Orthodoxy and J. Gresham Machen
In the early years of the 20th century, modernist philosophy began to erode the orthodoxy of the Christian church at large. Though this was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that social theory and philosophy would challenge the essentials of Christian doctrine, it was one of the most significantly yet subtly pervasive threats the Church had experienced. J. Gresham Machen was a strong voice in response and opposition to the Modernist threat to orthodoxy by rooting the entirety of Christian life in doctrine and not accepting the reduction of the Christian faith to malleable and ambiguous values. ‘I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots.In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a "life," as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine (J. Gresham Machen on his own book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923).’ Machen spoke of a controversy which not only compelled him in his initial grappling of spiritual identity but also had an emphatic and determining effect upon his life’s work and ministry. Though he spoke directly to a philosophical climate that has since dissipated, his words remain applicable to today’s climate of postmodernism. He indicted the encroaching influence of philosophical Modernism upon the theological grounding of the Christian faith, and admonished his brethren to retain their reliance upon Christ as the giver of life, rather than let the achievements of man erode the integrity of their own words, let alone the Word of God.To briefly summarize the context of his writing, Machen had himself witnessed the unprecedented changes brought about by the industrial revolution, and had been present among the philosophers whose thinking had begun to pull the rug out from under the conservative churches of America. He acknowledged the sweeping changes in capacity of our country and the elevation of utility above meaning; this made possible by the fact that an attitude of self-reliance had retracted the feasibility of the supernatural. Ultimately, this attitude gave birth to a general suspicion of the institutions of the past, and to be fair, one cannot help but sympathize with such thinking: After all, looking back over millennia of what was perceived as stagnancy, why would anyone desire to maintain any of the ideas, beliefs and institutions which must have stifled the progress and has finally broken through to improve society from bottom up? Machen’s thinking exposes, however, the fickleness of such an attitude.
In expounding upon his train of thought, it can also be shown that it retains its application toward the Church amidst the contemporary challenge of the postmodern mind. Just as Machen did in the early 20th century, so also do we today feel the pressure of claims that our expanding capability and practical understanding of the world has exposed not just the impotence of scripture, but the impotence of Christ! As we collect and arrange data from various sources with which to piece together even a meager narrative of origins, we assume that a document meticulously preserved for thousands of years by a culture known for its dedication in this area, and done so for the purpose of preserving a history and worldview, must be more myth than fact, more propagation than sincerity, more naïve wishful thinking than sophisticated skepticism. Yet improved means cannot simply invalidate that from which it came. Was it not the obsession of those who dwelled in Shinar with their own means that trampled upon modesty, stewardship and thanksgiving? Did it not ultimately result in their incapacitation (Gen 11, 1-9)? Was it not the worship of might which destroyed the foundation upon which it was built and rendered the people weak? Yes it was, but the effort, capacity and result are in themselves untarnished until they are motivated by a heart disconnected with God.
Machen was not advocating for a rejection of industry, nor of technology, nor even of improvement or a desire for improvement. He points out, and rightly so, that the means had illegitimately claimed sovereignty over all that had preceded them, rendering history suspect, faith futile, and the supernatural impossible. In fact, what truly incensed him was the compulsion many Christians felt to accommodate their faith for the revelation of means- many who were willing to reduce Christianity to an ethic under the pressure of scientific methods, historical scrutiny and a change in philosophical climate. Christianity is essentially tied to history; this is an undeniable fact. If history should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a man named Jesus had never lived, then Christianity would be in totality made irrelevant. Paul affirms this as he calibrates the whole of Christianity upon one fact: ‘But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty (1 Cor 15-16).’ Machen stridently called out those who would reduce their witness to the cajoling of an ethic. He refused to support those who ministered in the name of Christ while at the same time denying the truth of His existence. He refused to submit orthodoxy, which Webster defines as ‘the conforming to established doctrine,’ to the erosion of a type of thinking which overstepped its own bounds and attempted to usurp truth for its own purpose, not considering that as it built its kingdom it had not only destroyed its own foundation but had eradicated any hope for a resilient and philosophically consistent one to support it.
In today’s terms, as truth itself has been reduced beyond even utility, orthodoxy is still relevant. Improved means, though they may reverberate now more in our thinking than in our doing, cannot justify the arrogance with which faith is continually debunked. We may have the luxury of indulging in such thinking now because of the exorbitance of our capacity, but that will surely not last forever and if we have, in the meantime, set adrift from truth and a reverence for truth, we are not just then, but already, lost.