Machen’s Enemies Then And Now And The Myth Of Influence

machenAlmost 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.

22 Comments

  1. Interesting post, thanks.

    the papers of the Hodge conference were published in _Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work_ edited by John Stewart and James Moorhead (Eerdmans) 2002.

  2. Scott,

    Regretfully, “Charles Hodge Revisited” is a less than adequate look at Hodge’s work. The essays are largely interested in Hodge from a sociological perspective rather than actively engaging his theology. Hopefully P&R’s “American Reformed Biographies” series will produce a biography of Hodge in the near future.

    As for Machen, I hope you don’t mind me sneaking in a plug for those who aren’t familiar with him: An excellent place to start is “J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings” edited by D.G. Hart. Machen was an excellent writer and these essays are quite understandable to any thoughtful reader.

    David
    p.s. I’m all for Martin’s suggestion of WSC hosting a Machen conference!

  3. Pingback: The legacy of Machen and his enemies « Geneva Redux

  4. David,

    Thanks. Amen.

    Martin,

    Great idea!

    Andy,

    I have a review of Longfield here.

    Longfield isn’t a bad place to begin. It’s a great place to gain awareness of the Stevenson & co. See also Darryl Hart’s bio of Machen, Stonehouse’s bio of Machen, Darryl Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight. A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: OPC, 1995), Edwin Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict 1940, OPC (reprinted 1992). Rian later repented of his separatism and made his mea culpas and was received into the bosom of the PCUS.

  5. “…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?”

    Thing is, how can we know that other than in hindsight? (if we can shore up the foundation?) For example, I’m part of a national denomination where one presbytery exonerates an FVist, another denied him entry unanimously, one presbytery sees theistic evolution as the best way to present the gospel to the world, and another that will not ordain or accept for transfer anyone who does not unequivocally affirm six literal 24 hour day creation. Sermons at GA tend to focus on unity but neglect to mention exactly what unity is. And, of course, a microcosm of this exists in various presbyteries, where elders have remarked to me that they feared a meeting might come to physical blows. Someone remarked to me at morning service that we have become more like a collection of denominations united under a national banner. I could go on, but you get the idea. Knowing what way forward is God’s will is not that simple, it’s easy to judge Hodge in hindsight, not so much in the midst of the controversy.

  6. I admit that I may not be the strict subscriptionist I once was (at least with people with whom I fellowship), but my sympathies are very much with Machen and his cohort rather than with the liberals with whom he did battle–and I am also too much aware of how “broad evangelicalism” can leave the impression that holiness is measured by the number of things from which one abstains (I lived and worked in Sinitic Asia a good many years).

    Unfortunately, one of the large issues that faces us is that the confessions embody a certain history from which a lot of Western people are estranged and in which nobody “East of Suez” or south of the Sahara ever really participated. I by no means welcome the loss of this history, for it has much to teach us (the Reformed confessions’ expositions of the 5th Commandment, for instance, expose a view of authority as ministerial and as stewardship rather than magisterial or dominion, with very great ramifications for how the North Atlantic world developed the idea of limited government). Yet our task in this day and age is to evangelize and disciple people who don’t have the background against which the Confessions “make sense”.

    However, when in the “broad evangelical” congregation where my wife and I fellowship (largely for reasons of ethnic heritage), and discussion of what “anointed” is all about came up in adult Sunday School, sharing Heidelberg Catechism QA 31-32 went well appreciated.

  7. David Davis, I’d say you nailed it, along with the warning of Revelation against being lukewarm.
    Which is an answer to people like myself who are retching over the Moderate Middle.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    You wrote: “Any form of subscription which 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.”

    GW: Maybe I’m mis-reading you, but I’m not sure your representation of Hodge’s view of confessional subscription as expressed in the above comment is either fair or accurate; nor do I think that a “strict subscriptionist” policy in the PCUSA would have prevented the theological rot that took place within that body (though it possibly may have kept it at bay for a time). Hodge’s view on subscription was rich and nuanced (certainly it was not “loose” or “broad” subscriptionism); however, though it might be described as a form of “system subscription,” his position on confessional subscription (combined with his understanding of the “animus imponentis”) would certainly NOT make room for un-Reformed, un-Confessional or heretical liberal/modernist viewpoints.

