Presbyterian Church History

Lesson 10

The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversies

The McGiffert Case

The PCUSA’s successful prosecutions of the Briggs and Smith cases didn’t either end the controversy or settle the issues that were dividing the church. Large portions of the church were still committed to theological change especially as advocated by Briggs et al. Dr. McGiffert was a former professor from Lane Seminary, where he been a strong supporter of Dr. Smith, and had gone to Union Seminary after the disruption at Lane. There he published a book in 1897 in which he denied the doctrine of inspiration and questioned the genuineness of half the books in the New Testament.

In 1898 an overture from the Pittsburgh Presbytery requested the General Assembly (GA) to investigate the matter. The GA was reluctant to proceed with a heresy trial, which were becoming very unpopular in the church. They dealt with the matter by politely asking Dr. McGiffert to reconsider his views and if he could not conform to the standards of the church to peaceably withdraw. Dr. McGifferts response to the counsel of the GA was to publish in 1899 an article in which he denied any church’s right to define or enforce orthodoxy. He called all denominations “sects”, and demanded that orthodoxy be defined in a brief statement of universal Christian beliefs.

In 1899 ten presbyteries submitted overtures requesting the GA to deal with Dr. McGiffert. The GA again declined to prosecute, but passed a resolution declaring four specific doctrines questioned by Dr. McGiffert, including the inerrancy of the scriptures and justification by faith alone, to be fundamental doctrines of the church and urged all the church’s sessions and presbyteries to defend these doctrines.

This action of the GA compelled the New York Presbytery to deal with the matter. They called Dr. McGiffert to appear before a committee of the presbytery and questioned him on his views. The Presbytery also declined to prosecute and simply passed a resolution condemning some of Dr. McGiffert’s opinions and stating that heresy trials would damage and disrupt the church. Dr. Birch of the New York Presbytery then filed specific charges against Dr. McGiffert and when the Presbytery refused to act appealed to the GA of 1900. Dr. McGiffert then resigned from the Presbytery to escape the jurisdiction of the church. This ended the matter.

Revision Accomplished

The GA of 1900 received overtures from close to 40 presbyteries requesting revision of the church’s confession of faith (COF). Some in the church advocated a much shorter, simpler creed. The GA appointed a committee to examine the matter. The committee put a series of questions to all the church’s presbyteries. The results reviewed at the GA of 1901 indicated that 63 presbyteries favored revising the COF and 63 favored adding a supplemental statement. The result was that a Declaratory statement was added stating “…the belief that God loved all mankind” and that the COF was not to be interpreted as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost. The text was modified to delete statements that the “good deeds” of unregenerate men were sinful and instead said they fell short, the statement that it was sinful to refuse a legal oath was deleted as was the statement calling the Pope the Anti-Christ. They also added two chapters to the COF entitled, “Of the Holy Spirit” and “Of the Love of God and Missions”. These changes to the COF of faith were overwhelmingly approved by the presbyteries by votes well in excess of the required 2/3 majority. One result of this revision was that reunion with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church now possible. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church had long objected to the Calvinism of the church’s COF terming it alleged fatalism unacceptable. With the revision they felt the church was distancing itself from its historic Calvinist soteriology and they could unite with her on that basis. Conservatives were chagrined that these revisions were interpreted as making union with a church considered to be Arminian acceptable.

The Presbyterian Ministry

As rationalism, pragmatism (William James), and neo-orthodoxy (Barth) continued to erode the theological landscape of American Christianity the church’s seminaries were absolutely critical. They would play key roles in both the defense of the faith and in its subversion. The issue of Union Theological Seminary, a fountainhead of apostasy, had never been settled. The church was short of ministerial candidates and the status of students from seminaries like Union had never been dealt with. In 1910 the GA received a complaint against New York Presbytery for ordaining three candidates who had refused to affirm their belief in Christ’s virgin birth. The GA, true to its recent aversion to dealing with such issues judicially, responded by passing a resolution stating that the following doctrines were “essential and necessary” to the faith.

  1. The inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.

  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

  3. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.

  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ.

  5. The reality of Christ’s miracles.

Although this seemed like a victory for orthodox Christianity and the conservatives in the church it was actually a crippling defeat. The church’s faith had been reduced to a few fundamental doctrines that were essential and necessary. Historic Presbyterianism with strict subscription to a full and systematic expression of the Christian faith had become little more than Fundamentalism. The GA reenacted this statement again in both 1916 and 1923. However it was an exercise in futility in attempting to stem the doctrinal erosion of the PCUSA by mere resolutions.

