Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Affirmation

The reaction in American Protestantism rose to militant activity after the First World War, in a time congenial to such a movement. A widespread and powerful body of opinion charged the Churches with weakness and failures, and located the cause in "modernism," which meant modern Biblical study and religious thought accepting scientific truth, in particular "evolution." In this temper fundamentalism was organized as the great World Conference on Christian Fundamentals in Philadelphia in May, 1919. The conference issued a doctrinal declaration including the five points and also the imminent return of Christ, the tenets of which were the "fundamentals." It adopted a broad program of measures of war on "modernism" and modernists, aimed at Churches, theological seminaries, colleges, missions, boards, religious periodicals, the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., and planned extensive means to spread the theology of the fundamentals. The avowed ultimate object was to secure control of the great Churches.

The first attempt of this kind was made in the Northern Baptist Convention of 1922. Before this Dr. Harry Fosdick preached in the First Presbyterian Church of New York his celebrated sermon on "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Defeated with the Baptists, fundamentalism turned to the Presbyterian Church. The General Assembly of 1923 by a narrow vote expressed disapproval of Dr. Fosdick's teaching, without mentioning his name, and directed the Presbytery of New York to bring the teaching in the First Presbyterian Church into conformity with the doctrinal standards of the Church and report to the next Assembly. It accompanied this with a reiteration of the five points as essential doctrines. A question of the whole Church had thus arisen, and now the fundamentalist effort to control the Church was fully launched. The propaganda seeking to make the five points the Church's effective creed was much intensified, with unceasing denunciation of all ministers and laymen known to hold liberal theological views as enemies of Christian faith. Vague but very positive assertions were made to the effect that there was in the Church a large body of ministers who had forsaken evangelical Christianity. The words "materialist," "rationalist," "infidel," "pagan," were cast about without much regard for their meaning, but so as to strengthen this suspicion. After some months of this fomenting of theological panic there appeared a proposal designed to accomplish fundamentalist domination. To the General Assembly of 1924 came an overture asking it to require that all members of the General Council and the Boards of the Church and all professors in its theological seminaries declare their assent to the doctrinal deliverances containing the five points. This would involve giving to utterances of the General Assembly an authority equal to that of the Church's creed, and also binding the five points practically on the Church.

Just before this same General Assembly of 1924 there came from the liberals an instrument destined to repulse the fundamentalists, in the framing of which Henry Coffin bore a leading part. Early in 1923 they had begun to organize and prepare. Out of long consultation among them emerged the memorable Affirmation, prepared to be signed by ministers. In this document, which has become a symbol of liberal Presbyterianism, the signers affirmed their loyalty to evangelical Christianity and their adherence to the Church's Confession, as given at their ordinations. From its history and law they showed that the Church assured to its ministers liberty in the interpretation of the Confession and the Scriptures. They rejected Biblical inerrancy as not a teaching of the Bible, the Confession of Faith, the ancient creeds or those of the Reformation, and as in fact impairing the authority of the Bible. They met the assertion of "essential doctrines" by denying on constitutional grounds the General Assembly's authority to declare doctrine for the Church. Then they continued, in words which were the main strength of the Affirmation: 'Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our Church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ. 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 by God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Savior; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost." --Robert Hastings Nichols from "Leader of Liberal Presbyterianism" an essay in "This Ministry: The Contribution of Henry Sloane Coffin," ed. Niebuhr, 1945