Saturday à Machen: Christian Americanization

“[R]eligion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help.

“For example, there is the problem of the immigrants; great populations have found a place in our country; they do not speak our language or know our customs; and we do not know what to do with them. We have attacked them by oppressive legislation or proposals of legislation, but such measures have not been altogether effective. Somehow these people display a perverse attachment to the language that they learned at their mother’s knee. It may be strange that a man should love the language that he learned at his mother’s knee, but these people do love it, and we are perplexed in our efforts to produce a unified American people. So religion is called in to help; we are inclined to proceed against the immigrants now with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other offering them the blessings of liberty. That is what is sometimes meant by ‘Christian Americanization.’ […]

“Such considerations have led to a renewed public interest in the subject of religion; religion is discovered after all to be a useful thing. But the trouble is that in being utilized religion is also being degraded and destroyed.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 149, 150)

Saturday à Machen: Thinking Desperately Low of God

“[I]t has already been observed that when the liberal preacher uses the word ‘God,’ he means something entirely different from that which the Christian means by the same word. ‘God,’ at least according to the logical trend of modern liberalism, is not a person separate from the world, but merely the unity that pervades the world. To say, therefore, that Jesus is God means merely that the life of God, which appears in all men, appears with special clearness or richness in Jesus. Such an assertion is diametrically opposed to the Christian belief in the deity of Christ.

“Equally opposed to Christian belief is another meaning that is sometimes attached to the assertion that Jesus is God. The word ‘God’ is sometimes used to denote simply the supreme object of men’s desires, the highest thing that men know. We have given up the notion, it is said, that there is a Maker and Ruler of the universe. Such notions belong to ‘metaphysics,’ and are rejected by the modern man. But the word ‘God,’ though it can no longer denote the Maker of the universe, is convenient as denoting the object of men’s emotions and desires. Of some men, it can be said that their God is mammonmammon is that for which they labor, and to which their hearts are attached. In a somewhat similar way, the liberal preacher says that Jesus is God. He does not mean at all to say that Jesus is identical in nature with a Maker and Ruler of the universe, of whom an idea could be obtained apart from Jesus. In such a Being he no longer believes. All that he means is that the man Jesus—a man here in the midst of us, and of the same nature as ours—is the highest thing we know. It is obvious that such a way of thinking is far more widely removed from Christian belief than is Unitarianism, at least the earlier forms of Unitarianism. For the early Unitarianism no doubt at least believed in God. The modern liberals, on the other hand, say that Jesus is God not because they think high of Jesus, but because they think desperately low of God.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 110-1.)

Saturday à Machen: The Problem of Christianity and Culture

“If physical strength and health and the companionship of human friends may be made useful in the Christian life, surely the same thing is true of intellectual gifts. […] If the principle of consecration is true at all—if it is true that God desires, not the destruction of human powers, but the proper use of them—then surely the principle must be applied in the intellectual sphere.

“The field should not be limited too narrowly; with the purely logical and acquisitive faculties of the mind should be included the imagination and the sense of beauty. In a word, we have to do with the relation between ‘culture’ and Christianity. For the modern Church there is no greater problem. A mighty civilization has been built up in recent years, which to a considerable extent is out of relation to the gospel. Great intellectual forces which are rampant in the world are grievously perplexing the Church. The situation calls for earnest intellectual effort on the part of Christians. Modern culture must be either refuted as evil, or else be made helpful to the gospel. So great a power cannot be safely ignored. Modern culture is a stumblingblock when it is regarded as an end in itself, but when it is used as a means to the service of God it becomes a blessing. Undoubtedly much of modern thinking is hostile to the gospel. Such hostile elements should be refuted and destroyed; the rest should be made subservient; but nothing should be neglected. Modern culture is a mighty force; it is either helpful to the gospel or else it is a deadly enemy of the gospel. For making it helpful neither wholesale denunciation nor wholesale acceptance is in place; careful discrimination is required, and such discrimination requires intellectual effort. Here lies a supreme duty of the modern Church. Patient study should not be abandoned to the men of the world; men who have really received the blessed experience of the love of God in Christ must seek to bring that experience to bear upon the culture of the modern world, in order that Christ may rule, not only in all nations, but also in every department of human life. The Church must seek to conquer not only every man, but also the whole of man. Such intellectual effort is really necessary even to the external advancement of the kingdom. Men cannot be convinced of the truth of Christianity so long as the whole of their thinking is dominated by ideas which make acceptance of the gospel logically impossible; false ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. And false ideas cannot be destroyed without intellectual effort.

“Such effort is indeed of itself insufficient. No man was ever argued into Christianity; the renewing of the Holy Spirit is really the decisive thing. But the Spirit works when and how he will, and he chooses to employ the intellectual activities of Christian people in order to prepare for his gracious coming.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1990], pages 377-8.)

Saturday à Machen: Thinking Right, Living Right

“False ideas about the gospel are the greatest obstacles to a healthy Christian life; bad theology and good religion will not live permanently together in peace. If you want to live right, you must also take care to think right. Thinking right involves intellectual effort, which is distasteful to many people in this practical age; but the end to be attained is worth the trouble. Intellectual conquests are just as necessary for the progress of the gospel as are conquests in the external world; every thought, as well as every deed, must be brought ‘into captivity to the obedience of Christ’. II Cor. 10. 5.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1990], page 376.)

