Methodists for Machen

Machen may have been ahead of his time, even before Barth and Brunner:

Half a century ago it seemed to many that the Protestant theological movement usually designated as “modernism” or “liberalism” was finally being overcome and that the only liberals remaining were relics of nineteenth or early twentieth century thought. Of course, many lay persons who had been nurtured on modernism by their pastors and Sunday School curricula had not been exposed to serious critiques of liberalism by younger or more theologically enlightened pastors. Nevertheless, it seemed that the tide had turned. Despite their differences, continental European theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner were giant slayers of liberalism, and it seemed that no one with a sound knowledge of biblical theology and Christian doctrine would take seriously the nostrums of liberalism. Nor did this mean the triumph of fundamentalism, a reaction to liberalism which had begun in the United States of America. The errors of both liberalism and fundamentalism were exposed, and serious Christians were engaged in a recovery of the apostolic and catholic faith albeit according to their own heritage—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, etc.

Today it seems that many so-called mainline Protestants somehow missed the overcoming of liberalism. They consider themselves to be “progressives,” and while their terminology, themes, and concerns are not exactly the same as those of liberals a hundred years ago, progressives are direct descendants of liberals. Their self-chosen moniker of “progressive” indicates a belief in an ideology of “progress” (a predestined future of human aims by human means), which is descended from liberalism. Because of the chastening of liberal thought by the Neo-Reformation theologians like Barth, perhaps many progressives are anxious to profess their allegiance to the authority of scripture and doctrines of the church, but their profession of orthodoxy is belied by key interpretations which convert the meaning of scripture and doctrine which have been characteristic of Christianity from the beginning.

Because of a potential similarity between liberalism and progressivism, it is worthwhile to revisit some of the critiques of liberalism. One of the most famous was Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) published by Macmillan Company in 1923 when Gresham was a New Testament scholar at Princeton University. While Machen was a sophisticated scholar who published many books and articles for peer review, this book was written for the general reader. It was intended to be a manifesto against the dangers of liberalism in order to persuade clergy and laity to defend historic Christianity.

While this book is still well-known in Reformed evangelical circles, it has been largely overlooked by Protestants in mainline Protestant churches. Because Machen was a ecclesiastical activist who was an ally of fundamentalists in the battle against liberals, many Protestants assume that Machen himself was a fundamentalist. He was a conservative Reformed scholar who adhered to the theological school of thought known as the “Princeton theology,” but he was no fundamentalist. The “Princeton theology” is represented by the systematic theology of Charles Hodge and his son and the views of Benjamin Warfield who adhered to the teaching of John Calvin and who advocated for a doctrine of the ‘plenary inspiration” of the scriptures. Machen was critical of most of the features of fundamentalism, such as its millennialism and its advocacy of a few selected ideas they regarded as “fundamentals” rather than a robust adherence to the full Christian creed. While Machen adhered to a particular Reformed version of the faith, in this book he primarily defends the apostolic and catholic faith—or what C.S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity”—against liberalism. It is instructive that he book is titled Christianity & Liberalism, not “Fundamentalism & Liberalism.”

Perhaps one reason that this book has caused offense to mainline Protestants, who think of themselves as broad-minded, is because Machen contends that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. Some of the theologians who were roughly contemporary with Machen also strongly attacked the errors of theological liberalism, but they did not say bluntly that liberalism is contrary to Christianity. In 1907, the Scottish Reformed theologian P. T. Forsyth, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, viewed liberal theology, “the theology that begins with some rational canon of life or nature to which Christianity has to be cut down or enlarged,” as a kind of theology which “works against the preaching of the Gospel.” In 1936, Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, I.1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, e.g. pp. 30-36, declares that “modernism” (or what he came to denote as “Neo-Protestantism”) is a “heresy” which is based on a false foundation but which still has the “form” of Christianity. Machen drew a harder line against liberalism as being in a different category altogether from Christianity. In the first sentence of his book Machen acknowledges that he takes the approach of making a sharp distinction between Christianity and liberalism so that the reader may be aided in deciding for himself between the claims of historic Christianity and liberalism. In all great contests of thought, there is always room for contestants to draw the lines as sharply as possible. After all, the most famous American liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, had already taken the same approach in his polemical speech, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”…

Correcting liberalism takes more than Barthianism.

