Posts Tagged ‘J. Gresham Machen’

“The greatest menace to the Christian Church to-day comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within.” Those were the words of J. Gresham Machen in his famous little book entitled Christianity and Liberalism (p. 135). Today, many of us might respond to this quotation with, “Well, that was then. Now is now. And besides, liberalism isn’t quite the problem in our Evangelical churches like it was in Machen’s day.”

But can we be so sure? Is it possible that in certain Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Reformed circles, a decidedly Christian form of conservatism has actually become the new liberalism? T. David Gordon makes this point in his outstanding little book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach. He writes,

Ironically, the very orthodox and evangelical Christians who protested against Protestant liberalism in the early twentieth century are quite likely to promote its basic emphases from the pulpit today. In orthodox Reformed pulpits, one finds a frequency of moralism that would have been quite at home in the most liberal of the Protestant liberal pulpits of nearly a century ago. Laymen, and even some officers, don’t notice this because they use the terms liberal and conservative as the network news anchors have taught them to use them. They think liberalism is a certain kind of ethics, different from conservative ethics (pp. 79-80).

Gordon continues,

Moralism occurs whenever the fundamental message of a sermon is “be good; do good” (or some specific thereof). Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in his redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic. Such moralism is so common in American pulpits that when in ordinary conversation one individual attempts to correct another’s behavior, it is not uncommon to hear the reply: “Oh, so you’re going to preach to me now, are you?” People have obviously come to associate preaching with moral improvement (or moral scolding); they do not associate preaching with a proclamation of the fitness of Christ’s person and the adequacy of his work to save to the uttermost those who come to God thorough him (p. 80).

Does this kind of conservative Protestantism actually resemble at all the spirit of the Protestant Reformation? Gordon doesn’t think so:

If you read Luther’s comments about his life a a monk before his conversion, you will find Luther talking about how all he ever heard from the church was “do this” and “don’t do that.” He did not hear that there was a Mediator, a Redeemer, who had rescued those who had done wrong from the coming judgment of God. Oh, it might have been mentioned as an aside from time to time, but the dominant theme that he heard again and again was “do this; don’t do that.” Then go and listen to the typical sermon in the typical evangelical or Reformed church, and ask what Luther would think if he were present. Luther would think he was still in Rome. Perhaps somewhere in the sermon is some mention of Christ; perhaps at the end is an obligatory comment, “And of course we couldn’t do this apart from the grace of God in Christ” — but such a lame comment cannot rescue an essentially moralistic sermon and make it redemptive (p. 81).

Of course, most evangelicals today still affirm the historicity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the vicarious atonement. But if popular sermons are as Gordon describes (which I believe they are), one has to wonder how important these doctrines really end up being. Are preachers and teachers actually preaching and teaching such doctrine? Is the person of Christ proclaimed from the pulpit each week? Are his redmeptive works manifested in the preaching, Lord’s Supper, and Baptism?  Do conservatives even know why they believe what they believe? Or are such heady doctrines better relegated to the “check off” box in order that we might get to more important issues like “How to Have a Better Marriage” and “Engaging Culture.”

Machen once wrote, “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.” With contemporary Evangelical leaders like Rick Warren championing ideas like, “deeds over creeds,” perhaps it isn’t unfair to wonder whether conservatism hasn’t indeed become a new kind of liberalism after all.


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I’ve been talking with my close friends about the difficulty ‘gospel men’ have determining when to fight a theological battle or just avoid offense. As we mature, I doubt this difficulty will go away. Rather, we will likely be tempted to fall into two extremes: 1) offending everybody whenever we disagree with them, or 2) Offending nobody even though we strongly disagree with them.  Both, I believe, are wrong.

As for me, I hope to follow my Lord’s example and that of the apostle Paul.  Although they were gentle as doves with those who needed protection, they surely didn’t avoid conflict with those who needed opposition (“I opposed him to his face,” Gal 2:11), and on occasions seemed to seek it out. And even though they must have known it would arouse the vitriol of their opponents, they didn’t stop short of employing singularly inflammatory statements.

I wonder if Christ or Paul would fair too well in our day… Should we fight? Or should we not? Is there a time to fight? (I think a wise man once said there was a time for everything.)

