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Where It All Begins to “Go South”

volume 21, number 44, November 3, 2022

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” -Genesis 1:1,27

James Woodrow, the uncle of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921), was born in Carlisle, England in 1828 to Scottish Presbyterian parents. A few years later he immigrated with his parents to the United States. Five weeks after arriving in New York City, James’ mother died from an illness she contracted on board the ship to America. Woodrow’s father served as a missionary to Canada and then later as a pastor in Ohio. James was a brilliant student who received a PhD summa cum laude from Heidelberg University, and was offered a full professorship there. Woodrow declined it because he loved the South and returned there to teach at several academies in Alabama. He also taught natural science at Oglethorpe University, at that time located near Milledgeville, Georgia. One of James Woodrow’s favorite students was Sidney Lanier from Macon, Georgia who later became a much beloved southern poet. 

When Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in 1859 this caused a major upheaval in the church and world. To combat this Judge John Perkins who lived at The Oaks near Columbus, Mississippi endowed a chair at the Presbyterian Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina for the purpose of teaching men entering the Presbyterian ministry to understand and appreciate true science, to answer objections to religion by some scientists, and to set forth God’s revelation in the creation. James Woodrow was elected in 1861 to the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in its Relations to Revealed Religion. When Woodrow took his oath of office at Columbia Theological Seminary he pledged his subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), noting however, his exception to the WCF’s straightforward affirmation of the six days of creation as literal days of twenty-four hours. 

The great preacher and theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney, also a professor at the time at Columbia Seminary, debated Woodrow in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Review on the topic of the Bible and science. Dabney stressed that the Biblical accounts “must be absolutely authoritative in all their parts, without wanting on or deferring to any conclusion of human science whatsoever,” that science may not stand above Biblical truth. Woodrow, on the other hand, believed in a limited view of evolution, what we now call “theistic evolution.” In speaking of the Bible’s statement of Adam being created from dust, Woodrow said this could refer to organic or inorganic dust. If organic, then it would be possible to accept the view that the body of man had evolved from some lower form of creation. He said that in this context evolution very well could be true. Keep in mind this was right in the middle of the rise in popularity of Darwinian evolution. In typical Presbyterian fashion, charges were brought upon Woodrow by his Presbytery and the case was argued for five days, with John Girardeau strongly opposing Woodrow. The Presbytery sided with Woodrow, allowing evolution to be taught at the Seminary in a “purely expository manner, with no intention of inculcating its truth.” The controversy was in and out of the Presbyteries and Synods which oversaw the work of Columbia Seminary for over ten years. Woodrow was finally removed from his teaching position at the seminary. The Woodrow controversy split the Southern Presbyterian Church and the Seminary as well. All along, Girardeau’s concern was that if evolution was allowed to be taught in the seminary, even with the restrictions that Woodrow and the seminary put upon it, sooner than later students who imbibed of Woodrow’s teaching would take it farther than he ever intended. Unquestionably, over the years, Girardeau’s concern has proven to be true. 

What does this have to do with us in the 21st century, some 140 years after the controversy? Here it is—whenever a pastor, seminary professor, Session (elders of the local church), or lay person “plays footsie” with the doctrine of six day, twenty-four hour creation, as plainly stated in Genesis 1 and codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that pastor, seminary, Session, lay person, or church will soon begin to compromise the Bible’s authority and integrity in other arenas . James Woodrow, and may I add the great Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary among others, in seeing the groundswell of interest and support for Darwinian evolution, could not accept the plain teaching of Scripture, that God created all things in the space of six, twenty-four hour days. They began to look first to science and then tried to make the Scriptures fit their scientific observations. 

I like to put it this way. We know that the intelligentsia of the world almost exclusively mocks creationism. In fact, some well known and respected pastors in conservative Presbyterian circles say that to believe in six day creationism is an embarrassment. So, in order “to help God out” these pastors and theologians have developed various ways to soften the blow of the Bible on the vain sensibilities of the academy. Some hold to the Day-Age theory, others to the Framework hypothesis, and still others to the well nuanced theistic evolution of Bio Logos. 

This is deadly because it brings into play a seriously flawed hermeneutic (the way to interpret the Bible). And what is that hermeneutic? It looks first at the world, whether it be on the origin of the cosmos, homosexuality, or any other “hot button” topic in our culture; and if the plain teaching of Scripture goes against the popular view of the culture, then something must be done to make the teaching of Scripture more palatable to the major players of that culture.

I have already mentioned the various unbiblical views of creation which flow from this false hermeneutic, but also consider for a moment the raging controversy of homosexuality in the church. It goes without saying that we should love all people and not forbid anyone from attending our churches. At the same time, however, we must balance this grace with Biblical truth. In condemning all sin of professing believers who seem to take their sin lightly, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God,” (1 Cor.6:9-10). 

In an effort to reach homosexuals and to lessen the hard sayings of Scripture on the topic (Lev.18:22, 20:13, Rom.1:26-32, 1 Cor.6:9, 1 Tim.1:10), some within the church make a false dichotomy, saying that an avowed homosexual is acceptable in the pastorate, as a church officer, or as a church member as long as he does not act upon that desire or impulse. God, however, condemns the desire as much as the action itself (Mt.5:28, Larger Catechism Q. and A. 139). And finally, we are never to link our identity with any particular sin. Some are referring to themselves as “gay Christians.” A true believer, born again by the regenerating work of the Spirit, is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor.5:17). He should no more call himself a “gay Christian” than one might call himself an adulterous Christian, a drug dealing Christian, or a Christian pedophile.  

My former denomination, the PCA, is now embroiled in a major controversy on “Side B homosexuality.” Memorial Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, “ground zero” for the movement, recently called a congregational meeting to vote on whether or not to leave the PCA. They will most likely leave but there seems to be many more pastors, Sessions, and church members in the PCA which hold the same or similar views. Will they also leave? Perhaps some will but I fear the PCA and other likeminded denominations will face similar problems down the road, even if they choose to leave their respective denominations and form a new one.   

The very first question any prospective new church or denomination must answer is this—what will you do with Genesis 1-11? A refusal to require subscription to a literal six day, twenty-four hour creation means the same hermeneutic will still be in place, and if this happens sooner or later the new church or denomination will be back exactly in the same place and battling the same or similar problems. 

It all went south with the Southern Presbyterian Church when they allowed even the slightest form of theistic evolution. We would do well to learn from history.   

 Our Souther Zion: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927), David B. Calhoun, page149.
2  For more information on these various views, go to <> “What’s Wrong With the Framework Hypothesis?” <> “Theistic Evolution and the Day-Age Theory.” <> “BioLogos: House of Heresy and False Teaching.”
3  What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment? . . . adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections. . . 


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