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Historic Documents in American Presbyterian History

by Rev. Daniel S. Gage, D.D.

[excerpted from The Christian Observer 29 November 1944.]

The discussion of the Auburn Affirmation by Dr. Walter L. Lingle in the Christian Observer of October 11, in the opinion of this writer leaves much to be desired. Dr. Lingle says that it is a liberal document, but nothing in his discussion would so indicate. If it was issued solely to protest against an unconstitutional action of the Assembly, and if all the signers believed all the doctrines of the standards, including those included in the action of the Assembly, what could there have been in the document of a liberal nature? But it seems to this writer that Dr. Lingle has missed both the intent and the main content of the affirmation. We will let the document speak for itself.

To refresh our minds as to the circumstances: The U.S.A. Church being disturbed because some Presbyteries were ordaining men who did not accept certain doctrines of the standards, e.g., the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the resurrection, and in response to various overtures, their Assembly three times declared that the following doctrines were essential elements of the faith: The inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the vicarious atonement in the sense thatit was to satisfy divine justice, that Christ worked genuine miracles, and His bodily resurrection. The last time this was done was in 1923.

In opposition to this action, there was issued the document known as the Auburn Affirmation. The intent of the document is stated in its opening words: “We feel bound in view of certain actions of the Assembly of 1923 and of persistent attempts to divide the unity of the Church and abridge its freedom, to express our convictions in matters pertaining thereto.” “Forthe 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.” That the “unity” was not doctrinal will at once appear, but “purely organizational; that the freedom and liberties were the freedom to preach teachings contrary to the doctrines named in the action of the Assembly will also appear. While not stated in the affirmation, the Conservative and Liberal groups were reaching a point where division of the Church seemed threatened.

The document next asserts: “By its law and its history, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America safeguards the liberty of thought and teaching of its ministers.” To what an extent they claim this is done appears in the historical references which follow, which are the larger part of the document. It is asserted that the general subscription, to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures, has always been esteemed sufficient and does notrequire assent to all its teachings. From how many of these teachings a minister could dissent and to what extent will appear in later quotations.

Quotations are then given showing that the Confession disclaims infallibility, asserts the liberty of believers, and enjoins on all not to believe any doctrine which the conscience of anyone thinks contrary to the Word of God, no matter if the doctrine be set forth by any Synod. Of course, these are meant to teachthat no one should accept any standard of faith which he thought contrary to the Word. Who would disbelieve that? But that it meant that a man could solemnly affirm that he accepted the Westminster Confession as containing the system taught in the Scriptures and at the same time disbelieve those doctrines which its plain language taught is a different matter. Yet those who signed the affirmation held it justified them in holding beliefs contrary to those named by their Assembly. From how many other of the doctrines of the Confession one might dissent would, of course, depend on the signer. But what follows claims practically complete freedom in this respect. Here we may add that the signers of the affirmation never claimed that the Confession meant any other than the plain declarations containedtherein, so that when they later dissent (as we shall see they do) they do not in the least attempt to minimize their dissenting views; rather, they set them forth plainly.

The document next tells of the reunion of 1870 of the two Assemblies, the Old and the New School. It asserts that these differed in their interpretation of the Confession, but that it was agreed in the reunion that both interpretations could be held and taught in the one Church. How radically these two theologies differed it would require a considerable discussion to show. Dr. Lingle states that this undoubtedly brought some liberals into the united Church. In brief, as far as one sentence can put it, the New Schooldenied original sin and the inheritance of any guilt or sin from Adam. “What this leads to is clear, the less man is a sinner, the less he needs a Saviour. And the logical consequence when followed out is that Christ is not a Saviour, and the denial of the vicarious atonement as satisfying the justice of God. But since 1870 all this can be freely denied in the Church, U.S.A.

The affirmation next refers to the union between the Cumberland Presbyterians and the U.S.A. Church, and says that in spite of doctrinal differences the union was consummated. "Thus did our Church once more exemplify its historic 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.” And one can now see that in the bounds of the Church, U.S.A., are four irreconcilable theologies, the Old School, the New School, and the Cumberland, and, in addition, the dissenting theologies of the signers of the affirmation.

The document next denies that there is any assertion in the Confession that the Scriptures were kept free from error, declares that this is not found in the Apostles' or Nicene creeds, and is not in any Reformation creed. They assert that this doctrine has been an impairment of the authority of the Scriptures and has weakened the testimony of the Church. They do assert that they prefer the statement of the Confession that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” How far this position of the affirmationists would lead them, readers must judge for themselves.

The affirmation now comes to what Dr. Lingle emphasized, but which he unduly emphasized in consideration of other statements of the affirmation—that the Assembly had exceeded its constitutional powers in declaring certain doctrines “essential” without referring this to the Presbyteries. They declare that this deliverance of the Assembly amounted to the formation of an unconstitutional amendment. And in this position they were probably right. But had that been theironly concern, the affirmation should have protested the action and stopped there. Why the long paragraphs and historical references to liberty to hold differing doctrines? No, the action ofthe Assembly was important in that it was possibly bringing matters to a head and possibly threatened division in the Church. But why the alarm if all the signers believed all the doctrines named by the Assembly as “essential?” If our Assembly should make such a deliverance, there might be protest that it was unconstitutional, but who would claim that his “freedom” of thought was being abridged if he believed all these doctrines anyway? No one. But — and now we come to the heart of the affirmation — many of its signers did not believe these doctrines at all, either as “essential” or in any way. For they now assert: “Furthermore, this opinion of the Assembly attempts to commit our Churchto certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the incarnation, the atonement, and the continuing life and supernatural power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Farther on: “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the 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 our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theory they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.

