The Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary

Princeton Theological Seminary prior to 1929 was regarded by theologians of all shades of opinion as the citadel of historic Christianity. Such great scholars as Charles Hodge, William Henry Green, Francis L Patton, B. B. Warfield, and Geerhardus Vos had made the theology at Princeton the standard presentation of orthodoxy in the Christian world. In the last years Robert Dick Wilson and J. Gresham Machen were among the best known professors, and carried the fame of the institution as a contender for the faith to every land where Christianity is taught. It was to this seminary that students came to receive instruction for the ministry so that they would be able to give “a reason for the hope” that was in them, while others entered in order to discover whether orthodoxy had a reasonable case and could be accepted as true in the modern world. The young men emerged from the institution strengthened in the faith and convinced of the truthfulness of the Bible.

Princeton Seminary was known not only as an institution which defended historic Christianity, but as one which stood firmly for the propagation and defense of the Reformed faith or the Calvinistic system of doctrine that is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and is taught in the Bible. In 1929, however, a change took place in the administration of the seminary and from that time a different and new theological emphasis became effective. The administration of the institution by a board of directors which controlled the educational program, and a board of trustees which held the real property in trust, was altered so that a single board of trustees was placed in charge of the seminary. With this new arrangement a radical change took place in the educational program which has shifted the theological emphasis from historic Calvinism to twentieth-century Barthianism. A brief review of the conflict which produced the change will reveal this fact.

The Plan for the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, commonly called Princeton Theological Seminary, was adopted by the general assembly of the church in 1811.1 It provided for a board of directors which had immediate control of the seminary, subject to the approval of the assembly. Every board member was asked to subscribe to the following pledge:

Approving the Plan of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., I solemnly declare and promise in the presence of God and of this Board, that I will faithfully endeavor to carry into effect all the articles and provisions of said Plan, and to promote the great design of the Seminary.


Each professor was required to agree to the following formula:

In the presence of God, and of the directors of this Seminary, I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., as the confession of my faith, or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief, which is contained in Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation; and I do solemnly, ex animo, profess to receive the Form of Government of said Church, as agreeable to the inspired oracles. And I do solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate, teach, or insinuate anything which shall appear to me to contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, anything taught in the said Confession of Faith or Catechisms, nor to oppose any of the fundamental principles of Presbyterian Church government, while I remain a professor in this seminary.


In 1870 the general assembly adopted changes in the plan of the seminary which added greatly to the power of the board of directors by allowing the board to fill its own vacancies, and to fix the salaries of professors the first of which powers was subject to veto by the general assembly.4

The property of the seminary was first held by the trustees of the general assembly, but in 1822 the legislature of New Jersey passed “An Act for Incorporating Trustees of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, at Princeton, in the State of New Jersey,” and so the trustees of the seminary became the custodians of the property under state law.5

Accordingly, from that time on two boards were in control of the institution: a board of directors which was entrusted with the task of directing the educational program, subject to the approval of the general assembly, and a board of trustees which was responsible for the real property held in trust by them for the seminary.

The institution had no president until 1902, when the general assembly added an article to the plan of the seminary providing for an

election of a president by the board of directors, subject to the approval of the assembly.6 The duties of the president are described as follows,

Such president shall, by virtue of such election, be the president of the faculty. He shall be inaugurated in such manner and form as the Board of Directors may prescribe, and at his inauguration shall make the subscription and declaration required of a professor; he shall be subject to the regulations made by the Board of Directors and to the prescriptions of the Plan of the Seminary with regard to professors. He shall be the representative of the Seminary before the Church; he shall be the administrative agent of the Seminary in matters of order and discipline, he shall give instruction to the students in such departments as the Board of Directors may direct or the General Assembly may order. Such president shall, by virtue of his election, as aforesaid, become and be a member of the Board of Directors during his continuance in office, and a member, ex officio, of all Committees of the Board.


