As a recent academic procession attending the inauguration or the president of a Pennsylvania college moved across the campus, the representative of Westminster Theological Seminary could be seen at the very end of the line. or the great number of institutions of higher learning represented, his was the youngest! He was reminded that Westminster is but an infant in the academic world, and any biography of Westminster must, therefore, be the biography of an infant. The biography of an infant is one that stresses the ancestry and character rather than the events and the accomplishments of the brief life.
Westminster was officially born at a meeting of a little group in Philadelphia on July 18, 1929, when a committee was organized to establish a theological seminary in Philadelphia or vicinity, and it opened its doors as a full-blown theological seminary just sixty-eight days later, on September 24, 1929. But, in a sense, of Westminster is much older than that, for the biblical tradition in which it operates had found expression one hundred seventeen years earlier in the organization of the Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, New Jersey. It was the abandonment of this biblical tradition by Princeton which gave rise to the organization of Westminster.
The story of the events which led up to the decline of Princeton Seminary is a long one but it is sufficient . to note that milder forms or modernism and Arminanism had gained wide acceptance by the end of the nineteenth century. Modernists had not yet fully learned that the most effective way of infiltrating a church is not to change the creed but to ignore and “interpret” it, and there was much agitation for amendment of the creed of the church. In 1903 the Westminster Confession of Faith, the chief subordinate standard or the Presbyterian Church, was amended to make room for the modified Calvinism which had become prevalent in the church. Earlier attempts at a broader amendment of the Confession and of the Catechism of the church had been defeated, but in 1902 the church was ready for the acceptance of a “brief statement of the Reformed Faith.” The “brief statement” is everything that a confession should not be, for it tones down and makes vague the precise teachings of the Scripture which arc carefully guarded in the Westminster standards.
During the previous century over a dozen Presbyterian theological seminaries had been organized within the Presbyterian Church and one, Union Theological Seminary in New York, was organized chiefly by Presbyterians as an independent seminary in protest against the orthodoxy or the other seminaries. In most instances logical geographical reasons could be adduced for the organization of the additional seminaries, but behind the organization of some of them, at least, was the desire to gain freedom to teach the New School theology against which Princeton had stood firm. By the mid-twenties Princeton was still the most powerful seminary in the Presbyterian Church, with about sixteen faculty members and two hundred fifty students. But it stood as all island within the church and was the last citadel of orthodoxy. The Calvinists in the church. who had been in the majority at the turn of the century had, in this brief span, been reduced to fighting a rear guard action to save their last bastion.
The occasion of the fall of Princeton centered around an administrative difficulty. Princeton had been without a president for the first ninety years of its life, when Dr. Francis L. Patton, who had been president of Princeton University, became president of the Seminary. His term was marked by a strengthening of Princeton, but his successor, Dr. J. Ross Stevenson, was a man of different stripe. He set about, systematically, reinforcing his own position, and he made it clear that it was his ambition that Princeton should no longer be the seminary of a Calvinistic wing of the church, but the seminary of “the whole church.” Friction between the two boards of control, the board of trustees and the board of directors, and between the faculty and the boards was bound to develop in such an atmosphere and in the mid-twenties the subject of the reorganization of Princeton was brought into the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
During the early months of 1929 it had become obvious that the forces determined to weaken Princeton’s biblical witness would triumph. The supporters of the old Princeton had allowed themselves to be trapped into a kind of editorial truce in the months between the general assembly of 1928 and the early spring of 1929, and the conservative religious journals of that year contained very little on the Princeton issue. During this period, however, small meetings were held in Princeton by the leaders of the conservative group there, often at the home of the Rev. and Mrs. Frank H. Stevenson. Dr. Stevenson was a member of the Board of Directors of Princeton Seminary, and was one of the first to see how tragic it would be if the reorganization plan went through. The majority of the faculty of the Seminary was in sympathy with the position taken by Dr. Stevenson and by most of the Board of Directors, and the faculty majority was vigorously supported by a large majority of the students of the Seminary. At these early meetings consideration was given to what would happen in the event that the reorganization of Princeton was affected by the general assembly. It appeared that legal obstacles to such a reorganization would at least delay it, and that it was possible that the Seminary could be held indefinitely in that way, Hut the possibility of a new seminary was discussed during the early spring and it was common knowledge among the students that such all idea was being projected.
