Machen’s Princeton Appointment: Credentials vs. Conscience

In Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North discusses the problem of Princeton Seminary’s shift toward academic credentialing as opposed to the covenantal authority of the Church over seminary faculties. North points out that the “most important screening device for entrance into ministry” became academic examination, undermining ecclesiastical governance. Machen’s appointment to the seminary is an example. From chapter 10:

The extent of Princeton Seminary’s later commitment to technical scholarship above the authority of the Church is best seen in Machen’s appointment to a teaching position: instructor. He received the appointment in the fall of 1906. He was not ordained to the teaching eldership until June 23, 1914. He was elevated to assistant professor in May, 1914, to begin in the fall of that year. The faculty was self-conscious about this, as Stonehouse’s language indicates: “Acting on the background of Machen’s licensure, the Faculty of the Seminary was not slow to recommend his election as Assistant Professor of New Testament in its report to the Board of Directors at its meeting during the first week of May, 1914.”

Notice the change in title: “instructor” to “assistant professor.” The key was the word “professor.” Only ordained men could be professors at Princeton Seminary. So, Machen had not been a professor, 1906-14; he had been merely an instructor. He had graded students, delivered lectures, and participated in faculty meetings. But he had never been a professor. He had possessed the authority to impose professorial sanctions on students, but without the professorial title. He had possessed the substance of judicial authority but not the form.

The faculty and Board of Directors had played a game with the language of charter. The founders had used the word “professor” to define a faculty member. The word “instructor,” like the words “assistant professor,” were additions many decades later. Such professional academic distinctions did not occur to the General Assembly of 1811. This is how the Old School professors got their way with the seminary’s charter. Fifteen years after Machen’s 1914 appointment, the modernists and their allies would also get their way with the charter.

Why had Machen waited so long to be ordained? Because he had doubts about the faith. Early in 1906, he had written a letter to his brother concerning his doubts concerning his faith. He also had doubts about his worthiness to become a minister. Nevertheless, Princeton wanted him, and wanted him badly. William Armstrong, his former mentor at Princeton, wrote to him on March 11. He knew of Machen’s hesitancy to enter the ministry. He assured Machen that “you need have no hesitancy for fear of binding yourself for more than one year and for this there would be no necessity of ordination.”

The state of Machen’s mind may be seen from his letter to his father on March 30: “How I envy the humble clerk, who at least has some employment in which he can engage with enthusiasm and without doubts and qualms of conscience!” He said that he wished he could start a career in business, but it was too late for that. When he returned to the United States he visited his family’s summer estate in Seal Harbor, Maine. After he left Seal Harbor, he and his mother began an exchange of letters, unprecedented for their emotional intensity, arguing over his decision to return to Germany to study for several more years. That summer, he finally decided to join the Princeton faculty. But, as his biographer writes, “It was not until the fall of 1913 that he attained such assurance and calm that he could undertake the first step looking toward ordination, that of being taken under care of presbytery, and could confidently and joyfully look toward ordination.”

Princeton set a precedent with Machen. It placed a man onto its faculty who was not only not ordained, but whose refusal to become ordained, at least in the early years, was based on his own sense of religious doubt. There was no question about his academic credentials. He was a skilled linguist in Greek–one of the best students ever trained by that master of the classics, Johns Hopkins University’s Basil S. Gildersleeve. He had spent a year in two German universities, even though he had not received a degree. That was sufficient, and always had been at Princeton. He had survived Princeton’s soul-threatening but informal faculty eligibility initiation rite of the German academic gauntlet. Therefore, the formal requirement of ministerial ordination was regarded by the Princeton faculty as optional. With this decision, the Old Princeton publicly announced its new operational ecclesiology: judicial expediency for the sake of academic criteria.

(Gary North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church [1995])


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