Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Origin of Paul's Religion by J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen was at the center of the storm of controversy about Biblical criticism and more broadly, the controversy between liberalism and orthodoxy in the first few decades of the 20th century. Years ago, I first took note of his name when reading Francis Schaeffer’s The Great Evangelical Disaster. In it Schaeffer had written:
“Then in the mid 1930s, there occurred an event which I would say marks the
turning-point of the century concerning the breakdown of our culture. By 1936
the liberals were so in control of the Northern Presbyterian Church that they
were able to defrock Dr. J. Gresham Machen. Machen… had been a brilliant
defender of Bible-believing Christianity, as can be seen for example, in his
book entitled Christianity and Liberalism published in 1924…it marked the
culmination of the drift of the Protestant churches from 1900-1936. It was this
drift which laid the basis for cultural, social, moral, legal and governmental
changes from that time to the present. Without this drift in the denominations,
I am convinced that the changes in our society over the last fifty years would
have produced very different results from what we have now. “(p. 34-35).
Not being a Presbyterian or deeply familiar with their tradition, Schaeffer’s remark, impressive for its forcefulness, has sometimes struck me as making too much of the Presbyterians and their affairs, but nevertheless, I’ve regarded it as something noteworthy and still do. Reading on the same page, I was first clued into what seems to me a compelling connection between the philosophically naturalistic Biblical criticism known as “higher criticism” and the Nazi phenomenon: “It is interesting to note that there was a span of approximately eighty years from the time when the higher critical methods originated and became widely accepted in Germany to the disintegration of German culture and the rise of totalitarianism under Hitler.” (p. 35).

Thumbing through the book again now, his rhetoric seems more rigid and simplistic than I recalled, yet Schaeffer still, it seems to me, is worth regarding and evaluating firsthand, and his analysis seems to me to have hit on the vital in this point. The German poet Heinrich Heine, a Jewish convert to Christianity, perceiving the trajectories of the naturalist philosophies which would come to characterize and guide “higher criticism” (and which Schaeffer was looking back on), predicted the Nazi holocaust a hundred years in advance in a prescience I still find stunning whenever I return to it (which is often) in the final pages of his book Religion and Philosophy in Germany which was published in 1832:
"Christianity-and that is its greatest merit- has somehow mitigated that brutal
German love of war, but could not destroy it. Should the subduing talisman, the
cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane
Beserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more
burst into flame... The old stone gods will then rise from the ruins and rub the
dust of a thousand years from their eyes and Thor will leap to life with his
giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals... Do not smile at my advice- the
advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians and Fichteans and
philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same
revolution in the realm of the visible that has taken place in the spiritual...
Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder, German thunder... comes
rolling somewhat slowly, but... its crash... will be unlike anything before in
the history of the world. At the uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead,
and lions in farthest Africa will draw in their tails and slink away... a play
will be played in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an
innocent idyll ." (For more on this quote and on Heine go to ).
J. Gresham Machen lived at a time when the triumphalism of naturalism was at its peak (before it was meeked by blood) and he dwelt more or less in its storm center, especially as far as the US participation in the theological and philosophical arguments of the day was concerned. The trajectories of the mainline churches today were pivotally affected by the events in which he was a key player. It is also note worthy, it seems to me, that he was defrocked at the same time as the rise to ascendancy of the Third Reich in Germany.

Machen did his undergraduate studies at John Hopkins U. in 1898, majoring in classics, and then went to Princeton U. for an M.A., and then went to Germany where he studied directly under many of the liberal professors whose arguments he would address in The Origin of Paul’s Religion. “Machen considered himself and consciously chose the title of Calvinist, an adherent of the Reformed faith, in the tradition flowing from the Word of God through Paul, Augustine, Calvin, and in America in the noteworthy and great tradition represented by Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and the other representatives of the "Princeton School," rather than a fundamentalist (a term that he said that he never called himself). The later title was often put on him by others.(6) More precisely yet, Machen considered himself in the tradition of the Westminster Confession, of "Old Princeton," and "Old School Presbyterianism." Machen considered himself a fundamentalist only in the sense that if one meant by that, one who is opposed to modernism.” -

