Historic Documents of American Presbyterianism
The Auburn Affirmation
By Rev. Daniel S. Gage, D.D.
Professor of Philosophy and Bible,
Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.
[excerpted from The Southern Presbyterian Journal, 1.5 (August 1942) 16-19.]
This document is one of the most important ecclesiastical papers ever issued. It deserves the most careful study, and this must of necessity be rather lengthy if studied in an article such as this.
It is thought by some that it merely raised some constitutional questions as to the powers of the General Assembly. It is true that this was raised by it, but only as the basis for a far more important “affirmation”. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., in reply to an overture from the Presbytery of Baltimore, in 1910, calling attention to the existence of doubts and denials of the faith of the Church, pronounced certain doctrines “essential”. The Assembly of 1916 repeated them and in 1923 the Assembly again declared them to be “essential” doctrines of the Word of God and of the Standards. We quote them from the actions of that Assembly as its deliverance was followed by the Auburn Affirmation.
1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word and of our Standards that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error.
2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.
3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards that Christ offered up “Himself a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice and to reconcile us to God.”
4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards concerning the Lord Jesus Christ that on the third day he arose again from the dead, with the same body with which He suffered, with which He also ascended to heaven and there sitteth at the right hand of His Father, making intercession for us.
5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme standard of our faith that our Lord Jesus showed His power and love by working mighty miracles. This working was not contrary to nature but superior to it. An affirmation which, on the title page, declares that it is designed to safe-guard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., was issued on May 5, 1924. It was signed by 1,283 ministers.
In some preliminary notes the “Conference Committee” says that through their correspondence they had certain knowledge that there were hundreds of ministers agreeing with the approving of the Affirmation who had refrained from signing it. They also in these notes declared that among the signers were conservatives and liberals.
“Differing as to certain theological interpretations, they are one in loyalty to our Church, to the Kingdom of God and in faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” They said that these signatures constitute an appeal to the church “for a general adoption of this same spirit of mutual confidence and unity, for a recognition of the fact that our church is broad enough to include men honestly different in their interpretations of our common standards and yet loyal, servants of Jesus, and for a new consecration of the whole church to work for the world, in obedience to our Lord.” In the Affirmation, itself, it is, stated at the beginning that the signers “feel bound in view of certain actions of the General Assembly of 1923 and of persistent attempts to divide the church and abridge its freedom, to express our convictions in matters pertaining thereto.” They asserted that they accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”. Also, that they sincerely held and earnestly preached the doctrines of evangelical Christianity in agreement with the historic testimony of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, “of which we are loyal members”. “For the maintenance of the faith of our church, the preservation of its unity and the protection of the liberties of its ministers and people, we offer this Affirmation.”
Let us first note the constitutional questions raised by the Affirmation. It was a matter of wide report that there was being preached in the First Presbyterian Church of New York, doctrines quite contrary to the Standards. The Assembly ordered the Presbytery of New York to take steps to end this situation. The Affirmation holds that in so doing the Assembly went beyond its powers and handled the case unlawfully. But that by itself would not have made the Affirmation very important. But, more important, they held that the Assembly by declaring the above named Doctrines “essential parts” of the Word of God and of the Standards and in enjoining Presbyteries not to ordain candidates who did not subscribe to all of them in the form in which the Assembly had stated them, was, in effect, creating a new Confession of Faith. That, also it had altered the Ordination vows of a minister which had asked that he accept the Standards as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures” and that this vow did not compel a minister to put on that system the interpretation which the Assembly had so specifically expressed. They held that if these doctrines in this form were to be made essential and belief in all of them required, it should have been done by action of the Presbyteries in the constitutional manner prescribed for alteration of the Constitution and Standards of the Church. This was, of course an important problem. It was never settled but, as the sequence shows, went by default. These are the constitutional questions raised by the Affirmation. The remainder and by far the most important part, is devoted to a different problem.
It will have been noted that the signers declared that among their reasons for issuing the document, was “the protection of the liberties of its ministers and people”. Also, that there had been persistent attempts made “to bridge its (the church’s) freedom.” Of course this freedom was freedom of belief for no other kind of freedom is assailed by a Protestant Church, whose sanctions are limited to those of spiritual nature. And, it would be manifest without further study, that the signers believed their freedom of belief had been assailed by the deliverances of the Assembly in declaring certain doctrines “essential.” And, without further study it would be clear that the signers did not believe these doctrines to be essential. But further study will be made.
The Document begins by saying: “By its laws and history, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. safe-guards the liberty of thought and teaching of its ministers. At ordination they receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture. This the Church has always esteemed a sufficient subscription. Manifestly, it does not require their assent to the very words of the Confession or to all its teachings or to interpretations of the Confession by individuals or church courts.” “The Confession also expressly asserts the liberty of Christian believers and condemns the submission of the mind or conscience to any human authority.” Here they refer to the Conf. XX, ii.