Prior to 1902, a chairman of the faculty had been elected by the faculty, usually the senior member, whose duties were to preside at the faculty meetings, but in no way was the chairman superior to his colleagues.8 The move to create the office of president originated in the relationship which Dr. Francis L. Patton had maintained with the seminary since 1880. While Dr. Patton had been president of Princeton University, he had been a lecturer at the seminary, but in 1902 he resigned as president of the university so that there was much agitation to make him a full professor at the seminary. The fact that Dr. Patton had been president of the university made some feel that a full professorship at the seminary was not enough to offer him, and so the board of directors decided to inaugurate him the first president of the theological seminary. After his installation as president, Dr. Patton carried on in this office much in the same way as the former chairmen of the faculty had done as unus inter pares, or perhaps as primus inter pares. In no way did he assume the full responsibilities or duties of a president in the accepted sense of that office. On the other hand, he did become a member of the board of trustees and the board of directors, in which he exercised great influence mostly because of his strong personality and brilliance. In 1913 he retired and the task of choosing a successor became a very important and difficult one.9 After considering many candidates and after much discussion, in fact after balloting several times, the Rev. J. Ross Stevenson, D.D., LL.D., pastor of the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, was elected by the board of directors to the position by a majority of one vote. Several on the faculty and board of directors were not at all pleased by the election.10 Dr. Stevenson was inaugurated in 1914, and made a member of the board of trustees, and became a member ex officio of the board of directors and all of its committees.

Dr. Stevenson, a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary of Chicago, and later a professor there, had served in some of the leading churches of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the most notable of which was the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City. He came to Princeton not appreciating fully its theological position and emphasis, and at the same time accepting the office of president on the terms set forth in the plan of the seminary which he interpreted in the plain sense, but which interpretation had never been enforced at the institution.

In fact, his spirit of doctrinal inclusivism and his great zeal for church union, even when based upon vague and meaningless theological statements, marked his whole career at Princeton and brought an alien viewpoint to the institution. It was plain to any objective observer that Dr. Stevenson and most of the faculty were far apart in their understanding of Princeton’s place in the Christian world. The conflict between the two viewpoints was a logical result which men like Dr. Warfield foresaw and which made them so reluctant to welcome Dr. Stevenson’s appointment as president.

From the standpoint of administration, Dr. Stevenson conceived of his position as that of the real head of the institution who was to have a leading part in forming its policies, choosing its professors, inviting men to address the students and representing the seminary before the church. One who did not know the history of Princeton and its administrative policy would be likely to accept that interpretation of the president’s position from a reading of the plan of the seminary. On the other hand, the faculty had always believed that the president was little more than a presiding officer who, together with his colleagues, decided on the entire educational program for the institution. This had been the practice of Dr. Patton as president and of the chairmen of the faculty before him.

Doctrinally there was also a divergence of opinion between the president and the majority of the members of the faculty. Dr. Stevenson was convinced that the institution existed to represent the whole Presbyterian Church in the USA, since it was under the direct control of the general assembly.11 On the other hand, the majority of the faculty were fully convinced that the seminary could not possibly represent the whole church and be true to its charter and history.12 Princeton was organized to uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, maintained the faculty, and by no standard of judgment could anyone say that all the ministers or officers of the church held to the truths of these documents in their historic meaning. Princeton must represent the Old School tradition in the church, they said, if it were to carry out the design of the founders.

Dr. J. Gresham Machen wrote,

Never has Dr. Stevenson given any clear indication, by the policy that he has followed as President of the Seminary, that he recognizes the profound line of cleavage that separates the two opposite tendencies within the Presbyterian church, and the necessity that if Princeton Seminary is to be true to its great heritage and true to the moral obligations involved in the distinctive basis upon which it has always appealed for support, it must, in this great contention, definitely and unequivocally take sides.


Dr. William Park Armstrong, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, made the assertion on behalf of the faculty,

We do not believe that Princeton Seminary can be made a Seminary of the whole Church, i.e., representing the whole Church doctrinally, even under the constitution of the Church, without departing from its historical position because of the prevailing latitude in interpretation of our doctrinal standards.


. . . The majority of the Faculty maintain that the Institution has been historically affiliated with that doctrinal point of view in the Church known as the Old School.


On the other hand, Dr. Stevenson maintained,

We [Princeton Seminary] are the agency of the combined Old School and New School and my ambition as President of the Seminary is to have it represent the whole Presbyterian Church and not any particular faction of it.


So the president and the faculty clashed on the matter of administration and doctrinal viewpoint. The president’s stand for an inclusive doctrinal policy as opposed to the faculty’s demand for an exclusive one became evident as soon as Dr. Stevenson assumed the presidency.

