Machen, Golden State, and Social Justice

What binds these three items together? Warrior, as in Machen’s Warrior Children, Golden State Warriors, and Social Justice Warriors.

The average American (unless you are LeBron James) thinks positively of the NBA franchise. If that American is under 30, she likely adds Social Justice to Golden State since both are very popular.

Your average Presbyterian in one of the NAPARC communions, you might think, would add Machen happily to the Golden State Warriors since J. Gresham Machen was arguably the greatest defender of historic Presbyterianism during the twentieth century. And if you are a conservative Presbyterian under 30 you might also want to add Social Justice to Machen and the Golden State team because Social Justice and Golden State are very popular.

But what does the PCA do? It embraces Social Justice and disdains Machen — Golden State is probably agreeable.

Consider that two of the more prominent figures in the PCA during the last twenty years are John Frame, who coined the phrase, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and Tim Keller. Almost everyone knows Frame’s opposition to Machen’s spiritual offspring. Keller less so. Here is part of his take on twentieth-century conservative Presbyterianism:

A more normal result of church splits is the pruning off of branches in a way that both wounds and yet, ironically, does not last. Something of this pattern, I think, can be seen in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Early in its history, after the death of J. Gresham Machen, the OPC went through a split in which its New Side/New School branch left, led by J.Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College and Carl T. McIntire. But, no surprise, by the 1970s the OPC had grown a new ‘pietist/revivalist’ wing under the influence of Jack Miller. The New Life Churches and their Sonship course was classic revivalism, and it did not fit well with the more doctrinalist cast of the OPC. While not a formal split, like that of 1937, the New Life churches were made to feel unwelcome and nearly all left in the early 90s to swell the pietist ranks of the PCA.

Whenever a Reformed church purifies itself by purging itself of one of its impulses, it finds that within a generation or two, its younger leaders are starting to at look in a friendly way toward the lost parts.

With that kind of suspicion about Machen’s Warriors, the liturgy at the PCA’s General Assembly this week was notable:

Notice that last line, the contrast between social justice warriors and servants of the gospel.  The idea that social justice is an extension of critical race theory was one that the curmudgeon, Bill Smith, proposed. Curiously enough, Sean Lucas accused Bill Smith of the genetic fallacy.

And that raises a question of whether Pastor Lucas himself has committed the liturgical fallacy. Does simply praying that Social Justice Warriors need to be celebrated as “servants of the gospel” measure up to the rigors of logic? Simply praying it doesn’t make it so.

But it does seem safe to say that Bill Smith is in Sean Lucas’ head.

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Machen’s Warrior Mother

Another difference between New Calvinists and Reformed Protestants — sentimentality. Tim Challies does his best to present J. Gresham Machen as — we used to call them mama’s boys — the godly Christian son:

Because Gresham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”

God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.

Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life. . . . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”

Tender. Warm. Kind. Compassion. Love. Loyalty. Those are all appealing words and they no doubt capture some of the relationship that Machen had with his mother, Mary Gresham.

But that portrait of the close relationship of mother and son (which those skeptical of Machen’s virtues have used to raise questions about his sexuality) doesn’t prepare New Calvinist admirers for the Warrior Children side of Machen. And to keep the spread sheets properly balanced, the New Calvinists (at least) need to remember how John Frame described the less than appealing side of Machen’s controversial proclivities:

The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.

One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement.

Fighting for the sake of contention is one thing. Fighting for a Reformed church according to the word is another. Many of Machen’s warrior children think they fight for the sake of God’s word. New Calvinists tend to be skeptical, as Frame is, about the extent of battle fronts. They even call Old Calvinists mean and ornery.

As long as New Calvinists also know that Machen had critics who called him mean and ornery, they might avoid sentimentalizing Machen. If they want to sanitize him, they need to explain how Minnie Machen ever let her son become such a controversialist.

An Evangelical Warrior Child

Here is what may be the turning point in John Frame’s development:

PEF (Princeton Evangelical Fellowship) was dispensational in its viewpoint, as Barnhouse was, but Gerstner thought dispensationalism was an awful heresy. I never accepted the dispensational system, but neither could I accept Gerstner’s harshly negative verdict about it. My friends at PEF were godly people who loved Jesus and the Word. We prayed together every day and visited dorm rooms to bring the gospel to fellow students. Princeton was a spiritual battleground, and the PEF folks were my fellow soldiers. Struggling together for Jesus against opposition tends to magnify the unity of believers and to decrease the importance of disagreement. Surely Jesus intended for his people to wage this battle together, not separated into different denominations and theological factions. My experience with PEF (and earlier with Graham) prevented me from ever being anti-evangelical, as are many of my Reformed friends. At Princeton, I became an ecumenist.

