Of Militants and Moderates

Darryl Hart (as always) has a provocative (in the best sense) post today at Old Life. His use of the categories “militants” and “moderates” is very useful and helpful. To anticipate a criticism, yes, Reformed people can sometimes be jerks. Neither Darryl nor I are denying this fact but effect of the recent spate of calls from folks with sympathies toward Reformed theology (if not always it’s piety and practice) to be more moderate is to say, “stop being so Reformed.” Darryl’s point that it wasn’t sweetly reasonable “moderates” who gave us the Reformation or Reformed theology, piety, and practice for that matter, is not to be missed. It was men with conviction about the truth of the law and the truth of the gospel and the centrality of the visible, institutional church, and the due use of the ordinary means in Christian piety. Most of the folk who gave us our theology, piety, and practice would not pass the moderation test being offered by our not-so-young but still restless and reforming friends. Wesley’s rejection of much of the Reformation soteriology (it’s painfully hard to find a Protestant soteriology in Wesley’s writing) and the 18th-century revivalist revision of Reformed piety and practice may be exciting but they don’t get to set the bar for what it means to be faithful to Scripture or Reformed.

More recently, please remember that it was the moderates at Old Princeton who made it possible for the seminary to turn its back on confessional theology, piety, and practice. It was those folk who said, “I’m personally orthodox but I’m willing to be tolerant of and cooperate with those who hold fundamentally divergent view points,” that fatally undermined the work of J. Gresham Machen and others toward preserving the Reformation at Princeton.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was a boy on Grandpa’s farm we used to shoot wasps in the water tank. When we were too young to work and there wasn’t much else to do, we used stand in the backdoor of the bunk house and wait for wasps to fly near or land on the water tank and we would plink them with the B B gun. Think of it as a crude video game with real-life consequences. If Grandpa caught us filling up the bottom of his water tank (which was for the livestock, not for our amusement!) thereby rusting it and creating more work for him, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t have been just a game any more! Spotting the old liberals was like shooting wasps in the water tank. They openly denied the truth of Scripture and they mocked the confessions. It was much more difficult to see, at the time, the damage being done to the Reformed churches by those who took the latitudinarian “live and let live” or “go along to get along” approach. After all, they were personally orthodox but they just differed with Machen over the matter of a question of degrees.

When push came to shove, however, those who desired social and ecclesiastical influence more than fidelity chose the path of least resistance and stood by as Machen was run out of Princeton and the mainline on a rail. As the centenary those events nears (I suppose, depending on how one looks at it, the centenary might already be here) we would do well to ask ourselves this: a century later, of the three in view: Machen, Speer, or Erdman, who still matters?  It’s not the lib (Speer; this old TIME editorial tried to re-package him—sorry, the article is no longer available). It’s not the “moderate” (Erdman), but the militant, Machen, who still matters (see this review of Longield’s book on these three). Why? It’s because Machen stood for something and not just for anything. He stood for something that mattered: the truth as we confess and practice it. He stood for it well, gracefully (even if he critics decried his rhetoric as “divisive”), and he stood for it courageously and at great personal cost—ultimately his life.

The pressure coming from influential voices in that segment of the broadly evangelical world that identifies with aspects of Reformed theology (namely our soteriology) but who don’t live in our churches (or who circumvent our polity) will be hard to resist. It offers us acceptance if only we’ll not be so insistent on things they regard as secondary or tertiary. History teaches us that the siren call of acceptance is more more expensive than it seems. Many didn’t resist it in Machen’s day and had to choose between “Mr. Valiant for Truth” and, to coin a persona, “Mr. Influential.” The latter proved to be very hard to ignore. Bob Godfrey diagnosed this temptation in 1998. I hope you’ll read it. It might be the most useful thing you’ve read in a while. Ask yourself, when was the last time anyone really cared about Clarence Macartney?

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Very nicely done.

    What I found really interesting was the Militant and Moderate designations.

    George W. Dollar in his History of Fundamentalism in America had three catagories of fundamentalists: Militant, Moderate (for some reason he put Westminster there) and Modified (Fuller and Gordon made this list.)

    Now, it would be interesting to think of a “modified” Reformed category and who/what would qualify for it.

  2. First, I have to say that I don’t have the perception that any of the cited articles at TGC are telling the Reformed to be less Reformed. But it’s quite possible that the articles are a bit overdone in singling out the Reformed for intellectual pride. Still and all, even if there were characterization of Reformed Christianity as some uniquely intellectually prideful/arrogant, isn’t the best response always to individually examine ourselves before God by means of the Scripture to see whether the criticisms have merit, and if they do, then to own it, and if they don’t not to argue about it?

