Machen Day 2021

How to think about spikes in urban crime and criminal justice reform:

But what was the difference between the teaching of Paul and the teaching of the Judaizers? What was it that gave rise to the stupendous polemic of the Epistle to the Galatians? To the modern Church the difference would have seemed to be a mere theological subtlety. About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah; there is not a shadow of evidence that they objected to Paul’s lofty view of the person of Christ. Without the slightest doubt, they believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead. They believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer’s own effort to keep the Law. From the modern point of view the difference would have seemed to be very slight. Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical − not even, perhaps, the temporal − order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified. The difference would seem to modern “practical” Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm. What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances! Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Broadening Churches Break, Will the PCA?

The Broadening Church was the word the title of Lefferts Loetscher’s book about the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. It was not the epithet of conservatives like J. Gresham Machen. The question was whether a church should attempt to be broad. Perhaps, the better way to put it is whether the church should oppose breadth. Breadth happens. It may be tolerable (Loetscher’s position), it may be objectionable (Machen’s), or it may be welcome (various modernists’). Whatever you think of a broad church, it pretty much goes without saying that conservatives seek communions that maintain doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical standards, a desire that generally does not go with breadth. On the other hand, those who either accept passively or celebrate broad communions are not conservative.

To look for parallels between the PCUSA and the PCA and raise the question of whether PCA is following a similar set of trajectories as did the PCUSA during the so-called fundamentalist controversy is to assume that the PCA itself is a broad church. If someone leads with the idea that broad and trending liberal go together throughout church history, then some PCA folk who have spoken positively about the denomination’s breadth may pause their identification with a broad church. They want to be conservative. They also want to be broad. So how do you square breadth with conservatism? Maybe the best you can do is Tim Keller‘s “Why I Like the PCA,” an essay which concedes that the New York City pastor’s communion is broad:

I believe that the only way for the PCA to be a place where we own each other is for us to re-affirrm the original boundary markers that the founders set up.

The founders’ drew very specific boundaries at certain points. One that has always been very important has been a high view of Scripture, with a robust, traditional belief in inerrancy. Another has to do with the core of Reformed theology and soteriology—there are to be no “four point Calvinists” in our church. In many other areas where some Reformed denominations have drawn narrower lines—Sabbath observance, worship (e.g. Psalms-only,) eschatology—the founders left room for diversity.

That sounds very different from what happened in the PCUSA where the church actually tried to do an end run around the PCUSA’s boundary markers. Here it may be useful to recall that the controversy started in 1920 with a plan to unite all Protestant denominations into one American church, like the model that informed the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1925). The president of Princeton Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, chaired the committee of Presbyterians who approved the plan Stevenson’s faculty opposed the plan strenuously (including B. B. Warfield during the last year of his life). It was a classic instance of “we should be broad” vs. “we want to maintain Presbyterian standards.”

The next phase of the controversy played out in 1922 when congregations in New York City were behaving very broadly. This became common knowledge when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist preaching as stated supply in a Presbyterian pulpit, gave his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” For Fosdick, the church was divided between those who wanted the church to be narrow and intolerant and those who like himself wanted it to be broad and open to all good souls. Fosdick’s sermon launched judicial proceedings that forced Fosdick out of the Presbyterian pulpit and the New York Presbyterian to explain the anomaly of a Baptist pastor functioning as pulpit supply as a misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, that same presbytery was ordaining ministers would not affirm (nor did the reject) the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. New York’s breadth prompted overwhelming support from officers at the 1923 General Assembly to reaffirm the famous five points of essential and necessary doctrines — which included the virgin birth (which had been affirmed in 1910 and 1916). Some might construe them as boundary markers. But liberals in New York countered with the Auburn Affirmation, which was a plea for liberty in the church (breadth), an interpretation of the essential doctrines in a less than literal manner, and an assertion that the General Assembly lacked power to insist on essential doctrines.

From there it was largely downhill for liberals. The Special Commission of 1925, which had the task of explaining the tensions in the church, blamed conservatives for making unfounded assertions outside the orderly mechanisms of Presbyterian church government. Those un-Presbyterian activities included (by implication) writing books like Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The General Assembly followed up with an investigation of Princeton Seminary, again to discover the source of the controversy between Stevenson and his faculty, and between Charles Erdman and Machen. That committee found again that conservatives were the problem and in effect issued a warning that if conservatives continued to criticize liberalism in the denomination those critics could face church discipline. The committee also recommended administrative changes at Princeton that diluted conservative voices (which had been in the majority). Readers should remember that PTS was and remains an agency of the General Assembly (as opposed to independent ones like Westminster, Fuller, and Reformed, or Union Richmond which I believe was founded by a Synod).

Seven years later Machen led in the founding of an orthodox, narrow, and tiny church, the OPC (name to come in 1939). Meanwhile, the PCUSA had managed to remain unified even as it encompassed a spectrum of positions in the church.