I majored in philosophy and also took courses in religion, literature, and history. The religion courses, together with the denominational campus ministries, gave me my first introduction to theological liberalism. Although I had toyed with similar ideas during my high school years, I sharply rebelled against liberalism in college. Princeton liberalism was casual religion: no authoritative Bible, no passion for souls, no desire for holiness, no vitality. Indeed, the Christ of Scripture simply wasn’t there. Later, I read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which argued that liberalism was an entirely different religion from Christianity, and I found it entirely persuasive. Although liberalism has changed its face in the years since, I still see it as the opposite of the biblical gospel.

The problem for Frame and others in the conservative Presbyterian world that Machen hatched was that some, like Frame, stopped reading Machen after 1923. Between then and the founding of the OPC in 1936, Machen’s opposition to liberalism also included battles with evangelicals who tolerated liberalism and a recognition of the need for church discipline with Presbyterianism being the best (and most biblical means) for maintaining and regulating the gospel ministry. Whether he got those tussles right is one thing. But somehow thinking that Presbyterian controversy was merely about liberalism is to do history without being licensed to do historical science.

What John Frame might have understood had he kept reading Machen is that — to take liberties with Bob Dylan — you’re gonna fight somebody. He’s battled with Machen’s Warrior Children who in turn have battle with Frame’s Evangelical Warrior Children and both of those groups have sometimes contended with Liberalism’s Warrior Children.

So many fronts, so little ammunition.

The Grandaddy of Reformed Anti-Lutheranism

Not that reviews of books at Amazon.com are ever adequate or trustworthy, the one for Ian Hewitson’s book on the Shepherd Controversy is revealing and adds context to the current polemics among militant critiques of Lutheranism from biblical theologians. The initial hostility in Presbyterian circles to Lutheran notions of justification came from Norman Shepherd. The reviewer is correct to note:

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the doctrine of justification by “faith alone” came under scrutiny at Westminster Theological Seminary. One of the reasons that precipitated a long, drawn-out, and painful controversy there is because the Rev. Norman Shepherd sought to do faithful exegesis of the text of Scripture in comparing the so-called contradictory pronouncements on justification between Paul and James. He did so while staying faithful to his Reformed tradition as expressed in the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms). While Shepherd came to question Luther’s statement of “justification by faith alone,” he wondered why exegetical theology could not express itself in terms of the simpler, and more biblical, “justification by faith.” It was, after all, Martin Luther who added the gloss “alone” (glauben allein) into the text of Romans 3:28, which is not in the Greek text.

Ian Hewitson, Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, reveals in his clear, erudite dissertation, that at the crux of the debate over Shepherd’s teachings was the Lutheran-Calvinist distinction in what constitutes justifying faith. For Luther, the faith that justifies is “alone.” That is, faith is an entity that exists all by itself, is “alone,” and is devoid of any and all good works. In this sense “justification by faith alone” uses “alone” as an adjective. What kind of faith is it that justifies? It is an “alone” faith. It is faith in abstraction from all else. That is the adjectival use of the word “alone” in “justification by faith alone.”

Before Shepherd, theologians like John Murray or Louis Berkhof would not have objected to the Lutheran doctrine of justification. But Shepherd did.

Before sympathetic readers here jump on the anti-Shepherd bandwagon, they need to remember that at the time Reformed rigor was on the decline and evangelical breadth was on the rise among conservative Presbyterians in the OPC, PCA, and Westminster Seminary. John Frame’s book, Evangelical Reunion (for starters) would be ironically one example of that New School turn among conservative Presbyterians away from Old School practices and convictions. Shepherd’s desire for a consistently Reformed doctrine of salvation was part of an Old School instinct to preserve a distinctly Reformed voice.

What needs to be noted is that Shepherd was correct to resist the decline of Reformed militancy and singularity at his seminary and within his communion. I wonder if John Frame’s endorsement of Shepherd actually includes some recognition of the distance between him and Shepherd on the Reformed identity and militant character of the OPC, with Shepherd embodying one strand of Machen’s warrior children and Frame exhibiting boredom with fighting period. (Fight liberalism, sure. But that was so yesterday.)

The question is whether Shepherd needed to find a really, really, really Reformed doctrine of justification in order to right the ship. My answer, for what it’s worth, is negative.