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Orthodox Presbyterian Lady

At one point in our church life the missus and I were part of a missional work whose name we might have a hand in choosing. To avoid the common and somewhat tired names such as Redeemer or Calvary, I wanted to invoke the name of saints and was thinking especially of a set of Presbyterians with the name John — Muether, Machen, Witherspoon, Knox, and Calvin. To claim their names, I wanted to use Sts. Johns Church, a name that reflected a debt to these Presbyterians and that also acknowledged the Protestant conviction of the sainthood of all believers.

Needless to say, Sts. Johns was an epic fail.

A recent sermon on 2 (two?) John reminded me of this old idea. The epistle begins with this odd construction:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever

Our pastor plausibly argued that this was not an individual communication between the apostle John and a certain woman in the early church. Instead, “lady” was a word synonymous with a congregation or set of congregations in a city. (I also perked up that John referred to himself as an elder — “hey, that’s my office!”)

The last two verses of the epistle also make sense of this rendering of “lady”:

12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your elect sister greet you.

If John were simply writing to one person, then this would be an odd communication to reach the status of canonical writing. And if it were also about one lady, then John was apparently writing to a set of sisters akin to Jane and Cassandra Austen.

So if lady does refer to a church, then it’s time (#metoo) that we put the word to ecclesiastical use.

Machen Did Not Own Slaves

But Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge and Ben Franklin did.

Philip Jenkins helps us cope:

we need to recall that prior to quite modern times – the mid-eighteenth century, say, mainly after 1770 – campaigns against slavery as an institution are sporadic, scarce, and deeply ambiguous. In the Roman world, for instance, anyone who could afford to own slaves did so without qualms. That included the holders of vast landed estates, but also quite small time people whom we might think of as lower middle class. The overwhelming majority of people who left writings that survive into later times were of the class that owned slaves, even if we can’t point to individuals and definitely assert that they did so. Among other people, that statement includes most of the prominent Christians that we know before (say) the sixth century, and most of the Fathers. If we can’t clearly show that a particular individual in that era did not own slaves, then we should assume that they did. . . .

If that statement sounds controversial, let me elaborate. Delving into Patristic literature produces quite a few sentiments that appear hostile to slave holding or the slave trade. But before reading these through the lens of Victorian-era abolitionism, we need to consider other possible interpretations. Generally, such ancient comments demand a humane and decent approach to slavery, rather than its abolition, or the construction of a slave-free society.

Early Christians advocated plenty of things that would, if implemented, have vastly improved the conditions of slaves. Very, very, few advocated the ending of slavery, or even conceived of such a world, except in an apocalyptic or messianic context. Nor do we have much idea of how widely, if at all, such specific recommendations were out into effect.

Now, we can point out here that slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was a very different animal from what existed in the Early Modern Atlantic, and that boundaries between slave and free were much more permeable. Ancient slaves were likely to gain freedom in various ways, and had a great deal of latitude to operate on a fairly independent level. But slaves they were. Should we avoid commemorating or celebrating any ancient thinkers or writers who lived in slave societies, and who presumably participated in that slavery system? Which as I say, was basically all advanced societies in that era.

The same comment about the pervasive impact of slavery would also apply to (for instance) all Islamic societies up to very modern times, and many advanced African communities. The Prophet Muhammad often praised the virtue of liberating slaves, which he cited as an act that gave special pleasure to Allah. We should not read that as a warrant for abolitionism. If we are ever attempted to sidestep Euro-American heroes and heroines and replace them with figures from other civilizations, we would be hard put to avoid slave owners, or people who never thought to confront the slavery they saw all around them.

Either the outrage over the past just started or the outraged need to get out of the history business.

Machen Death Day 2019

I wonder if Timothy Isaiah Cho saw this (or thinks Jewish American who admire Machen are racist):

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.

For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.

You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”

What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.