The Affirmation then proceeds to state parts of the history of the Church in which this freedom was asserted. In the act of adopting the Westminster Confession in 1729, the church stated, “there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. And in all these they think it the duty both of private Christians and Societies, to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
In the last century there arose in New England a theology widely different from the theology of the Puritans and from the Westminster Standards. Mighty men on both sides entered into the debates which then were held on the problems of the theology then discussed. The New School Theology was never formulated in a definite Creed but its essential difference concerned the relation of mankind to Adam:—the imputation of his sin to man, the imputation of his guilt, being both denied by the New School. Different members of this school held different views on some matters,—especially as to why all men are sinful if no sin was inherited and if there is no “original sin”. Still the leaders of that day on both sides evidently did not take the words of the original Act of Adoption of 1729 as understood by the Affirmation for they did not feel that these profound differences could be harmonized by “mutual forebearance” and in 1837 and 1838 the Church divided into the Old and New School Assemblies. Four ninths of the Church went into the New School. And preceding this division, there had been several trials for heresy.
Here, it should be said that the New School doctrines were almost if not wholly in the Northern Synods. When the Southern Church withdrew it was from the Old School. The official theology of the Southern has been and is, Old School. But the affirmation goes on to say that after 33 years of separation, the theological debates having died down, these two Assemblies, differing so profoundly in interpretation of the Scriptures and the Standards, re-union,—on the basis of the Standards, each recognizing the other as a sound and orthodox body. No attempt was made to harmonize their different theologies. Both could be freely preached in the re-united body. New theories are rarely thought to their ultimate conclusion when first formulated. As far as I am aware, none of the New School at first denied the divinity of Jesus, the Vicarious Atonement, or the accuracy of the Bible. But, it should have been plain from the start, that the less man is a sinner, the less he needs a Saviour. And it should have been plain that if New School doctrines as to the original innocence of man,—the absence of original sin, that there was no imputation to man of either the sin or the guilt of Adam, were correct, then man could save himself, and the inevitable conclusion would be the loss of belief in the divinity of Christ, the Vicarious Atonement, and Humanism, in general.
And the Affirmationists were undoubtedly right in asserting that the history of the Church U.S.A. does show that what is said in one of the introductory paragraphs is correct,—that they were appealing to the Church “for a recognition of the fact that our Church is broad enough to include men honestly differing in their interpretation of our common standards, and yet loyal servants of Jesus Christ.” For since that union of 1870, there has been two wholly different theologies preached in the Church U. S. A., so different that it is impossible to reconcile them, and those differences do not concern minor matters, but are at the very foundation of the whole system of doctrine. That the Church, U.S.A. has been an “inclusive” church since then cannot be doubted.
The Affirmation then goes on to cite in support of their contention as to the fact that the whole history of the church is one of recognition of differing interpretations, the fact that in 1906, the church united with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. “The union was opposed on the ground that the two churches were not one in doctrine, yet it was consummated. Thus did our church once more exemplify its historical policy of accepting theological differences within its bounds and subordinating them to recognized loyalty to Jesus Christ and united work for the kingdom of God.”
Next, the Affirmation definitely denies that any Council has power to settle any controversies of religion. It quotes the words of the Confession that “the Supreme Guide .... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”. “Accordingly our Church has held that the supreme guide in the interpretation of the Scriptures is ... the Spirit of God speaking to the Christian believer.” The omitted words refer to the contrary doctrine of the Roman Catholics, and do not in any way alter the meaning of the Affirmation as the Supreme Guide and Judge.
But the Affirmation next challenges the declaration of the Assembly in its first “essential doctrine” that the writers of the Scriptures were kept free from error. It asserts that the Confession does not make this statement,—that it is not to be found in the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds, nor in any of the great Reformation Confessions, and hold that the General Assembly of 1923 in so asserting, “spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or the Confession of Faith. We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures 'are given by inspiration of God to be the whole rule of faith and life”.
Next, the Affirmation refers to the expression of the General Assembly of 1923, that five doctrinal statements were “essential doctrines of the Word of God and our Standards.” It declares that on the constitutional grounds they have before described, “we are opposed to any and all attempts to elevate these five doctrinal statements or any of them, to the position of tests for ordination or good standing in our church”. The plain meaning of this is that a minister may deny any or all of them and still be in good standing in the church. He may deny the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the Vicarious Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection and the working of Miracles and be in good standing as to his faith and preaching.
Next, the Affirmation adds:—“Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly tends to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It will have been noted that in making the declaration that these doctrines were essential, the Assembly used the verbatim words of the Standards except as to the Miracles. But the Affirmation holds that these words merely express certain theories as to these five doctrines. In their place, the signers next say—and this is important, “We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines", (here we call careful attention to the following quotation as it contains the heart of the Affirmation)—"we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God: that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.” The above is printed with emphasis, heavy type, in the Affirmation. It would sound well if it were not for what follows. "Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and Standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them are worthy of all confidence and fellowship”.