Here is how the contemporary broadening of the PCA differs from the PCUSA. You could argue it begins with Good Faith Subscription. According to “Looking Forward – Together,” the determination of the General Assembly twenty years ago was pivotal:

Good Faith Subscription (GFS) was formalized into our Constitution almost twenty years ago to put an end to such unfounded assertions. Two back-to-back General Assemblies and two-thirds of our presbyteries came to a previously and since-unprecedented level of unity to make this Constitutional formulation that allows for meaningful and biblical adherence to our Standards (acknowledging where the Bible allows good men to differ according to a very careful system of checks and balances, where every difference is recorded, approved by entire presbyteries, and submitted for examination to the General Assembly)! The adoption of GFS made recording confessional exceptions mandatory for presbyteries, and has been extraordinarily effective in strengthening our confessional commitments.

Somehow this revision in church life allowed the PCA to do exactly what the denomination had done twenty-five years earlier without the advantages of GFS: “The latitude that our denomination has allowed for, within the bounds of our orthodoxy, protects us from the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.”

In other words, GFS accomplished what the PCA had always stood for — latitude (which is synonymous with breadth) even though the PCA in 1973 was formed precisely because the sort of broad church that the PCUSA had achieved in the 1930s was also occurring within the PCUS.

GFS is not what the Auburn Affirmation was. But it is a form of subscribing that is compatible with breadth. GFS is also an action of a General Assembly. The Auburn Affirmation was merely a statement in search of signatures. That is why “Faithfully” can sound sort of threatening to conservatives the way that PCUSA turned out to be with Machen and other critics of liberalism.

Online blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails have generally been the modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited. In the process, specific brothers in good standing have been labeled – and hurt, but even more frequently, “straw men” are erected without proof. These communications assert that large segments of our church are abandoning Scripture and our Confessional standards. Every sin does violence to God’s world and forsakes his Word, whether the sin of homosexuality, the sin of slander, the sin of compromise, or the sin of divisiveness.

In fact, “Faithfully” implies that conservatives in the PCA are engaged in a power play:

We disagree with digital and social media characterizations that turn suspicions into speculations that become accusations without proof – to achieve political ends within our church. Where compromise or sin is true and can be proven, we have sessions, presbyteries, and judicial processes to engage. We are wrong to presume that all of these are populated by brothers who are less committed to our faith than those ringing alarm bells in internet discussions and news agencies.

That explains why this letter’s appeal to GFS is an important part of the argument. GFS is the law of the church. Anyone who challenges it is running contrary to the settled practice of the PCA. In which case, while the Auburn Affirmation was a plea for liberty in the church, “Faithfully” is a threat against those who challenge the existing breadth in the PCA.

One other important difference between the PCUSA’s becoming broad and the PCA’s current breadth is the degree to which the broadists talk about the relationship between church and society (or hint at a Social Gospel). The Auburn Affirmation was generally silent about society. Progressives in the PCUSA had to worry more about carving out space for themselves in the church than they did about their role in social reform. This is not the case for the PCA, at least by one reading of “Faithfully.” Here are some of the ways, according to the authors of the letter, the PCA has shown it’s commitment to “biblical integrity, ecclesiastical polity, and gospel focus” (none of which sounds very confessional or subscriptionist):

We are seeing a healthy, biblical consciousness for issues that were previously unaddressed in the denomination, including racial reconciliation, refugee care, domestic violence, the vital role of women in advancing the mission of the church, the gospel-centeredness of all Scripture, the importance of mercy ministries and crisis care in the advancement of Christ’s message of hope, and the precious power of God’s covenant care in a society of sexual and family brokenness. For example, without sacrificing our commitment to biblical integrity, the involvement of godly women has been sought for insight on difficult issues affecting children, churches, and families, as evidenced in the recent PCA study committees on the role of women and domestic violence.

Say what you will about those matters and whether the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which is in the Westminster Confession (ch. 25), was part of the PCUS (and explains why it took until 1983 for the Southern and Northern churches to reunite), and was clearly part (not the whole) of the PCA’s founding, that is not a list of endeavors that would characterize a non-broad or strictly confessional Reformed church. For “Faithfully” to mention these as pretty much obvious signs of the PCA’s health is also to indicate a measure of confirmation bias that in turn construes one sector of a diverse church for the whole.

A similar confusion of broad consensus with actual disagreements is evident in “Faithfully”‘s discussion of the elephant in the PCA room — namely, Side B (or same-sex attracted) Christianity. To avoid that particular matter, “Faithfully” renders the issue as whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals:

You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers. We agree that any unrepentant sinner or sinful lifestyle makes ordination not only impossible, but also reprehensible. We know of no pastors or elders in the PCA who in any way desire for practicing homosexuals to be ordained.

Fine. But what about pastors who identify as homosexual (though non-practicing) Christians? Would anyone object to a pastor calling himself an adulterous Christian because he is sometimes attracted to women other than his wife? Are these questions ones that agreeing on a basic set of “gospel” commitments while allowing for diversity on variety of indifferent matters will be easily answered? What if basic gospel commitments about sin, human nature, repentance, regeneration — all matters covered under Pastor Keller’s “Reformed theology and soteriology” — actually bubble up into questions about church and society? And what if Side B Christianity is a way to project that the PCA is a tolerant sort of place for residents of large metropolitan areas where people are generally uncomfortable expressing opposition to homosexuality?

