1910

Credenda Agenda had a lengthy report about the controversy within the Presbyterian Church. Of particular interest to me, was their explanation of the reaction to the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.

These broadening trends were a concern to conservatives within the Presbyterian Church. In order to ensure that their communion was not running off the rails, attacking spiritual problems with worldly solutions, they influenced the 1910 General Assembly to hand down a strict five-point doctrinal affirmation. It came about after the Assembly received a complaint against the New York Presbytery for licensing candidates who would not affirm that Jesus Christ had been miraculously born of a virgin. Some defended the licensees on the grounds that they “do not deny the Virgin Birth of our Lord, but were not prepared to affirm it with the same positiveness as for some other doctrine.” Though the Assembly dismissed the complaint for lack of evidence, the body was sympathetic to the concerns it raised. So they charged a committee to draft an overture concerning the licensure of any candidate in the church. The resulting overture identified five doctrines as “essential and necessary” to the Presbyterian faith: the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the substitutionary character of Jesus’s death as a “sacrifice to satisfy divine justice,” His bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of His miracles. All presbyteries were enjoined to reject any ministerial candidate who did not explicitly agree with these five points. Adoption of the “five points” reassured many conservatives in the church who may have wondered whether the church had been wavering.

These “five points” became a bone of contention over the next two decades. Critics charged that the General Assembly had reduced the creedal position of the church down to five articles, the practical effect of which was to supplant the church’s doctrinal standards. On the other side, defenders of the five points argued that no change had been enacted; the Assembly had merely reaffirmed verities that Presbyterians had always acknowledged. As these discussions took place, the General Assemblies of 1918 and 1923 formally reiterated these same five points of doctrine.

These debates within the Presbyterian church played a leading role in broader discussions among American Protestants at the time about clarifying the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. In fact, these five points became one way the emerging term “fundamentalism” was defined, both within and outside of Presbyterian circles. The term was also shaped in common discourse through the publication of a famous series of articles entitled The Fundamentals, which appeared in twelve paperback volumes from 1910 to 1915. The articles were written by leading Christian thinkers from various backgrounds, including faculty members from Princeton Theological Seminary. Southern California oil millionaire Lyman Stwart, together with his brother Milton, covered the costs for distributing these volumes free of charge to every pastor, missionary, theological professor, theological student, YMCA and YWCA secretary, college professor, Sunday School superintendent, and religious editor in the English-speaking world. Many of the articles challenged the “higher criticism” of Scripture, the general approach to the Bible favored by Charles Briggs and other liberal academics. Other articles in the series defended the supernatural character of Christianity in relation to several traditional theological topics. Practical topics were also included, such as prayer. The volumes studiously avoided social issues (e.g., prohibition of alcohol) and controversial theological topics such as dispensationalism. Like the five points, The Fundamentals became a touchstone for the growing fundamentalist movement in the 1920s.

Significantly, neither the five points nor The Fundamentals were distinctively Presbyterian. In this respect, they downplayed the sectarian distinctives within American Christianity; their appeal crossed old denominational lines.