With that in mind, I ran across this address by J. Gresham Machan entitled ‘The Scientific Preparation of the Minister‘ which was delivered September 20, 1912 at the opening of the 101st session of Princeton Theological Seminary.  As some of us gear up for the ‘Christianity and Liberalism Revisited‘ conference this weekend at WSC, I thought the following paragraph may be particularly appropriate:

Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church’s power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favours better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction… The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God – about these things there is debate.

You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current… The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary’s life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions. – J. Gresham Machen

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For anyone who is interested in understanding the Reformed doctrine of justification, I would really recommend reading J.V. Fesko’s book. I’ve been reading through it and it is great. It’s clear, cogent, and illuminative.

Preferring light over heat, Fesko also offers considerable refutations to N.T. Wright and his understanding of Paul in the context of second-temple Judaism. Although Wright says a lot of true and pertinent things, (about both Paul and second-temple Judaism), Fesko points out how it’s not all that simple. I thought I’d offer you some quotations as well as my thoughts.

First, Fesko summerizes some of Wright’s thoughts on second-temple Judaism:

The first-century Jew [according to Wright] was not concerned about how one might have a saving relationship with God. Rather, the first-century Jew was already a member of the covenant and possessed a relationship with his covenant Lord. What was perplexing for the first-century Jew was, how could the chosen people of God be under the Roman occupation? Had not God promised in this covenant to Abraham that Israel would rule over the nations? Yet Israel was under the thumb of Rome. (Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, p. 213.)

Now what is important to realize is the degree to which Wright relies upon second-temple Judaism to help his understanding of Paul. Here, he is in company with many other contemporary (yet often critical) scholars. But then one must ask the question, is second-temple Judaism really the best indicator into what St. Paul really believed? Or would Paul’s presuppositions about many things (including covenant membership) have been somewhat (if not radically) divergent from those of his day. Fesko explains,

Wright is correct in that one must be sensitive to the surrounding cultural and historical context of the NT; However, he gives his interpretation of second-temple Judaism too great a role in defining the covenantal nature of justification. At various points Wright invokes the literature of second-temple Judaism to explain what lies behind Paul’s thought. What is problematic about this methodology is that Paul never directly cites the literature of the second temple. (p. 233)

Fesko then quotes J. Gresham Machen.

It is significant that when, after the conversion, Paul seeks testimonies to the universal sinfulness of man, he looks not to contemporary Judaism, but to the Old Testament. At this point, as elsewhere, Paulinism is based not upon later developments but upon the religion of the Prophets and the Psalms. (p. 233)

Fesko points out how “Wright assumes that second-temple Judaism has authoritatively interpreted the OT and that Paul builds upon this understanding.” (p. 233)

Now this is a huge problem for Wright. Although much of his conclusions about second-temple Judaism are historically accurate, he seems to miss the fact that Paul didn’t agree with them! The main questions they were asking weren’t the ones he was trying to answer. In fact you might picture Paul as saying, “Wrong question! Read your bible again.” And thus for us today, the main question in Pauline scholarship shouldn’t be, What did second-temple Judaism believe? But rather, What did Paul think about what they believed? And here we must realize that Paul would hardly have granted them their premise. They had a “zeal” but “without knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Fesko writes,

Instead, as Machen argues, Paul appeals to the OT, to Abraham, not to the erroneous positions of first-century Judaism. And as classic Reformed covenant theology has argued, the Abrahamic covenant, which Paul calls the gospel (Gal. 3:8), is built ultimately upon the protoevangelium, not the hopes of first-century Jews of being delivered from their Roman overlords. Paul’s concern is not the supposed exile under Rome as Wright contends, but the greater exile under the powers of Satan, sin, and death. (p. 234)

Now, this distinction carries with it drastic interpretive consequences. As Geerhardus Vos was famous for pointing out, eschatology precedes soteriology. And it is no less the case when dealing with first-century Jews and Paul.

As is evidenced all throughout the gospels, one of the things the Jews got wrong was their eschatology. Is it possible Write has overlooked this? What the Jews were looking for was not what Christ was looking for (or, rather, looking to do). How they read and interpreted the Scriptures was not how Christ and his disciples read and interpreted them. Thus the conclusions of second-temple Judaism regarding the covenant promises and their eschatological fulfillment would have been radically different than Paul’s. Paul had himself seen the risen Christ, and had tasted of the powers of the age to come. He would have had little in common with their base and carnal assumptions. There would have been a huge disconnect! Rather than offering a disinterested correction, Paul’s eschatology would have stood in glaring and direct contradiction to that of first-century Jews.