    Have you read Hodge’s “Adoption of the Confession of Faith”? (I’m sure you probably have; but if not, you can find it on pp. 317-342 in his “Church Polity,” published by Westminster Publishing House, Seoul, New York.) In his essay he makes a compelling case that “system subscription” (correctly conceived) was in fact THE “old school” position (and hence it would have been the position that Machen himself likely adhered to as an old school, confessional Presbyterian). D.G. Hart and John Muether seem to agree: See, for example, chapter 2 (“In Search of Presbyterian Identity”) in their “Seeking A Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism” (P & R), pp. 44-49. On page 47 they offer a quote from the Adopting Act which indicates that scruples of ministerial candidates are to be judged by Presbytery or Synod, and then they state: “To underscore that Synod was adopting the Westminster Standards in a less-than-strict manner, the last paragraph before the Adopting Act proper included a declaration of intent to treat all the members of Synod, even if not in complete theological agreement, with Christian charity.” (p. 47)

    Furthermore, the confessional, orthodox-reformed denomination that Machen was instrumental in founding (i.e., the OPC), has thus far throughout her history been able to maintain a sound confesssionalism on the whole without resorting to a strict, word-for-word subscriptionism. (See John R. Muether’s essay, “Confidence in Our Brethren: Creedal Subscription in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church”, pp. 301-310 in the volume “The Practice of Confessional Subscription,” Edited by David W. Hall; Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997.) While we in the OPC do have “strict subscriptionist” brethren in our midst (I know; I used to be one), ironically some of them in certain segments of our communion seem to think that strict subscriptionism demands requiring ministerial candidates to adhere to a literal 24-hour six day young earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1. (After all, our confessional standards do state quite plainly that God created all things “in/within the space of six days,” and as our brethren remind us, “six days means six days!”) Thus in this case it seems we have a situation where adherence to a “strict subscription” position leads to what you (rightly) call QIRC.

    I think the danger here is viewing “strict subscriptionism” as a sort-of pharisaical fence around confessional orthodoxy that will somehow guarantee ongoing orthodoxy and confessional integrity within a communion that adheres to it; when, in fact, it might actually be a position that caters to QIRC, and thus in reality ends up undermining genuine confessionalism.

    Regards,
    Geoff Willour

  9. This is an excellent post and excellent discussion following! Thanks, Scott. Having come out of the Anglican world were the myth of influence is standard fare for justifing accommodation to heresy, this exchange is refreshing.

  10. Geoff:
    You’ll need to explain how adhering to the WCF as it is written actually undermines confessionalism. You’re right: the WCF does say the world was created in six days. Either you accept that or you don’t, in which case you do not adhere to the WCF in toto. But to allow a third way of understanding the confession in an “historical” context or “interpreting” it to fit your own theories goes against the very essence of confessionalism.

    Once you start going down the route of “what the confession ACTUALLY means when it says six days…” then the document ceases to function as intended because now you need another document to explain the document that is meant to explain what your church teaches. By all means use commentaries to open up the confession and catechisms and help to understand. But once you follow a gnostic approach of diving what the confession actually teaches you might as well just forget it.

    • Alexander,

      As I explained in RRC, there are always two or more horizons in receiving a confession. There were the private opinions of the framers (of which there was at least some variety), there was their intent in imposing the confession, and then there is the way the confession is received. Sometimes that reception is explicit, as in the American revisions of the WCF on the magistrate and sometimes that reception is implicit, as on creation. E.g., I am convinced that the Lord created in six days, three of which had solar mornings and evenings and three of which did not, but I am uncertain as to the exact nature of the days. I am grateful that the confession, while setting boundaries, doesn’t require us to confess what many, after the rise of flood geology, would impose as a matter of orthodoxy. As I keep saying, we should be careful that we don’t set boundaries that will exclude Machen and Warfield and include the Adventists. That’s a bad trade indeed.

  11. I know of an RCUS that met in a renovated filling station in KC.

    Hodge also opposed the union of Old School PCUSA with the New School. He saw where it would end up. And he was right.

