Sunday, October 14, 2012

Presbyterian Controversy

The Presbyterian Controversy is due at the library and no more renewals allowed.  AAAhhh.  Last minute quoting.

Chapter 2 is on Gresham Machen and his response to liberalism.  He had some good things to say. Let's just shamelessly get some of it.

Young, energetic, and aggressively conservative, J. Gresham Machen had been watching the Fosdick-Macartney duel with rapt attention.  For more than a decade Machen, assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, had been warning the church of the destructive consequences of modernist theology.  In November 1921 he distilled his ideas into a brief, poignant address entitled "Liberalism or Christianity "  As the title implied, Machen had concluded that the liberal religion preached by Fosdick and his kind was not simply a variety of Christianity but a different faith altogether.  "At every point," he declared, "the liberal movement is in opposition to the Christian message."

... "The cause of spiritual decline was clear to all who cared tyo see.  The 'glories of the past' had vanished with the rise of naturalistic, Liberalism, which to Machen's mind was rooted in naturalism, denied any supernatural intervention of God into history.  In an effort to accommodate the faith to culture, liberal theology had sacrified 'everything distinctive of Christianity," leaving nothing but a "sordid life of utilitarianism."
Liberalism not only departed from the historic christian tradition on every fundamental doctrine but, most important, denied the value of doctrine itself.  Having accepted the premises of modern historicism, liberals believed that creeds were "merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience."  Fosdick was a perfect example of this tendency:  "All theology" he said, "tentatively phrases in current thought and language the best that, up to that date, thinkers on religion have achieved; and the most hopeful thing about any system of theology is that it will not last.  In contradistinction to this relativism  Machen argued, historic Christianity had always held that creeds were not merely expressions of Christian experience but statements of the facts on which experience was based.  Doctrines, composed of historical 'facts' plus the meaning of the facts, were the very foundation of the Christian message.  The modernist derogation of doctrine, Machen insisted, separated it from any legitimate claim to the title Christian. 
.. Religious authority provided another point of contention   The bible, God's inspired and inerrant Word, authorized all genuinely Christian doctrine;  but "Christian consciousness' or "Christian experience"  provided the touchstone for the claims of liberalism.  Machen agreed that experience did have a place in the Christian life;  but it was secondary, not primary. ... The facts of the bible, not christian consciousness, stood as the foundation of the faith.
Machen subscribed wholeheartedly to the Princeton doctrine of inspiration;  that is, he held that 'the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the errors that mar all other books."  Nevertheless, he allowed some leeway on the question of biblical inspiration.
Liberalism's Christology fell far short of the christian view of Jesus.  Modernists denied the miracles, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and the deity of Christ.  While Christians accepted Jesus as the divine Savior who had paid the price of sin on the cross, liberals looked on him as simply an example of moral perfection.  but sinful humanity could not be redeemed by the example of a man.  The deny the supernatural and the substitutionary atonement was to deny Christianity. (p. 28-30)

Let's skip ahead slightly to hear something about the Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which somehow fits into this debate.

The Scottish philosophy of Common Sense had been developed primarily by Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and Dugald Stewart in Glasgow and Edinburgh to refute the idealism of Bishop Berkeley and skepticism of David Hume.  Contrary to the thinkers who has followed Locke in claiming that 'ideas,' not external realities, are the objects of our thought, Common Sense philosophers maintained that we can and do know the real world directly through our senses.  Ideas, Reid argued, were mental acts, not mental objects.  Therefore, to have an idea of any object was to perceive the object itself, not just a mental image. Anyone in the right mind (except, perhaps, a few skeptical philosophers) knew that the objective world, the self, causal relationships  and moral principles existed.  Without this common sense, life would be quite literally impossible.
Truth, these philosophers maintained, was a single entity, absolute, permanent, and discover-able by all people through all ages.  Following seventeenth-century thinker Francis Bacon, they argued that the one sure way to arrive a the truth was through the inductive scientific method.  Flights into the fanciful world of metaphysical speculation and hypotheses could never lead to certainty.
  (p. 34)

I don't really know enough philosophy to say much about it.  But when it has to do with philosophy of science (the only philosophy course I ever took)  I'm with Karl Popper.  He says that things can only be provable if they are also falsifiable.  Also, we had a long thread dealing with Luther on reason, as treated by Becker in "The Foolishness of God"  (see this blog).

For sure, metaphysical speculation cannot "prove" anything.  That we know.  And Lutheran theology allows for more paradox than say Calvinist.

The Scottish tradition, in maintaining the reliability of knowledge, provided a firm foundation for Thornwell's efforts to reconcile the claims of science and religion.  Like his Northern contemporary Charles Hodge, Thornwell refused to concede the impossibility of Natural Theology.  ... Thornwell's epistemological convictions buttressed his doctrine of scriptural authority.  (p. 34)

In 1912 Machen delivered a speech--later published as "Christianity and Culture"--that not only revealed the resolution of his crises but in large measure set the agenda for the remainder of his career.  The church, he maintained, was facing a desperate emergency precipitated by the secularization of modern culture...  The defection from Christianity was rooted in modern culture's apathy or outright hostility to the gospel.  Since the universities were the intellectual greenhouses of the nation, the cultural apostasy had to be stopped there or it would not be stopped at all.  'What is today matter of academic speculation," he warned, 'begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.  In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combatted;  the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate.'  (p.46)

Machen had returned from Germany from his studies under liberal theologian Wilhelm Herrmann, who had deeply impacted him, to see how far the experience threatened to move him away from conservative Christianity.  He had known for himself, how far a university experience can move you intellectually.  Hence, he saw the main arena for the discussion in the university and seminary.   From there the impact would spread.