Again, breadth seems to be afflicting the PCA. The affliction is certainly different from the broadening of the PCUSA roughly one hundred years ago. But in one way it is similar. “Evangelicals” like Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton and opponent of Machen within the seminary and the church, believed a denomination could be broad and committed to the essentials of the gospel. The progressives in the PCA seem to be in a similar position. They are not making the church safe for pastors who question the Virgin Birth. But they, like Erdman, want to avoid being part of a restrictive church.

“Presbyterian” by definition means not Lutheran, not Anglican, not Baptist, not Congregationalist, not Quaker, not Methodist. Of course, someone can be not a Baptist in a disagreeable manner. But if the metric for offensiveness is calibrated to the ethos of cosmopolitan urban centers, the bar for giving offense was just set really low.

How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?

Imagine if the Presbytery of New York Had Apologized for Fosdick

Readers may have heard that Max Lucado, who seems to have avoided controversy until now in the post-Ferguson state of American evangelicalism, preached at the National Cathedral. And then he became for the Cathedral was Tim Keller was for Princeton Seminary. Lucado had preached a sermon in 2004 in which he asserted that homosexuality was sinful. (The people who run the Cathedral don’t have computers with search engines?). He issued a clarification after this news came to light and apologized for hurtful words. (This is a fuller account.) But that was not enough and so the Dean of the Cathedral and the Episcopal Church’s D.C. bishop have issued an apology for letting this evangelical pastor preach in their pulpit:

I would like to apologize for the hurt caused in inviting Max Lucado to preach at Washington National Cathedral, and for not heeding the appeals that came to Dean Hollerith and me prior to Sunday, February 7 asking us to reconsider. I didn’t take the time to truly listen to your concerns. In a desire to welcome a wide variety of Christian voices to the Cathedral pulpit and on the assumption that Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004, I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home. I am sorry.  

In the days since, I have heard from those who were not only wounded by things Max Lucado has said and taught, but equally wounded by the decision to welcome him into the Cathedral’s pulpit. I didn’t realize how deep those wounds were and how unsafe the world can feel. I should have known better.

More than apology, we seek to make amends. As a beginning, we invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me for a listening session on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST. 

Back in the day, liberal Protestants were not so squeamish about giving offense:

In response to the assembly mandate of 1923, Coffin and his modernist allies in the New York Presbytery addressed the Fosdick situation. In February the Presbytery adopted a report that essentially exonerated Fosdick of any wrongdoing and proposed no change in his status. If this were not enough to ruffle conservative feathers, two other events further agitated the situation. First, in June 1923 the New York Presbytery voted to license two Union students, Henry P. Van Dusen and Cedric O. Lehman, who refused to affirm the truth of the virgin birth. Then, on 31 December 1923, Dr. Henry van Dyke, former pastor of the Brick street Church in New York and then a professor at Princeton University, publicly relinquished his pew at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton because of disagreement with the preaching of Machen, who was serving gas stated supply preacher of First Church. (Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 100)

The rest is history. Van Dusen went on to preside over Union Seminary in New York City during the heady days of Reinhold Niebuhr’s greatness.

Machen Death Day (2021)

This unprecedented decline in literature and art is only one manifestation of a more far-reaching phenomenon; it is only one instance of that narrowing of the range of personality which has been going on in the modern world. The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man. The tendency is most clearly seen in socialism; a socialistic state would mean the reduction to a minimum of the sphere of individual choice. Labor and recreation, under a socialistic government, would both be prescribed, and individual liberty would be gone. But the same tendency exhibits itself today even in those communities where the name of socialism is most abhorred. When once the majority has determined that a certain regime is beneficial, that regime without further hesitation is forced ruthlessly upon the individual man. It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although “welfare” is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.

… The truth is that the materialistic paternalism of the present day, if allowed to go on unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge “Main Street,” where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens. God grant that there may come a reaction, and that the great principles of Anglo-Saxon liberty may be rediscovered before it is too late! But whatever solution be found for the educational and social problems of our own country, a lamentable condition must be detected in the world at large. It cannot be denied that great men are few or non-existent, and that there has been a general contracting of the area of personal life. Material betterment has gone hand in hand with spiritual decline.

Such a condition of the world ought to cause the choice between modernism and traditionalism, liberalism and conservatism, to be approached without any of the prejudice which is too often displayed. In view of the lamentable defects of modern life, a type of religion certainly should not be commended simply because it is modern or condemned simply because it is old. On the contrary, the condition of mankind is such that one may well ask what it is that made the men of past generations so great and the men of the present generation so small. In the midst of all the material achievements of modern life, one may well ask the question whether in gaining the whole world we have not lost our own soul. Are we forever condemned to live the sordid life of utilitarianism? Or is there some lost secret which if rediscovered will restore to mankind something of the glories of the past? (Christianity and Liberalism)

Machen Day 2020

Ages well.