Much of postmodernist thought is also opposed to modernism and its certainties. Machen did scholarly battle with many of the false certainties in the naturalistic higher criticism of many of the liberal Bible scholars of that day, on their own turf, drawing on his vast knowledge of the ancient world to answer their arguments. “In a well-known 1922 sermon, Harry Emerson Fosdick threw down the gauntlet to fundamentalism when he demanded whether ‘anybody has the right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him.’ In words that could have been lifted from the editorial page of today’s New York Times, Fosdick lamented that ‘the fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen.’ John Gresham Machen responded a year later with the great popular defense of conservative theology Christianity and Liberalism, warning that ‘the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology’… In his 1923 response to modernism, John Gresham Machen wrote that “vastly more important than all questions with regard to methods of preaching is the root question as to what it is that shall be preached.” Machen understood that theology matters a great deal to the preservation of historic Christian orthodoxy. The modernist-fundamentalist controversies in which Fosdick and Machen were central characters are long over, but the same battle between two Christianities—a historic faith grounded in a supernatural biblical record and two thousand years of church tradition, and a modern Christianity redefined by the assumptions of Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism—rages on.” ” – Dean C. Curry, First Things, October 2007, “Evangelical Amnesia”.

“…with his involvement in the debate about the Philadelphia Plan of 1920,
the publication of The Origins of Paul's Religion in 1921, and of Christianity
and Liberalism in 1923, Machen went from a relatively unknown professor of New
Testament to one of the central figures and spokespersons in the
modernist-fundamentalist controversy, and at that not just within the
Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and of Princeton Seminary, but in Christendom. On
May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church, New York City, Harry Emerson
Fosdick, a Baptist, who had been invited to be the associate minister of the
church, preached a sermon entitled, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"(11) The
sermon contrasted among other issues the conservative and liberal views (which
Fosdick subsequently admitted he held) of the virgin birth, the inspiration of
Scripture, and the atonement, and pleaded for tolerance of both views within the
church.(12) Through a series of events, the sermon whose title had been changed
to "The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith," was reprinted and sent around
the country.” -
In my volume American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr., one of the classic sermons is J.G. Machen’s “History and Faith” and the other is Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” They are worth comparing side by side and are relevant to the modern divides. Both make noteworthy points. A very noteworthy observer came to the US at the time and made pertinent remarks:
“Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary as a postgraduate fellow, having
completed two doctoral programs at the University of Berlin. At this time he was
‘making up his mind’ about faith and practice. He was a careful observer of all
of his experiences outside of Germany. The American experience was enriching,
but, in many ways, it was also disappointing. Bonhoeffer was turned off by the
message of celebrated American preachers, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick at the
Riverside Church, and by what he described as ‘Protestantism without the
Reformation.’ Preachers did not do justice to biblical interpretation of
theological creeds, as he viewed their message. They were mainly interested in
social issues. This lack was reinforced by the absence of serious theological
reflection. He observed that ‘only in the Negro churches did he find that they
spoke and heard in a Christian way of sin and grace and love toward God and the
final hope.”
–J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power, p. 45.

I find Machen’s writings generally persuasive, sometimes even with a prophetic force. So when I emphasize the following distinction, I do not wish to imply much direct criticism of him, but more of what has generally come to be known as “fundamentalism”. Bonhoeffer’s criticism of Harry Emerson Fosdick could seem to imply that he was on the side of Machen in opposition to liberalism but Bonhoeffer expressed no awareness of Machen that I know of but only of the vitality of the faith in the Negro churches. Nevertheless, I think they had a lot in common in their stances. The following however is a description of a broad trend into which may be accurate in describing the broad trend into which the “fundamentalists” seem to fall. Pay attention to what Placher says about the Westminster Confession of Faith. I’ll come back to that:
“In sum, premodern thinkers like Anselm and Aquinas, and the mystical tradition
before the early modern age, were not trying to prove God’s existence, define
God’s essence, or describe their own experiences of God. They were trying,
instead, to show that such enterprises are impossible and that God lies beyond
all our proofs and definitions and imaginations. But the world changed, and
after the Reformation, in a divided Christian world, each party wanted to be
able to argue for its own correctness, which meant drawing matters of faith into
a realm where decisive argument was supposedly possible. Protestant orthodoxy,
for example, took the doctrine of Scripture- in the hands of Luther and Calvin a
way of challenging tradition- and turned it into a theory of propositional
authority. The Westminster Confession of 1647, which unlike previous Protestant
statements of faith began with the authority of Scripture rather than with God,
provides one mark of the change. Catholics countered with new definitions of the
authority of the church.” –William C. Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in
Postliberal Theology
, (2007), p. 20.

