Thursday, August 10, 2006

Machen on Christianity and Culture

I think the following quote is the best summary of Machen's argument in this challenging but thought-provoking article. If you really want to wrestle with these issues, spend 30 minutes to read the whole thing. Don't just settle for the quote.
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.


Anonymous said...

Ben, how significant do you think the eschatology of Machen plays in verses your own?

Mike Hess said...

I would have to agree with you on this one Ben. Again, Machen was living at a different time when the mass professions of unregenerate believers was not the monumental struggle that we are dealing with today. Instead, we have today literally millions of people who have agreed to essential facts regarding the Gospel but have yet to experience regeneration which in turn has produced professing Christians not being possessing Christians.

Still though, Machen is a must read for the evangelical today.


Ben said...


That was the first question I asked of the friend who sent me the link to that article.

After thinking about it, I have to say definitely not. Machen's diagnosis of the fundamental problem is different, and I don't think that is related to our eschatology.

I think that I could adopt Machen's amillennialism (or postmil--I know there's some difference of opinion) and still disagree with him that the problem is spiritual, not intellectual.

Ben said...


On the other hand, I was just reading in Machen's Christianity and Liberalism last night, and he addressed that very issue--intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel is not salvation. Perhaps he saw the leading edge of the problem, or perhaps it was more widespread a century ago than we usually think.

Keith said...

Mike and Ben,

Are you arguing that nominalism is more of a problem now than a century ago?

I think that a strong case could be made to the contrary. When more people thought "Christian" was a synonym for gentleman, or mannered, or patriot, there were likely many, if not more, nominal Christians.

But I may have missed your point.

Regarding Machen's position that we need to master or be involved with the life of the mind. I think that his claims come from the fact that Darwinism, Materialism, theological Modernism and the like weren't being answered effectively.

In the modernist churches, the people were being led to believe that Christianity wansn't supernatural. Many, if not most, of the Bible believers, took that as a prompt to abandon thought instead of a challenge to answer lies.

Ben said...


I agree with you. Ultimately, I don't know for sure either way. But my most recent comment was intended to raise the question you're asking and acknowledge that very possibility.

Concerning your second point, I think your summary of Machen seems fair. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise, if it seemed that I did.

But my point is that nominalism more effectively mitigates the effectiveness of the gospel message than the intellectual effects of modernism. When the gospel proclaimed in word contradicts the non-gospel lives of professing but nominal believers, the gospel's credibility is damaged. This is ultimately a spiritual problem, not an intellectual one.

(Once again, it's not to hard to find an excuse to blame Revivalism for all this mess.)

Of course, I'm not arguing that believers should NOT provide sound intellectual responses to modernistic heresies. It's just that my apologetic doesn't place intellectual argumentation at the tip of the spear.

Keith said...



I'm not sure Machen thought it was the tip of the spear at all times. But, contra anti-intellectuals, it is some part of the spear, and it may be the tip at some times.

The question, "What is worse nominalism or modernism or postmodernism?" is a very interesting one -- and a very difficult one to answer if we actually have to pick.

The church has definitely flourished under persecution and in cultures/societies that had no borrowed Christian assumptions. However, the church has also grown and flourished in societies that were based on a Christian worldview.

As far as Machen goes, I think he was saying that allowing supernatural Christianity to look like an ignorant superstition was the one mistake that should not have been made in the face of the modernist challenge.

As far as the advantages of times/cultures predominated by Christian assumptions (and therefore with a large ratio of nominalism)goes, I think that in those times/cultures the preachers can offer the solution for sin and damnation to people who already accept those realities.