The first major clash between the president and the faculty came in 1920 over a Plan of Organic Union of Evangelical Churches, as introduced in the general assembly by Dr. Stevenson, vice-chairman of the Committee on Church Cooperation and Union.17 The plan, and particularly its unevangelical preamble, as set forth in chapter one of this book, was opposed by professors Allis, Davis, Greene, Hodge, Machen, and Warfield, as being contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith and inimical to the life of the church and its witness to the truth of the Bible. On the other hand, Dr. Charles R. Erdman, professor of practical theology, was a member of the Committee on Church Cooperation and Union which prepared the plan and strongly favored its adoption.18 In other words, Dr. Stevenson had the support of at least one member of the faculty in this issue, which showed the majority of the professors were opposed vigorously to the union on doctrinal grounds. There could be no mistake that at least the attitude toward the importance of doctrine and a real concern for the integrity and purity of the church’s witness to the Reformed faith were at the basis of this difference between the president and the faculty.

The divergence of opinion on the importance of doctrine and the need for defending it arose again during the General Assembly of 1924 when Dr. Erdman, a member of the faculty, and Dr. Macartney, a member of the board of directors, were candidates for the position of moderator of the assembly. As has been seen already in the preceding chapter, Dr. Erdman, even though he was personally evangelical, was regarded as the candidate of those who wanted a union of all the forces in the church, and on this basis the liberals in the assembly supported him. Dr. Macartney, on the other hand, was considered the candidate of the conservatives. Dr. Stevenson supported Dr. Erdman, while the majority of the faculty were staunch allies of Dr. Macartney and his stand for the faith.19 This contributed to the breach between Dr. Stevenson and the faculty.

In the fall of 1924 the conflict between historic Christianity and liberalism which had been disturbing the peace of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, became a live issue among the students on the Princeton Seminary campus. A delegation of students had been sent to the conference of the Middle Atlantic Association of Theological Seminaries at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. On October 21, 1924, these men gave their report to the Students’ Association meeting, in which they made it abundantly clear that some of the speakers and students at the conference had expressed their doubt about the necessity and truthfulness of such doctrines as the final authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and the virgin birth.20 After much debate and consideration, the Students’ Association decided to sever its relationship with the Middle Atlantic Association of Theological Seminaries and to form an organization of seminaries which would be committed to the great truths of the Bible. On April 4, 1925, in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, twelve representatives from six theological institutions met and formed what is known as the League of Evangelical Students.21 The doctrinal basis was indicated in the constitution of the league, in which certain dogmas such as the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the substitutionary atonement, and the coming again of Jesus Christ were declared essential to the Christian religion.22 Since that time the league has grown to large proportions, having chapters in fifty-eight theological seminaries, universities, and Bible schools.

The establishment of the League of Evangelical Students brought the president of the seminary at Princeton and the majority of the faculty into sharp disagreement over its advisability and necessity. The president maintained that the league dissociated Princeton from the seminaries of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, because most of them refused to join the league. In the second place, he declared that the league allowed Bible schools to become members and so the firm stand at Princeton, “that religion without sound learning must ultimately prove injurious to the church,” would be undermined. He further stated, “shall this institution now be permitted to swing off to the extreme right wing so as to become an interdenominational Seminary for Bible School-premillennial-secession fundamentalism?”23

The majority of the faculty had an entirely different conception of the need and influence of the league on the campus of the seminary and in the world at large. Their general feeling is perhaps best expressed by Dr. Machen when he wrote,

It [a spiritual advance] has been signally manifested at the institution which I have the honor to serve. The morale of our theological student body had been becoming rather low: there was a marked indifference to the central things of the faith: and religious experience was of the most superficial kind. But during the academic year, 1924-25 there has been something like an awakening …. Controversy, in other words, has resulted in a striking intellectual and spiritual advance. Some of us discern in all this the work of the Spirit of God. And God grant that his fire be not quenched.


The majority of the faculty, while they did not enter into the affairs of the student body directly, nevertheless by their teaching and general attitude encouraged the students to continue their testimony among seminary and college students. So once again the difference in attitude toward doctrine between the president and faculty and the need for contending for the faith became clear.

In the spring of 1925 the question of the election of a faculty student adviser came before the cabinet of the Students’ Association of the seminary. The president, W. C. Wright, was personally in favor of asking Dr. Erdman to continue in this office which he had held for twenty years, although other members of the cabinet preferred some other faculty member. Acting on his supposed prerogative in this regard, Mr. Wright asked Dr. Erdman to accept the office, which Dr. Erdman did. The cabinet called a special meeting, revoked Mr. Wright’s appointment, and voted to ask the faculty to appoint an adviser from among its members. This resulted in the election of Dr. Robert Dick Wilson. The faculty felt obliged to make this selection because sympathy with the plans of the Students’ Association was necessary, and Dr. Erdman had declared himself as opposed to the League of Evangelical Students which had been recently organized. In all of this controversy over the student adviser, Dr. Stevenson was much opposed to the majority of the faculty.25

