OverReview: Christianity and Liberalism

Despite the title of this book, it has nothing to do with politics. Well, it interacts with politics insofar as it critiques a Christianity that is only interested in dogooding. But primarily this book is a robust defense of the fundamental tenants of the Christian faith, and how by discarding the divinity of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, the reality of sin and the need for repentance, a different religion from Christianity has been constructed.

Although he has the reputation as a restless warrior, Machen is surprisingly gregarious. He waxes about what all true Christian sects have in common that allow us to identify each other as brothers. He discusses the doubts and issues a believer might face while still identifying them as a true Christian. What he has no time for are preachers who reduce Jesus to being a ‘good teacher’ (For if Jesus is not who he claimed to be, he was a madman, not someone worthy of emulation), discard the Bible and essentially want to turn the church into a social club with a vaguely spiritual gloss. What he especially takes issue with are the ministers who lie, who take oaths confessing they subscribe to doctrines, belief in the Bible, and specific creeds/confessions, then turn around and openly dispute them. He has respect for the Unitarian church as they’re honest about what they believe. He disagrees with them appreciates their candor. He has no patience for those who wanted to turn (and are succeeding) in turning the Presbyterian church into a Unitarian church.

Machen was right. The denomination he was defending is now rife with those preaching exactly what he feared, that Jesus was not God, God is not Triune, there is no resurrection, and that there is no hell (and possibly no heaven). This is not a form of Christianity, but something different altogether. And we should be wary of those who use vague spiritual notions to try and make the world a better place. Reading this helped snap into place why Machen stood opposed to the Christian push for Prohibition and why he refused the invitation to speak at the Scopes Trial. This book is just as applicable today as it was when it was first printed.

I have the feeling that if someone in Machen’s orthodox camp spoke like he did… well he wouldn’t be invited to any conferences. It’s no wonder that Machen is a forgotten titan most in the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd are unfortunately ignorant of.

Kill Your Weekends

For Easter Sunday the New York Times released an editorial where Ross Douthat implored secular liberal readers to start going to church again in order to save the aging and dying mainline denominations (Think PCUSA). I have to admit, I did appreciate a few of the things he had to say. Such as the benefits of church communities that societies like the Freedom From Religion Foundation will never match.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

… Finally, a brief word to the really hardened atheists: Oh, come on. Sure, all that beauty and ecstasy and astonishing mathematical order is because we’re part of a multiverse or a simulation or something; that’s the ticket. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real. Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.

But the real problem and explanation for why these churches are dying in the first place quickly comes to light when Douthat informs his readers that the mainline have done their absolute best to make us comfortable already, so won’t you please throw them a bone and attend already:

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.

And therein lies the rub. By all accounts, the mainline churches should be booming with growth. Yes yes, they are still the largest denominations in America by a large margin (apologies to my LCMS friends, you are much larger than NAPARC but the ELCA is twice your size) and will continue to be even after they lose half a million more congregants over the next couple years. But by all accounts, they’re doing everything right by becoming as accommodating as possible. Why aren’t the membership rolls growing by flinging the doors open wide and establishing no barrier for entry?

This reminds me of an episode of a podcast I regularly listen to, the Judge John Hodgman Podcast. On this show, author and former minor television personality John Hodgman settles real-world disputes his guests have. It’s a great show because it shows a wide swatch of human experience that is utterly foreign to me. From a dispute about having dinner with the extended family five nights a week to whether or not the master bedroom should be turned into a dedicated VR room (and decorated like the Holodeck from TNG), the problems may vary in consequence, scope or importance, but each is real and Hodgman, while funny, also treats each case seriously and in probing often finds, as he puts it, “the crux of the matter”.

The episode this reminded me of ‘Separation of Church and Date‘ bowled me over because it revealed to me what’s common knowledge (I tend to have my head in the sand on many issues). In this episode the dispute is that a woman would like her boyfriend to attend church with her a couple times a year. The boyfriend has set a limit to the number of times he’ll attend church each year, and would also like for attending weddings with religious elements to count towards this limit. My immediate reaction was “Suck it up. We all do things we don’t want to do for the sake of a healthy relationship and besides, going to your friend’s wedding should be something you look forward to no matter what the circumstances are. Stop being a self-absorbed oaf and go be an actual partner.”

Then I learned more about the exact situation. She didn’t just want him to attend church with her on Easter, Christmas and a handful of other weekends. She was in seminary, training to become a pastor herself. One of the events he didn’t want to attend was her own ordination. The Judge then delved into her beliefs as a future “Minister of Word and Sacrament”. She claimed to agree in “something greater than human kind” and when the Judge clarified by stating, “Right, you believe in God” she retorted with “As a label” and when asked about the afterlife she said she was indifferent (Indifferent about the resurrection of the dead, closing tenets of both the Apostle and Nicene creeds?) and said she preferred, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive, to focus on the here and now and making the world a better place.

