From What Machen Tried to Spare American Protestants

Walter McDougall reminds of the synergy between progressive theology and progressive politics:

Historians disagree on how to date and define the Progressive Era except to say it had everything to do with reform.[16] By the 1890s it was apparent that American institutions couldn’t cope with the modern problems thrown up by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, including corporate trusts, labor strife, corruption, big city machines, public health, women’s rights, and more. To elites in the academy, government, business, and the clergy it seemed the modern solution to those modern problems was scientific management by credentialed experts. As one scholar put it, “The Progressives believed in a … national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”[17]

Note the words “believed in,” “contempt,” “social evils,” and “real enemy.” We think of Progressivism as a secular movement inspired by the natural and social sciences of that era. Why then does a language of faith and good vs. evil come so easily to the historian of Progressivism and why does it go unnoticed by most readers? The short answer is that secularism is a myth or, to put it another way, if you don’t believe in sectarian religion you will believe in some species of civil religion.

For a hundred years after 1789 Americans were not conscious of a potential conflict between their mostly Protestant faith and their civil faith because the former encouraged republican virtue and the latter ensured free exercise of religion. But under the stress of the Civil War and the onslaught of modernism (Charles Darwin first published in 1859) the main-line Protestant churches surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible, and surrendered cultural authority to … the Progressives! That is why, in the words of my colleague Bruce Kuklick, “We should associate Progressivism most with the rise of a more relaxed Protestantism in higher education after the Civil War.” Ivy League universities, new ones like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, and land-grant universities devoted themselves to secular research on the German model, and the knowledge generated in science and engineering, sociology, political science, and economics easily persuaded politicians that cultural authority must pass from the clergy to the intelligentsia, who knew how to “manage God’s universe for the benefit of mankind.”[18]

Progressives meant to break up capitalist concentrations of power and wealth, purge federal, state, and municipal governments of corruption, and protect and empower the people. We know their accomplishments including trust-busting, the Pure Food and Drug Act, civil service reform, the income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve bank, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition. But these were also the heyday of Jim Crow laws. There was no contradiction in that because the science and social science of that era endorsed racial hierarchy, Social Darwinism, and “the propriety of American imperialism.”[19]

What has all that to do with “a more relaxed Protestantism”? The answer lies in the parallel Social Gospel movement whose preachers imagined their modern spirituality was the counterpart to modern science. “The law of progress is the same in both,” said Lyman Abbott, whose “applied Christianity” blessed philanthropic cooperation with Progressive government. The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and City of God.[20] It stressed collective reform over personal salvation. It made peace with evolution, put its faith in progress, and imagined good government could perfect society over time. In Walter Rauschenbusch’s exultation, “The social gospel registers the fact that for the first time in history the spirit of Christianity form a working partnership with real social and psychological science.”[21]

The origins of liberal theology are legion: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, discoveries in geology and paleontology that seemed to debunk the Genesis account of Creation, psychological theory that seemed to debunk the concept of sin, and technological wonders that seemed to leave nothing beyond mankind’s reach. In the intellectual universe of liberal pastors Christ ceased to be a redemptive messiah and became a prophet of social uplift. Some post-millennialists even believed America was called to build a literal heaven on earth in preparation for the Second Coming and thousand-year reign of the saints.

The American Civil Religion implications of the Progressive Social Gospel were profound.[22] The cross got confused with the flag, which preachers like Josiah Strong and politicians like Beveridge made into a veritable fetish. “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner … for liberty and civilization are God’s promises fulfilled, and the flag must henceforth be the symbol and sign to all mankind.”[23] William Guthrie, a University of Chicago professor, even preached a “religion of Old Glory” and “evolutional view of good and evil,” even prophesying the Stars and Stripes would become “the flag of a Federation of Nations” and “the Ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”[24]

In sum, the Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with the civil religion. Their offspring was a newly Progressive ACR that no longer preached virtue, prudence, humility, and self-reliance, and instead preached power, glory, pride, and paternalism at home and abroad.

Reading McDougall (and Machen) gives a new meaning to woke.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

If More Rod Drehers Read Machen

Once again, Rod explains the Benedict Option:

Do you think that is generally true about our society and our civilization — that people, whether they are conscious of it or not, and operating in a sauve qui peut (save who you can) panic? To be perfectly clear about the Ben Op: it is based on the idea that Christianity itself within the West is facing this state of affairs, and that believing Christians, therefore, have to build new structures and reinforce old ones to last through the religious crash that is already happening.

If Rod had read Machen and knew anything about the 1920s contest within U.S. Protestantism over modernism, he would know that some Christians were thinking the West faced a difficult set of affairs — wait for it — a century ago.

Should we really welcome someone who is so late to the party?

If More Anglicans Read Machen

Would they avoid the problem that Alan Jacobs describes here (for Anglicans who read Machen see this)?

What should Anglicans do with a gay couple that wants to have their baby baptized? Jacobs thinks the child should be baptized:

[T]o deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

But how has the enlightening power of grace worked out in the lives of this gay couple which Jacobs admits has disregarded church teaching and Scriptural imperatives on marriage and sex? It hasn’t worked well and that is why Jacobs thinks the problem is not really with the sacrament but with the failure of Anglican catechesis (in effect a failure of ministry that includes baptism and catechesis):

It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.

Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.

So you continue to do what Anglicans have done for a long time — baptize without catechesis? Or do you admit that for baptism to take, it needs the work of instruction in the faith?

[W]e should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live.

Why doesn’t Jacobs see how much his sacramental theology really depends on catechetical theology? Or that the ministry of the sacraments cannot be isolated from a larger understanding of pastoral theology? Is it because he doesn’t want to admit that Puritans had a point about the Elizabethan Church?

What American Jews Might Learn from J. Gresham Machen

Thanks to another of our southern correspondents, we see how even narrowly Protestant concerns may have wider application:

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.

Problem is, Machen wouldn’t have fun with the social justice transformers and postmillennial urbanists that seem to have become the mainstream in the PCA. Would a little Jewish love get him a hearing from the warriors and urbanophiles?

With Friends Like These

Matt Tuininga qualifies and then insinuates:

we cannot simply take Calvin’s thought and apply it to our own time without substantial reflection. Calvin assumed the existence of Christendom. We inhabit a pluralistic society increasingly devoted to secular liberalism. There are self-proclaimed two kingdoms advocates today who would claim the two kingdoms distinction calls us to keep religion and politics entirely separate, as if they are hermetically sealed realms that have nothing to do with each other. Yet such is clearly a distortion of Calvin’s thought, which is decisively rooted in the New Testament’s rich distinction between the present age and the age to come.

Does he have Machen in mind?

In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .

To advance the conversation, why not comment on whether the deaconate should do medicine as Calvin recommended:

The fourth order of ecclesiastical government, namely, the deacons

There have always been two kinds of these in the early Church. One has to receive, distribute and care for the goods of the poor (i.e. daily alms as well as possessions, rents and pensions); the other has to tend and look after the sick and administer the allowances to the poor as is customary. [In order to avoid confusion], since we have officials and hospital staff, [one of the four officials of the said hospital should be responsible for the whole of its property and revenues and he should have an adequate salary in order to do his work properly.]

Concerning the hospital

Care should be taken to see that the general hospital is properly maintained. This applies to the sick, to old people no longer able to work, to widows, orphans, children and other poor people. These are to be kept apart and separate from others and to form their own community.

Care for the poor who are scattered throughout the city shall be the responsibility of the officials. In addition to the hospital for those visiting the city, which is to be kept up, separate arrangements are to be made for those who need special treatment. To this end a room must be set apart to act as a reception room for those that are sent there by the officials..

Further, both for the poor people in the hospital and for those in the city who have no means, there must be a good physician and surgeon provided at the city’s expense…

As for the plague hospital, it must be kept entirely separate.

Instead of looking at the theory (theology), why not look at the circumstances and sciences that have differentiated a host of life’s affairs so that the church and religion is one among many spheres of life? But Lordship of Christ folks think, like Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, that the direct pipeline of Christianity to God trumps most spheres so that Christians have authority in medicine, biology, history, and dog-catching by virtue of — what? — faith.

2kers want answers. Simply repeating inspiring calls to engage the world doesn’t give them.

Machen Helps Keep Law and Gospel Straight

If he were living, he’d also straighten out the obedience boys:

But what ought to be clearly observed is that that Covenant of Works or Covenant of Life did not offer “salvation.” The word “salvation” implies something from which one is saved. Adam was not lost when that Covenant of Life was given him. On the contrary he had knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The Covenant of Works was not given as a way by which a sinner might get rid of his sin and merit eternal life.

Neither was the Mosaic Law given for any such purpose. It was not given to present, even hypothetically, a way by which a sinner, already eternally under the condemnation of sin, could by future perfect obedience merit the favor of God. And Dr. Charles Hodge surely does not regard it as given for any such purpose.

The root error, or one of the many root errors of the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible seems to me to be the utter failure to recognize and make central the fact of the Fall of man. I know that there are salutary inconsistencies in the Scofield Bible. I know that in the notes on the fifth chapter of Romans there is taught, not indeed the orthodox doctrine of imputation, but still some recognition of the universal corruption that has come from Adam’s sin. But by what a back-door even that much of the central Biblical teaching is brought in! As one reads Dr. Scofield’s notes one does not for the most part get the slightest inkling of the fact that anything irrevocable took place when Adam fell. After his Fall man continued to be tested in successive dispensations. See for example the definition of a dispensation which Dr. Scofield gives at the beginning. That is one of the things that seems to me to be so profoundly heretical in this commentary.

It is contrary to the very heart of the Augustinian and Calvinistic view of sin. According to that view — and surely according to the Bible — the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to his posterity. Adam being by divine appointment the representative or federal head of the race. Thus all descended from Adam by ordinary generation are guilty. They are guilty before they individually have done anything either good or bad. They are under the penalty of sin when they are born. Part of that penalty of sin is hopeless corruption, from which, if there is growth to years of discretion, individual transgressions spring. How utterly absurd would it have been therefore for God to offer the Mosaic Law, to such an already condemned and fallen race, as something which, if only obeyed by that already condemned and fallen race, would bring salvation and eternal life!

Hard to love the law when it doesn’t do all that faith in Christ does.