The general assembly of the Presbyterian Church met little in May. and it soon appeared that the modernists were prepared to ride roughshod over any attempt to delay or defeat the reorganization. They elected their candidate for moderator over Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, the senior member of the Princeton faculty. About two hours in the whole assembly was allotted to the consideration of the matter, and the reorganization was approved by an overwhelming vote. When the new board was announced it became obvious that it represented “the whole church”—the unbelieving as well as the believing church! Dr. Wilson, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, Dr. Oswald T. Allis, and Dr. Cornelius Van Til promptly informed the new board that they would not serve under its auspices. The new president of the board and the president of the Seminary issued a joint statement indicating complete mutual confidence on the part of all concerned. It was a clever move designed to allay the fears of those who might not realize that when professed Bible believers express confidence in those who deny the Word they also express their own incompetence to train preachers or the gospel and defenders of the faith for the church!
In the whole controversy, the name of Dr. Machen stands a lit above all the others, important and valiant as they are also proved to be. Dr. Wilson was one of the most distinguished Old Testament scholars in the world, and he had been teaching for fifty years. He was nearly eligible for retirement from Princeton with a pension, and relinquished all this to come to West, minster at great personal sacrifice. In the good providence of God he was preserved after a serious illness during the winter of 1928–29 to be a candidate for moderator’ of the general assembly, and to be the chairman of the faculty during the first year of Westminster’s life. Dr. Allis is also a distinguished Old Testament scholar, and he was editor of the Princeton Theological Review, He, likewise, had gained recognition through, out the world, and it was he who made available the temporary quarters of Westminster Seminary which were occupied until 1937. Dr. Van Til was one of the most promising young scholars, and he had been elected by the board of directors to a full professorship, after serving only one year as an instructor in Princeton Seminary. But Dr. Machen was. undoubtedly, the leader of the movement.
J. GRESHAM MACHEN, A Biography, by Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse, has been released by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Westminster, September 22nd, and will be reviewed in the forthcoming issue of the Torch and Trumpet, it suffices to say here that Dr. Machen was a very great man. He was a great scholar and a man of profound modesty. He had that quality in common with great men of being intenseIy interested in individuals and of having many, many friends, and each of them was important to him. He was not a leader who assumed leadership easily, for he was different and lacked all the qualities of a church politician. He assumed the role of leader only because it was forced upon him. He had not been the titular leader of the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church. but had only begun to attain fame as a scholar in the early twenties. following the publication of his volume, The Origin of Paul’s Religion which had been given as the James Sprunt Lectures at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. His popular New Testament Greek for Beginners which is still a best seller in that field, and his other popular volumes. What is Faith! and Christianity and Liberalism had all appeared during that decade, and it was not until he came to Westminster that his monumental work. The Virgin Birth of Christ was published, although he had long been known as an authority on that subject.
It was Dr. Machen who saw most clearly, however, that the time had come for those who were faithful to the standards or the Presbyterian Church to act. Again and again there had been crises, and again and again the conservatives had been compelled to retreat. The most recent crisis had occurred in 1924 when the Auburn Affirmation was signed by some 1,300 ministers of the Presbyterian Church. The Affirmation attacked in a most blatant way the very heart of the gospel, and those who were the active leaders of the conservatives cannot but be held responsible for following the Affirmation to gain acceptance in the Church. Prompt heresy trials against the signers might well have driven them and their followers out of the church, but by 1929 they had become so powerful as to gain pieces on the new Princeton board, and by 1936 they were able to take over the church. Dr. Machen saw that the Princeton crisis must certainly be the last straw, and that if ever those who loved the gospel were to act it was then. Many who still thought peace possible cried, “Wait and see,” and those who should have been leaders held back. But Machen and his loyal supporters, both laymen and ministers, pushed forward to the organization Westminster in a few brief summer months. He was familiar with the history of the churches of the Reformed Faith in Europe, and he pointed out that in many cases there was nothing left of a once mighty evangelical witness. He called attention to the movement in the Netherlands under Kuiper and Bavinck as a notable exception to this drift. He made it dear that those who loved the gospel in this country must also be determined that they will not sit idly by while the drift of the faith continues until their numbers are reduced to those of a group thought to be too weak to act.
