Hart, Machen and Character in Controversy. #3


This blog epic continues, with episode three. The first episode dealt with quite a miscellany of features of Machen’s controversy that seemed to me to have some parallels in contemporary controversies. While it was a great deal too long, the fact that it was not longer was due to the fact that I had not yet finished this commendable book. Episode two was a lot shorter, and remarked that internal confusions are often a featury in controversy.

In Chapter Five, A Question of Character, of his Machen biography Hart narrates clearly how it came to be that Machen’s intellectual and doctrinal opposition to certain features of the Presbyterian church came to be answered as though they were personal flaws on his part. He sets this specific instance in its broader context and notes its application to Machen on pp.108-110

The rise of a highly organized society undergirded by corporate capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, cultural historians have argued, brought with it a new conception of the self. Self-improvement manuals and guides published at the turn of the century abandoned the older advice, which esteemed thrift, integrity, and industry. While these virtues had been effective in a producer economy, life in the corporate world demanded a different ethic. A winning personality, charm, and being well liked were far more effective than older values for making one’s way in large, impersonal, and highly regulated organizations. What was true for business also became increasingly true for churches. As denominations grew and required greater managerial oversight church officials became especially sensitive to criticism and dissent. Discord not only threatened organizational unity but transgressed against the ideals of Christian harmony and brotherhood.

True to this pattern, Presbyterian leaders, rather than answering Machen’s arguments, dismissed him as temperamentally deficient. An early indication of this reaction surfaced in an unlikely source, a series of articles on What Is Faith? [Machen’s book with that title –RZ] that appeared during the spring of 1926 in the British Weekly. The eight British theologians who discussed Machen’s work were generally positive and respectful. Some complimented him for his forceful statement of conservative convictions while others took issue with his views about the Bible. Reactions to these articles in America, however, were not so cordial. In June, a Presbyterian pastor, Phillip Ellicott, wrote to the editor and objected to the polite tone of the series. Fundamentalists, he complained, were using the reviews to their advantage. The book that the magazine’s contributors had “so complacently” reviewed was in fact the “battle cry” for conservatives who wanted to exclude from the Presbyterian Church all theological development since Calvin. When Machen thanked the British Weekly‘s editor for the “courteous and dignified” discussion of his book he had good reason. For at the same time that this series was appearing, rumors similar to Ellicott’s were spreading through the Presbyterian Church that Machen’s criticism of the mainline churches had made him unfit to teach at Princeton.

(…) Thus the controversy surrounding Machen and its resolution illustrate a larger point about twentieth-century church life: public relations and image control have often been more effective than confessional standards and church order for settling rifts within America’s largest Protestant denominations. The underside of this maxim, one often overlooked in institutional histories, is the toll that preserving the size and influence of large Protestant denominations exacted from dissenting individuals. In Machen’s case, his outspoken opposition to Presbyterian practices cost him dearly. After 1926 many Presbyterians would know him more for his spitefulness than his scholarship.

There is quite an irony here. Ellicott objects to people being polite to Machen: evidently on the grounds that Machen is not polite enough to welcome heretics into the church! “We shouldn’t be nice to mean people.” Of course, if we are not, what does that make us? But that thought seems to rarely cross our prejudiced and rather absurd minds. Hart notes this irony, while explaining some of the maneuvering that kept Machen from being given a full professorship at Princeton on pp.120,121

The second report concerned Machen’s temperament. His election as professor was reviewed by the Advisory Committee on Theological Seminaries before going to the General Assembly. Testimony came before this committee that Machen was “temperamentally defective, bitter and harsh in his judgment of others and implacable to those who [did] not agree with him.” Dr. George N. Luccock, chairman of the committee, concluded that such characteristics would “spiritually” disqualify an individual from holding a chair of apologetics and Christian ethics. The sources of these unflattering descriptions were Charles Erdman and J. Ross Stevenson, president of Princeton Seminary. Newspapers reported that Erdman charged Machen with “temperamental idiosyncrasies” while Stevenson told the assembly that Machen had “serious limitations.” Undoubtedly, Machen’s earlier contention that liberalism was un-Christian appeared to those who did not know him to be equally un-Christian. But few seemed to notice that Stevenson and Erdman were hardly charitable in their descriptions of Machen or that they may have had less than noble motives for denigrating their Princeton colleague. With Machen’s reputation in question, the General Assembly took no action and, for all intents and purposes, rejected Machen’s promotion.

It seems to be an effective technique to accuse other people of faults you have yourself. Or, if that is too harsh, perhaps we can think that the faults which one has, are those which are most visible in (or easily, though unconsciously, projectable onto) other people. The irony is deepened in the paragraphs where Hart explains the background of this acrimony between Erdman and Machen, on pp.121-123. The Presbyterian published an editorial had accused Erdman of being a favorite of liberals. Erdman complained, evidently holding Machen responsible, and without identifying him by name made it clear that Machen was in mind in a letter to a weekly called the Presbyterian Advance. While Machen explained that he had nothing to do with that editorial, and gave Erdman a forum to discuss the issue, it was not enough. Says Hart:

Nevertheless, throughout the hearings Erdman, Stevenson, and their supporters continued to blame Machen for discord at the seminary. One of the first pieces of testimony called Machen “queer” and wondered how he could “ever” inspire the seminarians since he lacked the gifts Erdman and Stevenson possessed. Stevenson told the committee that “suspicion, distrust, dissension, and division” were in the seminary and Machen was responsible. (p.122).