Next is added: "We do not desire liberty to go beyond the teachings of evangelical Christianity. But we maintain that it is our constitutional right and Christian duty within these limits to exercise liberty of thought and teaching that we may more effectively preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world." The Affirmation closes with a paragraph which deplores the evidence of division in the church, and appeals to all to preserve the unity and freedom of the Church.
It will be noted that in the above statement of the facts and doctrines which all hold, it is admitted that the Biblical writers were inspired but they decline to believe that they were kept by the Spirit free from error. They believe God was in Christ, but not by the Virgin Birth. Nor was Jesus Christ necessarily then truly God and Man with two distinct natures and one person. That Jesus did rise from the dead but they decline to hold that it must have been by the resurrection of the body with which he was buried. That He did many mighty works but they decline to hold that they must have been genuine miracles. That His death was vicarious and yet the Atonement was not necessarily of such nature. In other words, all these views in the Confession reasserted by the Assembly are but theories for explanation of the above facts. Other theories are possible according to the Affirmation. One who denies all the above theories as expressed in the Confession could hold other theories and still be in good and regular standing and worthy of all confidence and fellowship.
How different might be the theologies preached in church in which all these theories might be believed by some and denied by others would be hard to say. Is it unfair to say that almost any doctrine short of denial of Jesus as Lord and Saviour could be preached? Almost any doctrine as to the reliability of Scripture, as to the person and nature of Christ,—as to the nature of His atonement,—as to His resurrection,—as to his life on earth as far as miracles are concerned. Could not ALL miracles be denied? Could it not be held that Jesus was but a man in whom God manifested Himself? Could not one hold other theories as to the appearance of Christ in the upper room than that He actually appeared in the Body? And so with other appearances? Of course he could,—if the statements of the Assembly which quotes the words of the Confession are but theories and other theories are possible.
The singers of the Affirmation declared that they had the constitutional right to preach other theories. And this was granted by the fact that the Committee of the Assembly of 1924 to which the Affirmation was referred recommended that no action be taken. Therefore, men of liberal views, of conservative views,—holding the Old School doctrines as to the sinfulness of man and those of the New School denying it, and therefore not so needing a Saviour as if he were “dead in trespasses and sin”,—those of Arminian theology as found in the Cumberland Church, and those of strict Calvinism; and other views which may be held are all in the one Church. The constitutional power of the Assembly to declare certain “theories” as the Affirmationists called them, of the Facts of Christianity to be essential, was never brought to the test. It was never sent to the Presbyteries. The Church decided to preserve outward ecclesiastical unity by permitting any private interpretation to be put on all the facts of Christianity. In their statement as to the Supreme Guide of doctrine these words are used, “accordingly our church has held that the supreme guide in the interpretations of the Scriptures is not, as with Roman Catholics, ecclesiastical authority, but the Spirit of God speaking to the Christian believer”. Any believer therefore has the right to hold his interpretations of all the facts of the Christian life. Certainly, this is true. But whether any believer has the right to preach his private interpretations and remain in a particular church, is not necessarily the case. Two courses are manifestly open to all organized churches. They may decide to permit any and all interpretations and thus preserve outward unity by permitting inward diversity.
The Affirmationists declared that they did not desire to go beyond the bounds of evangelical Christianity. But any one could freely determine for himself what these bounds were, decide for himself what evangelical Christianity is, and they claimed and received this right. On the other hand, any Church can, if it choose, decide that it wishes real unity of belief, and a consistent unified message in its bounds,—it may if it choose, decide what is the “Gospel” and what as Paul says, are “not even other gospels for they are no Gospel at all”. Outward unity at the price of inward diversity,—or real unity both outward and inward,—a declaration as to what is the true “Gospel” and the permission of any doctrine as to the Gospel,—these are apparently the lines which Churches must choose. Our Church so far has chosen to try to preserve both inward and outward unity. We must pay the price if we give up our real inward unity.
This study is written to call the attention of our Southern Church to the situation should there come organic union between the two Assemblies. We would enter a body far larger than ours in which all the above doctrines could be preached, and, of course, then, they could be preached in any part of our now Southern Church. That this amounts to removing almost all doctrinal standards needs for proof only that the Affirmation be studied. For note the paragraph introductory of the Affirmation to which reference was made near the beginning of this article,—that the Affirmation is an appeal for the recognition of the fact that our church is broad enough to include men differing in their interpretation of our common Standards.” It is the Interpretation which a man puts on words,—not the words, themselves, which determines his beliefs. Differing interpretations may mean differing and even mutually exclusive theologies. Organic union would be but outward, while there would not and could not be any real inner unity.