    Said another way, isn’t it best to save our arguments for defending the fundamentals of the faith as opposed to defending ourselves against accusations of being intellectually arrogant?

    And even in defending the confessions that we respectively believe, all true Christians (of whatever doctrinal variety) should do that from a position of humility before God, and in a loving tone (not all of the original Reformers were models in the latter respect — Martin Luther’s preface to Erasmus springs to mind).

    • Interesting the Dollar had a chapter entitled “Orthodox Allies” which was a reference to Machen and “his warrior children” who did the heavy lifting of defending historic Christianity.

      If they hadn’t been such, then who would have done the job? Princeton’s faculty of the 40s and 50s?

    • Tim,

      I haven’t read Piper’s latest but I did read the others. Tim wants to reduce the confession to “doctrine” (that’s the effect of his 3 categories) and then to marginalize it. Ray Ortlund’s point has been that we should all be more sweetly pious like Wesley.

      Did you read the essay on “Jerks”? Didn’t that address your concerns? If not, why not?

      Isn’t the real message here, “stop being so Reformed” and “Stop insisting on Reformed, ecclesiastical distinctions and just get along”?

      Mind you, I define Reformed much more completely than John Piper or Ray Ortlund (I guess) would. I can’t say about Tim. We affirm the same confession but we seem to have somewhat different relationships to it.

      • Yes, I read the essay on “Jerks” after posting (shame on me!). Articulates very elegantly what I was trying to say.

        As for the distinctions between the “truly Reformed”, the Reformed Baptist, the “other with a Calvinist view of justification”, and all the other myriad strains of modern evangelicalism, I have the general sense that all of Keller, Piper, Ortlund would not say to ignore debate concerning the areas of difference (e.g., infant baptism, regulatory principle, …), but rather to put greater emphasis on the unity we share in believing and proclaiming the “sine qua non” of Christianity (viz., justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone).

        • Tim,

          I appreciate this but your comment illustrates my post quite well. You want those who are orthodox on justification to get along. That’s what Erdman wanted. He wanted Machen not to be so insistent on confessional orthodoxy! Look what happened to Princeton and the PCUSA. Nominal orthodoxy wasn’t practical or ecclesiastical orthodoxy. The boundary just kept slipping back to where? Where, a century later, is the boundary in the PCUSA? There isn’t one.

          The problem is not the orthodoxy of these fellows on justification. The problem is that that they won’t draw confessional boundaries and are too tolerant of those who deny justification. If the gospel is justification by grace (divine favor) alone, through faith (resting and receiving) alone, in Christ alone, then any other version of the gospel is a corruption thereof. Well, I don’t know about Ortlund but I do know that Tim has allowed Tom Wright to speak under the auspices of his church and John has invited (and defended inviting) Doug Wilson to speak at DGM. How does that work? If the judaizers had a good social program (they might have done) or believed in the resurrection (they did!) would Paul have them speak at the church? Judging from Gal 2 I guess not.

          That’s exactly the problem I was trying to illustrate in the post above: a refusal to be militantly confessional. What good does it do to be personally orthodox on justification but also personally (and publicly) tolerant of corruptions of the same?

          The second problem here is that Reformed confessionalists, those of us who believe all the WCF, who want to put into practice, and whose piety is shaped by it, don’t fit the mold into which we are being squeezed. Would one ask an Anabaptist to stop being so wound up about believer’s baptism or the absolute purity of the visible church? To ask us to stop being militant is to ask us to stop being what we are. Why?

          The movement to set aside distinctive ecclesiastical and theological and practical convictions (the old neo-evangelical movement) is what helped to get us to this point. The movement failed. That’s why ACE, the Gospel Coalition and the rest exist. They’re all trying to put back together the pieces of the house that Carl Henry and Harold J. Ockenga and Bill Graham put together.

          Here are some related posts:







          • Thanks for your thoughtful and articulate response to my comment, and for all of the helpful links.

            You’ve characterized my desire (as it’s probably evident from my post that I have a certain amount of sympathy for the points of view Piper and Ortlund have articulated) as being that all those churches which are orthodox on justification would “just get along”. This is almost (but not quite) an accurate characterization of my point of view on the matter (and perhaps of Piper and Ortlund too – although I certainly can’t speak for them).

            I think a more precise statement of my view would be to say that I wish that all those who believe the gospel would treat each other with Christian charity and humility.

