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.

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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.

Harvest No Wheat Before It’s Time

Orson Welles ended his career by making ads for Paul Masson vineyards in which he intoned on behalf of the vintner that “we will sell no wine before its time.”

Whether true or not for the cheap table red that some Americans drank before taste buds became discriminating (careful there), the tagline does indicate that growing crops requires patience.

So what do #woke Christians, who seem to want to immanentize the harvest, do with Jesus’ parable of the weeds:

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matt 13)

Do believing social justice warriors really want to let racists and tolerant people live together until judgment day? Or what about misogynists and feminists? Or even Trump voters and Democrats? Can these offenders and decent people live side by side, as long as they are not breaking the law passed by actual office holders, until the end of human history? Or do social justice warriors want to insist on pulling up the weeds — now?

Of course, justice is not like agriculture. It’s even slower. But when outrage is in high supply, the #woke crowd seems to prefer microwaves to the rhythms of biology and law.

Evangelicals Have Been At This Longer than Woke Millennials

Eric Weinstein, of Intellectual Dark Web fame (Bret’s brother), recently tweeted how novel the ideas and language of social justice warriors are:

But for evangelicals, “social concern” has been around for almost forty-five years:

The Lausanne Congress, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, drew 2,700 peopple from around the globe — at the time the largest-ever gathering of evangelical Christian leaders.  The Assembled believers — ministers and lay people, racially diverse, the vast majority of them men — would be part of a singular moment in postwar evangelicalism.

Like all of the major presenters, [Rene] Padilla had pre-circulated a paper, a rather scholarly treatise on the centrality of repentance to Christian ethics. The audience was not surprise, then, to hear Padilla lecture his fellow participants at Lausanne on the sins of the evangelical church, and on its failure — their own failure  — to take seriously Jesus’s call to social action. What was remarkable was the controlled fury emanating from the stage. Padilla challenged the room to remember that Jesus had demanded that his followers confront the “darkness of the world”  But evangelicals, he pronounced, had focused so long on individual sin that they had forgotten that darkness included materialism, racism, class division, political abuses, and, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, “collective egoism.” (Melani McAlister, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, 85)

Of course, one way of looking at this is that evangelicals have been ever consistent in their call for social justice or social concern.

Another is that this is something that regularly repeats itself among Christians who want to immanentize the eschaton because they believe the gospel is not really relevant if it prepares someone for not the present but eternity.

And yet, if this social concern regularly repeats itself, from Walter Rauschenbusch to Rachel Held Evans, why has it accomplished so little (especially now that it has support from mainstream journalists, elite universities, and at least one of the major political parties — not to mention Silicon Valley)?

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.