Saturday à Machen: The Meaning of Conversion

“Paul’s conversion shows that Christianity is a supernatural thing. Up to the conversion Paul’s life had been a natural development, but the conversion itself was a sudden blaze of glory. It is very much the same with all of us. True, the form of Christ’s appearing is very diverse. We do not see him with the bodily eye. We do not, like Paul, become witnesses to the resurrection. Many of us do not know when we first saw him. It is a great mistake to demand from every man that he shall be able, like Paul, to give day and hour of his conversion. Many men, it is true, still have such a definite experience. It is not pathological. It may result in glorious Christian lives. But it is not universal, and it should not be induced by tactless methods. The children of Christian homes often seem to grow up into the love of Christ. When they decide to unite themselves definitely with the Church, the decision need not necessarily come with anguish of soul. It may simply be the culmination of a God-enriched childhood, a recognition of what God has already done rather than the acquisition of something new.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1990], page 82.)

And a supplementary anecdote from Father Georges Florovsky’s time at Princeton:

“In the course of a certain lecture, a seminary student—frustrated, I suspect, at the philosophical depth of Father Georges Florovsky’s discussion of a certain Patristic point (in fact, he was, as I recall, discussing Origen)—raised his hand and rather boldly asked, ‘What does all of this have to do with accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?’ There was a long pause, after which Father Georges, with a piercing glance, looked up at the student and said, with the frail voice that in those days betrayed his advanced age: ‘Young man, I was converted to Jesus Christ, not to Protestant Evangelical piety’. He then continued his lecture, without another comment. He no doubt thought that the matter was closed; his clumsy student, no doubt, understood nothing of what Father Georges had said.”

(From Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Person and Personality in Orthodox Teaching: Concerning the Concept of a “Personal Lord and Savior” [Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2 & 3 (2000), pp. 28-34]; emphasis mine.)

Saturday à Machen: That Is Enough

“The Christian life is a life of hope. Inwardly we are free, but our freedom is not yet fully realized. We are in danger of losing our hope in the trials or in the mere humdrum of life. To keep it alive, the Apocalypse opens a glorious vision of the future. The vision is presented in symbolical language. It is not intended to help in any calculation of the times and seasons. But it shows the Lamb upon the throne―and that is enough.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1990], page 19.)

Saturday à Machen: Something Has Happened

“Christianity is based upon historical facts. Attempts, it is true, are often made to separate it from history. But they are bound to result in failure. Give up history, and you can retain some things. But you can never retain a gospel. For ‘gospel’ means ‘good news,’ and ‘good news’ means tidings, information derived from the witness of others. In other words, it means history. The question whether religion can be independent from history is really just the old question whether we need a gospel. The gospel is good news that something has happenedsomething that puts a different face upon life. What that something is[,] is told to us Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1990], page 17.)

Saturday à Machen: Laid Upon Sober Fact

I have often said that few things would be as beneficial to aspiring historians as working through the five volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan’s monumental The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and jotting down in a notebook each of his frequent one-line definitions of history. And such a notebook would be most appropriately prefaced by these words from the great J. Gresham Machen:

“In the study of history the first step is to learn the facts. No amount of topical study, no amount of reflection on the principles of history, will result in anything better than a mental jumble, unless the memory has first retained the framework of fact.”

I am well aware, of course, that to speak so brashly about “facts” as Machen does would undoubtedly seem almost heretical to the historiographically informed. But here Machen perceptively anticipates the triumph of “theory” in the Academythat strange and disquieting development that has resulted, for example, in literature professors having shelves upon shelves lined with books about literature (or philosophy or psychoanalysis or whatever), or worse, with books about some hideous beast called “the literary phenomenon,” rather than with actual literary works.

But, as always, Machen is not here concerned with the petty nonsense of academic fads, but with something of radical importance. He continues:

“Biblical history is not different in this respect from any other history. The Bible, after all, is a record of events; the gospel is good news about something that has happened. That something is simply the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ—his life and death and resurrection—which was explained and applied by the apostles whom he commissioned. Apostolic history, which we shall here study, is different from secular history; for the apostles were in possession of a divine authority which is valid still for the Church of today. The sacredness of the history, however, does not prevent it from being history; and if it is history, it should be studied by the best historical method which can be attained. Modern Christians often seem to suppose that piety is somehow opposed to thinking, that hard study should be reserved for secular schools, that the reader of the Bible may afford to be neglectful of the facts. Such an attitude is dishonouring to the divine revelation. Christianity is not wild speculation or bottomless mysticism. It reaches, indeed, to the highest of heavens, but its foundation is laid upon sober fact.

“The purpose of the present book is to ground Christian piety more firmly in historical knowledge. Knowledge cannot be acquired without labour. The labour, however, need not be drudgery. On the contrary, it is lack of study which has made the Bible for some people a dull book. If the study here outlined be undertaken with earnestness, it will reveal the wonderful richness and variety of the Bible story, it will do away with the sense of unreality which sometimes oppresses the piecemeal reader, it will show that the extension of the gospel was a real movement in a real world, and finally it will strengthen the conviction that that historical movement was no mere product of human effort, interesting merely to the scholar, but an entrance into human life of the divine power, working permanently for the salvation of men. Historical study is absolutely necessary for a stalwart Christianity. It is necessary, however, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. Rightly pursued, the study of ancient Christianity will lead every one of us first to the feet of the living Lord, then to a simple confession of him and an active membership in his Church.”

(J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History [Carlisle:Banner of Truth, 1990], pp. 9-10.)

[And if you don’t get the title of this post, then clearly you don’t read Nathan Eshelman’s Sabbath a’Brakel—a dominical edifying quote from a monumental, 4-volume work entitled The Christian’s Reasonable Service, written by the greatest of all Dutch Puritans, Wilhelmus à Brakel.]