            A couple of notes to further clarify:

            I mean “the gospel” in the above as a proper subset of “correct doctrine”: specifically the bare minimum propositional content of saving faith – which at a high level roughly encompasses salvation from sin by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. For example, I would place the regulative principle of worship outside of the gospel proper because I think it’s hard to justify scripturally that holding correct doctrine on the regulative principle is essential to the content of saving faith.

            Also, treating other Christians (even those with whom we disagree on some confessional points) with charity and humility doesn’t mean that we should all be part of the same denomination, or that we ought to water down the confessions until they’re vague enough to cover all kinds of contradictory points of view, or that we ought to just treat parts of the confessions as though they’re dead letters. It also doesn’t mean that we should refrain from vigorous debate with those Christians with whom we have doctrinal disagreements on points not central to the gospel. It just means that in engaging in such debate we should treat each other as Christian brothers in humility and charity. A good example of this that springs to mind is the relationship between R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur.

            A reasonable restatement of what I was trying to say in my last comment is that in communication to the world of unbelievers, evangelicals of all stripes should put more emphasis on the gospel on which they agree as opposed to other points of doctrine on which they don’t agree. And that when we engage in impassioned debate on those other points of doctrine with our brothers in Christ we should do so in a spirit of humility and charity.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    So what would we need to do to be rightly militant? I’ve read RRC, I don’t stand for confessional evasion. I see these statements in the COD that are sharply pointed towards people. Is this the type of militancy you’re speaking of? One that is understanding of the confessions and their biblical foundation couldn’t help but get hot fueled by the implications of rejecting biblical truth.

    There’s hang-ups I have with what I associate with belligerance. I tend to associate it with undue rude and smart (or worse dumb) -ass rhetoric. Strawman-ing, fanaticism, etc. I see the problem’s with what I associate it and not so much belligerance itself.

    I have personally been becoming as of late more and more aware of my indifference throughout my life. I think this is another aspect I need to work on.

    • Hi Durrell,

      I think Machen gives us a great model here. He was the embodiment of “suaviter in modo, fortiter in re.” (strongly in substance, winsomely in manner). Few of us have hit this mark as consistently as he did.

      Nevertheless, bear in mind that it will probably not satisfy most evangelicals. Many of them were still not satisfied with “Dassie.” (Machen’s nickname). They wanted more: conformity. You can see this totalitarianism in the growing anger in E J Carnel. After he became president of Fuller he lashed out at Machen in an ugly hit piece. Why? Especially after all the Machen had done and especially in the case that without Machen’s self-sacrifice (he could have stayed at Princeton, kept his mouth shut, gone along and got along) Fuller probably wouldn’t have existed but Carnell viscously attacked Machen anyway. Why?

      Carnell wanted religious and ecclesiastical power and influence. He wanted entree to the PCUSA and any connection with Machen made that impossible. So he had to burn Machen at the stake and renounce him. It was the cost of entry into the PCUSA. Then, of course, they had to conform on Scripture (which they did about a decade later) and women in office. Today? Fuller is one of (if not the) leading producers of pastors for the PCUSA.

      The evangelicals are just like the libs in this respect. They are no more tolerant of genuine diversity. They talk a good game but there’s no reality behind the rhetoric.

      This is why I wrote the essay on “Jerks.” I don’t know what else to do.

      We need to tell the truth plainly, humbly, penitently but we have to tell the truth. That’s our vocation.

      Do we have to use the same rhetoric as Dort? No. We ought to be chastened by Dort but not embarrassed by it. Those fellows believed truth and were willing to speak unequivocally and to suffer for doing so. Are we? I know their rhetoric sounds mean today but why? Was it really mean? Was it?

      I realize the tremendous cultural (including religious) pressure to conform to politically correct (i.e., only affirmational) speech patterns but at what cost? Styles change but truth doesn’t. We can’t talk exactly as they did but we probably shouldn’t judge them. Those fellows had clear memories of the martyrdom of vast numbers of people for the gospel. They lived in light of the ever-present possibility that such suffering could break out again at any moment. A treaty here, deal there and there could have been another St Bartholomew’s Day week. Can we really judge those fellows from the comfort of our couches?

  4. Tim,

    From what I gather, and this might be pressing too far, but it seems to me that Dr. Clark may consider folks who aren’t “confessional” as outside the boundaries of the Gospel; and thus should not be considered within the ‘fold’ — thus the reference to Galatians 2 above.

