Reform From Within

Once a denomination or association of churches has been infested with unbelief, is it possible to reform it? Edwin H. Rian (who authored The Presbyterian Conflict in 1940) was very skeptical of the possibility.

The “reform from within” movement in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is based upon the belief that the Church has a sound Confession of Faith and, although the courts, Boards and agencies of the Church have been disloyal to the Standards in many instances and are controlled by those who are out of agreement with the Confession, nevertheless, it is the duty of each minister and member to contend for the faith and to lead the Church back to place of faithfulness to the Bible. This is the position of men like the Rev. Samuel G. Craig, D.D., editor of Christianity Today, who wrote, “Reform is imperatively needed and every true Presbyterian should give himself for the task” (258).
Reform is a good thing when possible, but after finishing Rian’s book, it became quite clear to me that the PCUSA was beyond reform in the 1930’s. Some men with reformation in mind chose to stay in and form The Presbyterian League of Faith in April of 1931. They “met every month or two for the purpose of discussing the present situation in the Church and of laying plans for combating the advance of Modernism” (260). But Rian still asked “What are these advocates of ‘reform from within’ doing to alter the serious doctrinal defection in the Church and to return it to the control of those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God?” (260) Unfortunately, “no real program of reform was ever adopted or executed” by the League (262).

When Dr. E. G. Homrighausen and Dr. Emil Brunner were chosen to be professors at Princeton, many inside and outside of the PCUSA were outraged. “Professor Van Til pointed out that Dr. Brunner does not believe in the infallibility of the Bible nor even in the Scriptures as a trustworthy record of history” (266). Brunner eventually returned to Switzerland without taking the post. But Homrighausen was eventually “appointed to the Chair of Christian Education” even though he had “repudiated a belief in the full trustworthiness of the Bible” (268). How did such a man get appointed? He “issued a declaration of his faith which seemed to prove that he had changed from a Barthian to a staunch believer in the Bible and Calvinism” (268-69). Dr. Van Til was not impressed with the decision and voiced his opposition. But others were pacified by his sudden change in beliefs.

These events and several others caused men such as Edwin Rian to disallow the possibility of ever reforming the PCUSA:

With respect to the whole movement to reform the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. from within the question might well be asked, “‘What are the chances for success?” The answer to this question can be given quite positively: The chances for success are very poor indeed! This unequivocal reply is based upon two considerations: First, the “reform from within” group has no thoroughgoing plan to reform the Church nor is any program being actively promulgated. Secondly, the facts of church history are arrayed against the successful reform of an individual communion when once the ecclesiastical organization has come under the control and influence of Modernists (270).

Edwin Rian wrote these words in 1940 soon after the events had taken place. Some left the PCUSA feeling it was a hopeless situation. Others remained in hoping to reform the denomination they had grown to love. Which position was right? Did the reform movement eventually work? Visit the PCUSA web site to see for yourself.