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” (Patton, in the introduction to William Hallock Johnson The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlight, [1916], p. 7.) Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. (1-2)

How not to Be an Erdman

Aside from being Machen’s nemesis, Charles Erdman was the son of a premillenialist and holiness Presbyterian evangelist who had close ties to Dwight Moody and the Keswick Conference (which stressed holiness as the biblical norm for sancification). Charles was also one of the editors of the series of pamphlets that historians associate with the origins of the fundamentalist movement. The Fundamentals were published between 1910 and 1915 and promoted some of the emphases that became associated with the 1920s opponents of theological liberalism. From all appearances, Erdman had “conservative” credentials. For historians who know very little about Old School Presbyterianism or the Princeton Theology, the spat between Erdman and Machen made no sense and so must have been the product of personal differences (read Machen’s idiosyncrasies). Why Princeton hired a premillennial professor of practical theology is another question.

For the pamphlet series, Erdman drew the straw to write on “The Church and Socialism,” not what you’d expect from a PT prof or a premillennialist. Here is part of what Erdman wrote:

This protest of Socialism is a call to the Church to proclaim more insistently the social principles of Christ. This does not mean the adoption of a so-called “social gospel” which discards the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and substitutes a religion of good works; but a true Gospel of grace is inseparable from a Gospel of good works. . . .

This protest of Socialism demands of the Church a more consistent practice, on the part of her members, of the social teachings of Christ. It is easy to bring false charges against Christians; it is even customary today to hold the Church up to ridicule and scorn as a society of hypocrites untrue to their professions and their Lord. It is not necessary to even consider these accusations which spring from ignorance or prejudice or spite. The great masses of Christians are striving to be faithful and seeking to live well-pleasing to their Master. However, it is true that there are some in the Church who are consciously guilty of sins against society, and others who, because of the difficulty of the questions involved, excuse themselves on the ground that their wrong practices are necessitated by the industrial system of the age. Some are quite comfortable under w what they regard as orthodox preaching, even though they know their wealth has come from the watering of stocks and from wrecking railroads, and from grinding the faces of the poor. . . .

The protest of Socialism is a distinct call to the Church to define anew to herself her function, and to interpret anew the prophecies of her Lord.
There are many who, in the name of Christianity, have been promising a new social order, a kingdom of God, which they declare the Church will
introduce. The long continued failure to realize these promises has led to criticisms of the Church, and has done not a little to increase the bitterness of socialistic attacks upon her. The Church is now being held responsible for social sins and injustice, for the wrongs and grievances of the age; and for this unfortunate position she must largely blame herself. She has arrogated functions which are not her own; she has made promises for which there is no written word of Scripture. It should be remembered, for instance, that the state is quite as purely a divine institution as is the Church. It is for the state to secure social reconstruction when necessary; it is for the state to punish offenders, and to secure by legal enactments and legislative processes the abolition of abuses, and the establishment of justice. When the Church assumes functions belonging to the state, she involves herself in needless difficulties and places herself in a false position before the world. . . . but the real blessedness of the Church and of the world awaits the personal return of Christ. The hope of the world is not in a new social order instituted by unregenerate men; not a millennium made by man; not a commonwealth of humanity organized as a Socialistic state; but a kingdom established by Christ which will fill the earth with glory at the coming of the King.

That is an odd mix of progressive politics, spirituality of the church, and premillennialism.

That contrasts with what Machen wrote about socialism for the Christian Reformed Churches, The Banner, in an exchange about the Child Labor Amendment:

What, at bottom, is the difference between the ethics of socialism and the ethics of Christianity? In some ways the two look very much alike. Both are seeking to relive creature distress; and both require men of wealth, at least under certain circumstances, to give up their wealth and become poor. But the socialist seeks to accomplish that by force, and the Christian seeks to accomplish it by love. There lies the profound difference. The socialist says to the man who possesses this worlds’s goods: “We intend to compel you to distribute your wealth as we see fit: we should regard ourselves as degraded if we received it from you as a gift, but we intend to take it from you by force.” The Christian, on the other hand, says to the man of wealth, or rather to the man who has any amount, large or small, for this world’s good: “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver; will you not have compassion upon those less fortunate than yourself; and will you not take any possible sting of degradation from the receivers of such a gift by letting your gift be prompted truly by love?” I think there is a deep-seated conflict between these two views of life; I do not think that that conflict between them can permanently be concealed. (“Voices in the Church,” 391-92)

Liberalism 201

From the April 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

What does it mean to be conservative in the United States? According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, being conservative has to do with the maintenance of “existing views, conditions, or institutions.” Conservatism’s synonyms are “traditional,” “moderate,” and “cautious” with respect to older norms of “taste, elegance, style, or manners.” This is all well and good, but such a definition, from an American dictionary no less, does not help much with the American form of conservatism. The reason is that, American exceptionalism aside, the United States is a novel phenomenon in the course of human history. Of course, antecedents for our form of government exist in ancient Greece and Rome. But the United States as they (anti-federal emphasis ours) emerged in the late eighteenth-century were hardly conservative since they abandoned the two institutions that had preserved some semblance of cultural and political order in the West since at least the fifth century, namely, crown and church. What is more, the freedoms won in the American colonies’ war for independence were also fairly novel from a European perspective – hence the Old-vs.-New-World rhetoric.