Machen had a chance to speak at these hearings. This is Hart’s summary of Machen’s take on the matter, on p.123

By the end of his testimony, Machen seemed to have convinced the committee that Erdman was actually responsible for bitterness at the seminary. Machen thought Erdman’s response to the Presbyterian’s editorial was especially inflammatory. Newspaper reports, Machen observed, caused the full brunt of Erdman’s remarks to fall upon him and still Erdman stood mute even when Machen had denied writing the editorial. He also noted that Erdman’s and Stevenson’s statements about his unfitness before the 1926 General Assembly exhibited personal animosity and betrayed their unwillingness to hear the conservative’s side. He concluded by remarking on the irony of the situation. Because of the impression that Erdman had been treated unfairly and out of sympathy for him, Presbyterian commissioners in 1925 elected Erdman moderator. In contrast, because of his opposition to Erdman, Machen’s promotion had been denied.

When committee members pressed Erdman for an explanation, he again attributed the strife at Princeton to personal bitterness and complained that Machen had not done anything to shield him rom the criticisms of the Presbyterian. Erdman nevertheless expressed remorse. “What has divided us is a bitter, intolerant spirit,” he said. “I have no doubt shown it and regret it … I do want to get it out of my heart.” Yet, he added, harmony would prevail if Machen would only acknowledge Erdman’s sincerity in defending the evangelical faith.

Here it would be good to note that it is wise to consider someone’s actions as well as their statements. All things can be spun; but it seems to me that words are perhaps easier to spin than acts. And we see that there are certain things which people cannot bear to have questioned or negated. Some points lie so deeply in our self-image that we cannot be calm with someone who denies them; but how if that part of our self-image is the most erroneous?

Ultimately, of course, Machen and his cohorts lost, and the issue of character (as well as clever administration on the part of their foes) was a major part of their defeat. Hart explains on pp.114,115:

The more Machen and other Presbyterian conservatives relied upon procedural arguments the more they ran up against sentimental notions of church unity or pragmatic ideas about organizational efficiency. Thus, while Machen pointed to denominational standards, his opponents countered with pleas for Christian unity. These appeals stemmed in part from the heritage of American evangelicalism. Systematic reflection and sustained analysis were not characteristic of Protestant traditions influenced by revivalism and pietism. Evangelicalism relied more upon intuition and charisma to understand and promote the gospel. Even though mainstream Protestants by the early twentieth century had lost some of their evangelistic fervor, they still favored sentiment over principled deliberation. The demands of organizational life in large-scale buteaucracies furthered this tendency. As denominations became more centralized, sincerity, likability [sic], and being a team player became desirable traits in church leaders. Evangelical habits and organizational demands, then, made goodwill, not critical scrutiny, the best way to resolve church controversy [but cf. NT Wright’s statement on this point:

…if we are to come together as Christians it will not be by watering down everything until there is so little left that we can all agree on it. It will be by all of us learning more and more of Christ, and of the truth about him, so that we can grow closer to each other because we are closer to him.

I have seen this work out in practice. When I was a delegate at the 1975 Assembly of the World Council of Churches I found over and over again that it was when we said what we really meant, expressing ourselves and our viewpoints most clearly, that real fellowship and trust came about — not when we hid the light of truth under a bushel of tolerance. [Small Faith—Great God, p.80]


This development explains why the conservatives faced such difficult odds in removing liberals from the church. Throughout the general assemblies of the 1920s, conservatives were able to block some liberal advances but could never gain control of the church’s administrative apparatus. As the fundamentalist controversy dragged on, many Presbyterians believed that while conservative ideas may have been theoretically preferable to liberal ones, conservative tactics were breeding a spirit of suspicion and bitterness in the church. Conservatives were thus put on the defensive. The more they pressed their case, the more disruptive they seemed. Furthermore, denominational officials, whose task was to avoid schism and promote the church’s positive mission, had little trouble garnering support for restoring peace, even if it meant censuring conservatives.

Now here I think there are three lessons. One is that people really ought to be as nice as possible. We gain little by satisfying rhetorical flourishes, except a reputation for eloquence or satirical ability among those who are already convinced. The second is that character, while pastorally relevant, is logically unrelated to argument. It is not enough to dismiss a person’s character: we must answer their arguments. The third is that no matter how nice we are, at some point, some person tilting against us will say (probably sincerely) that we are mean-spirited or deficient in the fruits of the Spirit. And of course that should make us cautious of dismissing people as simply divisive or troublemakers.

There are such people of course: but in any given case our willingness to dismiss them as such may result from an unwillingness to engage them more substantively. It is quite an effective technique to engineer things so that they occur as Hart described on p. 117, “Thus, Erdman’s candidacy and election split conservatives further and put Machen in the awkward position of playing the schoolyard bully to Erdman’s sacrifial lamb.”

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