When a Theological College Goes Wrong
This article is an extract from the book Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism by Lee Gatiss, available from Latimer Trust. It was originally written in 2006.
Three talks on the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937 from the Church Society Conference of 2007 are also available on Theologian in mp3 format.
We turn now to consider the battle for Princeton Seminary and the issue of theological education. Much of this story from the 1920s will have a poignant ring to it, not only for those involved today at Westminster Seminary (which sadly is experiencing again some internal discord) but also for those who are aware of issues at other theological colleges such as Wycliffe Hall in Oxford or Oak Hill Theological College in London.
Let us start much further back. In 1813 Samuel Miller moved from a city church to be professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at the recently formed Princeton Seminary. He had had a tough few years working alongside another man with whom he did not always see eye to eye. So to prepare himself for a new stage of ministry he had written several resolutions, which included the following:
“III. I will endeavour, by the grace of God, so to conduct myself toward my colleague in the seminary, as never to give the least reasonable ground of offence. It shall be my aim, by divine help, ever to treat him with the most scrupulous respect and delicacy, and never to wound his feelings, if I know how to avoid it.
IV. … I will, in no case, take offence at his treatment of me. I have come hither resolving, that whatever may be the sacrifice of my personal feelings – whatever may be the consequence – I will not take offence, unless I am called upon to relinquish truth or duty… I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or contest.”
“I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or contest.”
These admirable sentiments ensured a good working relationship between Miller and Archibald Alexander from the start. Apart from the occasional student ‘rebellion’, Princeton Seminary was spared great internal turmoil for most of its history. The students at nearby Princeton College did occasionally rebel, and on one occasion they nailed up all the entrances to Nassau Hall, together with the doors of their tutors’ rooms. They rushed to the top floor yelling “Rebellion! Rebellion! Fire! Fire!”, broke all the windows and rang the bell incessantly. The Seminary, however, was usually much more peaceful, due not only to concord on matters theological and ecclesiastical but also perhaps to the close family ties that existed and developed among the members of the faculty.
Yet in the 1920s this amicability and unity broke down so completely that the General Assembly of 1926 was asked to investigate what was happening at the Seminary. There was little “delicacy” towards wounded feelings and much bitter animosity and contest as the faculty fought amongst themselves for what Miller had called “truth or duty.” One man did end up giving up on his own claims as a result of this strife. J. Gresham Machen, elected as Professor of Apologetics by the Board of Directors was denied the chair by the General Assembly for several years while the investigation was carried out and a report written and endlessly discussed.
Things did not look good for Princeton. A Special Commission of Fifteen had been appointed in 1925 to report on the causes of unrest in the denomination. It reported that there were five such causes: general intellectual movements, historical differences, diverse attitudes towards questions of polity, theological changes, and misunderstandings. In its analysis of historical precedent for doctrinal toleration, the report had clear echoes of the Auburn Affirmation: “toleration of diverse doctrinal views for the sake of evangelical unity – not concern for precise orthodoxy – had been the dominant, and successful, tendency in the church” it said. Only Clarence Macartney stood against the report’s acceptance, which nullified the ‘Deliverances’ of previous assemblies on the ‘fundamentals’ of what was “essential and necessary” to believe and thus enshrined the tolerance of liberals within the Church. Yet, unsurprisingly, as Robert Churchill wrote, “Once the opponents of historic Christianity gained the upper hand, the plea for tolerance came to a sudden and dramatic end.”
Heated debate within Princeton split the faculty down the middle. The issue concerned the mission of the Seminary. Geerhardus Vos, Caspar Hodge, William Greene, Oswald Allis, Robert Wilson, and Machen considered it to be the agent of Old School Presbyterianism, committed to the conservative cause even within a mixed denomination. They had historical precedent on their side, as well as the Charter of the Seminary. Moreover, certain donations, including the library and one of the classroom buildings, had been made to the Seminary on condition that it maintained various doctrinal positions as “understood and explained by the… Old School.” Given that Princeton was “the most heavily endowed theological seminary in the United States” this was not an insubstantial point. The President, J. Ross Stevenson, and a minority of the faculty (including Charles Erdman) wanted to mainstream Princeton: “my ambition as President of the seminary,” he declared, “is to have it represent the whole Presbyterian Church and not any particular faction of it.”