How did we get here? It is, as you might’ve guessed, a complicated question. In part, it has to do with the fluidity of the terms we use when we talk about being Jewish. Ours, we agree, is not only a religion but also an ethnicity, a confluence that can confuse us into assuming Judaism is big enough for whatever multitude we wish it to contain. It’s not. As inviting as our tradition of dissent and divergent interpretations is, at its core, it is impossible to divorce from the concrete theological foundations on which it rests. Like divine election, for example: Whether you consider the Jews followers of a faith, members of a nation, or both, you can hardly ignore the historical and doctrinal truth that they became whatever they may now be one day long ago at the foothills of a mountain far away, when they accepted the strange burden of becoming God’s chosen children. Considered from a modern, cosmopolitan perspective, it’s an inconvenient truth, which is why you likely won’t hear it discussed very often in op-eds or sermons. Wrestling with the bond that ties us to the Creator is hard; preaching some gauzy nicety about embracing the Other is not.

Don’t get me wrong: I take no inherent issue with progressive values, nor do I believe that they’ve positively no place in Judaism. But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—have no place in religion unless they spring, exclusively and clearly and forcefully, from theology. Otherwise, the City of God and the City of Man become one and the same: a dull and loud place in which no spirit can ever soar.

A Stocking Stuffer?

This book may be too late to order for the date when some western Christians observe, celebrate, or get the day off for Christmas. If so, then be ecumenical and try the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, January 7, one of the few times the old Julian calendar comes in handy. The book is about the Gresham family in Macon and even has the sizzle of War Between the States references. From the publisher’s website:

Invalid teenager Leroy Wiley Gresham left a seven-volume diary spanning the years of secession and the Civil War (1860-1865). He was just 12 when he began and he died at 17, just weeks after the war ended. His remarkable account, recently published as The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet E. Croon (2018), spans the gamut of life events that were of interest to a precocious and well-educated Southern teenager—including military, political, religious, social, and literary matters of the day. This alone ranks it as an important contribution to our understanding of life and times in the Old South. But it is much more than that. Chronic disease and suffering stalk the young writer, who is never told he is dying until just before his death.

Dr. Rasbach, a graduate of Johns Hopkins medical school and a practicing general surgeon with more than three decades of experience, was tasked with solving the mystery of LeRoy’s disease. Like a detective, Dr. Rasbach peels back the layers of mystery by carefully examining the medical-related entries. What were LeRoy’s symptoms? What medicines did doctors prescribe for him? What course did the disease take, month after month, year after year? The author ably explores these and other issues in I Am Perhaps Dying to conclude that the agent responsible for LeRoy’s suffering and demise turns out to be Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a tiny but lethal adversary of humanity since the beginning of recorded time.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accounting for one-third of all deaths. Even today, a quarter of the world’s population is infected with TB, and the disease remains one of the top ten causes of death, claiming 1.7 million lives annually, mostly in poor and underdeveloped countries.

While the young man was detailing the decline and fall of the Old South, he was also chronicling his own horrific demise from spinal TB. These five years of detailed entries make LeRoy’s diary an exceedingly rare (and perhaps unique) account from a nineteenth century TB patient. LeRoy’s diary offers an inside look at a fateful journey that robbed an energetic and likeable young man of his youth and life. I Am Perhaps Dying adds considerably to the medical literature by increasing our understanding of how tuberculosis attacked a young body over time, how it was treated in the middle nineteenth century, and the effectiveness of those treatments.

#woke beware.

Imagine That, Church as Safe Space

Could the Pretty Good Awokening nurture the spirituality of the church? Some of the speakers at the recent evangelical summit on sexual abuse sure made it sound like the church needs to be a place of respite:

These are all scandals that emerged from within the church. But many speakers at the Wheaton summit focused on how to make the church a safe haven from the perils of the outside world, rather than on rooting out harm coming from its own ranks. Beth Moore, a Bible teacher who has become a prominent voice on misogyny and abuse within Christian circles, described her childhood church as a harbor that contrasted with her “unsafe” home. Still, she said, “I have often wondered what a difference it might have made if that safe harbor had not only been a place to hide but a place to heal. What if I’d heard my pastor or my teachers or any of my leaders address what I was going through, call it what it was, say that I wasn’t to blame and not to be ashamed? … What if I’d known I wasn’t alone? What if I’d known there was help?