The attitude of the majority of the faculty and of Dr. Stevenson toward the report of the commission of fifteen which had been appointed by the General Assembly of 1925 to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest” differed sharply. Dr. Macartney, a member of the board of directors and Dr. Allis, a member of the faculty, voiced their serious indictment of the report. Dr. Macartney characterized it as a victory won by a “coalition of modernists, indifferentists and pacifists, “26 while Dr. Stevenson found in the report a source of much satisfaction.27

The differences between Dr. Stevenson and the faculty assumed a personal note when Dr. Machen was nominated to the chair of apologetics and Christian ethics by the faculty on May 10, 1926.28 This nomination was placed before the general assembly in May, 1926, for approval, at which time Drs. Stevenson and Erdman opposed it vigorously on the ground of Dr. Machen’s alleged temperamental unfitness for the position. The assembly took no action on Dr. Machen’s nomination.29 This attitude and action on the part of the president widened the breach still more.

During this heated discussion and debate between Dr. Stevenson and the majority of the faculty, Dr. Erdman accused the majority of the faculty, and especially Dr. Machen, of labeling him as one who was strengthening the “forces of rationalism” when he accepted the pastorate of the First Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey. The basis for Dr. Erdman’s assertion was an editorial in The Presbyterian, January 15, 1925, which commented upon Dr. Henry Van Dyke’s return to the First Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey, from which he had departed in 1924 as a protest against Dr. Machen’s preaching. The Presbyterian stated,

In a recent notice of the installation of Dr. Erdman, the inquiry was raised as to the significance of attempting to unite the rationalism of the university, represented by Drs. Van Dyke and Hibben, with the evangelicism of the seminary, represented by Dr. Erdman. Does this action of Dr. Van Dyke signify that the rationalists have gained an important advantage from the combination? If so, the situation and the new combination is threatening sacred interests.

To this comment Dr. Erdman replied with considerable agitation,

Allow me to reply, that I repudiate your insinuations as unfounded, unwarranted, unkind and un-Christian . . . .You intimate that a division exists in the seminary faculty. No such division exists on points of doctrine. Every member of the faculty is absolutely loyal to the standards of our church. The only division I have observed is as to spirit, methods or policies. This division would be of no consequence were it not for the unkindness, suspicion, bitterness and intolerance of those members of the faculty who are also editors of The Presbyterian.


Since Dr. Machen was the only member of the faculty who was also an editor of The Presbyterian, this rather abusive characterization could only refer to him. Dr. Machen immediately explained,

I do not remember having contributed a line to the paper which has not appeared under my own name, and I was quite unacquainted beforehand with the reference to my former relation and Dr. Erdman’s present relation to the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, to which he takes special exception.

. . . With regard to Dr. Erdman’s letter, I desire to say two things. In the first place, I regret the personal tone in which the letter is couched …. But in what do our differences consist? That question brings me to the second thing that I desire to say in answer to the letter.

Dr. Erdman says that no division exists in the faculty of Princeton Seminary on “points of doctrine.” That assertion I hold to be not altogether correct. There is between Dr. Erdman and myself a very serious doctrinal difference indeed. It concerns the question not of this doctrine or that, but of the importance which is to be attributed to doctrine as such …. Dr. Erdman does not indeed reject the doctrinal system of our church, but he is perfectly willing on many occasions to keep it in the background. I, on the other hand, can never consent to keep it in the background.


This personal equation which entered into the debate only aggravated the differences between Dr. Stevenson and the faculty still more, and caused Dr. Stevenson in May, 1925, to appeal to the board of directors to appoint a committee to adjust the problems within the faculty.32 A committee of seven was appointed but no real accomplishment was forthcoming, mostly because the underlying disagreement was so profound that no discussion could heal the breach; rather, it required a change of doctrinal viewpoint which was highly unlikely to take place in either party.

This clash between Dr. Stevenson and the faculty, which had caused considerable agitation in the church at large, compelled the trustees and a minority of the board of directors of the seminary in May, 1926, to make a request of the general assembly through its Standing Committee on Theological Seminaries to appoint a special committee to investigate matters at Princeton Seminary. On June 2, 1926, the general assembly took the following action,

That the Assembly appoint a Committee of three ministers and two elders to make a sympathetic study of conditions affecting the welfare of Princeton Seminary and to cooperate responsively with seminary leaders in striving to adjust and harmonize differences and to report to the next Assembly.