Someone award her the Kuyper prize.

And so now she found herself in a situation where her live-in boyfriend of 10 years was ambivalent about attending her ordination ceremony. And really, who could blame him? Of course he’s ambivalent, it’s an ambivalent religion with no stakes that makes no claims that demands nothing of you. What’s the point of a Christian religion where its own ministers and elders won’t even clearly state that they believe in God? That’s why fewer and fewer people are willing to give up their Sunday mornings for a glorified social club with a dress-up aspect. Why miss Easter brunch specials and NFL Sundays for some quasi-belief in next to nothing? The denomination even has ministers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity, in violation of the creeds and confessions they allegedly subscribe to, and no one even blinks at this.

This sort of fuzzy belief at best, and belief in nothing at all at worst has a name and it’s not Presbyterianism, Reformed or even Christianity. It’s agnosticism and atheism. And if the focus is rallying people around political and social causes, that’s what Parties and Committees are for. That’s why Douthat’s pleading to save the mainline will fall on deaf ears. His marks aren’t stupid, they know full well there’s no point in attending these churches and they won’t be conned into it. The only reason that they’re still around is simple inertia.

The great newspaperman H.L. Mencken summed this up in his obituary of  J. Gresham Machen in 1937 (1937, remember that whenever anyone tells you this has only happened within the last few years or decades):

What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.

Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.

Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.

These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.

It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.

These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy.

That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again–in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed–but he was undoubtedly right.

I apologize for the length of that quotation, but it really hammers home the point and it’s a criticism we Christians should take to heart when we’re worried about being respectable in the eyes of society and our critics. We cannot win respect by throwing essential doctrine off the ship. Altering our religion to make it appealing will only confirm what they already knew, that it truly means nothing at all. If you want respect then you should emulate Machen and strive for a consistent and intelligent defense of the faith. Attending a compromised church out of guilt, as a matter of merely connecting with community, or because a columnist begged you to because the mainline has tried so hard to be palatable to you, is not just pointless, it’s soulless. You’re better off watching football Sunday mornings instead.

Monolithic Inerrancy

While researching an entirely unrelated topic, I stumbled across a quote from J Gresham Machen’s most famous work, Christianity and Liberalism, that caught me by surprise:

It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ—there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.

This has instantly shot Christianity and Liberalism to the top of my reading list so I can read this in its full context because I almost can’t believe this is an accurate quote. Machen was no liberal, on the contrary, he was forced out of Princeton and the PCUSA for his commitment to orthodoxy and went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in response. Yet this statement of his that can be found in nearly any Reformed Church’s library, is broad and charitable enough that if it was posted in the average Reformed Facebook group we’d have a holy horde doubting his salvation.

But at least Machen was simply being charitable towards others here. He himself fully held to the belief that the Bible was wholly divinely inspired and without error. He just didn’t think we should brandish those with a less strict subscription as being heretics. The same can’t be said for this inconvenient quote from one of our favorite thinkers:

The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say.”

You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ this story ‘as historical’? Of course it doesn’t say ‘This is fiction’: but then neither does Our Lord say that His Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason.)

Are we prepared to condemn or at the very least, treat Lewis as dangerous because of these views? His books are doubtless in our church libraries, we trust him with our children (Including his book The Last Battle which contains that troubling story of Emeth). If we give Lewis a pass for these views and welcome him into our homes, are we prepared to do the same for someone who might be sitting in the pew across from us?

Inerrancy is a particularly tricky subject. I’d bet that no matter how strict you consider yourself on the matter there is someone out there who would take your view as insufficient. If you hold to anything other than 6 day, 24 hour creationism you can find yourself on the outs very quickly (despite this not being a controversial subject until relatively recently). If you rightly think that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the sun there is a whole cabal out there who will gladly inform you that you don’t take passages like Joshua 10 seriously enough. Think the Theory of Relativity is a legit scientific theory? Reconstructionists will tell you that you don’t take God at his word.

Obviously I believe the Bible is the inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God, but for each individual that says this, the term ‘inerrant’ is up in the air. I think we should be careful to not try to make the Bible authoritative over subjects that it doesn’t claim to have authority over. That we don’t twist it to say things it has no intention of saying. At the same time, we must be careful that we don’t work overtime to diminish it so that it ends up saying nothing at all