Dr. Machen’s profound respect for the Reformed witness among the Hollanders in the United States is well known. It was immediately understood that Professors Wilson, Machen and Allis would be on the new faculty, and the very first appointments following the determination to organize were of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, Rev. R. B. Kuiper, and Dr. Ned B. Stonehouse, all from the Christian Reformed Church. Dr. Van Til had resigned from Princeton, Mr. Kuiper was pastor of the Lagrave Avenue Church in Grand Rapids, and Dr. Stonehouse had just completed his graduate work at the Free University. These six, with Paul Wooley and Allan A. MacRae composed the first faculty of the Seminary, and a faculty of eight men, assisted by several lecturers, conducted the work of instruction of the fifty students during the first year.
A remarkable consistency of tenure has obtained in the faculty of Westminster, and changes have been few during the twenty-five intervening years. Dr. Wilson died in October, 1930, and Dr. Machcn in January, 1937. Dr. Allis resigned in 1936, and Dr. MacRae in 1937. Joh n Murray was added to the faculty in 1930 from the Princeton faculty, and he was subsequently elected to the chair of Systematic Theology which was first occupied by Professor Kuiper. Kuiper’s chair on his return to the faculty in 1933, after his term as President of Calvin College, was that of Practical Theology. Dr. Edward J. Young was added to the faculty in 1937 in the Department of Old Testament, and Professor John H. Skilton in 1939, in the Department of New Testament. Meredith G. Kline became an instructor in the Department of Old Testament in 1950, and Edmund P. Clowney became instructor in Practical Theology in 1953, following the emeritation of Professor Kuiper in 1952. The average professor at Westminster began his twenty-second year of service on September 22nd, with the opening of the twenty-sixth year!
The question of the control of the Seminary necessarily occupied a large place in the initial discussions. It was obvious that the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church would not set up another seminary, for they had judged that Princeton deserved the highest confidence. It was obvious, also, that it would be folly to organize a seminary and then place it under the control of the very body which had destroyed Princeton. In view of these and other considerations it was decided to have a seminary which was free from ecclesiastical control and yet a Presbyterian seminary. It was emphasized in all the early discussions that it was not to be a seminary of the interdenominational kind. It was determined to place the Seminary under the control of individuals who were Presbyterians and who by their solemn vows in assuming membership on the board or on the faculty were to express their zealous agreement with the articles of the Reformed Faith. The Seminary from the very beginning has had strong men of Reformed persuasion on its Board of Trustees, and for nearly twenty years since the withdrawal of those who chose to remain in the Presbyterian Church, the Board has consisted of men from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Southern Presbyterian Church, the Canadian Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.
The strength of the Seminary, however, has not always resided in the Board or Trustees. It has resided, rather in the Faculty. The Seminary has never had a president, and following the best Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, the institution has been very effectively under the control of the Faculty. Faculty representatives sit with the Board, and academic matters normally come to the Board by way o[ report or recommendation from the Faculty. Faculty members serve on most committees. If the Board, and nominations to the Faculty originate with the Faculty. Faculty members even serve on the nominating committee of the Board. The zeal of the Faculty for the Reformed Faith is that which has contributed most effectively to the success of the Seminary.
The founders of the Seminary likewise had to address themselves to the problem of where graduates would serve. Obviously, most of them would come from the Presbyterian Church and would serve there, but, following the tradition of Princeton, it was determined to welcome students of every denomination. Princeton had long done that, and while four of eight members of Westminster’s original faculty did not have Presbyterian background, all had attended Princeton. The sound Reformed scholarship and high academic standards or Princeton had been recognized universally, and sound denominations and always welcomed into their pulpits the graduates of Princeton who sustained satisfactory ecclesiastical examinations. During the early years. Westminster’s students had no difficulty in obtaining ordination in their respective denominations, but gradually it became evident to those who controlled many of the denominations that Westminster graduates, with their high ideals of Christian scholarship and their zeal for the Reformed Faith, as well as their vigorous opposition to perversions of the faith became disturbing elements in the denominations which they entered. Those who saw the business of the church to be the maintenance of the status quo determined to keep Westminster men from their pulpits!
