J. Gresham Machen and the PCA
J. Gresham Machen, were he alive today, would not be leader in the PCA.
I say this after reflecting on one chapter (A Question of Character) in D. G. Hart’s, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. For my part I find eerie parallels between Hart’s description of the crisis at Princeton in the 1920’s and the tensions faced within the Presbyterian Church in America in the first decade of the 21st century.
J. Gresham Machen would not have been well received among some conservatives in the PCA.. Machen was representative of the confessional orthodoxy associated with old Princeton Seminary. His views were on a compatible continuum with those of the Hodges and Warfield. These men were, to cite one example, much too open to the findings of science and to the harmonization of Biblical material with the tentative findings of science, for the comfort of some of my brothers. (The chapter, Salvation and Science, demonstrates this clearly.) He would not want to put one of the greatest defenders of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy out of the Church. But we need not devote much labor to Machen and the right which is a pimple on the rather ample backside to the PCA.
It is the relationship of Machen to the broad middle and left of the PCA that interests me. Consider these observations:
1) Machen was an “Old School” Presbyterian as that tradition was preserved at Princeton and later at Westminster and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He believed in and practiced theological “precision.” He was committed to “confessional orthodoxy.” He believed that the ordination vows limited the content of preaching. Machen’s Calvinism was the high and hearty Calvinism of the Westminster Standards and old Princeton. It was theology and practice of the Machen sort that led to the tensions within and the division from the OPC by those who came to make up the Bible Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
2) Machen’s opponents at Princeton were not liberals, but moderate evangelicals, who were influenced by revivalism and pietism (both of which have formative influence on the moderates of the PCA.) To be sure there was liberalism in the Presbyterian Church, USA, which does not exist in the PCA, and much of the tension at Princeton was over different responses to the influence of liberalism. However, there was more to it than differences about dealing with liberalism, as I will now endeavor to show.
3) Machen had to struggle with the triumph of personality over principle. Hart shows that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries business, government, and the church experienced a bureaucratic transformation which made a “winning personality, charm, and being well liked far more effective than older values (thrift, integrity, industry) for making one’s way in a large, impersonal, and highly regulated organizations.” Because Machen insisted on standing for principles such as confessional integrity, he was judged to be not a “nice guy” (my term) or to be “temperamentally deficient” (Hart’s term). In the Presbyterian Church “sincerity, likeability, and being a team player became the desirable traits in church leaders.” Even within the church at large, where doctrinal instincts remained quite conservative, patience with Machen waned, because of the inherent American distaste for conflict in general and theological wrangling in particular. As Hart observes: “Conservatives were thus put on the defensive. The more they pressed their case, the more disruptive they seemed. Furthermore, denominational officials…had little trouble garnering support for restoring peace, even if it meant censuring conservatives.” Has anyone participated in or observed a PCA General Assembly or Presbytery meeting (debates, elections, and between Assembly maneuverings) and not seen just these things at work?
4) Machen contended with and ultimately lost to an all but irresistible idea – that mission had to trump theological tensions and debate. Again, as Hart describes the atmosphere: “In the atmosphere of the twenties, Machen’s polemics sounded shrill to many Presbyterians who wanted to move beyond controversy and concentrate on the positive ministry and programs of the church.” There can be little doubt that Machen himself would have had nothing in common with a tiny minority of theological hairsplitters in the PCA, but he would never have agreed that mission trumps theology, because Machen thought that theology determines mission. Yet in the PCA the conviction that “we’ve got to get on with mission and we are ready to do it by procedurally preempting further consideration of the role our Confession and what our vows mean” is not uncommon.
It’s always speculative to say where a man of the past would stand if he were alive to participate in the debates of our day. But to me it seems likely that Machen would not be a leader in today’s PCA. He might lead a rather small contingent of conservatives, but even conservatives would struggle, some finding him too moderate and others too combative. One wonders if he would be invited to speak at the T4G meetings.
And one wonders about Calvin, too. I know that, if Calvin were around today, Calvin would not be Calvin. But, allowing for him to be born and educated 500 years later, could a man of his temperament and convictions lead us today?
And the question comes with regard to Machen, “Is it his problem or ours?”