Tuesday, June 04, 2013

J. Gresham Machen and the Catholic Church

J. Gresham Machen was an amazing man. His primer in Koine Greek, New Testament Greek for Beginners, which I used to teach myself to read the Greek New Testament in 1976, was used at Westminster Theological Seminary when I took a degree there in 1979. It was used at Lenoir-Rhyne University during the 25 years I taught there by the pre-seminary ELCA students. It was used in independent Greek tutorial classes by individuals at Sacred Heart Seminary since my arrival there in 2007.

But Machen was far more than an author of a particularly excellent and successful Greek grammar. He was a Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary way back between 1906 and 1929, and led the conservative revolt against modernist theology at Princeton that led to forming Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as a more orthodox alternative.

One of Machen's classic works is Christianity and Liberalism, which is on my short list of ten books that have most influenced me at some point or other in my own intellectual development and religious orientation. His work was appreciated by an audience far beyond a parochial one in the backwaters of Evangelical Calvinism. Even those of very different orientation had great respect for him. Walter Lippmann read his work and remarked on it with admiration in his own Preface to Morals. H.L. Mencken wrote with great respect and admiration for Machen's intellectual gifts in an obituary in the Baltimore Evening Sun (January 18, 1937). Comparing Machen to William Jennings Bryan, another well-known Presbyterian, Mencken wrote: “Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart.” In many ways, Machen was a great man.

Therefore it was with some interest that I learned from my East Coast correspondent I keep on retainer, that David Mills just published a piece for First Things entitled, "Gresham Machen, Friend to Catholics" (First Thoughts, May 25, 2013). Just a couple of excerpts here:
Mistakenly thinking the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen had written a book on Catholicism and wanting to give it as an example of Protestant apologetics in yesterday’s item, I googled the subject and found that he didn’t, but he did say this in his book Christianity and Liberalism:
Far more serious still is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!

We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.
[My emphasis: If only our theologians had the courage to speak so simply and forthrightly about the ideas of Hans Küng, Dominic Crossan, the later Edward Schillebeeckx, etc.!]

.... What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object to the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda first, last, and all the time? Clearly they have a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same....
And there’s this from a weblog dedicated to Machen, about Machen’s time working with the YMCA in the trenches in WWI:
Spiritually, he had to make do too — reading his English Bible rather than in Greek, which brought home some things with a freshness; worshipping with Roman Catholics. Of one sermon he says “It was far, far better than what we got from the Protestant liberals”. [Are we confident that he could repeat that compliment in our own day?!]

In conversation afterwards, he could not agree with the priest on the mass but responded to a complaint that the phrase “descended into hell” was missing from versions issued to American soldiers “I could assure him that I disapproved as much as he did of the mutilation of the creed”.
A Catholic antecedent to David Mills' appreciation of the Protestant Machen can be found in the great Wilfrid Ward, the great English essayist, whose widow wrote:
His mind full of the danger of the incoming flood of infidelity, Wilfrid valued greatly much of the Christian apologetic written by Anglicans. I remember his keen enthusiasm at Dean Church's exquisite study of the Psalms and the Vedas. From Dean Church's time to that of Dr. Figgis, he welcomed whatever in the Anglican Church helped the cause of truth. And this drew to him the single-hearted and earnest Anglicans with whom he was thrown.
Ward himself wrote:
For Catholics a new foe is more dangerous than Protestantism, for Protestants the same new foe is more dangerous than Catholicism. A new motive for combination exists which is likely to make the positive and true sideof the tenets of each sect more prominent, while the negative and aggressive side is likely to grow less, and even to disappear in some cases, if all parties endeavour to bring this consummation about. The ideal aim is that every group of Christians should preserve its esprit de corps, but should at the same time refrain from mutual hostility. And though, like all ideals, this is not likely to be completely realised, some approximation may be made towards its realisation. (Emphasis mine)
As our correspondent observes: "This was in Victorian England!" Indeed.

[Hat tip to J.M.]


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

He prefers us to liberals and universalists!! Excuse me while I lapse into a swoon.

I remember that passage, PP, and muttering, "thanks a #$%^&@ lot" when I read it.

I'll give Machen this much credit: he was a serious man, and vastly preferable in his way to the erstwhile presbyterian wonder boy, Scott Hahn, an essentially frivolous one.

It is exceedingly hard these days to tell your friends from your enemies, what with "Catholic" theologians espousing such heresies as you can read about in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, to the applause of priests and popes. I imagine there were many conservative Catholic bishops and cardinals at V2 who thought they were doing a great thing embracing their progressive counterparts. How well they were served for their ecumenism!

Supposedly, Sen Barry Goldwater had a plaque on his desk which read "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Eventually, of course, the bastards ground him down, but it was a good thought nonetheless. An even better thought for Catholics would be "ecumenism is for suckers."

But in spite of all that PP, I will agree, let's tip our hat to a serious man and an able spokesman for his heretical tribe. It is a shame that, with his formidable insights into the darkening world of his time, he never sought to convert.

JM said...

"It is exceedingly hard these days to tell your friends from your enemies, what with 'Catholic' theologians espousing such heresies as you can read about in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, to the applause of priests and popes."

Exactly the point. Guys like Machen didin't have to qualify doctrines like those on Hell and Inspiration to the point where it was hard to tell what it is they were saying. Guys like Machen could call a Modernist a Modernist, even if it was someone as acclaimed as Pearl S. Buck, the last century's precursor to our very own Oprah. Even with his Protestant deletions and alterations, he seemed more comfortable with the basic yin and yang of Christian logic than many famed Catholic leaders. In fact, I am somewhat convinced that it is a now prerequisite for Catholic leadership at the very top to be able to employ theologyspeak to fog and equivocate in theologyspeak on divisive issues even as the hold the technical line, a la Vatican II.