Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 22, 2007

Contending for Our All, part 3: Machen

(Much of Piper’s content is here. Background on Machen and online works are here.)

I loved reading that Machen’s last recorded words, telegraphed to John Murray at Westminster from Machen’s deathbed, were, “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”  What will my last words be?

It was thought-provoking to read of the deep impression made upon Machen by Wilhelm Herrman, the modernist systematic theologian under whom he studied in Germany.  In his own words, Machen spoke of this man as “overpowering in the sincerity of religious devotion,” “peculiarly earnest,” reflecting great “religious power,” speaking of the “confidence” and “joyful subjection” inspired by Jesus — even though Herrmann “affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity.” Machen noted, “Perhaps Herrmann does not give the whole truth — I certainly hope he does not — at any rate he has gotten hold of something that has been sadly neglected in the church and in the orthodox theology.” (CfOA, 123-24)

Of Machen’s experience with Herrmann, Piper notes, “There is a great lesson here for teachers and preachers: to hold young minds there should be both intellectual credibility and joyful, passionate zeal for Christ.” (CfOA, 124)  Indeed.

Without comment, here is Piper’s take on what Machen did not like about Fundamentalism:

  • the absence of historical perspective;
  • the lack of appreciation of scholarship;
  • the substitution of brief, skeletal creeds for the historic confessions;
  • the lack of concern with precise formulation of Christian doctrine;
  • the pietistic, perfectionist tendencies (i.e., hang-ups with smoking, etc.);
  • one-sided otherworldliness (i.e., a lack of effort to transform culture); and
  • a penchant for futuristic chiliasm (or: premillennialism).

In Piper’s estimation, though, the main reason Machen did not see himself as a fundamentalist was that the term fundamentalism, in Machen’s words, “seems to suggest that we are adherents of some strange new sect, whereas in point of fact we are conscious simply of maintaining the historic Christian faith and of moving in the great central current of Christian life.” CfOA, 127-29

Reminiscent of the controversies of Athanasius, Machen noted in What Is Faith? (13-14) regarding modernism, “This temper of mind is hostile to precise definitions.  Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms. . . . Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.”

“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as ‘a bad press.’ We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine — dull dogma as people call it.  The fact is the precise opposite.  It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness.  The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama.” CfOA 141, fn 48. Quoted from Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Story Ever Staged,” in Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe).


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