After Fosdick’s sermon had been reprinted and widely distributed the modernist-fundamentalist controversy rose to a new pitch culminating in a famous General Assembly of 1923 in which the Assembly was asked to affirm “‘Five Declarations’ or the five necessary or essential doctrines: the infallibility of the Bible; the virgin birth of Jesus; his substitutionary atonement on the cross; his bodily resurrection; and Christ's mighty miracles, as essential doctrines of Scripture; and to reaffirm its adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” This Assembly was split something similar to our nation in the last election with a vote of 439 to 359 on a pivotal issue. In response this action of the 1923 General Assembly “a committee of 150 Presbyterian ministers, headquartered in Auburn, New York, issued a document.(16) This document became known as the “‘Auburn Affirmation.’ It had two major contentions: (1) that the General Assembly had no constitutional right to elevate the five doctrines as special tests for ordination to the ministry, unless the constitution was changed by a vote of the presbyteries”; and (2) that the five doctrines are non-essential to the system of doctrine taught in Scripture and that they are only theories of about what the Bible actually teaches.(17) It was signed by over twelve hundred Presbyterian ministers in the spring of 1924.” The idea that Christianity can remain uncompromised fatally with the exclusion of the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection is anathema. Central issues were at stake and Machen was rising to the issue, a bold and capable man. But there still might be noticed from afar, outside the heat of that battle (though similar battles certainly still rage), possible weaknesses in assumptions of the brave.

As regards Placher’s observation, this seems to be a crucial issue now in hindsight, something that to some extent defined the “fundamentalists”, and a weakness. Machen was all about the Westminster Confession of Faith. Yet Placher observes that the Westminster Confession marks a turning point from emphasis on the authority of God to the authority of Scripture, and is a trend of combat which effectively was reducing God in some ways to proofs and Scripture. Machen would be one of if not the central figure in the breaking off from Princeton to form Wesminster Seminary. Yet hear what Machen says about the Bible:

“The Bible, then, is right at the central point; it is right in its account of
Jesus; it has validated its principal claim. Here, however, a curious phenomenon
comes into view. Some men are strangely ungrateful. Now that we have Jesus, they
say, we can be indifferent to the Bible. We have the present Christ; we care
nothing about the dead documents of the past. You have Christ? But how, pray,
did you get Him? There is but one answer; you got Him through the Bible. Without
the Bible you would never have known so much as whether there be any Christ. Yet
now that you have Christ you give the Bible up; you are ready to abandon it to
its enemies; you are not interested in the findings of criticism. Apparently,
then, you have used the Bible as a ladder to scale the dizzy height of Christian
experience, but now that you are safe on top you kick the ladder down. Very
natural! But what of the poor souls who are still battling with the flood
beneath? They need the ladder too. But the figure is misleading. The Bible is
not a ladder; it is a foundation. It is buttressed, indeed, by experience; if
you have the present Christ, then you know that the Bible account is true. But
if the Bible were false, your faith would go. You cannot, therefore, be
indifferent to Bible criticism. Let us not deceive ourselves. The Bible is at
the foundation of the Church. Undermine that foundation, and the Church will
fall. It will fall, and great will be the fall of it.”( )

Yet Machen goes on and conflates the Bible with Christ! : “The Bible is despised—to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks foolishness—but the Bible is right.” Why this move? A shrewd combat technique? I am treading dangerous ground because I believe I am toying with criticism of a godly man who rose to the challenge more straight then many around him, and truly contending for the faith. But there is a scent of danger in the way in which he elevates the Bible as well as a swell of courage. The Bible is shamed in the liberals hands and its uniqueness is forsaken but this does not mean that the fundamentalists had it all right. In case I appear to claim that I have sounded these events or can navigate them in any great depth or detail, I want to state here that I do not know them well or thoroughly. It is still to me like a faint din that has been brought nearer by some recent reading. My purpose in the above is to situate my summary of Machen’s book The Origin of Paul’s Religion in the historical controversy in which it was born. I now intend to cover only some main points that have most struck me in reading the book, the main things I have learned from it, and the questions the book and the reading around it have brought more into relief for me. Machen raises all sorts of questions. He is at the center of divisions and many have accused him of being a divisive character. This is the tenor of Fosdick’s general argument in his famous sermon noted above. So one question that is brought forward for me is how to distinguish the nature of diviseness as a work of the flesh versus divisiveness (See Galatians 6:20-21) as the work of Christ (“I came to bring not peace but a sword.”)

