Hart, Machen and Controversy

Machenmachen03.jpgHaving some sort of a flu today, I have been reading Darryl Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (P&R, 2003 edition). In the first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve gotten to this point, there are a number of things which are well-put and worthy of reflection. Controversy is always difficult, but the Church has a long history of it; and if we are to deal with it appropriately it would be well to reflect on the patterns of controversy in the past. On p. 39, speaking of the acceptance of Biblical criticism in conservative churches, having mentioned some examples of people who ran into problems related to their acceptance of some criticial views of the Bible, Hart concludes:

Nevertheless, only in those few cases where criticism was tied to an aggressive effort to overturn older notions did students of the Bible encounter hostility. In many instances, the issues that plagued biblical scholars went beyond the Bible or the implications of critical views. The Briggs case, for example, took place in the midst of debates over revision of the Westminster Confession and reflected older struggles between Old and New School Presbyterians. At the same time, the McGiffert and Smith episodes involved questions about the meaning and scope of Presbyterian ministers’ ordination vows. In sum, most scholars could advocate the newer views so long as they respected traditional concerns.


On p. 60, speaking of Machen’s stint as pulpit supply at Princeton’s First Presbyterian Church and particularly the sermon “The Present Issue in the Church” Hart records this fact about the response to this sermon:

Not surprisingly, some of First Church’s members did not agree. Henry Van Dyke, former Presbyterian minister in Brooklyn, professor of English literature at Princeton University, and ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg during the Wilson administration, especially objected to Machen’s billingsgate. Despite personal ties to the preacher, Van Dyke informed First Church’s elders on December 31, 1923, that he was giving up his pew as long as Machen occupied the pulpit. Machen had “spoiled” too many Sundays, Van Dyke complained, with “bitter, schismatic and unscriptural preaching.” In the statement, which he also released to the press and which was reported throughout the country, Van Dyke added that the few Sabbaths he was free to spend at home were too precious to be wasted listening to “such a dismal, bilious travesty of the gospel.” “We want to hear about Christ, not about Fundamentalists and Modernists.”4

4. Trenton Evening Times, January 4, 1924, 1, col. 2. A scrapbook that Machen’s mother prepared carries newspaper clippings on the Van Dyke incident from the Trenton Evening Times, January 4, 1924, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, January 5, 1924, the Newark Evening New, January 5, 1924, and the New York Times, January 4, 1924. See also, “Van Dyke’s Pew,” Time, Junary 14, 1924, 18.

This is followed up with a couple of interesting paragraphs on pp.76,77:

While Machen’s criticism of religious modernism echoed postwar discontent, his attention to religious language also paralleled a growing concern for the meaning of words among American intellectuals. A complaint that Machen repeatedly made throughout the fundamentalist controversy was that liberal Protestant clergy were using traditional Christian phrases and words dishonestly. At several points in Christianity and Liberalism, for instance, Machen took issue with the hypothetical liberal minister who reassured parishioners of his soundness by affirming a specific doctrinal tenet, such as Christ’s deity, the virgin birth, or the atonement. The trouble, Machen said, was that liberals attached to their theological affirmations a “different meaning from that which is attached to them by the simple-minded person to whom he is speaking.” They were guilty of violating the principle of “truthfulness in language” because their words had a different meaning for “theologically trained persons” than for “old-fashioned Christians.”41

An extreme example of Machen’s concern for language came in the sermon that sent Henry Van Dyke looking for another church. Here Machen parodied the liberal notion that each generation had to interpret the Bible or the creed according to its own time and place. Did not the modernist preacher, Machen wondered, hold to a static view of language when it came to such questions as whether six times nine equaled fifty-four or whether the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia? Why, then, was the theological affirmation of Christ’s resurrection any different? According to Machen, the standard liberal response was “Of course we accept the proposition that ‘the third day he arose again from the dead’” but because each generation has a right to interpret the creed in its own way “we interpret that to mean ‘the third day He did not rise again from the dead.’” Machen’s own rejoinder was to fear for the future of human language. “If everything that I say can be ‘interpreted’ to mean its exact opposite, what is the use of saying anything at all?”42

41 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 112

42 Machen, “The Issue in the Church,” 47


Christianity and Liberalism was obviously one of Machen’s more important works with regard to the controversies of the time. Hart records that fundamentalists liked it, but not only they: various newspapers also commended it (p.80). In addition, Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken both seem to have admired Machen and thought this book of his quite impressive (pp.3,4). However, there was a group of people who were not fond of it, and Hart writes about them on pp.79-83. Some excerpts:

