The real difficulty amounts to this—that the thought of the day, as it makes itself most strongly felt in the universities, but from them spreads inevitably to the masses of the people, is profoundly opposed to Christianity, or at least—what is nearly as bad—it is out of all connection with Christianity. The Church is unable either to combat it or to assimilate it, because the Church simply does not understand it. Under such circumstances, what more pressing duty than for those who have received the mighty experience of regeneration, who, therefore, do not, like the world, neglect that whole series of vitally relevant facts which is embraced in Christian experience—what more pressing duty than for these men to make themselves masters of the thought of the world in order to make it an instrument of truth instead of error? The Church has no right to be so absorbed in helping the individual that she forgets the world.I disagree with Machen, although I do so with great hesitancy. My reasoning is that I believe the way believers fulfill their Great Commission responsibilities is by proclaiming the gospel in word and giving evidence to its power by a changed life. I don't see biblical warrant for conquering the "thought of the world." Even if this were possible (and admittedly it is, by God's power, though the text of Scripture suggests it will not be so), it seems to me to be outside the Church's mission. On the other hand, I've said this before, but I do think these words describe a real problem and a disturbing trend among fundamentalists:
Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul—but the Lord's enemies remain in possession of the field.To be honest, Machen confuses me. (Obviously, we all know who the dense one is here.) But at one moment, he's talking about becoming "masters of the thought of the world" so that it becomes an instrument for truth, and the next it seems as though he merely wants to bring the gospel "into some sort of connection with the thought of the world."
Surely there is value in understanding how unbelievers (or believers) think when presenting them with the message of the gospel. We demonstrate that interest whenever we use illustrations in sermons that are drawn from elements of the world that are familiar to our hearers. But I'm going to leave that line of thought there for now and pursue one that is more pressing.
Here's the key question, as I see it: Is Machen right when he says that the cause of Christianity's weakness in this age lies in the intellectual sphere--"Men do not accept Christianity because they can no longer be convinced that Christianity is true." Or is the problem rather of a spiritual nature--men do not accept Christianity because Christians live as though the gospel has had no impact in their lives? Do professing Christians seek satisfaction in God alone or in the things this world offers. And you can't say "a little of both."
Granted, Machen wrote these words nearly a century ago. Perhaps Christians were different then. As for today, I'm convinced that the heart of the problem lies in the latter. I'm convinced the problem isn't that the world is deceived by intellectualism and distracted by materialism, but rather that the Church is.