Another question that comes to the fore is the general one of how best to understand the nature of the arguments at these times. Were J. G. Machen and B.B. Warfield reactionary and narrow-minded in the face of the modern advances? There are severe problems in taking a naïvely liberal, one-sided view of these events. They are certainly caricatured in the modern memory, what little there remains of it, and the word fundamentalist is a pejorative now. But when one takes a closer look at the writings of these men, I for one find they were not simple-minded ideologues. Their argumentation was informed by the heights of scholarship of their day and many of their arguments still hold. Machen argued against the naturalist interpretations and constructs in a vigorous way, citing fully the strengths of a position, laying it out with clarity, giving each what seems their due acknowledgments, before answering them, sometimes with quite a bite. Many of the liberal scholars he argued against he had sat under personally. He was not speaking condemnation from a remote cave, blind to the progress of modernity. He was, however, rejecting modernity, before the postmodernists. Likewise the liberal positions of the day were not the paragons of sobriety and sturdy mindedness that they are now often assumed to be.

Take for instance the Scopes trial held at that time and generally regarded as a triumph over fundamentalist narrow-mindedness. Few seem aware that the “science” that was being argued for at that time was evolutionary theory wed with, one with, of a piece with eugenics, Darwinian race theory, Nietzschean nihilism and Social Darwinism. I recommend everyone read the Wikipedia entry on A Civic Biology, the text book that Scopes was brought to trial for teaching from. Here are some excerpts: “The Races of Man. -- At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. .. Eugenics. -- When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics. ... Parasitism and its Cost to Society. -- Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.” It may not fit with the ‘stories we tell ourselves” but the “fundamentalists” like William Jennings Bryan were fighting eugenics and race theory when they were fighting the teaching of evolution in the schools because that is what evolution meant at that time. Much of what liberalism of that day stood for has been backed off from by all today. Much of what was believed to be scientific (and therefore most true) is now called scientism. Machen was facing what he saw as a mortal threat to sound doctrine. Fosdick and others were ready to sacrifice doctrine for the sake of unity in other matters. Fosdick, for instance, rejected belief in the virgin birth in accommodating the false absolutes of the liberalism of that day.

Here is a sample of the kind of aggressive stance Machen takes toward liberalism:
“The particularism of the Old Testament might have been overcome by practical
considerations, especially by the consideration that since as a matter of fact
the Gentiles would never accept circumcision and submit to the Law the only way
to carry on the broader work was quietly to keep the more burdensome
requirements of the Law in abeyance. This method would have been the method of
‘liberalism’. And it would have been utterly futile. It would have meant an
irreparable injury to the religious conscience; it would have sacrificed the
good conscience of the missionary and the authoritativeness of his proclamation.
Liberalism would never have conquered the world. Fortunately liberalism was not
the method of Paul. Paul was not a practical Christian who regarded life as
superior to doctrine, and practice as superior to principle. On the contrary, he
overcame the principle of Jewish particularism in the only way in which it could
be overcome; he overcame principle by principle. It was not Paul the practical
missionary, but Paul the theologian, who was the real apostle of the Gentiles.
In his theology he avoided certain errors that lay near at hand. He avoided the
error of Marcion, who in the middle of the second century combated Jewish
particularism by representing the whole of the Old Testament economy as evil and
as the work of being hostile to the good God. That error would have deprived the
Church of the prestige which it derived from the possession of an ancient and
authoritative Book; as a merely new religion Christianity never could have
appealed to the Gentile world. Paul avoided also the error of the so-called
“Epistle of Barnabas,” which, while it accepted the Old Testament, rejected the
entire Jewish interpretation of it; the Old Testament Law, according to the
Epistle of Barnabas, was never intended to require literal sacrifices and
circumcision in the way in which it was interpreted by the Jews. That error,
also, would have been disastrous; it would have introduced such boundless
absurdity into the Christian use of the Scriptures that all truth and soberness
would have fled.” –The Origin of Paul’s Religion, p. 17-18.
One thing I noted in Machen’s writings is the appearance of rudiments of the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument that is commonly attributed to C.S. Lewis. It appears both in the sermon and in The Origin of Paul’s Religion. For example here is part of the argument at least in “History and Faith”:
“It is really impossible, but suppose it has been done. You have reconstructed
the historical Jesus—a teacher of righteousness, an inspired prophet, a pure
worshipper of God. You clothe Him with all the art of modern research; you throw
upon Him the warm, deceptive, calcium-light of modern sentimentality. But all to
no purpose! The liberal Jesus remains an impossible figure of the stage. There
is a contradiction at the very centre of His being. That contradiction arises
from His Messianic consciousness. This simple prophet of yours, this humble
child of God, thought that He was a heavenly being who was to come on the clouds
of heaven and be the instrument in judging the earth. There is a tremendous
contradiction here. A few extremists rid themselves easily of the difficulty;
they simply deny that Jesus ever thought He was the Messiah. An heroic measure,
which is generally rejected! The Messianic consciousness is rooted far too deep
in the sources ever to be removed by a critical process. That Jesus thought He
was the Messiah is nearly as certain as that He lived at all. There is a
tremendous problem there. It would be no problem if Jesus were an ordinary
fanatic or unbalanced visionary; He might then have deceived Himself as well as
others. But as a matter of fact He was no ordinary fanatic, no megalomaniac. On
the contrary, His calmness and unselfishness and strength have produced an
indelible impression. It was such an one who thought that He was the Son of Man
to come on the clouds of heaven. A contradiction! Do not think I am
exaggerating. The difficulty is felt by all. After all has been done, after the
miraculous has caretully been eliminated, there is still, as a recent liberal
writer has said, something puzzling, something almost uncanny, about Jesus.2 He
refuses to be forced into the mold of a harmless teacher. A few men draw the
logical conclusion. Jesus, they say, was insane. That is consistent. But it is
There may be an overconfidence and leaning upon proofs too much but there is something healthy as well, something strong in the reasoning dispatch of men like Machen. He reminds me in some ways of C.S. Lewis. They were men of their times but we have much we can learn from them. My ambivalence in criticizing Machen is in part because I don’t want to contribute to an already misleading critical caricature. I also am afraid that I have focused in some ways on peripherals and have given little discussion of the content of the main book in question. The argumentation is dense and is navigating some of the most prestigious scholarship of the day. Much of the arguments Machen makes still hold today and variations of them can be seen in the apologetic of N.T. Wright today, for example.

