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The Auburn Affirmation 11: Conservatives' Ineffectual Response

As one commentator put it, in 1924 conservatives "made a grave mistake...[that] has troubled the church ever since."

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part eleven of a series. Read part ten.

As one commentator put it, in 1924 conservatives "made a grave mistake...[that] has troubled the church ever since."

What was the reaction to the Auburn Affirmation in the 1920s? Dr. J. Gresham Machen, who had published his landmark book Christianity and Liberalism just a few months before the Affirmation appeared, focused on the key issue. He spoke of the irreconcilable contrasts between authentic Biblical Christianity and the counterfeit of liberalism in the very terms the Holy Spirit inspired the human writers of Scripture to use: truth versus error, light versus darkness, Christ versus Belial. But only a relative handful of other conservatives joined Machen in taking such an unequivocal stand for the authority of Scripture.

In sad contrast, most conservatives in the 1920s demonstrated that they valued false unity and false Presbyterianism more than the truth. Though they were opposed to the liberals' assertions in the Affirmation, they allowed themselves to be distracted by the non-issue of the PCUSA General Assembly's supposed lack of constitutional authority to call heresy by its right name. Amazingly, Edwin H. Rian, writing an official history published by the OPC in 1940, also focused on this point, saying, "The weight of the law [that is, church law] seems to be on the side of the Auburn Affirmation"! [1]

Conservatives had considered publishing a counter-affirmation, and Machen had drafted one. [2] Machen also sought to rally conservatives through several magazine articles and many personal contacts. But conservatives came to the faulty conclusion that they would "be on stronger ground in not making any formal, signed reply." [3]

Incredibly, conservatives, in the name of good churchmanship, then joined so-called moderates in shielding the liberals from church discipline. By unanimous vote, the PCUSA General Assembly refused to act on an overture that could have resulted in sanctions against the Auburn liberals. [4] No signer of the Auburn Affirmation was ever charged with heresy in his own presbytery. Rian writes:

...[T]he question has often been asked, "Why was not some action taken against the Auburn Affirmation and its signers?". The fact remains that as far as the record is concerned, there was no protest and no dissenting vote. It is also surprising that very little or no comment is made concerning this overture in the report of the proceedings of the general assembly in such a magazine as The Presbyterian, which was then the most aggressive organ for the faith....

There seems to be no sound explanation of this action and attitude of the conservatives except that they made a grave mistake. No advice was given to the church concerning the Auburn Affirmation and, as a result, the matter has troubled the church ever since. [5]

That is still true. The legacy of conservatives' tepid response to the Auburn Affirmation troubles the church today. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:

To regard a church, or a council of churches, as a forum in which fundamental matters can be debated and sheer confusion and muddled thinking. There is to be no discussion about "the foundation".... If men do not accept that, they are not brethren and we can have no dialog with them. We are to preach to such and to evangelize them.

...Those who question and query, let alone deny, the great cardinal truths that have been accepted throughout the centuries do not belong to the church, and to regard them as brethren is to betray the truth.... [T]he apostle Paul tells us clearly what our attitude to them should be: "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Tit. 3:10). They are to be regarded as unbelievers who need to be called to repentance and acceptance of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. To give the impression that they are Christians with whom other Christians disagree about certain matters is to confuse the genuine seeker and enquirer who is outside [and, to confuse true believers within the church - pme]. But such is the position prevailing today. It is based upon a failure to understand the nature of the New Testament church which is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). In the same way it is a sheer waste of time to discuss or debate the implications of Christianity with people who are not agreed as to what Christianity is. Failure to realize this constitutes the very essence of the modern confusion. [6]


1. Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, [1940] 1992), page 26.

2. Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1954), pages 366-368.

3. Stonehouse, pages 366-367.

4. Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, [1940] 1992), pages 33-34.

5. Rian, page 34.

6. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "The Basis of Christian Unity" in Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942-1977 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), page 161.

Next: Lessons to be Learned


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