“Indifferentists” and the Destruction of the Presbyterian Church

In the early 1920s, when J. Gresham Machen was in the thick of the battle for the orthodox Christian doctrines in the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary,  he faced frustrating and damaging opposition from moderates, which Machen referred to as “indifferentists.”

Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in response to liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick objected to the conservative “Five Point Deliverance” of 1910, a PCUSA statement requiring new ministers to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith and specific points of orthodox doctrine, which included the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the miraculous works of Christ, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. Allowing attacks like Fosdick’s to go unchallenged threatened to replace the truth of Scripture with a false gospel, and yet the indifferentists preferred to preserve a superficial peace. In Stephen Nichols’ J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, he writes:

When Fosdick brushed aside doctrine for piety, he was not talking about tertiary issues; he was obliterating the very center of Christianity.

This same dynamic troubled Machen when he considered the moderate response to liberalism. The logic of the moderate was that the liberal’s heart was right, that there was value to be gained from his perspective.

Machen’s response was that a Christianity not built on orthodox doctrine was living on borrowed time, verging on becoming mere moralism. [Pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and 1924 PCUSA moderator Clarence] Macartney concurred, offering the following assessment: “The movement is slowly secularizing the church and, if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged, will ere long produce in our churches a new kind of Christianity, a Christianity of opinions and principles and good purposes, but a Christianity without worship, without God, and without Jesus Christ.” His words presaged the famous statement by H. Richard Niebuhr summarizing liberalism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen put it succinctly: Christianity is a doctrine, not a lifestyle.

Nichols, pp. 87, 88

Princeton professor Charles Erdman was a key indifferentist, and moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly in 1925. Erdman was apparently not unorthodox himself, but tolerated and advanced those who were. The difficulties between Erdman and Machen intensified when Machen was put forward for promotion by the Princeton Seminary board of directors. This had to be ratified by the General Assembly, which to this point had been a formality–no man elected by the board had ever been vetoed by the General Assembly. Liberals, aided by indifferentists like Erdman, tarnished Machen’s reputation by bringing up his opposition to Prohibition (which the General Assembly favored) and his “harsh” and “implacable” temperament. Later, moderates would aid liberals in the reorganization of Princeton which put liberals in control of the academic program and caused Machen to resign in 1929.

A word on the aforementioned Clarence Macartney, from Gary North:

Clarence E. Macartney was the most prominent Calvinist preacher in the United States, the conservatives’ representative large-church pastor. In the early years of the battle, he stood firm with Machen, but when push came to shove in 1936, he revealed himself as a representative of the peace-seekers, the defenders of the religion of non-confrontation. He did what every large-church Presbyterian pastor did: he surrendered. He had been an “exclusivist” in the 1920’s, and had led the fight in 1923 and 1924 against the modernists, but when the modernists and inclusivists gained total power in the Church, he recognized that a continued defense of exclusivism would mean that he would be excluded by them, rather than they by him. He capitulated. He retained his pastorate but lost most of his influence outside his congregation.

North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, ch. 1.

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