Yet the disagreements on the faculty were not just about whom Princeton was serving but what they were serving them with. The original Plan of the Seminary was designed “to form men for the Gospel ministry” through study of the original languages of Scripture, a thorough acquaintance with biblical studies and associated antiquities, geographical, and other historical studies, study of the controversies of the day, study of the Confession and Catechisms, study of history, especially Church History, the reading of “a considerable number of the best practical writers”, the composition of at least two lectures and four “popular sermons”, the study of the duties of pastoral care, and the exercise of church government and discipline.
By the end of the 19th century many seminaries had, however, dropped Hebrew requirements and introduced more electives into their curriculum. There were complaints that “Seminary authorities… felt that extensive Bible study was unnecessary. They took the position that all who enrolled for study in the ministry were thoroughly schooled already in the Bible. This was fallacious. I, for one, wasn’t… even though my father was a clergyman… The emphasis back in my seminary days was given to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.” These were the words of Charles Erdman himself, who interrupted his own studies at Princeton for a year to work with his father in order to acquire a better grasp of the Bible in English.
There were arguments in the first few decades of the Seminary’s existence, as there often are, about whether such an institution was necessary at all. Gardiner Spring of New York complained in 1848 that seminaries entrusted ministerial education to “mere scholars, those who know more about books than men, and more of the theological lecture halls than the pulpit.” He called for a return to the custom of apprenticeship-style training in a parish setting. This was how it had been done before, and, of course, it remains a popular mode of ministry training today. So what was the point of a theological college if one could more easily be trained ‘on the job’? As James Garretson rightly points out in his excellent study of Archibald Alexander’s instructions on preaching and ministry, Princeton’s goal “was an educated clergy who would be powerful and persuasive preachers… Princeton was to be an enlarged version of the ‘learning by mentoring’ practice of colonial pastors, adapted to the needs and demands of a growing population that was quickly outnumbering the availability of well-educated, pious ministers.”
“what was the point of a theological college if one could more easily be trained ‘on the job’?”
This debate rumbled on in the 1840s and 50s with questions about whether the Seminary was producing adequately trained preachers; Princeton “clearly missed the skill and example of their first two professors, who drew on years of pastoral ministry and preaching experience to teach and inspire the students to be great preachers.” Yet they were also highly accomplished theologians. Later, after student disputes in 1903 and 1909, and over the objections of Warfield and others, extra-curriculum tuition was provided by the Practical Theology department in “English Bible.” The Supervising Committee reported in 1909 that:
“We have learned from recent graduates, men say of five to fifteen years in the ministry, who are intensely loyal to everything in Princeton, that sometimes weeks at a stretch have been consumed in lectures in certain of the departments upon subjects of remotest interest to the pastor—as they strongly affirm, of no interest whatever—while other matters in the same department, which are very important to the pastor, have been practically overlooked. It is intimated by way of explanation that this is so because professors who had themselves never been pastors have no true conception of the relative importance of different subjects to the actual work of the ministry, and because, naturally enough they assume that the more difficult parts of the work call for the fuller treatment and the harder study.”
Erdman had been right to interrupt his own study and even Warfield could see that students were arriving at seminary inadequately prepared. So in 1905 Erdman himself was appointed for this very task of practical instruction having been a pastor since his graduation in 1891. Considering their wider commitments on church union and the tolerance of liberals, it is interesting to note that during the battle for the Seminary all of the moderates on the faculty had served in pastorates, usually for quite long periods, “whereas only one of the ‘majority’ had ever been a pastor, and that more than thirty years before.” There may be something in this implied criticism; whereas in its early days Princeton was known for its mixture of piety and learning, the piety may have been sidelined during controversial times. Someone who listened to Machen preach in 1923 complained, “We want to hear about Christ, not about Fundamentalists and Modernists” and he has been criticised recently by John Piper who wonders after an analysis of Machen’s works and biography “whether some ground may have been lost by fighting instead of praying.”
