On October 29, 1929, the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt. The stock market crashed, sending these United States of America into the Great Depression, which in turn affected much of the industrialized world. On September 25, 1929, in God’s sovereign timing, just one month before the Wall Street Crash, fifty-two students began their fall semester at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Only a few months prior, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) resigned from Princeton Theological Seminary and founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen, along with Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til (and later John Murray), resigned their faculty positions at Princeton not only on account of its outright denial of certain essential doctrines of the faith but on account of its increasing lack of regard for doctrine itself. What was once a bastion of doctrinal orthodoxy, Princeton, America’s second-oldest seminary, gradually became not only a stronghold of false doctrine but a cesspool of apathy toward doctrine itself. The seminary, and its parent denomination, attempted to place the unity of the church above the doctrinal purity of the church and the result was neither purity nor unity, but outright heresy. The gradual disregard for doctrine itself and the complacent attitude towards confessional orthodoxy naturally led to wholesale disinterest in contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Fundamentally, the seminary’s heresy was indifferentism about doctrine. And as Machen wrote in his now-classic book Christianity and Liberalism years prior to his resignation at Princeton, “Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith” (p. 42).
Currently in the church, we are facing much the same thing that Machen and his colleagues faced, only with more subtlety—lip-service to confessional orthodoxy but complacency in preaching and defending it. Today, the only thing not tolerated is intolerance of doctrinal tolerance, the only evil is calling out evil, and the only heresy is calling anything heresy. And although we cannot by any means condone any of the unbiblical tactics of the thirteenth-century church in her wrong-headed attempts to root out and kill heretics, particularly the crusade against the Waldensians and Albigensians and the Inquisition, we must nevertheless appreciate and recapture the church’s zealous fight to guard doctrinal truth against all error and heresy. With all of its ecclesiastical problems and abuses, the thirteenth-century church gave us Thomas Aquinas’ robust systematic theology Summa Theologica, scholasticism, and a developing reformation that, in centuries to come and in God’s sovereign timing, gave us heroes of the orthodox biblical faith once delivered to the saints.
Dr. Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) is editor of Tabletalk magazine, senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow. He is cotranslator and coeditor of A Little Book on the Christian Life by John Calvin.