Machen certainly does not think we should avoid biblical criticism of liberal scholars. He himself was fully engaged with them and fully believed the essentially orthodox gospel of Christianity was the superior understanding available through scholarship, and not in spite of all the ideas observations and theories of predominantly naturalist modernist Bible scholarship. In summing up in the final pages of his book, Machen concludes on the question of the origin of Paul’s religion that it was the love of Christ:
“If Jesus was not the divine Redeemer that Paul says He was, how did the Pauline
religion of redemption arise? Three great hypotheses have been examined and have
been found wanting. Paulinism, it has been shown, was not based upon the Jesus
of modern naturalism; if Jesus was only what He is represented by modern
naturalistic historians as being, then what was distinctive about Paul was not
derived from Jesus. The establishment of that fact has been a notable
achievement of Wrede and Bousset. But if what is essential in Paulinism was not
derived from Jesus, whence was it derived? It was not derived, as Wrede
believed, from the pre-Christian apocalyptic notions of the Messiah; for the
apocalyptic Messiah was not an object of worship; and not a living person to be
loved. It was not derived from pagan religion, in accordance with the brilliant
hypothesis of Bousset; for pagan influence is excluded from the self-testimony
of Paul, and the pagan parallels utterly break down. But even if the parallels
were ten times closer than they are, the heart of the problem would not have
been touched. The heart of the problem is found in the Pauline relation to
Christ. That relation cannot be described by mere enumeration of details; it
cannot be reduced to lower terms; it is an absolutely simple and indivisible
thing. The relation of Paul to Christ is a relation of love; and love exists
only between persons. It is not a group of ideas that is to be explained, if
Paulinism is to be accounted for, but the love of Paul for his Saviour. And that
love is rooted, not in what Christ has said, but in what Christ had done. He
‘loved me and gave himself for me.’ There lies the basis of the religion of
Paul; there lies the basis of all of Christianity. That basis is confirmed by
the account of Jesus which is given in the Gospels, and given, indeed, in all
the sources. It is opposed by modern reconstructions. And those reconstruction
are all breaking down.”
In the closing words above and elsewhere Machen gives a fine sense of the nature of the faith, and intuitively rejects the historicist project that was a pitfall especially then. Line up the facts in verisimilitude and you may still not see it. Faith comes by hearing but we must grasp the whole, the essential, the simple love of Christ. He also emphasizes that what Paul grasped about Christ was not from what he said but from what he did. A good way to end a defense of doctrine. For a fascinating window into the current state of affairs in the PCUSA, I recommend going to the following link and selecting number 10 to listen to the fascinating the interview with Parker Williams. According to his perspective the PCUSA refused to censure in the highest PC court the statement, "What is the big deal about Jesus?" Williams is an intriguing figure:

And it might finally be worth noting one of of the main observations of Bonhoeffer in regard to the churches in the US (as summed up by Roberts): "there is no arrogance in claiming to be the true church of Jesus Christ. The church is a church for sinners and not only for the righteous." p. 45.

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