THE UNITED STATES GRANTED incredible intellectual, political and economic freedom to its citizens (slavery notwithstanding) and these freedoms were so unusual that in 1899 the papacy, one of those traditional institutions of European social order, condemned Americanism as fundamentally incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching and practice. What Pope Leo XIII regarded as hostile to Catholicism was not so much theological novelty, but the liberal ideology that advocated representative forms of government, free markets and the separation of church and state, an ideology that Pius IX had already condemned in his Syllabus of Errors. In other words, the very old and very traditional institution of the papacy condemned ideas and sentiments that today’s conservatives ironically regard as old and traditional.

THIS IS ANOTHER WAY OF saying that conservatism in the United States is something of an oxymoron. From a historical perspective, our conservatism is really liberalism since it is on the side of the things that nineteenth-century liberals championed – limited government, individual freedom and economic opportunity. This means that watching conservatives trying to deny their liberalism can be very confusing or very amusing.

No doubt, J. Gresham Machen would be another example of American conservatism’s strange ways. In 1926 he testified before the Congress of the United States against the formation of a Federal Department of Education. Machen’s reasons for opposing the proposal stemmed from his politics which were decidedly liberal. They may not have been all that unusual for a southern Democrat, which Machen was. But they must have sounded odd coming out of the mouth of a fundamentalist who during the same month that he appeared before Congress also testified before a committee of the northern Presbyterian Church and there did exactly what he criticized Congress of doing. In his remarks before the church Machen blamed liberalism for the controversy that was dividing Presbyterians and argued that preachers who could not affirm such doctrines as the virgin birth be barred from the Presbyterian communion. For Machen, liberalism was an entirely different religion. But before Congress, instead of blaming liberalism for America’s woes, he did the liberal thing of telling government officials to leave the American people alone.

SO WAS MACHEN GUILTY OF contradicting himself? Does ideological consistency, for instance, require theological conservatives to be conservative in all walks of life, including politics, economics, and culture? Could it even be that Machen’s apparently double-minded performance in 1926 is simply the dark side of conservatism in the United States? What, in fact, Machen’s apparent inconsistency shows is that political and religious liberalism are not synonymous. What is more, it suggests lessons for religious conservatives who think they are political conservatives. Whether the philosophy of limited government is liberal or conservative, it is not the easy road to the good life that many political conservatives think.

Machen’s reasons for testifying before Congress would likely delight the fans of Rush Limbaugh. The Princeton professor opposed the creation of a federal department of education because he opposed any increase in Washington’s powerful bureaucracy. The issue wasn’t education; it was politics. “Let us be perfectly clear about one thing,” he stated, “if liberty is not maintained with regard to education, there is no use trying to maintain it in any other sphere. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else.” Machen thereby established his political identity as a liberal, that is, as one fundamentally committed to the principle of limited government.

Machen’s politics started with the idea that government was a necessary evil. The state’s purpose was not “to produce blessedness or happiness” but rather to prevent “blessedness or happiness from being interfered with by wicked men.” The aim of government, then, was to sustain the good life of individuals and families, rather than making a people into a great nation. In a lengthy passage from an address given before Christian day school teachers and administrators, Machen outlined the political creed of all genuine liberals.

There are certain basic rights of the individual man and the individual family which must never be trampled under foot – never for any supposed advantage of the whole, never because of the supposed necessity of any emergency – certain basic rights like the right of personal freedom, the right of property, the right of privacy of the home, the real freedom of speech and of the press. I believe in the specifically American idea in government – not a nation divided for purposes of administrative convenience into a number of units called states, but a number of indestructible states, each with its inalienable rights, each with its distinctive features, with its own virtues to be cultivated by its own citizens, with its own defects not to be remedied at all unless remedied by its own citizens, and, on the other hand, a Federal government not in possession of any general and unexpressed sovereignty but carefully limited to powers expressly granted it by a Constitution which was not of its own making.

Machen’s commitment to limited government was his chief reason for opposing the proposed federal department of education. Governmental control and regulation of education implied that children “belong to the State, that their education must be provided for by the State in a way that makes for the State’s welfare,” an assumption that undermined the legitimate authority of parents. Protecting the rightful authority of local powers, what Protestants used to call, lesser magistrates, was the other piece of Machen’s commitment to limited government. In other words, he opposed federal intrusion into the affairs of other duly constituted authorities, from families, neighborhoods, and counties, up to the state governments that comprised the United States of America. For this reason, Machen saw in federal programs like a department of education or the Child-Labor Amendment, the same sort of centralization and consolidation of political power that Germany was exhibiting under National Socialism and the Soviet Union under Communism. The American alternative to such efforts was not to centralize and consolidate power in a more progressive fashion, but to avoid centralization altogether and limit national government by dispersing power to a host of local authorities.

OF COURSE, DECENTRALIZING power – what we today call devolution – would mean less uniformity and even less efficiency. But Machen would not blink in the face of these negative consequences. He even went so far as to say that inefficiency and diversity were good things in and of themselves. Although Machen was not at all happy with many of the individual states’ policies, he was far more comfortable with forty-eight governments having a spoon in the pot rather than allowing the federal government to be the sole chef. In fact, he thought there was “a great safeguard” in the multiplicity of local governments. What is more, Machen believed that such multiplicity would foster greater competition, another benefit of decentralization. He held that “there ought to be the most unlimited competition – competition between one state and another.” If such competition led to inefficiency so much the better. Efficiency was no magic wand. Instead, if directed to harmful ends it was equally destructive. As he told senators and congressmen, “a more uniform and efficient system of public common school education . . . is the worst fate into which any country can fall.”