    • I know it well! And they met in a bank basement and in a Masonic Lodge. I know of OPs that have met in funeral parlors—appropriate (the Apostolic Fathers would understand!—but perhaps not the most inviting location for a new/newly separated congregation.

      Re: Hodge, the problem goes back further even to the reunion of the Old and New Sides.

  12. Mr. Clark-

    I’m unclear why we should be making sure Warfield and Machen “fit in” with our understanding of the Confession. Are they the touchstones or orthodoxy? Methinks not. Warfield is not rock solid in every area and I wonder how Machen would have fared in the Scottish Church before declension set in. We must mould our doctrine to the Confession, not the other way around. Maybe Adventists could subscribe the clause on Creation. So what? Could they subscribe the rest of it? Methinks not.

    Now I’m certainly not wanting to exclude Hodge and Machen and Warfield. The Old Princetonians are great men of the faith. But that doesn’t mean they adhered strictly to the Westminster standards, and that’s what I care about when it comes to who is a member/office-bearer in my denomination. I’m content to learn from their wisdom and insight whilst thinking I wouldn’t necessarily want them as ministers in my church.

    But it also does affect how we understand the standards. Whilst original intent/debates of the time of the writing of the Confession can be interesting/helpful, what truly matters is the finished document: it is that which we adopt, not the diary entries of those who framed it.

    • Alexander,

      If I have to choose between the Adventists and Machen/Warfield, I choose the latter. There are plenty of folk who want to set up a standard of orthodoxy (via versions of 6-24 creation) that would happily exclude Machen and Warfield.

      Take a look at RRC.

  13. Alexander wrote: “You’ll need to explain how adhering to the WCF as it is written actually undermines confessionalism. You’re right: the WCF does say the world was created in six days. Either you accept that or you don’t, in which case you do not adhere to the WCF in toto. But to allow a third way of understanding the confession in an “historical” context or “interpreting” it to fit your own theories goes against the very essence of confessionalism.”

    GW: As Dr. Clark has pointed out, confessionalism not only involves the words of the confessional standards themselves (though the plain-grammatical import of the words are of greatest importance). Also involved in confessionalism are such things as ascertaining the original intent of confession’s authors, how a confessional church chooses to “receive” the standards, the “animus imponentis” (the “mind of the church” in imposing the confessional standards upon office bearers), etc. Whether we like it or not, just as the Scriptures (our primary Standard) have to be interpreted, likewise the Confession (our secondary standard) also needs to be interpreted; and in doing so all of the above needs to be taken into consideration.

    In the Minutes of the 71st (2004) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the lengthy and detailed “Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation” offered the following comments about ascertaining the “original intent” of the Westminster Divines with respect to their understanding of “in/within the space of six days”:

    “In ascertaining original intent in this sense then we must always pay the most careful attention to the words that the divines themselves chose to employ. It is not safe to assume that even if most divines held to a view that the six days of creation were each twenty-four hours that they intended to enshrine this view into the constitution. It may be assumed that the twenty-four hour day view was so common that it was deemed unnecessary for the divines to specify such. Or it may be assumed that the divines did not think explicitly in the category of days “consisting of 24 hours.” The last phrase, however, is a phrase that was moved but not adopted by the Assembly in regards to the question of the Sabbath. The Assembly Minutes indicate that in the debate on the doctrine of the Sabbath it was decided to “waive” the proposal that the words “consisting of 24 hours” be part of the description of the Sabbath day. This clearly indicates that the divines had such language at their disposal. They chose not to employ the phrase “consisting of 24 hours” in describing the Sabbath, perhaps because Lightfoot believed the Sabbath to be eternal. And they did not employ such language when they spoke of creation as being accomplished “in the space of six days.” That the divines did not say “in the space of six days consisting of twenty-four hours” should be lost on no one. The Westminster divines had full ability to prescribe twenty-four hour days but did not explicitly do so. One is then hard pressed to argue that the original intent of the divines was to do something that by the words of the Standards themselves they did not clearly do.” (p. 259)

    Some use the “six days means six days!” line to argue that only the literal twenty-four hour day view is acceptable if one is going to be faithfully confessional. But such a position seems to be simplistic and uninformed about the historical complexities in this issue.

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