Almost thirty years ago, when I first started to become interested in Reformed Christianity I happened to mention it to the Rev Wally Easter, pastor for evangelism at Westminster Presbyterian Church, in my hometown.
Wally was a sweet fellow and very graciously lent me volume one of the Battles edition of Calvin’s Institutes. A while later I visited him in his luxurious office at the local “tall-steeple” PCUSA congregation in order to return the book. I was full of questions. In conversation, Wally mentioned that he was a graduate of Princeton Seminary. I had heard about this fellow “Machen” so I asked Wally about him and about Westminster Seminary. His jovial face quickly turned red with anger at the very mention of the traitor Machen and the rebel seminary. Mind you, this was about 50 years after Machen had left Princeton and decades after Wally had been a student at PTS.
Obviously that episode left an impression. It certainly made me want to get to know Machen. What was it about this fellow that made such a lovely and gracious fellow so openly angry, even contemptuous? It wasn’t Machen in se that made Wally angry, it was the textus receptus, or the received libel of Machen, that Wally believed, that angered him.
It’s a funny old thing. The liberals have apologized for everything, for things in which they have corporate complicity and things for which, arguably, they do not but they’ve never apologized for what they did to Machen. The campaign of smears and allegations, perpetrated by good “evangelicals” and outright liberals together still stirs one’s blood. “Get over it” you say? Can’t do it. Wouldn’t be prudent. We need to learn from it the nature of the “go-along, get along” evangelicals positioning themselves for influence in the culture and the illiberal nature of theological liberalism, which wants the same thing as the evangelicals: cultural influence. How many of the good folk who gather in the narthex of the tall-steeple, mainline congregations would do so if it met in a renovated filling station or in a Masonic Temple or a bank basement or in any of a dozen other unpleasant places, to which the Presbyterian and Reformed sideline has been exiled since 1936? Of course it’s hard to say with certainty, but history suggests that the answer is: not many.
One other thing to notice is how the liberals and evangelicals shared the prosecution of Machen’s character. In the 18th century the charge against the Old Side was: “You’re not regenerate.” The early 20th-century version of that charge is, “you’re hot tempered” or “your family sells alcohol.” They shared a common caricature of Machen because he was equally troublesome to both of them, whether “right” or “left.” As a confessionalist, Machen didn’t fit into their boxes. Yes, he made a strategic alliance with the “fundamentalists,” but as soon as they learned that old WTS wasn’t to be a pre-millennial, tee-totaling, fundamentalist school, they too abandoned him to recommence their quest to regain their lost influence. It took them fifty years, but with the rise of the Moral Majority, they almost got it back. Now that the cultural-theological left has rediscovered it’s evangelical roots (Charles Finney et al) we have dueling visions of America as the Kingdom of God on the earth. I digress.
A few years ago PTS held a conference to re-consider Charles Hodge. I don’t know if the papers delivered to that conference were ever published, but it seems to me that Hodge is partly to blame for what happened to Machen. One overlooked reason why Hodge did not favor a closer form of subscription to the Westminster Standards is that it would cause the Presbyterian Church to fragment such that it would no longer be a “national” (read “mainline” and “influential”) Presbyterian Church. He was right and wrong.
He was right. Any form of subscription that required Presbyterian ministers to believe every proposition in the Standards would reveal the fissures that Hodge knew existed in the Presbyterian Church. He knew that, already in the mid-to-late 19th century, the foundation of the Presbyterian Church was weak. Perhaps he thought that, if given time, Princeton could shore up that foundation? In principle, however, Hodge was wrong. By preserving the status quo as long as he (and implicitly Old Princeton) did he helped to provide safe haven for ministers who no longer believed the Reformed faith. That rot in the foundation fundamentally weakened the Presbyterian house. By the early 20th century, it was the quest to preserve a “national” Presbyterian Church and its cultural influence (even if that influenced was disguised as a desire to “reach the lost”) that fueled the prosecution of Machen for daring to point out that emperor had no clothes.
This isn’t just a mainline issue. The same temptation is alive and well in the NAPARC world. Bob Godfrey calls it “The Myth of Influence.” The same spirit that animated the prosecution of Machen still exists and is even honored within the NAPARC world and within its constituent denominations and federations. Whether Machen’s children are labeled “Warrior Children” or whether it is implied that they are unregenerate or just not as “biblical” as the next fellow, the spirit of Eerdman and Stevenson lives on—it lives in all of all of us. How do I know it lives? It lives within my heart.
This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.