Here is the heart of the liberalism of the affirmation and its great importance. It is not even alluded to by Dr. Lingle. All the doctrines named by the U.S.A. Assembly in 1923 are in our standards, and they are not regarded by us as merely theories, but as truths, unchangeable and fundamental. It is right here and in the later action of the Assembly of the U.S.A. Church that we find whether they and we will regard the standards to be adopted by the United Church in the same manner. This affirmation makes it clear that the attitude is poles apart. We will accept them in good faith as expressing truths. For any member of the Northern Church who wishes so to regard them, they will be but “theories,” and he may hold apparently any theory he pleases in regard to the Scriptures as regards their inerrancy, in regard to the birth of Jesus, the nature of the atonement, whether the miracles said in the Gospels to have been worked by our Lord are genuine miracles or not, holding by their express assertion that other theories may be held; and may hold what theory he pleases as to the resurrection of the Lord. The difference in attitude between our Church and all who please of the Northern Church is poles wide. There can be no possible spiritual unity or unity of faith between bodies so widely apart in their attitude toward the standards of faith.

We note their statement that “some” accepted the particular theories of the 1923 Assembly as satisfactory explanations, but “we are united” that these are not the only theories allowed. And when we recall the further note to the affirmation as follows: “Furthermore, the committee has certain knowledge through many letters and conversations that beside the signers there are in our Church hundreds who agree with and approve the affirmation though they have refrained from signing it,” then it is not too much to say that there is no meaning in the adoption of any standards whatever when the two parties hold such radically different attitudes toward those standards. To one Church they are truths. To whomsoever in the other Church, may so please to think, they are but theories, and other theories may be held and freely taught and preached. Inasmuch as the Northern Church permits the free holding of other theories and their free preaching, then it is not too much to say that the Northern Church regards the standards for all intent and purposes as but a set of theories in regard to important facts in our religion.

But the “interpretation” of any set of words is always the heart of the whole matter. Interpretations by civil courts of the meaning of laws are the essential matter. Let any two men adopt a set of words, and let one say, “I mean by these words such and such,” and the other say, “I mean by them something entirely different,” have these men any common ground for whatever purpose they adopted those words? What sense in adopting any standards whatever or in lengthily proving that the standards already now in both Churches are practically those proposed for the United Church, if one body will take them as merely “theories” as to which they may hold any other theory desired?

Dr. Lingle quotes the declaration of the faith of the signers. Let us examine it: “We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God.” (But they had declared that its inerrancy was but a theory and had gone further. As quoted above, they had declared that its inerrancy was not a part of any great Creed and that ithad always been a hindrance to the Church). “That Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh.” (But, as quoted above, it was but a theory that He was manifested by the virgin birth or was in the flesh by this means as to which they claimed the right to hold other “theories”). “That God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption.” (But they had declared it to be only a “theory” that this was, as is the clear declaration of the Confession, to satisfy divine justice. His reconciliation might have been made by any other means as to which the signers claimed the right to hold their own theories.) “That having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our everlasting Saviour.” (But they had declared it to be but a theory that His resurrection was bodily, or as say the proposed standards, “with the same body with which He suffered;” this is but a theory to the signers who claimed the right to hold and preach other theories). “That in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works.” (But they had declared it but a theory that these were genuine miracles. What mighty works the Lord wrought if the miracles recorded as worked by Him were not genuine “miracles” one would wonder. But what these “mighty works” were is not stated in the affirmation. Only that the signers all believed that there were other theories which satisfied the Scriptures and the standards). “And by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.” (But they had declared the statement that this vicarious death was to satisfy the justice of God as the proposed standards and the then Standards of the Church, U.S.A., definitely stated, was but a theory. Many years ago Dr. Henry Van Dyke, in his book, “The Gospel for a World of Sin,” stated that the atonement must have wrought some great thing for mankind or it would not have taken place, but declared that he did not know what it had done, but that he was sure that it was not to pay the penalty for the sins of man, which was a very immoral theory. It is very easy to declare that the Lord's death was “vicarious” and hold that action to be of other sort than “penal” or to “satisfy divine justice”).

So that the declaration of beliefs of the affirmationists is so worded as to permit almost any theory whatever as to these “great facts and doctrines” to be held. For they follow this statement immediately by what was quoted above: “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the Assembly as satisfactory explanations. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards.”

Nothing can be clearer than that those signers who assert they believe all these doctrines named by the Assembly do so only if they are allowed to give their interpretation to them. Of course. But it was precisely in order to prevent just this general looseness and differences of belief that the words of the proposed standards are made so definite. Nothing can be clearer that if union is brought about, the proposed standards will be taken by our Church to mean just what they say, and to be a statement of truths, but that to any one who so chooses in the U.S.A. Church they may be held as mere theories and he may preach any other theory in regard to them he pleases. Because the next Assembly, after the issuing of the affirmation, voted to take no action in regard to the affirmation. So that the “liberty” they asked for and which they declared the Presbyterian Church had always safeguarded was completely granted to them.

Our people need fully to understand the affirmation. It has committed the Church U.S.A., to the widest permission of holding any theory any minister may wish as to the doctrines of the Church. Organic union with the U.S.A. Church then, will organically unite us with a Church which will hold the proposed standards as but a set of “theories” and not as statements of truth.

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