A safe harbor was all that Machen asked for as a remedy from the abuse of politicized Christianity:

But meanwhile our souls are tried. We can only try to do our duty in humility and in sole reliance upon the Savior who bought us with His blood. . . . whatever solution there may be, one thing is clear. There must be somewhere groups of redeemed men and women who can gather together humbly in the name of Christ, to give thanks to Him for His unspeakable gift and to worship the Father through Him. Such groups alone can satisfy the needs of the soul. At the present time, there is one longing of the human heart which is often forgotten − it is the deep, pathetic longing of the Christian for fellowship with his brethren. One hears much, it is true, about Christian union and harmony and co-operation. But the union that is meant is often a union with the world against the Lord, or at best a forced union of machinery and tyrannical committees. How different is the true unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace! Sometimes, it is true, the longing for Christian fellowship is satisfied. There are congregations, even in the present age of conflict, that are really gathered around the table of the crucified Lord; there are pastors that are pastors indeed. But such congregations, in many cities, are difficult to find. Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes into the Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one finds only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of meditation and power, not with the authority of God’s Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin. Such is the sermon. And then perhaps the service is closed by one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861, which are to be found in the back part of the hymnals. Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God, and sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace. (Christianity and Liberalism)

I hope for the sake of the abused that they find peace and solace in the church, so long as they remember that making the church #woke or prophetic is only to bring the “conflicts of the world” back into the place where souls are looking for comfort.

The Spirituality of Social Justice

Here’s what it feels like to be pro-social justice without actually risking anything:

Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.

The Bible shows believers as holding important posts in pagan governments — think of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.

Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.

One is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.

Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.

However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.

Christians should be involved in government, but most preachers telling you that won’t be involved. Why? It violates the spirituality of the church and confuses the two kingdoms, if church officers to serve in government or testify before legislative bodies.

Churches should encourage political engagement but they won’t take a side between the parties because that would be partisan. And which policies and legislation allow for bi-partisan moderation? If you want police or prison reform you are going to have to work with real politicians who belong to real political parties.

And Christians, including ministers, should speak to matters of injustice even though the Bible doesn’t address social or political realities. “Lift up the poor” and “defend the rights of the oppressed” but don’t ask me how to do it (or also ask why I’m stressing this right now when I wasn’t preaching about this twenty-five years ago).

“Christians cannot pretend.”

Keller’s editorial is part of a pose. He can present himself as one on the side of social justice without ever having to dirty his hands with support for a specific policy or legislator. At least the PCUSA actually passed resolutions in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act. They didn’t do what J. Gresham Machen recommended, which was saying, “yes, drunkenness is a sin, but the church doesn’t have the biblical warrant for declaring federal or state policy.” Keller apparently agrees with Machen about that. He doesn’t agree with Machen’s reluctance to line up behind the crowd.

And speaking of policy, while many are sizing up (some in installments!!!) the MacArthur inspired statement on social justice, practically all the #woke evangelicals have forgotten about the Justice Declaration. That was a 2017 statement about prison reform, co-sponsored by Prison Fellowship and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. (By the way, the Justice Declaration attracted about 3,300 signatures, MacArthur’s about 9,500.)

If you want to pursue social justice, maybe you identify one issue, like prison reform, promote it, stick with it, and keep at it.

Or if you want to look like you are on the right side of social justice, you affirm it but leave the details to practically everyone else who already knows, thanks to the media, politicians, news networks, ESPN, that social justice is a problem.

What value have you added?

When Social Justice is not Gospelly but Theocratickey

Andrew Sullivan via Rod Dreher reveals the categories of liberal society and by implication shows that the Christian advocates of social justice are opposed to sorts of norms and privileges that attend the American system of law and government.

When public life means the ransacking of people’s private lives even when they were in high school, we are circling a deeply illiberal drain. A civilized society observes a distinction between public and private, and this distinction is integral to individual freedom. Such a distinction was anathema in old-school monarchies when the king could arbitrarily arrest, jail, or execute you at will, for private behavior or thoughts. These lines are also blurred in authoritarian regimes, where the power of the government knows few limits in monitoring a person’s home or private affairs or correspondence or tax returns or texts. These boundaries definitionally can’t exist in theocracies, where the state is interested as much in punishing and exposing sin, as in preventing crime. The Iranian and Saudi governments — like the early modern monarchies — seek not only to control your body, but also to look into your soul. They know that everyone has a dark side, and this dark side can be exposed in order to destroy people. All you need is an accusation.