The committee visited the Princeton campus and had conferences with the faculty, the board of directors, the board of trustees, the alumni, and the students. In every one of these bodies they found the same division as was manifest in the faculty, namely, one party which believed that Princeton was founded to teach and to defend, in its purity and integrity, the Westminster Confession of Faith as the system of doctrine taught in the Bible, and that an aggressive stand should be taken against the encroachment of unbelief in the church; and a second party which contended with Dr. Stevenson, the president, that the seminary should represent the whole church, that the disagreement between him and the faculty was administrative, and that certain members of the faculty, of whom Dr. Machen was the chief offender, were disturbers of the peace of the institution.

The majority of the board of directors, the faculty, and the students agreed that the issue was doctrinal and that the attitude toward doctrine was important. On the other hand, the president, a majority of the trustees, and many alumni felt strongly that if the two boards could be merged into one, the difficulties at the institution would be eliminated, because in their judgment the real trouble was administrative.34

The findings of the committee which were given to the following assembly can be summarized in this one sentence from their report, “The root and source of the serious difficulties at Princeton and the greatest obstacle to the removal of these difficulties, seem to be in the plan of government by two boards.”35 The committee presented recommendations which were adopted by the 1927 General Assembly.36

They urged the appointment of a committee of eleven with power to recommend amendments to the charter of the seminary in order to establish a single board of control. They also asked that the appointments of the Rev. O. T. Allis and the Rev. J. Gresham Machen as full professors be not confirmed until the reorganization had been effected.

The Rev. Samuel G. Craig, D.D., a director of the seminary and a representative of the majority on the board of directors, made a very able criticism of the report of the committee of five. His main contention was that the committee exceeded its instructions and authority in making its recommendations.37 Dr. Craig further accused the committee of misrepresenting the faculty and the board of directors and of issuing a report which was essentially an ex pane document. He also pointed out what the majority of the faculty and of the board of directors had frequently maintained namely, that the question of one or two boards was beside the point.38

At the general assembly in 1928 the committee of eleven presented recommendations calling for a single board of control of thirty-three members, certain necessary charter amendments, and enlarged powers for the president of the seminary.39

The report of the committee of eleven was not unanimous, however, since the Rev. Ethelbert D. Warfield, D.D., brought in a minority report of one in which he made several criticisms of the majority report, the most important of which stated that “the report and its recommendations give no ground for hope that the will terminate or allay the discord in the Seminary and the Church .40

At the same general assembly a petition containing the signatures of over ten thousand ministers and elders of the church representing more than thirty synods asked, “We, therefore, the signers of this Petition, earnestly pray you to reject the reorganization of the Seminary recommended to the General Assembly of 1927 by the Special Committee to visit Princeton, and thus to leave the control of this great institution where it now resides.”41

The Rev. W. P. Armstrong, D.D., professor of New Testament at Princeton, made a thorough study of the proposed charter amendments, in which he demonstrated that some of these were illegal and others unnecessary.42 There will be no attempt here to enter into a study of these amendments because that discussion is not essential to the main purpose of this book.

The majority and minority reports were ordered placed on the docket of the 1929 General Assembly, and the board of directors of Princeton was instructed to attempt to compose differences at the seminary and to make a report to the next assembly.43 The board of directors attempted to carry out these instructions, but the division in the board became apparent when a minority and a majority report was presented to the 1929 Assembly. The majority report, signed by seventeen, practically agreed with the recommendations of the committee of eleven, while the minority of ten stated that the main cause of the trouble at Princeton was the ambition of president Stevenson, who desired to shift the historic doctrinal position of the seminary from the Old School theology to an inclusive doctrinal position. “It is here that we find the main cause of the serious differences at Princeton Seminary.”44 The minority recommended only slight changes in the original plan of the seminary, all of which tended to limit the power of the president so that his actions would be subject to the advice of the board of directors in cooperation with the faculty. The president was also eliminated as a member of the board of directors.45

In spite of these pleas by the ten thousand ministers and elders and the minority on the board of directors, the report of the special committee of eleven was adopted by the 1929 Assembly.46 The report called for one board of trustees of thirty-three members, one-third from the old board of trustees, one-third from the old board of directors, and one-third from the church at large, and the enlargement of the powers of the president.

The temporary board of trustees, which was approved as the permanent board of trustees by the 1930 General Assembly,47 made the Rev. W. L McEwan, D.D., chairman. The Rev. Clarence E. Macartney, D. D., declined to serve on the board, and the Rev. Robert Dick Wilson, Ph.D., D.D., the Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D., the Rev. Oswald T. Allis, Ph.D., D.D., and the Rev. Cornelius Van Til, Ph.D., refused to continue as members of the teaching staff under the new board of trustees. And so, with these drastic alterations in management and faculty, the reorganization of Princeton Seminary became a reality.