THIS IS A PLACE WHERE contemporary conservatives would likely be uncomfortable with political liberalism since many on the right not only want to reduce the hold of the federal government on educational policy and funding, but also think they know what a good education looks like and desire to see the blessings of such a curriculum extended to all of America. But Machen did not flinch from the consequences of limited government. Local control in the service of liberty meant all people having a say in the way they lived their lives. And this meant a greater chance of diversity in all walks of life. Of course, the distribution of power to local authorities would not work out automatically for the good of the nation. What Machen thought to be in the best interests of America was a wide spectrum of families and local communities determining their own affairs, not the dissolving of familial and regional idiosyncracies for the sake of national interest.

Today, Machen’s views would not make sense to many Calvinists. That’s because they follow the older Puritan view that insists on commonly held convictions being the best way to preserve social harmony, and on true religion as the bedrock for good government. Machen clearly departed from this tradition, and this is partly explained by the legacy of the Puritan conception of government in postbellum America. Ever since the end of the Civil War, northern Protestants had been advocating various ecumenical and interdenominational endeavors in order to work together more efficiently, establish a united Protestant front against the centralized and uniform power of America’s growing Roman Catholic population, and extend the virtues of Anglo-American morality to all classes, races, and regions. But even if such uniformity and power were in Protestant-friendly hands, Machen’s liberal instincts resisted.

If some would accuse Machen of leaving religion out of politics, his defense was that injecting morality into public debates is not the only form religious influence can take. Machen appealed to aspects of theology other than the Decalogue, such as liberty of conscience, the limits of church power, Presbyterian polity, and sphere sovereignty. The Westminster Confession’s teaching on liberty of conscience supplied a hermeneutic of suspicion ever watchful for abuses of power. Even in cases where authority was legitimate, such as in the spheres of the home, church and state, the doctrine of sphere sovereignty implied that these authorities had limits and could not go beyond them. State control of education was a flagrant violation of sphere sovereignty. But so was parochial or church-based schooling since the family was the sole institution responsible for the training of children.

PRESBYTERIAN POLITY WAS another piece in Machen’s political liberalism. Unlike episcopal forms of government, Presbyterians and Reformed locate church power, not in the hands of one officer or bishop, but rather vest it in a series of graded courts, the membership of which consists of pastors and elders holding equal rank. Presbyterian polity protects the rights of lower courts against those of the higher, and contributed to Machen’s wariness of higher courts usurping the powers of local bodies. In other words, Presbyterianism is the form of church government most compatible with such sociological notions as mediating structures or the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. The idea behind both concepts is that large structures like those of centralized government are clumsy if not ruthless in addressing the variety of circumstances and problems of ordinary individuals, families, congregations and communities. Accordingly, the state should not perform tasks which other institutions and communities can perform for themselves. In the words of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

IRONICALLY, IT HAS BEEN Roman Catholics in the twentieth century, those who affirm an infallible centralized authority, who have done the most to explore the political implications of subsidiarity. In contrast, twentieth-century American Protestants, whose very denominational diversity vindicates the principle of subsidiarity, lament their lack of uniformity and pine for a Protestant pope who will give them the order and stability necessary for greater influence.

Be that as it may, a commitment to liberalism in the classic political sense need not mean an equal commitment to individualism. One of the reasons why Machen’s liberalism fails to resonate with contemporary Calvinists is that they do not see how his politics are rooted in the notion of legitimate authority. It was not that Machen believed all governmental power was always harmful. Rather, it was when government overreached its proper bounds that Machen expressed alarm. The real problem with the growth of the centralized power is that it breeds individual rights. The tension of modern politics is not between individuals and the compelling interest of the state. Instead, as Mark C. Henrie argues, the power of the state has risen in direct proportion to growth of individual rights. “For the rights that have been ‘recognized’ by the modern liberal state are not so much rights against the state as they are rights against other social bodies that used to have some measure of authority in the lives of men and women.” Machen’s plea for liberty, in fact, was an argument for the freedom of legitimate authorities to exercise power in their proper spheres. For him it was the essence of paternalism to let government do good things that involved it in spheres where it should not go.

THE LESSONS OF MACHEN’S liberalism are many. But the one that sticks out during a presidential primary season when neo-Calvinists are jumping on the George-W.-Bush bandwagon because of his born-again experience and their own biblical convictions is that it’s okay for religious conservatives to be liberal. This is another way of saying that theology does not determine politics, especially if we keep in mind that theology is a little more than morality. World magazine recently received the brush off from the Times’, William Safire, for the publication’s hatchet-job of John McCain. Marvin Olasky, who edits World and serves as an advisor to Bush, lamely responded that World covers the news from a “biblical perspective.” This means, “among other things, that we take personal morality seriously.” But so does William Safire who thought World’s coverage was immoral. Could it be that a biblical perspective on politics would attend to such matters as scale, power, economics, and self-interest, not just the Sixth Commandment (i.e. abortion) and the Seventh Commandment (i.e. drunkenness and Cindy McCain’s stock in Anheuser Busch)? Machen’s politics would surely indicate so. But as long as religious conservatives continue to evaluate candidates and issues simply through a moral squint, they provide positive proof, contrary to their own assertion, that religion is irrelevant to all areas of life. Morality may, but the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, providence, and eschatology do not have much to say about NAFTA, HMO’s or NATO.

