembly was the way to insure such unity. The one prime requisite for anyone taking part in this movement, Machen told one timid supporter, “is that he shall be a fighter.” The cause of true Presbyterianism would die of inaction unless conservatives kept up the “ecclesiastical fight.”

For Machen and the PCCU, this fight ended in June 1936 when the general assembly upheld every verdict against the members of the Independent Board. It ruled that the Independent Board “expressly contravened provisions of the constitution and did great harm to the peace of the church.” Machen’s “denunciations of fellow-ministers” amounted to defamation of character and “seriously aggravated his other offenses.” The commission directed the Presbytery of New Brunswick to suspend Machen from the ministry.

Only ten days following the close of the general assembly, the PCCU convened in Philadelphia and the new denomination was formed. The OPC was constituted with thirty-four ministers and Seventeen elders. Machen was elected its moderator and immediately affirmed the principles for which he and other conservatives had been fighting since the 1920s. The new church would maintain and defend the Bible “as the Word of God,” the Westminster i Confession of Faith “as the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scriptures,” and the principles of Presbyterian church government “as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God.” With the formation of the new church came a sense of relief. “What a joyous moment it was,” Machen sighed, “how the long years of struggle seemed to sink into nothingness compared with the peace and joy that filled our hearts. We became members, at last, of a true Presbyterian Church.”

Machen had good reason to experience relief. The founding of the OPC was the culmination of years of hard fought controversy and the product of considerable time, energy, and money. Many had questioned Machen’s character and had hurled a variety of insults at the conservative movement. Yet what made the founding of the OPC so welcome was that it fulfilled Machen’s view of the responsibility of the church. Machen expressed that view in 1932 before the Academy of Political and Social Science:

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin;!i that the span of human life—nay, all the length of human history—is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, finitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens—are as the dust of the street.
An unpopular message it is—an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian Church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life.

Machen and the OPC

One cannot understand the OPC’s emphasis on doctrine without an appreciation of the doctrinal crisis out of which the OPC arose. For Machen and his supporters, irreconcilable differences in belief lay at the heart of the controversy. The theological views of modernists and Christian orthodoxy were mutually exclusive. For the sake of the purity of the church, separation was necessary. And the struggles in which Machen engaged go far in explaining the character of the church. The OPC, since its founding, has been characterized—by friend and foe—as “the little church with the big mouth.” Certainly, Machen’s desire for a doctrinally sound church is no formula for explosive church growth in a pragmatic and anti-intellectual age that is hostile to sound theology. Moreover, the church must be wary of proudly boasting of its small size as a sign of its unswerving fidelity to the truth.

Yet the OPC has survived, and more than that, it has maintained its commitment to the Westminster Confession and Presbyterian polity. Like its founders it has heeded the admonition of Paul: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim 4:16). This is unmistakably a sign of God’s grace, and for that the church must be truly thankful.

Chapter 3: The Division of 1937

When the OPC was formed on June 11, 1936, hopes ran high among a small number of Presbyterians who, for the better part of a decade, had struggled against modernist unbelief and had followed J. Gresham Machen out of the mainline Presbyterian Church. In his editorial for the Presbyterian Guardian, Machen tapped this optimism when he wrote, “With what lively hope does our gaze turn now to the future! At last true evangelism can go forward without the shackle of compromising associations.” Yet, for all his enthusiasm, Machen was also cautious. As a good Calvinist, he knew well that the new church would not be immune to the sins which stalk the human heart. So in his sermon before the OPC’s First General Assembly in 1936, he warned that while the OPC was a “real part of the Church of God” it was nonetheless a “little company of weak and sinful folk.”

Machen’s words before the commissioners who gathered in Philadelphia for the First General Assembly were as prophetic as they were descriptive. Behind the scenes, the OPC was engaged in an intense struggle that would be crucial for the denomination’s mission and future.

At first glance, controversy within the new church would seem the least likely development. After all, these Presbyterians had been accused of fomenting controversy and division within the mainline church. To demonstrate that they were interested more in faithfulness than in power, the leaders of the OPC wanted their new church to reflect the fellowship and common purpose that the gospel of Christ commands and produces. Also, having a common enemy and experiencing a sense of liberation from the dead hand of modernist theology and from the underhanded tactics of denominational officials should have paid off with large dividends of trust, commitment, and unity.

