Monday, January 17, 2011

D.G. Hart: The Perennial Machen


The second talk on Friday night is by Elder Darryl G. Hart, who prefers to title his talk The Prennial Problem with Machen. As a historian, Hart deals in this talk with the person of J.G. Machen in relation to conservative Christianity.

The key question that Hart deals with is whether Machen was a Presbyterian or simply a conservative Protestant with Presbyterian stripes. Quoting historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, the conservative image of Machen has been that Machen was arguing for a generic "mere Christianity". Hoever, is that so?

Hart's thesis is that we should read Machen's book Christianity and Liberalism in his ecclesiastical context. The writing of the book was precipitated by opposition to unionism and ecumenism within the PCUSA at that time. The book therefore was Machen's attempt to tell non-Presbyterians why the controversy he was engaged in happened. Machen does of course concede that certain evangelical truths were most vital, but that does not mean that other truths are not.

To prove his point, Hart points to two places in Machen's book whereby the opposition to some form of "mere Christianity" can be seen. The first place is Machen's last chapter about the church and the importance Machen placed on the visible institutional church, something about which many Fundamentalists would not be able to subscribe to. The second lies is his arguments against the liberals that they are cannot in honesty subscribe to the orthodox creeds and confessions. While most certainly applicable to the liberals, in force it applies equally to the anti-intellectual Fundamentalists with their anti-creedalism.

The kernel versus husk approach to Machen's book ignores his other works and struggles in life and is therefore in error. Machen never intended to stand on a platform of "mere Christianity" to critique modernism. Rather, Machen was standing on the platform of Christianity as understood within the Presbyterian tradition. It is not a compliment to Roman Catholicism such that it is within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, as Timothy George thinks it is, when he said that Romanism was more orthodox than Liberalism. Rather, it was an insult to Liberalism that even Romanism with her false gospel was more orthodox than it.

Hart closed with the doctrine of the church as he sees it as Machen's most vital difference with Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. He has posted his closing statements on his blog, which we shall quote at length and end this review as follows:

The other part of THE BOOK’s last chapter on the church that deserves attention is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. This conviction continues to be misunderstood, and is often denounced as a cover for Christians and churches who want to forsake their obligations to contribute to social well-being. To be sure, this doctrine became prominent among Old School Presbyterians at a time when American Christians debated slavery and the U.S. Constitution. But it was a teaching that extended back before the nineteenth century and tapped Augustine’s remarkable insights into the differences between the city of God and the city of man. What the spirituality of the church taught Machen especially was that the church was a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends. Because of salvation’s fundamentally spiritual character, believers could not identify the fortunes of the kingdom of God with the empire of Rome or the industrializing republic of the United States.

This was the insight that prompted Machen’s conclusion to THE BOOK. The solution to the crisis over liberalism, as he argued, was for the churches to “face the facts, and regain their integrity while yet there is time.” This needed to happen immediately because so many of the denominational bureaucracies were under control by official either modernist themselves or indifferent to it. Another solution was to form new churches because the existing works could not satisfy “the fundamental needs of the soul.” Whatever the solution, he wrote:

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. . . . There are congregations, eve 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 to Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one find only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of mediation 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 problems 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 . . . 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. Is there no refuge from strife? . . . . Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, . . . to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.

The church as the house of God, the gate of heaven, a place for weary souls seeking refuge from the conflicts of this world through the cross of Christ – that is actually what the spirituality of the church begins with and it is precisely how Machen concluded his important book.

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