Yesterday I wrote about the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century, first in Europe and then in America. The most noteworthy intellectual response to these developments, at least in America, came from the strong opposition of a Presbyterian pastor and professor, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937). Machen graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1905 and then did postgraduate work in Gottingen and Marburg (1905-06), experiencing the teaching of European liberal theology firsthand. From 1906 until 1929 Machen taught at Princeton Seminary. Ordained as a minister in 1914 Machen was both temperamentally and theologically a strong advocate for strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. (I had a professor at Wheaton College in 1969-70 who had studied under Machen at Princeton. Through this esteemed professor I heard a lot of great stories that got me interested in Machen as a man and in the various conflicts of that era. My professor loved Machen, and generally agreed with him, but never left the Presbyterian Church. This was true for most conservatives at that time.)
Machen left Princeton in 1929 after his rigorous attacks upon the liberal tendencies of the institution prompted the seminary to respond by reorganizing and adopting a more inclusive theological stance. With a core of fellow conservative faculty cohorts Machen withdrew from the seminary and began a new school in Philadelphia, Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster has remained a very conservative institution over the years, even openly rejecting a more progressive evangelical stance in recent decades.
Machen was not a typical conservative. When fundamentalists began to condemn the use of tobacco and alcohol Machen never adopted their views. He also never had an ounce of sympathy for dispensationalism, which eventually became a major influence in many conservative circles. After some rather arduous battles with the Presbyterian Church over support for an Independent Board for Missions, which Machen refused to sever his ties with in 1934, Machen was then tried by the Presbyterian Church and suspended from ministry in 1935. After he appealed the verdict in 1936, and lost, he played a key part in organizing the Presbyterian Church of America, which later split into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the hyper-fundamentalist Bible Presbyterian Church. On a fund-raising trip for his new denomination J. Gresham Machen died on January 1, 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota, as a result of complications related to pneumonia.
Machen’s most enduring legacy is found in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923). He argued that liberalism and historic Christianity were two entirely distinct religions. The logic of his argument stirred up such a conflict that people took strong sides and the battle that ensued continued for decades to follow. In my early days I reasoned that no one who was remotely liberal could be a true Christian. The rational and compelling logic of Machen’s proposal had influenced me rather profoundly.
Most historians agree that liberalism, or modernism as it was often called as well, is best understood as a theological movement which desired to save Christianity from the assault of nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual developments. This desire led early liberals to accommodate Christian faith to much of the thought of modern culture. The themes which came to dominate this movement were the immanence of God, the importance of Christian experience, the necessity of doctrinal revision and the poetic nature of religious language. In general liberals insisted that experience, not creeds or doctrine, should become the proper foundation for vital Christianity. Christianity, according to liberalism, was a growing and changing life, not a set of static dogmas. This is why liberals have generally advocated effort to overcome doctrinal disagreements. This led to their embracing ecumenism so openly and aggressively while conservatives stayed on the sidelines with deep suspicion.
Conservatism initially responded to the growing presence of liberalism in the churches and mission boards by stressing a set of basic doctrinal issues that were under attack in the early twentieth century; e.g, the inspiration of Scripture, the incarnation and virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection. The early conservative response was to show how these biblical truths were completely compatible with modern science and rationality. By this means conservatism adopted a far more rationalistic and modernistic approach to what the believer could know and how they could know it with certitude.
By the 1920s this conservative stance began to take on a very strong element of ecclesiastical separatism. This stance was based upon the impact these intense struggles had upon people and institutions within the major (and older) denominations in America. By the 1940s this element of separatism led to the rise of what was called a neo-evangelical movement. In time this new evangelical movement was simply called evangelicalism. Today one wonders what connection this very broad name and movement actually has with the events of the 1920s except for some of the emotional carnage that is left over. One thing seems fairly clear to me: the labels liberal and conservative have different meanings in our time even though some people still use them as if nothing has changed. Within the so-called evangelical community things are now said and taught that sound a lot more like the liberalism of the early twentieth century than the conservatism of seventy-five years ago. And in the so-called liberal churches there is a great deal more interest in creed, confession and mission than one could have imagined even twenty years ago. At the same time churches and schools of almost all varieties and labels are experiencing decline like never before.