Review Essay -- By: Anonymous
WTJ 61:2 (Fall 1999) p. 247
Somewhere Between Denial And Conspiracy: Explaining What Happened To The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.1
D. G. Hart*
In 1893 the General Assembly of the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) suspended Charles Briggs from the ministry. Forty-three years later, J. Gresham Machen received a similar verdict from the same body. Of course, these cases did not exactly parallel each other. Briggs had the support of his presbytery, the Presbytery of New York, thus requiring the General Assembly to overturn the ruling of that large and prosperous body. In Machen’s case, the General Assembly was merely upholding the verdict of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. What is more, Briggs’ trial and verdict much more clearly involved theological issues that were seminal to the Reformed faith—the authority of the Bible, creedal subscription, and the boundaries for biblical scholarship. As denominational officials interpreted it, Machen’s trial and verdict primarily revolved around administrative questions—the legitimacy of parachurch agencies and the rights of individual church members to dissent from ecclesiastical decisions. Still, for all of their differences, the Briggs and Machen trials stand as bookends for an era of unprecedented change in American Presbyterianism. Here were two senior, respected scholars of the NT, at two of the Presbyterian Church’s oldest seminaries, standing trial and being suspended from the ministry. Of course, Briggs was a reputed liberal and Machen a vociferous conservative. In 1893 the Presbyterian Church took actions which declared that it would not tolerate theological liberalism. By 1936, however, the church appeared to have reversed itself by making Machen’s conservatism equally intolerable.
Placed side by side in that manner, the Briggs and Machen trials invite comparison and analysis. For conservative Presbyterians who left the denomination, the differences show just how far the northern Presbyterian Church had fallen in less than a half-a-century. For instance, for Edwin H. Rian,
*D. G. Hart is editor or the Westminster Theolgical Journal.
WTJ 61:2 (Fall 1999) p. 248
Briggs’ suspension for denying the infallibility of the Bible and of Machen for following the teachings of “the infallible Word of God” showed the “tremendous transformation” of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. from “orthodoxy to Modernism.”2 For liberal Presbyterians, the shift from the Briggs to Machen verdicts proved a vindication of Briggs’ cosmopolitan and ecumenical vision. One graduate of Union Theological Seminary (NY) during this period concluded that fundame...
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