Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, by Gary North. Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996. Pp. li-1023, plus indexes of texts and subjects. $34.95 (hardcover). (Reviewed by the editor)
The book is a blockbuster, big and explosive. It is the study—a history—of the apostast of the Northern Presbyterian Church that culminated in the deposition of J. Gresham Machen in 1936. At that time, Machen founded what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Earlier he had started Westminster Theological Seminary.
The Northern Church is known today as the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). This is the church that recently helped to sponsor the “RE-imagining Conference” at whcih idolaters, mostly female, represented the God of Scripture as a pagan goddess with Presbyterian gold and silver. In the late 1800’s, this was the church of the Princetown Seminary of the Hodges and B.B. Warfield.
How did the church of Samuel Miller, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield come to this? How did this church earlier, in 1924, become the church of the Auburn Affirmation?, The Auburn Affirmation was a document signed by more than 1,200 Presbyterian ministers, denying that such cardinal Christian doctrines as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ are necessary to be believed.
Gary North answers this “How?”
There was the recommended training of ministers, especially college and seminary professors, in the infidel universities in Germany. The result was the corruption of those who were to teach the Presbyterian Church’s future pastors and teachers.
There was, for many years, the failure of the orthodox to discipline heretics. Running through the book is the refrain, “The issue was sanctions,” that is, discipline. The church did not hold her officebearers, particularly her ministers and professors of theology, to a “strict,” that is, genuine subscription to the confessions.
This is the meaning of the book’s curious title, Crossed Fingers. The modernists in the church signed their subscription vow with the fingers of their other hand crossed behind their backs. They lied. And the orthodox let them get away with it.
Doctrinally, the falling away of the church into sheer unbelief and the depravity of life that issues from it took place by means of the church’s toleration of Arminianism. North speaks of the “evolution of Presbyterianism from Calvinism to Arminianism to liberalism” (p. 947). The merger of the Old School (Calvinistic) and the New School (Arminian) in 1869 was the beginning of the end. The descent into modernism quickened with the revision of the Westminster Confession in 1903 to express a universal love of God for every human and a desire of God to save all men (pp. 352-357). Westminster’s predestinarian theology was gutted. The decline became precipitous with the admission into the denomination in 1906 of some 1,100 congregations of the Arminian, vehemently anti-Calvinist Cumberland Presbyterians.
Crossed Fingers demonstrates that Arminianism is the first, decisive move of a church toward modernism. The reason, although North does not spell this out, is that by its denial of a sovereign God, Arminianism is modernism in principle.
One of the important lessons that North expressly draws from the history is that the confessionaIly Calvinist church must do battle with the first appearance of modernism in the form of Arminian doctrine. North refers in this connection to the history of the controversy in the Christian Reformed Church over common grace resulting in the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). North praises the PRC and holds them up to the churches for emulation, although he does not have the details of this history perfectly straight:
In 1923, the Christian Reformed Church accepted a similar creedal revision that spoke of “the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general.” Westminster Seminary’s Cornelius Van Til would later write a book defending this revision: Common Grace…. But this revision led to a split in the denomination. The Protestant Reformed Church understood the threat to Calvinist orthodoxy posed by the revision; its 1924 Synod rejected it (p. 354). Unlike the members of the Christian Reformed Church who would depart on principle to form the Protestant Reformed Church in 1924 after the CRC added the plank on Cod’s favor toward mankind in general in 1923, the Old School decided in 1903 to remain in the denomination by continuing to play the game (of “let’s pretend” regarding the confessions). But how could the Old School speak judicially as self-conscious Calvinists in future denominational assemblies? Its members couldn’t. This is why 1903 marks the institutional end of the Old School’s resistance in the name of Confessional Calvinism (p. 356).
North is right that the modernists in particular who captured the Northern Presbyterian Church and all theological liberals in general are wicked men and women. Even more disgusting, though, to a man or woman of integrity are the “conservatives” who, in the end, refused to fight for the faith and church of Jesus Christ, but subsided quietly into their comfortable positions in the apostate church—the Clarence B. Macartney’s. “After 1936, they kept their pulpits and then collected their pensions” (p. 31). These men gave the church to the liberals. The liberals perish. As North notes, there are sanctions after all: eternal hell. Can the compromising “conservatives” be saved?
Reformed and Presbyterian believers should read this book, especially the ministers and ruling elders. The same grim patterns that marked the apostasy of the Northern Presbyterian Church are evident in any number of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. If there is not yet found the attack on Scripture and the rejection of atonement in the blood of Christ that manifest full-blown modernism, there is the fatal undermining of predestination in the teaching of a universal love of God and a desire of God to save all men that will certainly end in full-blown modernism.
The book will serve Protestant Reformed readers well by keeping us on our guard. We have no modernists. (North would say that we lack both the size and the money to be of any interest to modernists.) We have no Arminians. But Crossed Fingers warns of an attitude in the church that clamors for toleration and peace on behalf of the church’s work, especially her mission work, at the expense of sound doctrine.
Modernism was hostile to any screening of the Church in terms of the Westminster Confession. Modernists announced another standard: peace, toleration, and work. This meant peace and toleration for them while they worked to subvert the enforcement mechanism undergirding the Westminster standards (p. 895).
This attitude is a breeding-ground for doctrinal departure.
North has done his research. The work is documented. He writes history the way it ought to be written, not dispassionately but with zeal for the truth and righteousness.
Being North, his style is lively: “modernism’s view of the true sacrament: power leading to control over church assets” (p. 22). Again: “When modernism’s fat lady finally sang, she would have her foot on her opponent’s neck” (p. 902). Yet one more instance: “The trinitarian confession basic to ecclesiastical success today is drums, guitar, and electronic keyboard” (p. 912).
North does grind his postmillennial axes. He imposes Ray Sutton’s doctrine of the covenant on the Presbyterian history. He suggests that the Presbyterian Church fell, in part, because the theologians lost their postmillennial vision. But these notions are easily spotted. They do not significantly affect the narrative.
The reader should not overlook the first appendix, “H.L. Mencken’s Obituary of Machen.” The praise of Machen and the skewering of modernism by this unbelieving, profane newspaper columnist must have pierced even the seared consciences of the liberals who had just savaged and then deposed Machen. It will be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for Chorazin and Bethsaida.