Monday, October 4, 2010

Summing up Machen and Defending the Faith

Here's the concluding paragraph of Daryl G. Hart's fascinating biography/intellectual history of the life and times of J. Gresham Machen.

Machen's death in North Dakota [on January 1, 1937] was filled with irony. A Presbyterian scholar who enjoyed the East Coast's urban culture and spent his life addressing the well educated, Machen died in the Catholic hospital of a small and remote town on the Northern Plains trying to rally a few Presbyterians of modest means. Yet Bismarck was also an appropriate place for Machen's death; the town's cultural isolation fit well with his religious convictions and social views. For Machen, Christianity was not to be a national presence that shaped culture. The quest for a Christian civilization, he believed, had severely weakened the church's witness and had greatly abetted the centralization of political power and the homogenization of cultural life in America. The church should only be one voice in the cacophony of American creeds and its influence should be limited to Christian homes and schools, local communities, and voluntary organizations. Machen's cultural stance first took root in his decision to leave Princeton for Westminster, grew stronger during the missions controversy of the 1930s, and finally bore fruit in the new denomination he helped to found. By establishing rival institutions and building alternative networks, Machen hoped to preserve a Christian witness that was cautious about the church's cultural involvement and fully attuned to the reality of religious freedom. That hope made Machen too Christian for most intellectuals and too marginal for most Protestants. But it did approach the problem of the relationship between church and society in a way that grasped well the possibilities and perils of modern America.

Those familiar with Hart will probably recognize in that themes he develops in subsequent books, as well as his advocacy for a pure version of Old School Presbyterianism and a sharp divide between the sacred and secular. I enjoy Hart's polemics even when I don't agree. He's a first-rate historian and a lively writer. Defending the Faith is essential reading for anyone interested in Machen, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies, or American Protestantism in general.

One of the things that surprised me was the scope of Machen's influence during the 1920s. His public career intersected with some of the most prominent figures of pre-war American history, and his articles were regularly published in the organs of elite opinion. Yet as the paragraph above hints at, his final years were one's of diminishing influence and increasing marginalization. Was that as inevitable as the author makes it sound? I'm not sure. It's interesting to speculate what trajectory Machen's career might have taken had he lived to a ripe old age.

What's clear is that this formidable and flawed man stood almost alone among his peers for the truth of the New Testament gospel at a pivotal time in American church life. He fulfilled the purpose of God in his generation, and his influence lives on through his books and the institutions he founded.

Quote from Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994) pp. 158-9

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