This opposition to Westminster graduates in the Presbyterian Church began to manifest itself within a few years, and took the form in the mid-thirties, of returning them to pledge support to the boards and agencies of the church. This extra-constitutional pledge was resisted by most Westminster graduates, since they understood full well that no Christian may even pledge support of any organization on earth—whether it be a church or a fraternal order—except as that organization acts according to the revealed will of God. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, if matters of faith or worship” had been ingrained in the Westminster graduates. They could, thus, promise to support the boards and agencies only while the work in which they were engaging was being conducted in accordance with the Word of God. Much evidence had been brought forth that the boards and agencies of the Presbyterian Church were conducting work and publishing literature much at variance with the standards of the Church. Efforts were made by those associated with Westminster to reform their practice, but the efforts failed. Finally, actions of the general assembly in 1936 made it virtually impossible for those connected with Westminster to remain within the church. It approved actions of its agencies which were blatantly unbiblical, and condemned in no uncertain terms efforts to correct the situation.
The Seminary was not without other difficulties. As all who have attempted reforms have learned—many by hard experience—it is easy to unite people of varied convictions against an evil, but when it comes time to formulate a program of positive action the diversities of opinion come to the fore. As long as Westminster was thought to be merely a protest within the Presbyterian Church, a protest that would even bring itself into subjection to illegal and unbiblical requirements of that church in order to continue, the support of the movement was quite wide-spread. When, however, that protest was pressed by the Westminster faculty and by many or its trustees, to the point where they were compelled to leave the Presbyterian Church, then many drew back, and, at one point, a very large minority of the Board withdrew from the movement.
The decade beginning in January, 1937, was one of much difficulty and hardship. On January 1st, Dr. Machen was taken suddenly by death while all a speaking tour in North Dakota. Within a few weeks many of those who had appeared to be his strong supporters were planning an abandonment of the Westminster movement. Their dissatisfaction with Westminster had been made clear before Machen’s death, and his intense disappointment at this turn of events could not but have been a contributing cause of his death. But it had become evident that many who had traveled with him had never been in accord with his strong Reformed principles.
Actually, what touched off this new opposition was an article that first appeared in the Banner during the summer of 1936, following the organization of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It was by Professor R. B. Kuiper who was at that time a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, on the subject “Why Separation was Necessary,” Kuiper wrote, “It would have warmed the cockles of the heart of any Christian Reformed minister to hear how closely they (candidates for ordination at the general assembly) were questioned about the two errors which are so extremely prevalent among American fundamentalists, Arminianism and Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible. The Assembly wanted to make sure that these prospective ministers were not tainted with such anti-reformed heresies.” This was reprinted in the Presbyterian Guardian of which Dr. Machen was the editor!
Many of the supporters of Westminster were, to ay the least, complacent with Arminianism, and to an even greater extent with the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible. Charging that the Seminary had come under the control of an alien group, and that it was espousing un-biblical teaching in the matter of eschatology and unbiblical practices in the matter of Christian liberty, this group left the Seminary in the spring of 1937, and formed Faith Theological Seminary and the Bible Presbyterian Synod.
These departures from the Westminster camp of those who stayed in the Presbyterian Church in 1936, and or those who entered the Faith Seminary movement in 1937 could not but injure the Seminary. The deliberate action of the dominant Seminary group in leaving the Presbyterian Church in 1936 also cut out the greatest supply of students, and opportunity for service on the part of graduates, and the necessary financial support of the Seminary. These three events in a brief year, coupled with the death of Dr. Machen cut the active supporters of the Seminary to one-third the number that had supported it in 1935.
One might well wonder how support could be found for such a venture, al best. The operation of a theological Seminary is a very expensive matter. The Seminary had hardly opened its doors in September, 1929, than the worst depression in history struck the country. Many pledges toward its support, made during the summer of 1929, were unfulfilled. Within a short time it became necessary for a very few people to carry a large portion of the burden of maintaining the School. One cannot but judge that the shortsighted policy of limited publicity which characterized the early discussions concerning the need for such a seminary had carried over into the new organization. Allowing for the tremendous inhibitions imposed by the depression upon fundraising, it cannot be denied that all-too-little effort was put into acquainting the people of the Presbyterian Church with the importance of the Seminary and with its needs. When Dr. Machen who was by far the best known and most highly respected member of the Westminster group was taken away, and when other influential elements departed, the Seminary was in serious condition indeed.