It is no surprise that liberal Protestants did not react as favorably. Presbyterians responded first and labeled Machen’s charges slanderous. William P. Merrill, the popular pastor at New York’s Old Brick Presbyterian Church, asserted that if liberalism were as “deadly and pernicious” as Machen claimed most modernists would line up with conservatives. A reviewer for the Presbyterian Advance wrote that according to Machen’s definition of liberalism the church contained no liberals. Meanwhile, Nolan R. Best, editor of The Continent, accused Machen of impeaching the “sincerity of the evangelical position” occupied by “admittedly progressive” Presbyterians. Had Machen been judicious in his description of liberalism, Best wrote, he might have gained respect. But the book was “so totally lacking in the fundamental element of fidelity to facts” that it was “simply an offense against the ninth commandment.” Gerald Birney Smith, the reviewer for the Journal of Religion, spoke for many liberals when he compared Machen’s tactics to those of the pope.


Despite negative reactions, Machen did force liberals to respond with definitions of their own movement. In 1924 William P. Merrill wrote Liberal Christianity, and Shailer Mathews, a Baptist minister and dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, published The Faith of Modernism. Both were written with Machen’s book in mind. Neither author actually denied Machen’s description of liberal beliefs and assumptions. Where Machen and his liberal respondents disagreed was whether liberalism could still be called Christian. From Machen’s perspective, of course, liberalism was a counterfeit form of Christianity, while Merrill and Mathews considered liberal beliefs to be fully within the Christian fold. Although they would not concede Machen’s point that two different religions were competing for the soul of American Protestantism, they did concur with Machen that liberals and conservatives held antagonistic conceptions of Christianity. Mathews even admitted that if Christianity were viewed simply as a theological system inherited from the past, the charge that modernism was un-Christian was “logically sound.”


In sum, these liberal rejoinders to Machen evoked the very idealism that Machen had attacked. While claiming that modernist Christianity was more realistic than fundamentalism, Mathews did not appear to notice how ethereal his ideas about God were. “We want no God we pity,” Mathews wrote, “but one who, like some hyperbola comes out from infinity into fellowship with men, only to reach out again to infinity.” Neither was his meaning altogether clear when he declared that “to find God in natural law and evolution is an assurance that love is as final as any other cosmic expression of the divine will.” For Mathews and Merrill the nature of religion made such imprecision and vagueness necessary. In fact, Merill admitted that liberalism was not as exact in its language as conservative theology. This was inevitable, he thought, because the liberal knows that “’nothing worth proving can be proved,’ that no ultimate reality of the spiritual life can ever be adequately expressed in a definition or formula.” Rationalism could never satisfy the human heart. Such a riposte was standard in the liberal repertoire but did not prevent the likes of Walter Lippmann from charging that the liberal God was one to which the average person would not readily respond.


The conclusion of this chapter (pp.82,83) makes one like Machen very much:

Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, thus, registered a telling criticism of liberal Protestantism at a time when many in the intellectual world were also questioning and abandoning the teachings of the established churches. In Machen’s estimate, liberal Protestantism was as antithetical to the teachings of historic Christianity as it was far removed from the truths that World War I had revealed about human nature and social progress. Yet for all of their optimism and idealism, liberal Protestants contended tenaciously that their religion was the only form of Christianity compatible with modern science and that could win those same intellectuals who were leaving the church. As the conflict over evolution drove the fundamentalist controversy out of the churches and into state legislatures, the argument that liberalism was the only form of Protestantism conversant with science took on even greater plausibility. Responding to it would require Machen to switch from the pejorative claim that liberalism was un-Christian to the equally provocative assertion that liberalism was at best unscientific and at worst anti-intellectual.


This post is already a great deal too long. However, while there are many lessons in these paragraphs, I think one fundamental point where we can learn something positive from Machen’s example is not to let the assumptions and spin of the other side go unchallenged. There is a way to sell almost anything: you simply have to find the right phrasing in order to make any idea seem noble and perhaps plausible; and it is that kind of assumption (in this case I am thinking of modernism’s idea that they are the scientific Christians) which has to be challenged, and if invalid, exposed as empty.

2 replies on “Hart, Machen and Controversy”

I enjoyed your conclusion: “There is a way to sell almost anything: you simply have to find the right phrasing in order to make any idea seem noble and perhaps plausible; and it is that kind of assumption … which has to be challenged, and if invalid, exposed as empty.”

Thanks, David. If you click on the “Controversy” category on your right, there are some additional posts on controversy drawn from this book.

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