Even though his religious identity as a champion of strict confessionals and Presbyterian procedures had become clearer during the missions controversy of the 1930s, Machen still held considerable appeal for a broad range of fundamentalists who otherwise would have been repelled by his Presbyterian particularism. Despite the fact that Machen himself was not drawn into the fray over evolution, the high view of the Bible’s truthfulness that was implicit in his defense of Christian supernaturalism appealed powerfully to anti-evolutionists who believed that modern science denied divine intervention into the natural order. His insistence that Christianity was first and foremost a message to the individual soul won support from many who suspected that the older denominations had abandoned evangelicalism for social reform. And, in a movement that thrived on controversy, Machen’s willingness to challenge church officials pleased fundamentalists who rarely let denominational loyalty hamper the cause of evangelicalism.
In the early 1920s, when J. Gresham Machen was in the thick of the battle for the orthodox Christian doctrines in the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary, he faced frustrating and damaging opposition from moderates, which Machen referred to as “indifferentists.”
Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in response to liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick objected to the conservative “Five Point Deliverance” of 1910, a PCUSA statement requiring new ministers to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith and specific points of orthodox doctrine, which included the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the miraculous works of Christ, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. Allowing attacks like Fosdick’s to go unchallenged threatened to replace the truth of Scripture with a false gospel, and yet the indifferentists preferred to preserve a superficial peace. In Stephen Nichols’ J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, he writes:
I came across a copy of Edward John Carnell’s book The Case for Orthodox Theology(1959). Chapter 8, “Perils,” is worth a lengthy discussion, as it contains a criticism of J. Gresham Machen for his defiance of the church courts in the course of his battles with modernism in the Presbyterian church. Following is an excerpt from the chapter, and a few thoughts from others on the problems of Carnell’s position. This is important because it deals with the overarching question of how the Christian is to handle official ties to those who claim the name of Christ but deny the essence of the gospel. In a broader sense, this is relevant to the right of withdrawal from any institution that has authority. Continue reading “Machen, the Fundamentalist Mentality, and Separation”→
Machen hired the Dutch Reformed scholar Cornelius Van Til to teach at Westminster Seminary, and defended him against the complaints of the more fundamentalist American Presbyterians. Van Til contributed significantly to the improvement of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and American Calvinism in general. Among other things, Van Til helped move at least some American Protestants away from their functional deism in civic matters. The Christian faith has implications for the world in which the Church works, and Van Til would not sacrifice a Reformed Christian apologetic to gain mainstream acceptability. For those in the fledgling OPC who wanted to maintain ties with traditional American fundamentalism–characterized by a comfortable public deism, Arminian revisions to the WCF, total abstinence on alcohol–this was a difficult position to accept.
A majority of presbyteries in the PCUSA have voted to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals, replacing the 1996 language:
….Those who are called to ordained office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
The pastoral letter from the General Assembly stated, “persons in a same-gender relationship may be considered for ordination and/or installation as deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament within the PC(USA).”
I hope no one is shocked. The PCUSA hasn’t been holding to confessional standards for a very long time. This simply adds a degree of consistency to the PCUSA’s other practices.
Apart from denominational rulings, though, one would hope for integrity among the individual elders, deacons, and members within the church. Agree with the historic standards, or don’t, but don’t try to justify theological liberalism from a conservative confession, or try to cram your conservative self into a theologically liberal congregation. Be honest and admit the inconsistency. As I’ve posted earlier, Machen’s own doubts about his ability to hold to theological standards of Presbyterianism with integrity led him to delay his own ordination into the Presbyterian church. Even the atheistic H.L. Mencken appreciated Machen’s willingness to hold to theological standards (beliefs which Mencken found abhorrent) instead of caving in to the demands of the surrounding culture.
Welsh pastor Martin Downes compares the Presbyterian controversy of the ’20s and ’30s to an old Western: theological liberals and orthodox churchmen like Machen were headed for a showdown–the denomination wasn’t big enough for both of them. Hindering Machen’s cause were the indifferent moderates, who might not have believed the liberal doctrines, but were willing to accommodate them. Preserving unity and good doctrine at the same time became impossible, but those like Machen who recognized this and fought for doctrine were excoriated in the church. But the liberals, too, were no more committed to peace and unity–they were willing to suffer division in the church if they could thereby accomplish their goal of destroying orthodoxy.
Downes comments, “Men will always applaud an irenic spirit over against a polemical approach. But the sound of such approval can quite easily mask the noise of the destruction of confessional orthodoxy. Choices must be made and it will do no good to cry ‘peace! peace!’ when there is no peace.”
Here’s a paper from the Water Is Thicker than Blood blog, which I’ve discovered to have some high-quality Machen entries. An excerpt from this paper:
Machen’s seemingly peculiar viewpoint can be seen in the cultural controversy of the day, as well as in the ecclesiastical confessionalism he was singularly dedicated to throughout his life at Princeton and in the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary. As a southerner, Machen “shared his family’s aristocratic sympathies throughout his life.” His loyalties lay with Southern culture in a distinct fashion, putting him on the side of constitutional states’ rights and belief in the legitimacy of secession. This view point led him to a libertarianism where he “opposed almost any extension of state powers and took stands on a variety of issues.” George Marsden further comments on his views stating that as a libertarian he did not easily fall into the categories of ‘liberal and conservative.’ Machen’s outlook concerning liberty in society was built upon philosophical and theological convictions. “Only be preserving free speech, he said, was there hope for the one instrument that could stop radicalism. ‘That instrument is reasonable persuasion.’” These convictions were in stark contrast to the Northern sentimentalities of the church he was to become associated with through teaching at Princeton.
Mencken was not at all inclined to Machen’s religious views, saying that he stood “much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism.” Yet Mencken admired Machen’s courageous and intelligent struggle against modernism in seminaries and churches. Mencken rejected Christianity, but despised the efforts of ecclesiastical modernists to dispense with the substance of Christianity while retaining its nomenclature, ceremony, and semblance of piety. “It is one thing,” Mencken wrote, “to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science.”
Mencken also commented favorably upon Machen’s stance against Prohibitionism in the Church. The anti-alcohol movement had become quite the rage in churches of Machen’s era (indeed, it has had an inexcusably long legacy), and Mencken suggests that Machen’s opposition to it may have had something to do with Machen’s break with mainstream Presbyterians.
Mencken clearly took pleasure in observing Machen’s thorough routing of modernists. “Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court,” Mencken exulted, “and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche.”
Unfortunately, Machen’s battles ended in retreat. Crossed Fingers discusses those battles and the liberal strategy that led to their victory.