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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Saving the World

One light show at a time.

In case you missed it, the Vatican celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (yesterday) with a light show:

A mixture of fascination, curiosity and consternation is greeting a light show to be projected onto St. Peter’s basilica tomorrow — the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the opening day of the Jubilee of Mercy.

A coalition of non-Catholic humanitarian, philanthropic and conservation groups along with the World Bank are staging the event. It will be the first time ever that images will be projected onto the 17th century basilica’s façade and Michelangelo’s cupola.

The organizers say the three hour event, called “Fiat Lux, Illuminating Our Common Home”, will tell the “visual story of the interdependency of humans and life on earth with the planet, in order to educate and inspire change around the climate crisis across generations, cultures, languages, religions and class.”

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, called the event “unique” and said the illumination show “will present images inspired of Mercy, of humanity, of the natural world, and of climate changes.”

He added that the light show, whose images have been shown on various landmarks around the world, is meant to link Pope Francis’ environment encyclical Laudato Si’ with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) currently underway in Paris until Friday.

“It is our hope that this beautiful and contemporary work of public art will inspire citizens of the world to join together in a moment of compassion and to activate a global movement to protect humankind, our common home and precious endangered species,” said Carole Tomko, vice president of Vulcan, Inc., one of the groups sponsoring the event and which promotes initiatives to “change and improve the way people live, learn, do business and experience the world.”

Some conservative Roman Catholics have taken a page from Protestant iconoclasm and regard such a use of holy buildings as sacrilege:

The sense that St. Peter’s Basilica has been profaned is strong. The symbolic significance of the event is a Church immersed in darkness, but illuminated by the world, by the new climatist-religion-ideology (all financed by the World Bank Group which will now have to explain to us what politics compatible with the teaching of the Church it is promoting..)

The holy place par excellence, the heart of Christianity transformed on a maxi-screen for the show of the New World Power Ideology …and the Nativity Crib was left in darkness.

It does make you wonder what salvation means. If improving the environment can save the world, then what happened to the cross of Christ and the sacraments? Could it be that hell is empty (and will remain so) and so the church can now devote itself to more humanitarian and less heavenly causes? Did Balthasar really win at Vatican 2 as Commonweal suggests? Before Vatican 2, Rome was pretty clear where unbelievers went at death:

Any sin, for Augustine, is an unspeakable offense against God; particularly offensive was the sin of the first man who was singularly graced with an intimate “enjoyment of God” and who stood as the progenitor of the human race. His impiety in abandoning God was so great that it “merited eternal evil” in consequence of which “the whole of mankind is a ‘condemned mass’ [massa damnata]; for he who committed the first sin was punished, and along with him all the stock which had its roots in him.” According to Augustine, no one has the right to criticize that retribution as unjust, and the fact that some are released from it through the free bounty of God is ground for heartfelt thanksgiving.

The same severe doctrine of hell has been affirmed time and again in official church documents. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 declared that, at the end of time, “all will receive according to their deeds, good or evil, the former to their everlasting glory with Christ, the latter to perpetual punishment with the devil.” In his constitution of 1336, Benedictus Deus, Benedict XII solemnly defined that “the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down immediately after death into hell and suffer the pain of hell.” The Council of Florence in 1442 maintained that “not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics and schismatics” are precluded from salvation for they “will enter into eternal fire” unless they embrace the Catholic Church before their death. Similar declarations on hell and salvation were issued by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Vatican I reinforced them in the nineteenth century. Vatican II did not revisit the solemn definitions of hell by earlier councils, but it did at least affirm that, yes, atheists can be saved.

But that changed when Balthasar and Kung met Barth:

Like Barth and Balthasar, Hans Küng too comes close to proposing universal salvation. And like them, he enlists the virtue of hope to support the idea. In his book Eternal Life, Küng’s critical discussion of hell begins with Jesus’s own words about hell, which, according to Küng, were figurative rather than literal: terms in the New Testament pertaining to final judgment—words like “hell,” “eternal,” ‘fire”—are to be taken as metaphors warning sinners of the delicate edge they’re dancing on. They are “meant to bring vividly before us here and now the absolute seriousness of God’s claim and the urgency of conversion in the present life,” Küng writes. No one should dismiss his or her responsibility to meet the demands of conversion, but how each of us meets them “remains a matter for God as merciful judge” in his “all-embracing final act of grace.” Like Balthasar, Küng maintains that judgment of the individual is in God’s hands; it would be “presumptuous for a person to seek to anticipate the judgement of this absolutely final authority. Neither in the one way nor in the other can we tie God’s hands or dispose of him. There is nothing to be known here, but everything to be hoped.”