This has been only a rapid survey of the tremendous changes which took place at Princeton in 1929, but a description of the many public meetings, articles, and debates which occurred, and the bitterness, animosities, and heartaches which were created have been purposely omitted in order to keep the account as factual as possible.

With the completion of the reorganization of Princeton Seminary the question naturally arises: Were the fears of the minority of the board of directors, the faculty, the students, and many alumni fulfilled, and was the historic doctrinal position of the institution changed from Old School theology or biblical Christianity to twentieth-century Barthianism and modernism? It is safe to assert without hesitation that those fears were fulfilled. A few facts as evidence will prove that statement.

Upon this new board of trustees were placed two ministers, the Rev. W. Beatty Jennings, D.D., and the Rev. Asa J. Ferry, D.D., who had signed the Auburn Affirmation, which, as was pointed out in chapter two, declared that the belief in the infallibility of holy Scripture, the substitutionary atonement, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and the miracles of Jesus Christ is non-essential to the Christian faith, and that the doctrine of the infallibility of the holy Scripture is harmful. The Rev. J. Ross Stevenson, D.D., LL.D., the president of the seminary, and the Rev. W. L McEwan, D.D., chairman of the board of trustees, put their stamp of approval upon these signers of the Auburn Affirmation on the board, and so upon the attitude which the document advocated, in the letter which they jointly signed and addressed to the “Alumni, Students and Friends of Princeton Theological Seminary” in September, 1929, and in which they claimed that the new board of trustees was worthy of the church’s confidence and qualified to direct the educational policies of the seminary, and that the entire faculty was loyal to the Bible.48 Anyone acquainted with the Princeton of the Hodges, Warfield, Greene, and Machen could not conceive of its approval of men on the board of directors who held such anti-Reformed and modernist ideas.

At the present time only two professors of the regime prior to 1929 remain: the Rev. F. W. Loetscher, Ph.D., D.D., and the Rev. W. P. Armstrong, D.D., as all of the other professors who did not resign in 1929 are retired or dead. In 1936 Dr. J. Ross Stevenson was retired as president and the Rev. John A. Mackay, Ph.D., D.D., was elected to fill that office.49 Dr. Mackay has carried the institution much more to the left. The professors who have been asked to serve at Princeton at his invitation have, for the most part, been men who hold to Barthianism in some form. In fact, Dr. Mackay himself embraces this theology.50

Wherein does Barthianism, or the theology of crisis, differ from the historic position of Princeton? someone might ask. The difference lies chiefly in two matters: first, concerning the authority of the Bible, and second, the conception of history. The Barthian school of theology does not believe in the infallibility of holy Scripture, while the old Princeton was noted for its insistence on this doctrine. As Charles Hodge once wrote,

On this subject the common doctrine of the Church is, and ever has been, that inspiration was an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for the infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said God said.


Emil Brunner, guest professor of systematic theology at Princeton 19381939, on the other hand, believes that the Bible is the Word of God, but only in a very restricted sense. He uses the illustration of the phonograph record. The voice of Caruso comes forth from the megaphone but there also is heard the scratchings of the needle which are comparable to the human errors and mistakes in the Bible.52

When the final authority of the Bible is rejected, one is compelled to fall back on an authority in religion which is the church or some form of human experience. The Barthians do not accept the church as the final authority, as do the Roman Catholics, but rather in the last analysis must resort to an authority which is to be found in fallible human experience. And this they do.

It is the Scripture’s testimony to itself as being from God, “God-breathed” and the Word of God, which must be the ultimate judge of the kind of inspiration. If the testimony of the Bible to itself as the Word of God is not to be accepted, how can one trust the authority of the Bible for faith and conduct? The belief in the full trustworthiness of the Bible is the “impregnable rock” of Christianity and is the only consistent and logical position which a Christian can maintain. It is the doctrine of historic Christianity. Most assuredly, it was the doctrine of the old Princeton.

Such a theology as Barthianism is essentially modernist because upon Barth’s premises every doctrine and practice must inevitably find its authority in the experience of man as the determining factor. At heart this theology will destroy the true genius of Protestantism, which looks to the revelation of God in the Bible as the final arbiter of faith and conduct.

