Machen, Confessionalism, and Seminary Education

In our ongoing discussion of the doctrine of God, it is worth reflecting on the fact that a church needs two things to be confessionally healthy: a sound form of words (a creed or confession); and a form of government by which the content of this can be preserved from generation to generation.  Positively, that means an eldership which promotes sound preaching and teaching; negatively, an eldership which disciplines those who deviate from the same.


For Reformed and Presbyterians, J. Gresham Machen stands as both a fine advocate of the former and a tragic victim of the failure of the latter.  His book, Christianity and Liberalism, remains a hard-hitting and concise summary of the issues at stake between supernatural Christianity and its liberal counterfeit.  And his own career is tragically ironic: prosecuted by a church for breaking church law by a denomination that had signally failed to prosecute others for lethal deviations for theological orthodoxy.


Central to Machen was his experience at Princeton Theological Seminary.  When the Seminary was reorganized in 1929, he left to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Westminster, unlike Princeton, was not a denominational seminary.  Machen was convinced the denomination had pulled Princeton down, and he was gravely concerned that the changes to its governance would ultimately lead to its being populated by professors, “who consent to conform to the opinions of the party dominant for the moment in the councils of the Church.” In order to avoid being subject to the whims of denominational drift, he established Westminster with an independent board of trustees.


Most Reformed seminaries today follow Machen’s model. But the threats to confessional orthodoxy are different today to those in 1929.  One such, which is often unnoticed, is that created by the educational marketplace.  Since most students can easily travel for their education many seminaries holding to the same confessional standards are competing for the many of the same students. In such an environment, it is tempting for them to gravitate for their identity to sub-confessional theological distinctives.  Some of this is inevitable – institutions have their own histories and small faculties are bound to have particular strengths.  But it becomes dangerous when these get accented and the catholicity and balance of the confessions becomes distorted. 


Notwithstanding his approach to seminary oversight, Machen is unequivocally clear and forceful on the question of the creedal basis of the church. He writes: “…even if a creedal Church were an undesirable thing, it would still remain true that as a matter of fact many (indeed in spirit really all) evangelical churches are creedal churches., and that if a man does not accept their creed he has no right to a place in their teaching ministry.” He knew the dangers of such deviations, and in fact much of his polemical writing was focused on just this problem:


If the “constitutional questions” do not fix clearly the creedal basis of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to see how any human language could possibly do so. Yet immediately after making such a solemn declaration, immediately after declaring that the Westminster Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in infallible Scriptures, many ministers of the Presbyterian Church will proceed to decry that same Confession…


Today we have to remind ourselves that the dangers to creedal orthodoxy can arise not simply from individual congregations, but from larger institutions that shape denominations: the seminaries and influential pulpits and conference speakers. It still may be wise in our current climate for Reformed seminaries to have boards untethered by the apparatus of a particular denomination. But at the same time, seminaries and other parachurch organizations need to make sure that their rhetoric of serving the church is not just rhetoric, and that when matters arise which are properly dealt with by the church courts, these matters are then left to the church courts. The past victories of Machen’s warrior children are no guarantee of the present orthodoxy of the institutions and platforms which they represent. For those institutions that serve denominations (whether formally or informally), confessional integrity – through creedal fidelity and submission to the church courts – is the end to which their efforts must be directed.


Jonathan L. Master and Carl R. Trueman are ministers in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.