Barth, Balthasar, and Küng all agonize over the question of universal salvation, which they treat not just as a theological puzzle but as a genuine mystery. Because we cannot answer the question with absolute certainty, it finally has to be left—in humility and hope—to the judgment of a loving God. This is as much of an affirmation as they dare to make.

What these three theologians show us, however, is that hope is a powerful virtue and not just a matter of wishful thinking. Hope always has its reasons, even earthly hopes. In the everyday sense of the word, a doctor’s skill is reason for his patient to hope for a cure, a worker’s good job performance a reason for her to hope for a promotion—though such hopes, subject to human limitations, can be disappointed. In the economy of salvation, however, the reason for hope is nothing less than the divine will—profoundly declared in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The clarity of this scriptural passage on God’s will reassures not only Christians but all mankind that our hope for salvation will be fulfilled—without exceptions.

But if U.S. parochial schools can reconsider their mission, maybe the Vatican can find it’s pre-Vatican 2 self:

“We don’t open Catholic schools to get kids into college,” Guernsey said. “We open Catholic schools to get them into heaven.”

Can We Get a Little Moral Clarity Here?

In the light of Newt Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls, let’s see how the fortunes of the Religious Right are developing:

A weak week ago Mitt Romney was leading in the polls and some even talked about his sowing up the nomination after South Carolina and Florida.

Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife did an interview this week in which details of Newt’s infidelities were in full view.

South Carolina may be the most evangelical state in the union, prompting some to call for Christians to migrate to the Palmetto State.

Today, pundits are calling the South Carolina Republican primary a toss-up between Gingrich and Romney, despite Romney’s obvious practice of family values and Gingrich’s marital past.

So where does this lead? First, evangelicals rally behind Tim Tebow who disregards the fourth commandment. Second, evangelical leaders tried to identify Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic who doesn’t even number the Ten Commandments (let alone interpret them) as evangelicals do (or used to). Now, apparently some evangelicals are willing to overlook the seventh commandment in favor of a conservative Republican.

I personally don’t care how evangelicals vote. Voting is not an act of devotion and is a matter of Christian liberty. But I do grow weary of the constant refrain of faith’s importance for politics when it is so obviously untrue, when a paucity of political ideas forces believers to wrap politics in Christian language. All of us are hypocrites. But not all of us make such a big deal of calling attention to our hypocrisy. If the Religious Right wants the rest of America to take them seriously, they need to acknowledge and explain their selectivity. I have advice — adopt 2k theology which means that you recognize the fallenness of the world and its politicians and so make the best of a bad situation. But if you’re going to insist that religion forms the only adequate basis for morality, and if you’re going to demand political candidates who have a faith that produces the kind of character needed for holding public office, then you better have a ready explanation for your vote for candidates who openly violate the Ten Commandments.

And it would also be good to explain how your identification of political acts with Christian devotion is not a violation of the First Commandment. Admittedly, Karl Barth had his problems as an interpreter of the Reformed tradition. But he certainly recognized the damnable error of investing political parties with religious significance (beyond the indefinite meanings supplied by providence).

A Theological Wonder Who Was Wrong about the Church and Sacraments

All Frame and his students all the time this week. Pardon the obsession.

Justin Taylor continues to aggregate with a post about the value of reading Calvin’s Institutes. He includes several quotations from J. I. Packer (though why gospel-co-allies should pay attention to Barth I’m not sure):

The Institutes is one of the wonders of the world.

Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of the 20th century, once wrote: “I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”

Packer explains that Calvin’s magnum opus is one of the great wonders of the world:

“Calvin’s Institutes (5th edition, 1559) is one of the wonders of the literary world—the world, that is, of writers and writing, of digesting and arranging heaps of diverse materials, of skillful proportioning and gripping presentation; the world . . . of the Idea, the Word, and the Power. . . .

“The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world—the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart. . . .

“Calvin’s Institutio is one of the wonders of the theological world, too—that is, the world of truth, faithfulness, and coherence in the mind regarding God; of combat, regrettable but inescapable, with intellectual insufficiency and error in believers and unbelievers alike; and of vision, valuation, and vindication of God as he presents himself through his Word to our fallen and disordered minds. . . .”

This is the problem of contemporary “Calvinism.” It abstracts Reformed theology from Reformed churches and Reformed ministry.

Ironically, Taylor gives as a reason for reading Calvin that “has relevance for your life and ministry.”

It can be read as simply an exercise in historical theology, but it should also be read to further your understanding of God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s ways. Packer writes:

The 1559 Institutio is great theology, and it is uncanny how often, as we read and re-read it, we come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates. You never seem to get to the book’s bottom; it keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith.

Does Taylor really mean to suggest that reading Calvin might lead to baptizing infants and joining a presbytery? I doubt it.