The same tendency to emphasize experience rather than the Bible as the norm for Christian life is manifest in Dr. Mackay’s endorsement of Buchmanism, a movement which includes men and women of all shades of thought and belief and which judges the validity of a person’s religion by the quality of his “changed life” experience.53 In opposition to this point of view the Princeton of old fought, and fought vigorously, to show the vagaries of human experience in all of its subtleties and to demonstrate that human experience, instead of being a guide in religion, must itself be tested and judged by the Bible.

The Barthian conception of history also destroys the very foundation of Christianity. Historic Christianity declares that the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are events in history, but many Barthians claim that these facts are only pointers to the real events which take place in “supra-history.” Such a contention not only makes the narratives in Matthew and Luke concerning the virgin birth and the account in I Corinthians 15 describing the bodily resurrection meaningless, but the historical foundation of Christianity is utterly demolished. It is upon such events in the external world as the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that Christianity is built. If these are not to be regarded as actual historical facts in the plain sense, then Christianity as revealed in the Bible loses all meaning. When Barthianism is examined closely, it is clear that this attempt to place these events in the category of the “supra-historical” is only a subtle way of trying to avoid the conflict between the miraculous in Christianity and modern scientific ideas. Barthianism’s unwillingness to accept the historical events of redemption as they are revealed in the Bible and as real events in time, sets it in opposition to biblical Christianity.

In order to demonstrate further what little regard the new president has for the old Princeton, that is, the Princeton prior to 1929, and its defense and exposition of historic Christianity, notice should be taken of the fact that the Rev. L R. Farmer, D.D., LL.D., a signer of the Auburn Affirmation, was visiting professor of homiletics during the academic year 1937-38.54 This is the first time in the history of the institution that any one has been on the faculty who has declared in a public document, or in any other way, that the five doctrines mentioned in the Affirmation are only theories, and that the belief in an infallible Bible weakens the testimony of the five doctrines enumerated.

In another way and in a way more discernible to those not theologically trained, the new Princeton has made its position abundantly clear. Before 1929, the professors at Princeton were very audible in their protest against unbelief not only in the world at large, but also in the Presbyterian Church in the USA itself. The men at Princeton assumed the leadership in attempting to keep the Presbyterian Church in the USA loyal to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Without question the seminary was the citadel of orthodoxy. Now the lack of protest against the evident modernism among the ministers in that church is almost eloquent in its silence. When the amendments to the Confession of Faith were proposed at the turn of the century, it was the faculty at Princeton, led by Warfield, who protested against them because of their tendency to weaken the testimony of the church to the truth. It was the Princeton faculty who wrote and spoke against the proposed union with the eighteen churches in 1918 on the ground of its unevangelical doctrinal basis. In fact, whenever a voice was needed to warn the church of unbelief, the men at Princeton were ready to raise their voices in behalf of the Bible. Now where are the one-time champions of the faith at Princeton? They are not there. Princeton has changed-and changed radically.

The modernists themselves have noticed this radical change. Once The Christian Century, the leading modernist religious weekly in America, ridiculed the antiquated and obscurantist theology at Princeton, while now it has taken Dr. Mackay to its bosom55 and finds space available for members of the faculty at Princeton, which formerly was not at their disposal save for an occasional article in some series of theological debate. The Princeton Seminary of Hodge, Warfield, and Machen is no more, and the world knows it.

One of two things has happened since 1929: either the Presbyterian Church in the USA has become entirely free from modernism and anti-scriptural tendencies so that the Princeton professors have no occasion for protest, or else Princeton Seminary has fallen in line with the temper of the day and has become more liberal in its theological program and attitude. The following chapters will attempt to show that the Presbyterian Church in the USA, instead of becoming more loyal to the Westminster Confession of Faith, has succumbed more and more to the inroads of modernism. The only possible conclusion is that Princeton has been definitely liberalized, as shown not only by the writings of the professors, but also by the lack of defense of historic Christianity within the councils of the church.

The editors of The Boston Evening Transcript wrote,

One cannot say what will happen at Princeton Theological Seminary, but one hopes that the house will stand. Clearly the battle at Princeton has a significance reaching far beyond its local scene. Its forces, its bitterness, give strong indication that the issues there in contest, as in other parts of the United States, are the dominant issues of the religious thought of our times. Certainly with regard to the Protestant denominations, it now seems clear that upon the outcome of the warfare, whether for weal or woe, the future character of Protestant Christianity depends.


Princeton Seminary did not stand as it stood before. Its influence is now exerted in the direction away from historic Christianity, and that defection has profoundly affected not only the Presbyterian Church in the USA, but also the complexion of Protestantism in America.