"some ground may have been lost by fighting instead of praying..."
A mixture of pastoral experience and scholarly ability was considered a strength, of course, and Stevenson’s appointment was intended to keep the Seminary from drifting too far from where the church itself was. Yet this emphasis on the practical might also be a problem. Machen wrote of Stevenson in 1916 that he “emphasized the ‘intensely practical,’ and advocated the choosing of professors from among the active pastors…. It will be an anxious time when the first of the major chairs falls vacant; for it may be filled with some pious liberal before we know it, or else with some ‘intensely practical’ incompetent, such as the other Seminaries are getting.” Yet, ironically, the problems at Princeton really began when Machen himself, already at the Seminary teaching New Testament, was elected to fill the vacant Chair of Apologetics and Christian Ethics.
Machen’s appointment was put on hold for various reasons by the General Assembly which held, but had never before used, the power of veto over Princeton’s appointments. Part of the problem was Machen’s growing infamy amongst liberals. They had, no doubt, read Christianity and Liberalism and they didn’t like it. Yet another element of the problem was that he did not support the Presbyterian Church’s stance on the most high profile ethical issue of the day – prohibition – which “in the minds of many… was tantamount to religious and cultural apostasy.” Banning the sale of alcohol was a great fundamentalist and evangelical crusade in those days, but Machen was not a Prohibitionist. He sometimes drank, in moderation, and even invited students back to his rooms in college for cigars! How could he teach ethics in a prohibitionist church culture?
People distrusted Machen for these things. Erdman was even more pointed in his criticism: “What is questioned,” he said, “is whether Dr. Machen’s temper and methods of defense are such as to qualify him for a chair in which his whole time will be devoted to defending the faith.” He was accused of being “spiritually unqualified to hold the post in question and teach goodwill to students, that he was temperamentally defective, bitter and harsh in his judgment of others and implacable to brethren who did not agree with him” and of displaying “unkindness, suspicion, bitterness and intolerance.” Others spoke of his gentleness and courtesy but they had not been on the receiving end of his disapprobation, and with so many voices raised about his character it may be that there was “something peculiar about him” as Marsden puts it since “[c]learly he was someone whom people either loved or hated.” Even D. G. Hart, a great fan of Machen, acknowledges that he had a reputation as a “theological bully” and he was not the only one who behaved in this way. In 1972, many years after the bitter squabbles at Princeton, a man by the name of Francis Schaeffer, who was only a student in those days, reflected on what had happened, writing,
“We must show forth the love of God to those with whom we differ. Thirty-five years ago in the Presbyterian crisis in the United States, we forgot that. We did not speak with love about those with whom we differed, and we have been paying a high price for it ever since.”
The liberal and moderate side were not exactly paragons of virtue on this front either, of course. Sadly, the same is true in today’s ecclesiastical confrontations. Conservatives in the Anglican Communion may be accused of being harsh or intolerant, but one only needs to read the Church Times or the Fulcrum website to hear at times an equally vitriolic tone. There can be no excuse for us to trade insults with each other. We must show forth the love of God to those with whom we differ, even when we need to say strong things against them. “The Lord's servant” says the apostle Paul, “must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance” (2 Timothy 2:24-25 NIV).
We must show forth the love of God to those with whom we differ, even when we need to say strong things against them.
Seminary President Stevenson could not simply ignore the Board of Directors who had nominated Machen. Yet there seemed sufficient grounds for a pause, to put the matter on hold for a year while the whole situation at the Seminary was investigated. Machen’s character flaws were thus used as a way of opening up a debate about the whole direction of the Seminary.