IRONICALLY, BY REDUCING Christianity to ethics, today’s religious right turns out to offer little more than the old religious left which performed a similar reductionism in its effort to shape American public life and show the relevance of Christianity.

Liberalism is a hard subject to learn.

Townsend P. Levitt

Liberalism 101

From the January 2000 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal:

On June 24, 1936, the Christian Century reported that with the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen had finally come “very close to the place where he will find peace in no church except one of his own making.” Among the reasons for the Century’s condescension was the fact that the OPC had been formed because of modernism in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s Board of Foreign Missions. According to the Century, anyone who could possibly detect apostasy in the “operations of a missions board administered by such men as Robert E. Speer [and] John Mackay” should finally have done with the PCUSA. The point being that the likes of Speer and Mackay were so honorable and men of such character that they could never countenance the apostate views that Machen deemed modernist.

Surprisingly, the verdict of modern day conservative Presbyterians is similar to that of the Century two generations ago. Of course, today’s conservatives, if they know who Speer and Mackay were, would not judge them to be as good and decent as the editors of the Chicago religious weekly. But they do evaluate liberals in remarkably similar terms: if someone is a moral and decent Christian he can’t be a liberal or apostate. This line of reasoning is especially evident when contemporary Reformed believers conclude that a liberal must have a character on the degenerate order of William Jefferson Clinton because any decent person (who doesn’t beat his wife, gives to the poor, picks up trash) must be a conservative. In other words – to put it succinctly in the parlance of rabid Presbyterianism – liberals are scoundrels. (Which is the flip side of the modernist argument against conservatives – fundamentalists are un-American. Talk about ad hominem.)

THEN HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THE pro-family, love-thy-neighbor tone of the liberals who suspended Machen from ministering in the PCUSA? The very same report in the Century that summarized the proceedings of the General Assembly were Machen was suspended (June 17, 1936) also carried word that with the conclusion of the fundamentalist controversy the Presbyterian Church could turn to more pressing issues of social welfare. Among the items on the PCUSA’s agenda were the “evils” of Hollywood and alcohol. The church’s standing committee on social welfare was particularly alarmed that the movie industry “seems to have joined hands with the liquor traffic in portraying drinking scenes which tend to give young people the impression that these practices have general social approval.” The church also reaffirmed its commitment to “abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages as the Christian ideal” and to “the progressive control and eventual elimination of the liquor traffic.”

BUT WHILE THE POWER OF liquor interests was “brazen” and “unparalleled,” at least the Century could find a few good words about Hollywood, which it supplied regularly in its weekly column, “The New Films,” which rated the latest movies and made recommendations for family viewing. For instance, here’s the capsule summary of “Border Flight,” a 1936 thriller, starring John Howard and Frances Farmer: “Crudely portrays coast guard’s heroic airplane fights against smugglers. Much thrill, mediocre acting, absurd character values. Villain, completely obnoxious throughout, becomes heroic suicide and wins what sympathy is left.” For “intelligent adults,” the Century’s reviewer deemed it “crude. For ages 15 to 20, “Poor.” And for children under 15, “Poor.” Later in the column the author recommended for family viewing “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Show Boat,” and “Dancing Pirate.” Villains must not be so bad if their nimble on their feet.

To change the old adage, with liberals like this, who needs friends? So ingrained is the habit of thinking defective theology and loose morals go together that many contemporary conservative Presbyterians would be shocked to see how family-friendly institutions the Century and PCUSA were and still are. That’s because some conservatives have never thought carefully about the relationship between theology and practice. Instead, they have assumed that right practices automatically follow from orthodoxy and hence that anyone with questionable doctrine is invariably wicked. Which is only another way of saying that conservative Presbyterians fundamentally misunderstand liberalism. Hence the need for some remedial instruction.

THE BEST BOOK ON LIBERALISM in the United States is still William R. Hutchison’s Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976). And Hutchison gives a handy definition that should be particularly useful for conservative Presbyterian types. Simply put, liberalism is any modification of received orthodoxy. Typically, the doctrinal changes advocated by liberals run along the lines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and Christian exclusiveness. But in America, liberalism made its biggest splash when Unitarians denied the deity of Christ. This is why Hutchison begins his study of modernism with a chapter on Unitarianism.

But for Hutchison liberalism does not equal modernism, and here is where this introductory course becomes tricky. Modernists advocated the self-conscious adaptation of Christianity to modern society by appealing to the doctrine of God’s immanence and by locating God’s presence in the unfolding of western civilization, which for them was the kingdom of God. Though modernism and liberalism clearly overlap, one need not believe in adapting Christianity to culture to be a liberal. Some liberals, Hutchison points out, were deeply suspicious about developments in modern society. Modernism, then, is a subset of liberalism. And as Hutchison also shows, the sorts of liberals that J. Gresham Machen was battling in the 1920s were actually modernists. They were not doctrinaire liberals. Instead, they were intent on being all things to all people (well, at least all WASPs ) for the sake of maintaining a Christian culture.