The GA of 1913 appointed a committee to look into the church’s relationship with its seminaries in general which included the ongoing knotty problem of its relationship or lack thereof with Union. This committee reported back in 1915 that the compact with Union gave the GA the right of veto over professorial appointments was legally unenforceable. This continued the status of Union Seminary in a kind of limbo with respect to the PCUSA. The issue lay dormant until it surfaced again in 1925 on the same issue, the licensure of candidates for the ministry who again refused to affirm their faith in the doctrines deemed essential and necessary, particularly the virgin birth of Christ. A minority in the New York Presbytery filed a protest and the majority a memorial requesting the GA to establish the precise constitutional rights of presbyteries in the licensing and ordination of ministerial candidates and defending the right of the presbyteries to be the sole judge of these matters. The GA appointed a Special Commission. The Commission reported back to the GA in 1925, 1926, and 1927. The initial report of 1925 sustained the GA right to review the actions of a presbytery and compel compliance to the laws of the church. This seemed like a conservative victory but it was not to be. In 1926 the Commission reported on the constitutional authority of the GA. The GA can make resolutions etc., but they are subject to change at any time by a future GA. It can institute judicial process but its decisions although binding set no precedents and future cases can be decided differently. Finally it can amend the constitution but only with the approval of the presbyteries. The inference was that resolutions to be binding as the law of the church need to be part of the constitution and need the approval of 2/3 of the presbyteries. This was a blow to the resolutions deeming certain beliefs essential and necessary as being binding on the presbyteries. In the report of 1927 the Commission continued in this vein, stating that the GA had no authority to declare certain doctrines essential and necessary, that the GA can only act in specific judicial cases brought before it and cannot make general decisions binding on all the church. Finally it stated that the GA can only enforce the precise wording of the constitution and not any necessary inferences or logical deductions from it. Church discipline was now impossible. Liberals can define the constitution to mean whatever they want and as long as they maintain the “form of the words” they cannot be disciplined. Instead of strict subscription not even the fundamentals of the faith are enforceable.

The Auburn Affirmation

In 1924 “An Affirmation”, signed by 1274 ministers of the PCUSA, rejected the General Assemblies resolutions declaring five specific doctrines to be “essential and necessary” to the Christian faith. While “affirming” their faith in inspiration, the atonement, the virgin birth etc. they rejected the attempts to define this in a specific way. The Affirmation insisted on the right to define these doctrines in other ways and insisted that the GA had no constitutional right to impose its definition of these doctrines on the church. It did not reject othodoxy. It did not seek to establish liberalism. What it sought to do was to broaden the church, to make it more inclusive, to create a safe haven for liberalism within the church. It was in essence a plea for toleration of heresy. The conservatives greatly miscalculated its significance and chose to ignore it. At the GA of 1924 they elected their candidate as moderator but decided not to pursue any action in response to the Affirmation. It essentially went unchallenged until the Special Commission of 1925 wound up making its constitutional argument the official position of the church.

Church Union

In 1918 35 presbyteries overtured the GA to propose to other “ecclesiastical bodies a union of all Evangelical Churches in the United States”. Presbyterians had been involved in the prior founding of the Federal Council of Churches, a radical organization, dominated by liberals, that had evolved out of the old Methodist League for Social Action. A Committee was formed and meetings with delegates from 17 and 18 denominations were held in 1918 and 1920 and a Plan of Union was submitted for the church’s approval. It failed overwhelmingly because there was no unity on how to achieve unity. Liberals wanted actual organic union instead of a federation of denominations. Moderates and some conservatives who supported union wanted any union restricted to evangelical churches only etc. so the plan went down to a crushing defeat when submitted to the presbyteries.

Presbyterian Missions

The doctrinal fidelity of the church’s foreign missionaries, especially in China, became an issue in 1921. It became apparent that modernism was making significant inroads even on the mission field. Again conservatives sought to protest and to raise the church’s concern over such matters without resorting to the unpopular means of judicial process which was considered by the majority of the church to be divisive and disruptive. However without judicial process these attacks on missionaries were considered slanderous by many and with the church’s boards solidly defending their missionaries, and moderates in position of denominational leadership, nothing was accomplished.

The Fosdick Case

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick was a liberal, modernist, Baptist minister who was called to be the Associate Pastor at New York’s First Presbyterian Church in 1918. In light of the church’s discussions on church union Dr. Fosdick didn’t transfer his membership to the PCUSA. IN 1922 he preached a ringing sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” in which he defended liberalism and demanded toleration in the church for theological liberals etc. The Philadelphia Presbytery overtured the GA that the First Presbyterian Church of New York had allowed preaching attacking doctrines deemed by the GA to be essential and necessary, and requesting the GA to see that the pulpit of that church conform to the church’s system of doctrine as taught in the Confession of Faith. The overture succeeded because the elders voted strongly for it even though the church’s ministers voted against it. A protest opposing the overture and declaring it unconstitutional was signed by 85 delegates.


The doctrinally orthodox and conservative element of the church had clearly lost the battle. G. Gresham Machen had written a book, Christianity and Liberalism, taking the position that liberals were not Christians and that there were two competing religions within the PCUSA. Liberals of course disagreed and claimed that there were merely two different expressions of Christianity in the church. The moderates held the balance of power and they were committed to a peace and unity agenda that gave scant support to the conservative agenda of maintaining the purity of the church. The special commission of 1925, dominated by moderates, had ensured that the denominational machinery could not be used to enforce doctrinal discipline that would be divisive and disruptive to the church. In the final analysis the conservatives went down without much of a fight. They went out “not with a bang but a whimper” in the words of T. S. Eliot’s famous poem. In light of the moderates repugnance of the judicial process the conservatives adopted a strategy of conducting a publicity campaign that would so expose and discredit the liberals, that they would be rejected by the laity, and compelled to leave the church. It was an unbiblical and unconstitutional strategy, which left them open to charges of disruption and slander and never won over the crucial support of the moderates. In the final analysis the New School aversion to subscription, strict doctrinal accountability, and tolerance of error ensured the church’s decline and helplessness in the face of a culture and nation rapidly rejecting historic Christianity.