The Founders were obsessed with this. They realized how precious privacy is, how it protects you not just from the government but from your neighbors and your peers. They carved out a private space that was sacrosanct and a public space which insisted on a strict presumption of innocence, until a speedy and fair trial. Whether you were a good husband or son or wife or daughter, whether you had a temper, or could be cruel, or had various sexual fantasies, whether you were a believer, or a sinner: this kind of thing was rendered off-limits in the public world. The family, the home, and the bedroom were, yes, safe places. If everything were fair game in public life, the logic ran, none of us would survive.

And it is the distinguishing mark of specifically totalitarian societies that this safety is eradicated altogether by design. There, the private is always emphatically public, everything is political, and ideology trumps love, family, friendship or any refuge from the glare of the party and its public. Spies are everywhere, monitoring the slightest of offenses. Friends betray you, as do lovers. Family members denounce their own mothers and fathers and siblings and sons and daughters. The cause, which is usually a permanently revolutionary one, always matters more than any individual’s possible innocence. You are, in fact, always guilty before being proven innocent. You always have to prove a negative. And no offense at any point in your life is ever forgotten or off the table.

Perhaps gay people are particularly sensitive to this danger, because our private lives have long been the target of moral absolutists, and we have learned to be vigilant about moral or sex panics. For much of history, a mere accusation could destroy a gay person’s life or career, and this power to expose private behavior for political purposes is immense.

Compare that to Timothy Cho’s use of Machen’s private correspondence:

While this is a private letter between Machen and his mother, the events and actions mentioned in the letter are anything but private. Machen’s stance on segregation is perfectly clear, and this adds an entirely new layer to the narrative about him. He was not simply a stalwart of Reformed and conservative theology, but also a vocal and public defender of segregation and thought negatively of the civil rights of an entire group of fellow image-bearers. His actions had broad institutional and systemic impacts in the seminary and beyond.

When you read Cho and Sullivan side by side, you do understand that Christian social justice advocates are not remotely liberal, not to mention that going out of your way to make someone look bad is not exactly charitable. But when you have a cause just like when you have the Spirit (think Gilbert Tennent), laws and etiquette be damned.

Win a Free Book

Anyone who can guess the author of the following article will receive a copy of On Being Reformed:

Putting the X Back in Xmas

How to make “Jesus the Reason for the Season” – that is the dilemma facing evangelical Protestants. Some, the socially militant ones, insist that Christmas is a holiday by divine right and fight for the public nativity scene in town square, hoping to hide its otherwise nakedness. The evangelistic evangelicals (perhaps a redundancy) hope to use the holiday to reach the lost, taking advantage of banners, plays, or even worship to proclaim the gospel to those nominal Christians who go to church during the holy month of December. But rarely have evangelicals owned up to the commercial nature of modern Christmas celebrations and their part in its commodification. In his recent book, Selling God, R. Laurence Moore shows how the evangelical Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, transformed his downtown Philadelphia department store into a church during Christmas, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world (!!), programs of Christmas carols, and other Christian symbols. According to Leigh Eric Schmidt, whose Consumer Rites parallels Moore’s book on religious consumerism, the nativity scene in Wanamaker’s Grand Court “remained the center-piece” of the store’s Christmas Cathedral, “often spotlighted with a beam of light that looked as if it had come shining down from the heavens.” According to Schmidt, the interplay between the divine gift of God’s only begotten son and the gifts exchanged at Christmas energized Wanamaker’s displays. “Christmas gifts provided a tangible vehicle for connecting with the sacred drama.”

THE PROBLEM WITH ALL evangelical approaches to Christmas, from the crassly commercial to the devoutly evangelistic, is that of begging the question. Is Christ’s birth really about “Christmas cheer,” whether the secular variety of spiked eggnog, jingle bells, and jolly Saint Nick, or the seemingly more dignified joy that comes from gratitude to God for sending his Son to redeem the lost? In other words, should the incarnation make us glad or humble? Any answer to this question should, of course, keep in mind the less sentimental aspects of Christ’s birth, the manger in the stable and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

A better reason for Christmas gloom comes from the Bible’s teaching about the humiliation of the second person of the Trinity in the incarnation. Children reared on the Westminster Shorter Catechism are taught to conceive of Christ’s earthly ministry under the rubric of his humiliation, as distinct from his exaltation. Question 27 reads, “Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?” Answer: “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” What is important to notice is that the birth and death of Christ, and everything in between, compose a single act of God in which he humbled himself by being subject to his own creation in the most humiliating fashion. So what is said about the incarnation applies similarly to the crucifixion, the former being initial, and the latter the culmination of Christ’s suffering.