The investigation and inspection of the seminary opened a whole can of worms and exposed the tensions within the institution. Stevenson told the investigators that he did not want Princeton to “swing off to the extreme right wing so as to become an interdenominational Seminary for ‘Bible School-premillennial secession fundamentalism.’” While Machen was no interdenominationalist, or premillennialist, he was widely seen as something of a champion for fundamentalism more generally, and there were many independent students in the seminary who were premillennialists and/or non-Presbyterian. Many were Methodists and there were numerous others with their own agendas and yes, secessionist tendencies. So Stevenson was sensitive to where this independent student contingent in the college were pushing it as an institution.
Stevenson did not, however, want Princeton to be a liberal establishment: “I wish to state most emphatically that I do not want such an ‘inclusive’ seminary at Princeton as would include Modernists, Liberals, or those of whatever name, who are disloyal to the Standards of the Presbyterian Church.” With the majority of the Board of Trustees (those responsible for the financial health of the Seminary) standing behind him, he continued to maintain that the Seminary should be tolerant of Old School-New School disagreements and be the agent of the combined schools. As we might say, it should aim to support both conservative and more open and charismatic strands of churchmanship.
The heads of theological colleges have not always found it easy to reform their institutions, for good or ill, when the faculty have been against it. New Testament Professor William Armstrong replied that the majority of the faculty, “maintain that the Institution has been historically affiliated with the doctrinal point of view in the Church known as the Old School. They are not aware that the reunion of Old and New Schools required the surrender by the Institution at that time of its doctrinal position and they are unwilling that this position be surrendered now when the differences in the Church are concerned not with two forms of the Reformed Faith but with the very nature of evangelical Christianity itself.” The majority of the Board of Directors (those responsible for the educative and theological aspects of the Seminary) stood behind the majority of the Faculty.
So the Directors and the majority of the faculty were on the conservative side, but the Trustees and the President were on the other side wanting to make it a more inclusive institution, but not so as to include everybody. Theology on one side, money and ‘practical men’ on the other. It was an extremely messy situation.
Theology was on one side, money and ‘practical men’ on the other.
The Report on Princeton was presented at the General Assembly of 1927, but action was postponed for a further year. The suggestion was that the bicameral, two-fold structure of the Seminary’s governing Boards be abolished and one Board be appointed to replace the Board of Trustees and Board of Directors. Many perceived more than mere administrative tinkering in this move. The editor of Presbyterian wrote:
“All this talk about the alleged benefits of a one board control is but a ‘smoke screen’ to conceal the real objective of its advocates… They want to get rid of the present Board of Directors because they know that as long as this Board directs the affairs of the Seminary, it will not become an inclusive institution. The ultimate objective of those advocating the reorganization of Princeton Seminary is an inclusive church, and their more immediate objective is the changing of Princeton Seminary into an inclusive institution because they see in it the chief obstacle in the way of making the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A an inclusive church – a church in which so-called Fundamentalists and so-called Modernists shall have equal rights and privileges.”
Machen printed and distributed, at his own personal expense, more than 20,000 copies of his paper “The Attack Upon Princeton Seminary: A Plea for Fair Play.” He was quite a rich man, having inherited many thousands of dollars, and could do many things like this at his own personal expense. He was clear that something was going on beneath the surface and that if people “had the slightest inkling of what is really going on” they would oppose this move. Conservatives were already under-represented within the structures of the Church he said and, “No one who has observed with the slightest care the policy of the president can think that if that policy prevails, any man who is consistently conservative or evangelical in the ecclesiastical issue of the present day will have the slightest chance of being elected to a chair in Princeton Seminary.” His challenge to the tolerant moderates and modernists was “is our distinctiveness to be respected, even where it is not shared? Is the Presbyterian church large enough to include one seminary that assumes a position like ours?”
Something was going on beneath the surface…
A petition was presented to the 1928 Assembly from more than 11,000 people, including over 3,000 ministers (more than twice as many as had signed the Auburn Affirmation). It called for the reorganization of Princeton to be rejected and for the church to “leave the control of this great institution where it now resides.” Legal opinions and studies were commissioned which also cast doubt on the proposals. In the face of such overwhelming conservative strength what could the liberals do? Another year of delay and discussion was called for.
