John Frame first published his essay “Machen’s Warrior Children” in 2003, in a Festscrhfit (a volume of congratulatory essays usually in honor of a 65th birthday or a retirement) for Alister McGrath. The essay was ostensibly a historical analysis of what happened to the movement Machen started. It was, in fact, what journalists call “a hit piece,” aimed at his confessionalist foes. As it turns out, this essay was just the first in a string of such pieces. As a piece of historical analysis it was sorely lacking—philosophers may or may not make up things as they go along but historians are supposed to attempt to describe accurate what really happened, when, where, and why. Frame’s essay did little of that but it did provide rhetorical ammunition for those unhappy with their critics, especially confessional critics.
The essay is before us again because last Saturday Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Evangelism, and Mission at Wheaton College (where I taught briefly), invoked the essay, J. Gresham Machen, and the category of “fundamentalist” ostensibly to explain but mostly to shame the critics of Beth Moore, a notable Southern Baptist author, speaker, head of Living Proof Ministries. She has been the center of a controversy among Southern Baptists, with whom Stetzer is also affiliated. Stetzer invoked the essay in this thread. His point seems to have been that Southern Baptists criticizing Moore’s view and practice of preaching are the equivalent to the angry “fundamentalists” among Machen’s followers who, according to Frame, seem to be happier fighting than getting along and cooperating in the mission of the church. Stetzer himself had invoked Frame’s categories in a 2009 essay concerning internal dissension among Southern Baptists.
J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) was an outstanding professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, the leader of those in the old Northern Presbyterian Church who were denominated as “fundamentalists” by their liberal opponents, the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929), when he left Princeton Seminary over its reorganization and marginalization of seminary faculty, and the leader of the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.
One of the great problems in this discussion is the casual use of the adjective fundamentalist. When I last surveyed that literature for Recovering the Reformed Confession, I found that, in the academic literature it is very difficult to find an agreed definition. There is a reason it is so difficult. Like the adjective evangelical, fundamentalist is used to describe a wide-array of beliefs and practices. In the case of the abstract noun Evangelicalism, D. G. Hart has concluded that it does not actually exist. This conclusion has not gained a great deal of traction, in my opinion, because too many have too much at stake in evangelicalism to let it go. It represents a voting bloc, a market, and a fan base. It must exist. I argue that fundamentalism does exist and I characterized it, in the Reformed world, as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty.
Fundamentalism, however, can also be a bogey man especially when it is used to mean “those whose views I do not like.” To be sure, there are fundamentalists but they are not what they used to be. For one thing, in its original sense, as in the series of volumes on the Fundamentals of the Faith, it included people not normally considered fundamentalists, e.g., B. B. Warfield. He was among those contending for the “fundamentals” of the faith (1910–15) and after, e.g., the historicity of Christ, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension—namely the articles of the Apostles’ Creed over against the theological liberals, who sought to re-define the faith as an expression of human (religious) experience but not objective truth claims. Against such a view Machen published Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, which became the manifesto of the movement(s). Machen also defended the Virgin Birth of Christ and the supernatural character of the origin of Paul’s religion. Liberals derided him as pugnacious but more objective observers, who had nothing at stake in the argument, such as H. L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann recognized Christianity and Liberalism as a masterful re-statement of the essentials of the Christian Faith.
Machen Had Different Kinds Of Children
Machen was a lifelong bachelor who had no biological children but he did have spiritual children and allies of different kinds. There were always different kinds of fundamentalism. There were at least two distinct varieties of fundamentalism during Machen’s life: the learned, historically grounded, and confessionalist “fundamentalists” (who wore the label with some discomfort) and those fundamentalists who made premillennialism, 6-day creation (Machen held the day-age view of creation and believed in an old-earth), and the King James Only as marks of orthodoxy. Those fundamentalists were suspicious of Machen’s (to them) liberalism in the Christian life. He was not a teetotaler. Some Fundamentalists and Liberals circulated scandalous stories about how Machen’s family made their wealth.
Politically, Machen was a libertarian. He opposed prayer in public schools. He opposed the Department of Education. He opposed laws against jaywalking. Some of his fundamentalist allies were not only teetotalers but they also anticipated the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s and 80s. They were more than willing to use the levers of government power to achieve their social goals. In that way they were twins to the liberals, who (e.g., Woodrow Wilson) also had a grand vision for society.
Frame’s own relationship to Machen is ambivalent at best. By virtue of his use of triperspectival method, Frame is (in his mind) above all the old debates and able to show that they were really just different perspectives on the same issue. Much of his case rests of tendentious historical claims (e.g., Calvin on the Sabbath) and his own latitudinarian approach to confessional subscription, theonomy, Pentecostalism, the Creator/creature distinction (he has been on both sides of the Gordon Clark-Van Til debate), covenant and justification (Frame is an ardent supporter of Norman Shepherd), the confessional distinction between law and gospel, and worship to name but a few.
Stetzer’s invocation of fundamentalism regarding Moore’s critics and of Frame’s critique of confessionalists has the function of once-again conflating the confessionalists and the fundamentalists. Machen was only nominally a fundamentalist. He made common cause with them in defense of the fundamentals of the faith but not in their crusade against alcohol or on other extra-confessional issues. So it is today. Stetzer invokes Frame to lump his critics with the fundamentalists and so to marginalize them.
It is not fundamentalist to affirm 1 Timothy 2. It is still God’s holy, inerrant, and infallible Word. It still norms the theology, piety, and practice of Reformed Churches. We still confess the biblical qualifications for the offices of minister, elder, and deacon (see Belgic Confession articles 31 and 31). It is not my intent to wade into the contest for the control of the SBC. It is my intent to push back against Frame’s analysis of the modern history of Reformed theology (and his analysis of the rest of its history as well). I do not want those outside the confessional Reformed world, who may, through Stetzer’s influence, come into contact with Frame’s argument (even if only through Stetzer’s use of it) to take it as unchallenged truth. D. G. Hart gave a vastly superior account of these questions in his response to Frame, also in a Festschrift (for Bob Godfrey), Always Reformed: Make War No More? The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of J. Gresham Machen’s Warrior Children.
- Resources On Machen, Christianity, And Liberalism
- Resources On The Social Gospel And Social Justice
- Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey
- Audio: D. G. Hart on Machen’s Warrior Children (Presbycast)