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Controversy

Arguments From Silence

It is not an infrequent occurrence while reading discussions to see someone responding to someone else’s argumentation by dismissing it as an argument from silence. And of course, there are arguments from silence that are inadequate. If, for instance, I read some fragmentary remains of an early church father and find therein no discussion of the Holy Spirit, it is an inadequate argument from silence to conclude that the man was a heretic.

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However, I do think there is a place for arguments from silence. There may be a form of argument from silence in Hebrews 7:14, for instance. And I think it would be possible to lay down a general principle that would serve to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate arguments from silence. When a situation arises where a certain paradigm, if it exists, would function and it does not, there is a strong suggestion that said paradigm does not, in fact, exist. A small illustration from the physical world. A battery backup is supposed to come on if the electricity should cut out enabling one to save important work before calmly shutting off one’s computer. Now, if the electricity cuts out, and the computer dies, it is an indication that there is no battery backup (or that it malfunctioned, but let us think of an ideal world where they always work). And I believe we can test this statement on a case from Scripture, where what is in one case an argument from silence is explicitly set out elsewhere. Galatians 2:3, ESV, reads: But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Had the paradigm of the absolute necessity of circumcision been in existence, been functioning, it is unthinkable that Titus would have been left uncircumcised. So the permission for the continuance of the non-circumcision of Titus is evidence that the other apostles did not regard circumcision as being absolutely vital. And confirmation of that is found, of course, in Acts 11 & 15.

Thus the test case seems to corroborate the principle, and I feel justified in concluding that not all arguments from silence are evil. They must be properly contextualized, naturally; but they still have their legitimate place.

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Controversy

Appreciation, Understanding and Controversy

It is very easy to assume that if someone does not agree with us it must be because they do not understand what we have to say. Now that is certainly an option; many times people do misunderstand. But I doubt that we would be content to have that criticism applied to ourselves. Both credo and paedo baptists feel to some degree that the other side doesn’t get it. Yet, whichever side of that debate we may be on, we probably would not accept that we don’t understand the other side.

And so it is helpful to distinguish between understanding and appreciating. I may have a grasp of the essential details of an argument, and yet it fails to have weight with me: I do not appreciate it. I remember reading in one of Bernard Shaw’s prefaces one of the most clear statements of the Gospel that I had encountered up to the time; it would have been silly for me to lay a charge of misunderstanding. The problem was not intellectual, on his part; although he grasped, he did not like it, he did not appreciate.

Now, when you add to that the fact that there are areas where we might be wrong, it becomes clear that disagreement is not always due to ignorance or stupidity on the part of the other guy. I am aware that we don’t feel wrong; but we didn’t feel wrong several years ago, either, and yet look how that turned out.

So in controversy, the problem is not always with them.

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Yet that statement also needs to be balanced. Rejecting some things does show ignorance, stupidity, or moral turpitude. If someone does not believe that Jesus is the Christ, then that really is their problem. And of course, to some degree, all error is the result of sin and the damage that sin has wrought on our noetic faculties. But here we would do well to distinguish, between what must necessarily be a failing on the part of the adversary, and what may be a failing on our part (or what is a less significant difference). Failure to do so not only puts us in company with Calovius and leaves us in danger of a tu quoque: it is also a violation of the Golden Rule. There is no doubt that in controversy, at least on certain points, we would like the other side to listen carefully and entertain the possibility that we might be right; but then would Jesus’ words not obligate us to treat them likewise?

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Controversy Quotations

Augustine: Are Unbelievers United to Christ?

On the internal/external covenant membership distinction: De Doctrina Christiana, book 3, ch. 32

THE SECOND RULE OF TICHONIUS

The second rule is about the twofold division of the body of the Lord; but this indeed is not a suitable name, for that is really no part of the body of Christ which will not be with Him in eternity. We ought, therefore, to say that the rule is about the true and the mixed body of the Lord, or the true and the counterfeit, or some such name; because, not to speak of eternity, hypocrites cannot even now be said to be in Him, although they seem to be in His Church. And hence this rule might be designated thus: Concerning the mixed Church. Now this rule requires the reader to be on his guard when Scripture, although it has now come to address or speak of a different set of persons, seems to be addressing or speaking of the same persons as before, just as if both sets constituted one body in consequence of their being for the time united in a common participation of the sacraments.

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Controversy

Are only the intolerant free? Hart, Machen & Controversy 4

The previous episodes (1,2,3) don’t have a lot to do with this post: but the first one does give the full title of this worthwhile book.
There are some deeply interesting comments on the relation of intolerance to freedom and peace. It seems that we have largely forgotten that tolerance may be the enemy of liberty: and organizational tolerance can promote conflict.

