Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Auburn Affirmation of 1924

The Auburn Affirmation of 1924
A significant document in the history of American Presbyterianism was the "Auburn Affirmation of 1924," a document drafted and signed by many of the professors and clergy in Auburn, NY who were affiliated with the Auburn Theological Seminary which was located in Auburn at that time.

The Auburn Affirmation was written largely by Robert Hastings Nichols, who was a professor of church history at Auburn Theological Seminary, with the assistance of Henry Sloan Coffin of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

The document was a reaction to a decision reached at the 1923 General Assembly, which required the Presbytery of New York to administer a doctrinal examination of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the preacher at First Presbyterian Church, who had openly expressed doubts about the five tenets of the faith espoused by fundamentalists within the denomination, and approved by its General Assembly, in a now-famous sermon titled: "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"

The tenets were:
    The inerrancy of scripture
    The virgin birth of Jesus 
     The substitutionary theory of the atonement 
     The bodily or physical resurrection of Christ 
     The performance of miracles by Christ.

If Fosdick failed the exam, the presbytery was to sever the ties between Fosdick and First Church.
It was then that the drafters of the Auburn Affirmation met in Syracuse, arguing that deliverances of the General Assembly are not binding because they are not part of the constitution or the confession of faith.

Referring to the Five Fundamentals listed above as "particular theories", the Affirmation's argument is succinctly summarized in two sentences: "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 our 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."

The presbytery exonerated Fosdick and voted to license two other pastors who had refused to affirm the virgin birth; and the subsequent Assembly refused to discipline the signers of the Affirmation or to impose the "five fundamentals" on all church employees. It also told the presbytery that Fosdick could remain in his position at First Church.

Within two years, the fundamentalists' position was defeated, and within five years, the Assembly agreed that the unity of the Presbyterian Church is based not in uniformity, but in "the power of its faith to hold together diverse views and beliefs." The Auburn Affirmation was the culmination of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, which by 1924 had been a conflict of more than thirty years within the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is generally regarded as signalling a turning point in the history of American Presbyterianism, because it garnered the support of both theological traditionalists and liberals.

The Auburn Affirmation has come back in the limelight in recent years as an instructive tool for dealing with the theological and political rifts in the denomination over potentially divisive issues like ordination standards. The Auburn Affirmation of 1924 was significant in that it stressed unity through diversity, and allowed for varying ways of understanding and expressing essential doctrines of faith.

[The final pages, 6 - 13, of the document present a list of 150 signators to the Affirmation. In the second printing as produced by the Jacobs Press of Auburn, NY on May 5, 1924, the final listing of 1293 names was issued. No further names were added in any subsequent printings of the document.

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