And although Wright seems to underplay this fact, the Jews were considerably concerned about salvation (or being saved) as well. But it wasn’t the kind of salvation Christ offered or Paul preached. And that was the problem!

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39 NIV).

Salvation, for Christ and Paul, was not about redemption from the hand of Roman oppressors. Fesko points out, “Paul shows no concern for what the enemies of the people of God might or might not think; Paul shows concern only for what God will say concerning the one who stands before his throne.” This can be grounded further in the gospels where Christ is constantly bringing to attention how the Jews have their eschatology all wrong, and therefore their soteriology as well.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mat. 10:28).

And then for something completely different:

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 5:54).

Talk about total disconnect! The Jews would have been like, “What in the world is he talking about?!?!” Even the disciples were confounded: “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it? (John 5:60). And yet Christ can say, “…if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me (v. 46).”

So, here we see the cosmic divergence. On the one hand are the Jews and their interpretation of the OT together with their understanding of the Covenant, Torah, and the eschatological fulfillment of the promises. On the other hand we have Christ, and his disciples, and their understanding of the Law and its fulfillment by Christ in the gospel.  Needless to say there is an acute, and even critical, discontinuity between these two systems. Yet Wright doesn’t seem to get this. Or at least he downplays it into insignificance. And so, although he does get much of second-temple Judaism right, unfortunately he still gets Paul wrong.

Fesko concludes:

Hence Wright is correct to say that justification is covenantal, law-court language, and eschatological. But these categories require reorientation because Paul does not discuss justification in the way that Wright does. Wright bases these categories in this understanding and construction of the worldview of second-temple Judaism and the longing for deliverance from Rome. Paul, on the other hand, bases these categories in the protoevangelium, the longing for deliverance from sin and death. (p. 239)

By highlighting and emphasizing certain ideas and themes over others, N.T. Wright ultimately creates false dichotomies that only distort the grand biblical message. Among various other errors, he sets second-temple Judaism up as a main interpretive grid against the rest of Scripture. In the end, his explanations are reductionistic, robbing the reader of the interpretive tools for making sense of the various (yet essential) biblical themes, and ultimately allowing to fall flat that very gospel message which is to bring life to the dead.

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In the first place, it should be directed not only against the opponents outside the Church but also against the opponents within. The opponents of Holy Scripture do not become less dangerous, but they become far more dangerous, when they are within ecclesiastical walls.

At that point, I am well aware that widespread objection arises at the present time. Let us above all, men say, have no controversy in the Church; let us forget our small theological differences and all repeat together Paul’s hymn to Christian love. As I listen to such pleas, my Christian friends, I think I can detect in them rather plainly the voice of Satan. That voice is heard, sometimes, on the lips of good and truly Christian men, as at Caesarea Philippi it was heard on the lips of the greatest of the Twelve. But Satan’s voice it is, all the same.

– J. G. Machen. Article found here.

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Thanks to Nic Laz, I was reading through J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Culture lecture.  Amongst other things, Machen touches upon our presuppositions when engaging in missional or missionary work. I found these interesting quotes:

We are all agreed that at least one great function of the Church is the conversion of individual men. The missionary movement is the great religious movement of our day. Now it is perfectly true that men must be brought to Christ one by one. There are no labor-saving devices in evangelism. It is all hand-work.And yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel. It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

This seems to call for a rigorous philosophical approach to our evangelism — quite contrary to the prevailing anti-intellectualism of our day.  Machen writes,

What is today [a] matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combatted; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity.

He asks,

Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer, of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul—but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field.

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So what is saving faith? Here’s a quote from J. Gresham Machen…  It’s so true!

“Acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He is offered to us in the gospel of His redeeming work, is saving faith. Despairing of any salvation to be obtained by our own efforts, we simply trust in Him to save us; we say no longer, as we contemplate the Cross, merely “He saved others” or “He saved the world” or “He saved the Church”; but we say, every one of us, by the strange individualizing power of faith, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” When a man once says that, in his heart and not merely with his lips, then no matter what his guilt may be, no matter how far he is beyond any human pale, no matter how little opportunity he has for making good the evil that he has done, he is a ransomed soul, a child of God forever.”

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