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Hart summarizes Machen’s views about this on pp.113,114

Machen also pointed out that liberal pleas for broadness were actually quite narrow. Narrowmindedness, he explained, did not consist in an individual’s devotion to or rejection of certain ideas. Instead, a narrow person rejected another’s convictions “without first endeavoring to understand them.” This was exactly what liberals had done, according to Machen. They blithely called for peace and harmony without ever considering the significant differences that divided liberals and conservatives. Liberals thought doctrine unimportant and so could coexist with conservatives in the denomination. Conservatives, in contrast, believed doctrine was of utmost importance and so could not come to terms with liberals. The two parties could not be more different. Liberals were not necessarily narrow for rejecting traditional dogma, but it was “very narrow and very absurd” to suppose that conservatives and liberals were essentially united in their aims. Such a position was akin to Protestants telling Catholics that both groups could unite for common religious purposes because the mass and church membership “are of course matters of secondary importance.” Liberal Protestant proposals for unity did not involve compromise but rather a “complete relinquishment” of everything that conservatives held dear. Machen received support on this point from Walter Lippmann, who said that the liberal plea for tolerance and goodwill was tantamount to telling conservatives to “smile and commit suicide.”
The solution that Machen advocated followed directly from his understanding of the church. A separation of the two parties was the “crying need of the hour.” Nothing engendered strife so much as a “forced unity within the same organization” of those who disagreed fundamentally in aim. The denomination had to reaffirm the “absolute exclusiveness of the Christian religion.” Then it would no longer be attractive to prospective ministers and established clergy of liberal convictions. But Machen also warned that if liberals gained control of the church, conservatives would be forced to withdraw. By the end of the 1920s, however, a conservative withdrawal looked far more likely than a liberal exodus.

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Controversy

Hart, Machen and Character in Controversy. #3

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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]

–RZ]

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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Controversy

Come Again? Hart, Machen & Controversy 2

This is a follow up to the post on Hart, Machen and Controversy, where more information on this excellent and recommended book can be found. I have now finished Hart’s biography of Machen, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

It is a thought provoking book, and it is not always easy to see the reasons of the facts that are put out. Machen is with secularists like Mencken against Victorian moderate Protestantism; he is with fundamentalist against modernism; and yet in some ways he is with the moderate, upper-class Protestants as far as his personal habits and culture. And the other movements also have odd points of contact, where Machen is not with them. Thus fundamentalists and mainline protestants wanted to Christianize the nation (though naturally their ideas of Christianity were a bit different); whereas Machen was libertarian, to take just one example. Hart remarks on this feature on pp.110,112

Ironically, when discussing the church both liberals and conservatives seemed to contradict themselves. For instance, conservatives considered the Bible to be the word of God and took exception to the modernist portrayal of scripture as merely the work of human writers. Yet in denominational skirmishes, they were the ones who usually spoke of the church not as a divine institution but as a voluntary association in which majority rule should prevail. In contrast, liberal and moderate church leaders often attributed to the church the same timelessness and transcendence that fundamentalists found in the Bible. Although modernists thought much conservative theology could be explained away as the product of cultural conditions, the same logic rarely applied to the church. In fact, liberals, who said the church was the body of Christ, scored fundamentalists for an excessively low view of the church and for introducing secular notions into ecclesiastical affairs.

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It seems to me that this confusion of cross-currents from different issues is probably a standard feature in most controversies.  This of course, makes for strange alliances, and tangles still further the attempt to sort out movements, as well as making predictions of any given individual’s belief on any given topic difficult to manage.

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Controversy

Resentment for Felt Inadequacy in its Bearing on Controversy

One element of motivation for controversy that is difficult to identify and tough to prove, but which a look at our own hearts should convince us is real is this: sometimes we oppose a theological position or tradition because it makes us uncomfortable, specifically, by making us feel that we do not measure up. Of course, any examples I could put up of this, someone would dispute, citing intellectual disagreements with that tradition. And of course, such disagreements are rarely presented as, “Well, I don’t like that because it makes me feel that I am not a Christian.” But I think it is in general true that anyone who is a bit stricter or stronger on the law than we are, is a legalist or a moralist. It could be a sad person who does not understand the Gospel, or someone caught in the grip of the old nature still trying to obtain their own righteousness before God. Whatever the approach may be, sometimes one doubts that it really is an issue of doctrine at all, and suspects that it is rather a matter of the heart. Now that is not at all to say that real legalism or moralism could not inspire such feelings in us. Sometimes we may reject a position for that purely emotional reason, and actually have been right in the rejection, though not in the motivation. It would be quite a misreading if someone took this as a defence of legalism or moralism. To make somewhat more clear what I mean, let me risk an imprecise example. I have read narratives in books by Iain Murray and Faith Cook, for instance, about believers in the face of death and trial whose joy is thrilling; whose heroism is tear-jerking; and whose piety is humbling. And of course, it makes me feel that I don’t measure up. And since that is an uncomfortable feeling, one way of dealing with it is to deny that certain things in which these people far outstrip me are really of the essence of radical piety at all. This is by no means a plea for the cessation of distinguishing true from false piety or genuine guilt for things that ought to be repented of from a legalistic burden. It is a call to be careful of our motives for disagreement. May it never be that we reject an interpretation or a tradition simply because it makes us feel unworthy; in that case, I think we could never enter into the spirit of Psalm 51 at all. We want to reject what is an unbiblical imposition on the conscience of a believer; but we want to want to reject because it is unbiblical, not because it makes us ashamed of our laziness or dullness or domination by worldly ideals. In a way this is a call for tota scriptura. Let us hear the rebuke of James, that we are adulterers and adulteresses and that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God: and let us hear the comfort of Peter, that we, who once were not a people, are now the people of God. But let us hear them together, and not reject James because he makes us squirm; nor take Peter because he makes us feel good; rather, let us receive them both because they wrote the word of God.

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Returning to doctrines and traditions and our predecessors in the faith, we must be aware of the temptation to dismiss some of them, precisely because they surpassed us (while naturally disguising that with some doctrinal disagreement camouflage). For that folly, if applied consistently, would surely lead us to depart from Christ out of envy, resentment and spite; because He surpasses us all.

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Controversy

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.