JUST AS SUBTLE AS THE distinction between modernism and liberalism is the apologetical nature of liberalism. Typically conservatives think that a liberal is someone who has denied the faith and that such denials are easy to spot. Having grown up in a fundamentalist home, I can well remember visiting preachers haranguing liberals for denying the deity of Christ, the virgin birth – the list goes on – the way that Hell’s Angels did. Liberals came across as scary people, sort of like witches or Democrats, folks who not only could not be trusted but were vicious, mean and calculating. But the classic work on liberalism, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, assumes the best, not the worst, about the Protestant left. Modern science, technology, and culture had all made historic Christian teaching implausible. And so liberals, seeking to save Christianity, rescued “certain general principles of religion,” the so-called “essence of Christianity.” This was the same verdict of H. L. Mencken who wrote, modernists, “no doubt with the best of intentions,” have “tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion and yet, preserve a pious cast of mind.” The Baltimore sage thought it a “vain enterprise.” But it was still an attempt to defend Christianity against its culture despisers.

AND IT IS THIS APOLOGETICAL side of liberalism that confounds so many conservatives. If liberalism is pernicious – which it is ultimately – how can it be credited with doing anything honorable? The answer to that question is fairly obvious when you keep in mind that there is another option available – it is to reject Christianity outright and become an atheist or pagan. But typically conservatives treat all non-conservatives as if they are atheists or pagans, forgetting that there is a middle ground, no matter how flawed, inconsistent or dishonest it is. Which is just to say that there is a huge difference whether you have a member of a Satanic cult, a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or a member of the Episcopal church living next door. Eternally all three persons may be heading for the same place, but here and now the Episcopalian would be more likely to take in the mail when you’re out of town, let the gas meter reader in without stealing the high fi, or feed the cat without strangling her. So the question, “how can people deny orthodoxy with good intentions?” invites the obvious answer, “well, duh.” Everyday when we cross intersections, balance check books, or buy bread, we assume that other drivers, bank clerks, and bakers, who may not hold orthodox views of the atonement or the inscripturation of God’s word, will not try to destroy us, our property or our reputations. Why would liberals be any different?

The decent and honorable intentions of liberals also helps to explain why liberalism is hard to spot. In his book on the Presbyterian controversy of the early twentieth century, Presbyterian Pluralism (1997), the sociologist William Weston claims that the PCUSA contained no full-blown modernists. Instead, the church only had the milder sort, evangelical liberals. And this was the same conclusion that the Special Commission of 1925, appointed to study the cause of the fundamentalist controversy. No one in the church was denying Christianity outright. But whoever said that liberals did that? It’s as if Madeline Murray O’Hair defines liberalism and since Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an atheist he must have been evangelical, though a little light in the divinity-of-Christ loafers. Liberalism, like life, is a lot subtler than that. Liberals try to have it both ways – being Christian without being orthodox. But they don’t want to abandon Christianity.

OF COURSE, THE HARD PART IS determining whether they have left the faith. This is hard because a liberal affirmation of the faith usually employs evasive language. But ethical considerations will not yield any greater clarity because liberals are generally such upright people, the kind who see villainy everywhere, from tobacco to racism.

J. Gresham Machen had no trouble recognizing the high ethical standards of liberal Protestantism. In fact, that is how he explained their inability to account for the apostle Paul’s invective against the Judaizers. “What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been,” Machen could hear a run of the mill liberal saying, “if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances.” But this excessive interest in making people moral is also what prompted Machen’s devastating critique. Instead of taking comfort in the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount as liberals were wont to do, as if successful Christian living hinged on determining what Jesus would do, Machen thought Christ’s ethical teaching only produced despair. “In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be,” Machen wrote, “we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” The problem with liberals, then, wasn’t their disregard for Christian morality. It was that their high regard of human nature.

BUT IF MACHEN WAS HARD ON liberals for denying historic Christian teaching about sin and grace, he did not stoop to calling them villains. He believed it a Christian duty to sympathize with anyone who had lost their “confidence in the strange message of the cross.” What is more, despite their deep and abiding differences, he thought conservatives still shared “many ties – ties of blood, ties of citizenship, of ethical aims of humanitarian endeavor” with those who had abandoned the gospel. Believers even had a good deal to learn from non-believers and should treat those who differed from them with respect. Socrates and Goethe were not Christians but still towered “immeasurably above the common run of men.” And the reason for this respect was the gospel. “If he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than [non-believers], he is certainly greater not by any inherent superiority, but by the virtue of an undeserved privilege which ought to make him humble rather than contemptuous.”

So instead of piling on liberals and attributing all manner of wickedness to their theological equivocation, a basic lesson is in order: to paraphrase Neuhaus’ Law, Where Orthodoxy Is Optional, Righteousness Will Sooner Or Later Be Proscribed.

Allen Rich

The Steel Trap of the Liberal Presbyterian Mind

Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.

A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:

A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.

Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:

We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)

That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:

In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)

Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.

Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”

So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.

Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)

The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.