Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Defending the Faith

John Gresham Machen. My Dad was almost named for Machen... until my grandmother overruled - he ended up with only the John part. Having studied under Machen in Princeton, before Westminster was founded, my Grandfather returned to Northern Ireland and found himself, as a final year student at seminary, fighting liberalism in his own denomination as Machen had been fighting it in the USA as a college professor. So Hart's account of J. Gresham Machen and his role in the "crisis of conservative protestantism in modern America was of particular interest to me - but more generally, it's a fascinating history for anyone who has an interest in Protestantism, fundamentalism, Presbyterianism, dispensationalism or politics - in America and anywhere else we may, puzzled, feel its influence! Machen was thoroughly orthodox, not fundamentalist, yet often prized by the fundamentalists for his scholarship and commitment to orthodoxy. (I still recommend that all undergraduate theology students read his Christanity and Liberalism.) He fought liberalism with the truth, but tried foremost to have a proper Presbyterian denomination and missions, confessionally committed to the truth as expressed in the Presbyterian standards, rather than giving up hope on the denomination and gathering with other evangelicals primarily. He baffled and annoyed fundamentalists by being liberal in practice where he wasn't in doctrine: unlike much of America, he wasn't for banning alcohol and smoking, and didn't mind a trip to the cinema. This liberal stance was political: being a convinced Presbyterian, whereas he believed in strict discipline in church rule, he opposed government control, not agreeing with the idea of a Christian America and seeking autonomy to preserve Christian faith and practice. Leaving the last word to Hart:
In the end, Machen's thought and career is a reminder that the relationship between religion and modern culture is not as clear-cut or unambiguous as commonly thought. In the sense that he defended historic Christianity at a time when much of the intellectual world was turning secular, Machen by all means displayed "anti-modern" views. But according to a definition that makes modernity inherently antithetical to religious faith, any belief, no matter how well adapted to the modern world, is "anti-modern." The larger sense of modernity, the assumed bête noire of Protestant conservatives, entails tolerance of cultural and religious diversity. Here Machen showed a remarkable willingness to defend religious freedom and cultural pluralism while fundamentalist and modernist Protestants continued to cling, though differing over specifics, to the idea of a Christian America. Indeed, at the same time that secular intellectuals attacked the Protestant ethos of American culture, Machen argued that the churches' involvement in cultural and social life was harmful because it undermined faithful witnessing to Christian truth. Unfortunately for Machen, that twin commitment - to Presbyterian orthodoxy and religious pluralism - went largely unheeded in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. Yet his outlook may still prove instructive to believers and secularists... today who through a series of culture wars struggle to reconcile the demands of faith with the realities of modernity.


Chris said...

just a thought:

how (if at all) do you might Machen apply that thinking to say, the current Anglican situation (because anglicans do have things like bishops in the lords etc)...? Or does Machen only really make sense in his american context?


Chris said...

ps great news in Le Maillon if you get it. if not its online at

part of me's itching to be there, having to make do with prayer.