The temptation, of course, was to give up. The faculty and the trustees determined, however, to continue, and largely due to the foresight of the Rev. Edwin H. Rian, who for fifteen years served as field secretary, and who also became president of the Board of Trustees in 1937, the Seminary determined on a forward step. From the beginning only the most inadequate quarters had been available in the heart of Philadelphia, but in the spring of 1937 a most beautiful 22-acre campus, near Chestnut Hill in suburban Philadelphia was purchased at the depression price of $75,000. Funds received from the Machen Estate, and from certain other estates within the next few years enabled the purchase to be made while the necessary day-to-day expenses of the Seminary were maintained.
The war years 1941–45 and the two following years were difficult for the Seminary in that few students were enrolled, and serious doctrinal controversy within The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in which the members of the Seminary faculty took the sound but unpopular stand for the historic faith, likewise made difficult the life of the Seminary, until the controversy was satisfactorily settled in 1947.
The years since 1947 have been years of steady development, and of much blessing. The student body has trebled, and during the past academic year reached ninety for the first time since 1935, and for only the second time in Westminster’s history. Over 2,000 new contributors have joined the ranks of Westminster’s supporters, a large number of them from within the Christian Reformed Church, and the Seminary has continued to gain recognition throughout the world as a Reformed theological school of the highest caliber.
It was said at the beginning that this was a biography of an infant, and it was implied that one could not expect an infant to have accomplished much. Yet at least a few accomplishments can be noted. Westminster has had part in training nearly 600 students. They have gone into the whole world, and their present addresses are found in almost every State and Territory and in at least 16 foreign countries. They have, with few exceptions, proved faithful to the Bible as the Word of God and to the Reformed Faith which the Bible teaches. During this time, it faculty which has the respect of scholars throughout the world has been developed. A library of no mean proportions has been gathered. Graduates of the Seminary are found in nearly 50 denominations, and their services have counted for the Lord in many places where the Reformed faith would never otherwise have been preached. That they have greatly strengthened the denominations they have entered, none can deny. Recognition has lately come to the Seminary from a purely academic agency, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, which has admitted Westminster to membership on the basis of a commendatory report on the part of its investigating committee.
What does the future hold for Westminster? One who saw the modest beginnings on September 24, 1929 could hardly have forseen the development of the past twenty-five years, and none can now be a prophet. It may be that, in the providence of God, opposition to the gospel for which Westminster stands may grow and Westminster’s influence be greatly contracted. It may he that ecclesiastical hierarchics will succeed further in barring competent Westminster men from pulpits. It may be that persecution from a totalitarian state or a totalitarian church may render ‘Westminster’s witness more difficult. Or it may be that God will send a revival of true religion, and that the influence of Westminster will be extended and broadened many fold. But this much can be said—neither the trustees nor the faculty have any other ambition for the Seminary than that it may be faithful to the Lord as He is revealed in His Word. It is our ambition that that faithfulness may manifest itself in training and sending forth young men as workmen who need not he ashamed, who can rightly divide the word of truth. If the day of grace is prolonged, and if such young men are coming from the Seminary at the time of our fiftieth, seventy-fifth, and hundredth anniversaries we believe that the Lord’s “well done” will be our portion.
NOTE: To avoid cumbering the text, Mr. Marsden has not used references. For those particularly interested in the struggles mentioned reference may be made to Edwin H. Rian: The Presybterian Conflict, Grand Rapids, 1940; John H. Skilton; Westminster Theological Seminary, in The First Ten Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, 1946; Ned B. Stonehouse: J. Gresham Machen, Grand Rapids, 1954; The Presbyterian, years 1929–30; Christianity Today, years 1930–35; The Presbyterian Journal, years 1936ff.
NOTE: When “Presbyterian” is used in the name of a church, without qualification, it means the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the largest Presbyterian bodies.