The Auburn Heresy
Gordon H. Clark
February 28, 1935
When future historians of the Church evaluate this present age, the publication of the Auburn Affirmation will stand out in importance like Luther’s nailing his ninety-five theses. But it will be important for a different reason.
The reason the Auburn Affirmation is so important is that it constitutes a major offensive against the Word of God. It, or at least its theology, is the root of Presbyterian apostasy.
Officials in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. have commonly spread the rumor that there is nothing doctrinal involved in the Auburn Affirmation. This rumor, regardless of its source, is untrue. It is true that the Auburn Affirmation is a cleverly written document with some pious phraseology slightly obscuring its real intent. But once a person has seen exactly what it says, there is no disguising the fact that it is a vicious attack on the Word of God.
The five doctrines involved are the truth of Holy Scripture, the factuality of the Virgin Birth of Christ, His miracles, His sacrifice on Calvary to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to Christ, and His resurrection.
The real purpose of the document is partially obscured because it states that some of the signers believe some of these doctrines. That is true. Some of the signers believe some; but they all deny the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures. They all hold that the basis of the Westminster Confession is harmful and that the Bible contains errors. This attack on the Bible is of fundamental importance because obviously if the Bible is rejected, why should the religion of the Bible be retained? You cannot well impugn the veracity of the Scriptures and then accept the content of the Scriptures.
Because this point is so serious, evidence is not to be omitted. On page five of the Auburn Affirmation you may read these words: “There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept ‘from error.’ The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion;–The doctrine of inerrancy intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, weakens the testimony of the Church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.”
Now kindly note this strange fact. The Auburn Affirmation states that to believe the Bible is true impairs its authority and weakens the testimony of the Church. Or, in other words, in order for the Bible to be authoritative, it must contain error; and, no doubt, the more erroneous it is, the more authoritative it can be.
But what does the Confession say? In Chapter I, Section 4, you may read: ‘The authority of the Holy Scriptures, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth–wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”
Study also Chapter XIV, Section 2. “By this (saving) faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein…”
The Auburn Affirmation says it is wrong and harmful to believe true whatsoever is revealed. Thus the signers of the Auburn Affirmation are seen to be antagonistic to the very basis of Christian faith. In denying the truth of the Bible, they repudiate their own Confession, and so have no rightful place in the Presbyterian ministry. Do they perchance reply that they agree with the Confession that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and that they deny only that the Scriptures are inerrant? God forbid that they make that reply. For if they say that they believe the Bible is the Word of God, and at the same time claim that the Bible contains error, it follows, does it not, that they call God a liar, since He has spoken falsely? Either they have openly repudiated the Confession or else they have called God a liar. In either case they have no rightful place in the Presbyterian ministry.
The Auburn Affirmation is more generous toward the other four points. The Virgin Birth, the miracles, the resurrection, which orthodox Presbyterians regard as historical facts, the Affirmationists regard as permitted theories.
On page six of the Auburn Affirmation, after referring to the five points, emphasized by the General Assembly of 1923, it states: “…this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our Church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection–some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our Standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”
Now to be concrete, what “theory” other than the historical fact of the Virgin Birth, can you think of to explain the Incarnation? There is one which the anti-Christian Celsus used in his effort to defame Christ. If Christ be not Virgin-Born, and if, as both Joseph and Mary claim, Joseph was not Jesus’ father, whose son is he? Does the Auburn Affirmation really mean that one who accepts this view of our Lord’s birth is worthy of all confidence and fellowship? That is exactly what the Auburn Affirmation means. It says definitely that ministers are worthy of confidence “whatever theories they may employ to explain” the Incarnation.
Consider next Christ’s sacrificial death by which He satisfies divine justice and reconciles us to God. This too is declared unessential, and Christians are asked to put confidence in men who deny this doctrine, who so long as they use the word “Atonement” may employ any random theory to explain it. Christ’s death, then, may be nothing but an example, and our salvation may depend on our efforts to imitate His good deeds. No longer will salvation be entirely by grace. And we are told that these men are worthy of confidence “whatever theories they may employ to explain” the Atonement.