But among the many lessons that church history teaches is that when new churches are founded, the result often is not unity but greater fragmentation. For instance, despite opposition to the abuses and false teaching of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation produced such different expressions of Christianity as Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Anglicanism, and Presbyterianism. So too, opposition to Protestant modernism in the Northern Presbyterian Church yielded diverse forms of conservative Protestantism. As events in the months before and after the OPC’s founding would reveal, the conservatives who joined the new denomination had different reasons for opposing modernism and, as a result, different understandings of what the new church should be. the first year of the OPC’s existence, conflicts over the church’s identity became readily discernible. These conflicts not only involved Machen’s own vision for the new church but, more importantly, went to the heart of what it meant to be faithful to God’s Word as taught by the Westminster Standards.

Conservative Fragmentation

Put simply, the controversy that fractured the OPC during its first year concerned a choice between American fundamentalism: and the Reformed faith. If one defines fundamentalism strictly by its opposition to modernist theology, then the OPC is and always has been a fundamentalist denomination. But by such a definition conservative Lutherans, Episcopalians, Anabaptists, and even Roman Catholics would also qualify as fundamentalist, for conservative communions in those theological traditions have also opposed efforts to adapt the church’s teaching and practice to modem secular culture.

Fundamentalism, however, has a more precise definition than the mere opposition of liberalism. It also stands for certain theological emphases, among which are dispensationalist theology, revivalistic techniques of soul-winning, stem prohibitions against worldly entertainments, and a low view of the institutional church. The most important feature of fundamentalism that played havoc in the division of 1937 was dispensational premillennialism.

Dispensationalism is a way of interpreting the Bible that divides redemptive history into various ages (dispensations). In each period, according to this view, God establishes a covenant with his people, his people in turn break the terms of that covenant, and God punishes such sinful behavior with a catastrophic form of divine judgment. Dispensationalism also features a fair amount of interest in the end of the current and last age—the time between the apostles and the end of human history—known as the age of the church. Consequently, dispensationalists spend much time trying to understand what biblical prophecy teaches about the end of this age. According to dispensationalism, the age of the church will be just like other dispensations. God’s people will fail to keep the covenant and divine judgment will end the age of the church. But unlike other dispensations, Christ will return and establish his kingdom, thus inaugurating the millennium, his thousand-year reign. This is why dispensationalists are premillennialists. They believe that Christ will return before the millennium (as opposed to postmillennialism, i.e., Christ’s return will come at the end of the millennium).[2]

Dispensationalism’s chief architect was John Nelson Darby, an Anglican minister in the Church of Ireland, who eventually established the Plymouth Brethren. Owing to his tours in the United States and Canada during the late nineteenth century, dispensationalism became fairly popular among Northern Presbyterians and Baptists. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by Oxford University Press also contributed greatly to the spread of dispensational views among Protestants who opposed liberalism. For many of these believers, dispensationalism seemed to make perfect sense of the social decay that they saw in America. Urbanization, industrialization, and immigration had transformed the United States from a fairly stable and homogeneous nation into one beset by poverty, crime, and distrust. History was not improving, contrary to what many postmillennialists and liberal Protestants believed. Rather, signs everywhere indicated that sinful men and women were disregarding God’s law. The only hope for improvement lay in Christ’s return when he would judge disbelief and iniquity. The task of believers was to save as many unbelievers as possible before the day of judgment.

Dispensational theology thus performed a valuable witness to historic Christianity. At a time when naturalism became the norm for modernist theology, dispensationalism preserved the supernatural character of the gospel. When many Protestant scholars were beginning to view the Bible as an inspirational book written by culturally conditioned human authors, dispensationalism nurtured a high view of Scripture as God’s word of salvation to sinners. Furthermore, at a time when many mainline Protestants saw the American nation as the visible manifestation of God’s kingdom, dispensationalism sometimes encouraged a healthy skepticism of the so-called progressive ways of the United States.

But as important as dispensationalism was for building opposition to liberalism, it also harbored a number of teachings that were at odds with the Reformed faith. Especially troublesome was the idea that God dealt differently with humankind during different historical periods. Reformed theology teaches that ever since the fall, salvation comes only through Christ, the Messiah promised to Israel and revealed in the New Testament to the church. But dispensationalism implies that God uses different means of salvation at different times, thus denying the finality of the fall and the continuity of redemption throughout the Bible. During the 1920s and early 1930s when conservative Presbyterians and dispensationalists had a common enemy, these differences were not apparent. But by the time of the OPC’s founding in 1936, points of controversy had begun to surface in ways that turned out to be explosive and divisive.

Machen himself had been critical of dispensationalism in his popular book Christianity and Liberalism. There he called it “a false method of interpretation of the Word of God” and argued that the prophecies of the Bible could not be “mapped-out” in as definite a fashion as dispensationalists taught. Nevertheless, Machen went on in the same book to point out “how great” his agreement with dispensationalists was in regard to the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, and the supernatural character of grace. “Christian fellowship,” he concluded, “with loyalty not only to the Bible but to the great creeds of the Church” could still unite Presbyterians and dispensationalists. The dangers of modernism were so great, however, that Reformed believers and dispensationalists during the 1920s rarely studied what divided them.

During the 1930s as conservative Presbyterians began to establish their own institutions, such as Westminster Seminary and the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, rather than merely attacking liberalism, more consideration had to be given to the beliefs for which conservatives stood. And as conservatives struggled to erect the boundaries of the movement, Machen began to see more clearly the serious ways in which dispensationalism undermined the Reformed faith and, in fact, that theological differences separated fundamentalists and Presbyterians which could not be harmonized. At the same time, the leaders of the OPC fully embraced the teaching of amillennialism as the view on Christ’s return most consistent with Scripture. Unlike premillennialists, who looked to Christ’s second coming as the beginning of his thousand-year reign, and postmillennialists, who believed Christ would return at the end of a thousand-year period of prosperity for the church, amillennialists, as John Murray explained, held that Christ’s second coming would mark the end of this age and the beginning of “the eternal age, when the kingdom of God will have been consummated.” That age would not be a literal millennium nor would it be the reign of God on earth. Instead, Christ’s second coming, or the “day of the Lord,” would be eternal and would bring the dissolution of the present heavens and earth, thus inaugurating the new heavens and new earth prophesied in II Peter 3:14.

The Controversy

In the fall of 1936 through a series of relatively benign coincidences, these differences came to the surface. The controversy intensified when R. B. Kuiper, a professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary, reported on the OPC’s First General Assembly to the Christian Reformed Church to which he still be. longed. It would have warmed the hearts of Dutch Calvinist ministers, he wrote, to hear OP ministerial candidates questioned about “the two errors” which were “so extremely prevalent among American fundamentalists,” namely, Arminianism and the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Reference Bible. Carl McIntire, an OP pastor in southern New Jersey, in his church paper, the Christian Beacon, took exception to Kuiper’s published remarks. He claimed that the majority of the OPC was premillennialist and that the church was committed to “eschatological liberty.” He added the warning that a “premillenarian uprising” would ensue if Kuiper did not cease his “veiled and continued attacks.”

Machen thought McIntire’s editorial was politically unwise; he was especially critical of the New Jersey pastor’s unwillingness to publish a response by Kuiper, something demanded by “journalistic ethics as well as by the ethics of the Bible.” Nevertheless, the more important issue was not political but theological. Machen feared that McIntire was turning premillennialism into an “essential doctrine.” And in a letter to another premillennialist, J. Oliver Buswell, an OP minister and president of Wheaton College, Machen took aim at the Scofield Reference Bible—a book he regarded as “profoundly harmful.” The “root error” of dispensationalism, Machen wrote, was its “utter failure” to recognize “that anything irrevocable took place when Adam fell.” He admitted that he had not always felt so strongly, having devoted most of his life “to the refutation of naturalistic Modernism.” The Scofield teaching had always seemed “a side issue,” but not so “erroneous as to be opposed to Christianity.” With the formation of the OPC, however, he saw that many of the laity treated Scofield’s notes as though they were God’s Word; he also believed that dispensationalism was dominating preaching. Machen hoped that the OPC would turn “from these elaborate schemes” to the “grand simplicity” of the Reformed faith.

Disputes about dispensationalism revealed two distinct camps within the leadership of the OPC—one side Old School Presbyterian in outlook, the other fundamentalist. The Old School party, led by Machen, consisted of the majority of Westminster’s faculty, many of whom came from non-American Reformed traditions such as Scottish Presbyterianism (John Murray), and Dutch Calvinism (Cornelius Van Til, Ned B. Stonehouse, and R. B. Kuiper). This group was characterized by a high regard for the Westminster Confession, Presbyterian polity, and Reformed piety (e.g., liberty in various matters such as beverage alcohol and tobacco, where Scripture is silent). The fundamentalist party was led by Carl McIntire, J. Oliver Buswell, and Allan MacRae, professor of Old Testament at Westminster. Though Buswell and MacRae disavowed the dispensationalist label, this group was premillennialist and defended the liberty of OP congregations to use the Scofield Reference Bible. They also were less rigorous in their application of Presbyterian polity and promoted a form of piety that featured abstinence from liquor, tobacco, movies, dancing, and cards.

At its Second General Assembly, held in November 1936, these parties managed to avoid a breach, even though McIntire threatened to split the church. Machen tried to keep the two sides together, despite his own Old School sympathies, and orchestrated the election of J. Oliver Buswell as moderator. Still, theological controversy could not be avoided. As the church took up the matter of its constitution, two issues emerged which reflected the growing division within the OPC.

The first matter concerned which version of the Westminster Confession the OPC would adopt. In 1903 the mainline Presbyterian Church had amended the confession with two new chapters—one on the Holy Spirit and the other on the love of God and missions. The OPC general assembly decided that these amendments were Arminian in character and should be eliminated from the version of the Confession it would adopt. This was the prevailing view of Machen and his Old School colleagues at Westminster Seminary. But this decision drew some opposition from fundamentalists, many of whom were involved in court battles over church property. By revising the confession, they argued, it would be harder to convince public authorities that the OPC was the genuine Successor to the Presbyterian Church and that its congregations should keep their property. Many of those who voted to eliminate the 1903 revisions were also engaged in property disputes, but for them theological integrity mattered more in the long run than retaining church buildings.

The second issue concerned eschatology. A number of overtures and reports expressed the desire for “eschatological liberty” within the OPC, that is, sufficient room for different views of Christ’s return and the millennium. But the Old School party, as well as the moderator, Buswell, thought that the Westminster Standards should stand on their own without any extra provisions. And since the Westminster Confession only teaches that Christ will come again, the church was already committed to allowing different views of the millennium as long as those views did not conflict with the Reformed theology taught by the confession. Thus, even though the general assembly appeared to grant the liberty that some dispensationalists desired, it actually kept the controversy over premillennialism alive. For many in the church believed that dispensational theology was at odds with the Westminster Standards, not with regard to the millennium, but more importantly over the effects of the fall and the unity of God’s gracious ways throughout redemptive history.

While the Second General Assembly did not give the Old School party a clear victory, it did make the church’s Calvinistic confessional identity explicit. The body eliminated the 1903 amendments to the Westminster Confession which were at cross purposes with the Reformed theology of the standards. The general assembly also refused to cave in to dispensationalist pressure and go beyond the Westminster Standards on questions surrounding the time and nature of Christ’s second coming. Suffering from this setback, the fundamentalist party retaliated by taking control of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Even though the independence of the board from ecclesiastical oversight suggested that the conservative missions agency condoned non-Presbyterian forms of church government, the board’s constitution stated that it would support only those missionaries who vowed to conduct and establish missions based on the Westminster Confession and “the fundamental principles of Presbyterian Church government.” The board’s independence at its founding in 1933, then, was merely a temporary measure to protest the desperate state of the mainline denomination’s missions enterprise. In other words, despite its independence, the board was committed to establishing and conducting Presbyterian, not independent, missions.

The fundamentalist takeover of the Independent Board, however, appeared to compromise the agency’s commitment to Presbyterian church polity. At its annual election of officers in the fall of 1936, fundamentalists on the board, especially McIntire, fearing that a Westminster clique had taken control of the OPC, successfully ousted Machen as the board’s president, a position he had held since its founding. They elected instead Harold S. Laird, pastor of an independent church in Wilmington, Delaware, and named another independent minister as vice-president. McIntire’s group was now in control of the board. Machen was deeply distressed. Close associates and family members believed that he was so hurt by the action of the board, an organization upon which he had risked his reputation, that his physical strength was seriously depleted, making him an easy prey for his fatal illness. Still, in his last letter to Buswell, Machen did not reveal his sorrow. Instead, he wrote that the Independent Board was at “the parting of the ways between a mere fundamentalism, on the one hand, and Presbyterianism on the other.” The board’s elections had revealed that it was now in the hands of dispensationalists. This led to the withdrawal of OP support for the Independent Board the following year.

The last issue that split the OPC concerned Christian teaching on personal morality. Specifically, the church was divided over total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. While this issue might seem foreign to Christians living at the end of the twentieth century, most American Protestants had supported vigorously the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, an act which prohibited the production and sale of beverage alcohol and which was not reversed until 1933. So whether Christians could drink in good conscience was still a hotly contested matter when the OPC was founded.

Debates about total abstinence came to a head at the 1937 General Assembly, though the issue had been lurking in the background for some time. Fundamentalists such as Buswell and McIntire were displeased by the Westminster Seminary faculty’s unwillingness to condemn liquor. The faculty held that to advocate total abstinence was to reject the example of Christ, who at the wedding of Cana (John 2) changed the water into wine. Nevertheless, rumors circulated throughout the church that seminary students drank in their rooms with the approval of the faculty. It did not help matters that several of Westminster’s faculty also smoked tobacco. While debates about the consumption of alcohol and tobacco concerned the significant matter of the Bible’s teaching on Christian liberty, the breach within the OPC also reflected cultural differences. A majority of Westminster’s faculty came from non-American backgrounds where drinking and smoking in moderation were acceptable. What is more, Machen had been a vigorous opponent of prohibition and was known to bring cigars to faculty meetings even though he did not smoke them himself.

Nevertheless, despite these cultural differences, an important aspect of Christian practice was at stake. At the Third General Assembly, Buswell threatened withdrawal if the denomination did not renounce drinking. Two overtures came before the assembly—one urging total abstinence came from Buswell’s Presbytery of Chicago; the second argued that simple adherence to the Westminster Standards was as far as the church could go. Each side appealed to Scripture, to precedents in American Presbyterianism, and to Machen’s own practice and convictions. In the end, Buswell’s overture lost by a large margin. The OPC based this decision on the principle that Christians should be free to follow the dictates of their own consciences in “matters where the Bible has not pronounced judgment.” Immediately following the assembly in May 1937, fourteen ministers and three elders, led by Buswell and McIntire, withdrew from the OPC and in 1938 formed the Bible Presbyterian Synod.

The division of 1937, despite its roots in the aftermath of the fundamentalist controversy, parallels remarkably a split that shook American Presbyterianism a century earlier. In 1837 the Presbyterian Church also split into two rival communions, the Old School and New School Presbyterian Churches. The issues of the compatibility of the Westminster Confession with evangelical theology, the importance of Presbyterian polity, and divergent understandings of Christian liberty contributed to the 1837 split just as they did in the OPC’s division of 1937. And both cases revealed the tensions between the Reformed faith and American evangelicalism. Just as the Old School party in the OPC rejected dispensationalism for contradicting the Reformed understanding of the fall and the covenant of grace, so the Old School Presbyterian Church opposed the Arminian theology of Charles Finney’s revivals as antithetical to Calvinist theology. Just as the Old Schoolers in the OPC made Presbyterian polity an issue when they withdrew support from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, so the Old School Presbyterian denomination insisted that the visible church, not parachurch organizations, should oversee and regulate evangelism and missions, and therefore refused to cooperate with the voluntary associations of the Second Great Awakening. And just as Old Schoolers in the OPC opposed fundamentalist efforts to prohibit on religious grounds the consumption of alcoholic beverages, so their forebears in the nineteenth century also criticized the moralism and legalism of extreme abolitionists and prohibitionists.

In both the Old School-New School split of 1837 and the 1937 division of the OPC, then, we can see significant differences between Reformed convictions and American Christianity in the revivalist tradition. Where Reformed churches stress human depravity and the sovereignty of God in salvation, evangelicals have overestimated human initiative and underestimated the pernicious effects of sin. Where Reformed churches insist that the means of grace be supervised and regulated by church officers, evangelicals have resisted such restrictions as too confining and ineffective for reaching the widest sphere of influence. And where Reformed churches have been unwilling to go beyond Scripture in condemning specific practices, evangelicals in their condemnation of certain activities have often been influenced more by the surrounding culture than by Scripture. Just as these tensions precipitated a split between Presbyterians in the early part of the nineteenth century, so they also revealed the differences between members of the OPC committed to the Reformed faith and those informed by the theology and practices of American fundamentalism.

Some thought that Machen’s premature death on January 1, 1937, contributed to the division of the OPC. His sudden death from pneumonia while traveling to Bismarck, North Dakota, to rally support for the OPC robbed the new church of its most capable leader. As Ned Stonehouse wrote in the January 23, 1937 issue of the Presbyterian Guardian, probably the most moving piece written on Machen’s death, the deceased “was far more than a brother to many of us. He was a father in Israel and we have become orphans.” Indeed, Machen’s leadership in the formation of Westminster Seminary, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and the OPC made him “chief among equals.” Stonehouse went on to observe that Machen “was notably the spiritual father of a generation of theological students who Crowded his classrooms,” and he had profoundly affected their “thinking and living.” The void created by Machen’s death was great. “We have depended so much upon him in the past,” Stonehouse lamented, “that it might well appear that we could not go on without him.” But even though his “steadying hand” was gone, Machen’s “devotion to truth and duty” left a heritage of “complete devotion to principle” which would help the church to “go on under God in loyalty to the truth for which [Machen] gave his life.”

Had Machen lived, perhaps he could have provided the stability and leadership necessary to find a compromise. His own activities in the church controversies of the 1930s, however, reveal that compromise would have been difficult. Even before his death, significant disagreements emerged between him and both Buswell and McIntire. Machen had a history of resisting compromise with all his might and main when the basic positions of the Reformed faith were being attacked. Also, the takeover of the Independent Board by McIntire demonstrated important differences that could not easily be resolved. From its inception the OPC was faced with a choice between being Reformed and being fundamentalist. From Machen’s perspective there was never any doubt about what the church should be. He had left Princeton to found Westminster in order to perpetuate the training of Old School Presbyterian ministers. And he helped to found the OPC as a church in which Westminster’s graduates could minister. As it turned out, the Reformed identity of the OPC after the division of 1937 was virtually identical to Machen’s original vision for the church.

The name of the denomination, in fact, spoke volumes about this vision. When the denomination was first founded, its name was the Presbyterian Church of America. Machen had argued that this title reflected the church’s claim to be the spiritual successor to the mainline denomination. But in 1937 the Presbyterian Church in the USA took the new denomination to court, charging that people might confuse the two denominations because of similar names. In 1938 the court ruled in the PCUSA’s favor, and the leaders of the new denomination were forced to look for another name. Various ones came before the Fifth General Assembly: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian and Reformed Church of America, The North American Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian Church of Christ, The Protestant Presbyterian Church of America, and The Free Presbyterian Church of America. In 1939 the commissioners chose “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church.” The decision was fitting for it reflected the church’s theological and ecclesiastical commitments.

In fact, Machen himself as early as 1935 chose the term “orthodox” as the proper adjective for describing the movement in which he played such a vital part. “Fundamentalism,” he wrote, was inadequate because it failed to do justice to the great heritage of Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster Confession. “Conservative” was unsatisfactory because it gave the impression of “holding desperately to something that is old merely because it is old.” “Evangelical” was not sufficiently clear; it did not designate those who held specifically to the Westminster Standards. But “Orthodox” was fitting because the word “orthodoxy” meant “straight doxy,” or correct thinking. To see whether a doctrine was “straight” it had to be compared against the “plumb line” of the Bible. As Machen argued and as the division of 1937 revealed, the rule for the OPC’s “straight doxy” was the Word of God. The OPC defended and adhered to the Reformed faith not because it was old or because it had such great champions as Augustine or Calvin; rather, it was committed to the Westminster Confession because, as Machen declared, it is “the creed which God has taught us in his Word.”

In the end, Stonehouse’s words of consolation at the time of Machen’s death turned out to be prophetic. The division of 1937 revealed the OPC’s true colors and the heritage of “complete fidelity to principle” which Machen had left to the church. The OPC had been founded not merely because the mainline church tolerated liberalism but because Christ instituted the church to proclaim the whole counsel of God. And for the OPC, proclaiming the whole counsel of God involved the system of doctrine and polity taught by the Westminster Standards. The church was established not on the basis of fundamentalism but out of a deep commitment to and love for Calvinist theology, Presbyterian church government, and Reformed piety.


[1] It should be noted that we distinguish here between revivalism centered in the local church such as that practiced, for instance, by Jonathan Edwards, and revivalism which depended upon the work of itinerant evangelists, such as George Whitefield, who were not accountable to an ecclesiastical body. While we believe the theology of the latter to have been in fundamental accord with the teachings of the Westminster Assembly, his practice of promoting revivals without the assistance or oversight of local churches appears to us to be a clear departure from a high view of the work of the visible church. For that reason, we are inclined to see the First Great Awakening, despite its Calvinistic theology, as being partly out of accord with Presbyterian convictions.

[2] Not all premillennialists are dispensationalists. Historic premillennialists are different from dispensationalists. Historic premillennialism, like dispensationalism, teaches that Christ will return to establish a one thousand-year reign on earth. But unlike dispensationalism, historic premillennialism does not break the history of redemption into various stages. Consequently, it does not involve the idea that God has dealt in a variety of ways with his people at different periods of history.

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