Presbytery Exam Fun with J. Gresham Machen

For those in the Presbyterian tradition, oral exams for students of theology pursuing licensure to receive a call as a pastor can be terrifying. Students sit on a platform before dozens of elders and answer questions on Scripture, theology, history, ministry, and more. However, after many hours of exams in one day at a presbytery meeting, the exams can also become quite tiring for elders who must listen, ask follow-up questions, and vote to sustain or not to sustain the students.

As my fellow students of theology and I went through our exams more than a decade ago, we noticed these trends over the several years during which we sat before presbytery. We decided to try to spice things up just a bit as we sat before these men whom we deeply loved and respected. So, we occasionally worked rather obscure bits of history or theology into our answers for the fun of watching the faces of our examiners. And it was fun, even as we took our exams very seriously.

Later, one of my comrades read Ned B. Stonehouse’s biography of J. Gresham Machen, a father of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There, we learned to our surprise and joy that we had merely made feeble efforts to join the company of the great Machen. After his licensure exams in preparation for the pastorate in the spring of 1914, he wrote to tell his mother about his experiences. Of his theology exam, he recalled:

The object of the examiner was to ask the candidate only those things which he would be most likely to know. Despite this fact the answers were by no means what they might have been. The “aetiological argument” came in handy. I had looked it up in the syllabus of Dr. Patton’s lectures in theism. Though I did not know much about what it is, yet I think the casual mention of it was rather impressive… (Ned. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p. 195).