    In this sense to be “confessional” is to be Christian; and at best to not be “confessional” means that this person’s “Christianity” (in a “saving” sense) becomes necessarily suspect. And thus the justification for being militant (remembering that the true church on earth is indeed ‘militant’ for the Gospel).


    Have I overstated? Or am I correctly understanding what you’re getting at? You’re not just saying that Confessional Christianity reflects another tradition or denomination within broader Christendom; but that Confessional Christianity represents the instantiation of Christ’s true Church on earth. So to not be *militant* is not to just give up a “tradition;” but really it is to give up the Gospel itself.

    • Yes Bobby, once again you’ve shown a remarkable inability to understand relatively simple arguments. At least your posts are good for entertainment value.


      Pay no attention to Bobby. I’m fairly sure that English must be his third or fourth language. We’ve been talking on the HB for what seems like several years and he’s no closer to understanding Reformed orthodoxy or my arguments (does he actually read anything I write?) than when we began. I may seem harsh here but if you go back and read the posts you’ll understand.

      The great difficulty I, as a confessionalist, have here is that American evangelicalism has become, since the early 19th century, totalitarian. The reigning metaphor (see Roger Olson) has been “the big tent.” That metaphor is problematic since, in order to belong, one has to check one’s ecclesiology at the door. If you doubt that it’s totalitarian see the dialogue between RO and Mike Horton where Mike tried to change the metaphor to “Village Green.” Thus “evangelicalism should be reckoned as a place to meet and discuss common interests, that’s all. Roger would have none of it! The great oppressed one was quite unwilling to let go of the keys to the revival tent!

      I discuss this in RRC. Read also Darryl Hart’s Lost Soul.

      The price entailed particularly in Ray Ortlund’s critique is too high for me to pay. I’m quite willing to confess my sins—I agree with Luther: “Be a sinner!” I expect to sin and I expect to confess my sins and to hear the gospel of forgiveness declare my absolution but Ray wants more than that. So do Tim and John. I don’t think they are satisfied with confessionalists confessing their sins and being penitent. They want conformity to another vision of spirituality. That’s asking too much.

      • Scott,

        RO is quite simple to understand, Scott; why engage in ad hominen or caricature. How is it that I don’t understand RO thought? Is it simply because I disagree with it, and then question it publicly that would make you say I must not understand it? I’m assuming that your assuming that if I actually understood RO that I would be compelled to agree with it; but since I don’t, I simply must not understand it. This just isn’t the case, Scott, to your chagrin. RO presents a logico/causal rigid determinism that subjects God’s life to the absolutum decretum or creation; this is just one of the problems with RO, but a big one!


        I’ve only been reading at the HB for less than 2yrs. I’ve only engaged Scott a few times; and in those engagements there hasn’t been anything going on except with me disagreeing with Scott and then him disagreeing with me. I’ve never personally attacked Scott, but simply challenged the theology he is forwarding. If he can’t take that, as a Doctor and Professor of Church History and Theology — which apparently he can’t, given his response to me here — then I’m not quite sure what to say. I’m just trying to understand what he really believes about Evangelicals (are they brothers and sisters in Christ, or second class believers, or what?).

      • Thanks Dr. Clark for your clear and helpful comments. As I’ve read and considered them and come to a better understanding of the totality of your argument, it seems to me that your position really is almost identical to mine on these issues: viz., that we Christians should honestly and passionately hold forth the doctrines of the faith as they are revealed in Scripture, always doing so in the spirit of charity so beautifully described in I Corinthians 13.

        “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

        Thanks again for your insightful and edifying comments.

  5. Well, let’s try and get back on topic. This is a great little essay. Many excellent points or observations drawn from the the founding of WTS & the OPC, i.e., the life of Machen.
    >>please remember that it was the moderates at Old Princeton who made it possible for the seminary to turn its back on confessional theology, piety, and practice. <>When push came to shove, however, those who desired social and ecclesiastical influence more than fidelity chose the path of least resistance and stood by as Machen was run out of Princeton and the mainline on a rail.<<

    Everyone should read The Presbyterian Conflict by E. Rian, and Hart's Defending the Faith (on Machen) or Stonehouse's bio of Machen, then read The Broadening Church by Loetscher, and see that it's all coming around again. We need many to be Mr. Valiant-for -the-Truth. We need to stand firm in our confessional/ecclesiastic commitments. We all don't need to be a "influential" – except when it comes to faithfully serving our churches.

  6. Rhe critique here and on oldlife of the Piper column is quite misplaced, he’s actually writing to the YRR crowd (not the confessionally reformed) and warning a movement that is already theologically fuzzy about the dangers of doctrine.

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