But contrary to Hermann, Machen insisted that the biblical witness could no be ignored once Christ was known;  if the bible could be proven false, faith woud crumble.  History and faith could not be divorced.  To Machen's mind, liberalism was intellectually bankrupt. (p. 49)
I agree.  Liberalism is intellectually bankrupt.  You can't even speak with liberals.  The moment you bring up facts, logic, doctrine, the Bible, the word, text, they pretty much flush with anger.

Another person involved in the Presbyterian crisis was Jennings Bryan, who also became involved in the famous Scopes Trial.  His main thrust against evolution and Darwin was linked to its effects on society.

Two books that Bryan read during the war, Headquarters Nights by Vernon Kellogg and The Science of Power by Benjamin Kidd, convinced Bryan that evolutionary theory was at the root of the world's problems.  Kellogg's work demonstrated the influence of Darwin on German military officers;  and Kidd attempted "to trace a straight line from Darwin through Nietzsche to the growth of German nationalism, militarism, and materialism."  For Bryan the connection was sealed.  The civilized world had gone to war because it had tured away fro the philosophy of the Prince of Peace to a philosophy of Might makes Right  based on the Darwinian hypothesis.  In 1920 Bryan told the World Brotherhood congress that Darwinism was 'the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to contend during the last century.'  Nietzsche, who merely carried Darwinian theory to its logical conclusion, had 'promulgated  philosophy that condemned democracy... denounced Christianity .. denied the existence of God, overturned all standards of morality... and endeavored to substitute the worship of the superman for the worship of Jehova.'  (p. 68)

I have to admit a great deal of sympathy with Bryan's point of view.

Henry Sloan Coffin was a liberal leader in the controversy, trained at the new Yale University, as well as under Wilhelm Herrmann.  I am struck by his views on his subscription to the confessions.  Personally, I have chosen to vow loyalty to the Lutheran confessions, and mean every word of it.  Thus I should not be surprised that some Calvinists have problems with their confession, as I would have problems with it, too.  But this here is a somewhat different matter.  Here Henry Sloan Coffin wants to have his cake and eat it, too, have complete liberty in the way he deals with subscription.  This would be the way a "liberal" (not to say apostate) subscribes to the confessional standards.

In subscribing to the Westminster confession of Faith Coffin did not believe that he was accepting the doctrines stated in the Confession.  Rather, as he later maintained, 'The formula means to me that under the supreme authority of Christ I receive the confession as setting forth in seventeenth century thought and language the principal doctrines which have grown out of and foster the religious experience of protestant evangelical Christians, and which it is my privilege to teach in the best thought and speech at my command for those to whom I minister.'  This interpretation of the subscription vow obviously gave Coffin a great deal of leeway in accepting the confession.  Unlike Machen, he saw no difficulty in a loose adoption of the creed.  Indeed, Coffin seemed to intimate that no creedal affirmations at all should be required for ordination when he wrote, 'to acknowledge that a man possesses the spirit of god and is equipped to serve the Kingdom, but to hold him unfit to minister in our select theological club because he does not wholly share the views of the majority, seems to me perilously like blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.'  In any even, Coffin did not believe that creedal differences should bar one from ministry.  There was no inconsistency, he maintained, 'in worshiping and working, or even in occupying a position of leadership, in a communion with whose creed, or ritual, or methods one is not in full sympathy'. (p. 86) 

One could pull one's hair out.  He could just say, "we don't need a church, we don't need a creed, we can all believe as we want", but instead he accuses those who disagree with him with the sin against the Holy Spirit.  What a scandal.  Shame on him.  This is how it is rationalized:

Coffin had adopted the historicist assumptions which had been gaining ground in America in the preceding generation.  While for Machen history was a record of facts that remained true for all time, historicist thinkers understood history to be profoundly colored by the historian's perspective.  ... Coffin had learned his historicism not only at Edinburgh and Marburg but also at Union. ... In 1892 Arthur McGiffert, Coffin's teacher and then colleague, delineated the assumptions of the modern church historian, stating, 'A sharp distinction must be drawn between divine truth and our conceptions of that truth;  that, though the former is always and eternally the same, unchanged and unchangeable, in our conceptions of it--in other words in our doctrines--there has been as real a development as in our institution."  Later in the same speech he asserted, 'The historical study of Christian doctrine reminds us that human notions and conceptions change fro age to age, that even the categories of thought undergo more or less of a revision, and it thus teaches us, that, if we will be true to the truth as it has been revealed unto us, we must from time to time adjust our statements to the new conditions.'  To McGiffert's mind and to his student coffin's, the shifting patterns of thought throughout history required constant reinterpretation of doctrines.  Creeds were only 'man's attempt in the best thought and language at his command to express his religious experience.'... True to the tradition of Friedich Schleiermacher, religious experience provided the ahistorical bedrock of the Christian faith for Coffin.  "Religion is experience, " Coffin believed.  "It is the response of man's nature to his highest inspirations.  It is his intercourse with Being above himself and his world.' Under the rubric of experience Coffin included feeling, intellect, and will, but warned of exalting one of these elements to the detriment of the whole. 
Inasmuch as experience provided the foundation of religion it necessarily had to be the basis of preaching.  The minister of God was 'not to repeat what others have said in Scripture or out of it;  he is to say what he is sure of, because he has experienced it and believes it as he believes himself.'  Likewise, Coffin advised his congregations  "If any man here is trying to make himself believe anything about God, or Christ, or the bible, or the christian life, let him be sure that he is looking at some man-made view of the Divine, a mere idol.  When God's truth comes along, it does its own convincing... Its inescapableness is the test of its diviness." (p. 89-90)

WHAT UNMITIGATED DISASTER.  He sounds like another Swedenborgian.  All this because they thought the Bible isn't true. Why DID they bother with church careers?

I have to quit here, for today.

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