Why do the old, dead theologians matter? Doesn’t theology get out-dated? Do the reasons for why churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian and United Reformed began still matter? Do these things matter for the brick-layer and the accountant in the congregation to know? As I have been reading the works of J. Gresham Machen, I have been alerted to a concern that we are drifting from our moorings. It is a good question to think about: why do I go to the church that I go to? More importantly, why do I even go to church? Does theological debate matter in the 21st century? Does it matter that young men and women should read Luther and Bavinck and Schilder and Machen and Augustine? Should certain Bible-believing denominations be uniting? On what basis? Or does that just make life a headache and contribute to the further splintering of the church? What are we grounded in? Where are we going?
I have heard comments about losing a Canadian Reformed identity and I have heard comments about the need for a United Reformed identity. The PCAs in Canada have their own concerns. I have heard comments about Dutch identity and other national identities. My point isn’t to consider church order here. And yes, it matters. My point isn’t to consider confessions. And yes, what your confession is matters a lot. I want to take a look at the work of J. Gresham Machen on Christianity & Liberalism and consider how this should impact our thought today. I want to think about this in the perspective of the fact that we tend to go back and forth between liberalism and tribalism in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Liberalism looses our groundings in historic Christianity and tribalism treats a certain set of practices and rules within Christianity as the only historic Christianity.
Machen was a Presbyterian pastor who lived from 1881 to 1937. His parents were strong Christian people and encouraged him in his faith as he also studied for a time under the liberal scholars of Germany. He spoke against the liberal unions in the Church of the 1920s and firmly advocated for a Christianity that was historical rather than being tainted by the secular findings of naturalistic science. He was intent on defending historic Christianity as opposed to a 20th century doctrine that was not clear and in fact murky and confused and even un-Christian. After he was forced out of his Presbyterian denomination, he began a denomination that would eventually become the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches.
Machen’s classic work on Christianity & Liberalism has helped me to take courage in preparation for the ministry in the face of the continual splintering of the North American Church, intricate debates over church order, and a growing disinterest in sound doctrine and Biblical principle among my generation. It can be discouraging to watch men fight over little details when there are so many lost men and women in our communities and cities and when the church is already so splintered. In Christianity & Liberalism, Machen spells out an undivided gospel for the world and he is willing to fight for it. It is a gospel as wide as Christianity itself and takes a deep concern that true and historic Christianity be defended, promoted, and advanced until the second coming of Christ when He comes to judge the living and the dead.
Machen has left a legacy of great theology but many accuse him of being cantakerous and divisive. Yet, if we study his theological project, he wasn’t picking fights about whether to use the organ or piano in worship. This has almost nothing to do with liberal Christianity. Your church is not necessarily liberal if it has only one service a Sunday, for example (although it could be). He was fighting against a movement in the church that was un-Christian: one that was denying the virgin birth, miracles, and departing from a belief in the divinity of Christ. It is fascinating that he even writes with regards to Roman Catholicism and liberalism: “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.” His defense of the integrity of the Word of God was at the center of the struggle. Polity and confessions organized themselves around the centrality of this Word of God. Polity and confessions mattered as we can see in the integrity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches, but the authenticity and historicity of the Word of God and the fact that it laid out timeless principles for human life was the hill that he was going to die on. These principles applied to everything from gender, to state, to family, to worship.
Even his opponent in the mission board controversy in the Presbyterian Church, Pearl S. Buck, wrote at the time of his death:
We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest sceptic nor the honest dogmatist. I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them.
Many of Machen’s “warrior children” became a cantakerous and divisive breed. Machen himself was but a man and may have been too conflict-oriented. Regardless of his faults, God used his faults to respond to a major deviation in Christianity. I believe that we would do well to consider the vision of this man of faith. He was fierce in defending doctrine, but this was channeled in the direction of challenging false teaching. He had a vision for missions and for the church in North America. He did not fall into the trap of fundamentalism, but he still recognized that they shared a common gospel. He could still fight by their side even though many held to errors concerning the end times. He still responded to errors such as premillenialism. But his vision was for a historic Christianity, a death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that really happened.
Have we lost this vision? Are we ready to defend this vision? Are we ready to give up our tribalism and count all as loss to follow Jesus Christ? Are we ready to give up the easy believism of the modern day church and give up all to follow Jesus Christ? What is our vision? How will we prepare for the years ahead and to defend the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century? Are we ready to join the men of faith, who lived by faith, and pursued the promises of God in Jesus Christ?
Machen concludes his work on Christianity and liberalism:
Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” (I Cor. 16:13-14)