In 1929, however, the die was cast. Erdman’s assurances that no-one was trying to change the doctrinal teaching of Princeton may have persuaded some, but to militant conservatives they appeared naïve at best. Machen had warned that “if we read the signs of the times aright, both in the church and in the state, there may soon come a period of genuine persecution for the children of God.” To many this sounded like sheer paranoia mixed perhaps with personal resentment, and they were incredulous over such pronouncements.
The fact is, Princeton was reorganized and, as if to prove the militants right, two Auburn Affirmationists were appointed to the new united Board governing the Seminary. Machen quickly decided that he could no longer serve the institution he had fought for over many years. With R. D. Wilson, O. T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til he left to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in order to continue a supply of conservative training for ordinands in the PCUSA. Other conservatives on the faculty did not, however, leave with him: Geerhardus Vos, near retirement and “never an active partisan in ecclesiastical controversy” remained at Princeton, although his letters show that he maintained a friendly and supportive relationship with Machen; C. W. Hodge, and W. P. Armstrong also remained as a conservative minority on the faculty. Although Stonehouse laments that their “decisions are not fully explicable”, there were also other conservative voices raised in caution at this new departure. To many it seemed too much of a knee jerk reaction to give up so soon. After all, the two Auburn Affirmationists were vastly outnumbered on the new board, and who was to say that they couldn’t be elected off in a few years? Should theological colleges be abandoned the moment a liberal evangelical is appointed to the governing board?
“Should theological colleges be abandoned the moment a liberal evangelical is appointed to the governing board?”
One conservative who took a slightly different view of things to Machen was Clarence Macartney. He clearly “did not assess the relative importance of pulpit and academy in the same way as Machen.” He did not consider the cause entirely won or lost at the level of institutions of higher education. Instead, the chief instrument he used to further the cause of the Reformed faith was preaching, with a full church on Sunday mornings and evenings, a Tuesday lunchtime meeting for businessmen in the city of Pittsburgh (starting with twelve men in 1930 it grew to an average attendance of eight hundred), and mid-week evening Bible teaching which was later published in printed form. He produced books and pamphlets, preached on college campuses and delivered numerous lectures at academic institutions, while nurturing many assistant pastors who would extend his legacy (including Harold Ockenga).
Macartney was, as we saw previously, Moderator of the General Assembly in 1924 at the height of conservative influence. But once he realized that the battle against the liberals was lost to the moderates, he seemed content to tolerate diversity within the denomination for the sake of an effective evangelistic ministry in the local church. He became somewhat disenchanted with the wider church scene, although he did not give up on the denomination entirely, investing time and energy into the League of Faith which was formed in 1931 to maintain a conservative witness within the PCUSA. Others have accused him, with some justification, of becoming “functionally Congregationalist”, opting out of synods as a way of keeping his head down and staying within the mainline denomination. After some persuasion he withdrew from the new Board of Princeton and joined the Board of Westminster, but there were signs that the militant conservatives were not as homogenous as was previously thought.
Princeton Seminary, then, was lost to the militant conservative cause, and eventually to the broadly conservative cause. Yet this was not the result of a liberal conspiracy but of a failure of conservatives to work together harmoniously while disagreeing on how to tolerate liberalism. That was the dividing line between evangelicals, which allowed the liberals to gain control of the denomination. Those who sought to pacify and keep the liberals in the church, even though they personally disagreed with much of their theology, eventually drove those who opposed liberalism out altogether.
Princeton was lost because of the failure of conservatives to work together harmoniously.
Twenty years ago R. T. Clutter studied this whole sorry episode and concluded with a warning, which surely remains apposite: “The Princeton story serves as an example to evangelical colleges and seminaries. Men and women who are in agreement on essential doctrinal matters and confessional statements must avoid polarization and disharmony which can result when issues are not resolved in the spirit of unity, peace, and love.”
This article is an extract from the book Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism by Lee Gatiss, available from Latimer Trust.
Three talks on the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937 are also available on The Theologian in mp3 format.