Is there time also to refer briefly to the resurrection? This too is reduced to a permitted but unessential theory. The signers of the Auburn Affirmation may have in mind some theory of spiritual resurrection as opposed to the fact that Christ rose from the grave with the same body which He suffered. The Auburn Affirmationists, on the one hand, may hold to some sort of spiritual resurrection, but on the other hand, Jesus Christ said: “Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.” Apparently Jesus would not have been eligible to sign the Auburn Affirmation. The signers of the Auburn Affirmation say the bodily resurrection–and that is the only kind of resurrection worth talking about–is unessential. But Paul says: “If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, your faith is also vain.” You will note that Paul’s name does not occur among the signers of the Auburn Affirmation. No, you will not find Paul asking us to put confidence in men “whatever theories they may employ to explain,” or better to explain away the resurrection.
If, now, the Auburn Affirmation had been signed by only two or three persons, it would still be incumbent upon Presbyterians to ask them to repent and recant, or to remove them from the ministry. But if only two or three had signed, there might be little cause for alarm. As a matter of fact, thirteen hundred ministers in the U.S.A. Church signed this heretical document. And yet this number, large as it is, does not itself reveal the full significance of the situation. One must see also to what extent this type of theology controls the boards and agencies of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. From time to time there have been prepared lists of Auburn Affirmationists who hold responsible positions in the ecclesiastical machinery. These positions include the moderators of Presbyteries, of Synods, and of the General Assembly; directors of seminaries, at one time twenty-two members of the Board of National Missions were Affirmationists; and so on through the various important positions in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
But not even this list of positions indicates the total depravity of that Church. Realize also that there are numerous other office holders who, although they have not signed the Auburn Affirmation, approve its principles and, far from protesting against it, cheerfully co-operate with its signers in the work of the various boards and agencies. Try to mention any secretary of any board, try to mention any official who has attempted to defend the Word of God against this Auburn attack. None can be named; there are none; they co-operate with the Affirmationists, they approve the same policies, and have taken their stand against the Confession they avowed to defend.
In addition to these office holders who co-operate with the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation, there are the ministers who take their orders from headquarters, who in their Presbyteries regularly vote with this Bible-dishonoring band. They may not have signed the document, but they have voted its principles into effect and have banished the orthodox from their denomination. Try to mention any minister who has made any serious, public attempt to discipline the signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation. When has anyone in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. heard a sermon defending the Atonement and the Resurrection against this attack? What minister has brought the matter before Presbytery?
Some years ago the modernist used to talk in favor of an inclusive Church. The Church, they said, was big enough to include all brands of theology. Today, however, they have changed their tune. They now have excommunicated the orthodox. The Affirmationist officials and their supporters decreed that those who remained true to the Word of God, those who objected to the General Assembly’s placing its own authority above that of the Bible, those who would not obey an order to support modernism and those who took their ordination vows seriously, had to be expelled from the Church.
The most important of these expulsions was that of the late J. Gresham Machen. He had been accused of disobeying a legal order and of telling lies about the Board of Foreign Missions. He was brought to trial. He wanted to defend himself by arguing that the order to support modernism was illegal and that what he had said about the Board of Foreign Missions was true. It was supposed to be a judicial trial, but his judges absolutely refused him the right to present his defense. On the Permanent Judicial Commission, which made final disposal of his case, half of the ministers had signed the Auburn Affirmation. No wonder the Bible-believing Christians were expelled from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
This, then, in brief, is the situation conservative Christians must meet. Shall the truth of the Bible be upheld or shall orders to support modernism be made the supreme authority over men’s conscience? This is no trivial matter; it is rather a life and death struggle between two mutually exclusive religions. One religion can without harm to its integrity reject the infallible Word of God, deny the Virgin Birth, repudiate Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice, and deny the resurrection. That religion will remain complete even if all these things are eliminated; but that religion is not Christianity.
The other religion is Christianity because it accepts the Bible as the very Word of God, who cannot lie, because it makes Christ’s sacrifice to satisfy divine justice the only basis of salvation, and because it glories in the historical fact of the resurrection.
This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1946 issue of The Southern Presbyterian Journal.