  1. The Presbyterian Digest, Vol. 2 (1930), 435. 

  2. Ibid., 440. 

  3. Ibid., 441. 

  4. See Reports Relating to Princeton Theological Seminary before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., St. Paul, Minnesota, May, 1929, reprinted from the Blue Book, 220. 

  5. The Presbyterian Digest (1930), 451-52. 

  6. Ibid., 438. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Charter and Plan of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, Princeton, N. J., Somerville Press of the Unionist-Gazette Association, 1927, 28. 

  9. Minutes of the General Assembly 1913, Part 1 226. 

  10. See William Courtland Robinson, Princeton Theological Seminary: Its Troubles as Viewed by Amicus, n.p., 1927. 

  11. Ibid., 60. 

  12. Ibid., 75-80. 

  13. J. Gresham Machen, The Attack upon Princeton Seminary: A Plea for Fair Play, Princeton: J. Gresham Machen, 1927, 9. 

  14. Report of the Special Committee to Visit Princeton Theological Seminary to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., San Francisco, California, May, 1927 (Philadelphia: Office of the General Assembly, 1927), 75. 

  15. Ibid., 68. 

  16. Ibid., 72. 

  17. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. 1920, Part 1, 98. 

  18. Ibid., 448. 

  19. Report of the Special Committee, 1927, 62. 

  20. Minutes of the Students’ Association of Princeton Theological Seminary, October 21, 1924. 

  21. The Modern Conflict and the League of Evangelical Students of America, 3. 

  22. Constitution of the League of Evangelical Students, article III, section 1. 

  23. Report of the Special Committee, 1927, 57. 

  24. J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith.’ (New York: Macmillan Co., 1925), 42. 

  25. Report of the Special Committee, 1927, 64-65, 72. 

  26. Ibid., 59. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Minutes of the General Assembly 1926, Part 1, 266. 

  29. Ibid., 175. 

  30. “Dr. Erdman Speaks in Self Defense,” The Presbyterian Advance 30 (January 22, 1925), 24. 

  31. The Presbyterian 95 (February 5, 1925), 20-21. 

  32. Report of the Special Committee, 1927, 16. 

  33. Minutes of the General Assembly 1926, Part 1, 174. The Rev. W. O. Thompson, D.D., LL.D., was made chairman of the committee and he named the Rev. G. N. Luccock, D.D., Wooster, Ohio, the Rev. W. L Whallon, D.D., Newark, New Jersey, the Honorable Thomas E. D. Bradley, Chicago, Illinois, and the Honorable R P. Ernst, Covington, Kentucky, as the other members of the committee. 

  34. Report of the Special Committee, 1927, 49. 

  35. Ibid., 47. 

  36. Minutes of the General Assembly 1927, Part 1, 133-34. See Appendix, note 2. 

  37. Samuel G. Craig, “The Report of the Princeton Seminary Committee: a Criticism,” reprinted from The Presbyterian (May 19, 1927), with some additions (1927), 3. 

  38. Ibid., 16. 

  39. Minutes of the General Assembly 1928, 212-46. 

  40. Ibid., 249. 

  41. A Petition Presented to the 140th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, Meeting at Tulsa, Oklahoma, May, 1928 (The Princeton Committee of One Thousand), 6. 

  42. W. P. Armstrong, Certain Legal Aspects of the Proposal to Amend the Charter of the Trustees of Princeton Theological Seminary (n.p., May 12, 1928). 

  43. Minutes of the General Assembly 1928, 59. 

  44. Reports Relating to Princeton Theological Seminary before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., St. Paul, Minnesota, May, 1929, Reprinted from the Blue Book, 224. 

  45. Ibid., 230-31. 

  46. Minutes of the General Assembly 1929, 80-110. 

  47. Minutes of the General Assembly 1930, 36-42. 

  48. The Presbyterian 99 (September 19, 1929), 3-4. 

  49. Minutes of the General Assembly 1936, 312. 

  50. John A. Mackay, “Historical and Superhistorical Elements in Christianity,” The Journal of Religion 17 (January 1937), 1-8. 

  51. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:154. 

  52. Emil Brunner, Our Faith (London: Charles Scribner, 1936), 10. 

  53. Rising Tide (1937), 28. 

  54. The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Fall Conference Number, vol. XXXI, (November 1937), Number 3, 37. 

  55. The Christian Century 54 (September 29, 1937), 1189. 

  56. The Boston Evening Transcript, as quoted by Frank H. Stevenson, “A Pastor Looks at Princeton,” The Presbyterian 98 (January 12, 1928), 6.