SINCE BIRTH AND BURIAL ARE part of Christ’s humiliation, they should nurture a similar response from us as Paul says in Phillipians 2. Unfortunately the piety of Christmas is insensitive to this teaching as revealed by the spirit and traditions of the holiday. So instead of celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, the church should look to a more appropriate form of celebration – the regular receiving of the Lord’s Supper, It is the proper alternative to Christmas cheer, consumerism and yuletide indulgence.

INSTEAD OF LINKING THE incarnation to fictional tales about Santa and his elves, the Lord’s Supper unites Christ to real events in the history of Israel, filled with redemptive significance, like the Passover. And rather than forcing new and irrelevant significance on to the narrative to achieve a new market-centered gospel of trade and consumption, the Lord’s Supper explains the true significance of Christ’s coming, namely, to be the sacrifice for the propitiation of God’s wrath. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper produces a reverence and solemnity appropriate for something as awful as the incarnation. Instead of this being a time of gorging and giggling, the Supper’s small portions nurture self-examination, repentance, and faith. One last thing – an important one for Presbyterians and Reformed – the Lord’s Supper is biblically prescribed whereas Christmas is not. As J. Gresham Machen wrote,

the Bible makes no definite provision for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, but provides the most definite and solemn way for the commemoration of his death. . . . Indeed that commemoration of the death of Christ was definitely provided for by Jesus himself. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood,” said Jesus: “this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” In those words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus carefully provided that His church should commemorate His death.

Evangelicals used to cry, “Back to Jesus.” Maybe its time they did by taking up the cross and giving up the manger.

Machen’s Unpardonable Sin

A tweet went out on Sunday that had quotations from a letter that J. Gresham Machen to his mother about the prospects of African-American students moving into the dormitory where he lived at Princeton Seminary. Since Machen was a Southern Democrat who believed in the separation of whites and blacks (what we call racism or white supremacy), he was not thrilled with the prospect. Here is the tweet:

Scott Clark has addressed Machen’s racism here and the way that we view the past, often times, anachronistically, here.

Without taking away from the gravity of this revelation, which I had discovered while researching Machen, which I had also known generally since racism has been so prevalent in U.S. history (why are people shocked by this when we hear constantly that most if not all white people still to this day in the United States, personally or institutionally, are racist, including orthodox believers?), it might be useful for those appalled by the news to take stock and look at the sin of racism in the light of salvation and the gospel.

Some, for instance, might say that David was a sinner whom we still regard highly as a saint. A man guilty of adultery and murder, and standing by the rape of his daughter by his son, David was no model of holiness. But he repented, so we may have reason to think he had a conscience and his spirit responded to a challenge from God (through Nathan).

Machen is different because he never repented. Had he lived until the 1970s, as some Presbyterians in the PCA have done, he might have seen the sinfulness of his ways. But in all likelihood, Machen died guilty of the sin of racism, and unrepentant to boot.

Will Machen not go to heaven for this? Does Christ’s death and resurrection not cover the penalty for sin, even heinous ones like racism? According to the Belgic Confession (Art. 24):

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle says, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approving to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

If the Reformation got justification right, Machen’s sin should still be covered by Christ’s righteousness imputed to him by faith. Indeed, Machen received the covering of Christ’s righteousness because of his faith (assuming he had it), not because he avoided the sin of racism (which he obviously did not avoid). And the active obedience of Christ, imputed to Machen by faith, was one of his great comforts as he lay dying — “no hope without it” was his telegram to John Murray.

Now, if Machen’s critics want to allege that he is not eligible for salvation thanks to his explicit racism, it is a free country. But that will throw a wrench into the works of salvation for most of us since in 100 years or so who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice?