We can only speculate as to how he [Machen] might view the de facto revisions of the PCA’s confession and catechisms due to the allowances of “good faith subscription.” One thing is for sure—despite the challenges of the day, PCA confessionalists stand on much firmer ground and have far better prospects than did Machen in the first three and half decades of the 20th century.
J. Gresham Machen was doomed from the start in the Northern church. A virus was inserted into the PCUSA’S denominational source code going back to the mid-late 19th century at least. Add to the doctrinal defects the denomination’s stranglehold on the property of local congregations and you have an inevitable outcome…unless the bad guys leave and take the hit. And how often does this happen? The inertia and self-interest of large organizations usually win, especially when the organization is lavishly funded.
The Charles Augustus Briggs case was the little yellow bird in the mainline presbyterian coal mine. Though Briggs, a minister, professor, and opponent of the verbal inspiration of scripture, was defrocked in 1893, his very presence was a warning. But Briggs* was not just a doctrinal heretic—”Inerrancy is a ghost of modern evangelicalism to frighten children.”—he was also an opponent of that bulwark against error, confessionalism.
Briggs sounded very up-to-date when he “claimed that the contemporary supporters of the Confession had actually distorted the spirit of its teaching. ‘Modern Presbyterianism,’ he charged, ‘had departed from the Westminster Standards’ and a ‘false orthodoxy had obtruded itself’ in its place. That false teaching—what he labeled ‘orthodoxism’—was coming from Princeton Seminary, principally in the defense of biblical authority championed by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield.”
Briggs was ahead of the game when it comes to a sort of beautiful orthodoxy:
Orthodoxism assumes to know the truth and is unwilling to learn; it is haughty and arrogant, assuming the divine prerogatives of infallibility and inerrancy; it hates the truth that is unfamiliar to it, and prosecutes it to the uttermost. But (ed. note: beautiful?) orthodoxy loves the truth. It is ever anxious to learn, for it knows how greatly the truth of God transcends human knowledge…. It is meek, lowly, and reverent. It is full of charity and love. It does not recognize an infallible pope; it does not bow to an infallible theologian.
The above was quoted by Hart and Muether. Let us see more of what they wrote about this particular turning point in Presbyterian history. Ask yourself, O PCA presbyter, if anything sounds familiar:
Although critical of the alleged innovations from Princeton Seminary, Union Seminary’s Old School rival, Briggs did not advocate merely removing a supposed Princetonian gloss from the Westminster Confession. Presbyterians, he argued, must also acknowledge the inadequacies and errors of the Confession. Since progress was of the essence of genuine Presbyterianism, the Confession itself encouraged its adjustment “to the higher knowledge of our times and the still higher knowledge that the coming period of progress in theology will give us.” Failure to take this step would be to retreat to the errors of Rome and to abandon the very principles of the Reformation.
Briggs was tapping into a growing consensus in the church, which had begun to form no later than the reunion of 1869, that the harder Calvinistic edges of the Confession needed to be softened. In the words of Benjamin J. Lake, “Some of the time-honored rigidity in the Westminster Confession seemed obsolete to many Presbyterians.” Typically, Presbyterian rigidity was spelled p-r-e-d-e-s-t-i-n-a-t-i-o-n.
At the same time, former Old Schoolers feared the rise of “broad churchism” and anticonfessionalism. But if Briggs’s proposals outraged conservatives, the spirit and the terms of the 1869 reunion discouraged efforts to discipline him. (bolding mine)
That reunion was of the previously divided stick-in-the-mud Old Schoolers and go-go, revivalist New Schoolers. The question must be asked: Are the divides in the PCA of today just a repeat (or rhyming soundalike) of the Old School-New School contradictions?
Turning back to Machen, let us notice that “the harder Calvinistic edges of the Confession (which) needed to be softened” were in fact softened to encourage and pave the way for the PCUSA’s absorption of much of the Cumberland Presbyterian church, a sort of revivalist 4-point Calvinist mutant body. In 1903, revisions of a few sections, two added chapters, and a qualifying “declaratory statement” sucked the Calvinistic life out of the Westminster Confession—at least the Northern church’s version. Thus by 1920s, Machen and his allies were working with a confession already diluted and de-fanged. The writing was on the wall.
The PCA and OPC are working with a restored WCF, thanks largely to Machen, who “was not as favorable (as Warfield), describing the 1903 revisions as ‘compromising amendments,’ ‘highly objectionable,’ a ‘calamity,’ and ‘a very serious lowering of the flag’ (Presbyterian Guardian, Nov. 28, 1936, pp. 69-70).”
Machen died soon after penning these words, of course. We can only speculate as to how he might view the de facto revisions of the PCA’s confession and catechisms due to the allowances of “good faith subscription.” One thing is for sure—despite the challenges of the day, PCA confessionalists stand on much firmer ground and have far better prospects than did Machen in the first three and half decades of the 20th century. Let us learn…and live.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tenn. This article is used with permission.
*Briggs became an Episcopalian